Chris Higgins is the author of The Blogger Abides and writes for This American Life, The Atlantic, Breakfast on Mars, and The Magazine. You can follow him at chrishiggins.com.
In this short talk, Oregonian paper towel expert* Joe Smith explains how to dry your hands using a single paper towel. He gives a series of demos, boiling down to two crucial steps: shake and fold. Now, I'm no paper towel scientist, but this sounds like a great way to save a lot of paper -- and I admit, I'm guilty of routinely grabbing two or three of those "tri-fold" towels, wastrel that I am.
Now let's save some trees, one paper towel at a time. Who's with me?
* = Smith is also former chair... READ ON
As the dot-com bubble reached its peak in 2000, Internet entrepreneurs faced a problem: every word in the dictionary had been registered as a dot-com domain name. So their bold new innovation was to register domains ending in something other than dot-com! Let's take a look back at the stories of three alternate top-level domains: Tuvalu (.tv), Libya (.ly), and Cocos Islands (.cc).
.tv -... READ ON
So there's a YouTube channel called Pronunciation Book, which "shows you how to say various words in American English." It's an extremely simple format: display a word or phrase, then say it aloud three times. The format was simple, and yeah, maybe it helped some people. For example: Jake Gyllenhaal. But then along came the much, much better Pronunciation Manual, which appropriated the existing format and parodied it with hilariously incorrect pronunciations -- including often cutting off the third... READ ON
The HBO series "Game of Thrones" features an exquisite opening title sequence, showing cities and settlements growing like clockwork toys from the landscape, using a slightly bizarre tilt-shift computer animation style. That title sequence is helpful in establishing a map of the roughly nine zillion core locations crucial to the story; unlike the "Song of Ice and Fire" books, we don't have a map to flip to whenever we need it.
In the second season of the HBO show, the opening sequence has been expanded... READ ON
Meanwhile, at the Bat Cave, the Bat Symbol has been changing. Since its first appearance in 1941, designers have tweaked the icon emblazoned on Batman's chest and appearing on various Batphernalia, adapting it for each new iteration of the Batman story. In this video, you can watch the Bat Symbol morph through many versions. Watch as the symbol stretches, contracts, and develops new angles for each era. (I chose to mute the U2 soundtrack, for what it's worth.)
For a non-video treatment of the... READ ON
From Wikimedia Commons: Picture of the Pitch Drop Experiment from University of Queensland featuring the current (2007) custodian, John Mainstone (picture taken in 1990), two years into the life of the 8th drop.
On what is quite likely the most boring webcam ever, you can stare in rapt dumb awe as a drop of Australian pitch (a petroleum product used in waterproofing, among other things) very, very, very slowly drips out of a funnel. How slowly? Well, only eight drops of pitch have fallen since the... READ ON
Got fifty minutes to spare? Okay, how about an unbelievable reservoir of tolerance for cacophony and 60s color schemes? Perfect. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the first two seasons* (ish) of Star Trek.
Yes, it's in HD. Put it on the View Screen, Lieutenant!
* = The first season pilot (The Cage) was omitted due to length; instead, the first episode of the third season was used. I think we can all agree that The Cage isn't strictly canonical.
Related: Watching 130 Episodes of “The... READ ON
Sometimes there's a music video that changes everything -- a video that makes your bad day turn good, turns your frown upside down, and confuses the everliving hell out of you. Today, I bring you that video. In 1976 1973, Hall & Oates made a "promotional video" for their single "She's Gone." It's a spectacular testament to the power of the format: Hall and Oates slump in armchairs, scowling, lazily smoking and occasionally lip-syncing. There's so much going on here (and not going on here) that I think... READ ON
In my neverending quest to make you feel old, I have news: the eponymous Violent Femmes album (also known as "the best Violent Femmes album") turns 29 years old this month. Originally released in April of 1983, Violent Femmes featured an irresistible mix of teen angst and catchy pop, recorded with a super-minimalist set of instruments (drummer Victor DeLorenzo often played just one drum -- a snare -- rather than a full kit). Now, Readers of a Certain Age, let's run down these tracks. Be honest, how... READ ON
MIT's 21-story Green Building was briefly transformed into a giant Tetris game on on September 12, 2011. That game was shut down due to glitches in gameplay. But last Friday, April 20, a fully functioning version of Tetris ran on the building, controlled by a console at ground level. That console was labeled: "Danger: DO NOT play Tetris on Green Bldg." But Tetris players gotta play. According to a first-person account of the game, the second level featured lighter colored blocks (making them harder... READ ON
In this five-minute video, we see portions of a Mad Men episode (episode 408, "The Summer Man") as it appears when incompletely downloaded via BitTorrent. The video is extraordinarily corrupt, showing strange artifacts like missing blocks of the picture, "melting" video, repeated actions, and other such glitches. Taken together, and with a surprisingly nice soundtrack, this actually does feel like art, though it's a sort of found art -- the found art of online video piracy and computer algorithms for... READ ON
In 2000, Daniel Suelo opted out of the cash economy. For the past dozen years, he hasn't used money, hasn't paid taxes, and hasn't used government financial assistance services. He eats roadkill, rummages through dumpsters, and lives in caves. And what's weirder, he has a blog. In addition to his blog, he maintains an amusingly kooky FAQ about how he lives without money. My favorite question: 28. You are a hypocrite/a bum/mentally ill/an egotist/self-righteous, saying you live moneyless. But you can... READ ON
Designers Charles and Ray Eames built a beautiful house in Los Angeles. They moved in on Christmas Eve 1949, and lived there for the rest of their lives. They called it Case Study House No. 8 (it was one of many "Case Study" houses designed by prominent architects and designers), but it's better known simply as the Eames House. It was built as a place for work, life, and play, and to me it epitomizes the mid-century modern aesthetic that permeated so many of the homes I've lived in. According to... READ ON
In this performance of "Tonight You Belong to Me," current Mental Floss cover model John Hodgman and feral mountain man rock star Jonathan Coulton deliver a sweet duet, at one point inviting the listener (ahem, the Internet) to whistle along. Won't you whistle along with them?
See also: coverage of roughly the same thing from 2008, Sweetest Song Ever: "Tonight You Belong to... READ ON
Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the release of Doolittle, a landmark album by the Pixies that influenced boatloads of musicians in the ensuing years (though most musicians I know pretend they liked Surfer Rosa better).
Last year, in a roundup of Pixies covers, I wrote: "The Pixies have had a special place in my heart since I discovered Doolittle in 1996 — three years after the band had broken up and seven years after the album was released. I used to listen to that tape on repeat as I walked to... READ ON
On March 26, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson participated in a talk on "Cosmic Quandaries" in St. Petersburg, Florida. The talk was wide-ranging and lengthy (a little over an hour with NDT himself), but one clip caught my eye: a twelve-minute segment in which the good doctor presents us with some pretty Deep Thoughts on the nature of the universe, and humankind's place within it. This is classic NDT, and I won't say much to give it away -- as his "fascinatingly disturbing thought" isn't revealed until late in... READ ON
In this short video, explainmaestro C.G.P Grey explores the history of copyright, using the only slightly less alarming headline Copyright: Forever Less One Day (there's also a transcript at that page).
Copyright is an important system; it underlies much of the commerce I do every day. And its current implementation is basically cuckoo bananas, due in large part to exquisite lobbying by well-connected corporate interests. If you have five minutes to learn a little history (and have a few chuckles at... READ ON
In this 6-minute video, scientists show what plankton look like -- when photographed through a microscope. Using the story of one fish's journey from egg to larva to dinner, the video focuses on truly beautiful microphotography and clear explanations of what life is like throughout the ocean. Put this one in HD and run it fullscreen.
Representative quote: "A teaspoon of seawater can contain over a million living creatures." Fun viewing tip: note how visually similar the night sky is to these... READ ON
Ready to get fired up about America's space program? Listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson drop some knowledge on the history of NASA and current spending priorities. Here's a brief quote:
"We go to the moon. Space enthusiasts say, 'Oh, we're on the moon in '69, we'll be on Mars in another ten years.' They completely did not understand why we got to the moon in the first place: we were at war. Once we saw that Russia was not ready to land on the moon, we stopped going to the moon. That should not... READ ON
In this fourteen-minute TEDxBoston Talk, uber-geeks Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel talk about what they've learned from processing 5 million books (or 500 billion words) via the Google Ngram Viewer. This tool uses text scanned from books to find specific terms and phrases, so you can figure out historical patterns of language usage. This may sound really geeky, and it is, but it's presented in a really sweet way. On stage we have two guys who are like us -- geeks -- sharing some fun... READ ON
Photographer Alex Rivest has made a habit of creating beautiful timelapse films. Some are very popular, but others have been seen by only a handful of people. Here are some of my favorites from Rivest's collection; there are more on his Vimeo page.
Scenes of life in Amsterdam, July 2011. My favorites are the water closeups.
Lava in Hawaii
File under: beautiful to look at, glad I wasn't... READ ON
The now-famous Keep Calm and Carry On poster was produced by the British Ministry of Information in 1939, as a quintessentially British statement of what to do in the event of German invasion. The poster actually wasn't circulated at the time, and only became popular after its rediscovery at a bookstore. Among my friends, it's something of a mantra -- I know one woman who has the phrase sewn into the lining of her coat.
But enough with boring history. Let's look at some wacky variations on the poster... READ ON
9-year-old Caine Monroy loved arcades, so he built one in his father's auto parts shop in East LA. He made it out of cardboard and packing tape. The games include arcade-machine versions of soccer, basketball, and even a claw game. The "machines" dispense tickets (Caine has to roll them out a slot) and arcade patrons can then choose prizes, just like at a traditional arcade. In this short film, the first purchaser of Caine's "Fun Pass" ($2 for 500 plays) shows us the arcade, and a very special day for... READ ON
In this short video, Titanic director James Cameron offers color commentary on CGI animation of Titanic sinking, recreating the events of April 14, 1912. This is apparently the most detailed recreation of the sinking ever made. The clip is taken from Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron, which aired last night on National Geographic Channel -- part of the Titanic: 100 Years series. Check it out, in glorious 2D:
A representative quote, while surveying wreckage on the sea floor: "Badda-bing,... READ ON
Wow. Here's the original pitch Jim Henson made to sell The Muppet Show to CBS. It's a slow build -- things only start getting wacky around the one-minute mark, but go completely nuts by the end. This is brilliant. According to Muppet Wiki, there was a little clip at the end that was edited out of this video (this version likely came from a DVD extra):
After Leo's powerful speech, Kermit appears from off-screen against a CBS logo and shrugs, "What the hell was that all about?"
My favorite... READ ON
We've covered the problems with pennies before. In exciting news for the anti-penny lobby, the good people of Canada formally decided to abolish the penny by stopping production, joining a growing list of countries doing away with this ultra-low-denomination coin. Existing pennies will still be accepted for purchases but the supply of pennies in the economy will slowly decline, as the Royal Canadian Mint will take pennies in and melt them down. This is generally considered a good cost-saving measure,... READ ON
The folks at Squirrel-monkey have been putting together parody videos showing what popular online games and websites today might have looked like twenty or thirty years ago. The videos are short, goofy, and a lot of the jokes will make little sense to people younger than about 30. Enjoy!
The Facebook (90s Style)
"The Facebook is a digital online internet computer web sightseeing you can open with your website browser." Love the Timeline reference.
Angry Birds 1982
This could almost... READ ON
In this 90-minute BBC documentary from 1993, we see a glimpse of Richard Feynman at his best. Feynman and other figures from his life are interviewed extensively, revealing a portrait of a complex mind -- a man who was willing to live with doubt, uncertainty, and incorrectness as part of the human condition. It's wonderful. A representative quote: "His way of thinking was not typical." No doubt. Check it out:
The film was also adapted into a book.
Some of my favorite prior coverage of... READ ON
Toilet image via Shutterstock
File under "News to Me": you know that old story about how northern hemisphere toilets flush counter-clockwise, and southern hemisphere toilets (and buckets, drains, and such) flush clockwise, due to the Coriolis effect? It's bogus! Today I learned that while the Coriolis effect is significant for hurricanes, it's not strong enough to make toilets flush in different directions at different points on the Earth. The real cause of "backwards"-flushing toilets is just that... READ ON
Author, satirist, and professional pencil-sharpener David Rees has written a fully-illustrated guest column for Etsy on the topic of How to Sharpen Pencils. It's a brilliantly dry taste of his upcoming book (which, full disclosure, I blurbed*), How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants. Before you ask, yes, it's real. It's as real as a pencil-point to the throat.... READ ON
I'm no scientician, but I'm vaguely aware of this one formula, E=mc². Apparently it's a big deal. In the video below, the good people of Minute Physics rapidly explain how to derive the formula, using a theoretical scenario involving a radioactive cat in space, a spacecraft, and some math. For a two-minute explanation, this is remarkably complete (at least to a non-math-genius) -- though it goes by a little too fast for me to grasp each point. I had to keep backing it up and re-running it, and even... READ ON
In this video, founders of three major online services talk about how they have embraced the internet's transformative power for creative work. Kickstarter changes how people fund their creative work. Creative Commons changes how people share their stuff. And The Creators Project supports artists who use technology in their work. This six-minute video from PBS Off Book does a good job summarizing why these things matter. Have a... READ ON
Did you know that Tesla coils can be tuned and played together (under computer control) to make music? News to me. Judging from the sheer volume of YouTube videos showing Tesla coils in musical settings, this is a fairly popular hobby. Enjoy these ten songs -- and share your favorites in the comments!
Listen for the little bits of "Yankee Doodle."
Best YouTube commenter: "DON'T CROSS THE BEAMS!"
"Legend of Zelda" Theme
Includes Dr.... READ ON
In this video from last Saturday, Adam Savage whips up a frenzy among his fellow secular science nerds at The Reason Rally. It's a fascinating talk, partly because Savage is a great speaker -- and partly because of how the audience reacts to what he says. At various points, Savage lists series of facts, and you can get a read on the crowd's opinion of those facts by their cheering (or lack thereof); I found these reactions surprising, as it's not often that you hear a crowd cheering about the age of the... READ ON
The Sagan Series continues to surprise. Working with an extremely limited resource (Sagan's reading of the Pale Blue Dot audiobook and portions of Cosmos), editor Reid Gower has continued to find lyrical passages from Sagan and combine them with imagery and audio from other sources. In "The Humans" (the ninth installment of the series), we see a lot of visuals from Koyaanisqatsi, music by The Album Leaf, a handful of other sources, plus of course Sagan's narration. And it is wonderful. The kids have to... READ ON
Oh wow. Every clip of McBain from "The Simpsons," cut together in sequence. Put down the donut and enjoy McBain's witticisms and gunplay:
"Ice to see you" indeed. For exhaustive details on McBain, check out this page.
See also: Watching 130 Episodes of "The Simpsons" Simultaneously and Every "Itchy & Scratchy Show"... READ ON
Earlier this week I came across Every "Itchy & Scratchy Show" Ever, and went to see if its creator MrBestDeni had made more "Simpsons" stuff. Turns out he hasn't done more YouTube videos, though he's on Vimeo now. Anyway, in the "Simpsons" video experiment below, fellow YouTube hero Romain Vuillemot runs 130 episodes of the show simultaneously, in a grid, for about three and a half minutes. The result is an extremely weird visual experiment -- we get to see how the opening credits differ between... READ ON
Phone Booth Cramming was a late-1950s fad with a simple premise: cram a phone booth full of dudes (and/or ladies) and take a picture before the people on the bottom suffocate. As you can imagine, this pastime was most popular among college students, and led to international rivalries. Yes, kids, this is the kind of thing we thought was fun back before we had video games...and when we still had phone booths. But this practice of people-packing goes to places weirder than phone booths, as you'll see in... READ ON
With the fifth season of Mad Men premiering this Sunday, I felt it was time to dust off a classic set of videos I first saw in 2010. The work of master editor John Duffy, "Next on Mad Men" parodies the bizarre clips at the end of real Mad Men episodes. If you're a fan, you're familiar with these clips -- they're oddly content-free (apparently in an attempt to avoid spoilers), and frequently present conversations out of context, along with meaningless snippets of dialogue, all underlaid with moody,... READ ON
One of my favorite parts of The Simpsons is The Itchy & Scratchy Show, a cartoon within a live action show within a cartoon (Itchy & Scratchy is a cartoon on The Krusty the Clown Show, which is presented as a live action show seen within the cartoon show The Simpsons -- meta enough for you?). Itchy & Scratchy is the epitome of cartoon violence, with the minimum plot necessary to lead to the gruesome death of Scratchy, the hapless black cat. Of course, this tremendous violence is endlessly... READ ON
Have you worked in a warehouse? How about a warehouse filled with Roomba-like robots that crawl the floor looking for stuff? In this three-minute presentation, Kiva Systems founder Mick Mountz explains how his company's robots work: the robot locates an item in the warehouse's "pod" system, fetches the pod containing the item (while avoiding other robots driving around), brings the pod to a "pick worker" (human), who hands the item off to a "packing worker" (also human), who puts the item (or collection... READ ON
Some of us have been fortunate to see a truly starry night -- away from light pollution in cities, you can see quite a lot. But when you're in space you can see even more. In this collection of footage from the International Space Station, point your attention to the stars -- and see what our spacefaring friends get to witness every day. Unlike other ISS flyby videos, the focal point here is not the Earth at night (though that is interesting), it's the stars. Enjoy.
If you want to make your own... READ ON
In this short video, the three least articulate Muppets share their brilliant, touching interpretation of "Danny Boy." Not a dry eye in the house:
See also: Muppets Singing Classic... READ ON
I've covered the brouhaha over laws like SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA. But in this five-minute TED Talk, Rob Reid brilliantly explains what I had been missing all along: Copyright Math™. By going through a series of claims by entertainment industry shills Copyright Mathematicians™, Reid reveals the shockingly absurd "truth" about media piracy: according to current US law, a typical iPod can hold $8 billion in stolen songs.
This talk is fun, smart, and just a tad reductive. Can you spare five... READ ON
In this seven-minute talk, MythBuster Adam Savage inspires students to understand how simple questions can lead to major scientific discoveries. Through three simple stories -- those of Richard Feynman, Eratosthenes, and Hippolyte Fizeau -- Savage explains how scientists can do great work with very common tools, the most significant of which is the human brain.
This should be required viewing for kids even remotely interested in science:
Bonus points earned by Savage: saying that the world is... READ ON
I've been a fan of Put This On for years: I first linked to them way back in 2009 after chipping in a few bucks to help fund their first episode. Explained simply, it's a show for men about how to dress like a grownup. Sometimes this is as simple as explaining how to tie your shoes (you're probably doing it wrong), how to wash jeans properly (you're definitely doing it wrong), or even how to fold and pack a suit when you're traveling (points for trying, Mr. Wrinkly!). Beyond these tips, the show... READ ON
Okay, this actually happened. In 1959, a group of Sigma Chi brothers at the University of Arkansas elevated squatting to a sport -- and it went viral. They invented a supremely lame (but apparently popular) fad: hunkerin'. From the Scottish term "hunkers" ("haunches" to the rest of us), hunkerin' is what most of us would call squatting: sitting on the balls of your feet. What's bizarre is that the practice apparently spread throughout the south for a few years, primarily on college campuses...if LIFE... READ ON
In this eight-minute talk, marine biologist Dave Gallo talks about the world's oceans -- how vast they are, what's down there (that we know about), and why we should care. While it's a brief talk, there's a lot of great material here, including some discussion (and video) of the vampire squid, an octopod-looking guy nicknamed "Dumbo," and beautiful footage of extremophiles. According to Gallo, we've explored (meaning visited at all) about 5% of the ocean -- it is truly the final frontier.
This is... READ ON
While we're celebrating a day of lists, I thought I'd go a little meta with this list of lists. Wikipedia is home to a lot of odd things, including...lists! Their list of lists page notes that "Wikipedia has thousands of topic lists; some are even lists of other lists." Before I write the word "list" again, here are my favorites.
1. List of Humorous Units of Measurement
This wonderful list includes units of length like the "Beard-second" (the length an average beard grows in one second),... READ ON
Barry Manilow did not write his hit "I Write the Songs."