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.
Have you ever wondered about the origin of an unusual word or phrase? If you Google the term, chances are you'll find an investigation by The Word Detective.
Written by Evan Morris, the site is based on a newspaper column carried around the world. It depends on reader questions, which are responded to in the column with wit and erudition. Ever wondered where the term "to take a cotton" came from? (As in, "he took a cotton to fiddle playing.") Check out the issue from March 2, 2001 (using your... READ ON
Let's talk about floss of another variety:... READ ON
Two weeks ago I started on a journey to Inbox Zero, using Merlin Mann's tips for managing your email. After living with the tips in practice, I'm...getting there. My inbox went from 222 to an even 100 messages. I'll explain a few of the techniques I used to get there, and what's next to get to zero.
Separate work and personal messages - I have long had separate accounts for work and personal stuff, but I have always read them merged together in a single inbox. The first thing I did was start using... READ ON
Walking home last night, I witnessed a variety of Independence Day near-mishaps, as cars drove past twinkling buckets of fire, children made their first explosions, and hardcore fireworks dudes lit up the night. The National Safety Council declares Independence Day the most dangerous holiday, so I figured I'd share some first aid links to help you cope with this summer's injuries.
First up: 10 Useless or Even Dangerous First Aid Myths reports on what not to do to treat a snakebite, jellyfish sting, or... READ ON
In 1992, a cargo of 29,000 plastic (not rubber) ducks, turtles, and frogs was swept overboard from a container ship. The ship was bound for Seattle, carrying a cargo of toys manufactured in China. When the toys' containers fell overboard, they broke open, releasing the toys to the ocean currents. Since their voyage began in 1992, the ducks have been floating around the world's oceans, turning up on beaches across the globe.
Retired Oceanographer Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been tracking the toys on... READ ON
Well, I've got an iPhone. I was going to write this blog post on it, but then I decided it was crazy enough spending three hours in line -- I don't need to spend another three hunting and pecking. Overall the experience of getting the phone was all right -- it was the first time I've waited in line like that for a new product, and it was "only" from 4pm - 7pm (when the fifty people ahead of me had finally gone through and bought theirs). I waited at an AT&T store, and managed to get the last 8GB model... READ ON
With the launch of Apple's iPhone just one day away (okay: 1 day, 8 hours, 48 minutes, 10 seconds according to iphonecountdown.com), global phone-hysteria levels are at an all-time high. We're here to guide you through the mountains of coverage with pre-screened links to the most interesting bits.
Apple's press embargo on iPhone reviews was lifted Tuesday at 6pm, leading to a web-wide case of iPhone Mania: as reviews from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Newsweek hit the web,... READ ON
It's a lovely summer day -- what are you doing inside, reading a blog? Probably the same thing I'm doing, writing one. Well, next time you go out, consult Falaco Soliton's guide to finding four-leaf clovers. The article has photos of various clover mutations, and includes instructions on preserving your lucky clovers (see the bottom of the page for an amazing poster showing Soliton's collection). From the article:
Last summer i put this skill to the test: i found 166 4-leaf clovers, 11 5-leaf, and 2... READ ON
Andy Hertzfeld's Folklore.org is a sort of historical blog, documenting the development of the original Macintosh computer.
For Mac geeks and computer people in general, it's a fascinating look into a very special time in computer history -- after the success of the Apple II, Steve Jobs and crew at Apple were attempting to create the next big thing. After releasing the Apple Lisa, which was a flop primarily due to its $9,995 price tag, Apple needed a hit. The Mac was a home run (despite its minimal... READ ON
Although it has existed since 2003, BookBlog's Gender Genie was news to me. Based on the research of Moshe Koppel, Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Shlomo Argamon, Illinois Institute of Technology, the Gender Genie implements an algorithm that (sometimes) predicts the sex of the author of a piece of text.
I must say, this premise seemed odd to me. I don't tend to assume that there is some algorithmically determinable masculinity or femininity to any text, but of course, the first thing I tried was... READ ON
I recently spent a week at the Oregon coast, sitting in front of a laptop, working on a book. In the middle of the first day, I realized I was missing a critical office supply -- my Swingline stapler -- and I really needed to staple some print-outs together. The only stapler available in the remote coastal town was a pathetic plastic mini-stapler which could only handle ten sheets at a time. This got me thinking: what's my minimum required set of office supplies to do meaningful work? If I was... READ ON
Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero series (warning: a few coarse words are used) gently leads you through a process to achieve that most desirable number next to your Inbox message count: ZERO. Part of the most excellent 43 Folders site, the Inbox Zero bookmark has been staring me in the face for months, but I haven't brought myself to actually read it until now. (The first step of solving my email problem is admitting I have a problem....)
As someone who receives hundreds of messages a day, and who has 222... READ ON
Artist Nina Katchadourian creates narratives by arranging books on shelves. The results are amusing and improbable, and had me standing in front of my "to-read" shelf trying to make my own version. Here's an example... READ ON
Last week's Tone Deafness Test was popular, so this week let's talk Color Blindness. I am "Color Blind," though I prefer to say I'm "Color Confused," as I do see colors -- just not, uh, the right ones. I have a condition called Deuteranomaly. Here's an explanation of the condition from colorvisiontesting.com (warning: some "misused" quotation marks are retained):
Deuteranomaly (five out of 100 males):
The deuteranomalous person is considered "green weak". Similar to the protanomalous person, he is... READ ON
Last week I discussed Homing Pigeons; now it's time for an introduction to the strange world of Roller Pigeons. These birds (also known as Birmingham Rollers) are bred for a genetic defect which causes brief seizures during flight -- causing the birds to roll in mid-air. Breeders hold competitions in which they attempt to synchronize the birds' seizures, measuring the length and quality of the resulting aerial acrobatics. Generally the birds recover before hitting the ground.
If that's not odd... READ ON
I invested a pleasant hour today learning about Homing Pigeons from Wikipedia. Herein I share the fruits of my clicking:
Cher Ami was a French homing pigeon and a war hero. From Wikipedia: "[Cher Ami] helped save the Lost Battalion of the 77th Division in the battle of the Argonne, October 1918. In his last mission, he delivered a message despite having been shot through the breast. The bird was awarded the Croix de Guerre, for heroic service delivering 12 important messages in Verdun." You can see... READ ON
Researcher Jake Mandell has created an online test which measures pitch perception as well as musical memory. The test plays two brief passages of very similar music back-to-back, and you press a button to indicate whether you think the tunes are the same or different. (Often the differences are subtle -- maddeningly subtle.) At the end of the test you can fill out an optional survey about race, sex, and age; data is collected anonymously and periodically analyzed.
The test is hard -- my professional... READ ON
We've mentioned TED Talks before, and a new video from TED 2007 has surfaced, showing Blaise Aguera y Arcas giving a demo of Sea Dragon and Photosynth technology recently acquired by Microsoft. The truly amazing part starts around 4:15, when a model of Notre Dame Cathedral is shown, using photos from Flickr, automatically mapped together to fit the structure of the building. Definitely worth a look for fans of photography and digital imaging:
You can also try the online demo of Photosynth, though... READ ON
I don't know how I managed to miss this as a child, but this video of the Sesame Street Yip Yips meeting a telephone has been stuck in my head for two weeks now:
If you like that, check out Yip Yips Meet a Computer, Yip Yips Meet a Clock, and a fan tribute: dressing as Yip Yips for Halloween. You may also be interested in Wikipedia's explanation of the Yip Yips, the Yip Yip Fan Club, and Yip Yips on Flickr (see also: Yip Yip Cupcakes).
This post has been brought you by the Letter... READ ON
This weekend I was enjoying some performance from Coachella via AT&T Blue Room and noticed something fun: their online video player has a Boss Button. Pressing the Boss Button pops up a fullscreen fake Excel spreadsheet (pictured at left), designed to fake out your boss or coworkers if they happen to walk by while you're, uh, not being productive.
This feature brought me back to video games from the 80's, where a Boss Key (often F10 or some other generally unused key) was a common feature. Where did... READ ON
I recently came across a link to 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know, by the folks who brought you the American Heritage Dictionaries. The cool part is that they went ahead and printed the 100 words on the web site, leaving you to buy the book (a quite reasonable $5.95 at Amazon) if you want to learn more about them. But my motto is: have Google, will learn.
I approached the list with some trepidation. I'm a high school graduate, so by definition I "should" know these. I'm a writer, so... READ ON
As someone who works a lot at a desk, I'm pretty particular about how things are set up: for me it's all about piles. I favor tall, precarious piles -- somehow a desk full of piles means productivity to me (I maintain a much smaller version of Al Gore's desk). Aside from making my own mess, I'm fascinated by what others do to create their work environments -- that's where the blog On My Desk comes in: it features guided blog posts about people's desks and workspaces. It's a form of office voyeurism... READ ON
In researching (ahem, yeah, I call my surfing research) an entry on Image Macros, I came across a category of phrases that use the format: "I'm in Your X, Y'ing Your Z." It turns out that such formatted phrases have a name, snowclones, and a rich history.
Here's how Wikipedia describes snowclones:
A snowclone or catch structure is a type of formula-based clichÃ© which uses an old idiom in a new context. It was originally defined as "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn,... READ ON
Last week, the D "All Things Digital" conference played host to a variety of interesting events (including Microsoft's introduction of a new digital table). But perhaps the most remarkable event was a joint onstage interview with classic rivals Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They spent roughly an hour chatting about their history in the personal computer industry, and generally getting along like old soldiers (translation: surprisingly well, though with the occasional cutting remark from Jobs). After all,... READ ON
Following our rich tradition of mondegreen research (misheard song lyrics), I came across this video of Pearl Jam's "Yellow Ledbetter" captioned completely in mondegreens:
The captions seem perfectly reasonable to me! (Via Mike... READ ON
David recently posted a sign showing misused quotation marks, which reminded me of one of my favorite sites: The Gallery Of "Misused" Quotation Marks! They feature "Current" Exhibits and a Permanent "Collection", each of which is filled with awesomely "misused" quotation marks. Some samples:
Sign outside a restaurant in Fort Myers, Florida:
The "Fish" Monger
A brochure for an Estee Lauder self tanning product claims that:
in about an hour, your skin will turn a natural, healthy looking "tan."
Sign... READ ON
We've covered free stuff on the iTunes Store before, including educational material, but Apple has decided to make it official: today they introduced iTunes U, a new part of the iTunes Store (launch iTunes U in iTunes). iTunes U is an initiative to provide higher education institutions a mechanism for distributing digital content to students. Many of the original iTunes educational content providers are there: Stanford, UC Berkeley, and MIT (that last one is adapted from MIT OpenCourseWare, a _floss... READ ON
Corey Arnold is an Alaskan fisherman who started out working on boats as a summer job to pay for college. Arnold has appeared on Deadliest Catch, and apparently he gets a lot of fan mail from kids who want to be just like him. He responds with an article (half-blog, half-how-to) describing his adventures in... READ ON
Paul Otlet was an information scientist working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He designed various systems of cataloging and connecting information, including systems that expanded upon those are broadly used today (for example, Otlet's Universal Decimal Classification significantly expanded on the Dewey Decimal System). Among Otlet's credits are the inventions of the term "link" for the notion of documents referencing each other, and his vision of a rÃ©seau ("web") of human... READ ON
The other weekend (on Mother's Day, actually) I had the privilege of seeing Bill Cosby live in concert. It was a great show, and the audience was literally roaring for most of it. But one thing stood out for me -- Cosby's interaction with the lady translating the act into American Sign Language on the fly. At various points in the act, Cosby would apologize to the translator, then head into what seemed like an untranslatable bit (for example, the "dentist" bit below -- when he gets into the "numb mouth"... READ ON
I got rid of my landline a few years ago, and haven't looked back. One thing I don't miss is the endless calls about "investment opportunities" and solicitations to donate money to various causes. I even received several amusing calls that claimed I had won a prize (I just had to pay a fee to collect it). All of this stopped when I put my landline number on the National Do Not Call Registry. (Note that cell phones are apparently not required to join the registry, though I bet that's just a matter of... READ ON
Now I'll admit that from time to time, I enjoy a good glass (or six) of, uh, wine, in the course of, oh, let's say an academic discussion or an evening symposium. One such evening last week led to an incident in which I, being thoroughly uninhibited and deeply joyful, decided to share my unedited joy with others...let's say coworkers...via email at... READ ON
On May 13, product designer Ashley Menger set out on a two-week adventure to explore a "trashless" lifestyle.
From the Trash Talk Introduction:
For the next two weeks, I will be living without a garbage can. Where will my trash go? I am going to start needing to think about that before I buy something because, according to the rules I have set up for myself, I'm going to have to live with it. My own garbage must be within five feet of me at all times.
After five days, Menger fesses up:... READ ON
What will happen when the Earth's magnetic field reverses itself? We may find out in just a few short thousands (or tens of thousands) of... READ ON
I work at a technology company, and we frequently use the term 'rathole' to describe a topic (generally one brought up in a meeting) that's a tangent. And when I say I we use it frequently, I mean the term came up five times today, including in the verb form: "I don't mean to rathole here, but [insert marginally germane discussion here]...." So it was a surprise to me that this term is not particularly well-known.
43 Folders has an article on ratholes, including an official Rathole Jingle (MP3), and... READ ON
Over the past few months, I've noticed a trend -- for some reason, Super Mario Brothers videos have been popping up all over the web. Here's a rundown of some recent SMB madness.
YouTube user s00pcan plays levels 1-1 and 1-2 with his eyes closed:
More feats of SMB awesomeness after the... READ ON
Dilbert creator Scott Adams was stricken in 2005 with a rare condition called Spasmodic Dysphonia, which prevented him from speaking in a normal voice. The condition is somewhat bizarre, because sufferers can sometimes sing or speak in unusual circumstances, just not with their normal voices. The condition has struck a variety of famous people (according to Wikipedia), including Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC, and Diane Rehm from NPR.
For Adams, the condition meant he could still speak publicly, sing, or... READ ON
A Saturday Salon article reviews Daniel H. Wilson's "Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived." But the article takes the discussion further -- author Simon Reynolds discusses neostalgia, or nostalgia for the future, a condition in which we pine for inventions or ways of being that were promised to us, but never came to pass. Remember promised innovations like Smell-O-Vision, animal meat grown in a laboratory, and...well...jetpacks? These are briefly discussed... READ ON
We've spent the week browsing through the Internet Archive, highlighting the best bits. Today we wrap up by looking at a few final collections of goodies. First up: the Text Archive. The big collection in this archive is Project Gutenberg, which contains over 20,000 books, including The Devil's Dictionary, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the rather fabulous Alice's Adventures Under Ground: Being a facsimile of the original Ms. book afterwards developed into "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."... READ ON
Heading into the fourth day of our Internet Archive series, it's time to look at the treasure trove that is their audio archive. There's a ton of material here. My favorite is the Live Music Archive, which is managed in collaboration with etree.org. The Live Music Archive currently contains nearly 40,000 recordings from over 2,000 performers. Some of my favorites: Mike Doughty, The Weepies, Andrew Bird, The Decemberists. Also check out the overwhelming full list of bands. (Tip: check the FAQ for... READ ON
Continuing our Internet Archive series, today we'll look at the Prelinger Archive, part of which lives on the Internet Archive among its many collections. The Archive was founded by Rick Prelinger in 1983, dedicated to collecting "ephemeral films" (defined as advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films -- things that are not often collected and cataloged by scholars). In 2002, the Prelinger Archive (then consisting of over 60,000 films) was acquired by the Library of Congress. Some of those... READ ON
Continuing our Internet Archive series, today we'll look at the site's collection of moving images. This collection is broken into categories, including Computers & Technology (best bet for BBS geeks: The BBS Documentaries), Animation & Cartoons (check out Film Chest Vintage Cartoons), Movies (including Nosferatu and The Man Who Knew Too Much), News & Public Affairs, and many more.
A favorite collection in Moving Images is A/V Geeks, which collects "ephemeral films" - those created for educational,... READ ON
This week we'll explore the Internet Archive, a modern-day cabinet of wonders-slash-library that hosts tons of educational (and fun) materials online. First stop: The Wayback Machine.
Ever wondered what a web site looked like ten years ago? The Wayback Machine likely has the answer. This service of the Internet Archive started in 1996, actively archiving large chunks of the web. While it hasn't indexed every web site out there, it has gotten quite a... READ ON
Last week we linked to Listening to Words, which collects lectures from many sources. But one of the best sources of lectures on the web is the TED conference, which attracts top-notch speaking talent.
Best bets: William McDonough on Cradle to Cradle Design, Ze Frank being funny, Dr. Jane Goodall on her research.
Fun tip: when viewing the list of talks, click "visualization" in the left navigation.
Thanks to commenter Olivier for the... READ ON
I recently stumbled across an essay from 1946, by George Orwell. It describes his motives, and the motives he suspects are universal, in writing books. What's most interesting about the essay is his frank admission to the role of the writer's ego in the process. Here's an excerpt:
Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from... READ ON
Reuters reports that father-and-son team Thomas and Stuart Mitchell have unlocked a coded music system present in decorations of the Rosslyn Chapel. (Rosslyn may be familiar to readers as the fifteenth-century Scottish chapel featured at the end of The Da Vinci Code.)
The chapel contains 213 carved blocks showing thirteen geometric patterns. In addition to these blocks, there are carved angels playing musical instruments, including one who is pointing to certain notes on a musical staff.
So here's... READ ON
Patrick Blanc embeds building surfaces with a form of ecological art: huge swaths of plants. After studying rainforest ecology, Blanc has designed a "Vertical Garden" system to allow plants to grow in public (and private) spaces, where concrete walls usually... READ ON
Are you a shepherd, tired of losing sheep to pesky predators? Sounds like you need a fainting goat! Because of a neuromuscular condition called myotonia congenita, fainting goats go stiff ("faint") when startled or excited. ("Premium fainters" can even fall over on their backs, legs sticking up in the air.) In the event of an attack on your flock, the fainting goat would be a sort of (excuse the pun) sacrificial lamb for predators -- a briefly catatonic goat making an easier meal than a fleeing sheep.... READ ON
Following up on Jason's popular How to Win at Rock-Paper-Scissors post, I did some digging to see how nerdy Rock-Paper-Scissors ("RPS" to professionals) can... READ ON
I'm a lecture junkie. I have previously blogged about Little Gray Books, one of my favorite online lecture series. A new resource for finding online lectures has come to my attention: Listening to Words. The site contains a database of lectures (990 of them), which can be searched, browsed by lecturer, or by lecture location. This is a gold mine of spoken word content, people! Get downloading!
Best bets: The Fog of War: Robert S. McNamara and Errol Morris in Discussion, Bill Bryson at The Royal... READ ON
A baby can cost new parents 750 hours of sleep in the first year.