Conversations with and photos of everyday North KoreansNOV 11

North Korea

North Korea

Harvard graduate student Christopher Carothers recently travelled to North Korea and, because he was an American white man who spoke Korean, he was able to talk with some everyday North Koreans. The conversations he had make for fascinating reading.

Our tour group visited a local high school in a city north of Pyongyang. The students were disappointed when none of us could name three female North Korean heroes from their revolutionary history.

I didn't mind their patriotism, and their curiosity was refreshing. But when asked how I liked Pyongyang, what could I say? Usually I just said polite things and was rewarded with beaming faces. But was I being fair to these young adults? Doesn't intercultural exchange require some basic honesty? I told Jong Ho that I liked Korean people and appreciated how clean and grand their capital was.

"However," I went on gingerly, "I have to admit that Pyongyang is a poor city and out of touch with the modern age. Even a poor provincial capital in China wouldn't be envious."

He took this in for a minute and looked thoughtful.

"It's okay," he said with a smile, "I'm very glad to meet you."

Carothers chatted with his tour guide about politics:

"Who will be the next leader of America?" she asked. I explained about our two parties and gave her my best guess.

"But even if the party switches from Democratic to what are they called, Republicans, relations with Korea are always so tense. Why? Why does a big country like America continue to provoke a small country like Korea? No one wants war. We always say we are ready for war, but no one wants war. I don't understand politics."

"What American provocations do you mean?" I asked, curious. "Didn't the Great Marshal Kim Jong Un threaten to turn Seoul into a sea of flames?"

"Well, he's responding to American military exercises. Always with the military exercises with the South."

"I think, uh, many countries do military exercises," I tried to explain. "Some are defensive. Honestly, many Asian countries including South Korea are concerned about China's growth and the North getting nuclear weapons and so have asked to work with the U.S."

"The U.S. has many nuclear weapons. Isn't it ... hypocritical?"

"Maybe. But should a country that can't provide electricity properly in its capital really have nuclear weapons?"

"I see," she said quietly.

The whole thing is well worth a read. Some of the photos accompanying the article were taken by Christian Petersen-Clausen, who also recently visited North Korea as a tourist. (The photos at the top of this post were taken by Petersen-Clausen as well.) Keegan Hamilton interviewed him about his photos at Vice.

He said one surprise from the trip was that many North Koreans seemed "pretty damn aware" of life in the outside world. He saw people in Pyongyang using smartphones, which are connected to the country's propaganda-filled "intranet" and blocked from calling foreign countries, but says he was told it was relatively easy for people to procure Chinese or South Korean SIM cards. Foreign media, smuggled into the country on USB sticks, was also reportedly common.

"They watch Chinese and South Korean soap operas, they see the cars, the fashion, everything," he said. "It's basically rubbed in their faces how poor they are, while at the same time they can't talk about that."

How Facebook is Stealing Billions of ViewsNOV 10

Kurzgesagt's newest video is about all the stolen video content on Facebook and the social network's continued indifference to and profit from content creators, particularly small and independent creators.

Facebook just announced 8 billion video views per day. This number is made out of lies, cheating and worst of all: theft. All of this is wildly known but the media giant Facebook is pretending everything is fine, while damaging independent creators in the process. How does this work?

Hank Green wrote an essay in August called Theft, Lies, and Facebook Video.

According to a recent report from Ogilvy and Tubular Labs, of the 1000 most popular Facebook videos of Q1 2015, 725 were stolen re-uploads. Just these 725 "freebooted" videos were responsible for around 17 BILLION views last quarter. This is not insignificant, it's the vast majority of Facebook's high volume traffic. And no wonder, when embedding a YouTube video on your company's Facebook page is a sure way to see it die a sudden death, we shouldn't be surprised when they rip it off YouTube and upload it natively. Facebook's algorithms encourage this theft.

What is Facebook doing about it?

They'll take the video down a couple days after you let them know. Y'know, once it's received 99.9% of the views it will ever receive.

Teaser trailer for Finding DoryNOV 10

The teaser trailer for Pixar's sequel to Finding Nemo is out. I'm excited for this one. Nemo was my favorite Pixar movie for a long while, until Wall-E came out. (via devour)

Green Eggs and HamFEB 20

Green Eggs and Ham

After writing The Cat in the Hat in 1955 using only 223 words, Dr. Seuss bet his publisher that he could write a book using only 50 words. Seuss collected on the wager in 1960 with the publication of Green Eggs and Ham. Here are the 50 distinct words used in the book:

a am and anywhere are be boat box car could dark do eat eggs fox goat good green ham here house I if in let like may me mouse not on or rain Sam say see so thank that the them there they train tree try will with would you

From a programming perspective, one of the fun things about Green Eggs and Ham is because the text contains so little information repeated in a cumulative tale, the story could be more efficiently represented as an algorithm. A simple loop would take the place of the following excerpt:

I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam I am.

But I don't know...foreach ($items as $value) doesn't quite have the same sense of poetry as the original Seuss.

11 years of Saturn photos from the Cassini probeNOV 20

The Cassini probe, launched from Earth in 1997 (six months before I started publishing, has been taking photos of Saturn and its moons for 11 years now. The Wall Street Journal has a great feature that shows exactly what the probe has been looking at all that time. (Note: the video above features flashing images, so beware if that sort of thing is harmful to you.)

How do you pick the 50 best restaurants in the world?NOV 05

From the New Yorker Food Issue,1Lauren Collins examines how the World's 50 Best Restaurants list comes together. I haven't eaten at any of these sorts of restaurants in years (for a lot of reasons), and this bit gets to part of the reason why:

The restaurants in the upper reaches of the list tend to fall into a certain mode. They are all the same place, Giles Coren once conjectured in the London Times, "only the face changes, like Doctor Who." Just as there is Oscar bait, there is 50 Best bait. "It's opening up in Beijing," David Chang said, imagining the archetypal 50 Best restaurant. "It's a Chinese restaurant by a guy who worked for Adrià, Redzepi, and Keller. He cooks over fire. Everything is a story of his terroir. He has his own farm and hand-dives for his own sea urchins." Hearing about 50 Best winners, and having eaten at a few of them, I started to think of them as icebreaker restaurants -- places that create moments, that give you prompts. This can be exhilarating, or it can be infantilizing. It is the dining experience as Cards Against Humanity.

  1. Not to be confused with the NY Times' Food Issue, which was out this past weekend.

Rare early photographs of PekingNOV 12

Photographer Thomas Child took these images of Peking (now known as Beijing) in the 1870s and 1880s. This is of a Buddhist lama and his student:

Thomas Child

And this one shows travelers on the Silk Road...according to Child, the camels "carry coal and lime into the City from the Western Hills, and merchandise between Peking and Mongolia":

Thomas Child

And this one is the Great Wall:

Thomas Child

Create Your Own EconomyAPR 22

Create Your Own Economy

I don't think he's talked about it on his site yet, but Tyler Cowen has a new book coming out called Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.

As economist Tyler Cowen boldly shows in Create Your Own Economy, the way we think now is changing more rapidly than it has in a very long time. Not since the Industrial Revolution has a man-made creation -- in this case, the World Wide Web -- so greatly influenced the way our minds work and our human potential. Cowen argues brilliantly that we are breaking down cultural information into ever-smaller tidbits, ordering and reordering them in our minds (and our computers) to meet our own specific needs.

Create Your Own Economy explains why the coming world of Web 3.0 is good for us; why social networking sites such as Facebook are so necessary; what's so great about "Tweeting" and texting; how education will get better; and why politics, literature, and philosophy will become richer. This is a revolutionary guide to life in the new world.

I never properly reviewed Cowen's last book (sorry!), but I found it as enlightening and entertaining as Marginal Revolution is. (via david archer)

Thermonuclear ArtNOV 03

In a nod to our nation's recreational drug users, NASA has created this 30-minute ultra high-resolution look at our Sun, assembled from thousands of photographs taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which snaps a 16-megapixel image of the Sun every few seconds. Duuuuuuuude...

Mapping the microdistricts of ManhattanOCT 29

Manhattan is home to many small clusters of businesses around a common theme. For example, the Garment District in the west 30s, the Diamond District on 47th St, and, formerly, the Meatpacking District. Here is a short guide to some of them.

A few weeks ago, as I walked to work in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, I noticed something unusual -- not one, not two, but four tile stores, side by side, on 21st Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. Strange. Then, I remembered rumors about a magical street in Chelsea populated by dozens of flower nurseries. I already knew of Manhattan's legendary Garment District. I wondered -- how many microdistricts could there be in the city?

(thx, david)

Brilliant visualization of the Pythagorean TheoremOCT 26

Everyone knows that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. What this video presupposes is, fuck yeah math!

You won't live to see the final Star Wars movieNOV 17

Someone on Twitter said this is the best piece about the upcoming Star Wars movie, and I think he's right. But it's not so much about Star Wars specifically as it is about how Hollywood studios are trying to build infinite series of movies.

These new movies won't just be sequels. That's not the way the transnational entertainment business works anymore. Forget finite sequences; now it's about infinite series. [...] Everywhere, studio suits are recruiting creatives who can weave characters and story lines into decades-spanning tapestries of prequels, side-quels, TV shows, games, toys, and so on. Brand awareness goes through the roof; audiences get a steady, soothing mainline drip of familiar characters.

Forget the business implications for a moment, though. The shared universe represents something rare in Hollywood: a new idea. It evolved from the narrative techniques not of auteur or blockbuster films but of comic books and TV, and porting that model over isn't easy. It needs different kinds of writers and directors and a different way of looking at the structure of storytelling itself. Marvel prototyped the process; Lucasfilm is trying to industrialize it.

Harry Potter could be a great infinite series, but it'll be interesting to see if Rowling is interested in heading in that direction. Ditto Middle-earth and Tolkien.

Self-healing concreteOCT 29

A group in Wales is testing concrete that can heal itself. Three different techniques are being pursued:

The first technique uses shape-shifting materials, known as shape-memory polymers, to repair large cracks in concrete. When these materials are heated with a small current, they can transform into a different shape that the material has 'memorised'. The researchers believe that these materials can be embedded into concrete and used to close cracks or make them smaller.

In the second technique, researchers will pump both organic and inorganic healing agents through a network of thin tunnels in the concrete to help repair damage.

In the third technique, the team will embed tiny capsules, or lightweight aggregates, containing both bacteria and healing agents into the concrete. It is anticipated that once cracks occur, these capsules will release their cargos and, in the case of the bacteria, the nutrients that will enable them to function and produce calcium carbonate, which the researchers envisage will heal the cracks in the concrete.

Concrete-patching bacteria. Cool! (via @CharlesCMann)

There once was a dildo from NantucketOCT 30

When whalers from Nantucket set out for their journeys around the world, left at home were their wives, sometimes for three or four years at a time. According to scholars and legend, the wives turned to dildos for comfort as stand-ins for their departed husbands. These devices even had a name, the "he's-at-home". As in this passage found in a anonymous diary from that era:

He's at home is on the mantel.

Ben Shattuck travelled to Nantucket to research the history of he's-at-homes and found only a single surviving specimen but discovered that the island has been dealing with loneliness for a long while.

But I was starting to see what loneliness looked like, and the weird quality of how heartache from long ago feels so freshly sad -- perhaps because those separated by distance are now separated by death. Edward, his wife and daughter are now forever separated, so the ink circle is the mark of their unending relationship. Mattie Coffin and her husband are forever apart, and so the he's-at-home is the truest bond they have. The above quoted letters could read like journal entries to the deceased: "You was all the world to me," thought Susan Gifford, "and now you are gone"; "I long to see you. I sit to the window and watch for you as I us'd to, but you do not come." Loneliness petrifies over time, because it's our last state, isn't it? As we're closed off from the world by last breaths. The fossils of our living loneliness, the letters and shirt collars and photographs boxed up for another generation to find, have eternal shelf lives, timeless as obituaries, fresh today as the ancient honey we keep discovering in Egyptian tombs. Connie's comment -- "Life went on here in Nantucket" -- rang with new definition, for her own life, and the life of the dildo owner. Maybe she wasn't talking about sex at all -- maybe she was talking about life going on as it does, or must, for the bereaved.

I know this is a weird segue, but I also need to acknowledge this top-notch exploding cake gag from the article:

Sarah Pope went so far as to send her fiancé a cake to accompany her letter. She preserved the cake in too much alcohol, so that when he opened the package, it exploded. He wrote that he was "nocked higher than a kite" but still ate the cake.

The perfect metaphor for the passionate longing and loneliness felt by couples separated by whaling journeys.

Cassini sippin' on EnceladusOCT 28

Whoa, how have I not heard about this before today: the Cassini spacecraft is going to dive through a jet of water erupting from Enceladus, a Saturnian moon.

Discovering life was not on the agenda when Cassini was designed and launched two decades ago. Its instruments can't capture microbes or detect life, but in a couple of dozen passes through the plumes of Enceladus, it has detected various molecules associated with life: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, molecular nitrogen, propane, acetylene, formaldehyde and traces of ammonia.

Wednesday's dive will be the deepest Cassini will make through the plumes, only 30 miles above the icy surface. Scientists are especially interested in measuring the amount of hydrogen gas in the plume, which would tell them how much energy and heat are being generated by chemical reactions in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the moon's ocean.

That's pretty sounds like science fiction. NASA is doing a wonderful job producing great science with the lean budgets they are given.

Taking a neural net out for a walkNOV 23

Kyle McDonald hooked a neural network program up to a webcam and had it try to analyze what it was seeing in realtime as he walked around Amsterdam. See also a neural network tries to identify objects in Star Trek:TNG intro. (via @mbostock)

The most terrifying ski crash everNOV 13

Watch as skier Ian McIntosh hits an unexpected trench on one of his first turns down an extremely steep mountain and tumbles 1600 feet in less than a minute. Actually, don't just watch...put your headphones on and listen: McIntosh was mic'd up while falling and you can hear the whole thing. (via devour)

Book covers in motionOCT 29

From Henning Lederer, a series of 55 vintage book covers gently animated. Lederer previously did an animation of Fritz Kahn's famous poster, Der Mensch als Industriepalast.

Trippy, freaky animated GIFs from ZollocOCT 30


Operating under the name of Zolloc, Hayden Zezula makes all sorts of cool, creepy, lovely, trippy animated GIFs. This one is my favorite. (via ignant)

NY to SF in five minutesNOV 16

Tom Harman recently rode an Amtrak train from NYC to San Francisco, taking little videos of the scenery outside all the while. He edited that footage into this 5-minute video.

Prime-time soap operas are backOCT 30

Goodbye anti-heros, hello soap operas. Margaret Lyons writes about the increasing popularity of prime-time soap operas like Scandal, Empire, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, and House of Cards.

Game of Thrones' Outstanding Drama win at the Emmys this year indicates a new era of perceived legitimacy for its genre, and I'm not talking about fantasy: GOT completely operates as a soap. All the scheming and vindictiveness would be perfectly at home on Melrose Place; the disguises, acceptance of the paranormal, and the absence and reemergence of obscure characters can all be found on Passions. (Cersei Lannister and Alexis Carrington would have plenty to talk about.) Soap is not a dirty word, and shows like GOT are helping reposition soapiness as a desirable attribute, not a vice.

I've had this theory for awhile that for fans of dramas, all but the very best are indistinguishable from soap operas by season three. As a viewer, you get so caught up in the "what's gonna happen", you stop caring so much about how it's happening, if the show is even any good, or what higher-level themes the producers might be expressing. And the show's producers feel the need to top themselves with each season, and so the stakes get higher, the plot gets more implausible, the characters get bigger, and themes are increasingly marginalized. This happened, in varying degrees, with Lost, Homeland, Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Girls, and House of Cards. Even Mad Men and Breaking Bad veered in and out of soap opera territory, but the shows were so good that they never completely went there. And let's not even talk about season 5 of The Wire.

Cool atmospheric phenomenon: fallstreak holeNOV 09

fallstreak hole

This is one of the freakiest atmospheric happenings I have ever seen: a fallstreak hole from Victoria, Aus.

It is believed that the introduction of large numbers of tiny ice crystals into the cloud layer sets off this domino effect of evaporation which creates the hole. The ice crystals can be formed by passing aircraft which often have a large reduction in pressure behind the wing- or propeller-tips. This cools the air very quickly, and can produce a ribbon of ice crystals trailing in the aircraft's wake. These ice crystals find themselves surrounded by droplets, grow quickly by the Bergeron process, causing the droplets to evaporate and creating a hole with brush-like streaks of ice crystals below it.

More photos of this particular hole can be found here.

Noma: My Perfect StormNOV 20

Noma: My Perfect Storm is a feature-length documentary about chef René Redzepi and his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, which is currently ranked #3 in the world.

How did Redzepi manage to revolutionize the entire world of gastronomy, inventing the alphabet and vocabulary that would infuse newfound pedigree to Nordic cuisine and establish a new edible world while radically changing the image of the modern chef? His story has the feel of a classic fairy tale: the ugly duckling transformed into a majestic swan, who now reigns over the realm of modern gourmet cuisine.

The film is out Dec 18 in theaters, on Amazon, iTunes, etc.

rating: 4.5 stars

ArgoFEB 20

Argo Poster

That's a movie poster for Argo, the fake movie that the CIA "made" as a cover for getting six American diplomats out of Iran in 1980. Ben Affleck's Argo, which cements the former prettyboy actor's status as one of the best young American directors, is somewhat loosely based on The Master of Disguise, a book written by the guy Affleck plays in Argo, and a 2007 Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman called The Great Escape. Argo is up for several Oscars and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Update: Here's a CIA report written by Mendez about the caper. And I'm listening to the soundtrack right now.

Japanese trailer for The Force AwakensNOV 06

This is a Japanese trailer for The Force Awakens. It's similar to the most recent trailer released in the US, but it contains a bunch of new footage. Still no Luke. (via @gavinpurcell)

The electronic music mapOCT 23

Dorothy Electronica Map

From Dorothy, a beautiful print of the history of electronic music mapped onto the circuit board of a theremin, one of the first electronic instruments.

Our Electric Love Blueprint celebrates over 200 inventors, innovators, composers and musicians who (in our opinion) have been pivotal to the evolution of electronic music from the invention of the earliest known sound recording device in 1857 to the present day. Key pioneers featured include Léon Theremin, Bob Moog, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, John Cage, New Order and Aphex Twin.

How the Empire State Building was builtNOV 11

Here is one of the original architectural drawings done for the Empire State Building by William Lamb:

Empire State Building Drawing

Scott Christianson wrote a brief piece (taken from his new book 100 Documents That Changed the World: From the Magna Carta to Wikileaks) on how the building was designed and built. The whole thing happened incredibly fast: the first architectural contract was signed in September 1929 and after only 410 days of construction, the building was opened in May 1931.

The undefeated SouthNOV 04

In the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann writes about "the Southernization of American politics". In 1865, the United States won the Civil War against the South, but the current US has been significantly shaped by the ideals, politics, and values of the South.

In order to become the richest and most powerful country in the world, the United States had to include the South, and its inclusion has always come at a price. The Constitution (with its three-fifths compromise and others) awkwardly registered the contradiction between its democratic rhetoric and the foundational presence of slavery in the thirteen original states. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase-by which the U.S. acquired more slaveholding territory in the name of national expansion-set off the dynamic that led to the Civil War. The United States has declined every opportunity to let the South go its own way; in return, the South has effectively awarded itself a big say in the nation's affairs.

(via @jimray)

Has your cool neighborhood stopped being cool? Or have you?NOV 11

Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street, writes about the ever-changing neighborhoods in NYC.

I think there's more to these "the city is dead now" complaints than money. People have pronounced St. Marks Place dead many times over the past centuries -- when it became poor, and then again when it became rich, and then again when it returned to being poor, and so on. My theory is that the neighborhood hasn't stopped being cool because it's too expensive now; it stops being cool for each generation the second we stop feeling cool there. Any claim to objectivity is clouded by one's former glory.

Marijuana ThanksgivingNOV 19

If you've ever wanted to see a video about how to cook a pot-infused Thanksgiving turkey shot in the style of a Requiem for a Dream heroin-shooting sequence, you have come to the right place. (via devour)

Gorgeously shot video of a 1600-foot slackline walkNOV 19

OMG OMG OMG! Théo Sanson recently slacklined across a gap spanning nearly a third of a mile in Utah, which might just be a world record. This is gorgeously filmed; you really get a sense of the scale of the gap Sanson crossed and how high in the air he was. My palms are absolutely drenched after watching that. (via colossal)

The secret to Zara's successNOV 09

A quick but fascinating look at the fast fashion retailer Zara.

Fashion used to be sold in four seasons. Zara wants you to buy for one-hundred-and-four. New clothes arrive in every store twice a week -- days known by fans as "Z Days" -- and fuel the need to turn over your wardrobe.

The brand's global distribution centre, also in Spain, moves 2.5 million items per week. Nothing remains warehoused longer than 72 hours.

The integration and feedback incorporated into their system is impressive. The knockoffs, not so much. Lots of parallels to Facebook here, not the least of which is both companies' founders are among the richest people in the world.

Sweet Home MississippiNOV 12

Englishman and writer Richard Grant moved from lower Manhattan to rural Mississippi. He wrote a book about the experience, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta.

On a remote, isolated strip of land, three miles beyond the tiny community of Pluto, Richard and his girlfriend, Mariah, embark on a new life. They learn to hunt, grow their own food, and fend off alligators, snakes, and varmints galore. They befriend an array of unforgettable local characters-blues legend T-Model Ford, cookbook maven Martha Foose, catfish farmers, eccentric millionaires, and the actor Morgan Freeman. Grant brings an adept, empathetic eye to the fascinating people he meets, capturing the rich, extraordinary culture of the Delta, while tracking its utterly bizarre and criminal extremes. Reporting from all angles as only an outsider can, Grant also delves deeply into the Delta's lingering racial tensions. He finds that de facto segregation continues. Yet even as he observes major structural problems, he encounters many close, loving, and interdependent relationships between black and white families-and good reasons for hope.

Grant shared a bit of what's in the book for the NY Times.

Mississippians were generally puzzled by our arrival, but warm and welcoming. As we were unpacking, an African-American tractor driver stopped by and talked for an hour. On the second day, a white family from Pluto came over with a bottle of wine and a selection of guns to shoot. Cathy Thompson, a labor and delivery nurse, had bought an AK-47 for stress relief during menopause. "I don't know what women in New York do," she said in a fast-paced drawl. "Probably see a therapist, or get on meds. I got my AK and a T-shirt that said, 'I'm Out of Estrogen and I Have a Gun.'"

It soon became apparent that a) we held very different political views and b) this was not going to be a problem. Noting our lack of furniture, Cathy went through her storage areas and produced two beds, a couch, a kitchen table and chairs, two armchairs and two wingback chairs. "Y'all can have this stuff on permanent loan," she said. "And I noticed y'all just have the one vehicle. That's going to get inconvenient out here, so I want you to drive our Envoy whenever you need to, and think of it as your second vehicle. I'll show you where the keys are."

An ode to movie propsOCT 28

Rishi Kaneria examines the use of props in movies, from the sled in Citizen Kane to the oranges in The Godfather to the cardboard box in Se7en. A transcript is available here.

When used like this props become more than just objects. They become symbols. A symbol that represents a friendship. Or a marriage. Science. Or God.

A prop can be a symbol of reality. Or Illusion. Of the future. Or the past.

And the same prop can symbolize childhood in one film...but death in another. But death can also be symbolized like this. In the Godfather, Coppola associates death with something unexpected: oranges. This isn't the kind of thing that's in the foreground of filmmaking. But it's there if you're looking for it.

Adele shows up to Adele impersonator contest in disguiseNOV 21

This is all sorts of charming. BBC held an Adele impersonator contest and arranged for Adele to compete in disguise as a woman named Jenny. I love the looks on the women's faces when they realize what's going on.

See also Jewel's undercover karaoke and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis surprising a bus full of passengers with a performance.

The space doctor's big ideaNOV 19

Randall Munroe has a new book coming out called Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words in which he uses the 1000 most common English words to explain interesting mostly scientific stuff. In a preview of the book, Munroe has a piece in the New Yorker explaining Einstein's theory of relativity using the same constraint.

The problem was light. A few dozen years before the space doctor's time, someone explained with numbers how waves of light and radio move through space. Everyone checked those numbers every way they could, and they seemed to be right. But there was trouble. The numbers said that the wave moved through space a certain distance every second. (The distance is about seven times around Earth.) They didn't say what was sitting still. They just said a certain distance every second.

It took people a while to realize what a huge problem this was. The numbers said that everyone will see light going that same distance every second, but what happens if you go really fast in the same direction as the light? If someone drove next to a light wave in a really fast car, wouldn't they see the light going past them slowly? The numbers said no-they would see the light going past them just as fast as if they were standing still.

It's a fun read, but as Bill Gates observed in his review of Thing Explainer, sometimes the limited vocabulary gets in the way of true understanding:1

If I have a criticism of Thing Explainer, it's that the clever concept sometimes gets in the way of clarity. Occasionally I found myself wishing that Munroe had allowed himself a few more terms -- "Mars" instead of "red world," or "helium" instead of "funny voice air."

See also Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less. You might prefer this explanation instead, in the form of a video by high school senior Ryan Chester:

This video recently won Chester a $250,000 Breakthrough Prize college scholarship.2 Nice work!

  1. Other quibble: I would have called Einstein the time doctor. [cue Tardis noise]

  2. Which reminds me of when I was a high school senior and I showed a clip of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure to my physics class for a report on time travel and wormholes. It's been all downhill for me since then.

KaleidoscopeNOV 12

Red Bull spared no expense in shooting this video with BMX rider Kriss Kyle...I've never seen a BMX course quite like this one. (thx, nick)

Massive data analysis of NYC taxi and Uber dataNOV 18

Todd Schneider used a couple publicly available data sets (NYC taxis, Uber) to explore various aspects of how New Yorkers move about the city. Some of the findings include the rise of Uber:

Let's add Uber into the mix. I live in Brooklyn, and although I sometimes take taxis, an anecdotal review of my credit card statements suggests that I take about four times as many Ubers as I do taxis. It turns out I'm not alone: between June 2014 and June 2015, the number of Uber pickups in Brooklyn grew by 525%! As of June 2015, the most recent data available when I wrote this, Uber accounts for more than twice as many pickups in Brooklyn compared to yellow taxis, and is rapidly approaching the popularity of green taxis.

...the plausibility of Die Hard III's taxi ride to stop a subway bombing:

In Die Hard: With a Vengeance, John McClane (Willis) and Zeus Carver (Jackson) have to make it from 72nd and Broadway to the Wall Street 2/3 subway station during morning rush hour in less than 30 minutes, or else a bomb will go off. They commandeer a taxi, drive it frantically through Central Park, tailgate an ambulance, and just barely make it in time (of course the bomb goes off anyway...). Thanks to the TLC's publicly available data, we can finally address audience concerns about the realism of this sequence.

...where "bridge and tunnel" folks go for fun in Manhattan:

The most popular destinations for B&T trips are in Murray Hill, the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, and Midtown.

...the growth of north Williamsburg nightlife:

Taxi Uber Data

...the privacy implications of releasing taxi data publicly:

For example, I don't know who owns one of theses beautiful oceanfront homes on East Hampton's exclusive Further Lane (exact address redacted to protect the innocent). But I do know the exact Brooklyn Heights location and time from which someone (not necessarily the owner) hailed a cab, rode 106.6 miles, and paid a $400 fare with a credit card, including a $110.50 tip.

as well as average travel times to the city's airports, where investment bankers live, and how many people pay with cash vs. credit cards. Read the whole thing and if you want to play around with the data yourself, Schneider posted all of his scripts and knowhow on Github.

Online collection of digitized wax cylinder recordingsNOV 10

The University of California, Santa Barbara library is digitizing its collection of wax cylinders from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over 10,000 audio files from the collection are now available online.

The UCSB Library, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and donors, has created a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings held by the Department of Special Collections. To bring these recordings to a wider audience, the Library makes them available to download or stream online for free.

This searchable database features all types of recordings made from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including popular songs, vaudeville acts, classical and operatic music, comedic monologues, ethnic and foreign recordings, speeches and readings.

(thx, greg)

Adele's isolated vocals from SNLNOV 23

At the risk of turning this into an Adele fan site, here are the isolated vocals for her performance of "Hello" for Saturday Night Live. They are raw and flawless and real and everything pop music isn't these days.

Update: That YouTube video got yanked, but I found the vocals on Soundcloud. We'll see how long that'll last.

Update: Welp, that lasted about 10 minutes. Digg has embedded their own video. How fast will that one disappear?

The Breathing EarthNOV 18

From NASA, an animation of the yearly cycle of the Earth's plant life. The data is taken from satellite measurements (plant density for land and chlorophyll concentration for the ocean) and averaged over several years.

From December to February, during the northern hemisphere winter, plant life in the higher latitudes is minimal and receives little sunlight. However, even in the mid latitudes plants are dormant, shown here with browns and yellows on the land and dark blues in the ocean. By contrast the southern ocean and land masses are at the height of the summer season and plant life is revealed with dark green colors on the land and in the ocean. As the year progresses, the situations reverses, with plant life following the increased sunlight northward, while the southern hemisphere experiences decreased plant activity during its winter.

If you're anything like me, about 2-3 times into the video's cycle, you'll be breathing in tune to the Earth. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. Carbon dioxide in, oxygen out. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out... (via @EricHolthaus)

Stop faking food allergiesOCT 28

But for the love of Julia Child and the sake of every other soul in the restaurant, particularly the underpaid line cooks sweating their way through another Saturday night shift, please, please stop describing your food preferences as an allergy.

Neil Swidey on why food allergy fakers need to stop.

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Man records entire Vegas vacation with his GoPro pointed the wrong wayNOV 18

Evan Griffin let his dad use his GoPro camera on his vacation to Las Vegas, but Papa Griffin didn't know which end was which, so he shot the entire trip with the camera pointed at himself. A video selfie tour of Vegas. Hilarious.

View from the Overlook: Crafting 'The Shining'OCT 26

From 2007, a 30-minute documentary on the making of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Includes interviews with Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, and Sydney Pollack.

Living in a thin moist layer on a small wet rockNOV 03

Here's everything you need to know about the Earth, in a snappy 7-minute video. I am trying very hard not to watch the rest of Kurzgesagt's videos this afternoon, but I did make time for this one on the Big Bang -- key quote: "time itself becomes wibbly wobbly" -- and how evolution works.

The 10,000 Year ClockNOV 20

In 1995, Danny Hillis came up with the idea of building a clock that would last 10,000 years.

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.

The Clock of the Long Now is a short video portrait of Hillis and his collaborators as they build this clock in a mountain in western Texas. I like what Hillis had to say about our future:

I'm very optimistic about the future. I'm not optimistic because I think our problems are small. I'm optimistic because I think our capacity to deal with problems is great.

Noel Gallagher gives no fucksNOV 13

This long interview with former Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher is a goldmine of rock star swagger, a master class in not giving a shit, and the dictionary definition of unfiltered. I mean:

Am I aware of a hierarchy? I'm aware that Radiohead have never had a fucking bad review. I reckon if Thom Yorke fucking shit into a light bulb and started blowing it like an empty beer bottle it'd probably get 9 out of 10 in fucking Mojo. I'm aware of that.

I used to put us at number seven. It went The Beatles, the Stones, the Sex Pistols, The Who, The Kinks... who came in at six? I don't know. We were at seven. The Smiths were in there, The Specials. Where would I put us now? I guess I'd probably put us in the top 10. We weren't as great as the greats but we were the best of the rest. We did more than The Stone Roses could fucking even fathom. We're better than The Verve: couldn't fucking keep it together for more than six months at a time. If all the greats are in the top four, we're in the bottom of the top four, we're kind of constantly fighting for fifth, just missing out. Just missing out on the top four, I'd say.

He just has opinions on everything and everyone and says them on the record:

I fucking hate whingeing rock stars. And I hate pop stars who are just... neh. Just nothing, you know? "Oh, yeah, my last selfie got 47-thousand-million likes on Instagram." Yeah, why don't you go fuck off and get a drug habit, you penis?

This one just made me laugh:

My fragrance? Oh it's coming, it's coming. Toe-Rag it's going to be called. And the bottle's going to be a massive toe.

Ahhhhhhh, I can't stop quoting:

I guaran-fucking-tee you this: The Stone Roses never mentioned "career" in any band meetings. Ever. Or Primal Scream, or The Verve. Oasis certainly never mentioned it. I bet it's mentioned a lot by managers and agents now: "Don't do that, it's bad for your career." "What? Fuck off!" Like when we went to the Brits and we'd won all those awards and we didn't play. The head of the Brits said, "This'll ruin your career." Fucking, wow. I say to the guy, "Do you know how high I am? You know who's going to ruin my career? Me, not you. Bell-end. More Champagne. Fuck off."

Ok, that's enough. Just go read the thing.

A more progressive Richard ScarryNOV 09

In a photo set on Flickr, Alan Taylor compares the 1963 and 1991 editions of Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever and notes many changes to make it more progressive and inclusive, particularly with regard to gender roles. For instance, in this one, Mother is joined by Father in the kitchen:

Inclusive Richard Scarry

And in this one, "beautiful screaming lady" becomes "cat in danger":

Inclusive Richard Scarry

(via fusion)

rating: 4.0 stars

The Truman ShowMAY 26

The Truman Show delusion is how some psychiatrists are describing the condition of psychotic patients who believe they are filmed stars of reality TV programs.

Another patient traveled to New York City and showed up at a federal building in downtown Manhattan seeking asylum so he could get off his reality show, Dr. Gold said. The patient reported that he also came to New York to see if the Twin Towers were still standing, because he believed that seeing their destruction on Sept. 11 on television was part of his reality show. If they were still standing, he said, then he would know that the terrorist attack was all part of the script.

As for the movie itself, for all its popularity and critical success when released, it's little-remembered today. And unfairly so; the "realness" about our increasingly mediated lives remains a hot topic of debate.

Thomas Edison's last breathNOV 13

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were great friends. When Edison died, arrangements were made for a test tube containing his last breath to be delivered to Ford. The test tube now resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI.

The million dollar bagNOV 04

A site called SDR Traveller sells ultralight, strong, and discreet bags for traveling to places where such things are necessary. Their most eye-catching item is the 1M Hauly Heist, a bag designed to carry US$1 million in cash that also doubles as a Faraday cage for shielding your electronics from radio frequency tracking.

1m Hauly Heist

From the description on the page for the 1M Hauly (which holds the million bucks without the RF shielding):

In many countries project expenses and payroll for the local crew need to be carried in cash. Whether you're managing a team of thirty working for months at the edge of the grid, or on a solo trip to negotiate a significant cash transaction, the 1M Hauly is designed for discreet, safe carry of up to $1 Million USD in strapped, new or used $100 USD banknotes.

Designed to address the six main issues with carrying significant volume banknotes in field: risk of discovery; risk of damage (especially in high-humidity, monsoon environments); container robustness; carryability; glide; and in-field accounting.

Note that $1 million in $100 bills weights 20.4lbs. The site also sells smaller money pouches (in $10k, $100k, and $400k carrying capacities) as well as a durable duffel. All the bags are made from Cuben Fiber, a material originally used for yacht sails that's four times stronger than Kevlar at only half the weight. (via @craigmod)

Trailer for season 2 of TransparentNOV 23

Transparent was my favorite first season of television since Game of Thrones, or maybe even Mad Men. So I'm delighted to see the trailer for the show's second season, which starts on Dec 11. If you haven't seen the first season yet, I would highly recommend doing so...this show does so many things right.

Are cats domesticated?OCT 27

Some recent science suggests that perhaps cats aren't as domesticated as some other animals like dogs, sheep, or horses.

It appears that, following the advent of agriculture, wildcats in the Near East and Asia likely began to congregate near farms and grain stores, where mice and rats were abundant. People tolerated the volunteer exterminators, and wildcats became increasingly comfortable with people. Whether this affiliation began five or ten millennia ago, the evidence suggests that cats have not been part of our domestic domain for nearly as long as dogs, which have been our companions for perhaps forty thousand years.

After all, true house cats are only 60-ish years old, dating roughly to the invention of kitty litter.

Or, as one of my favorite short talks (by Kevin Slavin) suggests, perhaps it is humans who have been domesticated by a protozoan parasite that lives within cats, which, when transmitted to humans, makes us want to share funny cat GIFs online.

The movie that no one will see for 100 yearsNOV 23

Perhaps inspired by the long time scale filmmaking of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, John Malkovich and Robert Rodriguez have teamed up to make a movie that won't be released until 2115. Why? As a promotion for luxury brand Louis XIII Cognac, which is also aged 100 years. According to io9, Louis XIII is sending out 1000 tickets to people whose descendants will be able to see a screening of the film 100 years from now.

I wonder how serious they are about this? To what extent have they futureproofed their media? The io9 piece says the movie is "preserved on film stock" that and an old movie projector sufficient? Have they consulted with MoMA or Danny Hillis?

The 50th LawJUN 23

The 50th Law

Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, which has been influential in both halls of business and hip-hop circles, has written a new book with rapper 50 Cent called The 50th Law. Greene was initially skeptical of 50 Cent as a co-author but was impressed by their initial meeting.

He was in the midst of a power struggle with a rival rapper and he talked quite openly about the strategies he was employing, including mistakes he had made along the way. He analyzed his own actions with detachment, as if he were talking about another person. Over the last few years he had witnessed a lot of nasty maneuvering within the music business, and he seemed to want to discuss this with somebody from the outside. He was not interested in myths but reality. Contrary to his public persona, he had a Zen-like calmness that impressed me.

The main theme of the book is about fear and "the reverse power that you can obtain by overcoming [it]".

We found stories from his own life that would illustrate these ideas, many of them culled from his days as a hustler and even highlighting mistakes along the way that taught him valuable lessons. Later, from my own research, I would bring in examples from other historical figures who exemplified this trait. Many of them would be African Americans--Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Hurricane Carter, et al--whose fearless quality was forged by their harsh struggles against racism. Others would come from all periods and cultures--the Stoics, Joan of Arc, JFK, Leonardo da Vinci, Mao tse-tung, and so on.

David Attenborough narrates Adele's HelloNOV 03

BBC Radio One got David Attenborough to narrate the first minute or so of Adele's video for Hello as if it were a nature documentary. Solid gold. Although I am a little cross they made Attenborough say the words "hashtag flip phone". :|

Bonus pseudo-Attenborough: the episode of Human Planet on The Douche.

Sound designing a lifeOCT 28

The Foley Artist a charming short film on how a Foley artist would sound design a day in an ordinary life. Running hands through spaghetti noodles stands in for hair washing, a spray bottle sounds like rustling sheets, that sort of thing.

See also this fascinating short documentary about what a Foley artist does.

True religionNOV 10

Tyler Cowen on Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and our selective preference for some religious beliefs over others.

Loyal MR readers will know that I am myself a non-believer. But what I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson's pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others. The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.

To the non-believer, the Scientologist's belief in thetans and the vengeful sky god of Christianity are both equally implausible.

The subtle ways in which Pulp Fiction visually inspired Breaking BadOCT 23

There are a few shots in here that are generic to many movies but many others have the feel of definite homage. See also this list of similarities from a couple of years ago.

The moment when Walt spots Jesse's escaped hostage on the road is very reminiscent of the moment when Butch sees Marcellus. The scene where Walt chooses the weapon to kill someone looks exactly like the scene where Butch wonders what to use as he comes back to rescue Marcellus. In one scene Walt is forced to visit his home and there is a great chance someone is waiting there to kill him. Sounds familiar?

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