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“Stuntmen don’t get laughs”, the silent comedy of Jackie Chan

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2017

In this video, Bradley Dixon argues that Jackie Chan belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of silent comedy, along with Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Like those three legends of the silent film era, Chan uses simple stories, stunts, visual humor, ordinary props, and practical effects to connect with his audience on a non-verbal level.

See also Every Frame a Painting on how to do action comedy, Buster Keaton and the Art of the Gag, and silent film special effects revealed. Oh, and just for fun, Mad Max vs. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s time traveller.

NASA is reinventing the wheel

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2017

Imagine you’re sending a rover to Mars. The rover’s tires need to be light, durable, and also flexible enough to tackle a variety of terrain. NASA has spent decades trying to craft the perfect rover wheels, but something always comes up short in the pick-two situation…typically durability. Now researchers at the NASA Glenn Research Center have come up with a promising new rover wheel for the next generation of rovers.

The wheels are made from nickel titanium, a shape memory alloy that allows the tires to bounce back into their former shape even when they’re severely deformed.

The story of how the team stumbled upon this solution is a classic case of how important cross-disciplinary knowledge is for creation and invention. All it takes is one person in a different area of expertise to solve a seemingly intractable problem:

New extreme sport: Thomas the Tank Engine stunts

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2017

It is what it says on the tin: a toy Thomas the Tank Engine doing stunts on wooden tracks. My favorite part is that the slowed-down audio makes it sound somewhat like a skateboard.

A man turned his backyard shed into the top-rated restaurant in London

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2017

Having previously written fake reviews for restaurants on TripAdvisor for £10 a pop, Oobah Butler decided to go one step further. He listed his backyard shed on TripAdvisor, set up a dummy website (complete with appetizing food photos constructed from bleach tablets and shaving cream), and wrote a bunch of phony reviews.

The Shed at Dulwich

As the shed began climbing in the London restaurant ranking, Butler began to get more and more requests for reservations from actual people.

Emails? I check my computer: tens of “appointment” requests await. A boyfriend tries to use his girlfriend’s job at a children’s hospital for leverage. TV executives use their work emails.

Seemingly overnight, we’re now at #1,456. The Shed at Dulwich has suddenly become appealing. How?

I realise what it is: the appointments, lack of address and general exclusivity of this place is so alluring that people can’t see sense. They’re looking at photos of the sole of my foot, drooling. Over the coming months, The Shed’s phone rings incessantly.

And then, after it reaches #1, Butler actually opens The Shed at Dulwich for one night.

Update: When I initially posted this, I almost closed the post with something like “the best part of all this is that we don’t really know if any of this happened the way Butler says it did”. And indeed, Jonathan Power noticed that the URL for the restaurant’s website wasn’t registered until Oct 27, not in April as the article implies. Hmmm. The Facebook page for the restaurant has posts going back to June 30 (can you backdate FB posts?) & reviews back to April 5th. The listing appears to have been on TripAdvisor as of Dec 4 (Google cache) and was mentioned and screenshotted on Twitter in mid-November. Maybe Butler fudged the timeline slightly for the article…he used the Facebook page as the restaurant’s website until doing it up properly with its own URL in October? So, I dunno…is the joke on us, on Vice, on TripAdvisor, or…?

How Technicolor changed movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy lands after being brought to Oz by a tornado, she opens the door and, bang!, Technicolor. It’s a surprising transition, one of the most effective in film history. But it wouldn’t have been a complete shock for audiences in 1939 because Oz was not the first film to feature the color technology. In this video, Phil Edwards details the history of Technicolor, how it works, and how it changed movie making.

Many people recognize Technicolor from The Wizard of Oz, but the technology existed long before then. Two strip Technicolor and three strip Technicolor both revolutionized the film industry and shaped the look of 20th century film.

But Technicolor also influenced movies through its corporate control of the technology. People like Natalie Kalmus shaped the aesthetic of color films, and directors redesigned their sets and films based on the Technicolor look that the company — and viewers — demanded.

Edwards also did a “director’s cut” video with further information that wasn’t in the first video.

“Airport Novella? Sounds interesting,” he said with a nod.

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

Airport Novella by Tom Comitta is what he calls a “literary supercut”. Constructed exclusively from the kinds of novels one normally finds in airport bookshops, the 48-page book contains four chapters, one each for the gestures most often found in airport prose: nodding, shrugging, odd looks, and gasps. An short excerpt from the shrugging chapter:

Jeremy was silent for a moment before finally shrugging.

She shrugged without answering. “Can I be frank now?”

He shrugged. “Anything that might help me with the history of the cemetery and the town.”

She shrugged. “Shows me what I know. Being that you’re a journalist from the big city.”

He shrugged, acting innocent.

She suddenly remembered that he’d been trying to guess her age yesterday. “Yep,” she said with a shrug.

He gave a sheepish shrug, and she had a sudden vision of what he must have looked like as a small boy. “Hey, I know it’s none of my business, but how did it go with Rodney?”

She hesitated before finally shrugging. “You’re right. It is none of your business.” He could almost hear her shrug.

He gave a sheepish shrug. “I suppose that depends on the perspective.”

For source material, Comitta used books like The Da Vinci Code, the Twilight series, and a novel commissioned by Donald Trump (tagline: “Leave your modesty downstairs. Trump Tower is the sexiest novel of the decade.”)

The making of Burial’s Untrue

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

Ten years ago, electronic musician Burial released his second album, Untrue, which went on to be quite influential.

Where would UK dance music be without Burial’s Untrue? The South Londoner’s second album, released ten years ago this month on Hyperdub, has arguably done more than any other record in recent history to shape electronic music, presenting not only novel production techniques but the power of rooting a record in a specific time, mood and place.

This video from Resident Advisor explores that influence and how Burial’s novel production methods contributed to the album’s success. For one thing, instead of using music software that everyone else used to build and layer beats, Burial used Soundforge, which only shows the waveforms.

So I thought to myself fuckit I’m going to stick to this shitty little computer program, Soundforge. I don’t know any other programs. Once I change something, I can never un-change it. I can only see the waves. So I know when I’m happy with my drums because they look like a nice fishbone. When they look just skeletal as fuck in front of me, and so I know they’ll sound good.

Basically, he eyeballed it, which makes the whole thing feel more natural (and makes it difficult for DJs to mix). (via @pieratt)

Dear catcallers, it’s not a compliment

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

To show how routine street harassment is, Noa Jansma took a selfie with every man who catcalled her for a month and posted the photos to Instagram.

Dear Catcallers

It’s fun1 to see how happy and pleased almost all of these men look having harassed this young woman on the street. (thx, joel)

  1. By which I mean the exact opposite of fun.

Inequality and America’s Lost Einsteins

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

In response to some poorly conducted and racist research attempting to correlate the size of people’s brains to their intelligence, science historian and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his 1980 book, The Panda’s Thumb:

I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.

Gould’s assertion is echoed by this piece in the NY Times, in which David Leonhardt reports on the research of Stanford’s Raj Chetty. Chetty’s findings (unsurprisingly) show that financial inequality and differences in race & sex have a large effect on which Americans end up inventing things. Leonhardt calls this “a betrayal of American ideals”.

Not surprisingly, children who excelled in math were far more likely to become inventors. But being a math standout wasn’t enough. Only the top students who also came from high-income families had a decent chance to become an inventor.

This fact may be the starkest: Low-income students who are among the very best math students — those who score in the top 5 percent of all third graders — are no more likely to become inventors than below-average math students from affluent families.

In the article, AOL founder Steve Case says: “Creativity is broadly distributed. Opportunity is not.” The problem is even more severe when you consider differences in sex and race:

I encourage you to take a moment to absorb the size of these gaps. Women, African-Americans, Latinos, Southerners, and low- and middle-income children are far less likely to grow up to become patent holders and inventors. Our society appears to be missing out on most potential inventors from these groups. And these groups together make up most of the American population.

Because of survivorship bias, it’s tough to focus on the potential inventors, the lost Einsteins:

The key phrase in the research paper is “lost Einsteins.” It’s a reference to people who could “have had highly impactful innovations” if they had been able to pursue the opportunities they deserved, the authors write. Nobody knows precisely who the lost Einsteins are, of course, but there is little doubt that they exist.

52 things learned in 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

One of my favorite end-of-the-year lists last year was Tom Whitwell’s 52 things I learned in 2016. An item from that list:

Instead of batteries, the ARES project in Nevada uses a network of train tracks, a hillside and electric trains loaded with rocks to store wind and solar power. When there is a surplus of energy, the trains drive up the tracks. When output falls, the cars roll back down the hill, their electric motors acting as generators.

Whitwell’s list for 2017 is similarly interesting:

In Silicon Valley, startups that result in a successful exit have an average founding age of 47 years. [Joshua Gans]

“Artificial intelligence systems pretending to be female are often subjected to the same sorts of online harassment as women.” [Jacqueline Feldman]

Dana Lewis from Alabama built herself an artificial pancreas from off-the-shelf parts. Her design is open source, so people with diabetes can hack together solutions more quickly than drug companies. [Lee Roop]

Amazon Echo can be useful for people suffering from Alzheimers’: “I can ask Alexa anything and I get the answer instantly. And I can ask it what day it is twenty times a day and I will still get the same correct answer.” [Rick Phelps]

China opens around 50 high bridges each year. The entire rest of the world opens ten. [Chris Buckley]

Men travelling first class tend to weigh more than those in economy, while for women the reverse is true. [Lucy Hooker]

Facebook employs a dozen people to delete abuse and spam from Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page. [Sarah Frier]

Watch how smoke, dust, and salt circulate in the Earth’s atmosphere

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

Using a combination of satellite data and mathematical weather models, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center made this simulation that shows how aerosols like dust, smoke, and salt were circulated in the atmosphere during the 2017 hurricane season. It’s amazing to see how far some of these things spread.

During the 2017 hurricane season, the storms are visible because of the sea salt that is captured by the storms. Strong winds at the surface lift the sea salt into the atmosphere and the particles are incorporated into the storm. Hurricane Irma is the first big storm that spawns off the coast of Africa. As the storm spins up, the Saharan dust is absorbed in cloud droplets and washed out of the storm as rain. This process happens with most of the storms, except for Hurricane Ophelia. Forming more northward than most storms, Ophelia traveled to the east picking up dust from the Sahara and smoke from large fires in Portugal. Retaining its tropical storm state farther northward than any system in the Atlantic, Ophelia carried the smoke and dust into Ireland and the UK.

I watched this several times to pick up on different things…the hurricanes of course, but also how smoke from the forest fires in the Pacific Northwest makes it all the way to Scotland (!!!) and dust from the Sahara desert makes it to the Caribbean (also !!!). (via phil plait)

Update: All that dust from the Sahara blowing across the ocean? Some of the dust, 27 million tons per year on average, is deposited in the Amazon basin in South America, providing the ecosystem there vital phosphorus:

This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust, Yu said. Specifically the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad, an ancient lake bed where rock minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.

(via tom whitwell)

The top 25 films of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

Nothing makes me want to quit my job and just watch movies all day than David Ehrlich’s annual video countdowns of the year’s best movies. Although I’m still a little irritated at him for leaving Arrival off of last year’s list, I’m looking forward to seeing Phantom Thread, The Post, Columbus, Lady Bird (which has been difficult to come by living in a rural area), and many others from this year’s list.

At Indiewire, Ehrlich explains his picks. I wasn’t as keen on Baby Driver and Get Out as Ehrlich and seemingly everyone else was, but here’s what he wrote about Dunkirk, one of my favorite films of the year:

“Virtual reality without the headset.” That’s what Nolan has called the experience of seeing this film’s aerial sequences in their proper glory, and he wasn’t kidding — “Dunkirk” is the ultimate fuck you to the idea of streaming a new movie to your phone. The director and his team customized an IMAX rig so the camera could squeeze into the cockpit of a WWII fighter plane, and the footage they captured from the sky is so transportive that every ticket should earn you frequent flier miles. One shot, in which we share a pilot’s POV as they make a crash landing on the water, singlehandedly justifies this entire portion of the film long before Nolan inevitably converges it with the other two for the rousing final act.

I might splurge on a bigger, better TV just to watch this one in 4K at home.

P.S. Also from Ehrlich: Wreath Witherspoons. LOL.

Voyager 1 just fired its trajectory thrusters for the first time since 1980

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

Nasa Voyager

The last time that the four trajectory thrusters on the Voyager 1 probe were fired, Jimmy Carter was still President of the United States. But with the main attitude control thrusters deteriorating from trying to keep the probe oriented correctly, the team thought they could keep the mission going using the trajectory thrusters. So they fired them up.

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly — and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, is currently more than 13 billion miles from Earth, and is still functional and doing science. Incredible.

RIP Every Frame a Painting

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2017

Sad but expected news: Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos have shut down their excellent video series on film, Every Frame a Painting. They wrote about their decision in the form of the script for a final episode that never got made:

(TONY) As many of you have guessed, the channel more or less ended in September 2016 with the release of the “Marvel Symphonic Universe” video. For the last year, Taylor and I have tinkered behind-the-scenes to see if there was anything else we wanted to do with this YouTube channel.

(TAYLOR) But in the past year, we’ve both started new jobs and taken on other freelance work. Things started piling up and it took all our energy to get through the work we’d agreed to do.

When we started this YouTube project, we gave ourselves one simple rule: if we ever stopped enjoying the videos, we’d also stop making them. And one day, we woke up and felt it was time.

I was a huge fan of the series and posted many episodes on kottke.org. Here are a few particular favorites:

Cheers to Tony and Taylor…you made a great thing and knew when to quit (unlike some people).

P.S. Poking around, I found a mini Every Frame a Painting that Zhou and Ramos did for Criterion about The Breaking Point, posted to YouTube back in August:

Gah, that just makes me miss it even more!

What’s under the trees? LIDAR exposes the hidden landscapes of forested areas.

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2017

WA LIDAR Geology

The Washington State Geological Survey is using LIDAR technology to study the geology of the land hidden under forested areas of the state. LIDAR is like radar, but instead of bouncing radio waves off of objects to detect their distances, you use lasers. When you shoot laser light at a forested area, most of it is reflected back by the trees. But some of it reaches the ground, so by measuring the light that’s reflected back from the lowest point, you get a very accurate map of the bare earth, sans nature. Using the LIDAR maps, they can study the course changes in rivers, landslides, volcanic lava flows, earthquake faults & fault zones, tsunami inundation zones, and glaciers.

The beautiful photo at the top is a LIDAR image of the Sauk River and all its current and former channels…the bluish tint makes it look like an x-ray, which it pretty much is. It also reminds me of the meander maps of the Mississippi River made by Harold Fisk for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Here are two images of Bainbridge Island:

WA LIDAR Geology

WA LIDAR Geology

The LIDAR image clearly shows a horizontal earthquake fault scarp that’s completely hidden by the ground cover.

These two images are of drumlins left behind by a glacier:

WA LIDAR Geology

WA LIDAR Geology

Again, the LIDAR image shows the movement of a long-gone glacier with stunning clarity compared to the satellite photo with ground cover.