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The evolution of recorded music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2017

The Recording Academy has produced a series of three short and breezy videos on the history of recorded music, from the wax cylinder phonograph to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s. Interest piqued, I went to read more about the history of the CD. When developing the disc, the physical size of it was dictated by Beethoven:

The two companies argued about what size, shape and technology the CD should support. It was eventually settled on a disc of 115 millimetres in diameter and 74 minutes worth of storage. Why 74 minutes? To fit Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, of course.

When the format was released in 1982, players cost $900 and CDs themselves were $30 ($2270 and $75 in 2016 dollars)1 and fewer than 100 individual titles were available for sale.

  1. And remember when movies on VHS cost up to $89.95? (If you paid that for a movie in 1984, that’s $210 in 2016 dollars. Suddenly those Hamilton tickets don’t seem so expensive.) Very few could afford to buy movies outright at that price…therefore, Blockbuster. See also the pricing for the original Nintendo.

We Work Remotely

How Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto designs a game

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2017

Shigeru Miyamoto has designed dozens of the most popular video games in the world: Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, and the Legend of Zelda among them. In this video by Vox, Miyamoto shares how he thinks about game design.

This is one of the first times that a video game’s plot and characters were designed before the programming. [Miyamoto:] “Well, early on, the people who made video games, they were technologists, they were programmers, they were hardware designers. But I wasn’t. I was a designer, I studied industrial design, I was an artist, I drew pictures. And so I think that it was in my generation that people who made video games really became designers rather than technologists.”

Also worth watching is this video by Game Maker’s Toolkit about how Nintendo builds everything in their games around a fun and unique play mechanic.

It seems to me that these two videos slightly contradict each other, although maybe you’ll disagree.

A human-powered paper centrifuge

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2017

Testing human blood for tropical diseases like malaria can be difficult in some parts of the world. Centrifuges used to separate the blood for testing are expensive and require electricity. Researchers from Stanford have developed an ingenious human-powered centrifuge made of paper and string inspired by a children’s toy invented 5000 years ago (paging Steven Johnson, Steven Johnson to the courtesy desk please).

In a global-health context, commercial centrifuges are expensive, bulky and electricity-powered, and thus constitute a critical bottleneck in the development of decentralized, battery-free point-of-care diagnostic devices. Here, we report an ultralow-cost (20 cents), lightweight (2 g), human-powered paper centrifuge (which we name ‘paperfuge’) designed on the basis of a theoretical model inspired by the fundamental mechanics of an ancient whirligig (or buzzer toy; 3,300 BC). The paperfuge achieves speeds of 125,000 r.p.m. (and equivalent centrifugal forces of 30,000 g), with theoretical limits predicting 1,000,000 r.p.m. We demonstrate that the paperfuge can separate pure plasma from whole blood in less than 1.5 min, and isolate malaria parasites in 15 min.

A million rpm from paper and string…that’s incredible. (via gizmodo)

Mesmerizing strobe light sculptures

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2017

If you spin these sculptures by artist John Edmark at a certain speed and light them with a strobe, they appear to animate in slowly trippy ways.

Blooms are 3-D printed sculptures designed to animate when spun under a strobe light. Unlike a 3D zoetrope, which animates a sequence of small changes to objects, a bloom animates as a single self-contained sculpture. The bloom’s animation effect is achieved by progressive rotations of the golden ratio, phi (ϕ), the same ratio that nature employs to generate the spiral patterns we see in pinecones and sunflowers. The rotational speed and strobe rate of the bloom are synchronized so that one flash occurs every time the bloom turns 137.5º (the angular version of phi).

The effect seems computer generated (but obviously isn’t) and is better than I anticipated. (via colossal)

Update: While not as visually smooth as his sculptures, Edmark’s rotation of an artichoke under strobe lighting deftly demonstrates the geometric rules followed by plants when they grow.

Here we see an artichoke spinning while being videotaped at 24 frames-per-second with a very fast shutter speed (1/4000 sec). The rotation speed is chosen to cause the artichoke to rotate 137.5º — the golden angle — each time a frame is captured, thus creating the illusion that the leaves are moving up or down the surface of the artichoke. The reason this works is that the artichoke grows by producing new leaf one at a time, with each new leaf positioned 137.5º around the center from the previous leaves. So, in a sense, this video reiterates the artichoke’s growth process.

(via @waxpancake)

Update: This similar sculpture by Takeshi Murata is quite impressive as well.

(via @kevmaguire)

My holiday shopping adventures and Amazon’s continued retail dominance

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2017

French drone company Parrot recently announced significant layoffs and will shift focus away from their recreational drone business.

French company Parrot has had a rough year and missed its sales expectations. That’s why the company will lay off 290 employees who were working on drones. In total, Parrot currently has 840 employees on the drone team and more than a thousand employees in total.

While the company isn’t just selling drones, it represents a good chunk of the business. But it looks like other companies, such as DJI, are doing better in this market. Parrot expected to report $105.9 million in sales for 2016. It reported $90 million instead (€85 million vs. €100 million expected).

Even though the company is still selling quite a few drones, Parrot says that it doesn’t generate healthy margins. So here’s the new plan: focusing on commercial drones.

Well, this explains my holiday shopping difficulties with Parrot. Ollie asked for a drone for Christmas and after doing some research, I decided on the Parrot Swing. Amazon was out of stock, so I decided to buy directly from Parrot. They had stock and the site said they’d ship in plenty of time for Xmas. So I ordered one. The next day, I get a call from Parrot saying I need to “verify my order”. So, I call them back, give them some info about my order and where it’s being shipped and the very nice woman on the phone tells me that I’m all set and they’re shipping it out.

Two days go by, no shipping confirmation email in sight. I get another voicemail: you need to call us to verify your order. I call back, give them the same info and tell them, oh by the way I’ve already done this once. Profuse apologies were offered, that was a mistake, and the very nice woman on the phone tells me she’s going to tell the shipping people to send out my order “right away”. It will still arrive in time for Xmas. The next day I get an email from Parrot:

Hello! We have refunded your order No. XXXXX-XXXXX placed 12/15/2016. We are sorry that your order did not meet your expectations and hope that you will visit us again.

Obviously, I am done with them at this point but still need that drone. Amazon is still out of stock, but Walmart has them. I order one, it arrives two days later (with free shipping), and on Christmas morning, after some reflection, Ollie says it was the best present Santa has ever gotten him.

I did quite a bit of holiday shopping this year…went a bit nuts making up for some not-so-great efforts the past two years. The kids and I shopped for Toys for Tots (twice), I bought gifts for them from me and from Santa, I bought non-holiday stuff like clothes for myself,1 and I shopped virtually for the gift guide. I shopped every which way: small, locally, at big box stores, and online at 4-5 different retailers. My main takeaway from that experience? Amazon is miles and miles and miles ahead of everyone else. It is not even close.

Sure, Walmart had the drone in stock, but when I’d tried shopping with them earlier in the month, the product page threw a 404 error. I switched to Safari and was able to put the item into my cart, but then a form in the ordering flow wouldn’t work, so I had to get that item elsewhere. (When I did finally create an account while ordering the drone, Walmart thought my name was “Ashley”?!)

Target’s site was so slow that it was nearly unusable (like 30-40 seconds for a product page to start loading). But I persevered because they had an item I really wanted that no one else had in stock. I got an email two days before Xmas saying they were out of stock and couldn’t ship until Jan 4 at the earliest, but that if I still wanted the item, I would have to log in to my account to verify the new shipping date. I didn’t want the item later, so I did nothing. Guess what arrived on my doorstep last week?

My troubles with Parrot I shared above. The local toy stores are expensive (Lego sets are $5-10 more than if you buy online) and ran out of popular items 2-3 weeks before Xmas. Very few online stores outside Amazon, Walmart, etc. had clear holiday shipping policies, so relying on them more than a week or two out was risky. Zappos was great (Amazon owns them) and Patagonia was pretty good, although their shipping estimates aren’t that great and returns aren’t free.

And Amazon? The site is always fast, I have never seen a 404’d product page, the URLs for their products haven’t changed in almost 20 years,1 each product page was clearly marked with holiday shipping information, they showed the number of items in stock if they were running low, shipping was free (b/c I’m a Prime member), returns are often free, and the items arrived on time as promised. More than 20 years after the invention of online retailing, how is it that Amazon seems to be the only one that’s figured all this out? How come massive companies like Walmart and Target, whose very businesses are under immense pressure from Amazon, can’t get this stuff right despite having spent hundreds of millions on it? I’m not a financial analyst, but unless something changes drastically, Amazon is just going to continue to eat more and more of the US retail pie and at this point, with all these advantages they’ve accrued and their razor-sharp focus on low pricing, it’s difficult to see how anyone is going to compete.1

  1. After freezing my ass off wearing improper clothing the last few years (because, to be clear, I am an idiot), I made myself a promise this year that I was not going to be cold this winter. So in November and December, I spent a bunch of energy outfitting myself with the proper gear: sweaters, thermal layers, coats, mittens, boots, etc. I am both warm and happy now.

  2. I linked to the Office Space DVD on kottke.org in 1999 and the link still works. What’s the percentage of URLs from 1999 that still work? 5%? 2%? 0.1%?

  3. Just for fun, let’s take a quick stab. Stripe and Shopify are arguably better than Amazon in some ways and when the one-click patent expires this year, those payment flows will get even easier. And anyone can use them to sell anything. So the problem becomes stocking and shipping. Who’s going to build/provide the third-party fulfillment infrastructure so that shipping and returns are cheap and reliable…like Amazon’s fulfillment warehouses but for anyone to use? UPS? FedEx? The USPS? (Hahaha.) Uber? Can that company offer a Prime-like or Costco-like shipping membership? What is the rationale for everyone involved (the retailers, the payment company, the online store service, the fulfillment company) to keep prices as relentlessly low as Amazon does? There are a lot of different reasons why a collection of interchangeable third-party services could succeed against a fully integrated solution, but price does not seem like one of them…there’s just too much margin lost because of the friction between services.

    (And we haven’t even talked about AWS here. It’s profitable by itself but is also turning out to be a massive competitive advantage. The likes of Walmart and Target can’t use it even if it would be better than their home-grown infrastructure because that’s like the Trojans paying the Greeks to invade. AWS also potentially insulates Amazon against competitors like Shopify and Stripe. Imagine if Amazon got serious about integrating AWS with their payment and fulfillment systems…a low-cost, bulletproof, integrated system that almost anyone could use to sell almost anything would put an enormous amount of pressure on every other retail experience, particularly if they continue to ramp up their real-world retail offerings.)

Video Feedbackteria

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2017

If you point a video camera at a projection of the video camera’s output — and if the conditions are just so — you get some interesting patterns that look almost biological. It’s fascinating that video feedback strongly resembles the patterns on brain coral. There must be an underlying emergent process for filling space that links the two patterns together. The video was made by Ethan Turpin…you can see more of his work here. (via @sleeptest)

The best ending movie credits of all time

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2017

Cinefix takes a look at what makes ending credit sequences effective, the different techniques used to end movies, and picks a number of films with the best end credits.

The shape of the narratives movies tend to tell lend themselves to an emotional climax that hits right as the screen fades to black for the last time. Be it triumphant, tragic, bittersweet, or thoughtful, the most important feeling is often the last. So, wisely, one of the most common functions of the creative end title sequence is what we’re going to call the coda credits. They grab on to the final emotional note and let it ride out in a long sustain, letting the audience hold onto the final feeling and carry the echoes out with them as the credits roll.

80s covers of contemporary pop songs

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2017

A Canadian musician called TRONICBOX is taking contemporary pop songs like Katy Perry’s Firework, Baby by Justin Bieber, and Somebody I Used To Know by Gotye and remixing them so they sound like they came out in the 80s. The effect is unnerving for someone like me who grew up immersed in 80s pop music. Even though it’s impossible, I can almost remember listening to some of these songs back in my bedroom, probably taped off the radio during Casey Kasem’s top 40 countdown. Total time travel paradox nostalgia bombs. (via digg)

The greatest chess game ever played

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2017

Garry Kasparov, who is one of the top chess players ever, said that his 1999 match against Veselin Topalov was the greatest game of chess he ever played. In this video, MatoJelic goes through the game, move by move. Even if you only have a passing interest in chess, I’d recommend watching…it gets really interesting after the first 10-12 moves (which are presented without explanation) and listening to someone who is passionate about a topic is often worth it.

Also entertaining and informative was his explanation of The Game of the Century, which pitted a 13-year-old Bobby Fischer against Donald Byrne, a top-ranked American player. (via farnam street)

Silent film special effects revealed

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2017

Back in the days of silent film, directors and cinematographers had to be exceedingly clever to pull off visual effects that appeared real. There were obviously no computers so they had to rely on skewed perspectives, glass matte paintings, and double exposures. That famous clip of Harold Lloyd hanging off of a clock…here’s how that was done:

Harold Lloyd Clock Effects

Here are several more examples. See also Disney’s multiplane camera. (via @mccanner)

What is the Great American Novel?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2017

Great American Novel

From Emily Temple at Literary Hub, a collection of contenders for the title of Great American Novel. The list includes everything from Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Beloved, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Infinite Jest.

Why cities are where they are

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2017

It makes sense that villages and towns would develop a short distance away from each other so that people living nearby wouldn’t have to travel far to sell their goods, bank, or go to school. But what about cities? Geography has a lot ot do with where cities are located.

If you enjoy this video but haven’t read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel yet, you probably should.

Beyonce interviews Solange

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2017

Solange Wedding

Beyoncé Knowles recently interviewed her sister Solange Knowles for Interview magazine.

And, as far back as I can remember, our mother always taught us to be in control of our voice and our bodies and our work, and she showed us that through her example. If she conjured up an idea, there was not one element of that idea that she was not going to have her hand in. She was not going to hand that over to someone. And I think it’s been an interesting thing to navigate, especially watching you do the same in all aspects of your work: Society labels that a control freak, an obsessive woman, or someone who has an inability to trust her team or to empower other people to do the work, which is completely untrue. There’s no way to succeed without having a team and all of the moving parts that help bring it into life. But I do have — and I’m unafraid to say it — a very distinctive, clear vision of how I want to present myself and my body and my voice and my perspective. And who better to really tell that story than yourself?

This exchange just made me laugh out loud:

BEYONCÉ: Well, it brought tears to my eyes to hear both of our parents speak openly about some of their experiences. And what made you choose Master P to speak on the album?

SOLANGE: Well, I find a lot of similarities in Master P and our dad.

BEYONCÉ: Me, too. [laughs]

I loved the simple mic drop bio for Beyoncé at the bottom:

BEYONCÉ IS A 20-TIME GRAMMY AWARD-WINNING RECORDING ARTIST. HER SIXTH STUDIO ALBUM AND COMPANION FILM, LEMONADE, WAS RELEASED LAST YEAR.

And Beyoncé is right about Solange’s wedding photo (above), it is indeed “the dopest wedding photo of all time”. (via @caseyjohnston)

Gun control is popular and effective, so why don’t we have it?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2017

The Upshot recently conducted a survey about 29 gun control ideas and graphed the results based on the popularity of the ideas with the American public and their potential effectiveness according to experts.

Gun Control Matrix

Oh, shit like this makes me SO ANGRY. I didn’t even include the bottom part of the graph because there’s nothing down there. That’s right, the majority of Americans support all sorts of different gun control tactics, especially those likely to be most effective. But a focused and organized minority of gun nuts has somehow made it impossible for any reform to happen, so things like Newtown and Orlando and Charleston and San Bernardino and Aurora and toddlers killing people with guns will just continue to happen all over the nation like it’s completely fucking normal.

“Pablo Escobar’s son is a good architect now”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2017

Sebastian Marroquin

Sebastian Marroquin is an architect who also happens to be the son of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Matt Shaw of The Architect’s Newspaper recently interviewed Marroquin, and it’s interesting throughout, more so than I expected.

For the first house that I built in Colombia, I didn’t even know who the client was. It was a mystery. There was a request, and they sent me the photographs, the plans, the coordinates, and everything that I needed to design the house. I never went to the place where the house is built. I don’t even know where it exists. When it was complete, they called me and I found out that the owner was one of the guys who, in 1988, put 700 kilos of dynamite in my house. It was a miracle that we survived because I was with my mom and my little sister there. It was the first car bomb in Colombia’s history. So I built the house for the guy who ruined mine.

It was a way for them to ask for forgiveness and in a way to understand us. They knew who I was from the beginning. It was weird and it was a clear opportunity and it was clear that a lot of things have changed in Colombia and that is a great example of how things have really changed now. People want to make peace.

Marroquin struggles with his father’s legacy and its effect on his career but also took obvious inspiration from Escobar’s own interest in architecture.

I believe that in a way my father was also an architect, he was very clever. He was just an architect for his own convenience. There was a Sunday my father took me to airplane fields and in the middle of the jungle, we were standing on the airfield and he asked me, “where is the airfield?” I couldn’t see it, and he said, “You are standing in it.” I couldn’t see it because I was looking at a house in the middle of the runway and there was no way the plane could land because it would crash against the house. He took a walkie-talkie and told one of his friends to move the house. It was on wheels. When the airplanes from the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Agency) were searching with satellites looking for hideouts, they couldn’t find anything because there was a house in the middle of what was a possible airfield. The planes can use it — just move the house.

That’s why he was a great architect because when you visited the house, it worked. It had the bathrooms, the shower, everything. If the police went to the house, it would function perfectly. I believe that a lot of things from architecture I learned from my father and especially places to hide. He used architecture to hide.

(via @DesignObserver)