A 5-minute history of the war in Syria and the rise of ISISNOV 17

From Vox, a quick video summary of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has claimed responsibility for Friday's terror attacks in Paris, has its origins in Iraq, but the group as we know it today is in many ways a product of Syria's civil war. That war is much bigger than ISIS, but it is crucial for understanding so much that has happened in the past year, from terror attacks to the refugee crisis. And to understand the war, you need to understand how it began and how it unfolded.

See also Syria's civil war: a brief history.

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.

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.

This machine automagically turns trees into logsNOV 16

This, friends, is the Eco Log 590D, which cuts down trees and turns them into logs with the quiet efficiency of Homer Simpson eating donuts.

While the Eco Log 590D is terrifying in its methodical nature, for true tree-killing malevolence, there's still no beating the DAH Forestry Mulcher. I mean, when Skynet finally goes online, forget the almost-cuddly-in-comparison Terminator...if the machines truly want to wipe all organic matter from the Earth, they'll probably build a bunch of nihilist robotic People Mulchers. (via digg)

How to make 2000-year-old breadNOV 16

In the ruins of Herculaneum, a Roman town destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, a carbonized loaf of bread was found. The British Museum had chef Giorgio Locatelli recreate the recipe as best he could.

Things start to get really interesting around 3:25, where Locatelli tries to recreate the unusual markings found on the bread...that hanging string around the edge is a little genius.

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)

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.

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.

CRISPR, a cheap and accurate copy/paste for DNANOV 13

Michael Specter has a truly fascinating piece in the New Yorker about CRISPR, a relatively new genetic tool for editing genes that geneticists are very excited about.

With CRISPR, scientists can change, delete, and replace genes in any animal, including us. Working mostly with mice, researchers have already deployed the tool to correct the genetic errors responsible for sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and the fundamental defect associated with cystic fibrosis. One group has replaced a mutation that causes cataracts; another has destroyed receptors that H.I.V. uses to infiltrate our immune system.

The story has everything: the cheap copy/paste of DNA, easily editable mice, pig Hitler, "destroyer of worlds" overtones, and an incredible tale of science that could actually revolutionize (or ruin, depending on who you talk to) the world. I was shocked at how easy it is to do genetic research nowadays.

Ordering the genetic parts required to tailor DNA isn't as easy as buying a pair of shoes from Zappos, but it seems to be headed in that direction. Yan turned on the computer at his lab station and navigated to an order form for a company called Integrated DNA Technologies, which synthesizes biological parts. "It takes orders online, so if I want a particular sequence I can have it here in a day or two," he said. That is not unusual. Researchers can now order online almost any biological component, including DNA, RNA, and the chemicals necessary to use them. One can buy the parts required to assemble a working version of the polio virus (it's been done) or genes that, when put together properly, can make feces smell like wintergreen. In Cambridge, I.D.T. often makes same-day deliveries. Another organization, Addgene, was established, more than a decade ago, as a nonprofit repository that houses tens of thousands of ready-made sequences, including nearly every guide used to edit genes with CRISPR. When researchers at the Broad, and at many other institutions, create a new guide, they typically donate a copy to Addgene.

And CRISPR in particular has quickened the pace. A scientist studying lung cancer mutations said of her research:

"In the past, this would have taken the field a decade, and would have required a consortium," Platt said. "With CRISPR, it took me four months to do it by myself."

Also recommended: Radiolab's podcast on CRISPR from back in June.

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."

Go go gadget cruise shipNOV 12

In 2007, a cruise ship called the Balmoral was brought into the dry docks to be extended. Like, they cut the ship in half and added an entire new section to it, like putting an extra slice of bologna on a sandwich. I totally didn't know this was a thing you could do to a boat. (via @MachinePix)

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

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)

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.

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.

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