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Brain Pickings

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The Last and the Curious

Democracy, rashes, the big ambush, Eastern Europeans for free, why the ‘burbs are cool again, how 40 tons can make you really, really uncomfortable, what gingerbread has to do with sustainability, and just dance, dammit.

THE INDEPENDENT MASSES

Let’s face it, neither big labels nor online music sales are exactly a conducive trampoline for indie artists looking to make the big jump, however talented they may be. The few who rose from the indie ranks and made it big may have the traction to give the labels the finger (hello, Radiohead and LiveNation folk), but what about the little guys, the next Beatles and Kinks and Blondies humbly making great music in their basements?

ourstage.jpgLuckily for them, there’s OurStage: one big, brilliant community talent contests. It allows emerging talent to gain exposure by uploading work, then — here’s the smart part — it lets the community decide in a completely democratic vote. Every month, the overall winner gets $5,000 (and the top 5 rankers in each genre channel get some pocket change — $100, to be exact — to fuel those practice sessions with beer and pizza so they can do better next month.)

We sampled some of the top-ranked talent — and talent it is, we were pleasantly surprised to find. Current rank topper Julie Odell oozes promises of Joni-Mitchellish vocals and Rufus-Wainwrightean piano work. And runner-up Wandering Bards blends Lynard Skynardesque Southern rock with early Dave Matthews Band rasp, plus a kick all their own. And, is Sydney Wayser for real? Please come to and give the woman a record deal already.

All in all, OurStage seems to reflect a bigger trend of late — the concept of individualism by the numbers. It helps indie artists remain, well, indie, while building a community fueled by individual opinions but moving forward by means of critical mass. Who knew democracy wasn’t the repugnant villain big labels and the Billboard charts make it out to be?

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifAlright, alright, maybe the Billboard charts aren’t all crap — if you know how to read them, that is. The big B published the annual recap on what was hot in the year past, spanning every imaginable genre, category and music publishing method. But we were most intrigued by a little something that goes by Tastemakers Chart.

It’s intended to balance out the big music retailers’ influence on the rest of the charts, which are largely shaped by sales figures from the major chain stores. But the Tastemakers Chart reflects music sales in thousands of small, independent stores where, coincidentally, cultural “tastemakers” often first discover new music. It’s the long tail, if you will. And while its entrants are strikingly similar to those popping up in the mainstream charts, it still tells a different story — and we like different stories.

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And while we’re on the subject, might as well resist the urge to snub TIME Magazine‘s 50 Top 10 Lists of 2007, including the music one: we’re sensing the onset of a distinct overexposure rash with all that Amy Winehouse dominance. (Oh come on now, the “OD-ing on Amy” joke would’ve been too cheap a shot.)

BIG THINGS START SMALL

Sure, it was a matter of time. But we kind of expected fanfare, grandeur, or at least another campfire event in Mountain View to announce it. Nope, Google has decided to take down the social networking giants quietly and stealthily.

reader.pngThis week, Google Reader (you know, the nifty RSS aggregator that lets you keep track of content updates on sites you’ve elected to actually care about *cough cough*) tapped into users’ address books for a social function that lets you see what your friends are reading.

And that’s just two months after Google Maps quietly added the same function, leveraging the existing custom-mapping and local user reviews. Thanks to the (not yet but soon) almighty address book, people can share routes and trails with friends, click through reviews and see what else that person reviewed, and add links and photos.

Not to mention personal Google profile pages have been around for a while, letting people show the world a no-bells-and-whistles snapshot of who they are, where they’re at, and what they’re into.

Sure, the Goog folks still need to streamline things and intersect Reader profiles with Map profiles with Docs sharing and whatever other personal/social components they’re brewing up for the Google army of apps. But the point here is, the address book is a tremendously powerful tool.

Really, if we’re talking about real social networking, your social foundation — your circle of close friends and all the acquaintances you actually care to keep in touch with — is bound to be in your address book. Heck, even the expression “keeping in touch” wouldn’t live outside the context of some sort of address book. So we can’t wait to see how the Google touch transforms a field that has traditionally been done backwards, adding social contacts (who may or may not be actual friends) once the network is formed. Slap OpenSocial to this whole shebang, and something big, something long overdue is starting to emerge.

And while we’re on the subject of putting the individual up front and center, perhaps the most noteworthy of Google’s latest is a new tool they’re beta-testing that goes by knol (which stands for “unit of knowledge”) — based on the screenshots, it sounds like Wikipedia on steroids: it organizes all the world’s information by having thousands of experts in specific, niche areas write “knols” on what they know inside and out.

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Google folks make a good point about how all other public media (books, articles, music, etc.) have a known author, but the Internet, for the most part, somehow evolved without that key component. So they say the idea is to claim authorship back and build a momentous pool of knowledge by highlighting the author in a way that fosters top-notch info and credibility.

WILL REWARD FOR INFO

One word: huh?

This oddball, reminiscent of the infamous Counterfeit MINI campaign, has been gathering viral momentum and generating massive web-wide head-scratching for months. Across the several duplicates posted to YouTube, it’s got some half million cumulative views. And all it points to is this Romanian website, where there seems to be some Romanian auto-parts retailer tie-in.

It’s also a featured example on Unruly Media, a service that seeds brand-backed viral videos to publishers who cash in on views. Their clients include big-wig names like Pepsi, Glaxo Smith Klein, Budweiser, Motorola, BBC and more, plus a ton of conglomerate- owned agencies — and a Romanian auto-parts shop?

The site is registered to one Bogdan Popescu and his questionable kin, Morek Popescu, seems to have designed it. We have no idea how common of Romanian names these are, but Bogdan (if that’s even “his” real name) seems to be either a computer science researcher in Amsterdam or involved in an electronic software solutions company. Or, you know, Borat’s cousin. Oh, and they’ve bought keywords — Bogdan’s name, alongside “viral video,” pulls the mysterious website as the top search result. Yah, we know, “HUH?!”

We love the brilliant absurdity of the viral vid, but something ain’t right here — anyone who’s got info on what the deal is, do speak up. We’re willing to offer authentic Eastern Europeans as a reward.

SUBURBAN OUTFITTERS

Behold Urban Outfitters, that glorious haven for pseudo-rebels and budding stick-it-to-the- man folk. But all questionable stereotypes and blatant counterfeiting charges aside, the chain — which includes college-aimed Urban Outfitters, grown-up chic Anthropologie and the lesser- known but possibly most original Free People — does have distinct style and vibe, plus some plain cool stuff.

But here’s a question: what happens when the Urban Outfitters loyalists grow up, settle down and swap their hip urban lofts for picked-fenced suburban houses but still wanna keep their hip? President and Chairman Richard Hayne saw a market opportunity there, mixed in a smart jump on the recent gardening trend, got “inspired by the greenhouse” (who isn’t these days, with all the greenwashing going around?), decided to cash in on the growing male market, and — voila! — in May, he announced Urban Outfitters’ latest venture: a home and garden store by the name of Terrain targeting 30-to-45-year-old green-thumbed men and women alike.

The plan is to launch in 2008 and open 50 of them in the next 15 years — yeah, a time-frame too eye-rollingly distant for Urban’s core consumer, but let’s see where these kids flock for pots and pans in a decade.

THIS STORY IS NOT A FAIRY TALE

Very rarely are we so torn between the creative merit of a project and its bare-bones humane impact. But artist Johnathan Harris took us to that state of uncomfortable ambivalence in a matter of seconds with his latest project: The Whale Hunt.

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In May, he spent 9 days living with an Inupiat Eskimo family and documenting the thousand-year-old tradition that is the big whale hunt. Starting at the very beginning with the Newark Airport cab ride, he took 3,214 photographs by the end of the hunt, which resulted in two dead whales weighing around 40 tons.

Harris calls the project “an experiment in human storytelling” and even the image narrative sequence is presented on a heartbeat-like timeline. The entire concept is unquestionably original, offering a gritty glimpse into a whole different world. But we can’t help being a bit shaken by this epic death chase of these epic animals.

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Okay, so this insures the community’s annual food supply. And it’s strictly regulated by international law with a limit of 22 whales per year. But there’s something about the snow that makes it feel all the more chilling when blood-stained. Something about calling it a “harvest” — isn’t this something the Earth gives, rather than something violently ripped from her? — that’s hard to swallow.

Food for thought. But, then again, the Inuits living at -22 °F need more than thought to live off of. So we won’t sit here with our tuna salad waiting in the fridge and judge.

STREET PICKINGS

Count on Whole Foods to make off-the-grid living sound like tons of fun and remind us what the holidays, this month-long tribute to conspicuous consumption, are really about — because besides the food and the fun, there’s also that giving back thing. Literally: who more important to give to than Earth, and what more important to give back than what was originally hers?

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So get those LED lights already, take it easy on the pointless waste mechanism that is gift wrapping and, um, go have some food and fun, eh?

DO THE DANCE

What better way to send the year off than with one of its gemmist viral gems? Especially if it’s one that gets you in just the right body/mindset for those night-long parties coming up.

The humbly killer video for D.A.N.C.E. by French electro-rock band Justice took the web by storm and earned a GRAMMY nomination along the way, among a slew of other awards. And it snagged the one that counts the most: a massive worldwide fan-base reflected in the 5 million YouTube views, 29,000 times the vid has been favorited, and close to 5,000 raving comments pinned on it.

We’re not ones to sheepishly follow the masses — but, c’mon, the masses are right on the money with this one. Go ahead, chug the Kool-aid.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo_QVq2lGMs

BP

Fine, It’s The Holidays

A magic fish, wet geeky dreams, bubbles everywhere, Jack White loves dough, why owls are the new face of music, how Liberal got its Arts back, and why the Grinch is getting here by train this year. Welcome to the Fine, It’s The Holidays issue.

JUST IN TIME

coolfridge.jpgFor the holidays, that is. We’ve even made room for the usual 4-7 business days shipping time-frame. Because that’s how long you’ve got until the last work day before office folk scatters for a breather of feasts, family and other fun.

So why not send both your colleagues and the old year off with some comic relief straight from your gift list? We’re pleased to bring you the desk section of Wishingfish.com, an online boutique for beautifully designed objects that put style and humor into everyday life.

angerkit.jpgA few of our favorites span the harmlessly fun day at the beach miniature set, the functionally inspired working girl’s survival kit, and the straight-shooter ass kisser breath spray for the hint-challenged. And, in light of the week at hand, we wish we’d had the nifty office anger management kit before ugly and embarrassing things happened.

Wishingfish.com has delightfully designed stuff for many of life’s corners — entertainment, bath & body, games, accessories, baby, travel, living, gourmet and more. And we can’t decide which the stuff is more: affordable or cool. Do check it out and save yourself some retail curation.

WORLD-TESTED, GEEK-APPROVED

Call us geeks, but we have an itchy fascination with the world of knowledge and, um, data. Which is why we were taken with Swivel when it first launched two years ago, and we kept a curious eye on it because it seemed like something to, well, keep a curious eye on. Today, Swivel is still weaving its webs of user-generated data representations under the mantra “Tasty Data Goodies” — a haven for the insight-hungry to collaborate and explore data together.Simply put, Swivel uses powerful computers and algorithms to turn all sorts of boring spreadsheets with public data (from government reports to shark attack stats to odd correlations like wine and violent crime) into easily digestible visual representations. This lets people have a whole new relationship and experience with data, trading hours of sifting through spreadsheets and reports for quick snapshots of images, graphics and color. They also have a ton of new media tools that allow bloggers and general web hounds to easily share info and ideas with others.

Anyone can upload data for the world to see, and it’s all free. To fund the enterprise, Swivel also offers a paid private version where people can upload stuff either for storage or to share with select others. Think of it like voicemail and conference calling for the data-dependent.

The smarty-pants website lets you compare data from multiple sources, map geographical areas, use simple criteria to sort data, plot all the graphs your visually-inclined heart desires, and download data into spreadsheets to further analyze. You can even pimp your charts with various backgrounds. And if your own organization disseminates data in any way, you can get the Swivel official source badge to help spread the vision of spreading knowledge.

The nifty enterprise was started by CNET founder Halsey Minor and a bunch of other entrepreneurial knowledge hounds.

Now, call us crazy, but we’re starting our countdown clock. It’s no secret that Google’s self-proclaimed mission and founding vision is to help organize all the world’s information — an idea clearly reflected in Swivel’s philosophy that “better informed people make better decisions: in voting booths, in corporate boardrooms and at neighborhood meetings.” So it seems like a matter not of whether, but of when and for how much Google snags up this so-up-their-alley getup.

Don’t say you didn’t see it coming.

WORLD WIDE WEB WILDFIRE

Boy oh boy what a year it’s been. It’s tempting to call it the Golden Age of Tech, what with the iPhones and Beacons and Twitters and all. So big it was that it inspired Matt Hempey and The Richter Scales, a getup of Bay Area “gentlemen songsters,” to do a musical rendition of the web revolution that is upon us.

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Perhaps not too oddly, the tune is based on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — a classic ode to all the history made in Joel’s lifetime, saluting the cultural revolutionaries of the day. From Harry Truman, to Joe DiMagio, to Doris Day, to Einstein, to television and more, this cultural anthem is the ultimate tribute to the kinds of social forces that matter.

And we find The Richter Scales’ selection slightly ironic: do we really live in an age where cultural visionaries filter ideas through screens and buttons, where algorithms override art in shaping culture, where MySpace exploration seems more compelling to people than space exploration? Perhaps. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps, and perhaps not: when it comes to the advancement of human knowledge and communication, can anything really be wrong?

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifSpeaking of music, the 50th Annual GRAMMY Award nominations came out — and just for the sake of stepping outside your iTunes library bubble, you should check them out.

And despite some questionable choices (sorry, GRAMMY’s, but the White Stripes stopped being “alternative” when they sold out to Coke two years ago and, no, Jack White, you didn’t do it to “get a message of love out to the world”) and some odd entries (Ozzy? Really???), there are no huge surprises: everyone knew Amy Winehouse would storm several categories, just like everyone knows she’ll OD celebrating if she wins or OD making the pain go away if she loses. Yeah, yeah, you’re complicated. We don’t care. Just stay alive some more and make some more not-too- shabby music.

Take a look and be your own kind of grossly judgemental.

And speaking of untrivial stuff, on a completely unrelated note, check out this curious look at how social networking may be a good decade older than we think, originating long before MySpace and Facebook were even embryos in the digital womb. (And, of course, feel free to disagree.)

BOOM WENT THE BOX

So while we’re on the subjects of technology and reminiscing for a musical times past, why not something for that holiday wish-list?

Treat your trusty iPod to a super-luxury nest where hi-tech meets Hi-Fidelity. Thanks to Dutch iPod extender thodio, you can get your scroll-wheeled buddy the iBox: a fully handcrafted yet technologically advanced iPod amplifier that looks like Bose’s rich, sophisticated uncle.

The iBox is universal — all iPods are equally happy to lounge atop it. The cabinet-looking mega-dock is constructed from durable oak, mahogany and teak, finished with a high-gloss lacquer that reminds us our father’s momentous German speakers from the 80’s. You pick the color, or you go with solid wood to really nail the old-school look.

But beneath the blast-from-the-past shell hides a sonic beast with 25-watt Focal Polyglass 100CV1 speakers, 15-hour battery life, and bluetooth functionality that turns your iPod into a nifty remote control.

Plus, we just love that it looks like a startled baby owl.

Get it straight from the source for 359 Euros — that’s $529 for the fourth-continent-confined, and they ship internationally.

PUTTING THE ART BACK INTO LIBERAL ARTS

Liberal arts universities tout an education that’s at least in part related to, well, the arts. But some, especially the higher-end, more competitive ones, don’t necessarily foster the best environment for artistic talent. When the Ivy League pendulums start swinging, artsy ambitions start dwindling. We would know, we went there: it’s a tough life when Wall Street wannabees and premed prodigies surround you, and all you wanna do is art. (There should really be a cult indie rock anthem by that title — get on it, Green Day.)realarts.png

So some universities are trying to give creative types the same professional resources that are traditionally available to the pinstripe set. One such budding resource, RealArts@Penn, is still in its inception but already offers creative networking and a number of killer (paid!) summer 2008 internships for undergrads, including MTV Networks and Rolling Stone Magazine.

The goal of the project is to intersect the art world with the intellectual world of the university, with none of that mass-orientation, group-selection, intern-working-as-gopher business. They plat to extend into the curriculum, building RealArts-affiliated courses and putting together various workshops, roundtables and seminars with creative industry big-shots.

Where oh where was this program when we went to Penn?

STREET PICKINGS

grinchy.jpg

It’s that time of year
And Philly’s abuzz
With irksome good spirit
And pesky blithe Fuss.

They’re all so caught up
In that holiday cheer,
Even misers are quiet
And we Grinches don’t sneer.

But look at this Picture,
It may be quite nice.
This Picture could even
Melt our Grinchy heart’s ice!

That kid with his mommy
And the swell Trains right there
May just, gee, soften
our mean Grinchy glare!

But before we start getting
Too carried away,
There’s a Grinchy disclaimer,
A big “BUT” to say:

The thing that is warming
Our little Grinch heart?
Not the small kids, HA!,
But the swell Trains, silly fart!

BP

Think, Or Don’t

Finish genius, transcripts from your overbearing mother’s brain, more Finnish genius, how to deal with existential ponderings and hangover all at the same time, and what murals have to do with gangrene. Welcome to the Think, Or Don’t issue.

KILLER INNOVATION FROM THE OLD WORLD

Marko Ahtisaari. You may not be able to pronounce his name, but you’d better remember it. Because this fine Finn is revolutionizing the mobile industry. He’s a true visionary, if there ever was one.

Ahtisaari got an Ivy League start at Columbia, where he studied, then lectured on, philosophy, music and economics — quite the perfect ingredients for a cultural and technological revolution recipe. He lived for a while as a composer and a bassist, then started designing mobile applications long before the world had headsets glued to their ears. In 2002, he headed design strategy for Nokia.

So why do we care? Today? Because Marko Ahtisaari is also the founder of Blyk, a strikingly innovative mobile network that just launched in the UK. What’s so special about Blyk is that it’s only available to 16-to-24-year-olds (although you can stay on as you age once you join) and is funded entirely by advertising.

And not just any advertising — only stuff kids actually care about. When you register with Blyk, you build a profile of your interests — be they fashion or film or sports or music or gerbils. Then the only commercial messages you get (no more than 6 a day) are cutting-edge stuff and exclusive offers from relevant brands. So it seems like Blyk is trekking some Conversationality territory with its ad model: they use “dialogue ads,” in which a brand (say, L’Oreal) sends the user an interactive message (say, an image-based “Which celebrity are you most like?”quizlet), to which the user responds with a quick text (say, answer B for Heidi Klum), then the brand follows up with a final product recommendation message (say, “Then our Spiced Cranberry lipgloss is a great match for you.”)

On top of the clear brand benefits, dialogue ads also improve your user experience — the more Blyk learns about you as you interact with messaging, the better and more relevant it gets.

The exclusivity factor doesn’t hurt, either — Blyk has the early-day-Gmail invitation-only model, which automatically lends it the credibility of friend-to-friend recommendation and the desirability of something with a tease of a supply/demand ratio. And the no-contract thing seems perfect for the fickle demo — you can try it out and if (for some inconceivable reason) prefer a bill, you can switch to a different service. But even if you use up the 273 free texts and 43 free minutes, Blyk becomes a pay-as-you-go plan and is still the cheapest mobile operator in the UK.

Ahtisaari describes Blyk as having “the muscle and the bone of a mobile operator but the ethos and the soul of a media company.” And he nails it — Blyk delivers on the consumer end (how’s that free phone service?) and the advertiser end (how’s that direct access to willing members of the most elusive market?), concocting something that’s part new media, part behavioral targeting, part back-to-basics smart marketing.

SELF-HELP ON SELF-DAMAGE

Leave WebMD and self-help books to the hypochondriacs and the, um, victory- challenged. How about some morbid snark that, between the mocumentary exploration of a fantasy hypochondriac’s world and the encyclopedia of the world’s hardly-credible worst maladies, manages to sneak in some actually smart, functional health advice?

Then check out 192 pages of it in The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You. We dig their prescription — after all, the healthiest approach to health may just be not thinking about it too seriously. Do it any other way, and the worrying alone can kill you.

This jewel is part of California design company Knock Knock‘s Self-Hurt series, rubbing ailed shoulders with manuals on traumatizing your children, getting in debt, procrastinating, and driving like a maniac.

We swear we didn’t contribute to any of them.

GLOCAL CULTURE

kiosk |ˈkēˌäsk|: a small open-fronted hut or cubicle from which newspapers, refreshments, tickets, etc., are sold.

Kiosks are also one of the best parts about traveling abroad. Tucked in the street corners of Brazil, sprawled on the market walks of Turkey, lined up on the organized sidewalks of Sweden, kiosks are where you find all those material mementos, big or small, that bring the just-traveled cultured to your worldly home.

KIOSK is also the web incarnation of the eponymous SoHo brick-and-mortar store that sells unobjectionably cool objects from across the globe.

These cultured folks travel the world, then build globally-local collections of anonymous objects from different countries. Each country gets a 4-to-6-month run on the online store, where select products from that foreign land not otherwise sold in the US can be found. KIOSK aims to gather things “by not one personality but things that are the result of local aesthetics and needs.” But once something’s gone, it’s gone — so grab those Finnish gymnastics shoes before some other hobo-hipster does.

The current collection hails from Finland. (We swear, this week’s overdose of the world’s sixth happiest nation is a mere coincidence and not a reflection of some odd Finnish fetish.) You can also catch up with the ongoing collection of countries past. And check out their blog, where they reveal we have a shared love for GOOD Magazine.

And if you’re lacking, or slacking, on your thoughtful and creative holiday gift shopping, do turn to KIOSK’s 2007 gift sets. Or at least fire up those hint-dropping skills and tell the givers you’re expecting from that you’re eyeing the stuff.

FOOD FOR ABSOLUTELY NO THOUGHT

Whoever thought the ultimate unhappy ending could ever be amusing. Seems like the guys behind the Blue Ball Machine did. Nope, it’s not world’s most mischievous android tease. It’s something the purpose of which is not quite clear, but something indulgently vertigo-inducing without the aid of controlled substances — and that’s gotta count for something.

Watch the little balls waltz across their factory dancefloor to the sound of an electro-classical circus mind-driller.

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And oh how many ways there are to enjoy the Blue Ball Machine. You could somberly reflect on your own destiny as a tiny blue ball in the well-oiled machine that is society. You could ponder the existential purpose of the little spheres’ perpeto-mobilesque journey. Or you could stare blankly at the screen for 4 underslept, hung-over hours.

We don’t judge.

STREET PICKINGS

If you’ve been in Philly for longer than an hour, chances are you’ve noticed the numerous murals — old, new, mosaic, painted, pseudo-graffitied — glaring from the facades of the cityscape.

Intended to lift our communal spirits, inspire a sense of pride and glory, or do God (the mayor?) knows what, they’re often ironically lurking from the walls of the grimmest blocks like silk-woven bandages on a gangrened limb. We couldn’t help seeing the inspiration/desperation contrast between this particularly glorious mural from several decades ago and the homeless woman sleeping on the cold sidewalk beneath it one chilling winter morning.

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So if the mayor would spend less (time, funding, attention) on trying to make the already fortunate feel better and more on helping the less fortunate get better, then maybe one day we’ll have streets less artificially glorious and more comfortingly comfortable.

BP

Eye Wonder

Hold on to your belt, hotel room “presents” that rock, visions from another world, a YouTube David, why we’re buying our own hyperboles, how 10,000 books will take over Cannes, and what a python and a kitchen appliance have in common.

BELT-HOLDER BEWARE

befuddlr.pngIf you were ever the kid who begged mom for a box of cereal solely because of the plastic scramble puzzle inside, then you’ll get a kick out of Befuddlr: a place for hyper-customized time-killing that lets you create a digital photo scrambler out of any photo you upload, send it to your friends, and even time your quest to break the world photo unscrambling record.

Once you get the “befuddle it!” bookmarklet on your bookmark bar (just drag it off the website onto your bar), you can befuddle any Flikr photo or upload your own album and do an original.

We managed this one…

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…in an impressive 36.1 seconds.

Do we have a new challenge for the belt-holder? Give it a shot if you dare.

WHAT LIVES UNDER YOUR HOTEL BED

We never thought it possible to find a little something from a past guest in a hotel room and actually enjoy it, but we were wrong. Turns out, there’s a new underground movement afoot where the artistically inclined and mischievous leave “secret wall tattoos” — artwork done in spaces normally covered by hotel furniture that is only revealed when said furniture is moved.

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Rumor has it, Queens of the Stone Age vocalist Josh Homme started it all. He’s been quoted to compare the concept to a box of Cracker Jacks, in which you find a hidden toy. Turns out, artists are actually getting paid by (smart) hoteliers to do this kinda thing, which is okay since it’s still cool as hell in the context of the bland, visionless herd of mainstream hotel interiors.

Check out the photo collection so far, or watch this video tour of the secret world. And pack a Sharpie for that skiing getaway next month.

5,066-MILE CULTURAL BRIDGE

So while we’re bemusing the eye, why not amuse it.

Bulgarian English teacher and multi-talented artist Denitsa Boyadzhieva has a blog so humble yet visually compelling you’ll come to appreciate it without ever needing to understand the text: it’s artwork that truly speaks.

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We love the phenomenal play of color and light in her photographs, and the childlike simplicity intertwined with complex adult emotion oozing from her illustrations.

Plus, we’re all for exposing people to culturally different art visions. Go, get exposed.

AIN’T IT COULL

Weighty YouTube hasn’t stopped the proliferation of other video- sharing sites. Granted, most of them range from poor-man’s ripoffs of the Goliath to portfolio vaults for porn school drop-outs. But one newcomer, coull.tv, is taking the video-sharing experience to a new, highly interactive level: one they dubbed “reactive video.”

The basic concept: not only can you search, share, comment and vote on video, but you can also use the proprietary Video Activator Tool to specify and tag different parts of a video, making various elements of it (people, objects, whatever) clickable. This results in a fully searchable vid, allowing other users to rate and comment on just specific parts of it.

The service is pretty new, so we’ll cut them some slack for the unclickable tags and other glitches we experienced. (Plus, we saw from the screenshots on their about page they seem to be pulling a John Hodgman — whose popular incarnation is, by the way, unsurprisingly absent from their collection of videos.)

But we see great potential: imagine being able to click an object in a video and instantly access a multimedia library of information available on it across the web, from news articles, to blog mentions, to Wikipedia entries, to music, to related social network groups, to images and more. In the great words of Tim Gunn, “Make it work!”

JU-YES-YES-YES

And while we’re on the topic of great video, let’s take it up a notch and consider great film, the notion of which should now be in the Endangered Species book in light of the devastating blockbuster attempts, cheap comedies, corny horror flicks and other mainstream horrors flooding pop culture in recent years.

juno.pngSo we’re ecstatic to hear about Juno, a new Fox Searchlight film by director Jason Reitman (remember Thank You For Smoking?), sporting the most brilliant cast we’ve ever seen (really) and a promising Garden-Statesque soundtrack. And given that all this comes with our usual utmost aversion to hyperbole, take our word: it’s just that good.

On to said brilliant cast: excuse the bias, but we can’t help mentioning the talent behind our all-time favorite TV character, C. J. Cregg of The West Wing: Allison Janney. Then there are Arrested Development co-stars Michael Cera, fresh out of Superbad, and Jason Bateman, fresh out of The Kingdom. (Fox, thanks to your indie arm, you’ve made a small chip at redeeming yourselves from eternal damnation on grounds of canceling the cult primetime hilarity.)

Also in the posse: prolific Hollywooders J. K. Simmons and Jennifer Garner, whose obvious effort to step away from mainstream cheese we can’t help applauding. (Or, they got enough of the big bucks to carry them through years of indiesque income in pursuit of critical acclaim.)

Finally, we have off-to-an-impressive start debutante Ellen Page, who just won the Hollywood Film Festival award for Breakthrough Actress (Don’t we say “actor” for both genders these days?) of the Year and the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor. (See, the East Coast is rocking the PC thang.) And, speaking of awards, the Palm Springs International Film festival and the SAG Foundation honored Juno with the Chairman’s Vanguard award, which Little Miss Sunshine snagged last year. Shortcut to the Oscars?

Be your own judge:

The film opens next week, but still no word on when/whether it’ll be showing in Philly. Well, if not, it’s looking so good we may even suck up the wonderful experience that is the Chinatown Bus to New York.

PLEASURE-DELAYER SPECIAL

Okay, so it’s clear we can’t keep our hands off the visual media this week. Might as well embrace it: 2007 certainly has. At least when it comes to commercial work, we can safely call this year the year of gargantuan productions. After the Sony Bravia Play-Doh spot from Fallon London, we got the Guinness “Tipping Point” from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, London — which, if you haven’t already, you should absolutely see. For the laggards:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMzoWqnTb5I&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

This sort of work is certain to give some the “Okay, but will it sell beer?” furrows, but we can’t deny it steals the word “awesome” back from gum-chewing teens and brings it to its roots of awe-inspiring marvel.

And, to be sure, this sort of awe doesn’t come easily. Genius MJZ director Nicolai Fuglsig admits it was the toughest shoot of his life. (And, yep, he’s the one that directed the Sony Bravia “Balls” spot.)

Not hard to believe: it all took place in a small Argentinian village at 3,000 feet altitude. To get there, the crew had to drive 30 miles on dirt roads and cross 12 rivers. Then they took over the 1000-person village for 2 months with 140 crew and 130 extras. Speaking of extras, these were all completely untrained and non-English-speaking locals, so casting took 18 days. When all was finally ready to go, 26 trucks rolled into the tiny village carrying 6 cars, 50 fridges, 70 wardrobes, 400 truck tires and 10,000 books.

See the $20-million magic happen:

Awesome, no?

SPOILER: YES, IT WILL

And, finally, let’s sign off with our good friend from Will It Blend. This time, the Blendtec beast takes on a Guitar Hero III guitar. Reminds us of those Discovery-Channel-style “snake swallows something 10 times its intestinal width” scenarios.

Ooh! Ooh! Can we do an elevator next?

BP

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