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Globe-Trotting Goodness

The big picture gets bigger, P2P filesharing gets legal, why the Japanese are better smilers than us, what Kentucky and Lithuania have in common, and how to replace the White House with a potato.


Today, we tour the world of ideas by touring the world of, well, the world — and we start our cultural journey in France, with photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

His entire body of work comes from an incredibly inspired humanistic and planetarian perspective, but we’re particularly taken with his project Earth From Above, a collection of 500,000 breathtaking aerial photographs shot across 100 countries on 6 continents. (You may recall our fascination with aerial photography from the Birdseye Visionaire special issue a while back.)

Each photograph in Earth From Above includes a caption by an expert on sustainable development, making the bigger picture all the clearer: the world is a precious, fragile being whose beauty and heritage we must try our hardest to preserve.

In Holland, for example, chemicals have seeped into the water and are causing a deterioration of the soil, endangering the 5-century-old tradition of flowering bulbs and The Netherlands’ astonishing crop of over 800 tulip varieties.

In 2005, Yann Arthus-Bertrand founded, a nonprofit aimed at promoting and educating about sustainable development across the world through various creative projects.

Our favorite: the Alive Exhibition, a collection of stunning photographs that raise awareness about biodiversity and the need to look beyond our own species in caring for the planet.


Next, we move a little north towards those tulip-covered lands of Holland, where we take a look at up-and-coming Dutch indie rock band Silence Is Sexy.

Besides loving their sound — it’s distinctly unique, yet somehow makes us think of what would happen if Thom Yorke sang to the beats of Coldplay with the lyrical sensibility of Vampire Weekend — we have tremendous respect for their industry-revolutionizing choice of distribution.

We’ve long been singing the same old song about how the music industry’s business model is undergoing massive tectonic shifts. Now, Silence Is Sexy are joining our choir — their new album, This Ain’t Hollywood, was just released as a free, legal download on peer-to-peer torrent network Mininova.

Mininova actually has a powerful, free Content Distribution service aimed at doing just that: Helping indie artists and filmmakers discover new audiences, and helping musicologists discover up-and-coming acts.

Take that, Steve Jobs.

via Mininova Blog


In honor of brilliant Japanese director Nagi Noda, who passed away at the pitiful age of 35 last week, we bring you a more obscure piece of Japanese culture you probably never knew about: Japanese smileys. These little weirdos are Japan’s answer to the sideways smileys that we all know (and often abuse), invented by Scott Fahlman in 1982.

Japanese SmileysUnlike those, Japanese smileys are read upright and their method of interpretation has a stronger focus on the expression of the eyes — which makes a lot of sense, since we remember from behavioral psych class that much of human emotion is indicated by the muscles surrounding the eye, just like we’re wired to distinguish a genuine smile — also known as a Duchenne smile — from a fake one through the presence (or absence) of those small crows-feet wrinkles in the outer corner of the eyes.

Most Japanese smileys can be created with a Western keyboard and your usual UTF-8 character set. For ones you can start texting to your friends immediately, check out this list. Meanwhile, a few of our favorites:

(^_^) Hi

(#^_^#) Blushing

(-¡-)y-~~~~ Smoke a cigarette

((+_+)) Ummmh

o(^-^o)(o^-^)o o(^-^o)(o^-^)o Dancing

(^_^)/~~ Bye

via Google Blogoscoped


Are feeling all worldly and cultured yet? Don’t let it get to your head — let the good folks of Language Trainers Group show you who’s who with the Accent Game, an interactive quiz that puts your knowledge of different accents to the test: Folks from across the globe read Rudyard Kipling to you, then ask you to guess where they come from.

It’s harder than you think — take it from us and our ego-devastating score. Think you know a Finish accent from a Norwegian one, or Lithuanian from Estonian?

Don’t think you’ll get away with just the country, either. After each correct guess, you’re drilled on the country region the person comes from — Kentucky vs. Chicago may be on the easy side, but let’s see you do Cape Town vs. Pretoria or York vs. Birmingham.

And if you’re reaching for the map just reading this, shame on you and your middle school geography teacher.

via Very Short List


Eifel TowerWe’ll wrap up with an ultimate culture-crosser: Since 1999, London-born, Berlin-based photographer Michael Hughes has been trekking the world and dabbling in the simple wonders of perception — his collection Souvenirs playfully replaces some of the world’s greatest landmarks with their toy replicas using nothing but a camera and some strategic perspective.

In much of the collection, Hughes’ subtle and not-so-subtle snark comes through — like the image of the Trabant car model, a brand synonymous with all the ills that lurked behind the Iron Curtain, seemingly bursting through the remains of the Berlin Wall.

Souvenirs is part of an ongoing book project, so we’ll be sure to keep an eye on Hughes. Meanwhile, we got the sudden urge to go photo-replace the White House with a potato.

via Very Short List


Hidden Music Top 3

Dr. House gets down, web design goes hip hop, and your salad performs at Carnegie Hall.


For the most part, we have nothing but contempt for today’s tabloid-driven, paparazzi-infested, mind-blowingly superficial celebrity culture. So when we stumble across celebrities who surprise us with true talent and unexpected substance, we can’t help digging.

Plus, we love House.

We’re talking, of course, about The Band from TV — a multi-talented lineup of Hollywood A-listers (and, okay, some reality show B-listers) including drummer Greg Grunberg (of Heroes, Alias and Felicity fame), guitarist James Denton (Desperate Housewives), vocalists Teri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives), Bonnie Somerville (Cashmere Mafia), and Bob Guiney (The Bachelor), violinist Jesse Spencer (House), plus a few more musically talented actors, and our favorite: Dr. House himself, the ever-talented, agelessly hot Hugh Laurie on the keyboards.

These guys rock it out on stage like you wouldn’t believe it. And although they don’t have any full-length studio albums yet, you can catch them on the House soundtrack — for the ultimate Laurie in all his glorie, you know.

Any profit they make goes to a number of charities that hit close to home for some of the band members and their families. (Greg Grunberg’s son has epilepsy and Teri Hatcher is living with lifelong childhood trauma.)

We recently heard BFTV’s mean cover of the The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — and we’re believers.


Musical talent hides where you least expect it. Just ask Mo Serious, the Poetic Prophet a.k.a. SEO Rapper — he’s not your average code-wrangling designer.

He’ll teach you all about CSS, web standards and proper design practice with lovably cheesy hip-hop beats and rhymes delivered straight from the trenches of your typical cubicle farm.

Because, you know, ain’t no street cred in rapping about the ghetto if you don’t live there, yo.

Gotta give it to the man for original lyrics like “Everyone will wanna follow you like Twitter” and “client satisfied like they eating on a Snicker.”

Also great: the two seemingly unfazed cubicle ladies going about their cubicle day in the background.


Ok, so we’ve learned music can be in your TV and in your CSS. One more place it can be: your kitchen. Enter the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, a symphony performing solely on vegetables.

Vegetable Orchestra: RemixedCarrot flutes, pumpkin basses, leek violins, leek-zucchini-vibrators, cucumberophones, celery bongos, you name it (and eat it), they play it. The orchestra, founded 10 years ago in — you guessed it — Vienna plays across a number of genres: contemporary music, beat-oriented house tracks, experimental electronic, freestyle jazz, noise (we can see that one), dub, and more.

We must say their music is rather… interesting. (Just a heads-up: our 8th grade English teacher used to say that “interesting is what you call an ugly baby” — we concur on this one.)

And while we encourage you to look for yourself, we’ll take our asparagus grilled for now.


Retro Blast

Saggy superheroes, dance lessons from James Brown, what chickens have to do with the roots of hip hop, how to fix all your marriage troubles, and why Springfield, MO is a nerd hotspot.


Let’s face it, we’re all headed for the nursing home. Superheroes included. And despite all those “aging gracefully” shenanigans, we don’t think there’s anything particularly super about old age.

Luckily, Italian cartoonist Donald Soffritti is there to put some funny in the grim prospect of it all.

In his line of senior superhero illustrations, he shows Iron Man’s discrediting golf habit, Wonderwoman’s so-not-Madonna arms, and what happens when Aquaman forgets the dentures at home, among other don’t-really-wanna-see-but-can’t-help-looking stuff.

Quick, before you choke on the potent combination of hilarity and gag reflex, rinse your eyes out with the reglorifying stuff of our Superhero Superdose issue.

>>> via Comunicadores


Speaking of cultural legends, life… well, death, really… sure did a number on the one, the only James Brown. We hate seeing a living legend grow old — first arthritis steals the swagger, then before you know it, they stop being, well, living.

So when the Godfather of Soul went down at the Apollo last year, it was an acid rain on our holiday parade. Good thing YouTube was there to lift us out of our mourning by reviving Mr. Dynamite from those most dynamitous days, full of energy and ready to show Soulja Boy who’s who.

Watch the great James Brown teach you some dance moves you won’t see in your Hip Hop Abs fitness class.

Now that’s a blast from the past that puts the present to shame.

>>> via Very Short List


But if hip hop really is your thing, you might as well learn a thing or two about the genre’s own heritage and origin — who knew it had to do with chickens. Straight from the source:

Courtesy of the folks at Nokia N-Series. (Remember when we said Nokia was the underdog to keep an eye on?)


Speaking of advertising and the past, we’re continually befuddled by the level of idiotic pseudo-PC stuff drowning today’s advertising. (A Snickers commercial pulled off the air for being too “homophobic” springs to mind.) One thing’s for sure: today’s regulatory bodies would have a field day with the ads of yore.

Thanks to Weirdomatic’s Old Creepy Ads collection, we can gawk at sedated elderly people (Senile agitation? Pop gramps some Thorazine.), sedated children (Forget Adderall, Nembutal is the name of the game.), self-butchering pigs, the long-lost cousin of the Geico cavemen, and — divorce lawyers behold — the solution to all marriage problems: a bit of Lysol you-know-where.

The irony: Some of these products, along with the delightfully absurd cheesiness they’re framed in, are all to reminiscent of, say, late-night informercials today. Hey, we’re already plotting bringing back the Beauty Micrometer as an As Seen on TV hit.

>>> via Very Short List


It’s not like the olden days don’t have their nostalgic appeal. Who doesn’t love nerdy retro games?

And if you happen to love them enough to go out of your way, consider a place that’s just there: Springfield, Missouri. That’s where you’ll find the 1984 Arcade, a wonderland of classic games from Asteroids to Zaxxon.

The arcade is particularly famed for its glorious pinball machines, already an endangered species in retroland. You can even book an event there — how’s that for an unforgettable all-you-can-play birthday party for your neo-nerd friend?

So put on your acid-wash high-waist jeans, unleash the big hair, and head over for some nostalgic revival of that era — as far as “best of the 80’s” type of stuff goes, VH1 has nothing on the 1984 Arcade.


Sky Blue Sky

Staycation takes to the sky, NASA’s gift for your next dinner party, how legends spend the summer, and what 15,000 optical fibers have to do with high fashion.


Summer has come and gone, and Americans are already filling their scrapbooks with photos from their 2008 staycation — you know, the stay-put vacation alternative enforced by those notorious gas prices. And while some have tried to make lemonade with it all by re-discovering and re-appreciating their home states (one has to wonder what a two-week appreciation of, say, Wisconsin entails), others have gone the other way: thinking up fun, creative stuff that can be done just as well in Manhattan as it could in the Maldives.

Case in point: Flickrer hb19’s sky play photo set, using nothing but the sky and a simple object to create clever scenes that take us back to those magical childhood days when clouds were dragons and unicorns and exotic fishes.

Our favorites: the brilliant smoking pinkie, the timely Space Needle as the Olympic torch, the subtle brush stroke, and the Luke Skywalkerish finger light sabers.

Proof for our conviction that there’s little better than the combination of free time, a camera, and human imagination.

via Photojojo


Before you get too enchanted with the heavenly magic of the skies, let us be the kid who told you there was no Santa Claus: NASA has finally discovered what causes the wonder that is the aurora borealis.

A year and a half after the start of the THEMIS mission (that’s Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms… what, it’s the government, they’re no catchphrase pros), a fleet of five satellites probing Earth’s magnetic field, scientists have pinned down the reason why the Northern Lights dance their magic dance: magnetic reconnection, a sudden burst of substorms, brightenings and rapid movements that occur when stressed magnetic field lines suddenly “snap” to a different shape, much like snapping open an overstretched rubber band.

This phenomenon, it turns out, is common throughout the universe and in our particular case happens about a third of the way to the moon.

So think of us next time you share this at a dinner party to boost your smart-cool factor, will ya?


That fascination with the summer sky seems like something Flickr amateurs share with the photographic legends of our time.

This summer, legendary duo Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott shot legendary model Giselle Bündchen for W Magazine‘s “Kiss The Sky” editorial, styled by the legendary Alex White. (See? We mean business with all that legends stuff.)

Besides the oddly brave use of seemingly safe color, we’re mesmerized by the enchanted play with light.

Stuff of legends, indeed.

via Fashion Nation


Keeping with the theme of clouds, fashion and scientific geekiness, there’s a different kind of cloud extracting oohs and ahhs from its observers: the smart kids at MIT have built the Fiber Optic Cloud, a mind-blowing sculpture made of 15,000 optical fibers, each individually addressable and responsive to human interaction through hundreds of sensors.

The 13-foot cloud, constructed of carbon glass, contains over 40 miles of fiber optics and expresses context awareness — which means that when admirers interact with it through touch, it reflects emotion and behavior through sound and lightness-darkness signaling.

The cloud lives in Florence and launched as an ongoing project to rethink the fashion trade show concept on an interactive, sensory level.

We just hope it’s not nearly as moody as the divas of haute couture.


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