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Didn’t See It Coming

Antidextrous art, the perfect drink, flipping off physics, why you should always (ALWAYS!) listen to us, who (kinda) rocked out 2007, what new disaster you should be worrying about, all that manlove, and absolutely nothing to do with Thanksgiving, turkeys or the word “gobble.” Welcome to the Didn’t See It Coming issue.

POWER TO THE ANTIDEXTROUS

Okay, if you happen to be one of those ambidextrous wunderkinds, please place either of your freaky genius hands on the mouse and scroll down to the next section: you’re not welcome in this one. Because this section is all about the art of loving your awkward non-dominant hand.

At least that’s what Justin and Drew, the guys behind Left Handed Toons (by right-handed people), believe.

And we think it’s antidextrous genius. So far, they’ve got 124 delightfully awkward toons to show for it, new ones coming regularly, and a just-opened merch store. Which actually brings some unexpected freshness into the sea of seen-it-many-times, been-done-before graphic tee sameness.

Justin and Drew: you just got yourselves the Brain Pickings (left) thumb-up.

IN GOOD SPIRITS

‘Tis the season of indulgence and little do we like more than indulging our vices. Yep, people seem to invest extra effort and money in pampering their questionable inclinations, from the eco-geeks, to the booze snobs, to the kinky…okay, we don’t go there. And while there’s a whole multimillion-dollar industry addressing the “won’t go there” needs, there’s now something addressing the demands of the snobbiest, pickiest, most demanding liquor connoisseurs.

MONDOliquor is a new website that curates exotic, local, hard-to-find and specialty indie liquors and wines for those who expect nothing less of their booze.

So in the spirit of the season, what better way to wash down all that pumpkin pie than with a shot of Pumpkin Pie Vodka? Just keep the shots coming and you’ve washed away all the gorging guilt, too. Seems to us like a solid plan.

DOWN WITH GRAVITY

Never ones to believe in applied physics (ask Ms. Chakarova, our sternly-lipped high school physics teacher), we’ve had dreams of flying since before we could walk. Granted, gravity isn’t exactly cooperating. But that’s not stopping visionary photographer Jan von Holleben from making the camera an imaginative haven for those dreams.

His photoseries Dreams of Flying portrays the most precious part of childhood: the ability to make dreams come true through boundless imaginative freedom.

Shooting children (you know, with a camera) seems to come naturally to von Holleben, which may have something to do with his own parents: a cinematographer and a child therapist. Dreams of Flying, inspired by classic children’s books and contemporary superheroes, was shot over four years with children from von Holleben’s hometown neighborhood in Southwest Germany.

THE TOLDJA SO DANCE

You may recall from past Brain Pickings eras a certain service by the name of Jott that lets you send notes to yourself while on the go using your cell phone. Quick recap for our new readers: Jott lets you dictate all those note-to-self moments into a cell phone, then have it transcribed and delivered to you via email or text message. And it’s all completely free.

Well, proof that we spot big things early: this week, Jott signed a deal with Amazon under which Jott users can fill their Amazon wish lists or shopping carts just by speaking into their phones. So imagine you’re on the train, reading a magazine, and spot a pair of rainboots you love. Or at a fried’s barbecue ogling those awesome crisp-sound-blasting outdoor iPod speakers. If you’re a Jotter, here’s what you do:

You: dial 1-866-JOTT-123

Jott: “Who do you want to Jott?”

You: “Amazon.”

Jott: “Amazon, is that correct?”

You: “Yes.”

Jott: “Say the name of the item. Beep!”

You: “Bushnell Travel Tunes outdoor speakers for iPod.”

Jott will proceed to send you an email with the top 5 results for your from Amazon, plus pricing info and customer reviews. (PS. Sorry, Jott — you may get A+ for functionality, but we can’t give you more than a B for grammar.)

Not bad, not bad at all. Meanwhile, the marketing industry was freaking out on and off stage at the CTIA Conference this year because mobile ads are that kid whom everyone expected to be valedictorian, prom king, and class president, but who ended up flunking out. So here’s a thought: perhaps independent software developers like the folks at Jott will be the ones to really kick-start mobile marketing: as an organic extension of the service itself, one that reflects actual user needs rather than a force-feeding mechanism for privacy-invading sales pitches. Just sayin’.

WHO’S TO SAY

Seems a bit early, but this year’s best-of lists are already rolling out. Like this Hottest Products of 2007 show-down by AOL Money & Finance. We did, however, have to ask ourselves how come AOL, always the dinosaur struggling to shake off their own unhot image, should be the judge of current hotness. But, hey, to give them some credit: we discovered this one by doing something we’d never-ever-ever done before: clicking on an online banner. Granted, this one was nicely animated and had clever copy, but the act in and of itself made us feel like we’ve brought shame upon our family. Aw well. Onwards:aol.jpg

1. iPhone. This year’s most anticipated product launch kicked off a sales bonanza that left even Apple’s own projections in the dust.

2. Coke Zero. Despite the extravagant 2005 launch, Coke’s biggest one in two decades, sales proved the product to be “special” — not in the good way. This year, it got an image revamp and managed to jack up Coke’s to a seven-year high.

3. Nintendo Wii. Okay, so maybe this too didn’t exactly launch this year. But it was this year that it hit the stunning 13 million sales mark.

4. Slingbox. Straight from your home, compressed live TV, satellite, DVR and all, sent to a computer anywhere in the world. Not bad.

5. VitaminWater. Coca-Cola snagged it this year for $4.2 billion. And Fitty made $100 million from his stake in Glaceau. Phew.

6. Tesla Roadster. This fully electric beast goes 0-60 in under 4. Or at least the prototype does — the 2007 launch has been slacked off to 2008, but even so the Tesla is fully sold out.

7. Google Maps. Mainly, the much-buzzed-about Street View function introduced in may, which allows you to take virtual 360-degree tours of cities.

8. Halo 3. We think something that broke the record for highest-grossing opening day sales ($170 million) in entertainment history should rank higher than a drink. But whatever.

9. Hannah Montana. Um, like, duh. This Disney cash cow has been milked for TV shows, merch toys, a clothing line, sold-out concerts, and an upcoming movie.

10. Boeing 787 Dreamweaver. Up goes fuel efficiency, on come 210-330 passengers, and 750 of these babies have already been back-ordered.

Okay, we’re not transcribers here. We wasted enough time composing the lovely visual for you — just click the damn link for the rest. (Or don’t. We think, with the exception of 14, they kinda suck anyway. Just kidding. Sort of.)

UNTRIVIA

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Here’s the thing about the Internet: it’s a little bit like childbirth. We do know that it’s big and important and keeps the world running, but we’re afraid that finding out the back-end details would be so gut-wrenchingly devastating we’d wish we never had. And while we’re not in the business of illuminating the (gory, mucousy, flesh-ripping) miracle of childbirth for you here, we don’t at all mind giving you a gory Internet reality-check.

Turns out, what with all the consumer-generated content binge, the world has a new cyber-natural disaster pending. In expert circles, it goes by Exaflood: the massive flood of video and other broadband traffic pouring onto and from the web every day. The name comes from the the data quantifier exabyte (EB), humongous numbers of which the world has started consuming: 161 million so far this year alone.

Just one exabyte has so much data that, if converted to DVD’s, it would take over 50,000 years to watch. Which means watching Chocolate Rain and all the rest of this year’s content would take about 8.5 million years. And, at that pace, 20 US households in 2010 will use more Internet capacity than the whole world did in 1995, with up to 80% of it coming just from online video streaming.

Here’s a numbers-and-figures snapshot of just the kind of information flood we’re dealing with at exabyte level:

Quantities of bytes
SI prefixes (decimal) IEC prefixes (binary)
Legacy use (often with KB for kB)
Value Name Value Name
10001 = 103 kilobyte (kB) 10241 = 210 = 1.024·103 kibibyte (KiB)
10002 = 106 megabyte (MB) 10242 = 220 ≈ 1.049·106 mebibyte (MiB)
10003 = 109 gigabyte (GB) 10243 = 230 ≈ 1.074·109 gibibyte (GiB)
10004 = 1012 terabyte (TB) 10244 = 240 ≈ 1.100·1012 tebibyte (TiB)
10005 = 1015 petabyte (PB) 10245 = 250 ≈ 1.126·1015 pebibyte (PiB)
10006 = 1018 exabyte (EB) 10246 = 260 ≈ 1.153·1018 exbibyte (EiB)
10007 = 1021 zettabyte (ZB) 10247 = 270 ≈ 1.181·1021 zebibyte (ZiB)
10008 = 1024 yottabyte (YB) 10248 = 280 ≈ 1.209·1024 yobibyte (YiB)

No word on how much of that traffic comes from “adult” video. And, just like with childbirth, we think we’re better off.

MANLOVE INCUBATOR

incubator.pngFor the second consecutive year, mtvU (you know, the ugly bastard child in Viacom’s otherwise decent property line-up, spinning 24-hour college programming that hardly anyone watches) teamed up with Cisco Systems for the annual Digital Incubator competition: a search for the five most innovative online ventures by students. The award grants are up to $30,000 and this year there was an extra kicker: the five grand recipients got a chance to pitch a detailed business plan to MTV and Cisco executives for another grant of up to $100,000.

And one team actually won it: RapHappy, a freestyle battle site that lets anyone and everyone break it down. You’ll find anything from actual battles to R. Kelliesque (but much less creepy, we promise) epics. But dig it just because it’s so damn tongue-in-cheek you can’t help ROLF-ing over some of those jewels.

raphappy2.pngLike our favorite: this rappy ode to manlove boldly broadcasting rapper Gnomebody’s tender manly feelings for his BFF Zach (a.k.a. Zakku). And if there wasn’t a picture, we could’ve sworn it was auteured by a certain manly love duo we know who shall remain nameless. (We’re talking to you, “Rob” and “Gari”.)

BP

All Kinds of Shakers

Brainy like a pro, Someguy, down with Pac-Man, brass balls, staying on top of the world, Web World War I, what Frida Kahlo and Popeye have in common, and why ugly old warehouses belong at the heart of every city. Welcome to the All Kinds of Shakers issue.

BEGGARS CAN BE CHOOSERS

As the recent proud purchasers of a Canon PowerShot Pro S3 IS, we’re quite aware of the onerous endeavor that is researching stuff online, and the crucial role product reviews play. Which is why we dig SmartRatings, a new service that aggregates expert reviews on gadgets from across the web and serves them up to you in a nifty, easily digestible format.

You get an overall product score based on the scaled and averaged ratings different experts gave it so you can base your decision on a total score in a unified 1-100 scale. The computer, electronics and camera reviews come from all across the range, from gadget-god-truth-bestowing CNET to casual-opining Stuff. And while they don’t weigh experts differently based on their perceived reputability, they do curate sources to only include solid, legit experts.

Once you’re ready to commit, SmartRatings uses PriceGrabber software to show you where you can snag the thing at the best deal. And if you need more than just gadgets, the Price Finder tool (also based on PriceGrabber) lets you browse any category you fancy, from baby stuff to outdoor gear.

Apparently, you can save a buck on Boy Butter if you get it at drugstore.com over other retailers.

MASHIEST MASH-UP

Here’s a thought: using the capacity of the digital age to spark real creative collaboration. And we’re not talking about video mash-ups and other ephemeral CGC stints. We’re talking about 1000 Journals, an incredibly smart project that meshes the traditional, pen-scissors-and- paper art of journaling with the concept of digital distribution and collaboration, building a tightly knit community around it all.

The way it works is simpler than it sounds: you either start a real paper-based journal, scan it in and upload it, or you join other people’s already uploaded journals and contribute creatively. You control the level of others’ involvement in your own journal — you can make it fully public so anyone can chip in creative content, or you can make it personal and just share with others to look at.

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If you choose to share your journal, it can be either a travelling one (mailed to people who sign up to contribute) or a location one (staying at one public location, such as a cafe, shop, or bookstore). The travelling kind can have a theme if you so with and can be by invitation only or open to everyone who signs up. And the location one is always open to all contributors, but they have to make a trip to the location. You can download instruction bookplates to glue to the inside covers of your creation so people would know what the hell just hit them.

So far, 1000 Journals is sporting close to 3,500 members, more than 600 personal journals, 54 location ones, and over 1,000 travelling. And they’ve already published a best-of book cleverly listed as authored by Someguy.

We must say, the work is sometimes weird, sometimes absolutely brilliant, often dark, but always strikingly honest. Take a look.

PAC-MAN’S NIGHTMARE

Got pixelation nightmares but don’t wanna shell out a grand on Adobe Cs3? The good folks at Stanford are there for you with a free web-based service that lets you turn raster pixelation debacles into great-at-any-size vector images. (For those getting the Huh’s right about now, raster images are pixel-based and get worse as you enlarge them, but vector drawings are made up of geometric shapes that you can resize all you want with zero fuzziness.)

VectorMagic, unlike other similar apps, is seamlessly optimized for any operating system. And, unlike the Adobe stuff, it takes zilch out of your pocket. Plus, completely web-based, so your broadband takes all the slow-down weight from your hard drive. No more Illustrator-crashing-Photoshop-crashing-everything lovelies.

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For your Luddite benefit, these nice folks have an instructional video showing you exactly how to make your vectorization dreams come true. It’s simple, really: you upload a JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP or TIFF, configure what file format you want back (EPS, SVG or PNG), let the vector magic happen, then just review and download your effortless payoff.

Great on everything from pencil-on-paper hand sketches to fuzzy vacation photos, VectorMagic actually outperforms Corel and matches Adobe in a side-by-side comparison of results. And, speaking of results, how about these bad boys?

BALLS FOR RIGHTEOUS BRAWLS

If you’ve touched any piece of media lately, you’ve heard of the WGA strike, writers’ first stance against studio monopoly since 1988. You may have even heard that Steve Carell, in a heroic we’re-all-in-this-together act of support, called NBC and refused to report to work due to not just merely “enlarged balls” but “brass balls.” Whatever their size, he clearly has them to stand up to the giants.

But level of informity aside, if you’re like us, you still need some clarifying nudging to really get what the whole shebang is about. So here’s a neat and pretty compelling clarifier straight from the source:

Pity that audiences, the currency of network ad sales, won’t feel the impact until months later (because season shows are written several episodes ahead), which means networks will sit and wait, hoping writers starve to death, before they do anything proactive. And, for what it’s worth, we’re calling to cancel our Comcast today. How’s that for a 0.00000001% chip at your currency pie, network meanies? We may even mention something about brass balls to the cusomter service rep.

DIGITAL GRAPEVINE

Care to know what’s on the minds, lips and eyes of the world? You could spend half your day sifting through Digg, del.icio.us, YouTube, Fark, Reddit, and all their other web-mates. Or, you could just go to the super-nifty PopUrls, which aggregates, well, popular url’s from every possible buzz source: the video giants (YouTube, Metacafe, iFilm, AOL video and more), the photo hubs (think Flikr and friends), the social bookmarking beasts (your Digg, Fark, del.icio.us and on and on), the news leaders (Yahoo and Google News, among others), and the weird new media hybrids (you know, Twitter, Mahalo and what not).

popurls.pngThis bad-ass lets you customize your view and presentation, from actual content displayed to layout, page background, and font size. It also has a nifty Scrapbook feature that lets you store URL’s on a sticky-note-looking thingie so you wouldn’t have to clutter your bookmarks or open Stickies (if you’re not PC Guy and actually have them).

PopUrls is the rather ingenious brainchild of self-proclaimed “web communications maverick” Thomas Marban, an entrepreneurial Aussie who back in the day co-founded werk3, one of Australia’s first web agencies. This latest project is easily the best execution we’ve seen of the so-called Single Page Aggregators concept.

Just one thing on our wish list for the cool app: tagging content from all the different buzz sources so we can see broader themes and subjects that emerge across the web in real time.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifIn case you’re not following the social networking tumults of the past two weeks, here’s a quick recap: Facebook announced their new “business solutions” platform of hyper-targeted advertising (SocialAds), friend-linked e-commerce recommendations (Beacon), and deep behavioral tracking (Insights), on top of a Microsoft deal. Google, still the laggard in the SN game, responded with a groundbreaking OpenSocial platform, an ad-serving alliance with various high-traffic SN sites.

To give you an idea of the extent of this Google/Facebook face-off, here’s a list of who the OpenSocial allies are and how they fare traffic-wise.

Pretty impressive, given Facebook’s 65 million. But, of course, results will depend entirely on the actual competing platforms and how each handles content. Because, in the end, it always comes down to relevance and engagement, not total eyeball numbers.

Meanwhile, the talk of the town has it that all the Google-Goliath pressure may force Facebook to dump their own recently released proprietary advertising platform and become another sheep in the Google alliance herd. Our plan: wait and see. Sounds like a solid one, no? We’re also not opposed to some wager cash changing hands.

CONSTRUCTING / DECONSTRUCTING CULTURE

Inspired by the classical busts of the Roman Republic, Seattle-based artist Scott Fife works sculptural wonders out of cardboard and pencil. The artist’s architectural training meshes brilliantly with his anthropomorphic studio work to deliver something completely immune to the seen-it-before epidemic.

Scott grew up in the golden age of advertising and large-format magazines, which bred a fascination with pop culture. Then one day, as a student at Cronbrook, he was cleaning up an Andy Warhol show and was taken with the irreverence of the legendary Warholian pop art.

Twenty-five years later, Fife has coined his own strikingly distinct style of culturally-relevant pop art — and pop it is: he’s done sculptures of anyone from Frida Kahlo to Bob Dylan to Popeye. And his scope of vision encompasses culture in its entirety, from the raw to the avant-garde. He’s also sculpted revolutionaries, pin-up girls, Witness his creative process in the making of Lionel Hampton in stop-motion.

We dig the tangible human element in his art: the process of constructing by hand, the indulgence of the traditional by using only old-school tools, the promise of accomplishment engrained in the sense of building. And, for what it’s worth, Scott Fife’s creations strike us more than Warhol’s ever did.

Fine, let the hate mail pour in.

STREET PICKINGS

Midway between Chinatown and Center City stands this architectural pariah and social darling.

Graffiti

And while graffiti sightings are as common as big pharma claims ED to be, this one’s an interesting burst of colorful self-expression in a bland surrounding of industrial murk.

Ah, the power a spray can holds to a face-in-the-crowd teenager.

BP

Things To Look At, Things To See

Snobby sorbet, bands in town, circus in Brooklyn, the looked-at unseen, global warming in aisle 9, an imaginary nail in the record industry’s coffin, and how Google is saving the world while, you know, taking over it. Welcome to the Things To Look At, Things To See issue.

BETA WAY TO GET AROUND

Okay, most of us geek types can already recite Google Labs’ project list in their sleep and madly worship the Labs graduates (say, Docs & Spreadsheets, GOOG-411, Scholar and, of course, Google Earth.) But we’re particularly goo-ga over the latest one.

logo_idea.jpgGoogle Transit, naturally in Beta (as, by the way, good ol’ Gmail still is), helps you get around town without using a car. Just plug in your starting point and your destination, and you’re on your way. (How does it feel to walk in those shrunken-carbon-footprint feet?) The neat service uses Google Maps to get bike/walk route ideas and directions using public transporation down to the specific bus route number, the cost of the trip and the estimated travel time.

Alas, this transportation genius is only available in 19 US cities — and Japan (?!) But we know how fast the Google folks can churn out their magic (yep, if you haven’t gathered by now, we’ve been drinking the Goolaid), so no doubt Philly will make the cut at some point. (Especially given our very own Septa already has a similar but much more low-tech service on their website that can only benefit from being picked up by high-traffic, high-buzz Google.)

We only have one question — given the brilliance of the serivce itself, how come no one in Mountain View had the same “d’oh” moment we did and thought of the oh-so-obvious bike-tires-over-two-O’s logo? Do we have to come up with everything? Come on now.

OFF-ISLAND FASHION

Trailing behind the buzzing publicity beehive that was New York Fashion Week, Brooklyn Fashion Weekend kicks off today at Empire-Fulton State Ferry Park. It’s a showcase for emerging design talent (including unforgettable character Malan Breton from Project Runway 3) and a chance for fashionistas to get the goods before they get hit the way-out-of-95-percent-of-the-population’s-budget price range.

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This year’s event, themed Circus Couture, is part theatrical magic, part runway (and part major Target sponsorship).

Behind the show is the BK Style Foundation, a non-profit inspired by the recognition that Brooklyn is brimming with artists and underexposed talent. The org aims to assist young desingers in building and bettering their lines, while also providing a professional backdrop for business. And because they’re a non-profit, proceeds from the show end up in various charity causes.

That should make you feel a little better about shelling out a year’s lunch money on one of Malan’s creations.

FRASIER’S FAVORITE DESSERT

Although it may not feel like it around here these days (yes, it is always sunny — and warm — in Philadelphia and Al Gore was probably right that we’re on our way to bathing in a soup of melted glaciers and our own sweat), summer’s winding down. Time to trade in the sherbet for that alluring glass of oh-so-autumny cabernet sauvignon.

Wait, wait. Now you can do both, thanks to Wine Cellar Sorbets: “The adult desert for sophisticated palates.”

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The concept is the brainchild of wine-head-meets-culinary-artist David Zablocki and scientist-with-an-MBA Bret Birnbaum, a couple of childhood friends from Queens. Today, the two vinopreneurs have various stores in New York, New Jersey and Florida already carrying their creation, their sorbets are served in a bunch of upscale restaurants, they’ve been covered by a number of top-tier magazines, and they cater private A-list events.

All sorbets are seasonal and come from vintages, varietals and viticulture regions from where the wines were produced. On top of all the flavors already available, the sorbet sommelier is planning to make Tuscan Sangiovese and Port Wine Sorbet paired with a dark chocolate top hat.

Mouth watering, drool may drip on keyboard. Must step away.

UNTRIVIA

You may remember last year when a non-profit called RenewUS set out to mobilize people to get their energy from alternative sources and pressure their utilities providers to make those available. A pretty hefty task, you may say. RenewUS made quite a bit of buzz in the eco-blogging community with their envirol video.

And then they disappeared.

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Well, turns out, they didn’t. They just rebranded as ClimateCounts, “a collaborative effort to bring consumers and companies together in the fight against global climate change,” and set out to fight global warming from the bottom up. Maybe they realized people need easy, actionable everyday changes to start making a difference, and the whole face-off with utilities companies may have been just a bit much.

So ClimateCounts started simple: they measured the carbon footprints of common household brands so consumers can start making a difference right at the store. So far, they’ve got 56 companies — they started with the most popular ones — but the list is growing. They ranked them using a 22-criteria scoring system, assessing 4 key benchmakrs: how the company measures its carbon footprint (22 posible points), how much they do to reduce it (56 points), how they support (or whether they try to block) progressive climate legislation (10 points), and how publicly transparent they are about all that (12 points). As a result, brands scored red (“Stuck”), yellow (“Starting”), or green (“Striding”) based on their overall score out of the possible 100 points. Here’s a topline of the scorecard‘s best and worst performers:

Top Striders: Cannon (77/100), Nike (73/100), Unilever (71/100), IBM (70), Toshiba (66), Stonyfield Farms (63)

Top Stuckers: Wendy’s, Jones Apparel Group, Darden Restaurants, CBS, Burger King, Amazon (all zilch)

On each company’s profile, there’s even an easy-email button to let the company CEO climate efforts are important. And just so you’re in the know when you’re in the store, you can download the ranking pocketpiece or the full-blown scorecard.

Worth mentioning: the entire non-profit is funded by Stonyfield Farms and Clean Air – Cool Planet. But despite the company affiliation, this sounds like the real thing: Stonyfield Farms has been donating 10% of their profits to, well, non-profits since their very inception, and they were also the ones who produced, quietly and publicitly-stunt-free, the aforementioned RenewUS A Crisis Averted film last year. (Not to mention the objectivity oozing from the fact they were ranked number 6, not 1.) We can help but get a bit warm and fuzzy when we see such a rare, genuine just-get-out-and-do-it approach.

IMAGINE

With the record industry ashambles these days, bands , artists and musicologists alike are looking for new ways to publish and relate to talent. There’s podcasting, free-market album sales, open-source remixing for legal sharing, and more.

imagine.pngBut one music dream machine is taking things to a whole new level. Imaginary Albums is an “imaginary place dedicated to the imaginary dissemination of excellent music: full albums encoded at high quality, and available for free download.

And by “excellent” they mean really, really what-are-the-major-labels-thinking-not-signing-this-band good. Like The Harvey Girls, whose eponymous album is a deep dive into melodic melancholy with a tint of snarky liveliness, all brilliantly harmonized. Or Laura Palmer‘s curious instrumental interpretation of still life. (Who knew acoustic guitar and an alarm clock could make sweet inanimate love together.) Or Tiny Creatures‘ bizarre-yet-brilliant foray into sonic electro-lounge.

As you’ll notice, a lot of this music is very experimental. And a lot of it you may hate. But here’s the thing with mainstream record labels (and perhaps the reason they’re no longer king in music culture): a long, long time ago they’ve stopped caring about the progressive, left-of-center players and have instead eaten themselves into blobs of Top-40-sales fat, sitting idly in a comfort zone of mainstream taste and lowest-common- denominator demand.

Sure, it’s the mainstream’s taste that drives a lot of music culture, but if “the mainstream” never gets exposed to novelty, controversy and a level of discomfort, that taste never gets the chance to grow. It’s a vicious cycle. An open-exchange market free of corporate constraints may just be the only way to put compelling conversation back into music culture.

Imagine that.

GIGS TO GO

While we’re on the music note, every once in a while we come across an underrated but super-utilitarian new service. Like Bands In Town — a social media outlet for the music-obsessed. Despite the leaves-something-to-be-desired interface, the actual service is pretty nifty (and rather similar to iConcertCal, which you may recall from way back in the Brain Pickings 1.0 days) and simple: just fill in a bunch of your favorite bands and artists (the little wiz already knows your location from the IP address) and you’re good to go. (Or, if you have Last.fm — which you may also remember from the extensive praises we sang it back in the day — BandsInTown lets you automatically synch with your existing music profile.)

bands.pngYou get a tag cloud of upcoming shows near you, then you can narrow it down by when you wanna see a concert (tonight only or not), distance from the city, max price range, and label type (unsigned, indie or major). You can also filter results by genre or tag. Needless to say, all the goodness is free. (Sign of the times, no? Social connectivity services could never live on a paid-subscription model now, great news for advertisers, especially the behavioral-targeting-smart ones.)

Okay, we just found out Madeleine Peyroux (oh, only the best neo-French jazz vocal to come by in decades) is coming to South Orange, NJ next month, so we’re off to plotting that getaway. Who’s in?

AS SEEN IN PHILLY

It’s frightening how, buried in our daily grind, we hardly ever look up and really see things. Just this week, we biked by something we’d passed a thousands times before but never noticed.

An unexpected gem tucked between Chinatown and crack row, this building stands proud right on high-traffic Callowhill as a delightful hallmark of the looked-at unseen.

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Tomorrow, look up.

BP

This Week…

Smurfs on drugs, little kids, a three-way call with McDonald’s and your BFF, where to have the best affair in Zambia, what Einstein and a bunny have in common, and how to butter up your boss for the holidays. Welcome to Brain Pickings.

SWEETLY PRETENTIOUS / PRETENTIOUSLY SWEET

Unadmitted intellectuals, self-admitted New Yorkers at heart, culture hogs and cheapos alike: rejoice. The holy grail of web publishing is finally being handed to us on a digital platter. Yes, it’s true: The New York Times has made its online content available for…gasp…free. Which leaves us with in an oh-so-familiar paradox: so much to explore, so little free time.

Luckily, we’re all kinds of nice here. So we’re sifting through it all for you at 5th-gear-full-throttle rates to bring you the very best. Stuff like painter and experimental filmmaker Jeff Scher’s The Animated Life, a blog (but, oh, so much more) about the abstract and the nitty-gritty of life, beautifully written and marvelously animated. What more is there, really?

Granted, the man’s credits make him sound a bit pompous (and by “a bit” we mean Niles Crane pompous): he has screened at the Guggenheim, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou Center in Paris, and opening night at the New York Film Festival, among other distinguished venues. And he’s done work for HBO and PBS, among other distinguished acronyms.
But we, regardless of our general tendency to go for the darker stuff, dig that he’s not a trend-follower. That whole “dark” trend, that is. Because we’ve noticed that in recent years, that whole generation of teen-angst-ridden kids has grown up to become a generation of twentysomething-jaded artists who, however talented, often exorcise it all through the aforementioned “darker stuff.” And a lot of it is painfully alike. Good, sometimes even great, but alike.

Jeff Scher’s work is anything but. Dark and seen-it-before, that is. Part 50’s Russian animation, part Wizard of Oz, part early Disney, part French cartoons from the early 90’s, it’s truly whimsical and feels eerily timeless, and yet it captures those can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on things about modern life. No wonder NYT kept it in their private Fort Knox for so long. Hell, we would, too.

Except we’re nicer than the Ochs-Sulzberger family.

YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE IT

Okay, we’re not in the business of putting people at risk for getting overcultured. So let’s hurry and offset any damage we may have done.

The interesting thing about click-and- mortar warehouse Amazon.com is that it lumps together serious, reputable products (like, say, one Options Playbook) with, well, let’s just say less reputable ones. Stuff like our product pick of the week which, had we seen it elsewhere, we would’ve instantly taken for some sort of viral gag.

Well, it ain’t.

Alas, it ended up in Amazon’s digital clearance bin and garnered no reviews whatsoever, so we guess people were unable to not believe and therefore refused to buy.

Now here’s something to kick off our holiday gift shopping early.

WHEN A MOTEL WON’T DO

Long before bad movie remakes put the name on public lips, Mr. & Ms. Smith was a niche travel website that bridged couples with their dream romantic escapes, at the world’s most luxurious destinations. The allusion to the original movie, in the team’s own words, is “a wink to couples everywhere, who fancy checking into a fabulous hotel under this classic dirty-weekend pseudonym.” Ah, marriage.

treehouse.jpg

Their travel portfolio includes the poshest destinations and independent hotels across the globe, each reviewed anonymously by a professional Mr. & Mrs. Smith reviewer. And speaking of the team, besides the three key chronic entrepreneurs, it features a reviewer panel made up of writers, restaurant critics, designers (including Stella McCartney) and rock stars. If these guys don’t know luxury and incognito, we don’t know who does.

Exclusive memberships come in three ego sizes — BlackSmith (£10), SilverSmith (£75), and GoldSmith (£250) — all promising cardholders various levels of very, very special offers. (No, not in that Asian massage parlor kind of way.)

BIG BROTHER WANTS TO CALL YOUR MOTHER

Convenience is the new capital. We pay more to get places faster (hello, overpriced Accela Express), do things with less effort (Amazon.com, thank you for sparing us many a shopping trip), watch things on our terms (TiVo, anyone?). But it was only a matter of time until smart business models started popping up, offering convenience in exchange for something other than money. Ours, at least.

San-Jose-based Pudding Media is one such interpreneur — using the Internet to revolutionize telecommunications. Last week, they launched The Pudding (in Beta), a VoIP service that allows free calls to anywhere in North America straight from a web browser, sans annoying application downloads.

The business model also includes “breakthrough technology that makes your conversations even more interesting by displaying content that is relevant to your conversation.” Read: repurposed contextual targeting technology that nudges highly targeted ads into your conversation. For the Gmailholics among us, it’s nothing new: you know those contextual ads to the right of your message? Same deal, only The Pudding’s technology uses voice recognition software (the same thing that lets you add voice commands to your cell’s call options.) But it’s made it into The New York Times, so we guess it’s significant enough an innovation to warrant the big guns’ attention.

The Orwellian privacy police of the blogasphere is already going at it. But, really, who’s forcing their fingers over t-h-e-p-u-d-d-i-n-g-.-c-o-m on the keyboard? We’re just glad the option is out there.

And, more than anything, we’re fascinated by the most interesting finding of all: while running some testing, Pudding Media CEO Ariel Maislos found that the advertising content actually influenced the course of the organic conversation between the caller and the callee. How’s that for proof of the very real feedback loop and Conversationality potential between brands and everyday folk?

WHAT LIVES UNDER THE DIGITAL BED

What happens if you take the Smurfs, get them high on psychedelic drugs, have them watch Six Feet Under for seven hours, read them selected excerpts from your favorite Stephen King novel, and let them loose with a bucket of paint and a brush? Zoomquilt II happens.

Zoomquilt IIDubbed “a collaborative art project,” it’s really a digital mashup of various artists‘ illustrations, pieced together in Flash to produce a mesmerizing, dizzifying, endless loop of interlocking images sure to give you more optical illusions than walking into Disneyland after downing five Purpletinis.

Originally conceived by mastermind artist and developer Nikolaus Baumgarten, the first generation of Zoomquilt was born in 2005. Over 100,000 Google hits later, it was retired to make room for 2007’s upgrade: Zoomquilt II.

Check it out and see how long you can last before your head starts spinning and your recurring childhood nightmare about that creepy clown living under your bed comes back.

ANIMAL PLANET MEETS NIP/TUCK

Most of us have moments when we feel weird, awkward, odd, and generally unfitting. (Some of us more frequently than others.) So it’s nice to know that there are other weirdos out there in the global high school that is the Biosphere.

yeti_crab.jpgFor your viewing pleasure, we present you with “25 of The World’s Most Interesting Animals.” (And, dare we add, our 8th grade English teacher’s words of literary peevishness — that “interesting” is what you call an ugly baby — never seemed more fitting.)

We’re having a hard time picking a favorite. There’s the blob fish, which looks like a certain great uncle of ours; the tarsier, which finally helps us make sense of Simon Cowell’s comments regarding a certain American Idol contestant’s appearance; the aye-aye, which gives us a sneak preview of what next century’s anthropologists will see when they exhume Paris Hilton’s dog; the angora rabbit, which looks like it proposed the Theory of Relativity; and, of course, the Komondor dog, which we’re pretty sure can be purchased at the Pottery Barn.

Pick your own favorite oddball, or just sit back, check yourself out in the mirror, and be grateful you didn’t end up on nature’s aesthetic shitlist.

BP

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