1. Seek by iNaturalist [app]
I've been looking for an app like this for a long time. It's like Spotify for plants! The AR thing works really well: You just point your camera at a plant, and try out different angles until the app recognizes it. This app transformed our morning walks for at least a month, as we tried to learn the names of every weed and wildflower we came across. Two downsides: 1) It doesn't identify trees very well. 2) It should let you save photos of the same species in different seasons, since the same plant can look very different before/after it's flowered (for example). Still, this app is amazing, and I recommend it to practically anyone I take a walk with.
2. Blender [software]
I spent February and March of this year learning Blender, arguably the most powerful free software application out there. It's for 3D modeling, which means you can use it for everything from making 3D animations, to 3D sculpting, to creating CGI worlds for use in film. It's a truly amazing piece of software, and it totally transformed the way I watched movies and (especially) animation. Ian Hubert's talk on world building is an incredible introduction to some of the things Blender can do, and Blender Guru's donut tutorial is excellent.
2. Cookies with no eggs [recipe]
This recipe is so random and awfully presented, and yet so fundamental in our house. We've used it for years, but this past year we've started finding some very tasty modifications: Swap out some flour for cocoa, for example, or add in a spoonful of peanut butter. The critical ingredient: coconut oil. The missing ingredient: eggs.
4. Mike Boyd [youtube channel]
This is such a satisfying Youtube channel, and one that pairs really well with my favorite book this year, K. Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool's Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Mike Boyd is a professional learner. What I mean by that is that he is an expert in what it takes to learn new skills, where a skill could be anything from how to break a glass with your voice, how to hold your breath for four minutes, or even how to wheelie. Every single video of his that I've watched makes me so happy.
5. The Midnight Gospel's S1E8 [TV episode]
The Midnight Gospel is an animated series on Netflix. It's essentially an interview podcast, with intricate/trippy animated eye candy (from Pendleton Ward, of Adventure Time) to watch as you listen to the host, Duncan Trussell, interview his guests about life, death, spirituality, meditation, and drugs. Every episode is interesting, but the series finale, in which Duncan interviews his mother, is genuinely one of the most moving things I've ever watched/listened to. It will stick with you.
6. Rocket League [video game]
This isn't a game I would recommend for just anyone, but it is pretty special. Rocket League is a soccer video game, but with flying cars instead of people (typically three cars per side), and a giant metal (?) ball as your soccer ball. It's an absurd game that's as funny as it is frustrating.
7. the public library [place]
Libraries are amazing; I feel like every year I learn a new way in which this is true. Our new habit, as a family, is to head to the Cambridge Public Library every two weeks and check out a giant bag full of children's books. Also useful has been the Libby app, which lets you use your library card to immediately check out and read ebooks on your tablet (useful for trips, when you don't want to pack books), as well as the Internet Archive, where you can check out from a huge library of scanned books for free.
8. geology [subject]
Geology is probably the one subject I regret not having taken in college. It's a really difficult area to learn on your own! Still, this year I found two very useful resources. First, the book that sparked it all was John McPhee's Basin and Range, where I learned about the geologic timescale. Amazingly, if you scale the Earth's five billion year history to a single calendar year, dinosaurs don't show up until December 13, and all of recorded human history takes place in the last ninety seconds of the year. My second resource was Nick Zentner's Geology 101 videos (played at 2x speed), from which I learned about basic rock types, and absolute/relative age dating.
9. Gather.town [web app]
During the pandemic it felt like we tried every video conferencing app that existed: Zoom, Facetime, Marco Polo, Houseparty...But my favorite, by far, was Gather. The unique part about Gather is that it offers a sense of space. In Gather, you control an avatar that you can move (with your arrow keys) through a Gameboy-like world, and you can only talk to someone when your avatar is near their avatar. This gives you the ability to freely move in and out of conversations with people—rather than having to see/talk to everyone simultaneously, as you do in every other conferencing app. My introduction to Gather was the New Year's Party we went to last year. It was almost like a real party, and at the time, that was mindblowing.
10. Neptune Oyster [restaurant]
If you are ever in the Boston area, this is what you should do: At 11am, be at Neptune Oyster in the North End, ready for a delicious seafood lunch: fresh oysters (with tasting notes!), and a hot lobster roll (with butter, not mayo) that comes with a side of perfect fries. The lines are long, and the place is packed shoulder to shoulder, but it's all worth it.
1. Laser cutter [machine]
The Carnegie Mellon laser cutters have been kind of like a library for me, in that it took some time to figure out exactly how I wanted to use it, but once I did I wondered how I did without it. Making things with it is a slow process filled with trial-and-error, but it's also very magical. As my instructor put it, "Never forget the power of this machine: it can take sketches or drawings that you've made and turn them into real objects."
2. Smash Bros Ultimate [video game]
I can't imagine the pressure Nintendo must have felt to put out this game, knowing that practically everyone buying the Switch was waiting for it to come out. That's what makes it even more impressive that this game is so well done! The fact that they included 70+ characters was initially overwhelming, but it's actually what makes this game so easy to keep playing; there are always more characters to discover. As a testament to how much I love this game, Jess and I played it 101 days out of the first year we owned it.
3. Someday [music video]
I love this song, but the music video just really takes it over the top. The video is a sort of kaleidoscope composed of thousands of images of city-scapes such as apartment windows and highway overpasses, and the effect is mesmerizing. It's kind of like Koyaanisqatsi, but entertaining. Part of me wants to understand exactly how these visuals were made. Is there any sort of pattern matching done automatically by software, or is it all done manually? Either way, I'm sure something like this takes a lot of work. The result is beautiful.
4. Zygote to tadpole [video]
I hope that subconsciously, whenever I imagine the process of life beginning from a single fertilized egg, I will picture scenes from this short film. (The fact that the end result here is a tadpole doesn't really matter.) Early in the video (e.g., at 0:30), it's almost as if the cells are dividing and then twisting to make room for the others in unison. How is this possible?? I would love to watch an annotated version of this video.
5. Quantum Country [website]
This website is a sort of experimental tutorial about quantum computing with its own built-in study app. The study app is based on the idea of spaced learning, where the goal is to learn new concepts with the minimum amount of studying, by studying things at just the right time. While I didn't stick with the tutorial for very long, I think it's a really cool concept—as well as a very clever way of encouraging your audience to keep returning to your website!
6. Journey to the Microcosmos [video series]
This has probably been the first youtube channel where I've consistently watched their videos basically as soon as they came out, one per week. Each video explains different aspects of microscopic life, featuring creatures such as tardigrades, rotifers, and ciliates. It's beautiful microscope footage (though I never even knew such a thing existed before this channel) with nice ethereal music. It was the perfect thing to put on when the boys were little and I had nothing else to do.
7. amateur underwater footage [videos]
For a while, one of my favorite things to do to relax was to put on some nice HD underwater footage on youtube on mute while listening to ambient music such as The Distintegration Loops, Jan Jelinek, or Cluster & Eno. It's amazing how much high-quality amateur underwater footage there is! The cool thing is that there are always animals and fish that I've never seen before. Clearly there are way more weird sea creatures than I knew.
8. Still Woozy [musician]
I can't wait until this guy puts out a full-length album. His music just feels so good, and his voice is super smooth. I listen to the few songs he's released all the time, and they never get old. "Goodie Bag," the first song of his that I heard, is still my favorite.
9. Chaudhuri et al. (2019) [academic paper]
This paper, titled "The intrinsic attractor manifold and population dynamics of a canonical cognitive circuit across waking and sleep," introduced me to an interesting data analysis technique I'd never heard of before called persistent homology. But method aside, it had never occurred to me that different data types (e.g., continuous vs. discrete, linear vs. circular) actually mean the data lives on a particular topological space. For example, the space formed by two circular variables is a torus, or donut, while the space formed by two continuous variables is a plane. Even if the data analysis part is sensitive to noise or computationally intractable, I think it's a really cool perspective to keep in mind (for example, it can explain why neural activity in motor cortex is shaped like a cone).
10. Mercury is our closest planet [article]
I thought this was a really interesting point: If someone asks you which planet is closer to Earth right now, then on average you'd always be better off guessing Mercury than Venus. In fact, the Earth is closer on average to the sun than it is to any planet, and the explanation is purely mathematical and very simple. Reading the comments, I think many people thought this point was annoying or pedantic, but I thought it was initially pretty surprising.
11. Jozsa Corner [restaurant]
I was invited to go have dinner at a place called Jozsa's Corner, which I'd never heard of before and knew nothing about. This made the whole experience even better--kind of like seeing an amazing movie without having ever seen the previews. For $33 a person (and BYOB), I and three others were treated to a private, seven-course dinner of Hungarian food, hosted by an incredibly lovely man named Alex. It's a very unique eating experience, and one that I will likely never forget!
1. Quanta Magazine [magazine]
Quanta is by far the most consistently good science writing I've come across. In my opinion, this is because the writers at Quanta understand that almost all research questions--and I don't mean the overly simplified versions!--are accessible to outsiders, once you get past the jargon. Even better, Quanta articles do a really good job of conveying the researchers' excitement for what they're doing. A good example of this is their coverage of the 2018 Fields Medalists.
2. Zelda: Breath of the Wild [video game]
I wouldn't call myself someone who enjoys video games, but really Breath of the Wild is just that good that it deserves the number two spot. As someone who lives in one of the dreariest cities in America, I can't stress enough how enjoyable it is to play a game that is so peaceful and beautiful. Because, you know, there are monsters to fight and all that if you want, but the best parts of this game are the hunting/gathering/cooking, taming wild horses and walruses, and the shrine puzzles.
3. Hand-shaped fried meat [video]
Kiwami Japan is one of the weirdest Youtube channels I've ever come across. He makes knives out of everything: pasta, cardboard, aluminum foil, and jello, just to name a few. But my favorite video by far is when he made a hand out of fried meat, and then ate it. I don't know what's wrong with this guy, or what his backstory is, but it is very entertaining (in a disturbing way).
4. Leona's ice cream sandwiches [dessert]
This is a thing only available in Pittsburgh for now, but seriously, if you're ever in town, find one of these ice cream sandwiches that has a lace cookie. It's one of the most incredible desserts I've ever had. And something I didn't even realize until now is that it's lactose-free!
5. The Shed at Dulwich [video]
This guy turned his backyard into the top-rated restaurant in London on Trip Advisor, essentially by writing fake reviews, and telling all callers that he was booked indefinitely. Then, when he did finally let real customers in, he served them frozen dinners. This is just such a brilliant and well-executed prank.
6. Wipeout! [TV series]
I was probably conditioned from a young age to like Wipeout!, because I grew up watching Spike TV's MXC, which overdubbed the Japanese show Takeshi's Castle. Basically, what happens in this show is unathletic people run into walls and slip off platforms, all to a soundtrack of slapstick sound effecs. I don't know why, but it's always funny to me.
7. Gonna Feed the Babies [video]
The only cute animal video that's ever made it on this list. (And I've seen a lot of cute animal videos.)
8. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe [video game]
I've always been bad at Nintendo games, partly because I grew up with a Playstation, so it felt good to finally master a version of Mario Kart. This version is all over the place, visually, but it also comes with the equivalent of a bowling lane's bumpers, so you don't have to constantly fall off the roads if you don't want to. Which makes it a great video game to play with other people who are also bad at video games.
9. Genius Deconstructed [video series]
Deconstructed interviews producers and beat-makers about how they made the music to various songs. What was surprising to me was how you can end up contributing a beat to a J Cole or Kendrick Lamar song, but that doesn't lead to fame, fortune, or even necessarily a friendship with the artist. It's also interesting to see the different DAWs being used: lots of Fruityloops and Ableton, but those are by no means the only ones being used. One of my favorites in the series is on Childish Gambino's "Redbone". Another thing worth mentioning is the Song Exploder podcast, though the focus there is more on the musicians than on the producers.
10. #tweeprint [twitter]
People in academia love to poke fun at twitter as a waste of time, as if all anyone's doing is mindlessly retweeting links to papers. Even if that were the case (which it's not), isn't that still more useful than a journal's email digests? The fact is, twitter is full of people using tweets to provide a unique kind of research synopsis that you simply cannot find in any other medium, including talks, poster sessions, or abstracts. Even better, it's a new way to promote science and reach new audiences. Without the #tweeprint, and science-twitter in general, I would know absolutely nothing about the mechanosensory system of black-widow spiders.
11. Penguins hockey season opener [sports]
This was my first ever hockey game, and it did not disappoint. There were a ton of goals (the Penguins beat the Capitals 7-6 in OT), and a lot of very happy fans. Not only that, but Tom Hanks was there, and Jess and I were on the jumbotron right after they showed Tom Hanks!
12. Degrees of Freedom [article]
This is a really great article about reseach on brain-machine interfaces and how they were used to enable a paralyzed patient to control a robotic arm. Even more interesting for me, the article focuses on the former advisor of my current advisor--my science grandfather. This article is going to be my go-to for anyone who's interested in understanding my research area. It also made me incredibly inspired to know how close my research (which is pure science, not clinical) is to actually improving people's lives.
13. Dutch Blitz [card game]
My friend Ben heard about this game because his mother lives in an area with a lot of Amish neighbors, and they apparently play this game en masse every weekend. Dutch Blitz is basically like multi-person competitive solitaire, and it's a rush. When you first learn it, you might score negative points, but it's worth the effort to persevere.
14. KEXP live music sessions [video series]
Having a TV with a built-in Youtube app means that I now watch a lot of Youtube. That being said, one of my favorite new ways to listen to new music is to put on KEXP's live music sessions. The sound quality is superb (especially compared to Pitchfork's--their mixing is just awful), as is the video quality and overall vibe. One of the videos I return to all the time is this set by Floating Points.
15. Integers visualized using UMAP on prime factors [visualization]
I first came across this visualization in a tweet, and it just immediately blew my mind. How could numbers look so much like...a solar system? Even weirder, it's not even apparent on closer look why these numbers group up like they do and form such distinct looking types of clusters. No one's convinced there's necessarily something new in this view from a mathematical perspective, but still, I find it inspiring.
1. Carnegie Library's synth rental [resource]
The Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh owns more than 20 electronic synths and pedals that you can check out and take home just like they were library books. Even better, the whole set-up has really reawakened my love for libraries. For example, I've started checking out books from the library instead of just buying them on Amazon.
2. pix2pix and other GANs [algorithm]
2017 was the year of the GAN, or generative adversarial network, a type of neural network. By far the most fun use of GANs is pix2pix, which can fill in your crappy line drawings and make them pseudo-realistic. More recently, GANs have been used to invent high-resolution images of fake celebrities. The downside is, as neural networks get better and better at faking images, it becomes less relevant to "only believe it when you see it."
3. Submerged inside a 6ft Water Balloon [video]
This video really blew me away. It sounds like a silly idea at first, but it quickly becomes a rollercoaster ride of terror and humor all mixed up together. The moment he gets in the balloon up to his neck was honestly one of the funniest things I think I've ever seen.
4. Pillow Talking [song/video]
I love this song (and video) for so many reasons. It's one of the most creative songs I've heard in a long time, and the dialogue/discussion is really well done and balanced. I only wish that Lil Dicky's other songs were anywhere near as good as this one.
5. Tycho's Sunrise Set [playlist]
This playlist by Tycho is great work music, but more important, it introduced me to such a wide variety of electronic music that I'd never even heard of before--especially Weval, which became one of my favorite albums this year. Like so many of the things I find online these days, I found this via Kottke.
6. Speaking Piano [invention]
I didn't even know it was possible to make a piano sound like a human voice. It's also fascinating the way the sounds this piano makes are at first completely unintelligible, but once you hear it along with the captions, suddenly it all just snaps into place.
7. Teachable Machine [app]
As machine learning and neural networks see increasing applications to everything around us, it's going to be really important to give people an understanding of A.I. that goes beyond Terminator and references to the human brain. Google is doing a great job at making approachable, interactive ways of learning about neural nets, and this teachable machine app is a really fun example of that.
8. Overcooked [video game]
I don't play video games very often, but this one had me hooked almost immediately. In this game, you and your friends have to fill various orders in a restaurant, all while dealing with obstacles such as awkward kitchen designs and earthquakes. Even more fun, you can play while sharing only one or two controllers.
9. Halt and Catch Fire [TV series]
I really grew to love this show. The character development is so gradual and methodical, I really got into it. The seasons unfold really naturally so that different characters become the protagonists in different seasons, so that at one point or another you've seen the world from everyone's perspective. Plus, the focus of the show is computers and technology, and it's a lot of fun to watch the focus shift from mainframes in the 70s, to video games in the 80s, and the Internet in the 90s.
10. Game of Life clock [app]
Sometimes people make incredibly intricate, beautiful things for really no reason at all except that someone suggested it. This is a digital clock built solely using Conway's Game of Life. It's worth finding the demo and zooming all the way into various parts of the circuit.
11. Never Catch Me [music video]
Just a really beautiful music video that I won't even try to describe in words.
12. Silicon Valley [TV series]
For the past year and a half I've been working out five times a week in my living room, which also means I've been watching an insane amount of TV shows. Silicon Valley quickly became my go-to show when I needed something to boost my mood. Jared's definitely my favorite character.
13. Overview of generative music [app]
It's kind of incredible to me that anyone could make a slideshow worth sharing, but this set of slides on the history of generative music is really packed with entertainment value. You can actually interact with the slides and watch various algorithms for generative music play out in real time.
14. Alabama White Sauce Chicken Thighs [recipe]
My favorite recipe I found this year was for Big Bob Gibson's Alabama White Sauce chicken thighs. Actually, I doubt this is actually Big Bob Gibson's recipe, but it is a really great name, and a delicious sauce for chicken thighs.
15. Pink Trombone [app]
I hadn't laughed so much in a long time. Isn't it funny how the primary goal of so many children's toys is to make them laugh, but all we adults really have are youtube videos and gifs? What I'm getting at is, it would be great if someone could make this voice simulator into an actual physical device that I could keep on my desk.
1. Arturia Beatstep Pro [instrument]
I've never had so much fun making music. The Beatstep Pro is basically three sequencers combined, so you can make full songs with drums, bass, and a synth, for example. Better yet, the design and controls on this thing are so elegant that it's basically like you have a DAW without ever needing to touch your computer. This is the first time for me that playing electronic music actually feels like playing an instrument.
2. Rick and Morty [TV series]
I've watched other cartoons like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Futurama, and found them fun but never really that fulfilling. But Rick and Morty is different. It's just so clever! When I'm not laughing, I'm mostly just thinking 'Wow, what a cool idea.'
3. Kottke [blog]
At some point I realized that Facebook had become my main source for finding new videos and articles. But I quickly realized I'm much better off skipping the news feed entirely and finding places with more curated content. Kottke's posts are now 90% of my source of online entertainment. Mostly anything fun/amusing/interesting I come across online these days comes from here.
4. Gordon Ramsay's scrambled eggs [video/recipe]
This is the only way I'll ever make scrambled eggs again. Also, I've never had any opinions about Gordon Ramsay before, but something about his behavior in this video is just hypnotizing.
5. Beyonce's Lemonade [film]
I've never been a big Beyoncé fan, but this film got me. It's worth pointing out that I'm always a sucker for stories like this, but I totally bought into the whole concept of this album as if it were 100% true. Clearly it's not, but in any case the emotions felt so raw and sincere that I don't think it really matters either way.
6. The Modern Lovers's The Morning Of Our Lives [song]
It's hard to beat the feeling of discovering a beautiful song by a band you thought you'd already heard everything by. I found this song from a submission to Laura Olin's newsletter Everything Changes, as something to listen to when you feel sad.
7. beer bread [recipe]
If I'm lucky, by the time I'm 50 I'll have a deep catalog of simple-but-amazingly-delicious recipes like this one. One of the few times when searching for 'best X recipe' actually gets you a useful answer.
8. Stranger Things [TV series]
First TV show I've felt strongly about in a very long time.
9. Dominion [game]
A card game in which you build your deck as you play. Plus, you can easily annoy your opponents by making your turn last for tens of moves.
10. Jerry Gretzinger's Map [film/artwork]
Jerry's Map is a project by Jerry Gretzinger begun in 1963, to create a map of a world that does not exist. Every day, he makes a 8x10-inch collage of the next piece of the map. There are currently around 3,400 panels.
11. Google Timelapse [web app]
One of the most frequent thoughts I have when staring out the window of an airplane is to wonder what all those buildings down there might have looked like ten years ago, twenty years ago, etc. So I was really excited to find this project, a first attempt at providing a view of how our cities develop (and decay) over time. The resolution isn't that ideal just yet, but it will be soon.
1. Marcella Hazan [recipes]
I had no idea that the most delicious pasta sauce you can make requires only an onion, a can of whole tomatoes, and half a stick of butter. Or that chickpea soup could be delicious. That making carbonara is easy. I totally agree with the author of Marcella Hazan's obituary in The New Yorker: Marcella Hazan's recipes teach me how to cook.
2. Repl Electric [musician]
Live coding is improvised, interactive, and visualized programming. Using environments like Overtone, you can perform music from your text editor. Repl Electric, to my ears, is not just the most successful live coding music group--it's the only successful one.
3. Black Mirror [TV series]
This is the most consistently thought-provoking TV series I've ever seen. Better yet, it's so dense that I have absolutely no inclination to binge-watch it.
4. Kurt Vile's "Pretty Pimpin" [song]
"Pretty Pimpin" might be one of my favorite songs of all time. It continues to give me chills nearly every time I listen to it.
5. The Cathedral of Computation [article]
The subtitle of this article is the perfect summary: "We’re not living in an algorithmic culture so much as a computational theocracy." This idea totally reconceptualized for me the role of programming and algorithms in our lives. To call something algorithmic isn't just wrong--it's "a theologized version of the diverse, varied array of people, processes, materials, and machines that really carry out the work we shorthand as 'technology.'" The products given to us by Google and Facebook, for example, are not made up of code: More so, they're made up of people.
6. Feedly + Pocket [apps]
Pocket is 100% responsible for solving my previous struggles with never reading anything substantial online. You know how sometimes you find links to interesting looking articles, but you never read them? Before I'd either keep them open in tabs that I'd eventually close or else I'd bookmark them. Now, I just send the article to Pocket by clicking a button in my browser that sends them to my phone. And Feedly, an RSS reader, lets me manage all the blogs I want to keep up on. The problem is, now I always have something to do on my phone...
7. 1SE [app]
Nearly every day for all of 2015 I've been taking short video clips and editing/compiling them using the 1SE ("1 Second Everyday") app on my phone. It's been an extremely satisfying way of summarizing my year; for instance, most of my October consisted of nothing but kittens and my girlfriend. Even better, the videos helped me self-monitor: If I ever noticed that the clips were getting monotonous (e.g., too many cats!), this was very tangible evidence for when I needed to try to shake things up and do something new.
8. Bon Appetit's chocolate pie [recipe]
In my life, religious experiences come rarely (though they are usually caused by desserts). This pie blew my mind in a way I've never had it blown before. And it wasn't just me! Many other people at the event where this pie was served were equally and independently touched by the hand of God after eating it.
9. Coup [game]
This game makes lying funny. Really, you don't actually have to lie to win--but it's much more fun that way.
10. Harmonizator [video series]
"Have you ever had a dream, that--that you um, you had, you--you would, you could--you, do, you would, you want--you, you could do so--you, you would do, you could--you, you wanted, you want--him to do you so much you could do anything?"
11. Listen to Wikipedia [web app]
I've never heard automated music so beautiful. What sets this project apart from other algorithmic music, I think, is its emotional appeal. While the correspondence between each note and a Wikipedia edit is immediately clear, somehow the precise logic of the music isn't at all important. Seeing and hearing Wikipedia edited in real time is a beautiful thing to witness, no matter how it's done.
12. High Maintenance [TV series]
The best thing about this TV series has nothing to do with marijuana. Rather, the best thing about High Maintenance is the same thing that was initially so great about other series like Girls and Portlandia: it does an incredible job at portraying real-life, present-day characters that you've never seen captured in fiction before.
13. Leap motion controller [device]
I had no idea these things even existed, let alone that they would work so quickly and flawlessly, all in a device the size of a mini Altoids box. I don't think there are actually any great uses for these things yet, but there should be. All the same, watching your hand movement immediately transposed onto a computer screen is almost fascinating enough.
14. Ex Machina [film]
Ex Machina was incredible--suspenseful, terrifying, thought-provoking...all of those great words. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that "as thrilling as it is, Ex Machina is business-as-usual for literature and film." As an article in Wired put it: "Ex Machina has a serious fembot problem." All the same, though it's far from being a progressive feminist movie, it was easily the most interesting movie I saw all year.
15. The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz [film]
Aaron Swartz was involved in the development of RSS (at age 14!), Markdown, Creative Commons, and Reddit. He committed suicide at age 26 following an investigation into his attempts to download all of JSTOR. This documentary, about his short life and his dedication to things more important than money, made me cry, and it made me feel extremely angry at the world we apparently live in, and it showed me why so many people care so much about Aaron Swartz.
1. Jupyter Notebooks [programming environment]
One of the most obnoxious things about using Python or Matlab is how messy things get once you start plotting things. Jupyter notebooks, like the IPython Notebook, let you display and edit narrative (Markdown), equations (latex), figures, and code all in one place.
The NBViewer website can render any Notebook files found in GitHub repositories. You can use this feature to write programming books (see: this one). And with a few modifications, you can even blog in iPython Notebook files.
2. Keepon [dancing robot]
Keepon's dance moves are inspirational. His creators' original aim was to see if they could get children to interact with him. I don't know if seeing him dance makes me want to dance with him, but it does make me want to dance very soon. If some day I have a room in my house filled with things like the dancing Keepon robot, I would be very happy.
3. Sky Guide [app]
The Sky Guide app is like something out of a sci-fi movie—it's the astronomer's equivalent to a flying car, maybe. With the Sky Guide app, you hold the phone pointed towards the sky and look through it sort of like you would a telescope. Matching up the stars on its screen with the stars you see in the sky, you get a labelled map of stars, planets, constellations, and orbiting satellites.
After only a few times using it, I started recognizing planets without needing the app. It's one of the rare times when technology seems to be bringing you closer to what's right in front of you rather than taking you farther away.
4. Trello [app]
I really like digital to-do lists. Their only problem is that, though they are pseudo-permanent and searchable, they tend to be unnecessarily bloated and ugly. And they don't let you export your own data.
However, Trello is not like this, meaning it is quite likely the greatest digital to-do list ever. Not only does it allow lists of lists, and lists of lists and lists, and checkboxes, and json exporting, but it also lets you make to-do lists with other people, and you can insert images and videos and comments and emojis, and...Markdown. It's also got a decent mobile app. I like it.
5. Better web debugging [web development]
If you've started noticing that browsing the web from your phone is getting better and better with time, this is probably a big reason why.
To be specific, what I'm talking about is the world behind the little phone icon when you right-click and choose "Inspect Element" in a web browser like Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. This is probably the greatest thing to ever happen to web development. Just a year ago or so, if you were a hobbyist web developer and you wanted to preview how your website appeared on a phone, this required actually loading the webpage on your phone. And all phones make the same website look different—thus the world of awful mobile webpages. But no longer! Now the only thing standing between us and a better mobile web experience is laziness. (See: this very website.)
6. Python's Pandas [Python module]
The Pandas module brings R's concept of a data frame to Python. Using Pandas is the quickest and easiest way to handle most data files in Python. And you can make pretty plots with it as well! It joins the ranks of numpy, scipy, and matplotlib as one of the mandatory Python modules needed for data analysis.
7. Sourdough bread [recipe]
Making a sourdough culture is pretty exciting, and surprisingly easy. You just add flour and water to a cup every so often, and a few days later you've got millions of living, breathing pets who can live in your fridge for nearly a month with only occasional feeding. And whenever you want, just follow along with this goofy guy's no-knead recipe, and turn millions of your new friends into a delicious sourdough loaf.
8. David Lynch's Interview Project [interview series]
I like interviews with so-called "normal" people, and David Lynch's Interview Project is a very digestible series devoted to this idea: Two- or three-minute interviews with the people that make up the majority of our nation but from whom you rarely hear: rural low-to-middle class Americans.
9. Holy Motors [film]
I know that I really like a movie when at some point it makes me stand up or fall over in my seat yelling in fear and admiration and disgust. Other movies that have induced this rare state include Manderlay and There Will Be Blood.
10. Jekyll + GitHub Pages [web development]
Jekyll is a great way to make static websites, especially when the majority of your website's content is text (e.g., when it's a blog). Jekyll is the front-end of the infamous healthcare.gov—but take note, it's the back-end that's buggy, not the Jekyll part. Jekyll is also how GitHub is able to host all its code repositories as websites (via GitHub Pages). With Jekyll and GitHub, you can now manage your own blog, writing blog posts in plain text, Markdown, or really whatever you want.
11. Ramen hacks [recipes]
Ramen is good. My strategy is, whenever I go out for ramen, to take the remaining broth home and add it to my own noodles. But instead of buying real ramen noodles, all you have to do is cook angel hair pasta in water with a pinch of baking soda! Pseudo-ramen. The food blog Serious Eats has a few posts on other ramen hacks, if you're interested.
12. A party game called Psychoanalysis [game]
This game comes from Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, with a few of my own modifications.
A dupe is chosen. The dupe is told to leave the room, and that while he is gone, someone will share a dream that they had recently so that everyone in the room except the dupe knows the full extent of the dream. When the dupe returns, he will ask everyone in the room as many yes/no questions necessary to try and learn as many details of the dream as possible.
In fact, however, there is no dream. The people in the room will answer all the dupe's questions randomly but consistently. The result is that the dupe will create an absurd dream narrative all on his own, often revealing to some extent his own fears, dreams, etc. My favorite way of ending the game is to ask the person "Do you know whose dream this was?" The (melodramatic) answer: "It's your dream. You just had it."
13. Paprika [film]
First off, I love Snarkmarket for introducing me to people like Satoshi Kon, who directed this movie. Paprika was Satoshi Kon's last movie. It is beautiful and overwhelming, the sort of movie that you remember even if you don't like it. The story and imagery seem to have been a major source of inspiration for Christopher Nolan's Inception.
14. Meatspaces [chat app]
You know that strange feeling when you find yourself reminded that there are actual people sharing the Internet with you at all times? I'm thinking of moments like when Facebook first started showing you new "likes" without you having to refresh the page. Meatspaces is a chatroom with mandatory live GIFs of your face, and it evokes this feeling in a new way: "Wow! There are real people on the Internet. And they have faces."
15. shrub [recipe]
Shrub is a drinking vinegar. (I hadn't even known you could drink vinegar.) Adding vinegar to fruit was an old-fashioned way of preserving fruit for the off-season. Now, it's the kind of thing you keep in your fridge and add to a glass of ice and a bit of water when you need refreshment. Balsamic strawberry shrub is the best.
1. Rock-afire Explosion [youTube]
A pneumatic animatronic animal band plays all your favorite songs.
But honestly, words are not at all needed to describe why this is one of my favorite things in the world. The band is so creepy and amazing that nothing I can say to you in this paragraph will capture that better than the videos themselves. This is my super bomb, and my only real recommendation.
The band was created by Aaron Fechter (who is apparently the inventor of Whac-a-Mole) and is recognizable as the creepy robot animal band that plays at Chuck E. Cheese. Fechter started programming the Rock-afire to perform modern songs on his youTube channel, and later attempted to keep the (brilliant, unbelievable, inspirational) project going by allowing users to bid on the songs they wanted to see the Rock-afire perform. If you're looking for something equally disturbing but not quite as entertaining, I also suggest the educational videos of his Animatronic Experimenter's Kit.
2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [film]
Sergio Leone—I'm sure others can explain this better. Or you could just watch it if you haven't already. In my experience it was the kind of movie that only made me more curious as I read about it afterwards.
3. Homeland, Season 1 [TV]
I have not sincerely committed myself to a TV series since LOST. That show broke me—ruined me, really, and made it impossible for me to trust that any TV series was anything more than promises of delayed gratification that would never actually pay off.
But Homeland is clearly different. (Or, at least, the first season is.) Maybe it was the fact that I watched the majority of the season's twelve episodes while lying sick in bed, but I don't think I've ever seen a TV show with such well-motivated characters. Robert McKee says that "The key to a great story is to give the audience what they want, but not how they expect it." It's how a story can make the viewer feel smart but still delighted, and Homeland is so good at this. I see the writers setting up the characters in their correct positions, and the creepy music signals the oncoming conflict so clearly that I see each plot twist coming. But somehow, every single time, Homeland manages to surprise me. It's perfect.
4. Creature Comforts USA [TV]
I love interviews, specifically interviews with "normal" people rather than "accomplished" ones. This series takes that idea and clothes it in claymation animals.
5. My Idiot Brother [film]
When my dad first put this movie on TV, I thought "Oh, okay, we're going to watch some awful movie, this is fine." But...man...this movie made me so happy. It reminds me of so many people I've had in my life and loved for the same reason. Those who are shamelessly big-hearted.
6. NBA Game Time [app]
The free version of this PS3 channel is like Sportcenter for the NBA, except instead of entertaining play-by-play commentary you get an extremely functional and well-designed interface for keeping track of the entire NBA. Three-minute summaries of every game are released once each game is completed, plus all the browsable stats, standings, and daily highlight reels you'd ever need. Just as with Sportscenter, I found myself wondering if watching the highlights might actually be better than watching the games themselves.
7. Vine [app]
Vine is a lot of fun. Unlike videos on Instagram, Vine's videos loop seamlessly, and the length (6 seconds instead of 15) is restrictive enough to make you feel creative. The only unfortunate part, I think, is that no one is used to making videos of themselves and dealing with the resulting self-consciousness. Making obnoxious videos seems, for some reason, much easier than making an obnoxious photo. (Is it just the sounds of our voices? Maybe.) Anyway, I love Vine even if barely anyone I know (including myself) still uses it.
8. lamb curry [recipe]
I'd never cooked lamb before. Australians, thanks surely to the country's Greek influence, eat a lot of lamb, and so this curry reminded me a lot of something I might have eaten in Melbourne. But really, this is an amazing recipe.
It also provided me with my first unquestionable example of something that is better the next day than it is the first: I've baked so many cookies that it's hard for me to understand how something could be better not fresh out of the oven, but this lamb curry definitely got better each time I had it. Like all curries, it's best served with brown rice and yogurt.
9. Mike Patton [youTube]
Had I seen these videos when I was in middle school (i.e. when I was a big fan of screaming and trying to appear insane), Mike Patton would have been my idol and main source of inspiration. Before Mike Patton, I'd never seen anyone take a scream solo—let alone someone who treats screaming with such respect that he clearly sees it as a musical instrument, let alone someone who is such a musician at yells and shrieks that he is allowed to scream alongside respectable jazz musicians. Mike Patton's noises, even to my present-day self, are inspirational.
10. The Conversation [film]
You might notice that I am avoiding talking about why I like the movies on this list. (See #2.) That's because, for whatever reason, I don't remember movies very well. If I don't write something down immediately after seeing one, all I'll remember in the long run is the magnitude of my enjoyment, which is convenient for things like ranking and knowing how much to nod and exclaim when someone else mentions the movie's name, but not for much else.
What I do remember about The Conversation is that the protagonist is an amazingly written character. And that the only scene I didn't like was the nightmare/dream sequence. Sorry, that's all I got. But I did really enjoy it.
11. Bob's Burgers, Season 1 [TV]
At first glance, this show looks like another obnoxious show related to Family Guy. But it is not. It's great. And Tina really likes butts.
12. Dalvit's Braids [youTube]
If you want to learn about braid theory, this is definitely the place to start. Braid theory is a branch of mathematics roughly concerned with the various ways of twisting around idealized threads (it's closely related to knot theory). Because braid theory is such a visual subject, normally you'd want a few pieces of string around if you started reading about it on your own. But making the sorts of braids necessary to understand the subject quickly gets too messy and complicated to do on your own, meaning Dalvit's virtual braids are the way to go. Her explanations are precise and well-paced enough for anyone (i.e. not just math-lovers) to follow along, and her voice is strangely peaceful.
13. Tim's Kitchen Tips [youTube]
Tim and Eric disgust me whenever the camera involves the waist-down parts of their bodies. (Which, sadly, is most of the time.) But this youTube series, where Tim parodies TV cooking shows while also showing you how to make every ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard sauce imaginable, is brilliant.
14. Google Hangout [app]
Google Hangout is like Skype with blurrier images and slightly-worse audio quality, but with the ability to video chat more than two people for free, and, most importantly, HATS.
My first real experience with Google Hangout was last year when my Grandma (pictured above) turned 80 years old. My family threw her a surprise party that essentially doubled as a family reunion, and practically the only relatives not present were my cousin and myself, each of us half-way around the world both in time of day and location. So someone set up a laptop and let us "hang out". (The inclination to verbify "Hangout" and use it like "hang out" is both strong and obnoxious. I will resist this urge.)
There's nothing that new about attending parties virtually. But Google Hangout lets you put on a virtual costume as well: You can put on a moustache, a dog mask, or you can make your background into clouds or a beach. But most importantly for birthday parties, you can wear a party hat. And there's nothing like the smile on a grandma's face when she's wearing a virtual birthday party hat.
15. Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA [beer]
I don't know how to talk about beer. I don't even know the slightest thing about it, except for a basic familiarity with the names of different types of beer. All I can say is that this beer made me decide that I like IPAs. And, ignorance aside, it's fun having a favorite beer.