Eyjafjallajökull in time lapse

My nephew Ben sent me this nifty video of the Keyboard Volcano (you know, EyjafjallajökulljalfjakofeyjaKABOOM!). I love the time lapse, but I was especially struck by the camera’s motion. Something about moving the camera during the image capture process completely changes the character of the movie. With a normal time lapse image, I can see, in my mind’s eye, a camera bolted to a tripod for the hours or days required. But when the camera translates through space, it feels like the dreamy vision of a slow moving creature.


Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull – May 1st and 2nd, 2010 from Sean Stiegemeier on Vimeo.

I first saw this technique on the recent Life series that Oprah Winfrey made in her spare time. The Filming Plants short video on the Life site gives you an idea what I’m talking about. The camera doesn’t so much record the plant as dance with it as it grows.

In the way of all things technical, this high-end trend is being made available to hobbyists. In the notes under the volcano video, filmmaker Sean Stiegemeier thanks MILapse for his motorized dolly. MILapse turns out to be Jay Burlage, and he’ll help you build an open source hardware motion control system for your high dynamic range time lapse video system. God bless the hobbyists! Amazing stuff.

Mindful videos and slow rocket launches

Videos these days are edited for a microscopic attention span. I’d love to see some statistics on the average time between cuts, but it must be getting shorter. A good example of this is videos of rock concerts. There are so many cameras for the video editor to draw from: cameras on stage, cameras on booms, cameras in the rafters, walking steadicams, crowdcams, guitar cams. As a result, we get whipped from camera to camera with neck-snapping speed. If you have, let us say, a particular interest in Eric Clapton’s finger work during the solo, you’re out of luck. You might get a few precious seconds of guitar closeup, but then it’s time for the Dramamine again.

I don’t object to kaleidoscopic spectacle on principle, but there are times when it’s really nice to sit and focus on exactly one thing. Here’s a spectacular example of that. This is a slow-motion film (500 frames/second!) of the very bottom of the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket as it takes off on July 16, 1969. I’m betting that on multiple occasions you’ve seen one or two seconds of this video. But you’ve never seen the whole thing. Watch it. It features some high quality commentary from Mark Gray of Spacecraft Films.

That’s the real damn deal right there. Those massive hold-down arms clamp the rocket to the ground, and when they let go, they’re the last earthly object to kiss it goodbye. I’m a certified space geek, but I learned a lot watching this. I didn’t know about the flammable ablative paint on the pad equipment, and I had always wondered about the dark skirt of flame that stretches several yards below the nozzle’s yawning bell. Now I know. Mindful, stable video with expert commentary. Yum.

Since I’m on the topic, here’s your Apollo bonus link: Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon, tells us something new about Apollo 13. Which do you prefer for your corpse: a cold eternal orbit or the fiery dispatch of a collision with your home planet?

The Robotic Amoeba

I’m a sucker for the robot videos on BotJunkie, and this soft deformable robot is no exception. It’s fun to see how a blob bot can be made to work, but I’m especially impressed with the video itself. I love the pencil animation at the beginning.

Back in the original desktop publishing revolution, it took people (non-designer people) a while to figure out the basic aesthetics of fonts and page layout. After that, some people who would never have become commercial artists or designers just happened to have a flair for design, and their snazzy documents gave them an advantage in the workplace.

These days something similar is happening with video. The tools to make high quality video are now in people’s hands. Not everybody can take advantage of those tools, but some people are naturals. This video was made by grad students. I’m reminded of the awesome Six Minutes of Terror video made by JPL about the two rovers arrival on Mars. It’s a professional job, for sure, but it’s much slicker than it “needs” to be. My favorite part is the cinema verité shot of the parachuting space probe headed for the surface. We’re looking through a shaky camera being held by a (purely imaginary) guy skydiving next to rover.

Anyway, videos are getting better and better, even when made by grad students. I’m betting that screwing around with the demo reel is a great way to put off actual work on the dissertation.

MontyPython’s YouTube Channel

Look, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, I really am, but Monty Python now has their own YouTube channel. You may commence wasting time now. As they say in their intro video, “For three years, you YouTubers have been ripping us off…” But now, they’ve decided to put authorized high quality videos directly on YouTube. Their motivation is an increasingly common one in this age: they might as well make some money selling trinkets and t-shirts around the edges of their work rather that be bitter and make no money at all.

At this moment only 31 videos have been posted, but some of them are truly from the Greatest Hits collection: Silly Walks, Biggus Dickus from Life of Brian, and the Witch Village from Holy Grail. I imagine, or at least I hope, the plan is to add steadily to this collection.

There are also a few pieces like Eric Idle on what a pain it is to write with John Cleese.

But the one I’ll leave you with is the The Four Yorkshiremen.

We were evicted from our hole in the ground.

Learning from YouTube: literacy & videracy

A friend of mine at work has a teen aged son who is musically gifted. He likes to play the piano, but he can’t read music. His preferred way of learning a new piece is to watch somebody else play it and copy what they do. You might think this is limiting, but you’re forgetting about YouTube. Name a tune, and you can find a video that will show you exactly how to play it. Just take the name of the song, append “piano lesson,” enter it into the YouTube search box, and off you go. Let’s pick Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

So: somewhere over the rainbow piano lesson

The results turn up some easy-peasy lessons and some that are quite advanced. Look at this one.

Here’s the thing. There’s a bottomless supply of friendly people who want to teach you, for free, how to do anything. You just hadn’t realize it yet.

Here’s another example. I like to fold origami paper models, so I was pleased to find a site with videos: PEM | Origami. Ordinarily you learn to fold origami by reading instructional books. But explaining how to make three dimensional models from flat sheets of paper is complicated. You have to learn a new paper-folding diagrammatic language just to follow the book. This extra learning overshoots the need. Watching someone fold, on the other hand, is a natural way to learn. Try it! From this point of view, the book-based approach requires excess mental effort that can now be freed up for something else.

ReadWriteWeb has a good piece on this topic: Is YouTube the Next Google?. It tells the story of a boy who “never Googled anything; he never went to any other site; his entire web experience was confined to YouTube videos.” There’s more of that to come.

This trend is a marvelous gift for all the clever dyslexics out there, people who have been at a severe disadvantage since the dawn of widespread literacy. The cheap resource used to be text. Hiring personal tutors for miscellaneous instruction was prohibitively expensive. But what if the cheap resource, relatively speaking, becomes video? We may see a new class of disability: dysvidia, or the inability to learn from video demonstration. “What’s wrong with little Randy? He just won’t watch enough TV!

Visual music

Stephen Malinowski is a polymath composer/musician/programmer who created something called the Music Animation Machine. What it does is animate music scores in a way that makes their rhythmic and tonal structures really jump out at you.

For example, here is a Chopin Etude (opus 10, #7)

Having warmed up with that, you’ll have fun watching Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 4, third movement, presto. Fugues are fun to watch, since the visual patterns help you follow the repeating elements in the music. Here is a piece by Vincent Lo that builds a Bach-style fugue from Nokia’s default ringtone: the Nokia Ringtone Fugue. When they perform that one, do you think they encourage people to turn on their cellphones?

Malinowski has a YouTube channel with several other videos. Of course, since he spent years making this thing, he’d really like to sell you a video about it. It looks like a good deal to me, but the store page is really notable for the shockingly different musical constructions you see from different composers. Go look at it now. It’s mesmerizing. Compare Bach’s braided filigrees with Chopin’s slabs and slashes.

Thanks to YouTube, we all have synesthesia.

Live! Nudis! (toxic nudibranchs, that is)

Some animals live up to their cool names. Animals like the toothy velociraptor and the mysterious leafy sea dragon. Others, despite their nifty cognomens, fall short. For example, the Northern beardless-tyrannulet (not to be confused with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet) is a comparatively plain little flycatcher.

But I imagine any animal might have a hard time living up to a label as racy as “toxic nudibranch”. Except, of course, for the toxic nudibranchs. Don’t do them the disservice of calling them mere “sea-slugs”. And if you’re talking about them at your next cocktail party, remember to pronounce it NUDIBRANK.

The photographer for these amazing images is David Doubilet, and I recommend the accompanying video.

[Spotted on visualcomplexity.com]

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

If you haven’t seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog yet, I highly recommend it. It’s Joss Whedon’s 42 minute web opera, a marvel of tight scripting, strong acting, and some real toe-tapping musical numbers. Whedon’s description of how it came about is worth a read too. Essentially, it grew out of the free time provided by the writer’s strike. As Whedon puts it:

“Frustrated with the lack of movement on that front, I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.”

It’s an old story, but it feels like a new genre. And whether or not you think there’s anything truly novel about it, it’s still darned entertaining. Courtesy of Hulu and a few ads, here it is:


Incidentally, this is an example of something good that I learned about only because people were talking about it on Twitter. I find I’m picking up all kinds of stuff that way these days.

Historic “Blockbuster” Store

This is a fine example of what The Onion does best. The premise is simple and potentially very unfunny: historical re-enactors at a carefully reconstructed “video store” of the future. But the writing and the delivery is just perfect.


Historic “Blockbuster” Store Offers Glimpse Of How Movies Were Rented In The Past

I grew up in a town with a carefully re-created historical village (Old Salem), and Massachusetts, where I live now, is positively lousy with them (Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, and so on). I can never make up my mind if these things are living treasures or pretentious exemplars of a past that never existed, much in the same way that Monsanto’s House of the Future never will exist. I can just picture old Ben Franklin laughing himself silly, his face wet with tears, as he takes a tour of modern day Colonial Williamsburg.

Watching a bad re-enactor perform is painful in the extreme, but even the good ones make me want to knock them off balance with impossibly hard questions. Who is the Crown Governor of the Virginia Colony? How much did you pay for that pewter salt cellar? Who are you kidding with that ridiculous accent? And if I ever visited the Historical Blockbuster Shoppe, I would ask to rent videos that wouldn’t have been released yet. That would show them! Ha ha!

(Thanks for the Onion link Matthew!)

Swiss spaghetti harvest

Happy April First!

From tingilinde I found this gem: a genuine BBC documentary on the Swiss spaghetti harvest of 1957. At first I thought it was a newly minted faux-old spoof. But, my God! you just can’t fake that BBC voice over. What a pro! Fortunately, there was an attached link to the Museum of Hoaxes that described in great detail the story of the Swiss spaghetti harvest. In it, we learn that the commanding voice belongs to one Richard Dimbleby (that name! that voice!).

Since 1955 Panorama had been anchored by Richard Dimbleby, whose authoritative, commanding presence had made him one of the most revered public figures in Britain. If Dimbleby said it, people trusted that it was true. As one of his colleagues at Panorama put it, “He had enough gravitas to float an aircraft carrier.” Which is one of the reasons why the spaghetti harvest hoax fooled so many viewers. His participation lent the hoax an air of unimpeachable authority.

“Many of you will have seen the vast plantations of spaghetti in the Po valley.” Lovely! I can only guess that global warming might be good news for the spaghetti crop. I hear they’ve got fettuccine growing as far north as Smolensk.