• Post-mortem: the new 'Star Wars' trilogy wasn't worth it

    It's been a year since the Skywalker saga closed for good. The latest Star Wars trilogy grossed $4.5 billion worldwide, outstripping what Disney paid for the franchise, and led to plenty of spinoffs. But how does that compare to the damage it left behind? The arc of the three movies left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of the people connected with it. At the top of the list are Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega.  

    Lots of great movies had tortuous paths to the big screen, but they tend to be more of the "director and star didn't get along" variety. The treatment that Tran endured was something uglier and more modern — and she wasn't alone in the Star Wars universe. Likewise, Boyega had to deal with racist fans on social media, although he was outspoken about his frustrations with how Disney sidelined his character along the way: "They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley," he said last summer. "Let's be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I'm not exposing anything." Both he and Tran have reason to complain: By The Rise of Skywalker, they felt like supporting characters that the filmmakers didn't know what to do with. So much for diversity.

    Others were affected, too: Driver and Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill, George Lucas, and millions of lifelong Star Wars fans. Read how they feel about the last Star Wars trilogy at Mel magazine.

    PS: If you're interested, there's more in a new interview with Kelly Marie Tran at The Hollywood Reporter.

  • A too-typical tragedy of science in the Soviet Union

    Botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov had a lifelong mission to prevent starvation by improving food production. His native Russia suffered numerous famines under both the tsar and the Soviets. The scientist would walk hundreds of miles in remote locations all over the world to collect seeds that might be bred to grow grain in the cold Russian climate. He initiated experimental growing programs that harnessed Mendel's gene theory for crop improvements.      

    At the end of 1920, Vavilov was promoted to director of the Institute of Applied Botany in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). The previous director, the plant biologist Robert Regel, had died of typhus the previous year. Shortly before his death, he had written to the Commissariat of Agriculture, recommending Vavilov as his successor. Vavilov was not only 'the future pride of Russian science' but an especially agreeable person, belonging 'to a category of people of whom you won't hear a bad word from anybody at all'. The Institute, under its new leadership, was envisaged as a scientific centre for testing and improving crop varieties to prevent future famines. It was also to be the home of Vavilov's grand new project: A vast seed collection, acting as a genetic library, a repository of useful genes which he could use to breed new, superior plants. Arriving at the Institute, Vavilov quickly realised that he was at the helm of an institution devastated by poverty. The rooms were in a state of complete disrepair, a chaotic mess of dust and broken furniture. The pipes had burst, and the existing stock of seeds devoured by the starving masses.

    The Institute was not alone in its state of neglect; the whole city was in ruins. Hospitals had been abandoned, public transport was at a standstill, and there was an atmosphere of hopelessness among the dwindling population. Leading academics didn't escape the clutches of poverty and hunger. In Petrograd, seven out of the Academy of Science's 44 members died of starvation. Even Ivan Pavlov, a national treasure famous for being the country's only living Nobel laureate, had to scavenge for firewood and food. Laboratory animals disappeared from their cages and appeared on dinner plates. Lab equipment was repurposed to make moonshine in exchange for food on the black market. Hunger wasn't the only obstacle academics faced. Scientists returning from a conference or a field trip often found their laboratories looted and houses occupied by refugees from the countryside.

    Vavilov managed to turn that situation around, collect more seeds from around the world, and continue the Institute's work. His adventures in the field continued, and his reputation grew as the USSR went from the era of Lenin to the era of Stalin. But Vavilov then had to deal with Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist with lesser experience and education, but with a philosophy that meshed better with that of Stalin and the Communist ideologists. When it came time to lay blame on someone for the Soviet Union's agricultural failures, Vavilov had a target on his back. Read about the life and legacy of Nikolai Vavilov at Damn Interesting. You can also listen to it in podcast form.  

  • Deception in the rainforest

    Don't you just love it when you watch a video for the comedy you expect, and end up learning something neat? In his latest episode of True Facts, Ze Frank is happy to introduce us to some weird creatures of the rainforest and the things they do to survive. With footage taken by David Weiller and Thomas Marent, he covers techniques like camouflage, toxicity, and mimicry that rainforest creatures use to avoid predators, which are all forms of deception. Plants do some of these things, too. You can't trust what you see in the rainforest, but you will enjoy the fabulous photography of bizarre animals in this video.

  • How the politics of race played out during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic

    In 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society to support Black Philadelphia residents. Just a few years later in 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever descended on the city. Yellow fever is caused by a virus spread by mosquitos, but at the time, it was ascribed to miasma or contagion among people. Treatments included bloodletting, cold baths, chewing garlic, and drinking whiskey.

    As yellow fever began ravaging Philadelphia, people were dying by the dozens daily. With much of the city's officials and the wealthy fleeing the contagion, "there were not enough people willing to tend to the sick or bury the dead," says Barnes.

    Rush put out a call for help from Allen and Jones and their Free African Society, in part because he and others believed Africans were immune to yellow fever, says Gamble. This theory was integral to a broader view of black bodies that was used to support slavery—that they were less susceptible to certain illnesses.

    The Free African Society was established to help blacks, not whites. And yet Allen and Jones answered Rush's plea. "They wanted blacks to take care of their white brethren so they'd be seen as human beings," says Gamble.

    Their efforts did not pay off in goodwill. Read what happened at Smithsonian.

  • In which we learn where "that song" came from

    How much of your knowledge of classical music comes from old cartoons? I thought so. Many of us cannot listen to "Ride of the Valkyries" without hearing "kill the wabbit" in our heads. Vincent Alexander shows us just how many of those classic compositions were used by Warner Bros. and Disney in their animated shorts. With videos! He identifies the original title and composer, and gives further examples of their use in cartoons.

    There are so many examples that you will run across some pieces that you never knew were by classical composers of the past. Or in other words, you know the songs but didn't know who wrote them. Now you will.

    There are 40, count 'em, 40 videos in the Twitter thread, and at Threadreader.

    [via Metafilter]

  • Artificial intelligence tries QWOP

    QWOP, arguably the most difficult video game ever, was created by Bennett Foddy in 2008. The point is to control a sprinter with four keys that move his thighs and calf muscles. A few seconds in, and you're reduced to just trying to control your laughter. Most of us gave up pretty early, but some took QWOP as a challenge and got the runner through a 100-meter dash. The QWOP record, as of now, is 48 seconds! Could an algorithm trained to play QWOP do any better? Wesley Liao trained one to find out. While his AI learned to make the runner perform better than I ever will, it could not outdo the best human gamers. Read more on the experiment at Gizmodo.

  • Six key steps for getting kids to sleep

    By the time bedtime rolls around, parents are exhausted. However, their children do everything in their power to extend the day, which leads to more stress for the entire family. A study involving 59 British experts from a range of disciplines found that there are six key parts of achieving a successful bedtime routine for children between two and eight years old. They are:  

    Brushing teeth before bed.

    Time consistency for going to bed.

    Book reading before bed.

    Avoiding food/drinks before bed.

    Avoiding use of electronic devices before bed.

    Calming activities with the child before bed, including bath, shower and talking.

    However, you don't have to have all six to be successful—if you're lucky. And from experience, I can tell you that even when you have all six factors consistently, you still won't have a smooth experience every night. Read more about this research at The Guardian.

    [via Digg]

  • What we can learn from a Bollywood blockbuster about periods

    Women around the world suffer from two problems that we don't think about much in the US. In many parts of the world, menstruation is seen as gross, unclean, or at least something that no one talks about. The other problem is that sanitary pads, tampons, and other supplies are outrageously expensive for too many women. In an article about periods, Messy Nessy Chic looks at how these two things collide in India, leaving women's health and freedom at risk. It begins with the 2018 Bollywood rom-com Pad Man, about an unlikely but eventually respected superhero.

    It's an unlikely love story about a young husband who will do anything for the comfort and happiness of his new bride, but finds himself unaware of the unhygienic and discriminatory practices she is subjected to when menstruating. In a part of the world where the topic of menstruation was discouraged in households and social circles; considered 'unclean'; he risks being ridiculed and ostracised to generate awareness for women's health in rural India.

    The movie was inspired by the true story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, (previously) who indeed fought cultural taboos to bring affordable menstrual products to rural areas of India. He was also the subject of two documentaries and an earlier feature film. Arunachalam tells his own story in a 2012 Ted talk. You can find Pad Man on Netflix and other movie sources.

  • The weirdest corporate mascot of all time

    In 2004, the sandwich chain Quiznos enlisted Joel Veitch's Spongmonkeys for their TV advertisements. What happened then illustrates the great divide at the time between those who were connected with internet culture and those who were not. Before the rise of social media, that was a large chasm. Vetch was a British animator popular among internet insiders for presenting oddball videos. He didn't even know what Quiznos was when he agreed to the ad campaign using his bizarre characters.   

    Months later, Veitch was back in the U.K., working as an animator on a late-night TV show, and not really thinking much about the ads when they first began airing in the U.S. His email blew up immediately. "Nobody around me had a clue what was happening, it was all in another country for a brand they'd never heard of," he says. Still, the reaction resulted in his website crashing when over a quarter of a million people went to check out his work.

    Unfortunately, the backlash was just as swift. Within the first week of the campaign, Quiznos corporate received more than 30,000 calls complaining about the Spongmonkeys. Per a 2004 article from the Denver Business Times, an Alabama Quiznos franchisee even put up signs in his windows saying he wasn't responsible for the ads, as they were turning away customers and making children cry.

    Quiznos wanted to be noticed. The ads delivered, but not in a way that led to people buying more sandwiches. Read how the Quiznos Spongmonkeys came about at Mel magazine.

  • A brief history of ketchup and mustard

    If you are American and have nothing else in the refrigerator, you probably have mustard and ketchup. Even if you don't use them often, it's nice to have them available. But how did they originate? Mustard began as mustard seed, used as a medicine and a spice.

    The paste-like form of mustard showed up roughly 2500 years ago. The Greeks and Romans blended ground-up mustard seeds with unfermented grape juice, or must, to make a smooth mixture. The first version of this concoction wasn't necessarily food—it may have been used more for its medicinal properties, and not completely without reason: Mustard seeds are rich in compounds called glucosinolates, and when these particles get broken down, they produce isothiocyanates, powerful antioxidants that fight inflammation and give mustard its nose-tingling kick.

    The Greeks and Romans applied mustard's medicinal properties to almost every ailment imaginable—Hippocrates even praised its ability to soothe aches and pains. Many of mustard's historical uses don't hold up to modern science—for instance, it's not a cure for epilepsy, as the Romans once believed—but it's still used as a holistic treatment for arthritis, back pain, and even sore throats.

    The whole idea of mustard as medicine reminds one of "mustard plaster," a term that confused me in childhood because the practice had already died out by then. Read how both mustard and ketchup were developed and turned into modern condiments at Mental Floss. A video is included if you'd rather watch than read.

    [via Strange Company]

  • The boxing film that was banned around the world

    In the early 20th century, prizefighting was even more uncivilized than it is now. While fights between Black boxers and white boxers drew crowds, heavyweight title fights were segregated. There was the "World Heavyweight Champion," who was by default white, and a separate "World Colored Heavyweight Champion." It was easier to assume white superiority when they didn't fight each other. But Jack Johnson worked for years to get the chance to fight heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, and defeated him in 1908. Former champ Jim Jeffries was brought out of retirement to win the title back.

    Their fight, hyped as the "Battle of the Century," took place in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, in front of 20,000 mostly-white spectators and nine motion picture cameras. Throughout the nation, many thousands more listened to live telegram bulletins of each round. Johnson beat Jeffries easily, and, as a result, racist mob violence broke out across the country, and Black Americans celebrating Johnson's win were attacked, and some were killed.

    The fight was filmed, the film was banned, and therefore became the movie everyone wanted to see for years afterward. Vox has the story.

    [via Damn Interesting]

  • The battery invented 120 years before its time

    At the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Edison experimented with an electric car. It was not the first electric car, but Edison's battery was different. This battery had its drawbacks, one which may turn out to be a benefit 120 years later.

    Edison had outfitted his car with a new type of battery that he hoped would soon be powering vehicles throughout the country: a nickel-iron battery. Building on the work of the Swedish inventor Ernst Waldemar Jungner, who first patented a nickel-iron battery in 1899, Edison sought to refine the battery for use in automobiles.

    Edison claimed the nickel-iron battery was incredibly resilient, and could be charged twice as fast as lead-acid batteries. He even had a deal in place with Ford Motors to produce this purportedly more efficient electric vehicle.

    But the nickel-iron battery did have some kinks to work out. It was larger than the more widely used lead-acid batteries, and more expensive. Also, when it was being charged, it would release hydrogen, which was considered a nuisance and could be dangerous.

    In the 21st century, you've heard about the possibilities of hydrogen power. The problem is that it's difficult to produce hydrogen. A research team from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands are revisiting Edison's nickel-iron battery to assess its function in both power storage and hydrogen production, and the results so far look pretty good. They named their version of the battery the "battolyser," a gadget that Batman would be proud to use. Read about the potential of the battolyser at BBC Future.

    [via Damn Interesting]

  • "Woman Yelling at Cat" in LEGO

    The meme that just won't die has gotten the LEGO treatment! LEGO artist Ochre Jelly went ahead and put his toy pixels to work and created sculptures of the Hollywood Housewives and Smudge the cat. Then he uses these images to illustrate his own (mostly LEGO-themed) jokes. Click to the right on the image below to see more.

    And since I've discovered Ochre Jelly's Instagram account, how about revisiting some of his internet memes in LEGO that you may have missed or haven't seen in a while.

    See more at Instagram. Thanks, Iain!

  • The once-classified tale of Juanita Moody and the Cuban Missile Crisis

    Juanita Moody dropped out of college in 1943 to serve in the US Signal Intelligence Service, decoding encrypted messages during World War II. She stayed on after the war, rising in the ranks of the SIS despite being both a woman and a civilian, until she was in charge of intercepting data from most of the world. By the 1960s, that included Cuba. The SIS had by then become the NSA, charged with data collection which was then handed over to the CIA for analysis. That became an issue when it came to the Soviet buildup of arms in Cuba, as the White House wanted to be kept up-to-date with any new information, and Moody's boss Louis Tordella was wary of skipping over the CIA.

    Impressed by her expertise, alarmed by what she had to say, and perhaps concerned that no one was providing the White House with this level of detail about an aggressive military buildup in Cuba, [assistant secretary of defense Edward] Lansdale asked Moody to write up her findings. Along with a few colleagues, she spent the next three days and nights compiling "wheelbarrow loads of material" into what she called "a special little summary for the assistant secretary of defense." When she was done, Moody urged Tordella to "publish" her report, meaning circulate it among the intelligence agencies, the White House, the State Department and the military. Cautious not to step outside NSA's prescribed role, Tordella rebuffed her, but he did send it to Lansdale, who sent it to President Kennedy, who returned it with his initials—signaling he'd read it. "I told my troops, 'Keep this updated,'" Moody said of her report. "'If you get anything to add to it, do it immediately and tell me.'"

    Over the next few months, Moody repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, pleaded with Tordella to release her updated report. By early 1962, she said she was "really getting scared." The amount of military equipment piling up in Cuba didn't square with the Soviets' repeated assertions that it was all "defensive." Details about Soviet technicians "moving around in Cuba" were especially worrisome, and by this point the NSA likely knew the Soviets had moved surface-to-air missiles (not to be confused with ballistic nuclear missiles) to Cuba as well.  

    Moody was determined to rush data to the president, and the CIA was not happy about it. Read the story of Juanita Moody's role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the rest of her NSA career, at Smithsonian magazine.

  • How a British journalist became "the Morbidly Obese Pancake Man"

    Liam Thorp, the political editor of the Liverpool Echo, got a notice from the National Health Service that he needed to come in for a COVID vaccine. Thorp is 32 years old and has no condition that would warrant a vaccine at this stage of the rollout. Why was he flagged to get one? He called to ask if it were really his turn, which led to some checking. His doctor later called back to say there had been a mistake and he wasn't due for a shot yet.

    For reference, a BMI of 40 or more is considered morbidly obese – so I'm not sure what this would have made me.

    The man's nervous tone cracked into a laugh when I joked about putting on weight and losing a significant amount of height during the lockdown.

    If I had been less stunned, I would have asked why no one was more concerned that a man of these remarkable dimensions was slithering around south Liverpool.

    Of course, the story went viral, and Thorp is now known as "the Morbidly Obese Pancake Man." You can read the entire story at the Liverpool Echo.

    [via Nag on the Lake]