• How the iconic THX Deep Note was made

    You know this sound. You probably hear it every other time you go to the movies.

    And you know that it was actually, carefully composed:

    I'm terrible at my musical sight reading, but this actually makes sense to me, in a strangely delightful way. Now I want to try to replicate it…

    In the video above, composer Dr. Andy Moore talks more about the synthesizer programming process (which is how the sheet music ended up looking like this). When you're done watching that, you can watch this compilation of Every THX Opening Sequence Ever.

  • "All-Star" but an AI attempts to finish the song after the first verse

    Your OpenAI Jukebox scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they never stopped to think if they should.

    Details on the Neural Network, from the YouTube page:

    What is OpenAI Jukebox?
    Simply put, it's a neural net that generates music – read more about it on the official blog: https://openai.com/blog/jukebox/

    Can I use Jukebox myself?
    Yes! If you have a very powerful graphics unit, you can download the program from the official Github. If you don't, you can give Google CoLab a try – https://colab.research.google.com/git...

    Is there a tutorial? Yes, I made a tutorial explaining the basics about generating samples through Google Colab. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNtmg… I'd also recommend checking out this site, it has some useful info towards the bottom: https://github.com/openai/jukebox/iss…

    How does it know the lyrics?
    You can feed it lyrics when setting it up.

    What has Jukebox been trained on?
    According to OpenAI, it has been trained on 1.2 million songs. Unfortunately, OpenAI has not publicly disclosed which songs are in this dataset.

    Are there longer versions of these samples?
    No, they would have to be generated first. It would take a long time and the sound quality would likely deteriorate even more.

    What sampling temperature are you using?
    It varies. But always between .975 and 1.

    Does the original artist get compensated if you use their song to train the AI and upload the result to YouTube?
    When doing a song continuation like this, in most cases, yes. YouTube's algorithms can detect most songs, even if they're only played for a few seconds. The record label will then automatically claim the video and make money off of it.

  • 31 Visions of Hell, Satan, and Demons, according to a 1775 book obsessed with genitals

    The Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae sistematisatae per celeberrimos Artis hujus Magistros, or "A rare summary of the entire Magical Art by the most famous Masters of this Art," is a 1775 collection of 31 stunning watercolor paintings of demons, cabbalistic signs, magical sigils, and other supposedly awful evil things. As the Wellcome Library describes it:

    In German and Latin. On white, brown and grey-green paper. The title within an ornamental border in wash, with skulls, skeletons and cross-bones. Illustrated with 31 extraordinary water-colour drawings of demons, and three pages of magical and cabbalistic signs and sigils, etc. At the end the figures are in red, and part of the text is written in white on the grey-green paper.

    I can't find any information on who, exactly, made this artwork, but it's clear that they had some extraordinary talent and an even more extraordinary imagination. And they were also very, very horny.

    Here are a few of my favorites:

    If you're into it, you can also buy collected prints of the artwork.

    Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae sistematisatae per celeberrimos Artis hujus Magistros [Wellcome Library]

  • 11 US cities are piloting Universal Basic Income programs, with more to come

    From Bloomberg City Lab:

    Fueled by a growing group of city leaders, philanthropists and nonprofit organizations, 2021 will see an explosion of guaranteed income pilot programs in U.S. cities. At least 11 direct-cash experiments will be in effect this year, from Pittsburgh to Compton. Another 20 mayors have said they may launch such pilots in the future, with several cities taking initial legislative steps to implement them. 

    […]

    The ultimate aim of the mayors coalition is to pass a federal guaranteed income program. Every city that joins is eligible for $500,000 in pilot funding; they've partnered with the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice to produce research reports, and will share best practices throughout. The effort has gained high-profile philanthropic supporters, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who donated $3 million to the group in July and another $15 million in December. 

    […]

    Although the U.S. programs announced thus far can serve only hundreds of residents per city, advocates say their immediacy, simplicity and emphasis on radical trust are an antidote to the biases and bureaucracies that hinder other welfare programs.

    I've been a huge proponent of UBI for years; I've previously shared here on Boing Boing about the awesome work being done by GiveDirectly, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus. As the last year has evidenced: people don't want to do nothing, and they will absolutely use their time to improve their education or skills, or come up with new solutions and services to solve new problems as they arise. That's a big part of why UBI has such bipartisan support, from Libertarians to Socialists alike—it's a safety net that actually provides for more choice, more independence, and more economic activity and innovation. Whenever someone asks, "Yeah but how do we pay for it?" I point them Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream by former SEIU President Andy Stern, which actually does all the math for you and lays out 7 different plausible funding scenarios.

    Of course, those people usually don't want an actual answer from me. But I'll wear them down in time.

    2021 Will Be the Year of Guaranteed Income Experiments [Sarah Holder / Bloomberg City Lab]

    Image: 401(K) 2012 / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

  • The bizarre internet mystery of an Avril Lavigne song that doesn't exist

    For the last 20 years or so, I have had a healthy ambivalence towards Avril Lavigne. I don't get worked up over manufactured pop stars and pop songs; sometimes they're fine, they have a purpose, whatever. If I happen to be exposed to the music, maybe it'll be tolerable, who knows.

    But I recently learned about the Avril Lavigne song "Dolphins" and I'm utterly, utterly captivated.

    That screenshot unfortunately does not include the song's stellar outro:

    Give me a D
    Give me a O
    Give me a L
    Give me a P
    Give me a H
    Give me a I
    Give me a N

    Wow.

    Somehow this song has existed across lyric websites since at least 2007—except, as far as anyone knows, the song itself has never actually existed. Ethan Chiel on Fusion tried looking into this situation years ago, but to no avail:

    Summer 2007 seems telling: it's right after Lavigne released The Best Damn Thing, the album that included the single "Girlfriend." LyricsMode ultimately offers no information about the source, just that 3,467 visits to "Dolphins" particular lyric page have been made. LyricsMode's webmaster, Oleg Kashtalyan, told me via email that the Dolphins page "was added by unregistered user on our website, so we have no information about author and data."

    The CBC has reported that some people have indeed tried to contact Avril Lavigne and/or her representatives for an official comment on this mysterious meme song, but to no avail.

    The popular "very online" newsletter GarbageDay also investigated this phenomenon recently:

    Based on a Twitter search for "dolphin avril," the earliest mention I could find about the song was from 2011, when a Avril fan account appears to have auto-tweeted a Hot Lyric page for "Dolphins". It was then mentioned once in 2012, once in 2013, and then there was another flurry of activity in it in 2015. The 2015 spike appears to correspond to "Dolphins" trending on Tumblr at the same time. But the 2015 Tumblr meme references previous Tumblr posts about the song. Chiel traced the fake song lyrics back to at least 2007. But it may be even older. I found a Google cache that may date the song all the way back to 2005. I also searched for Portuguese results, as well, on the off chance it originated in Brazil, like the theory that Avril Lavigne was secretly replaced with an actress named Melissa. Though, Brazilian stans seem just as confused about "Dolphins".

    The song has all the hallmarks of a messageboard in-joke. I tried searching 4chan and LiveJournal archives from 2007, but didn't find anything. I have this deep suspicion it started on a fan board, but I can't prove it. So, unfortunately, Avril Lavigne's "Dolphins" will remain a mystery.

    There are some fan cover versions of the song on YouTube, but is it even technically a "cover song" if the song isn't real in the first place?

    And this is perhaps why I'm so fascinated by "Dolphins." It's kind of a perfect manifestation of wholesome Internet absurdity. Some bored teenager probably thought they were being funny back in 2007 when they added the lyrics to LyricsMode, a fairly trite jab at the general vapidness of pop music. Okay, fine. But that gag took on a life of its own—a meme in the original Richard Dawkins sense of a viral idea that perpetuates its own existence through culture, the survival mechanism of a pure thought. 14 years later—probably twice the lifespan of the original prankster!—and it still thrives, mutating into its own artform, as evidenced by the YouTube "covers." Now, the fake song is, in fact, a real song. It literally willed itself into existence. Because ideas have power, which is why you should be careful with which you let inside your head, lest they come to life as YouTube covers of non-existent songs or the protagonist of a Grant Morrison comic book.

    But I may be overthinking this. It might just be a symptom of the Mandela Effect. Or worse, it could be a depressing indictment on how disinformation never really goes away, and how virality, even as a joke, can still take on a life of its own, until it manifests into reality. Just like a political rumor: if you keep insisting that the Avril Lavigne Dolphin Song is real, then enough people will eventually believe it, and that's all you need.

    In other words, Dolphins are you. Dolphins are me. Dolphins are everyone that includes you and me.

    Image via Wikimedia Commons and Pexels (altered)

  • Whatever happened to the company that decided to pay all of its employees a $70K minimum wage?

    Back in 2015, Dan Price of the credit card processing company Gravity Payments decided to pay everyone at his company a minimum salary of $70,000 a year, including himself. In the immediate aftermath, only two long-time employees left the company (out of 120 people), and Rush Limbaugh called it, "a case study in MBA programs on how socialism does not work."

    While Price himself cut his salary down from $1 million to match the $70,000 he was paying his employees, it turned out he was also about to be embroiled in a lawsuit with his business partner and brother, who claimed that Price was receiving "excessive" compensation. (Although Price prevailed in the lawsuit, there was undoubtedly at least some PR motivation behind the move.)

    Five years later, the company still has an impressive employee retention rate of over 90 percent, and is still profitable. Then coronavirus messed everything up, like it did for everyone, with small business transactions—the bulk of Gravity's business—dropping by more than 50 percent practically overnight. And that's where the story of a socialist Seattle credit card processing company gets more interesting.

    From The Toronto Star:

    In a short time, Gravity lost about half of its revenue, which mainly comes from small businesses, hardest hit by the crisis.

    In early April, Dan Price, one of the company founders and its CEO, convened the 200 employees for an urgent Zoom call, sharing with them the fact that the company was burning $1.5 million a month in cash. If it continued like this and no action was taken, Price warned, the company would run out of cash in just four months.

    […]

    "Ninety-eight per cent of the employees agreed to cut their wages," he tells me in a Zoom interview from Seattle. "Ten wrote that they were willing to work for free, and several dozen offered a 50 per cent reduction in their wages.

    "When I saw it, I was so moved, that tears flowed from my eyes."

    Gravity adopted the solution proposed by the workers, with slight modifications. No employee's salary was reduced by more than half, and for those who earned less than $100,000, the maximum reduction was 30 per cent.

    By July 2020, the company had stabilized, and began paying back all the employees who had sacrificed their income.

    In any other business, I'd be creeped out by the notion of workers sacrificing for the boss like that. But it sounds like Price may have really succeeded in building a team who believed in their mission, and viewed their company as a worker-owned co-op. And that is pretty impressive, especially since they're working at a financial transaction company run by a guy named Price.

    Dan Price announced a minimum salary of $70,000 to all of his 120 employees back in 2015. It paid off big time [Amir Barnea / Toronto Star]

    Gravity Payments employees volunteer to take pay cut as revenue drops 50% during COVID-19 crisis [Kurt Schlosser / GeekWire]

    The CEO Paying Everyone $70,000 Salaries Has Something to Hide [Karen Weise / Bloomberg]

    Image: Whym/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

  • An elegy for the dying breed of San Francisco private eyes

    I've always enjoyed reading and writing detective fiction; really, if any story has a noir vibe, I'm in. I'm certainly not alone in, but I've also found it curious considering how little we actually hear about modern day private investigators. Sure, the Pinkertons are still around busting unions and providing private security for rich people trying to escape the effects of climate change. Most other stories you hear about private businesses collecting information for clients involve Defense contractors like Erik Prince or, worse, propaganda outfits like Project Veritas.

    So where are all the PIs, gumshoe? Why can't I find them anywhere?

    Phil Bronstein of the Center for Investigative Reporting has a theory, sort of, which is part of this delightful article he wrote for Alta Online:

    Something's gone missing from the shadowy streets of San Francisco, a precious, revealing relic already mostly vanished long before the thieving suction of COVID-19. A piece of it is still with us, though who knows whether even that will survive.

    Few have noticed its disappearance, which is a tragedy because it is a deliciously naughty, rich vein of life; the city and its rough-edged, romantic culture will suffer without it.

    So, what is this about? What happened? There are clues: the curl of cigarette smoke, turned-up overcoat collars, steel revolvers, bare knuckles, rumors of a black bird swathed in jewels. But wait! That's just the fictional version.

    Or is it?

    […]

    The night at the Tosca bar—itself celebrated and faded—intended as a memorial after Fechh's unmysterious death in April 2019 due to heart problems, was also part of a long goodbye to a 40-year stretch of individualist, humanist, hyperintellectual, countercultural, antiauthoritarian lefty PIs. No guns (mostly), no ex-cops, no gold chains, no heavy hand (again, mostly).

    The PIs of Fechh's time had gotten their early training not as FBI field agents or in police academies but at Vietnam War protests and in the humanities at university graduate schools. Their casual talk was as much about Sartre and Chaucer and life's metaphors as it was witness stalking and stolen garbage. But they were also tough and sometimes nearly fearless.

    Bronstein uses the death of David Fechheimer—apparently something of an icon in the San Francisco PI scene—to explore what's happened to the other aging investigators in the city. It's a great character piece, and a bit of a detective story in its own way, as it examines the circumstances that let these vigilante men and women make their livings, and also the circumstances that have, well, turned the entire enterprise into corporate defense contracting.

    The climate here is no longer congenial for the Fechhes, the Tinks, the Sutherlands, the Palladinos. Never mind Mr. Lucky. Tosca's memorial attendees "will never be in the same room together again," says Fechheimer's business partner Kirsten Lee Soares.

    Time, technology, corporatization, the coronavirus, and some disregard for the human condition have all but ended a storied practice. We are losing another point of personal contact. I think we are all poorer for it.

    If I squint down a Tenderloin alley or a private driveway on Russian Hill, I can almost see through the mist an "adroit" and "reserved" private eye of the past.

    Now they're largely left to fiction, memory, and mystique.

    I've always half-joked that I wanted to be a hard-boiled private eye, but after reading Bronstein's descriptions of all these different "intellectual, swashbuckling, anti-authority lefties," it almost makes me want to do it seriously. It can't be more foolish than being a writer, right?

    Last Call for Gumshoes [Phil Bronstein / Alta Online]

    Image: Public Domain via NeedPix

  • Tracking the Rise and Fall of the American middle class with shopping malls

    One of the best parts of Wonder Woman 1984 was the present-day opening sequence, of our lasso'd heroine battling some petty crooks at a shopping mall, interspersed with clips of our villain-to-be, Maxwell Lord, trying to sell fake oil securities through sleazeball infomercials. It's a perfect little microcosm of the early 80s, with the subtle implication that hey, maybe this era of excess really kicked off the snowball of our current impending doom?

    The scene made me think of all the times I've seen an ad for a new luxury condo in a former shopping mall. And I specifically thought back to it as I read this insightful piece from Vox that traces the rise and fall of shopping centers as they relate to the American Dream, both literally and figuratively.

    Get it? 'Cause the American Dream is also an actual shopping mall:

    In a New Jersey suburb seven miles west of Midtown Manhattan, the American Dream is on shaky ground.

    The Dream in question isn't the mythological notion that upward social mobility is within reach for all hardworking Americans. It's a $5 billion, 3 million-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex in East Rutherford featuring an indoor ski slope, an ice-skating rink, and a Nickelodeon-branded amusement park. The complex finally opened last fall, but it's now facing huge new challenges.

    The development's complicated 17-year history, marked by ownership changes, false starts, and broken promises, had already put American Dream in a precarious situation. The Covid-19 pandemic hitting in March made things much worse. 

    […]

    While the story of American Dream is unique in many ways, its struggles are emblematic of the bleak future facing many US malls and department stores — whose destinies have long been intertwined. The downfall of these onetime crown jewels of retail will have meaningful impacts on the Americans who work for them and the communities they've long called home.

    I can't remember the last time I went to a shopping mall that wasn't a mostly-empty fossil like some installation art piece of a depressing metaphor for consumerism. This article doesn't really change that for me, but it did help to frame it all in a more empathetic, fact-based, and anthropological perspective.

    The death of the department store and the American middle class [Jason Del Rey / Vox]

    From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store [Vicki Howard / University of Pennsylvania Press]

    Image: Bobo Boom / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

  • Expected family contributions for college loans might be going away, thanks to COVID-19

    Nestled somewhere in the 5000-page COVID relief bill signed earlier this month, there was also a significant change to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form: the deceptively-named Expected Family Contribution is being replaced by a "Student Aid Index."

    Kenosha News sums this up succinctly:

    The appropriations bill renames EFC to "student aid index" (SAI) to make clear the number a family sees after filing the FAFSA isn't the amount of money they're required to pay for college. Instead, it's an indicator of their financial need. The bill now also makes it possible for a student's SAI to be negative, making it easier for a college to identify the students with the most financial need.

    The New York Times has a lot more context about the history and ideology behind the Expected Family Contribution, as well as everything that went wrong with it.

    For decades now, families have been baffled by the E.F.C., the output of a federal formula that uses income and some household assets. Given that it doesn't account for parents' own student debts, for instance, plenty of people wondered whether the extra-large number was what they were supposed to pay for four years of college, not just one. It wasn't.

    Then there are the words themselves. The great expectation that felt more like a demand. The unspoken assumption that, of course, families would step up and pay — parents, really, in the case of most students hoping to matriculate straight from high school. And the notion that this was a mere contribution, bathed in niceties, when in reality the bill could spiral well into the six figures.

    […]

    The underlying formula that determines the new index will change some, too — many more people will get federal Pell grants for lower-income students or qualify for the maximum amount. Other tweaks may mean even more disappointment for higher-income parents when the new index produces an even larger dollar figure than the E.F.C. did. (Their children could still get a more generous need-based aid offer from many schools than what the new index computes, or they might receive merit aid — which does not depend on financial need — from a college that wants them badly enough.)

    My own parents are still reeling from the EFC, which basically saw their raw incomes and a generous interpretation of their assets and decided "Great well then you can contribute at least half of that to your kid's college every year, right?" with very little regard for other outstanding financial obligations, or changing employment situations.

    This is probably a factor in why most of my student loans came from so-called "private" lenders±who, let's be real, are just part of the Regulatory State, but don't have to comply with any student loan relief legislation.

    Higher education is great, but it'd be even better if the whole system hadn't been setup like some kind of pyramid scheme.

    FAFSA's Expected Family Contribution Is Going Away. Good Riddance. [Ron Lieber / New York Times]

    5 Big FAFSA Changes Are Coming [Brianna McGurran / Kenosha News]

    Image: Public Domain via NeedPix

  • How regenerative crops and Afro-Indigenous farming techniques are putting carbon back in the ground

    One of the newest episodes of Gimlet Media's climate change podcast, How To Save A Planet, focuses on two very different farmers who take unique approaches to the same carbon-reduction practice: regenerative agriculture, which is all about enriching the soil by putting more carbon in than your crops take out.

    Here's how Regeneration International describes it:

    The loss of the world's fertile soil and biodiversity, along with the loss of indigenous seeds and knowledge, pose a mortal threat to our future survival. According to soil scientists, at current rates of soil destruction (i.e. decarbonization, erosion, desertification, chemical pollution), within 50 years we will not only suffer serious damage to public health due to a qualitatively degraded food supply characterized by diminished nutrition and loss of important trace minerals, but we will literally no longer have enough arable topsoil to feed ourselves. Without protecting and regenerating the soil on our 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 8 billion acres of pastureland, and 10 billion acres of forest land, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or halt the loss of biodiversity.

    The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only "does no harm" to the land but actually improves it, using technologies that regenerate and revitalize the soil and the environment. Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high quality, nutrient dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms and healthy communities and economies. It is a dynamic and holistic, incorporating permaculture and organic farming practices, including conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters and pasture cropping, to increase food production, farmers' income and especially, topsoil.

    I've done a lot of work and writing around climate change, yet somehow I was not aware of regenerative farming until I listened to this podcast. The hosts speak with Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black who runs Soulfire Farm in Upstate New York; and Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz, third-generation farmers in Minnesota who sell environmentally-friendly commodity crops like corn and soy to big industrial processors—something I didn't even know was possible. The episode also talks a lot about the history of Afro-Indigenous farming, as it relates to the entire history of Black Americans, framing "thirty acres and a mule" in some new and interesting ways.

  • Explore the famed faery painting of an artist dealing with mental illness in the mid-1800s

    I just discovered a fascinating piece on Public Domain Review about Richard Dadd, a Victorian-era painter who is best known for the surreal depictions of faeries and other supernatural entities that he created while he was in asylum for having an "unsound mind" (likely schizophrenia), which resulted in him killing his father.

    Among the symptoms of Dadd's illness – which sounds today like a form of schizophrenia – were delusions of persecution and the receipt of messages from the Ancient Egyptian deity Osiris. Dadd was commanded to kill his father (or the demon who it appeared to him had taken his place) and did so with efficiency in the summer of 1843, not long after returning from his tour. After an equally well planned escape to France, the artist was eventually admitted to the Criminal Lunatic department of Bethlem Hospital in Lambeth (now the Imperial War Museum) and it was here that he painted the Fairy Feller. According to the inscription on the back of the canvas it took him nine years to complete, although Dadd qualifies this claim with "quasi" ("sort of") which may mean he only worked at it on and off between 1855 and 1864.

    It is an exhaustingly complex image, with a substantial cast of characters, none of whom are doing much with the exception of the "feller" himself who is about to hew a hazelnut in half in order to provide the diminutive queen of the fairies, Mab, with a new chariot.

    This is his masterpiece, The Faery-Feller's Master Stroke, which was commissioned by the warden of the Bethlehem Asylum, as a means of "treating" Dadd's mental illness.

    There's a lot more to Dadd's tragic story, and a lot to examine in his intricately detailed artwork. (Which I now know was also the inspiration for the Queen song "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke.") His stunning work certainly deserves recognition on its own, but it's also an interesting look at the ways that mental healthcare has and has not changed over time. Nicholas Tromans, who wrote the article on Public Domain Review, also has a book out about the Artist and the Asylum.

    Richard Dadd's Master-Stroke [Nicholas Tromans / Public Domain Review]

  • Watch Orson Welles' forgotten 1956 TV Pilot, "The Fountain Of Youth"

    In the mid-1950s, Orson Welles created a TV pilot episode for a potential anthology series adapting short stories for television. As biographer Joseph McBridge wrote in his 2006 book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career:

    It was intended to inaugurate a series of short stories Welles would narrate and direct in the First Person Singular style of his Mercury Theatre on the Air and Campbell Playhouse radio series, but with his innovative radio techniques adapted for the visual intimacy of the newer medium. Welles described it to me as his only 'film conceived for the box'. The vaudeville-show tone and blackout style, suited to the 1920s setting, lend unsettling dark humor to this fable about human vanity … As the faintly sinister host, Welles is so ubiquitous a presence, sometimes even mouthing the characters words, that he becomes their puppet master, darkly amused by their self-destructive foibles.

    The pilot episode, titled "The Fountain of Youth" adapted the John Collier short story "Youth From Vienna," and aired only once—in September 1958, on NBC's Colgate Theatre anthology. Still, The New Yorker calls it "as groundbreaking as Citizen Kane," and it actually became the only unsold pilot to ever win a Peabody Award.

    You can watch the 30-minute episode above.

    Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  • How the surreal 90s Ninja Turtles Rock N' Roll Musical Spectacular came to be (and make Oprah uncomfortable)

    Perhaps it's because I'm a child of the mid-80s and thus ripe for the action figure marketing tie-ins, but I will never not be amazed by the stratospheric rise of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that has somehow kept them in the favor of the public heart. Who could have predicted that a black-and-white, independent comic press could publish an anthropomorphic parody of Frank Miller's acclaimed run on Daredevil from Marvel Comics … only to have the parody becomes its own genre in-and-of-itself, with multiple TV shows and movies and comic books spanning decades, all fueled by toys?

    But perhaps the weirdest part of the entire TMNT legacy was the 1990 pseudo-musical touring rock concert extravaganza Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out Of Their Shells. While this happened a mere 6 months after the release of the original Ninja Turtles movie (featuring the voice of Corey Feldman!), it had absolutely nothing to do with cross-promotional transmedia marketing and any such thing. As Chris E. Hayner explains in his epic behind-the-scenes story of Coming Out Of Their Shells, it was mostly just the sheer coincidental luck of different opportunists all striking out at the same time.

    Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Ninja Turtles Rock N' Roll Spectacular—aside from the fact that they inexplicably didn't have shells onstage, despite the literal fucking name of the tour—is just how easily it came about:

    Continuing on their quest to figure out how the Ninja Turtles would work as a musical, (co-creator Bob) Bejan wrote a treatment for the show's story and the duo plotted their next step.

    "We literally cold-called Eastman and Laird and just went, 'Hey, we've got an idea. Can we pitch it to you?'" Bejan admitted. Then in January 1990, two months before the movie debuted in theaters, the two traveled to North Hampton, Massachusetts for their first meeting with the two men that created the Turtles.

    "Bob and I drove up there and told them the concept we had and played them the songs and they said, 'Wow, this is great. Let's do it,'" Nelson said. Little did he or Bejan know that seven months later, their musical would be debuting onstage at New York's Radio City Music Hall.

    Before that they had to secure the rights. "We were going to have this deal. Surge Licensing, who did all the licensing for the Turtles, told us it was going to be $50,000 for the licensing rights," Bejan said. "And we didn't have that much money laying around."

    Thankfully, a solution presented itself. "I read an article in the Wall Street Journal [about] Steven Leber, who was going to ultimately be my partner on the producing side," he remembered. "But I read the Wall Street Journal [that] he was bringing the Moscow Circus to Broadway and to the United States, and I literally cold-called him."

    One call and a short meeting later, Bejan secured the funding from Leber–as well as a seasoned producing partner to help bring their vision to life. "He wrote a check for $50,000 [and] we signed the licensing rights and got the rights to all live touring, music, video exploitation, merchandising," he said. "It was unbelievable."

    1990: a magical time when you just cold-call a few people and score the rights to a lucrative property for $50K, and then use that to make weird sexual comments about April O'Neil on Oprah.

    Even if you're not like me, and you have no interest in theatrical producing or Ninja Turtles, Hayner's bizarre behind-the-scenes history of the Coming Out Of Their Shells tour is worth a read. Or you can just listen to the soundtrack.

    The Weird Story Of How The Ninja Turtles Became A Rock Band And Went On Tour [Chris E. Hayner / GameSpot]

    Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

  • Mapping the change in apartment prices across Pandemic America

    Real Estate is weird. Pandemic life is even weirder. While the rise in remote working during the pandemic has undoubtedly shifted the urban influx across America, the full story of the change is a lot more complicated.

    Luckily, hindsight helps. ApartmentList has released their first annual report tracking some of these changes:

    This December rents fell by 0.4 percent month-over-month, consistent with what we've seen in years past. Our national rent index is now down 1.5 percent year-over-year, and has fallen for four consecutive months.

    But when we look past the national figures, we find tremendous regional variation in rent trends, reflecting how the COVID-19 pandemic has had disparate impacts on regional housing markets over the course of 2020. Expensive coastal cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City are continuing to see rents fall rapidly, while traditionally affordable mid-sized cities such as Boise have actually become more expensive over the course of the pandemic. 

    There were definitely more drastic changes in March-June of 2020. (We put a house on the market on March 4 that had a dozen interested buyers in the first week that immediately dropped to 1. It was stressful.) After that initial drop-off, however, most things levelled out—although Apartment List notes that while "fewer cities got cheaper, those cities got cheaper faster."

    For more details, check out the data and interactive chart on their site:

    Apartment List National Rent Report 2020 [Chris Salviati, Igor Popov, and Rob Warnock / Apartment List]

  • How crime rates during COVID compare to the Spanish Flu

    In addition to all the other turmoil of the year, 2020 also saw an increase in homicides, a number which has otherwise been steadily decreasing for years (although the change is not limited to "Democrat-run cities"). There are a lot of theories for why this may have been the case. Was it because of the desperation brought on by COVID-19? An immediate result of the "Defund Police" campaign despite the fact that it didn't immediately defund the police? The increase of gun sales across the nation? Overwhelmed hospitals that could have otherwise saved lives?

    Sure, they're all possible (and we won't know the full story until all of the data is out anyway, which it's not, yet). Regardless of the answer: a weird fluke of a year does not indicate a trend in data. Because at the same time, according to Wired, drug crimes dropped by 65 percent, and property and violent crimes dropped by 19 percent. In other words: nothing about 2020 made sense, historically; and whether or not these new circumstances have set a precedent has yet to be seen.

    But what Wired also pointed out is that the aforementioned drops in crime in 2020 reflected a similar statistical trend from 1918, when the nation was similarly sieged by a pandemic:

    All those home fires notwithstanding, it seemed as though the experience of 1918 was pretty similar to what we've seen today: Fewer people in the streets, less misconduct as a rule. But there was a huge change from 1917 to 1918, besides the pandemic, that could have led to lower crime rates. Perhaps the mobilization of millions of men nationwide to fight in World War I—young men who would have been in their prime years for committing crimes—by itself accounted for the declining rates in Chicago. Without more or better data, there would be no way to know the difference.

    For my 2020 research, I'd had to deal with something similar. While there's no obvious change between 2019 and 2020 on the scale of the Great War, it's always important to use a methodology that can account for the potential effect on crime of more pedestrian factors, such as economic upturns or downturns from one year to the next. To ensure that the crime changes I'd picked up really had to do with the pandemic and not something else, I completed a two-step process: First I compared 2020 crime rates with the average rates from the same weeks of the year for the previous five years, then I compared changes in the rates before and after the date stay-at-home orders were enacted in each city. This research design, called difference-in-difference, allowed me to isolate the changes that occurred as the pandemic started impacting each city.

    Like 2020, 1918 had its own fluke crime quirks—like the fact that the typically-criminalized lower classes were being sent off to fight in World War I, which may have also impacted reporting. But it's interesting to see that—whatever eyebrow-rising statistical spikes may have arisen or dropped in the past year—data science suggests that it might not be that weird after all. Or at least, that it might align with other weird years. And that should be somewhat comforting.

    Crime Rates Dropped in 2020—Just as They Did in 1918 [David S. Abrams / Wired]

    What the data says (and doesn't say) about crime in the United States [John Gramlich / PEW Research]

    It's Been 'Such a Weird Year.' That's Also Reflected in Crime Statistics. [Jeff Asher and Ben Horwitz / The New York Times]

    The rise in murders in the US, explained [German Lopez / Vox]

    Image: Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

  • How the etymology of "Arctic" complicates the cryptic etymology of "bear"

    No one knows what bears are "truly" called. And as such, no one knows what "Arctic" really means either.

    As the Slovak Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh explains, "bear" is actually just a placeholder name, to protect the speaker from saying something much, much more horrifying:

    The Old Slavic people (the linguistic ancestors of today's speakers of, e.g., Slovak, Polish, Croatian), Old Germanic people (the linguistic ancestors of today's speakers of, e.g., English, German, Norwegian), and Old Baltic people (the linguistic ancestors of today's speakers of Latvian and Lithuanian), who lived next to each other and interacted for many generations, came to believe that if you call the bear by his true name, he would hear and understand, and you would fail to catch him, or he would come to harm you. The bear was the only really dangerous animal in their woods. The original word artko was tabooed. Such beliefs about not calling prey and danger by their "true" names are not uncommon among hunters and people in general through the present.

    This is a fairly common trope in folklore, particularly stories involving Devils and Magic. Names are typically understood to have power; the act of naming a thing is often believed gives you power over it (see: Rumpelstiltskin). In this case, the act of speaking the true name of The Bear Who Shall Not Be Named would have the opposite effect, by summoning forth That Horrible Creature That We Refer To As "The Brown One" To Avoid Upsetting It By Using Its True Name.

    I learned this fact a few years ago, and it continues to entertain me to no end. (Side note, I'm great at parties; remember when people had parties?) But languages evolve over time. And even more recently, I've learned of a new etymological root that ties back to the Bear Who Shall Not Be Named, which becomes infinitely more complicated when you start to consider the self-defined linguistic signifiers.

    I'm talking about "Arctic."

    As Etymology Online explains:

    late 14c., artik, in reference to the north pole of the heavens, from Old French artique and directly from Medieval Latin articus, from Latin arcticus, from Greek arktikos "of the north," literally "of the (constellation) Bear," from arktos "bear; Ursa Major; the region of the north," the Bear being the best-known northern circumpolar constellation.

    In other words: "The Arctic" is the place of the bear. By contrast, "Antarctica" is literally the opposite. It's the place of not-bears (or not-the-place of bears, I suppose).

    On the surface level, this makes for a rather literal and simplistic naming convention for the planetary poles. The Arctic, the place of the bear, has Polar Bears; Antarctica, the opposite of the place of the bear, does not have polar bears.

    That all tracks. Until you remember that "bear" is just a placeholder name for That Big Furry Beast That We're Too Scared To Mention. And so, the Arctic was technically named as the "place of the thing that shall not be named." By extension, the name of Antarctica exists in direct reference to that signifier, which itself is a reference to something that shall not be named—literally, "the opposite of the place of the thing that shall not be named."

    What a strange game of linguistic telephone: naming one entire regions after a word used to avoid naming something, then using the same etymological mechanism to name the opposite of that place.

    Image: Public Domain via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters