Why do otters juggle? It sounds like the opening to a joke, but many otters are frequently seen shifting pebbles back and forth between their hands, an activity referred to by scientists as "juggling." While animal behaviorists have thought that the juggling is a way for the animals to practice pulling meat from crustaceans and mollusks, a task that requires fine motor skills and coordination. However, researcher Mari-Lisa Allison and colleagues from the University of Exeter found that otters who frequently juggled didn't exhibit any better food-picking skills. Turns out they're probably just doing it because it's fun. From Science News:
The possible disconnect between play and real-life skills doesn’t startle Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Over decades, he has analyzed play behavior, refining definitions and even reporting play in such unexpected animals as a turtle romping with a basketball in a zoo. The thinking about the evolution of play has by now expanded beyond simple notions of the benefits of instinctive practice, he says[...]
Otters that juggle may be doing so “for pleasure, out of boredom, or both,” he says.
"The drivers and functions of rock juggling in otters" (Royal Society Open Science)
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More than 40 years ago, Eric McMillan, a renowned designer of children's play areas, and his team created the ball pit, those troughs of brightly-colored plastic balls that children swim around in. (Ball pits also may be a giant petri dish of pathogens but, hell, the kids love 'em.) Apparently, McMillan--who went on to be known as the "father of soft play" for his numerous playful innovations like the "punch bag forest"--found his inspiration for the ball pit in his kitchen. From the BBC:
McMillan and his team came up with the idea for the ball pit in San Diego more than 40 years ago, when inspiration struck after looking at a container of pickled onions in the kitchen. “There was a jar of onions, and we were sort of saying: ‘wow, how about if you could crawl through those? And then – ding – we decided we’d try it,” he says.
The first ball pit, filled with 40,000 balls, opened soon after their epiphany. “People just went crazy about it. Thank God for those onions.”
More in this BBC podcast: "Pickled onions inspired me to design the ball pit"
image: "Children in ball pit in Nachshonit" by יעקב (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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Here are some highlights from recent World Chase Tag competitions.
“With World Chase Tag as a sport it really puts you in the moment and it almost makes you feel like a rabbit trapped in the head lights of a car,” competitor Richard Thompson, 19, told The Independent. “Will you run? Or will you freeze? This is something I’ve never felt in any other sport I’ve played and it makes things really interesting. But most of all it doesn’t feel like sport, it feels like play. That’s what I love about it.”
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What would you say to someone if you were randomly connected to them by phone and had the opportunity to roleplay as their boss? A fun new app allows you to play the Michael Scott, Bill Lumbergh, or whatever boss of your dreams, and help them get stuff done too.
Yesterday I sat down for lunch in San Francisco with Danielle Baskin, the app's co-founder. A mutual friend had recently introduced us in an email, using the subject line, "Rusty / Danielle - I can't believe you two DON'T know each other."
Our conversation was lively and ended up being nearly three hours long. As I sat there chatting with her, I totally got why our mutual friend wanted us to meet. Danielle is a rabid creator of many weird and wonderful things, a true Happy Mutant. (You may remember her Drone Sweaters, for instance, or from her interview last month on the Cool Tools podcast.)
She's got all kinds of neat irons in the fire and many of them seem to teeter on that line between art and something that is actually useful. Her latest project rides that line. It's a collaboration with programmer Max Hawkins and it started blowing up on Product Hunt this week. It's called Your Boss and she describes it as "an app that connects people working on solo projects in a call-based accountability buddy system."
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My co-founder and I are entrepreneurs and freelancers with many projects. We made an app to automate phone calls between us to keep ourselves on track, because we often work alone (without a boss).
Tired of ordinary, janky water guns?
Well, inventor Sebastian Walter of Munich, Germany has made something for you. He's shaking up the water gun industry with his high-tech Spyra One. He and his team's $133 water gun isn't exactly for child's play though.
The Spyra One doesn’t shoot a stream of water; it shoots precisely measured bursts of “water bullets” that the company claims can clearly and accurately hit targets up to 25 feet away.
There’s an integrated pump that lets you refill the tank just by dunking the front of the Spyra One into a pool, lake, or bucket of water. It takes about 14 seconds to refill. There’s no pumping, either. That same pump keeps the tank pressurized so you’re able to start spraying water. But things get truly ridiculous with my favorite feature: a display that features a digital ammo counter that feels more at home on a futuristic rifle from Halo than an actual water gun.
...the Spyra One also features a rechargeable battery, which the company says should last for around 45 fill cycles before you’ll need to recharge.
When you do need to juice up the Spyra One, you’ll do so by plugging in a — wait, that can’t be right — a standard USB-C cable...
The Spyra One isn't available in stores, only through Kickstarter. So far, over 2,000 backers are willing to wait until August 2019 (or longer) for their fancy high-tech water gun, well surpassing the original $58,050 goal. Read the rest
Donning a rad vest made with googly eyes, Shitty Robots' inventor extraordinaire Simone Giertz (who recently announced she has a brain tumor) makes a solid case for creating "useless" things in a TED Talk (!) she gave in April.
In this joyful, heartfelt talk featuring demos of her wonderfully wacky creations, Simone Giertz shares her craft: making useless robots. Her inventions -- designed to chop vegetables, cut hair, apply lipstick and more -- rarely (if ever) succeed, and that's the point. "The true beauty of making useless things [is] this acknowledgment that you don't always know what the best answer is," Giertz says. "It turns off that voice in your head that tells you that you know exactly how the world works. Maybe a toothbrush helmet isn't the answer, but at least you're asking the question."
Bonus: In her behind-the-TED-Talk-scenes video, she shares how she made that googly eyes vest (because you do need to know):
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Many locals whine that tech has killed the creative vibe in San Francisco but don't bury it just yet. A merry group of urban pranksters -- who call themselves Swing Bomb SF -- have surreptitiously placed over 50 swings around the city, as a way of turning it into an all-ages "pop-up playground"!
They've marked the bottom of each of these "swing bombs" with both the #SwingBombSF hashtag and a number from one to ??. They encourage folks to try and find all of their swings. However, since the project started a few weeks ago, some have already been removed. But don't let that stop you from searching them out.
Head to their Instagram for clues:
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#swingbombsf . #randomactsofkindness #rakday #sanfrancisco #igerssf
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#swingbombsf . #sanfrancisco #embarcadero
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photo by Christie Aurélio
(SFWeekly) Read the rest
It is common in industrial and post-industrial societies to suppose a rigid, almost antagonistic division between work and play. We work in order to earn enough money to afford us time for something called fun or play—the antidote for work. Moreover, "play" is most often associated with children's pastimes, geeky video games, or other unproductive activities considered the opposite of seriousness. Maybe there is more to play than meets the eye?
In the classic study Homo Ludens, the great scholar Johan Huizinga pointed out the anthropological relevance and the profound evolutionary implications of the human activity called play. Huizinga saw the instinct for play as the central force of civilized life: "Law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play." Five hundred years before LEGO registered the trademark, Renaissance magus Marsilio Ficino used "Serious Play" (Serio Ludere) to describe the way the fathers of Western thought operated: “Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato had the habit of hiding all divine mysteries behind the veil of (...) serious play". And speaking of divine mysteries, in the Hindu mythology the god Brahman creates the world itself, as it were, through Lila — "divine play." Play seems to be serious business after all.
Play is a state of mind, a highly sophisticated approach to life and work. Play is a fun, flow-inducing experience, among the most enjoyable states of consciousness available to humans. Play is a space for experimentation—a primal learning environment that allows one to take controlled risks without dangers. Read the rest
This. is. awesome.
Go to Noah Levenson's Weird Box site and enter your Instagram handle. Then sit back and enjoy the ride.
Mr. Levenson, respect.
(The World's Best Ever) Read the rest
Tinker Crate is a monthly subscription service, delivering cool toys to encourage engineering-style skills in kids aged 9 to 14. Instructions are included, but they also produce slick videos like the one above to further engage little minds. Project kits include parts and diagrams to make a trebuchet in one month, and a simple motor the next.
The site doesn't list more projects than that, but since they're offering subscriptions up to 12 months, we'll just have to sign up and be surprised. Read the rest
The Swanson School in Auckland, NZ, quietly eliminated all the rules against "unsafe play," allowing kids to play swordfight with sticks, ride scooters, and climb trees. It started when the playground structures were torn down to make way for new ones, and the school principal, Bruce McLachlan, noticed that kids were building their own structures out of the construction rubble. The "unsafe" playground has resulted in some injuries, including at least one broken arm, but the parents are very supportive of the initiative. In particular, the parents of the kid with the broken arm made a point of visiting the principal to ask him not to change the playground just because their kid got hurt.
The article in the Canadian National Post notes that Kiwis are less litigious, by and large, than Americans, and that they enjoy an excellent national health service, and says that these two factors are a large contributor to the realpolitik that makes the playground possible. But this is still rather daring by Kiwi standards. Read the rest
“A playful brain is a more adaptive brain,” writes ethologist Sergio Pellis in The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. In his studies, he found that play-deprived rats fared worse in stressful situations.
In our own world filled with challenges ranging from cyber-warfare to infrastructure failure, could self-directed play be the best way to prepare ourselves to face them?
In self-directed play, one structures and drives one’s own play. Self-directed play is experiential, voluntary, and guided by one’s curiosity. This is different from play that is guided by an adult or otherwise externally directed.
A MacArthur Fellow told me that, when he was a teenager, his single mother would drop him off at an industrial supply store on Saturdays while she ran errands. Using library books as his primary resource, he built a linear accelerator in the garage. It wasn’t until neighbors complained about scrambled television and radio signals in the hours just after school and after dinner that his “playful” invention was discovered. Read the rest
Kathe Koja's brilliant novel Under the Poppy
-- a dark, romantic, swirling wartime intrigue -- was adapted for stage in her hometown of Detroit.
Sometimes, you need to start off your week with a dose of happy news. For instance, this video from the American Museum of Natural History details two recent instances where scientists have observed a whale and several dolphins interacting in ways that are something we might classify as "play".
It's hard to talk about animal behavior without getting too anthropomorphizing, but think about it this way: In both instances, the whale and dolphins did not appear to be competing with other, they did not appear to be fighting, nor were they cooperating in a goal-oriented way. When scientists say "animals are playing" they don't necessarily mean "play" the way human children play, but they do mean behaviors that go beyond simple eat/sleep/defend/breed necessities. Play might be learning. Play might be about forming social bonds that help an individual later on. And however you interpret it, spotting examples of spontaneous, inter-species play in the wild is kind of a big deal.
And now, with those caveats out of the way, I'd like to highlight the top comment on YouTube, by one Bill Kiernan: "We both used to be land animals, isn't that crazy? clearly we need to hang out."
Via Charles Q. Choi Read the rest
There's a new stage adaptation of my novel Little Brother opening in San Francisco. Charlie Jane Anders from IO9 got to go to the preview and loved it, which is incredibly heartening, since I won't get to see it!
So I'll just say that the version I saw was powerful and brilliant, and the cast was note-perfect, especially Daniel Petzold as Marcus Yallow. (The other two castmembers, Marissa Keltie and Cory Censoprano, have a harder task in some ways, since they play a variety of roles throughout the show. And they're both great as well.) The stage play uses a lot of pre-recorded video and some very clever sets to create a lot of different settings, as well as giving a primer in topics like the futility of using data-mining to catch terrorists.
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother becomes a must-see stage play Read the rest