Thursday, March 29, 2007

Amazing Animation Explains Mind-Blowing Web 2.0

A favorite theme of mine is that the pace of change is accelerating quite dramatically. Even though I know this is true, I'm still blown away by how fast and how far we've come, even in the last, oh, year, year and a half. The internet is making us smarter by orders of magnitude, by exponentially extending our capabilities.

This extraordinary 4 1/2 minute film is a dense and mind-blowing journey into the heart of what's happening. It's called The Machine is Us/ing Us, and it was made by one Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. I recommend you view it more than once.

I first saw this when BoingBoing linked to it a while back. Just the other day my friend Greg sent it along to me again, and my second viewing impressed me even more than the first. Thanks Greg!

The version I linked above it the "Final Version." The version just before this received almost 2 million hits. I think they're almost the same; this final version is just slightly cleaned up based on some user suggestions.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Multiple Kite World Record Holder

I'd not previously heard of multiple kite flying, but Ray Bethell is apparently the world champion. This video certainly is a delightful surprise.

Bethell makes the kites look like the Blue Angels. Neat-o!


Hat tip to the Grand Illusions newsletter for the link.

WARNING! Scrumptious toy alert! Don't click on their link unless you have a few extra dollars you'd like to part with.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

An Open Letter to the Genii Forum - UPDATED

Backstory: An extraordinarily talented young magician I know named Chris Brown has a video up on YouTube which has garnered over 2 million views, an astonishing number in the YouTube universe and a sure sign that he did something right. Needless to say, many magicians hate him.

The Genii Forum, one of the most influential online forums for magicians, has a whole long thread of pompous deconstruction (no really, don't bother) about why Chris' video is terrible and pointless and why Chris needs to consult with them so he can learn how to really do magic like a pro. Okay, it's not entirely all about that, and there are some voices from people who actually get it, but in the subtext of the thread that description pretty much sums it all up.

Anyway, as one of his many mentors (and probably his biggest fan among us), I felt the need to respond in a public way to the whole thread. If you're not into magic you may want to skip this. On the other hand, if you're interested in hearing some inside dish about the magic community, read on.

UPDATE: 3/22/07 - After you read this, you may want to check out the follow up, which I posted directly to the Genii Forum here.
UPDATE: 3/23/07 - And another one here.

UPDATE: 12/16/09 - Apparently, most of the names on the Genii Forum have been "anonymized, so my posts no longer can be identified as mine (nor can Chris' responses, except where he identifies himself). I have therefore added my follow-ups below.


Hoo Boy, I just had to write in on this one. It's amazing to read such a typically clueless discussion as has characterized much of this thread. I'd almost wager money that most of those so upset about Chris' YouTube video aren't big fans of David Blaine either. When you don't know why the successful are successful you don't really understand your own art.

2 million hits on YouTube doesn't happen by accident, folks. It just doesn't. 2 million hits happens because you struck a chord with a lot of people by showing something, unfiltered by traditional media filters, that moves them in a deep and personal way. And they have, in turn, done your marketing for you, driven by passion -- theirs -- to share with all their friends whatever it is in your clip that moved them in some new way.

Chris' clip is more amazing than most of you know, and better magic, too. His technique is fine, and he's the most gifted natural performer I've encountered in many many moons.

He has a vision, guys. He's young and he's raw, but he has a vision, for himself and for magic. And he's got the cojones to pull it off, too.

People -- a lot of them, obviously -- saw the video and thought the magic was amazing. That's why they recommended it to their friends, and that's why he has 2 million hits. He has a lot of fans because they can feel that he's real. Not a prefabricated fake like Copperfield, but a real person who loves to make magic happen for real people.

And the humility! Chris has real humility. He's cocky as hell, but deep down he's a serious soul. Read his comments on the thread. It's all about gratitude for your opinions, about respect for his elders, about not wanting to start any fights, about his love for magic and his desire to express himself through it.

He learned from the Master, folks. He's a disciple of David Blaine all the way, and David Blaine is the most important magician since Houdini. By far. David Blaine saved magic. He's the reason really cool, hip, artistic kids now are attracted to magic.

I've been in magic well over thirty years and it was never the cool, hip, artistic kids who did magic. Never. To be a magician was to automatically not be the cool, hip, artistic kid.

Now, thanks to David Blaine, we have more amazing cool, hip, artistic young magicians than ever.

The aging magical chattering class hates the Blaine style, so snootily dismissed as "Street Magic," precisely because it has the actual "street" in it, as in real people, in the real world. The idea that magic should be something that happens in their world, on their streets, in their lives, is anathema to the dysfunctional paradigm in which magic has stagnated for the last hundred years.

Like the aging rock and roll chattering class that hates and fears Hip Hop -- which similarly emerges from and expresses the feelings of the street -- magic's aging chattering class has quite convinced themselves that real magicians work gigs for money, like birthday clowns, or work live in theaters. Getting someone to pay you a lot of money to do only the magic you really, really want to do, is obviously not a path a serious artist would ever take. That's why the best and wisest actors are the ones who do commercials and amusement park shows rather than those slackers, like Robert DeNiro, who become movie stars. That's why the band that played at your wedding is obviously a more "serious" bunch of musicians than Radiohead. Or U2.

The chattering class' slide from mediocrity into irrelevance will only get worse...

And to mix your magic with Hip Hop -- quelle horreur!

Hip hop is the lingua franca of youth, my friends, and it's a language in which youth are fluent. You want to express something meaningful to kids and young adults, in a way that's hip and cool, you back it with hip hop. And Chris does just that, not because he cares about being cool, but because hip hop is his lingua franca too, it's the music that expresses how he feels, in a language he understands.

How great for all of us who love magic that the art is being saved, day by day, by the people the old guard hate and fear the most. This is absolutely the best time in a hundred years to be a great magician, a golden age. And Chris is lucky and honored to be riding in the vanguard right now.

Just be grateful for our front-row seats.


Follow-up Comment

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful responses. My own post emerged from what I saw as a deeply and unfairly stacked deck on this thread. Pete Biro posted the YouTube link, whereupon a whole slew of people saw fit to insult Chris, his video, and YouTube magicians in general. Most of the attacks came from a predictable if, in my opinion, flawed paradigm which states that young magicians making cool magic videos are somehow to be hated and dismissed.

Brad said, "If they spent half as much time reading "Our Magic" as they do reading their 'Final Cut Pro' manuals, magic would be a better place."

And: "In art, a mannerist period is defined as a time frame in which the means of expression become so pervasive nothing ends up being expressed. Today's younger generation has found themselves in/created for themselves a mannerist period."

Is it possible, Brad, that something important IS being expressed but that you simply can't read the language? That paragraph makes you sound exactly like those old folks who claimed that rock and roll was useless noise ("You can't even understand the words!") and that those kids who loved it were therefore idiots. History has not been kind to that particular viewpoint -- although patronizing kids remains as popular as ever.

Asking Chris to clarify his point is like asking a painter to explain a painting, or a musician to explain a song. The expression speaks for itself, and it either works for you or it doesn't.

But don't assume there's nothing there.

Chief mouthpiece Richard Kaufman saw fit to weigh in with three -- three! -- insulting comments, including:

"What's different now is that places like YouTube provide a location where everyone can strut their underdeveloped stuff for all the world to see.

"All I can say is, YUCK."


"I disagree, Tom. I would rather they NOT be performing publically [sic] for millions of people around the planet to see when they are fit only to practice in front of a mirror."

(Gee, Richard, just what in Chris' video do you think is only fit to practice in front of a mirror?)


"I don't recall what Eugene wrote, but I would say that performance without an audience is called practice."

(Oh. I guess 2 million people isn't a big enough crowd to be called an "audience?")

And finally, on his 4th post, Kaufman writes:

"I should add that I have not watch [sic] the clip in question on YouTube, merely commenting on the general phenomenon."

In other words, Kaufman has just pontificated 3 times about a clip he hasn't seen. He is admitting publicly that he is prejudiced (as in, "pre-judging") against magicians on YouTube, which automatically disqualifies his opinion from serious consideration.

And he's not the only one.

David Alexander: "YouTube and its clones have given an outlet for the ignorant and self-absorbed who have no business stepping away from their mirrors. The number of viewings for some of these videos is sad news in that a great many people are being educated as to what magic is, not what it can be in the hands of a competent performer."

That's some pretty broad hating without any specifics.

Brad Henderson gives props to David Blaine, finally. But where David Blaine trumps those who have followed is in his deep, spiritual quest for meaning. Not even the merely super-talented, like Cyril and Derren Brown, can touch that. Brown, in particular, falls back on his pseudo-scientific explanations, that old "combination of magic, psychology, and intuition" bullshit so favored by mentalists these days. Don't get me wrong: I love Brown and I think he's quite brilliant, but he doesn't project a transcendent search for meaning the way Blaine does.

Magicians get so wrapped up in technique, in history and crediting issues, that they fail to see the organic way in which all arts grow and change. Chris is driven by a vision -- not yet fully formed, I don't think -- but he has a real vision in the same way Blaine does. He's a truly modern magician, with multiple streams by which his fans can respond and interact with him.

How many people on this forum have motivated their audiences to make fan art?


Final Follow-up Comment

The magic community has shown a lot of hostility to the YouTube generation. But I'm surprised that a lot of people on this forum don't basically think Chris' video is cool, shows some pretty eye-popping (if standard, to all you pros) magic, and demonstrates nothing but respect and love for the art and craft. Same planet, different eyes, I guess.

I happen to think Chris' video presents magic in a great light -- the tricks all look great, his timing is good, and the music is modern and hip. There aren't that many magic clips I want to watch more than once but Chris did a great job with this one and it survives multiple viewings.

Of course, I'm quite partial to progressive Hip Hop, too, and the Cannibus song is very cool. Chris knows his music, and he communicates a lot by the choices he makes.

It seems as though a lot of non-magicians were impressed with the video as a demonstration of magic, too. That "Twins do magic" video linked to in an earlier post is a loving tribute by a couple of girls who were impressed by Chris' magic. You can either feel contempt for the uneducated laymen or you can ask what you can do to reach people the way Chris did.

Blaine wannabe: hogwash. Yes, Chris and many other magicians of note under 25 are the children of Blaine, no question. Chris would be the first to acknowledge this. Blaine created a whole new paradigm of magic for the 21st century: wear normal, hip clothes, take it to the streets, do it for real people with real objects in real situations...

And thank god for him, too. Blaine single-handedly stopped magic's slide into artistic irrelevance. I was getting pretty tired of magicians dressed like waiters doing tricks with gentlemen's hats and silk scarves and canes -- turn-of-the-century accouterments with little meaning to modern spectators.

I exaggerate, of course, but only slightly. How many magicians before Blaine can you think of who were as hip and contemporary as, say, The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Or Nicholas Cage? Or, for that matter, Criss Angel?

Angel wears jeans and tee shirts and performs in the streets, too, with cool music video-style editing. Is he also a Blaine wannabe? (Wait, don't answer that.)

Blaine provided a language; young magicians now use that language as a starting point for wherever their art needs to go. Chris is no more a Blaine wannabe than Channing Pollack was a Robert Houdin wannabe just because he, too, dressed in formal evening wear.

It was Houdin, in fact, who said that a magician should dress in the appropriate contemporary clothes of a gentleman. These days, gentlemen wear jeans and t-shirts far more often than tuxedos. At least the cool ones do.

Making a video after only 2 years in magic? Yup, a lot of us initially encouraged Chris to wait a while. But he's young, ambitious, and energetic and he wisely chose to ignore us older naysayers. After all, who are we to try to nip the blasting energy of youth in the bud? Chris will not be dissuaded by anyone; he has vision and drive, and I applaud him for it.

"You won't be young forever." Andy Warhol.

More power to you, young brother Chris. Take it all the way!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Vote Different: UPDATED

UPDATE: March 20th. I guess I'm only slightly ahead of the mainstream. The San Francisco Chronicle today had a front page article on Vote Different. Like all great masterworks of the YouTube age, this viral attack ad really exploded fast and changed the rules virtually overnight.

Obama's people are denying any involvement (and there's no particular reason to believe otherwise), but they've got to be dancing gleeful jigs about this powerful anti-Hillary mashup of Apple's famous 1984 commercial. The original was directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), and this impressive new version surfs the iconography beautifully. Hillary makes a surprisingly convincing Big Brother, too.

I'm just saying.

This is a major new development. The political hacks have lost control of their own message. Expect to see more homebrew political ads cropping up all over between now and '08.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Brain Exercise: 50 States in 10 Minutes

Ironic Sans is photographer David Friedman's entertaining blog. David (as he refers to himself) first attracted notice with his pre-pixilated clothes, hilarious tee shirts with "pre-pixilated" logos suitable for TV (no accidental advertising).

Now David has up a post about a game he likes to play with his friends, in which he tries to remember and write down the names of all 50 U.S. states in 10 minutes. One of his readers designed this terrific online version. If you have 10 minutes to spare, click on it and give it a try!

I got 38 on my first try. Is that good or lame?

Update: I got 39 on my second try. That's exhausting!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dylan Hears a Who - UPDATED

Via BoingBoing, here's a fantastically funny pseudo-mashup [No longer available here. See UPDATE below.] of "Bob Dylan" singing Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat is a particular standout.

UPDATE 4/13/07: Apparently, the Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) estate has no sense of humor and Kevin Ryan, the creator of the clever Seuss/Dylan mashup, had to take it down or risk costly litigation. Salon has the full story here.

Dylan Hears a Who is still available via P2P, naturally. The Dr. Seuss people come off as the ineffectual culture bullies they are.

Copyright laws these days punish creativity. Here's a great article about copyright and intellectual property by a musician who decided to post all his music on the Web for free. He also recounts the story of his gifted 18-year-old student whose creativity was rewarded with 2 -- two! -- cease and desist letters from big corporations. Recommended.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Kids Today...

New York Magazine has a fantastic article on the vast (and growing) generation gap between kids today and their parents. Pull quote featuring Clay Shirky, new media studies professor at NYU:

Shirky describes this generational shift in terms of pidgin versus Creole. “Do you know that distinction? Pidgin is what gets spoken when people patch things together from different languages, so it serves well enough to communicate. But Creole is what the children speak, the children of pidgin speakers. They impose rules and structure, which makes the Creole language completely coherent and expressive, on par with any language. What we are witnessing is the Creolization of media.”

That’s a cool metaphor, I respond. “I actually don’t think it’s a metaphor,” he says. “I think there may actually be real neurological changes involved.”

It's nice to see some generally pro-kid coverage of Internet trends, for a change.