Preparing For Takeoff

Okay, so I’ve been negligent of this blog again. But I have more excu – I mean, reasons. Solid reasons; sensible justifications.

A while ago I wrote a post suggesting I would resume blogging here in the Spring. Well, that didn’t happen. But I promise I haven’t stopped reading, researching, writing and editing since that post. It’s just that, you know, none of that work has really appeared here per se, but it exists. And I have proof: Google my name, check out Scienceline (where, I might add, you can find tons of fantastic articles by all my amazing NYU classmates), or look at the ‘Writing’ page here.

After finishing my internship with Environmental Health News, I began another internship with Scientific American MIND. I started working for MIND on May 10; it’s now Sep 8th and I am still working for MIND; and the plan is to stay with MIND through December at least. In addition to helping the MIND editorial team – by researching, writing, and editing articles for the print issues of the magazine – I’ve also been writing online news stories Scientific American’s web team. I’ve really enjoyed spanning the print and online worlds and the various duties have kept me exceedingly busy in the best way. I’m also really excited to share some of the fruits of this labor, some upcoming work that I probably shouldn’t blog about quite yet, because it’s not ready to hit the stands.

Now, my schedule is shifting once again. Tomorrow is the first day of class in what will be the last term of my MA in science journalism. I’ll continue to intern with MIND as we wrap up the MA. I’m not sure why this shift should coincide with more blogging here…it’s not like I expect to have more free time now that I will be interning and taking classes simultaneously (over the summer, we had about two months with no classes, just internships). But I somehow feel inspired, energized, motivated. Let’s see what comes of it.


An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker, Journalist, and Neuroscience-Enthusiast Noah Hutton

[This post originally appeared on March 12, 2010, on my short-lived blog Savvy Saplings, which explored the world of plant signaling and communication. I am transferring certain posts to The Mind’s Flight so they are not lost behind closed doors in cyberspace]

As I’ve mentioned before, here at Savvy Saplings I’m interested in exploring more than just plants and science. I also want to explore how best to communicate science—how best to communicate in general.

I’m especially interested in talking to people who are similarly invested in the challenge of effective communication. We’ve already investigated the world of electronic books with Vook author Eric Gower, as well as the art of the viral video with YouTube sensation Liam Kyle Sullivan.

Now, I bring you an interview with documentary filmmaker, journalist, and neuroscience-enthusiast Noah Hutton.

A recent graduate of Wesleyan University, Hutton is the co-director of the documentary “Shooting for Peace” and director of “Crude Independence”—which was an official selection at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival and won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Oxford Film Festival. For the next ten years, Hutton will be working on a documentary about neuroscientist Henry Markram’s famous Blue Brain project in Lausanne, Switzerland: an attempt to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain using supercomputers and biologically accurate models of neuronal activity.

Based in New York City, Hutton is the Creative Director of Couple 3, a production house for independent media. He also founded and runs The Beautiful Brain, a webzine that “explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly podcasts, essays, and reviews, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.”

Here’s our interview.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Los Angeles, but we only lived there for three years. After that, our home base was in New York but both of my parents were working often so we traveled most of the time and I was tutored on the road. I didn’t attend a school until the third grade when we settled for good in New York.

Was that upstate NY or the city?

The city—Upper West Side.

Do you have any particularly strong memories from those roaming years—ones that stand out, or that you consider formative?

I have a lot of memories from that period as we were traveling through many different countries. I lived for almost a year in England. In 1995 ,when I was eight, we trekked through China searching for pandas in the wild for a BBC documentary. I also remember spending time in the Sahara when my mother was filming “The Sheltering Sky.”

Where did you go to college, why did you go there, and what did you study?

I went to Wesleyan University and I don’t have a particular reason why—it was one of the first schools I visited and I just had a feeling that I wanted to be there. I spent my first two and a half years there taking mostly art history classes, which is the degree I ended up with. By junior year I caught the neuroscience bug and took nine neuroscience classes, but didn’t take the year-long pre-med requirements, so didn’t get the neuroscience degree.

Was there something specific that inspired the interest in neuroscience?

Yes, there was. It was two books I read back to back: “Why God Won’t Go Away” by Andrew Newberg, which reports on his research that ties out-of-body religious experiences in monks and nuns to irregular activity in the posterior parietal cortex, and E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience,” which makes an impassioned plea for bridging the humanities and sciences and became sort of a manifesto for me.

How early did filmmaking come into the picture? When did you start getting behind the camera?

I’ve been making shorts and experimenting with video cameras since early high school. My first serious filmmaking experience was in the summer of 2007 when I got into a program called World Crew, run by the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, which sent me to Uganda with three other college-age aspiring filmmakers to make a feature-length documentary about three pressing humanitarian issues in that country: child soldiers, HIV/AIDS orphans, and water treatment. The film is called “Shooting for Peace” and we spent two and a half months in Uganda filming it.

Tell me a little about your documentary “Crude Independence.”

After the Uganda experience, I was determined to direct a documentary feature of my own, and over winter break that year I saw an article in the Times about a massive oil boom in western North Dakota that was dramatically changing small town life. I put myself on a plane and was in Stanley, North Dakota two days later, meeting locals and laying the groundwork to return that summer and shoot the film.

And it was quite well received, yes?

I wasn’t expecting anything with it, but it was thrilling when we started getting into film festivals, the two high points being our SXSW selection and winning best documentary feature at the Oxford Film Festival.

Were you still working on “Crude Independence” after you graduated from Wesleyan? If not, what did you do right after you graduated?

No, I had finished “Crude Independence” in the fall of my senior year, and was flying back and forth from festivals to school to make sure I graduated that spring. When I graduated I got my first apartment in NYC and started a job as an in-house editor at a film production studio. After a few months of that, I decided to quit and put all of my energy into building my own production company and directing projects, and that’s what I’ve been doing since.

The new production company being Couple 3 or had that already been in the works beforehand?

Yeah that’s it—I formed Couple 3 as a NY corporation before making “Crude Independence.”

When did you get the idea to start making a documentary about Blue Brain—how does that fall into the timeline? Why choose Blue Brain as a subject? What fascinates you about it?

I have been following Blue Brain through various media coverage of the project for a couple years, and after reading Jonah Lehrer’s SEED Magazine piece about the project, I felt strongly that a film needed to be made about the project. As it’s a ten-year (estimated) project, my plan is to take yearly trips over there to track its progress, and put together updates each year with the new footage that I post online on my site. From a marketing sense, I hope that will build an audience for the film project, so that in ten years when Markram is finishing up and things are getting dramatic and I’m finishing the film, there will be a built-in audience for the final, feature-length film I create. On an intellectual level, the project is fascinating for so many reasons, as are the people that are carrying it out. It is the “Fitzcarraldo” of modern neuroscience.

Can you elaborate on the “Fitzcarraldo” reference?

I’ve always thought of the quest to create artificial intelligence as a relative of Fitzcarraldo’s quest to push the steamship over the mountain in Herzog’s film, which is one of my personal favorites of all time. It is something that few believe they can do, but for those who do believe they can do it (like Henry Markram), we will all watch from the sidelines, awed by progress up the mountain, always thinking that the ship may slip back down at any moment (as it has many times before), but still watching because we have a sense that it could actually happen someday.

Going back to the marketing aspect, how do you specifically plan to use Twitter and social media to build up an audience? Any specific strategies? It seems like today, in 2010, there are a lot of ways to attract viewers that simply didn’t exist even 5 years ago.

Yes, absolutely. I have been using Twitter to promote my production company’s projects and The Beautiful Brain and I think it is an invaluable tool these days, especially when one is thinking about building an audience for a project. One still has to create a good film. But the point is that I can post the first piece tracking the first year of my Blue Brain film online, post a link on Twitter, and within a couple days thousands have watched it around the world. I’m not sure if that was possible before these tools were around.

For Blue Brain, my strategy is to post these yearly updates to build interest both in the project (so that I will continue to have access) and in the film I’m making, so that when I release a feature-length documentary, there will hopefully be an audience that has been watching these pieces over the years and feels invested—we’re talking about a decade of seeing a film come together. I think the future is in using these tools to engage your audience throughout the entire process of creating a film, so that one feels personally invested in the outcome. Tools like Kickstarter are also coming up with innovative ways to make that investment a monetary as well as an emotional one.

A 10-year film project seems like a massive investment of time and resources on your part. How does one support oneself through that, or raise the necessary funding? And how will it be profitable in the end?

Well, saying I’m making a 10-year film probably sounds like more time and investment than it is. In reality, I will take one brief trip over there once a year for the next ten years. I own all the equipment, so really we’re talking about plane tickets and lodging for the trips. I work year-round on many various projects for the clients of my company so that I can fund the trips over there. In the end, I hope to make a feature-length documentary that I can take to festivals and then sell for a theatrical release or for TV. Then things could be profitable—but again, one has to forget about those things and focus on making as good a film as they possibly can given all the circumstances. These will be my Blue Brain “vacations!”

Have you sold documentaries for theatrical release or television broadcast in the past?

Not like I hope to in the future. With “Crude Independence,” I put together a release strategy where I’ve been traveling to cities and having theatrical screenings where I speak afterwards, and we released the DVD at the same time. In the future I hope to partner with distributors for wider, more conventional releases.

Okay, so Beautiful Brain: when did you start working on that and why did you decide to create it?

I started it this past December as a way to stay engaged with what I had been studying in college, and to hopefully produce content that people will enjoy and find interesting. I have a couple friends who I spend a lot of time talking neuroscience and art with, so I got them to come onboard and since then I’ve been able to interview some incredibly interesting scientists and artists for the site. Our audience is growing: we are averaging more and more visitors each month, and I hope to recruit more writers for the site who are interested in the art/science dialogue, and to either partner with a nonprofit or advertise on the site so that we can monetize things and I can pay those who contribute to the site.

So right now you’re focusing on content and building an audience, and hoping to monetize in the future?

Yes, I hope that after a few more months of producing diverse content and building our audience, we’ll be able to tackle monetization.

How did you go about building the site? What programs/languages/platforms did you use?

I used a WordPress theme that I custom CSS coded a bit to fit our needs, and then have been using Photoshop to create all graphic content for the site.

Do you find it difficult to juggle maintaining the site and the production company?

At times, yes. There is a lack of time for it all, but the good thing about the site is that I’m always very personally interested in whatever I’m writing or editing for it so I have no problem doing that at 1 am or on an off day from film stuff.

How many people work with you in your production company, and how many on The Beautiful Brain?

With the production company, it’s me full time, and for each specific project I bring in others—for example, right now, I have an editor in NYC who is co-editing a commissioned documentary we just finished shooting, and here in Minneapolis I’ve hired two really talented local cinematographers to shoot this concert with me. So it’s project by project. On The Beautiful Brain, I work with two others: Ben Ehrlich and Sam McDougle, both friends of mine from high school.

[At the time of the interview, Hutton was filming in Minneapolis]

Was it challenging to start your own production company right out of college? Or was it more a matter of using your accomplishments to market yourself and get commissions / projects? How did you go about that process?

It’s still just a matter of one project to the next at this point. I do hope at some point to have a real studio and have full-time positions with the company, so I’m building towards that. After I graduated it was mostly a matter of using “Crude Independence” to market myself for a range of freelance projects.

What do you think distinguishes or will further distinguish The Beautiful Brain from other mind/brain-focused sites and publications? Do you see a specific gap in the coverage to fill?

There are some other sites that pursue the brain/art dialogue, such as, but my vision with TBB is to fill exactly that niche with a visually appealing site that presents a range of media—not just text. So, for one, I’m not aware of other podcasts that deal specifically and exclusively with the art-brain dialogue, so that’s one gap I’m trying to fill, mostly because I was looking for a podcast that did just that back in the fall and couldn’t find one.

Speaking of other media beyond text, have you thought at all about thinks like ereaders and the iPad? We’ve seen quite a few demos of magazines/publications on such devices. Would you want to continue The Beautiful Brain as a web site, or expand into some kind of ereader?

That’s an interesting thought—I hadn’t even considered that yet. I’m focused for now on building the audience for the site, and then all sorts of expansions could be possible in the future.

An Interview with YouTube Celebrity Liam Kyle Sullivan, Star and Creator of the Viral Video ‘Shoes’

[This post originally appeared on February 17, 2010, on my short-lived blog Savvy Saplings, which explored the world of plant signaling and communication. I am transferring certain posts to The Mind’s Flight so they are not lost behind closed doors in cyberspace]

“These shoes rule. These shoes suck. These shoes suck. THESE SHOES SUCK!”-Liam Kyle Sullivan as Kelly, in the YouTube sensation “Shoes”

Here at Savvy Saplings, plants and science aren’t the only subjects of interest.

I’m also interested in how best to communicate science, in how communication is changing, and in experimenting with different media. I’m interested in talking to people who have already found success experimenting with new forms of communication and entertainment themselves.

The other week I posted my interview with Eric Gower, author of the first Vook cookbook – a combination of book and video. He said he would never publish an ordinary print cookbook again.

This week I bring you an interview with comedian, YouTube sensation, and media entrepreneur Liam Kyle Sullivan. He is one of the most viewed and best beloved of YouTube celebrities, drawing millions of fans with whacky, bold and original humor. You can watch his YouTube videos here, of which I especially recommend “Muffins,” “What Kelly Wants to Be,” “Love Letters,” and “Dr. Ulee, Sex Therapist.”

Collectively, Sullivan’s YouTube videos have received 108,969,412 views (2/17/10; 10PM). But Sullivan is most famous for one piece in particular – the “Shoes” video. Perhaps you’ll remember when Sullivan played the shoe-obsessed Kelly in this 2006 video? It went viral. Like, super viral. Over 32 million views and counting.

It’s also the first thing that comes up when you search ‘shoes’ on YouTube.

Through YouTube’s Partner Program, Sullivan gets a decent share of the advertisement revenue Google earns from the ads they place around and on his videos. (Google now owns YouTube). He doesn’t earn enough from YouTube alone to support himself – mainly because he actually pays those who help him create his videos – but Sullivan has other sources of income, like acting in television and commercials, live performances and comedy routines, touring with comedian Margaret Cho, selling his music on iTunes, and selling merchandise. “My kind of business model is more about actual stuff you can buy, not so much clicking on ads,” Sullivan said. He wants to create things that people can keep and take with them, whether it’s a song, downloadable video, a t-shirt, or the memory of a great live performance.

Here’s our interview:

Q: Where did you grow up and go to school?

A: I grew up in Norfolk, MA—a small town outside of Boston. And I bounced around a few different colleges. I went to Clark University and Emerson College. And then I just started acting, I never graduated. I just started acting in Boston at the theaters. And then I moved to Los Angeles.

Q: What were you studying in college?

A: Parties. No, I was studying—you know I never declared a major. I took some history classes. I took some theater classes, but I was kind of all over the place. I didn’t know what I was doing.

Q: Were you participating in theater and improvisational groups in college?

A: Mostly I did straight theater. I did some improv, but it wasn’t later until I moved to LA that I started taking improv classes and sketch-writing classes out here.

Q: Why did you move to Los Angeles as opposed to New York City?

A: I just say it’s because I can’t sing and dance. NYC has more musical theater going on; LA has more TV and film and that’s what I imagined myself going into at the time. But then the Internet got invented!

Q: When did you first join YouTube?

A: I joined YouTube in Spring of 2006 so YouTube was barely a year old at the time, I think.

[YouTube was created in February 2005]

Q: What did you think you were going to do with YouTube at the time?

A: I didn’t really know. I just knew that it was free and I could get my videos out to more people than if I just had a web site. My whole goal of 2005 was just to get myself out there and that included doing live shows on my own that I wrote and shooting videos that I wrote and directed and starred in. I developed this thing called Liam Show, which was all this stuff mashed up together. And just trying to do all this stuff on my own. And when YouTube came around, it was just kind of a perfect fit because I was already doing things all indie and this is sort of a good platform for what I was doing already—you know, short form video.

Q: When you first moved to Los Angeles, how did you support yourself?

A: I was doing temp work in offices and catering jobs. Between 2000 and 2005 I started doing commercials and I got an agent. So I was working the temp jobs and I would go audition and get a commercial and that took a while—it took a long time to get my first union job. But once I did, things started rolling. I got some small roles on television shows like Alias and 8 Simple Rules and once I was a working actor, that’s when I started doing things on my own and writing my own stuff. I didn’t actually know about YouTube when I was shooting my videos. I actually shot “Shoes” before I knew about YouTube. I had it up on my web site and someone took “Shoes” off of my web site and put it on YouTube.

Q: Really?

A: Yeah, yeah. And that was totally fine because I made them downloadable, I made them free. But a couple of million people must have seen it before I was like, “Oh!” and then I was clued in and I joined YouTube and started putting my stuff up there.

Q: Do you remember how many hits “Shoes” was getting on your web site before it was moved to YouTube?

A: I don’t actually. Back then I didn’t even know how to check—like Google Analytics or something, I didn’t even know about that stuff. All I knew was I need to have a web site, you know, I need to have a place where people can go to learn about me and see my stuff. I didn’t even know, Oh you can check how many people come to your web site! I’m not very technically savvy.

Q: How did you react when “Shoes” went viral on YouTube?

A: It was a huge high—a massive high. I performed for a couple hundred people and got them all to laugh and that was enough for me until that happened and then I started thinking about how I am making millions of people laugh and it was so exhilarating—it was just a giant high. And then I started to stress about it too. Because a lot of people were approaching me and I was getting all these messages—people wanted to know more about me. My e-mail was loaded with messages from people I didn’t know. It was a little tricky to sift through and say, Okay what do I want to respond to and how often can I respond? I think MySpace was the worst because—I had a MySpace account for the character Kelly and that one exploded because people were trying to get me to respond and I just couldn’t respond to everybody. In the beginning I tried to and I was just like, look, I can’t. So on the one hand it was a big high and on the other hand it was, you know, stress.

Q: Are you currently with the YouTube Partner Program?

A: I am and I was totally thrilled when they did that. I still don’t really know why they did it. They’re just giving money to people! It’s nice; it’s great. You kind of give up a little because you agree to have people running advertisements right on your videos. But the option to click off is nice. It helps to keep us going. You know, people like us, we don’t make millions of dollars. We don’t have the resources that a studio does to put out hundreds of hours of programming. And eventually—I mean I work with guys who I want to pay because they do great work and I don’t want to keep asking them to do it for free. My manager at the time let me know about the Partner Program and we just signed up immediately.

Q: What do you know about the logistics of the Partner Program?

A: I don’t know too much about it. I’m not sure if you need a minimum amount of views. I don’t understand the math too well, but there are CPMs and there is some kind of split of revenues that they do with the Partners.

Q: Could you support yourself entirely from the Partners program?

A: I couldn’t support myself; it’s more of a nice bonus. I think there’s a handful of Partners who do stuff with me and could totally support themselves off it. And those are the people who are generating several videos a week, whereas I like to do stuff once a month. I’ll put a lot of thought into it and write it and do a skit rather than a vlog where you just talk to the camera, which takes a lot of thought too, but in terms of production you don’t have to buy lights and deal with casting and things like that. I do okay on it but I couldn’t really support myself with it.

Q: Do you have other sources of online income?

A: I also sell my music on iTunes. I work with a company that helps you get your music to iTunes if you don’t have a record label. And you basically just upload your music onto their site and they deliver it to iTunes. I promote that stuff on my web site and I have t-shirts for sale on my web site. My kind of business model is more about actual stuff you can buy, not so much clicking on ads.

Q: Is that because you think it’s more stable?

A: No, it just worked out that way. I love making songs and writing songs and making t-shirts—so as soon as some of my stuff started blowing up I thought, Oh okay let’s start making people stuff they can actually have, not just watch. Something they can download, something they can wear, a show they can see, an event. My history is all in performance and performing live. So it just worked out that way, I guess. I wanted to do all those things.

Q: Do you enjoy performing live more than video work for YouTube?

A: I like them both. They’re different in that when you do something for video, your performance is locked in and it’s forever and when you do something live it’s more of a one time event that you can never do exactly the same way again. And there’s a lot of fun when you do something live because you are interacting with the audience and the actor is center stage and taking everyone for a ride. When I direct stuff, it’s sort of the same thing, but you just put it out there and hope people like it. It’s released.

Q: It’s interesting that you mention the interactivity of live performance because a lot of people think that’s where online media needs to improve, compared with live events.

A: Yeah, yeah I think that’s true. I think live streaming online is becoming more popular now. But I guess nothing beats showing up and seeing something live.

Q: Do you see television and the Internet merging even more than they have?

A: Yes, yes I guess I do. I mean every time I watch television someone is telling me to go online, you know go online. I’m watching TV and they say go to the web!

Q: People also seem to appreciate not being tied to a specific schedule and having greater choice to watch what they want, when they want – like what Hulu offers.

A: Yeah, I like it. I love Hulu. But then again I love sitting on the couch and watching TV.

Q: Tell me a little about the comedy group The Kids in the Hall that you list as in influence.

A: Kids in the Hall are awesome. I was watching them, I don’t know, I guess in the early ‘90s and being like, Who are these guys? These guys are amazing! I just love their style. Their humor is so weird, it’s so weird. And they do all kinds of characters. And when they play women they don’t even really change their voices all the time; they’ll just have a regular man’s voice. It’s really fun.

Q: Have you been able to distill what specific qualities of their comedy style you’re attracted to?

A: I think it’s because they do all kinds of characters. They do women, they do men. They do all kinds of different people. But then they also play themselves sometimes too. They’ll do little monologues. And they do sketch; they’re not really stand-ups. And their videos—they also did these videos that were just crazy. It was like a short film festival, but it was part of their sketch show. Everything they did was just really weird. Like Saturday Night Live has a lot of sketches that are just like here’s the setup, here’s the context and let’s just roll with it. But The Kids in the Hall would take you on these weird, weird offshoots, off the beaten path and I like that, I like that a lot.

Q: Do you edit your own videos?

A: I edit all my own videos. I use Final Cut Pro.

Q: Did you adapt “Shoes” for live performance?

A: Actually, “Shoes” started out as live performance. I was doing some stand-up at the time. I got the idea to incorporate the character of Kelly in my stand-up, because I had the character in mind but I didn’t have the actual song “Shoes” in mind or anything. But it didn’t work. It was just me doing a voice and it didn’t really fly. It was only when I figured out, Oh I need to go all the way; I have to completely commit to this character; I need to find her look; and I need to actually, like, be this person. And then it worked and I had the song and the song worked really well live. And I think I performed it live three or four times before someone said, “Hey, you should shoot a video for that!” And I was like, Yeah I should!

Q: Do you have any musical background that helps with creating your songs?

A: Not really. I played saxophone in junior high. And I took piano lessons, but I don’t have any real formal training in music or anything. Luckily Garage Band was invented so I could just plug in loops and stuff.

Q: Have you ever adapted a video piece for live performance?

A: It’s pretty much been the other way around.

Q: What are you working on now? In what direction would you like your career to head?

A: Well I’m getting more into directing now. I recently did a video where I played a small role in the video, but for the majority of it I was directing and going through that whole process was really awesome. I really enjoy directing videos. I think I am going to move more in that direction. I am not sure what my future is for YouTube, but I love writing and directing my own stuff so I know I am going to keep doing that. And looking around for opportunities to direct other people’s stuff as well, whether it’s TV or YouTube or film or whatever.

Q: What is it about YouTube that makes it such an effective tool for communication and entertainment?

A: I think it’s because it’s free, honestly, I think it’s because it’s free. Where else can you go and upload videos and see other people’s videos for free? I think that’s a big turn on for people. And I think YouTube was maybe the first to do videos the way they did. You just click it on and there it goes, high quality and everybody can comment and rate it. You feel like you are part of something bigger. It’s just so easy.

Q: Is there something you would really like to do on the Internet that just hasn’t been invented yet?

A: Hmm I haven’t really thought about it. I think it would be kind of cool if you could combine YouTube, Facebook, Twitter—you know, all these social networks. If you could integrate all these into one kind of layout; if you could just open up one site without having to click into all these different windows, that would be awesome. Maybe it’s already been done, I’m not sure.

Q: After living in Los Angeles for ten years, have you seen many of your friends struggling to make it in the entertainment business of have a lot of your friends found success as well?

A: A lot of my friends have found success in different ways, not necessarily through YouTube, but through TV, commercials and film. But I do consider myself really lucky. The way that YouTube has allowed me to—outside of any studio or any corporation—to reach all the people I’ve been able to reach, on the limited budget I had—well, that was amazing! And still is amazing. I feel really lucky. And the timing was great. I shot the “Shoes” video and I think YouTube was just becoming popular, it was just getting on people’s radar. And then “Shoes” got on YouTube and it was like, Bam! But a year ahead of that, who knows? Or two or three or four years? I don’t know what I would have done with that video. I probably would have just shown it in a live show or something and moved onto something else.

Q: Why do you think so many of the most successful and most viewed videos on YouTube are comedy acts?

A: I think that comedy is quicker. Drama takes a lot longer to unfold. A video that is three or four minutes long that gives you a laugh or several laughs—you’re satisfied. But if you watch something for three and a half minutes that is a drama, you probably need more time or you need to be invested it and when you are watching something on the net, most people aren’t looking for that. And music does really well too—music videos on the net are amazing. I think short form, you know, anything that’s kind of short works pretty well.

Q: Do you think there’s a downside to people being so accustomed to consuming short form media instead of sitting through something longer?

A: I don’t think so, because people are still willing to invest two hours, sometimes three hours for a film, where it’s a long storyline. And books are—people are still reading books that take days, sometimes weeks to get through. I just think it’s another form of entertainment that’s available and people are psyched about. Yes, when you’re working you just want to check this or that out for a few minutes; it’s not as intrusive of your time, it’s just a fun little pleasure –like a treat. With a book, you know, like, Oh I am going to tackle War and Peace this summer: it’s more of a project. I think people are able to do both.

Q: Considering everything you have experienced up to now, if there was someone who wanted to move to Los Angeles or New York City to try and make it in the entertainment business, would you have any particular advice for them?

A: I would say—I guess this would work for any point in their life, but always realize how much your friends and your family mean to you and how important they are. When all you focus on is a career goal, sometimes you can let your friends and family fall by the wayside. Often times they can help you in your career. The friends I have made out here are just incredible and I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without them. So, very simple Ma/Pa kettle advice. Friends and family, man. At the end of the day, you want to hang out with them.

What Happened to The Updates?

I’ve been woefully negligent of this blog and I apologize.

But there are good reasons! I swear I haven’t been sitting around doing nothing.

Firstly, I’ve created a new blog, Savvy Saplings, which explores the world of plant communication and signaling. I am fascinated by the secret social lives of plants and all the surprising ways in which plants swiftly respond to changes in their environment. The blog is part of an entrepreneurial journalism class I’m taking and a way to help me research a long feature article, with the possibility of one day expanding that article into a book.

Secondly, I’ve been interning with Environmental Health News (EHN) this Spring.
You can read my first feature article for EHN on their web site and on Scientific American, with whom they have a partnership. The article addresses the potential dangers of a group of chemicals called pyrethroids, which are synthesized from chrysanthemums for use in virtually every common household pesticide. Pyrethroids are lingering in homes and washing off lawns and gardens into storm drains, eventually contaminating rivers and streams at levels high enough to kill small aquatic life on which fish depend.

And, as always, I’ve been busy blogging and writing articles for Scienceline, the webzine created by the students of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) – a 16 month MA in science journalism. We’ve had some especially great content lately, so check it out!

(Oh yeah, I also do a lot of Tweeting)

So, I am taking a bit of a break from posting here, but not for too much longer! Spring term ends in late April / early May, at which point I will return to regularly updating Psyence. Stay tuned!

Did Tainted Cow’s Milk Kill Jane Austen?

A colored adaptation of a sketch of English novelist Jane Austen (Credit: Wikimedia)

English novelist Jane Austen died at age 41 from a somewhat mysterious illness. For nearly the past fifty years, Janeites, doctors and literary scholars have attempted to piece together the clues in her final letters and diagnose her fatal condition.

The most widely accepted diagnosis is Addison’s disease – a rare disorder in which the adrenal glands fail to produce sufficient levels of vital hormones. Biographer Claire Tomalin suggested lymphoma, cancer of the immune system – an idea that has also gained support.

Now, British medical researcher Katherine White offers a novel hypothesis: cow’s milk. Having reexamined Austen’s surviving personal correspondence, White proposes Austen died from a tuberculosis infection after drinking some unpasteurized cow’s milk.

How does White’s new diagnosis measure up? Read more at Scienceline to find out!

A New Way to Play Video Games: Become the Controller

An entirely controller-free gaming experience for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 will be commercially available as early as Christmas 2010 for as cheap as $80, according to recently leaked information from a secret Microsoft tour in the United Kingdom. Known as Project Natal, the new technology will allow gamers to seamlessly interact with virtual worlds and characters by speaking, gesturing and presenting physical objects to a 3D camera.

According to the inside source, Microsoft already has 14 games in the works. One is called Ricochet, in which a player uses his entire body to bounce balls at blocks and score points. In Paint Party, gamers create an onscreen masterpiece by posing in the shape of a desired stencil, choosing colors through speech recognition, and splashing paint onto a virtual canvas with throwing motions.

This project vision video features some other possibilities, including martial arts between a gamer and an onscreen character—without the need for cumbersome sensors—and the ability to embody a Godzilla avatar on a destructive rampage.

In this earlier video, a woman interacts with a realistic virtual world and a pixilated boy named Milo, who can recognize the emotion in her voice, hold a conversation and even comment on a drawing she holds up to the camera.

The wizard behind these unprecedented gaming features is a small black box called the Project Natal sensor, which is compatible with existing Xbox 360 consoles. The magic box relies heavily on sophisticated software for human-computer interaction. “The human tracking algorithms that the teams have developed are well ahead of the state of the art in computer vision in this domain,” Johnny Chung Lee, a researcher in the Applied Sciences group at Microsoft, wrote on his blog. “The sophistication and performance of the algorithms rival or exceed anything that I’ve seen in academic research, never mind a consumer product.”

Working together, a depth camera, a multi-array microphone, and a set of specialized sensors enable full body 3D motion capture, as well as face, voice and object recognition. “Essentially we do a 3D body scan of you. We graph 48 joints in your body and then those 48 joints are tracked in real-time, at 30 frames per second,” project director Alex Kipman said in one interview. Not only will Natal register just how forcefully you kick a virtual soccer ball or how skillfully you jump on your digitized skateboard, it will recognize how many people are playing with you, distinguishing between familiar gamers and guests. Depending on how far away you are from Natal, the sensors can even differentiate the individual fingers on your hand.

The applications of such interactive technology are not limited to videogames. “These are not just the kind of experiences that you’re going to see with the 360,” Phil Spencer, general manager of Microsoft Game Studios, told The Seattle Times. “It’s a foundational event for the company, to think about how we will evolve our platforms.” If things keep going well, perhaps Microsoft will liberate laptops of keyboards and mice in time for Christmas 2011.

Echoes from the Future of Opera: A Mashup of Music and Technoloy at the MIT Media Lab

On Saturday, my classmate Emily Elert and I visited the Opera of the Future research group at the MIT Media Lab. Graduate student Elena (Elly) Jessop was kind enough to spend the day with us and demonstrate some really neat fusions of music and technology.

Now, I can’t talk in detail about absolutely everything we saw, because some of it is not yet ready for the public’s eye. To respect the Media Lab and the researchers who work there, I will only discuss what can already be found online in some form or another. I’ll be linking out a lot in case you’re interested in reading more.

The Opera of the Future group, headed by innovative composer Tod Machover, “explores concepts and techniques to help advance the future of musical composition, performance, learning, and expression.” Their work includes Hyperinstruments, traditional musical instruments enhanced by technology to actively interact with performers: as the musicians play, sensors and computers allow the instruments to interpret the nuances of live performance and accordingly change the sounds they produce, creating a new spectrum of sonic power, range and finesse. Hyperscore is a computer program that translates complex musical concepts into intuitive and colorful visual representations, making relatively sophisticated music composition a possibility for those with no formal training.

Tod Machover playing a hypercello (Credit: Tod Machover, MIT)

A large ongoing project is Death and the Powers, a new opera that makes unprecedented use of technology to modify live musical performance.  The creative team includes Machover (composer), former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (librettist), Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater Diane Paulus (director), and Hollywood’s Alex McDowell (production designer), who has worked on such visually stunning films as Fight Club, Minority Report and Watchmen.

Proposed Set for Death and the Powers

Proposed Set for Death and the Powers (Credit: Opera of the Future)

The opera – currently scheduled to premiere in Monaco in September, 2010 – centers on the rich and powerful businessman Simon Powers, who dies in the second act. Powers, however, has uploaded his consciousness onto a massive computer called The System, so his essence persists throughout the performance. The stage, which largely represents the Powers household, comes alive as Simon Powers learns to manipulate the external world in his new computerized existence. Power’s daughter Miranda, his wife Evvy, and his research assistant Nicholas struggle to cope with his posthumous influence and understand the choices he made.

To achieve this transcendent effect, researchers at the Opera of the Future Group – in particular Peter Torpey – have developed what they call Disembodied Performance, a collection of technological innovations that allow an absent performer to remain actively involved in a live performance. Although Powers won’t be directly visible, his voice will be heard, his emotions will be felt, his reactions will be known. All kinds of sensors on the singer and actor playing the role of Simon Powers will wirelessly transmit data to a central computer, where the data will be used to modify the operatic performance in real time. Large bookcases onstage will present the audience with waves of color to reflect Powers’s mood, bristling in anger when a character walks by that Powers doesn’t like, for example. Ambisonic sound – which reverberates in any and every direction – will wrap the audience in song, placing them at the very center of Powers’s voice. Many-legged furniture – inspired by the beautiful kinetic sculptures of Theo Jansen – will scurry across the stage.

Elly Jessop has been working on a remarkable device for the opera called the Vocal Augmentation and Manipulation Prosthesis (VAMP): a glove that gives its wearer the power to modify their singing voice in real time using a gesture-based vocabulary.


Vocal Augmentation and Manipulation Prosthesis (Credit: Elly Jessop)

Currently, VAMP is a long fabric glove outfitted with pressure sensors and accelerometers that wirelessly transmit data to a computer, which interprets the gestures and – working with a microphone and speakers – changes the singer’s voice. If you want to preserve a note you’re singing for example, you use a plucking gesture to pull the note from your mouth, which signals the computer to continue playing that note as you sing something else. This allows for vocal layering and textured singing. Bending of the elbow controls volume and shaking your hand induces vibrato. You can watch Elly’s fantastic demo on her web site.

VAMP is specifically designed for Nicholas, Simon Power’s research assistant, who – according to the script – has a prosthetic arm than endows him with special abilities. Since their work is for an opera, Elly and her colleagues decided that the arm should give Nicholas special vocal abilities: thus, VAMP. Eventually the glove will look far more like a robotic arm than it does now.

Other technological innovations designed for Death and the Powers include a group of advanced animatronic-like robots, ranging in height from four to seven feet, with giant triangular lights for heads. These robots, which will be partly pupeteered, can sense and avoid one another, perform semi-autonomous movement, and may eventually have their own voices. Within the opera’s narrative framework, they function as a kind of Greek chorus, perpetually retelling the story of Simon Powers in a choreographed pageantry. The also serve as sculptural set pieces and, since they’re so bright, as stage lights.

Stage Robot

Stage Robot for Death and The Powers (Credit: Opera of the Future)

Another example of music and technology working in harmony is a giant stringed instrument called The Chandelier, which can be stimulated by both a human player and by electromagnets, allowing for a much greater range of notes than a standard string instrument. The Chandelier provides the opportunity for a powerful duet between Powers and his wife, after his physical death – another form of disembodied communication.

The Chandelier

The Chandelier (Credit: Opera of the Future)

After the 2010 premiere in Monaco, a US and World tour is planned. I for one can’t wait to see how it turns out.