The Origin of “The Harlem Shake” Viral Videos

The Daily Beast has a piece/interview with the man who made “The Harlem Shake” a viral sensation, a DJ named Baauer:

For the uninitiated, it consists of users uploading videos to YouTube that last about thirty seconds in length and feature the opening of electronic music producer Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake.” The videos begin with the song’s sample of a man giving a shrieking siren call of “Con los terroristas!”—Columbian Spanish for “with the terrorists”—followed by one person, usually in a ridiculous mask or helmet, dancing to the song alone as the beat builds. He or she is surrounded by others who are stationary, blissfully unaware of the dancer. When the directive,Then do the Harlem shake is uttered about 15 seconds in, the bass drops and the video metastasizes into pure chaos—the entire coterie engaging in paroxysms of dance for the next 15 seconds in outrageous outfits, and wielding bizarre props.

The first video was uploaded to YouTube by amateur comedian Filthy Frank on February 2. As of February 15, over 40,000 “Harlem Shake” videos have been uploaded to YouTube, totaling over 175 million views. The cast of the TODAYshowThe Daily Show and The Colbert Report, this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, and even a battalion of the Norwegian Army have gotten in on the act.

It’s Friday, February 15, and I am huddled with Baauer in a tiny bathroom inside the green room of Webster Hall, a 1,500-capacity venue in Manhattan. It’s the only place where we can find some peace and quiet for his first interview since the song went viral. The night also marks Baauer’s first show in his adopted home of New York since the song exploded. It is, predictably, very sold-out.

“It’s gotten absolutely insane,” he says. “All I did was make the song so it’s kind of a weird place for me to be at. I birthed it, it was raised by others, and now it’s like my weird, fucked up adopted teenage kid coming back to me.” 

Baauer, 23, is a tall, slight fella with a boyish face and big, goofy smile. He was born Harry Rodrigues in West Philadelphia, but moved around a lot when he was younger due to his father’s job as “a financial consultant for international companies.” He lived in Germany from age four to seven, then London from seven to 13, then to Connecticut from 13-17, then one more year in London before heading off to college in New York.

Says Baauer:

“I just had the idea of taking a Dutch house squeaky-high synth and putting it over a hip-hop track,” he says. “And then I tried to just make it the most stand-out, flashy track that would get anyone’s attention, so put as many sounds and weird shit in there as I could. The dude in the beginning I got somewhere off the Internet, I don’t even know where, and the lion roar just makes no sense.” He laughs. “There’s the sound of flames in there, too, it’s just really low.”

Russian Meteor Largest to Strike Earth in More Than a Century

Nature reports that the meteorite that cut across the sky near Chelyabinsk, Russia is the largest to hit Earth in over a century:

A meteor that exploded over Russia this morning was the largest recorded object to strike the Earth in more than a century, scientists say. Infrasound data collected by a network designed to watch for nuclear weapons testing suggests that today’s blast released hundreds of kilotonnes of energy. That would make it far more powerful than the nuclear weapon tested by North Korea just days ago and the largest rock crashing on the planet since a meteor broke up over Siberia’s Tunguska river in 1908.

That’s remarkable.

If you want to learn a lot today, head to the Wikipedia article on the Tunguska Event. Quite comprehensive.

This Slate article discusses why we weren’t able to detect this Russian meteor.

The New York Times compiled six dashboard videos showing various viewpoints of the meteorite streaking across the sky. Worth a look.

Oscar Pistorius, the Risk Taker

This week, Oscar Pistorius was accused of premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp by South Africa prosecutors. It’s a sad story all around.

I went back and read this piece in New York Times Magazine, profiling the Blade Runner. It was published in January 2012, as Oscar was training for the 2012 London Olympics. Michael Sokolove, who spent time with Oscar Pistorius, exposed Oscar’s risk-friendly nature:

Hanging out with Pistorius can be a great deal of fun. You also quickly understand that he is more than a little crazy. I asked him about the tattoo on his left shoulder, a Bible verse from Corinthians that begins, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly.” He said he got it on a visit to New York. He was staying at a hotel in SoHo, and couldn’t sleep, so he took the subway uptown and just walked around. “I went into an all-night tattoo parlor,” he said. “Some Puerto Rican guy did it. It took from 2 a.m. to about 8:30. I think he was falling asleep after a while, which is why it’s a little squiggly at the bottom. But I like it that way. To me, it makes it look more authentic.”

In 2008, Pistorius crashed his boat into a submerged pier on a river south of Johannesburg. His face and body hit the steering wheel, and he broke two ribs, his jaw and an eye socket. Doctors had to sew 172 stitches in his face. More recently, while riding his dirt bike through tall grass, he clipped a fence and turned around to see one of his prosthetic legs swinging from a section of barbed wire, an unwelcome sight, for sure, but less dire than if it had been a biological leg. It was one of the only times that it occurred to him that having prosthetic lower limbs may confer some advantage.

The people around Pistorius worry about his risk-taking, but there’s only so much they can do. His manager, Peet van Zyl, shrugged when I asked him about it. “It’s the nature of the man,” he said. “At least we did get the motorbike away from him.”

There’s also this:

He bought two African white tigers and boarded them at a game reserve, then sold them to a zoo in Canada when they grew to about 400 pounds and he was no longer comfortable visiting with them. “They were really beautiful, but they started to get a little big for me,” he explained.

And finally, an interaction between the author and Pistorius on guns:

I asked what kind of gun he owned, which he seemed to take as an indication of my broader interest in firearms. I had to tell him I didn’t own any. “But you’ve shot one, right?” Actually, I hadn’t. Suddenly, I felt like one of those characters in a movie who must be schooled on how to be more manly.

“We should go to the range,” he said. He fetched his 9-millimeter handgun and two boxes of ammunition. We got back in the car and drove to a nearby firing range, where he instructed me on proper technique. Pistorius was a good coach. A couple of my shots got close to the bull’s-eye, which delighted him. “Maybe you should do this more,” he said. “If you practiced, I think you could be pretty deadly.” I asked him how often he came to the range. “Just sometimes when I can’t sleep,” he said.

Worth reading in entirety.

Invisible Gorillas in Medicine

You may be familiar with the Invisible Gorilla phenomenon, a case for “inattentional blindness” when we are focusing on something intently and miss something else entirely. The most famous version is this video in which the narrator asks the viewer to count the number of basketball passes made, while a gorilla walks by in the background…

Now, a new study from psychological scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showed that 83 percent of radiologists failed to spot the animal in a CT scan, even though they went past it four times on average:

Three psychological scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston—Trafton Drew, Melissa Vo and Jeremy Wolfe—wondered if expert observers are also subject to this perceptual blindness. The subjects in the classic study were “naïve”—untrained in any particular domain of expertise and performing a task nobody does in real life. But what about highly trained professionals who make their living doing specialized kinds of observations? The scientists set out to explore this, and in an area of great importance to many people—cancer diagnosis.

Radiologists are physicians with special advanced training in reading various pictures of the body—not just the one-shot X-rays of the past but complex MRI, CT and PET scans as well. In looking for signs of lung cancer, for example, radiologists examine hundreds of ultra-thin CT images of a single patient’s lungs, looking for tiny white nodules that warn of cancer. It’s these expert observers that the Brigham and Women’s scientists chose to study.

They recruited 24 experienced and credentialed radiologists—and a comparable group of naïve volunteers. They tracked their eye movements as they examined five patients’ CT scans, each made up of hundreds of images of lung tissue. Each case had about ten nodules hiding somewhere in the scans, and the radiologists were instructed to click on these nodules with a mouse. On the final case, the scientists inserted a tiny image of a gorilla (an homage to the original work) into the lung. They wanted to see if the radiologists, focused on the telltale nodules, would be blind to the easily detectable and highly anomalous gorilla.

The gorilla was miniscule, but huge compared to the nodules. It was about the size of a box of matches—or 48 times the size of a typical nodule. It faded in and out—becoming more, then less opaque—over a sequence of five images.  There was no mistaking the gorilla: If someone pointed it out on the lung scan and asked, What is that? – everyone would answer: That’s a gorilla.

The gorilla seems hard to miss (photo here).  I think the idea behind this experiment was to determine whether being highly trained made people less susceptible to the phenomenon of change blindness. Doesn’t seem to be the case based on the results of this study.

On Tortoises and Uncommon Love

Caroline Leavitt writes a beautiful Modern Love story about a beloved pet tortoise named Minnie, and how Caroline’s relationships were cemented in her adult life through Minnie. It is a story of finding happiness through uncommon love:

Because Minnie was so important to me, I began to measure my dates by how they treated him. If dates gave Minnie the stink eye, that was that. If they expressed interest or wanted to hold him, it made me warm to them. But sooner or later a date would ask, “Do we have to eat with the tortoise on the table?” or “This is a pet?” and my heart would shutter.

When I met Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who took me to a toy store for our first date, I was anxious about how much I liked him. I invited him to dinner, which I admit was more a dare than a meal. Minnie was on the table in a glass tank with us.

We were having spaghetti. Minnie was having live worms.

Jeff cautiously sat down. He looked from me to the tortoise tank and didn’t say a word. When Minnie lunged for a worm, Jeff flinched. But he didn’t get up and leave, and at the end of the evening, he asked for another date. He didn’t object weeks later when I told him I wanted us to take Minnie to Central Park, and he came with a picnic basket and a little wrapped gift. I opened it and inside was a little red rubber squid toy.

Read it for the ending. So touching.

“You” vs. “Me” in Social Apps

Dustin Curtis begins his latest blog post with a question:

A question that inevitably comes up very early in the process of designing a new app is this: should the interface refer to the user as “your” or “my” when talking about the user’s stuff, as in “my profile” or “your settings”? For a long time, this question ate at my soul. Which is right?

It’s not something I thought about until reading his entry. I like his conclusion:

If we think about interfaces as literal “interfaces” to tasks (like how people are interfaces to their ideas), instead of as tools themselves, it makes sense for the interface to take on a personality, and to become a “you” to the user. Thus, it would make sense for the interface to refer to a user’s stuff as “your stuff,” because the interface is just a medium between the user and what she wants to accomplish or find. In a way, the interface takes on a social characteristic, and becomes a humanoid assistant by utilizing existing functions of the human brain’s social systems.

After thinking about this stuff for a very long time, I’ve settled pretty firmly in the camp of thinking that interfaces should mimic social creatures, that they should have personalities, and that I should be communicating with the interface rather than the interface being an extension of myself. Tools have almost always been physical objects that are manipulated tactually. Interfaces are much more abstract, and much more intelligent; they far more closely resemble social interactions than physical tools.

The answer for me, then, is that you’re having a conversation with the interface. It’s “Your stuff.”

Interesting.

Bill Gates on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything”

Bill Gates took to Reddit this afternoon to do an “Ask me Anything.”  Here were a selection of my favorite questions and answers.

What do you give a man who can buy almost everything?

Q: What do people give you for your birthday, given that you can buy anything you want?

A: Free software. Just kidding.

Books actually.

On Windows…

Q: Windows 7 or Windows 8? Be honest Bill.

A: Higher is better.

And one more:

Q: Since becoming wealthy, what’s the cheapest thing that gives you the most pleasure?

A: Kids. Cheap cheeseburgers. Open Course Ware courses…

Cheap kids? Where is acquiring them from? Bill’s answer is hilarious.

###

Bill Gates does a great job reviewing books on his Web site. Here are his favorite books from 2012, which I recommend perusing.

Nassim Taleb on Big Data

This is a strange article from Nassim Taleb, in which he cautions us about big data:

[B]ig data means anyone can find fake statistical relationships, since the spurious rises to the surface. This is because in large data sets, large deviations are vastly more attributable to variance (or noise) than to information (or signal). It’s a property of sampling: In real life there is no cherry-picking, but on the researcher’s computer, there is. Large deviations are likely to be bogus.

I had to re-read that sentence a few times. It still doesn’t make sense to me when I think of “big data.” As the sample size increases, large variations due to chance actually decrease. This is a good comment in the article which captures my thoughts:

This article is misleading. When the media/public talk about big data, they almost always mean big N data. Taleb is talking about data where P is “big” (i.e., many many columns but relative few rows, like genetic microarray data where you observe P = millions of genes for about N = 100 people), but he makes it sound like the issues he discuss apply to big N data as well. Big N data has the OPPOSITE properties of big P data—spurious correlations due to random noise are LESS likely with big N. Of course, the more important issue of causation versus correlation is an important problem when analyzing big data, but one that was not discussed in this article.

So I think Nassim Taleb should offer an explanation on what he means by BIG DATA.

The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden is Struggling

Esquire Magazine details how the man who shot Osama bin Laden is left with no pension and no health insurance. The Shooter, as he is described in the piece, is struggling:

But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation:

Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.

Since Abbottabad, he has trained his children to hide in their bathtub at the first sign of a problem as the safest, most fortified place in their house. His wife is familiar enough with the shotgun on their armoire to use it. She knows to sit on the bed, the weapon’s butt braced against the wall, and precisely what angle to shoot out through the bedroom door, if necessary. A knife is also on the dresser should she need a backup.

Then there is the “bolt” bag of clothes, food, and other provisions for the family meant to last them two weeks in hiding.

“Personally,” his wife told me recently, “I feel more threatened by a potential retaliatory terror attack on our community than I did eight years ago,” when her husband joined ST6.

The text accompanying the headline: “A startling failure of the United States government to help its most experienced and skilled warriors carry on with their lives.” Depressing.

A Cost Analysis of Observation Decks around the World

During my last visit to New York City, I avoided going to the “Top of the Rock” observation deck of the GE Building in favor of this view. In the process, I saved $25 and hours waiting in line.

The Economist published an interesting chart showing the price of admission to height of the public viewing platforms, sampling the most popular destinations around the world. Topping the list is the new building in London dubbed “The Shard”:

THE SHARD, the latest big skyscraper to pierce London’s skyline and the tallest building in Europe, recently opened for business—and to the general public. Some visitors have marvelled at the view from the top. Others have complained at the hefty entrance fee of £29.95 ($47) for an adult paying on the door. At a mere 244m (800 feet) high, the Shard is poor value for money when measured against its height.

height_buildings

The Empire State Building ranks third on this list. I think they are using the $42 adult admission price that includes both the 86th and 102nd floor viewings. Using the top deck height of 1250ft = 381.0m, the price per 1 meter of observation viewing is equal to 11.02 cents.

Missing on that chart is the price/height for “Top of the Rock,” which I calculate to be 9.65 cents (850 feet = 259.1m and a $25 admission price). That would put “Top of the Rock” as sixth most expensive observation viewing, which isn’t too bad.

What other observation towers are you familiar with that The Economist didn’t incorporate on their chart?