The Unipiper: Portland’s Bagpiping Darth Vader

Chris Higgins, writing in Medium, traces Portland’s bagpiping, Darth Vader-mask-wearing, unicycling hero named Brian Kidd. It’s a fascinating story:

Although the Unipiper seems tailor-made for the age of YouTube (and indeed that video topped 1.8 million views this month), his origin story begins in 2005. While Kidd studied marine biology at the University of Virginia, he found a unicycle in a dumpster and learned to ride it over the course of three weeks. He had already begun learning the bagpipes with a local group of pipers, though it took him a year to become truly proficient. He started by playing the practice chanter, a sort of training-wheels instrument that is bag-free, making it blessedly quiet.

After graduation, Kidd moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and began a paid internship at an aquarium. He found that he was the only bagpiper for hire in the area, and often performed at weddings and funerals. “Weddings were usually around $250, funerals were $150,” he says. Although he also rode his unicycle from time to time, he had not yet combined the two disciplines.

The two hobbies came together one fateful evening in 2007, after Kidd and his friends from the aquarium had been drinking. While he says he had thought about bagpiping while riding the unicycle before, he had always been afraid of falling off and damaging the pipes. That’s a real concern when a good set of pipes runs north of $1,500.

A healthy dose of beer eliminated that worry. When a friend asked Kidd if he was capable of playing the bagpipes while riding his unicycle, Kidd put down his Corona and said, “You know, I bet I could.” And so he did.

 

Read the rest of the story here.

Forty Years Later, a Missed Connection

I believe this amazing missed connection is genuine, and someone should be able to recognize the lady described in the text below.

Grand Central – November 1973 – m4w – 58 (Midtown)

In the fall of 1973 I was studying as a freshman at NYU, and after failing to make my initial train home to Maine, I was rushing through Grand Central on the evening before Thanksgiving 1973 when I spotted you, emerging from one of the railways, with a look of utter confusion on your face. You had the blondest hair I had ever seen, and a plaid dress. I had never seen a plaid dress before.

I was, in those days, terribly shy, and if I am honest with myself, I’ve never shook that stubborn sense of timidity or loneliness in crowds. To this day, trying to explain the uncharacteristic courageousness that seized me in that moment, and inspired me to walk up to you and say “are you lost?” is almost completely beyond me.

You were studying at Oberlin, and on your way to spend Thanksgiving with your aunt in Jersey City. After explaining to you where you could get a bus, I asked, in spite of knowing it would mean sacrificing my last chance to spend the holiday with my family (and likely infuriate my over-protective mother), if you wanted to get a drink and you said yes.

We walked out into a rainy Manhattan street and ducked into the first (cheap) bar we saw, where I ordered us two bottles of beer. Now in my 50’s, when with any luck a man might finally begin to acquire that elusive thing called wisdom, I know that there is nothing more exciting yet rare in life than making a true connection with someone. I have always been too sentimental for my own good, but in all honesty, I have never felt more at ease with anyone than I did laughing and talking to you that dimly lit midtown bar.

When I confessed that I purposefully missed my train to keep talking to you, you smiled slyly and said “well I guess it’s only fair that I miss my bus.” With no money for a cab, we walked to my Lower East Side dorm room, which was deserted aside from my German classmate Franklin, who kindly gave us a half-finished bottle of red wine.

We made love that night, and in the morning coached one another through shaky phone calls to our angry relatives back home. With the November cold turning the night’s rain into a dreary wintery mix, we stayed in bed all day, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes, discussing politics and philosophy. You told me you had never felt “so New York before.”

That evening, you took a bus to Jersey City. A few weeks later I received a letter from California. You sent no return address, and I never saw you again.

I have been married twice since then – once divorced, and once widowed. I have had a successful career as an English professor, and am a proud father. My life has known its share of triumphs and heartaches, of love and loss. Against my better judgement, I haven’t forgotten that day – and, at least once a year, while mowing the lawn, or reading a newspaper, the details come back to me.

Perhaps, if life’s strange circumstances can permit it, we can have a second drink.

Are you a sucker for sentimental stories like this? If so, don’t miss this one from earlier this year.

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(via Gawker)

Teenagers are Wrong about Snapchat

I’ve never used SnapChat (for obvious reasons), and today’s column in The Wall Street Journal, Farhood Manjoo explains why the rest of us shouldn’t be bullish about SnapChat’s popularity with the teenagers:

For tech execs, youngsters are the canaries in the gold mine.

That logic follows a widely shared cultural belief: We all tend to assume that young people are on the technological vanguard, that they’ve somehow got an inside scoop on what’s next. If today’s kids are Snapchatting instead of Facebooking, the thinking goes, tomorrow we’ll all be Snapchatting, too, because tech habits, like hairstyles, flow only one way: young to old.

There is only one problem with elevating young people’s tastes this way: Kids are often wrong. There is little evidence to support the idea that the youth have any closer insight on the future than the rest of us do. Sometimes they are first to flock to technologies that turn out to be huge; other times, the young pick products and services that go nowhere. They can even be late adopters, embracing innovations that older people understood first. To butcher another song: The kids could be all wrong.

Spot on, I think. But then again, give it a year or two and see what happens.

On Playing Video Games in Iraq

Simon Parkin, writing in The New Yorker, chronicles how video games have become a welcome refuge in the war-torn Iraq. For many kids, it’s a way to spend significant time at home and staying safe in the process:

The rise of video games in Iraq is a relatively recent phenomenon. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, it was difficult to buy them, and only relatively well-off, professional-class families like Mohammed’s could afford to import titles from Europe. Until the advent of disc-based video games in the mid-nineties, it was too difficult to pirate game cartridges. “The industry is still in its infancy in Iraq,” said Omar M. Alanseri, the owner of the Iraqi Games Center, one of only a small number of dedicated video-game retailers in Baghdad, which opened sixteen months ago. “But each year, more people get involved. I’ve seen the audience vastly increase, especially among teen-agers.”

Nevertheless, finding stock for Alanseri’s store shelves can be a challenge. “It’s not easy for me to get new games,” he said. “Mostly we import from online sites like Amazon.” Relatively few video games have been created by Iraqis. “Many games created here are not good enough to be published,” said Abdulla. “There is one title called Labaik Ya Iraq, which means ‘Iraq, We Answer Your Call.’ It is a strategy game, but not as good as, say, Command & Conquer.” Consequently, piracy remains rampant, and many copied games can be purchased for around a dollar.

This is unsurprising:

Some of the most popular video games in Iraq, as in America, are military-themed shooters, in which the player assumes the role of a soldier and blasts through waves of virtual enemies. “Almost all of my friends play video games like World of Tanks [and] Battlefield 3,” said Abdulla. “In fact, we have some of the top-ranked players in the world here.” The interest in military games stems from the local environment as much as, in the case of many players, male vanity. “Growing up, my life was completely military-focused,” Abdulla said. “It is the way we are raised. For example, I was taught how to use an AK-47 when I was in elementary school. Younger players who are not so affected by Saddam’s agendas play other game types more easily than we do, like Minecraft and other non-military games.”

Many of these first-person shooters, often created with input from U.S. military advisers—a handful of Navy SEALs was punished for consulting on the 2012 video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter—are set against the backdrop of fictionalized real-world conflicts, often within Middle Eastern countries. Some have entire sections set within Iraq, like the Battlefield series.

Read the entire piece here.

The Three Week OKCupid Date Across Europe

Clara Bensen shares the story of how she met a guy on OKCupid and decided to go with him for a three week travel adventure across Europe. The catch? They would wear the same clothing during the entire trip and bring no luggage:

Our no-luggage journey began with the buzzing protest energy of Istanbul and from there it zigzagged wildly across the European continent. There were no plans. With no stuff, moving to the next destination was as simple as getting out of bed and pointing to a dot on the map. We jumped from city to city using almost every mode of transportation on earth: an old train along the Turkish coast, a giant ferry across the Aegean, a cramped bus through the Balkans, a series of hitches through Croatia, a flight to Edinburgh, and a pair of bikes in London. From baristas and dancers to investment bankers and Cambridge professors, we wandered the streets with guides who were as varied as the urban landscapes we were moving through.

Looks like they survived and bonded (though it’s not clear from the story whether Jeff and Clara are still dating):

We ended our journey after eight countries, 3,500 miles and 21 days in the same clothes. Our romantic relationship intact, Jeff and I boarded the Heathrow return flight as closer friends than ever (despite the questionable state of our undergarments). Materially speaking I was as empty-handed as the day we started, but I actually carried a great deal back home across the Atlantic. Traveling with no luggage and no plans was much more than a minimalist lesson in living well with less. It was an intense, in-your-face invitation to the unknown. There’s a truly magnificent side to the unknown, but we aren’t taught how to welcome it, let alone explore the breadth of its possibilities.

Did our luggage-less dance with uncertainty lead to some kind of travel nirvana? Yes and no. We careered through time and space at a fiendish pace and experienced all the blood, sweat and exhaustion that might be expected. At the same time, we were vividly present in the midst of a disorienting cloud of city grids, metro stops and incomprehensible dialects that shape-shifted with every border crossing. We were alive. And every so often the intensity was punctuated with time-crushing moments that were so staggeringly beautiful and strange that even now I’m not sure they occurred at all.

Still. A very cool story.

Pennsylvania Newspaper Apologizes 150 Years After Gettysburg Address

In what may be longest-coming newspaper retraction in American history, The Patriot News, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has apologized for lambasting President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, delivered nearly 150 years ago (as of November 19, 2013):

Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.

We write today in reconsideration of “The Gettysburg Address,” delivered by then-President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the greatest conflict seen on American soil. Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words “silly remarks,” deserving “a veil of oblivion,” apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.

In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance, then or now, could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day. By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media.

The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record – but we must do as conscience demands:

In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error. 

That’s awesome.

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(via Time)

IBM’s Watson to Open to Developers

More than two years after IBM’s Watson dominated at Jeopardy!, the company has some interesting news today: it will make its IBM Watson technology available as a development platform in the cloud, “to enable a worldwide community of software application providers to build a new generation of apps infused with Watson’s cognitive computing intelligence.”

IBM is unveiling its new ecosystem vision with three business partners that have developed early versions of Watson-powered apps, targeted to enter the market in 2014:

FluidFluid, which builds online shopping experiences for retail businesses to drive customer engagement and conversion, is developing the Fluid Expert Personal Shopper(sm) powered by IBM Watson. The app calls upon Watson’s ability to understand the nuances of human language and uncover answers from Big Data. Consumers who use Fluid’s app will interact with rich media and dialogue with Watson, as their newfound “cognitive, expert personal shopper.” The Fluid app incorporates the information users share and questions they ask to help them make smart, satisfying purchases by putting a knowledgeable sales associate in the hands of consumers, on demand.

MD Buyline: This provider of supply chain solutions for hospitals and healthcare systems is developing an app to allow clinical and financial users to make real-time, informed decisions about medical device purchases, to improve quality, value, outcomes and patient satisfaction. Hippocrates powered by IBM Watson will provide users with access to a helpful research assistant that provides fast, evidence based recommendations from a wealth of data, to help ensure medical organizations are making the best decisions for their physicians’ and patients’ needs. 

Welltok: A pioneer in the emerging field of Social Health Management™, Welltok is developing an app that will create Intelligent Health Itineraries™ for consumers. These personalized itineraries, sponsored by health plans, health systems and health retailers, will include tailored activities, relevant content and condition management programs, and will reward users for engaging in healthy behaviors. Consumers who use Welltok’s app — CaféWell Concierge powered by IBM Watson – will participate in conversations about their health with Watson. By leveraging Watson’s ability to learn from every interaction, the app will offer insights tailored to each individual’s health needs.  

I am particularly interested in Welltok. It sounds similar to what FitBit and other consumer wearable devices have been able to accomplish.