The Lonely Whale

For decades, a solitary whale has been calling out across the ocean, never receiving a reply. It’s believed to be the only whale of its kind: an unknown species, perhaps a blue whale hybrid. The frequency of its 52-hertz voice is too low for other whales to hear.

While other whales may be deaf to its cry, humans are listening. Since a 2004 New York Times article first brought the story of the Lonely Whale into the public consciousness, it has gathered something of a movement around itself. It seems more myth than creature — both a fascinating story with a mysterious protagonist, and a place to project your own feelings of isolation.

The zeitgeist surrounding the whale, known as 52, even extends to Kickstarter. In 2011, a guy named Mike Ambs started making mixtapes of the whale’s song and distributing them, a few at a time, to Kickstarter backers. One of those backers was Josh Zeman, who, with Adrian Grenier, is now developing a documentary called 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale. The film will chronicle a 20-day expedition, taking their team 400 miles off the coast of California out into the open ocean — all in pursuit of a whale that nobody has ever seen.

“It resonated with me because the story is so dynamic,” says Grenier, the film’s Executive Producer, about the narrative. “Beyond the documentary, the film will be a rally call. We’ll have a community that we can tap into for other ocean work and other stories. And we can help the lonely whale speak to a larger audience.”

Seeking a lone creature across the vast sea is both audacious and familiar. “The search for an individual unique whale is one that’s very common in our culture,” Zeman says. “The greatest piece of American literature is the search for a whale, but it goes beyond that.” The appeal is not just canonical, but also emotional. “The whale is just a metaphor for the human connection that so many of us are searching for, so that’s why it’s important to me. I’ve learned more about human beings from a whale than from hanging out with other human beings.”

“I don’t know if I could say that I relate to it — I just thought it was a beautiful, strange, fascinating story that was just vague enough that people projected onto it,” says Ambs, who’s had a lifelong fascination with whales. “When I was really young, I was flipping through the kids' magazine Ranger Rick, and there was a centerfold spread of facts about blue whales: human adults can swim through their major arteries, and their hearts are the size of a van.”

How then is it so common for people to relate to this creature, when it’s so different and so unimaginably huge? “They say that when you think about a whale, it’s just so giant that it really humbles you as a human being,” says Zeman. “So suddenly your heart is very open in the face of this other creature.”

He sees the way this whale’s story affects people all the time. “I was talking to one person about it and I told her about it, and suddenly her arms went all goosebumped and she started to cry. Like literally right there. It also happened with a journalist just two days ago.”

Besides, the human connection to whales through audio goes back a long way. “In the 70s the album Songs of the Humpback Whale was one of the number one selling nature albums,” Zeman says. “But here is this other 52-hertz whale, and it doesn’t really sound like you’d think a whale sounds. It sounds like this really weird kind of spooky thing.”

Upon discovering the story in 2004, Ambs recalls seeking out a recording immediately (a limited number of his mixtapes of the recording are available as rewards through the documentary project). “It’s a very calming sound. I don’t know if other people feel that way. When I first heard it, I kept wanting to hear it.”

Zeman carries with him a CliffsNotes copy of The Odyssey. He and Grenier are realistic about the challenge of finding one specific whale in an ocean, but they’re optimistic, even excited. “Every film I’ve ever been a part of is a crazy idea, or, ‘Oh yeah that sounds nice but it will never happen.’ But it’s important that we as humans dare to imagine the impossible, and then go out and make it possible.”

Ambs is conflicted. “I’d be scared to come face to face with it a bit because it is such a symbol,” he says. “Still, it’d be a hell of a story to find it.”


For more information, or to support the effort to find 52, visit the project page here.

Kickstarter Films at South by Southwest

Every year South by Southwest—or SXSW as we'll be typing from now until forever—occupies three distinct lanes in Austin, Texas: a tech portion, a film portion, and a music portion. Each is great in its own right, but when we saw the list of how many feature films that were funded through Kickstarter we were bowled over. There are so many. In an effort to give you (and, let's be honest, ourselves), a road map during the film portion of the festival, we collected all the feature length films, along with videos explaining what they are in one handy place, and that handy place is this blog post. Check them out in Austin, March 13-21.

Creative Control directed by Benjamin Dickinson

Funny Bunny directed by Alison Bagnall

Krisha directed by Trey Edward Shults

Manson Family Vacation directed by J. Davis

Frame by Frame directed by Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli

Twinsters directed by Samantha Futerman

Bikes vs. Cars directed by Fredrik Gertten

KTOWN COWBOYS directed by Daniel Park

Deep Web directed by Alex Winter

For the Record directed by Marc Greenberg

GTFO directed by Shannon Sun-Higginson

Petting Zoo directed by Micah Magee

Rolling Papers directed by Mitch Dickman

T-REX directed by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari

Naz + Maalik directed by Jay Dockendorf

Nina Forever directed by the Blaine Brothers

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records directed by Colin Hanks

Danny Says directed by Brendan Toller

Landfill Harmonic directed by Graham Townsley

They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

We Like It Like That, The Story Of Latin Boogaloo directed by Mathew Ramirez Warren

Finders Keepers directed by Bryan Carberry

Ned Rifle directed by Hal Hartley

Welcome to Leith directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher Walker

Continuum directed by Guy Reid

Peace Officer directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber

Madina's Dream directed by Andrew Berends

“Calls to Okies” The Park Grubbs Story directed by Bradley Beesley

Vonnegut Memories

Weide with Vonnegut in 1994
Weide with Vonnegut in 1994

 Kurt Vonnegut's fiction took its readers into plenty of new worlds, but the most important of them was always the world of Vonnegut himself — it's remarkable how many of the young people who come across one of his novels on a school reading list or relative's bookshelf spend the next few years diving deeper and deeper into his work. There's something similar happening in Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, a documentary about the author's life and work. Robert Weide set out to make a simple film about Vonnegut in 1982. Instead, the two struck up a friendship that lasted decades, filming all the while. We spoke to a few creators about how they got drawn into Vonnegut's sphere — their memories, obsessions, and first reads — and, just for good measure, added a few of our own.

Robert Weide

Oscar-nominated producer and director

For anyone who has a favorite author, I think you always hold a special place in your heart for the book that provided the introduction. For me it was Breakfast of Champions. It was 1976 and I was a junior in high school. It was actually assigned reading for a lit class, which is hard to believe, because that book is a bit racy. When I read it, I knew I had found “my” author.

I’m a big comedy buff, so what appealed to me immediately was Vonnegut’s humor. I thought he was a very funny writer. Of course, he’s also a satirist, so he was using comedy to deliver some very important messages about what we’re all doing here, how we treat each other, how we treat our planet, the nature of existence and religion and free will, and so on. The book is very moving, too. Everyone I know who’s read it has the same reaction to that closing scene where Kurt puts himself into the book, and meets his oft-recurring character, Kilgore Trout — now an old man. He tells Trout (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m your creator. Everything you’ve ever done, you did so because I wrote it. But no more puppet shows. I’m cutting the strings and giving you free will. You’re on your own now.” As Vonnegut then transcends the void, leaving the book to go back to his typewriter, he hears Trout calling out to him, “Make me young! Make me young!” I still choke up just thinking about that scene.

Incidentally, the teacher who assigned me that book to read is named Valerie Stevenson, and we’re still friends, all these years later.

CiCi James

Publisher, and owner of the bookstore Singularity & Co.

Because I love the detective work of unpacking authors' homages to one another, the history of Kilgore Trout has long been a favorite literary reference case study. Created by Vonnegut as a fictionalized version of fellow science fiction author and friend Theodore Sturgeon, Trout is Vonnegut's facetious take on Sturgeon, the product of Vonnegut's amusement at the notion of a person named after a fish — though his recurrence in Vonnegut's books has also led critics to read Trout as Vonnegut's alter ego. Trout appears in several Vonnegut stories, though the details of his life and circumstances change with each appearance. He is, however, consistently written as a prolific, if underappreciated, science fiction author, even when other details, including his general appearance and demeanor, vary widely.

The various Trouts perform a variety of roles in Vonnegut's work: in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five, he serves more as a catalyst for the main characters; in others, like Timequake, Trout is himself a main character and vital to the plot. In the novel Jailbird, "Kilgore Trout" is simply a pseudonym for a Dr. Robert Fender, novelist and prisoner. He makes some very subtle, even ghostly appearances, as in Hocus Pocus, wherein Vonnegut never mentions Trout by name, but the protagonist is deeply affected upon reading a Trout-like sci-fi story — or as the ghost of Trout's son Leon Trotsky Trout, narrator of the novel Galápagos. And yet Vonnegut never attempts to reconcile the many Trouts, leaving readers to connect their own dots.

One final delicious reference chain: Kilgore Trout is also the "author" of Venus on the Half-Shell, written pseudonymously by Philip José Farmer, the plot of which — the earth being destroyed by cosmic bureaucrats doing routine maintenance and the sole survivor questing to find the "Definitive Answer to the Ultimate Question" — Douglas Adams paid homage to in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

Sarah Gerard

author of the novel Binary Star

I was dating this guy when I was 18 or 19. I loved Kurt Vonnegut but was dating this guy that had declared himself not a reader. Over the course of our relationship he confessed that he really loved books, but always thought he couldn’t love books. I gave him Breakfast of Champions and he fell in love with it and moved on to Cat’s Cradle. I have this distinct memory of being at his house — I’ve always liked to read aloud — I have this memory of us lying together in bed while I read half the book to him aloud. He was explaining things to me — how does this allegory fit together… I’m not sure if he’s still a reader, but I thought that was a good, inspirational way to do it.

Nitsuh Abebe

writer, at Kickstarter and elsewhere

I spent part of a summer in my late teens visiting friends in Boulder, Colorado, which had at the time reached the kind of peak Boulder late-90s-ness where you could go outside and walk three blocks and almost certainly meet at least one person playing a didgeridoo and at least three trying to figure out where the guy with the mushrooms went. I read a lot of things on that trip that seemed really urgent and captivating and world-expanding at the moment, but I can now say with total certainty that the only really good one was Cat's Cradle. (No offense to the Dalai Lama.) A funny thing about Vonnegut is that he's the rare person whose much-repeated quotables actually do capture something about his voice and work — that beloved-uncle vibe that lets you say deep, rich, and sad things about the world with enough wink and mischief and sheer joy of invention behind them to offer some comfort. Which is good, because by winter I was in Illinois, and it was very, very cold, and I was lucky enough spy a whole long row of Vonnegut on a friend's shelf.

Sam Hockley-Smith

writer and editor, at Kickstarter and elsewhere

I was 16 and it was the tail end of summer — that part where you know it's coming to an end, but you still have a good amount of time, and it feels like a perpetual Sunday, all anxious melancholy and curiosity about what's ahead. My uncle sent me a box set of some of Vonnegut's novels. It was a compact thing: these mass market paperbacks with blocky painted covers jammed up against each other. Perfect for your back pocket. I'd read Slaughterhouse-Five, but I might as well not have; I couldn't remember any of it, and had this weird, itchy feeling that I needed to read it again. There was something so ecstatic about the way it celebrated life through the violence of war. I read that one again much later, but I burned through the set in those last days of summer, marveling at the way Vonnegut took alien ideas and made them relatable, and took relatable ideas and made them alien. These books felt like my life, if my life crossed oceans and planets and jumped around in time. Reading a book like Cat's Cradle made me scared of the world, and then suddenly love that I was scared of it. Kurt Vonnegut helped me grow up, or at least he helped me learn what it meant to never be sure about what it meant to grow up.

Tech Weekly: Have a Ball

This week's featured Technology projects let you loop a beat, hack a ball, or snap a #selfie. The future looks like so much fun!

Hackaball - A programmable ball for active and creative play

Finally, a computer you can throw. The super rugged Hackaball is packed with sensors, LEDs, and a vibration motor, and kids can use the iPad app to select games or program their own. They can even turn the Hackaball into an alarm clock or a whoopee cushion.

Podo - The First Stick & Shoot Camera

Why settle for a selfie from arm's length when the whole world could be your photo booth? Podo is a tiny, Bluetooth-connected, stick-anywhere camera. Just download the app, stick, shoot, and share.

Stryd – The World’s First Wearable Power Meter for Running

Cyclists have long used a metric called power to measure their output, and now Stryd makes that number available to runners. This little wearable measures the intensity of your run over any terrain, and you can use the data captured to improve your overall efficiency. 

ChipWhisperer-Lite: A New Era of Hardware Security Research

This Hackaday Prize-winning project puts the power of side-channel analysis and glitching in your pocket. Designed as a tool to test embedded hardware security, the ChipWhisperer-Lite is completely open-source. Plus they have a very cute Quality Assurance Manager. (It is a dog.)

Introducing the Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1

The Artiphon is a completely customizable multi-instrument that connects directly to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Strum, tap, or slide your fingers across its pressure-sensitive surface and jam out with nearly any instrument you can imagine. In case you've been wondering what the instrument of the future looks like, it's definitely something like this.

The Dangerous New Calculus of Conflict Reporting

Ben Solomon/GlobalPost. Pro-European protesters face off against pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv in February 2014.
Ben Solomon/GlobalPost. Pro-European protesters face off against pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv in February 2014.

By reporting from far-flung war-torn corners of the world, GlobalPost is already known for telling stories that give voice to individual experiences in conflict zones — now they are looking to do more, by hiring an experienced conflict correspondent. For a period of sixteen months, this journalist will work to get first-hand stories from some of the world’s most violent places.

So what does it mean to do conflict reporting? Why is it important, and what commodities do conflict journalists need in order to do their jobs? We asked Patrick Winn, GlobalPost's Senior Correspondent, to talk to us about it; he wrote to us from Bangkok.

“Conflict reporter.” The words evoke journalists crouching next to bullet-pocked walls, shrapnel whizzing overheard, as they breathlessly narrate an attack. 

Sometimes conflict reporters do that. But they’re more likely to be making nice with strange men who say they can maybe get them to the action, or at least lead them to refugees who’ve witnessed horrific violence.

Twenty-first-century combat is a different beast from last century’s major wars. It is, in many ways, far messier and harder to untangle. It’s often waged by militants who don’t wear uniforms and avoid squaring up on traditional battlefields. They bring conflict to nightclubs and tea shops. They pair old-school ambitions, like conquering territory, with new-school tactics: demoralizing the enemy with gory photos on Twitter.

Most people flee war. Those rushing in have their own agendas. It usually doesn’t include sheltering, feeding, and watching the backs of reporters. Covering it is not a daily thrill ride. It’s hard work, an arduous exercise in logistics.

Mark Oltmanns/GlobalPost. Buddhist militiamen train at a shooting range in southern Thailand — a region plagued by Southeast Asia’s bloodiest insurgency.
Mark Oltmanns/GlobalPost. Buddhist militiamen train at a shooting range in southern Thailand — a region plagued by Southeast Asia’s bloodiest insurgency.

Combat coverage is also a massive head game. Journalists, as we know well, are increasingly finding ourselves in the crosshairs. You have to know which tip-offs to follow, which are spin, and which could be a trap, costing you your career or even your life. Meanwhile, many correspondents risking themselves to bring us these vital stories are paid less than a Foot Locker cashier. 

For the record: I’m not a “conflict reporter” of the caliber that routinely wades into nightmares unfolding in places such as Syria or the Central African Republic. But in my seven years as a Southeast Asia correspondent, I’ve covered guerrilla rebellions in Myanmar, an Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s deep south, and bloody confrontations in Bangkok where both sides opened fire.

Conflict reporters are often called “fearless” or “brave,” and those are excellent qualities. But neither can make up for the two most important commodities in conflict journalism: time and money. Both are hard to come by from modern media outlets, which like news produced fast and cheap, regardless of what the public needs. 

Marc Hofer/GlobalPost. Rebels in Sudan's Nuba mountains have fought for years to replace the Khartoum government with one more tolerant of the country's ethnic and religious diversity, and more willing to share its oil and other resources evenly.
Marc Hofer/GlobalPost. Rebels in Sudan's Nuba mountains have fought for years to replace the Khartoum government with one more tolerant of the country's ethnic and religious diversity, and more willing to share its oil and other resources evenly.

Producing that series on Thailand’s insurgency, called “Red Light Jihad,” was neither fast nor cheap. It required lots of time to gain the trust of separatists, militias, sex workers, and others hardwired to distrust strangers — particularly those carrying big cameras and asking hard questions.

But money is even more crucial. Conflict ratchets up the cost of everything, especially services journalists need, such as hotels, translators, and drivers. You may find drivers willing to take you through a war zone, but they’ll demand (and deserve) a premium. 

More expensive still are “fixers,” the unsung heroes of journalism, who open doors to key players. Bearing witness to conflict can win awards for journalists; it only brings fixers close to danger, with no promise of grandeur. Yet when trouble strikes in the field — harassment by police and militias, for example — journalists often rely on fixers to pull strings and make the problem go away. Fixers have prevented me from getting arrested in Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The good ones are not cheap.

Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost. Tank fire hits a Syrian rebel post in Aleppo in late 2012, killing Issa Aiash, 30, his young brother Ahmed, 17, and Sheihk Mamoud, 42.
Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost. Tank fire hits a Syrian rebel post in Aleppo in late 2012, killing Issa Aiash, 30, his young brother Ahmed, 17, and Sheihk Mamoud, 42.

Without solid conflict reporting, we’re left with propaganda. Rather than illuminating the world’s conflicts, major broadcasters often prefer to broadcast political gossip, or focus the lens on celebrity anchors and misleading good-versus-evil narratives.

Conflict reporters are the world’s eyes and ears on the battlefield. Their job is to remind of war’s ugliness, to go beyond the propaganda and show us what's really happening where bombs strike and bullets fly.  They’re the ones who can call out atrocities and shame those who perpetrate them.

The world’s conflicts are only getting messier and we need conflict reporters more than ever. Let’s make sure we keep funding them to make it to the front lines and tell the world what they’ve seen.

Talking Shop: Getting Started in Podcasting

Everyone seems to be doing podcasts nowadays, but what does it take to get one started? Last week, we hosted a panel of five podcast producers on this exact topic. The panelists included Hillary Frank (host of The Longest Shortest Time), Benjamin Walker (host of Theory of Everything), Farai Chideya (host of One With Farai), Jaime Green (host of The Catapult), and it was moderated by PJ Vogt. 

Some of the discussion points included getting a show started, the creative freedom the medium allows (you can do anything you want!), and why growing your audience can be a slow but ultimately satisfying endeavor.

The Process: Printing a Book

In the 1960's, the signage within the NYC subway system was a total mess. The Transit Authority hired a design firm to come up with a solution, and thus the Graphics Standards Manual was born. It was a 3-ring binder loaded with pages that would dictate every minute detail of transit signage moving forward. Only so many copies were made, and most of them were ultimately lost or destroyed.

Not long ago, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth discovered an original copy of the Graphics Standards Manual in a gym locker. They scanned it, shared the scans online, and the site became so popular that they decided to reissue the manual as a hardcover book. We asked Jesse and Hamish to give us some background, and explain the process of printing a book.

Tech Weekly: Pop and Lock

Our Technology category is home to the things the future is made of. This week we saw some mind-bendingly advanced stuff — from teen-made exoskeletons to skeleton keys. We hope you enjoy these cool and curious projects as much as we do.

Sesame. Your key, reinvented.

When your door lock is smart, your phone is your key. The Sesame installs in seconds and fits over just about any deadbolt. Then just download the Sesame app, and pop that lock from anywhere.

AJAX Exosuit: Wearable powered exoskeleton

What does this group of high school kids have in common with Tony Stark? If you said the construction of an advanced exoskeleton capable of lifting many times their body weight, you'd be right. The Amplified Juggernaut Assistance Exoskeleton, or AJAX, will debut at the Bay Area Maker Faire this May.

Ringo – The palm size robot with real personality!

Sensors like an accelerometer and gyroscope help Ringo recognize stimuli, responding with LEDs and chirps. Plus, it's fully programmable and you don't have to clean up after it, making it just about the perfect pet.

Qduino Mini: Arduino Compatible + Battery Charger & Monitor

The Qduino Mini is an itty-bitty Arduino-compatible board, and the first of its size to include a battery charger circuit and monitor. Use it to make all kinds of cool little things, like a binary clock, electronic dice, or an alarm that goes off when you burn your grilled cheese probably.

Fly12 Cycling Accessory | 1080p Camera & Front Light Combo

After funding last year's Fly6 rear-facing camera on Kickstarter, the Cycliq team has returned to bring you the forward-looking Fly12. The Fly12 illuminates your path with a 400 lumen front-light, and records where you're going with a 1080p camera — packing six to ten hours of run time in a single charge.

Oh, and in case their project wasn't cool enough, the Cycliq team also shared this video of some gnarly bike crashes. Remember folks, always wear a helmet.