2016 alternative advent calendar


In the lead up to Christmas last year, particularly in the spirit of positivity in the face of the endless stream of anxieties and disappointments of 2016, I worked on a little project for my immediate family. I set the challenge for myself of emailing every day up to the 24th of December and sharing something that inspired me through its manifestation or creativity, which blew my mind for its craft and creativity, which challenged my thinking or introduced me to new worlds, or just simply gave me joy. The intention was to create an alternative advent calendar for my family and a positive project to keep my mind on the good. Throughout the process I found myself thrown into old favorites, revisiting episodes and that initial delight I may have felt, and learning about many new artists, podcasts and so forth along the way which will be fodder for 2017 inspiration as I make my way through the list.

For you, here is my advent calendar in full.

December 1st

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I’ve been captivated by Presidential, this podcast put together by the Washington Post, and though I’m super late to the party as the podcast has been airing all year, I’m still finding it fascinating. Every episode profiles a president, from George Washington to Tr**p. I’m about 9 presidents in, and have already learned such interesting things about John Quincy Adams (offered pro bono defense for the passengers of Amistad), Thomas Jefferson (a vintner of sorts with acres and acres of crops at Monticello), John Tyler (setter of the Tyler precedent), William Henry Harrison (died just 30 days into office), though most interesting and controversial: Andrew Jackson.

Here’s the full podcast series by episode, and here’s that Andrew Jackson episode.

December 2nd

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When I first saw this video, I was totally mesmerised. I think I watched the video on repeat more times than I should admit (and wish I was there on the rink). There’s something really wonderful and uplifting about the revival of roller skating culture.

Learn more about the roller skaters in this mini profile.

December 3rd

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Another terrific, well-executed idea for you: this map of US literary road trips in full, which combines narrative from On the Road to Travels With Charley or the Lost Continent, and many, many others, into the same sweeping map. I have particular appreciation for the detail-orientation, perfection and organization of this (my first thought when seeing this was “I have a brain twin!”).

You can click on the map to explore, selecting specific locations which opens up a passage from the book describing the place or an experience had there.

December 4th

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Something a little lighter. Although this video is pretty old, I still find it amusing. Back in the day, through personal connections, Kanye decided to ask Zach Galifianakis to produce a music video for him, just doing “whatever he felt worked.” Zack was on his way back to his family’s NC farm the next day, so said if he was going to do it, it had to be there. Will Oldham was coming over to hang out anyway and this… is what they came up with:

And apparently… what would work includes: “an exploding tractor, some clog dancers and — rather inexplicably — indie folkster (and part-time actor) Will Oldham, who Galifianakis said was just visiting and decided to get in on the action. Basically, the two then took it upon themselves to run around Galifianakis’ farm, doing whatever sprang to mind.”

December 5th

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Snowfall tells the story of skiers who were caught in an avalanche in the Washington Cascades; the avalanche was a ‘slab’ avalanche, meaning it was huge. 200 feet across and 3 feet deep, following a snowstorm which dumped 32 inches down from the peaks of the Cascades. You learn about the professionals who were caught up in the disaster as well as their biographies. Why were they there? Who were they? The writing is also breathtaking, from the build-up to the architecture of an avalanche of this kind, and of course the response.

When Snowfall first published, it was a journalism game-changer not just because it indicated more investment in deeper, more time-intensive stories, but it also artfully wove in multimedia. Video, animation, photography, graphics, interview – I mostly remember it being as strong a narrative as the best documentaries out there.

The Atlantic reacted powerfully a few days after the NYT piece went live.

And a year later? The author, John Branch, received a Pultizer Prize for the story.

Although this piece of journalism was published four years ago now, I still have a vivid recollection of the story and remember at the time thinking it was absolutlely stunning, and likely to be the future of journalism. It was one of the first longread pieces that I was really struck by and since have had only increasing admiration for the form.

December 6th

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Jack and I have been watching the second release of Planet Earth (Planet Earth II!) on the BBC every Sunday night as episodes are aired in real time. One of the greatest benefits of living within BBC land! As with Planet Earth, these episodes are absolutely mind boggling. I often shout at the TV in amazement over how clever, creative and tenacious these animals are. The camera men pull off the wildest shots, and the animals overcome near-impossible tests of survival.

One of the most iconic trials of survival is the story about these little iguanas born in the black sands of the Galapagos. The pitch of potential, instant fatality hits them as soon as they are born, and it’s incredible how adapted they are to respond and survive. Their mothers lay their eggs far inland away from the tide, but when they hatch, they are born alone and face a gauntlet of MILLIONS OF SNAKES as they break for shore.

Watch this intense display.

And if you want, more behind the filming.

One of my favorite animals featured so far in this season of Planet Earth is the shy, elusive and solitary Snow Leopard, prowling the peaks of the Himalayas.

December 7th

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In the series ‘Les Maisons Volantes’ (translates to ‘Flying Houses’), Laurent Chéhère has taken photos around the popular districts (or arrondissements) of Paris, and manipulated them in Photoshop to make it appear as if they’re floating in thin air – high in the sky, buoyed by balloons, held aloft by telephone wires or trails of bunting. It’s such a beautiful, imaginative series.

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See and learn more here and here.

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December 8th

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Earlier this year, an ultra marathon runner who was on a 155-mile run across China’s Gobi desert was joined by a little stray terrier. The dog first joined the runner and he thought there was no way she’d even last the whole day, but she ended up completing the ultramarathon – traversing deserts and mountainous terrain – with him.

Short video of the story.

After the race, the runner was determined to bring the dog (now named Gobi!) back to Scotland, but she ran away. A full hunt for the pup started to unfold… read more about their incredible story.

December 9th

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There are endless This American Life episodes I’d recommend, andit’s always interesting to hear which ones stand out in your friends’ memories. What about you ? For me, these three stand out:

In Who Put the ‘Pistol’ in ‘Epistolary’? we learn about the strangest pair o pen pals on earth: a ten-year-old girl from a tiny rural Michigan town and… Manuel Noriega.

Same Bed, Different Dreams tells the most bizarre story about Kim Jong-Il trying to build up the North Korea movie scene, since he hated all movies coming out of the country. To do it, he had to kidnap a famous South Korean director and his ex-wife, a South Korean film star, lock them up in a villa in North Korea, and forced them to make movies for him.

In Too Soon? Ira Glass explores when it may be too soon for “that celebrity comeback; that joke that is either brilliant or full-on repugnant; that parent-child conversation? This week: stories about a fallen man trying to kickstart his career with a reality show, and an awkward moment between a mom and a daughter.” Including… the lesser-known footnote in the O.J. Simpson story, his 2006 pay-per-view prank video, Juiced.

And for more surreal moments from Juiced.

December 10th

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Nina Katchadourian, spontaneously started a self-portrait series on a 2010 flight that has continued to this day when she took a paper toiletseat cover and started playing around with ways of wearing it on and around her head. When she first put it on, it struck her as “evocative of 15th-century Flemish portraiture” and from there, the hilarity continued. File this under Best of the Internet.


December 11th

A little one today; here’s a drone video of Oxford, made by Oxford University, so you can see the beauty of this little university town I live in.

December 12th

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Although Desert Island Discs has been on the radio since 1942, with more than 2,800 episodes available in the archive of BBC’s Radio 4, I only just listened to this program for the first time recently and just love it.

The premise is that the host will invite a guest to present 8 songs (“discs”) that they would bring with them to a desert island, and ask why. Between each short track, the host asks them questions about their career, celebrity or the reasons for choosing the song, breaking the interview up with the tracks. I’m struck by the charm, candour and disarming tone of each guest. You really get a sense of them as people when listening to this program.

Those invited on are public figures, so generally celebrities which might mean they are politicians, athletes, business owners, comics, authors, chefs, philosophers, artists, or otherwise. Each joins the show for a 40 minute segment and at the end get to select a book and a luxury item to bring with them to this hypothetical island as well.

One journalist remarks, “did you know that Jerry Springer’s favourite song is Wind Beneath My Wings by Bette Midler, David Cameron would like to take a crate of Scotch whisky to an island with him and Andrew Motion and Alice Cooper are united by their love for Bob Dylan?”

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It’s hard to know where to begin, but a few articles have presented wonderful highlights to me. For example, listen to Louis Armstrong (short, but amazing), Alfred Hitchcock (while he was just creating the concept of Psycho!), Michael Caine (he loves disco, so picked the ‘modern day equivalent’: Coldplay…?), or Dustin Hoffman (forever my boo).

Or read this guide to the decades.

Episodes I’m working my way through (if you click any of the below, a tab will open to their episode)
Zadie Smith (such a babe)
Ben Helfgott (incredible)
Tom Hanks
Miranda Hart
Stephen Fry
Malcolm Gladwell
Steven Pinker
David Mitchell
Alice Walker
Damien Hurst
Steve McQueen
Teresa May
Mary Beard
David Tennant
Mary Berry
Russell Brand

December 13th

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Just a little one.

An adorable video of a very patient cat on a too-long roadtrip with a hyperactive golden retriever. Titled, “When you’re stuck in the car with that annoying person..”

December 14th

One of my most driven, successful friends from college, Helena, put together this incredible project earlier in the year.


In her words:

Techies is a photo project focused on sharing stories of tech employees in Silicon Valley. The project covers subjects who tend to be underrepresented in the greater tech narrative. This includes (but is not limited to) women, people of color, folks over 50, LGBT, working parents, disabled, etc.

The project has two main goals: to show the outside world a more comprehensive picture of people who work in tech, and to bring a bit of attention to folks in the industry whose stories have never been heard, considered or celebrated. We believe storytelling is a powerful tool for social impact and positive change.

Since its launch, the Techies Project has been profiled on ABC, CNN, Newsweek, Fortune, Fast Company, The Guardian, Elle and more.”

Explore the project! If you click on an individual portrait, an interview will open.

December 15th

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Another great podcast, SpyCast is produced by the International Spy Museum each week, episodes are interviews held between host Vince Houghton, historian and curator at the International Spy Museum, and ex-spies, intelligence experts, and espionage scholars.

As a particular highlight, here’s an episode on Mark Felt specifically, asking why he became Deep Throat – betraying President Nixon by leaking information to the Washington Post and Time – and whether his motives were more patriotic or self-serving.

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Or this: J. Edgar Hoover: Fact vs Fiction

Here’s the full list of episodes.

December 16th

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One of my absolute favorite photographers is a 21-year old Finnish wildlife photographer: Konsta Punkka. He explores the furthest corners of the world, early before sunrise, and patiently builds up trust with birds, bears, foxes, squirrels, deer, mice, and endless animals. His work really is incandescent.

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He mostly shares his work via Instagram, and his account is one to follow for sure.


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Click his instagram handle above to see his most recent work, or learn a bit more here, followed by incredible, larger files from his portfolio.

December 17th

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Hank Schmidt in der Beek travels to beautiful locations like scenic overlooks, medieval squares, old cathedrals, pine forests, wind-swept coasts and paints… the pattern of whatever shirt he’s wearing. It’s confusing and wonderful.

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December 18th

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In this episode of Radiolab, the hosts explore the concept of Blame. Particularly in the first part of the episode, their storytelling is masterful, and it really does challenge preconceived notions of fault, intent and proportional punishment.

Neuroscience: forget about blame?

December 19th


Today, our trip to Poland is finally up! Enjoy the sites, foods and history of our early Christmas trip to this Eastern European gem.

December 20th


I’m a big fan of a good miniature.

This Japanese artist, Tanaka Tatsuya, has been creating miniature dioramas from common household objects, food and various miniatures every single day for four solid years. Four!

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I am not only amazed at the scenes for their abiding whimsy and creativity, but immensely impressed by the artist for his dedication and persistence. Even after twenty days of trying my best to share interesting, inspiring, amusing or astounding ideas and projects, I can see how sustaining quality and interest is a real challenge.

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This another good Instagram feed to follow for you: @tanaka_tatsuya

December 21st

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100 best films of the 21st century according to 177 film critics

If you’re ever looking for a new, critically-acclaimed film to watch, this might be a good list to start with.

What about your top films from the list? What did they miss?

December 22nd

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Okay, one of the sweetest, weirdest, most hilarious photo series I’ve seen has got to be Dogs Underwater. In this series, photographer Seth Casteel took photos of dogs as they leapt into pools after toys and balls, and the faces they make! They verge from slightly terrifying to sweet, all the while dreamy and unreal. It seems all dogs keep their eyes WIDE OPEN under water and seem to launch themselves in with their mouths agape, billowing with pool water.

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See 22 photos from this portfolio here.

December 23rd

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One of the few blogs I subscribe to daily updates from, and almost always read, is A Beautiful Mess. This blog started many years ago as a project space between two sisters and has developed into a much bigger project with staff, guest bloggers and many, many project and book launches since. All while retaining its core brand and seeming to still be anchored by the two sisters, Elsie and Emma.

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Their posts range from DIY craft projects to recipes, gift ideas, interior decoration, mini travel guides, writing or blogging tips, photography tips, plant tips, scrapbooking ideas, etc. It’s a very pretty blog, and their photography is always on point. Many of their recipes are also really easy to tackle – we’ve certainly made our fair share.

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December 24th

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For the last day in the lead-up to Christmas, I share – surprise! – yet another photographer. Sort of. One of the most captivating series I saw was actually from astronaut Scott Kelly as he shared his favorite photographs from space after spending a year in orbit. They are unbelievable! A nice reminder of the beauty and vulnerability of our planet.

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Visit NASA to view the full collection in spectacular detail.

Goes without saying, but NASA is another good feed to follow on Instagram: @NASA


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