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09 AUGUST, 2011

Radioactive Orchestra: Making Music from Nuclear Isotopes

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Getting excited about excited states, or what Marie Curie has to do with experimental music.

In 2011, the need to understand radioactivity glared at us with more urgency than ever, in the face of the Fukushima disaster and continued debates about nuclear energy. In May, we took a more playful and artistic look at the issue with Lisa Redniss’s Radioactive, the beautiful cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s life and legacy, and today we turn to another cross-disciplinary illuminator: The Radioactive Orchestra — a project aiming to explain radioactivity through music by inviting you to compose tunes with 3,175 of the most interesting radioactive isotopes in an effort to glean new understanding of what radiation really is.

It works like this: Melodies are created by simulating the decay of an atomic nucleus from an excited nuclear state down to its ground state. A single gamma photon is released for every step of the energy loss and, by representing the energy of the photon as the pitch of a note, the photon plays a note each time this happens. For an added touch of synesthesia, this is also visualized by a colorful ray coming out of the atomic nucleus. Because every isotope has a unique set of possible excited states and decay patterns, it also has a unique sonic fingerprint.

It’s really exciting to do a project where we can listen to radiation. There has never really been a way to sense the radiation around us. You can neither see it nor hear it.”

The project comes from Swedish nuclear safety organization KSU and DJ Axel Boman, and is a fine addition to this running list of experimental music projects. (Besides, if you can play the HIV virus and the number pi, why shouldn’t you play an isotope or two?)

So go ahead, give it a whirl.

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09 AUGUST, 2011

In The Plex: How Google Changed Our Lives and Everything Else

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What red gym balls have to do with censorship, privacy and organizing all the world’s information.

Earlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what beloved technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

For a taste, here’s Levy on what Google does and doesn’t know about you:

(For a more worrisome take, see Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

James Gleick writes in the New York Review of Books:

Most people have already forgotten how dark and unsignposted the Internet once was. A user in 1996, when the Web comprised hundreds of thousands of ‘sites’ with millions of ‘pages,’ did not expect to be able to search for ‘Olympics’ and automatically find the official site of the Atlanta games. That was too hard a problem. And what was a search supposed to produce for a word like ‘university’? AltaVista, then the leading search engine, offered up a seemingly unordered list of academic institutions, topped by the Oregon Center for Optics.” ~ James Gleick

(Gleick should know — he is the author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, easily the most important book on media history and information theory to come by in decades.)

More than an ambitious — and often entertaining — profile of one of today’s most powerful companies, In The Plex captures a priceless piece of cultural history, one that has shaped and continues to shape how we interact with information, the world and each other.

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08 AUGUST, 2011

Where Children Sleep: James Mollison’s Poignant Photographs

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What the Amazon rainforest has to do with the Kaisut Desert and Fifth Avenue luxury.

On the heels of this morning’s homage to where children read and learn comes a curious look at where they sleep. That’s exactly what Kenyan-born, English-raised, Venice-based documentary photographer James Mollison explores in Where Children Sleep — a remarkable series capturing the diversity of and, often, disparity between children’s lives around the world through portraits of their bedrooms. The project began on a brief to engage with children’s rights and morphed into a thoughtful meditation on poverty and privilege, its 56 images spanning from the stone quarries of Nepal to the farming provinces of China to the silver spoons of Fifth Avenue.

From the start, I didn’t want it just to be about ‘needy children’ in the developing world, but rather something more inclusive, about children from all types of situations. It seemed to make sense to photograph the children themselves, too, but separately from their bedrooms, using a neutral background.” ~ James Mollison

Perhaps most interestingly, the book was written and designed as an empathy tool for 9-to-13-year-olds to better understand the lives of other children around the world, but it is also very much a poignant photographic essay on human rights for the adult reader.

7-year-old Indira works at a granite quarry and lives in a one-room house near Katmandu, Nepal, with her parents, brother and sister.

4-year-old Jasmine has participated in over 100 child beauty pageants and lives in a large house in the Kentucky countryside.

4-year-old Romanian boy who shares a mattress with his family in the outskirts of Rome.

8-year-old Justin plays football, basketball and baseball. He lives in a four-bedroom house in New Jersey.

Alyssa lives in a small wooden house with her family in Appalachia.

8-year-old Ahkohxet belongs to the Kraho tribe and lives in Brazil's Amazon basin.

9-year-old Dong shares a room with his parents, sister and grandfather, growing rice and sugar cane in China's Yunnan Province.

9-year-old Delanie aspires to be a fashion designer and lives with her parents and younger siblings in a large house in New Jersey.

9-year-old Tsvika and his siblings share a bedroom in an apartment in the West Bank, in a gated Orthodox Jewish community known as Beitar Illit.

9-year-old Jamie shares a top-floor apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue with his parents and three siblings. The family's two other homes are in Spain and the Hamptons.

10-year-old Ryuta is a champion sumo-wrestler living in Tokyo with his family.

12-year-old Lamine sleeps in a room shared with several other boys in the Koranic school in their Senegalese village.

11-year-old Joey, who killed his first deer when he was seven, lives in Kentucky with his family.

14-year-old Irkena is a member of the semi-nomadic Rendille tribe in Kenya and lives with his mother in a temporary homestead in the Kaisut Desert.

14-year-old Prena is a domestic worker in Nepal and lives in a cell-like room in the attic of the house where she works in Katmandu.

14-year-old Erien slept on the floor of her favela abode in Rio de Janeiro until the late stages of her pregnancy.

15-year-old Risa is training to be a geisha and shares a teahouse with 13 women in Kyoto, Japan.

Mollisey is represented by MAP and Flatland Gallery, and published by Chris Boot.

Where Children Sleep is reminiscent of Peter Menzels’s voyeuristic tours of the world through people’s diets and possessions, and JeongMee Yoon’s look at the conditioning of children’s gender identity through the color schemes of their bedrooms. The book’s glow-in-the-dark cover, a-la Radioactive, is a wonderfully playful cherry on top.

All images courtesy of James Mollison via The New York Times

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