Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

07 MARCH, 2008

Re:thought

By:

Sprouting phones, The Junkyards, corporate rarities, Emile Hirsch murders his wife, what film icon is going into Hollywood’s “other” film industry, how your mom scammed you, and why salad is the fundamental folly of capitalism.

GEECO COOL

Geeks and eco-freaks alike rejoice: you can now both be happy as larvae in chicken poop and call each other on the world’s first sustainable cell phones. Because, despite their ubiquity — or perhaps because of it — cell phones are given very little thought between the store and the dumpster. Out of the one billion phones produces annually across the globe, only 10% are recycled — the rest are swapped for a new one every 18 months, ending up in all the world’s landfills.

So Nokia researchers, inspired by a bit of cultural anthropology, technology…and, okay, maybe a bit of pressure from Wall Street, set out to change things. Whatever the motive, we dig the latest concept phone from the world’s largest mobile-phone maker: the Nokia Remade.

It’s a cell phone made entirely of recycled waste: aluminum cans for the shell, plastic bottles for the chassis and car tyres of the key mats. And we think it’s quite the looker, too. Think of it as the Simple of cell phones.

Then there’s the even more technologically outlandish and ecologically brilliant concept of the Bamboo phone: one of the top entries in the 2008 Core77 Green Gadgets Design Competiton.

Bamboo PhoneIt’s not just made from eco-friendly materials like corn-based bio-plastic and bamboo. It’s also entirely biodegradable and, once you remove the battery and antenna, the case can go in your favorite compost pile. There, it decomposes withing a few weeks. Then — no joke — it actually grows bamboo shoots: the case is filled with seeds.

So could concept phones be the new concept cars? Great in theory, but never really hit market in any sort of world-changing way? We hope not — cause we’ll take the Remade over the iPhone any day. Better yet, Steve Jobs, save that Diet Coke can — it’s back to the lab.

DRIVING MUSIC

And, hey, why stop at technology? Repurposed materials are a brilliant fit for art. Case in point: the Car Music Project.

It started in 1994 with the slow yet noisy demise of a certain old Honda Accord. Except that particular shackwagon was American composed Bill Milbrodt’s faithful old Honda Accord. So he decided a junkyard end was not enough: he envisioned a resurrection of the car, one that turned it into music multiple musicians could play and interpret.

Car Music Project So he got a team of auto experts to take the car apart, then hired metal sculptor Ray Faunce III to hand-craft musical instruments from the parts. The result — a stunning orchestra of brass, wind, percussion and string instruments.

Fast-forward to today. The U.K. division of Ford used the Car Music Project in commercial work for the Ford Focus which, granted, does take away from the project’s street cred but it also introduces a whole new wide audience to this novel way of thinking. The resulting TV spot, if you can abstract yourself from the mediocre vocals, the music video cliches and the awkwardly forced presence of the car, is an impressive testament to Milbrodt’s revolutionary brilliance.

Although vaguely reminiscent of a fantastic Cannes-recognized spot for, coincidentally, Honda — at least to the extent that it “plays” the car — it’s truly a rarity of unconventional thought. Well played, Milbrodt, well played.

DRIVING ART

More cars and art: we’re pretty cynical about any kind of corporate-backed art endeavors, but we’ve had our eye on the Scion Installation Art Tour since it first made waves 5 years ago. After all, the quirky car — the ultimate four-wheel tribute to the subjectivity of taste and beauty — should fit right into the irreverent, revolutionary corners of the art world.

Which it has — since 2003, the Installation has toured nearly every major cultural epicenter in the US.

Andrew PommierLast year, it embarked upon its 4th annual tour titled “It’s a Beautiful World” — and starting this weekend, it’s making a stop right here in Philly. Between March 7 and March 21, cutting-edge new talent across collage, painting, photography and sculpture will be showcasing mind-bending work at the F.U.E.L. Collection, better known as “the Real World house,” on 3rd and Arch.

The featured artists hail from a ton of backgrounds, mindsets, nationalities, disciplines and perspectives. So it looks like a phenomenal show. And to wrap up the season, all the art will be auctioned off at the Intstallation’s last stop in L.A., with 100% of proceeds going to art-related charities.

So who’s joining us at F.U.E.L. this week?

DEJA VU GIVES YOU VERTIGO

We’re suckers for Hitchcock and don’t think the current debased state of Hollywood culture could ever outdo him. Which is why we dig Vanity Fair’s 2008 Hollywood Portofilio, the centerpiece of their 14th Annual Hollywood Issue: it pays creative tribute to Hitchcock, forsaking the illusion of outdoability and embracing instead a vision of redoability.

Four Vanity Fair photographers worked their magic with 21 top contemporary actors to recreate 11 iconic Hitchcockian scenes.

To our ultimate delight, one of our favorite actors, Scarlett Johansson, was cast in our favorite Hitchcock: Rear Window. Which we also find to be a perfect metaphor for the entire project: the voyeurism that backbones the film’s plot blended with the inherent voyeurism of today’s celebrity culture.

The full lineup of talent: Casey Affleck, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Julie Christie, Marion Cotillard, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Foster, Jodie Foster, Emile Hirsch, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James McAvoy, Omar Metwally, Gwyneth Paltrow, Seth Rogen, Eva Marie Saint, Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts, Tang Wei, and Renée Zellweger.

See all 11 photographs, watch how the magic happened, and rent some original Hitchcock this weekend. Which of his timeless characters would you play?

IDEA BUG IN ACTION

More celebrities and film: guess what Isabella Rossellini is up to these days. Nope, it’s not Hollywood — it’s more Sundace Channel meets Discovery. After last week’s exploration of the biosphere’s creative potential, we’re glad to find Rossellini joining us…although she skews less ornithology and more pornithology.

The iconic model- slash-actor-slash- filmmaker is writing, directing and starring in Green Porno — a Sundance Channel series of short films on the sex life of bugs. Clad in various insect costumes and humping cardboard decoys, she somehow gets the magic of it across in a brilliant way, shot with a mix of childlike simplicity and German Expressionism.

Weird? Perhaps. Avant-garde? No question. Tremendously insightful, enlightening and inspiring? Absolutely.

Here’s to another cultural artifact that blends the science and art worlds in a strikingly refreshing way. And, um, those house flies are getting us all hot and bothered…not in their usual midsummer rotting garbage way.

NAUGHTICAL ADVENTURES

Aqua EroticaIf all the humping bugs got you in a certain mood, then you’re in luck: our product pick of the week is just the thing. It also happens to be a world innovation in, um, bookbinding. Because Aqua Erotica claims to be “the first-ever waterproof book for adults.”

(Wait, there was a waterproof book for kids? One more thing we missed out on in childhood, thanks mom.)

We’re not quite sure what to make of all the boastful claims veiled in amusingly cheesy tropes. But, hey, be your own judge — whatever floats your duckie.

UNTRIVIA

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We love Wired. We love eye-opening data. We’re also health freaks. So this week’s Untrivia borrows from the good folks at Wired — this nifty data visualization from January’s issue is just too good to not share. Not because we didn’t already know the healthiest foods are found on periphery of the store and the obesity-propagating stuff of insane energy densities lurks in the middle. But because this visual representation drives a bigger point home:

Nutritional Values (via Wired)

The point: there’s something fundamentally broken in our economic model. How come the healthiest foods are also the most expensive on a cost-per-calorie basis? All the government aid to the poor seems moot: food stamps to barely afford those cheap unhealthy foods, then medicare to slap a Band-Aid on the obesity-driven results.

Why not just cut back on those corn subsidies (hello, corn syrup, you number-one obesity culprit) and pour a bit into, say, organic farming? The recent Farm Bill gave $42 billion in subsidies to commodities (yep, those Reese’s Cups and Pringles would be it) and a mere $1.6 billion to fruit and vegetable.

Seems like the government can learn a thing or two from Michael Pollan.

22 FEBRUARY, 2008

Get Stuff Done

By:

Feigned sobriety, unopposable thumbs, mornings done right, obsessive winking, sweet-talk for hire, how we’re always right, why red is better than apple, and whose rack we were ogling while almost getting arrested.

ART OF THE HOW

We’re inept. Or at least that’s what the recent surge in how-to sites and services is telling us. But it’s okay, because we are indeed inept. About some stuff, that is — you know, that whole the-more-you- know-the-more-you-don’t-know thing that comes with the curious mind — so it’s great to have resources on how anything is done.

HowcastOur favorite so far: Howcast, the brain child of ex-Googlers and YouTubers. It’s user- generated content curated by the editorial eye to bring you super useful how-to videos on anything from chilling a 6-pack in 3 minutes, to lying and getting away, to making your bathroom eco-friendly. Better yet, it’s all high-quality and free. And even better yet, the Howcast vision is all about giving emerging filmmakers a chance to get experience and exposure, then fusing it all with content distribution and smart advertising. We dig.

Then there’s Quamut (Latin for “how to”) — an enormous how-to library, complete with printable charts written by experts and reviewed by fact-checkers. A Geekipedia, if you will, that’s both super accurate and super useful. Quamut comes from Barnes & Noble, which means, of course, there’s a price sticker somewhere. But it’s not too bad — you can view everything online for free, you just need to suck up $2.95 if you want to download a PDF of something. And if you’re really compelled to go old-school with all the bells and whistles, you can scurry over to an actual Barnes & Noble store and cough up $5.95 for a laminated copy of select Quamuts. (This is where we point, laugh and remind you of Howcast.)

Finally, let’s not forget the power of collaboration and popular wisdom: wikiHow is a wiki-based resource where users can contribute to the how-to’s of various subjects. Think of it as collaborative how-to manual that’s much like a hands-on Wikipedia. It’s got a Creative Commons license, comes in 6 languages, and has a decidedly philanthropic feel with a vision of improving quality of life through practical knowledge.

So if you ever find yourself wallowing in ineptitude, do check out one of these great resources. Now we’re off to learning how to make a water gun alarm clock for those can’t-get-out-of-bed mornings. (Which are NOT due to not having seen the very amusing yet informative “How To Fake Being Sober” video.)

DEMOCRACY OF THUMB

And speaking of popular wisdom, Rules of Thumb offers all sorts of nifty, well, rules of thumb, each rated on a usefulness scale (1-10) by the populus. The whole thing is searchable and browsable by subject. And we dig their definition of “rule of thumb” — turning information you have into information you need.

More importantly, we dig the fact that what they’re doing seems to aim at taking the error of many out of the whole time-tested “trial and error” paradigm by learning from the error of a few.

That’s where we make our very lame indeed pun about giving it the thumbs-up. What, we held off for an entire paragraph.

WHAT YOU FEEL IS WHAT YOU GET

And of course, getting stuff done has to always start with getting in the right mindset. Which often involves starting the day off on the right foot — and what righter foot than a feel-good outlook?

feelgood.pngThat’s where the feel good initiative comes in. It’s a very simple, very smart concept: every day, there’s a new song uploaded along with some quick extra stuff (mostly artist’s website). That’s it. The idea is you start your morning there and listen to the daily song along with your coffee and newspaper. Some days, the song will be a response to a previous day’s. All days, it’ll be inspiring, refreshing and sure to put you in the right mood to face the day.

And if you’re not the surprise kind of person, if you have a specific craving for a song you already know, there’s Songerize — a supremely basic site where you just type in the name of an artist and/or song, and it just pulls it up and starts playing. Brilliant.

It’s the stripped-down version of the also brilliant SeeqPod music search engine, there to make your music wishes come true at the click of a mouse. Plus, it actually works — it found all but one of the tracks we tested, including stuff on the off-mainstream side (like our latest obsession, Kate Nash). So what are you craving to hear right now?

STALKER 2.0

It starts innocently enough. You need to look up a friend’s mailing address. But then before you know it, you’re digging up dirt on your ex, your “good girl” coworker, your nasty brother in law, and worse yet, you get all crazy-eyed and jittery with excitement about it. If you don’t like that image, proceed with caution. And if you’re screaming “GIMME!,” indulge. Now onto the goodies:

There’s the everyone-knows-this White Pages reverse phone number lookup — great for those could-be-mysterious-could-be- creepy missed calls. Then there’s Zaba Search, the free people search that digs up all sorts of public info on your searchee, including address and date when the address was recorded — so when you get multiple listings for someone, you can spot their current residence. Good idea, but didn’t work for many of the people we tried. (What, it was research…)

Which is how we get to our favorite: Wink. Wink searches over 330 million people across pretty much all existing social networks — on many of which people list their full name, address, school, workplace, interests and more.

And you can search by even more variables: full name, username (love this one), city, state, zip, country, province, career, tags, even keywords based on the person’s interests. We tried it and it’s no joke how much our friends reveal online — we were able to find every single person we searched, most complete with mugshots. And Wink doesn’t just search regular folks. It’s integrated with news services, so you can get the latest scoop on your favorite celeb.

So next time you get all hot and bothered over your MySpace conversation with cutehottie4u, you can track down the 43-year-old computer programmer typing away the hot stuff from his cube in Ohio. And if you get all Wink-obsessed, you can get their plugin and search straight from your browser anytime, or download the Wink widget, which lets you tell people where you are online all the time — particularly useful if you’re trying to promote yourself in the digital world. Better yet, you can create a Wink profile for yourself to really manage your online presence and how it’s presented to the world.

Smart, nifty, and oh-so-handy. We love.

REPUTATION REMEDY

But what happens if you just Winked yourself and found some, um, less than presentable stuff? Worse yet, what if there’s a public record of your careless youth somewhere on the web where you have no control? That’s when DefendMyName comes in — think of it as a reputation management program that specializes in removing negative listings about you and replacing them with good stuff. Using search optimization and a few other strategy, DMN promises to mitigate negative blog posts, customer reviews, news stories and other public info about you or your brand.

Hands down, we’re not crazy about the idea — whatever happened to transparency and the whole authenticity shebang? We get enough of politics as is. But we gotta give it to those guys for finding a clever, however ethically questionable, way to exploit the combination of people’s propensity to fuck up and the ever-growing power of the Internet.

UNTRIVIA

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Some time ago, we made a big bold claim that consumer reviews were actually the real beginning of social networking. And now, thanks to the good folks at eMarketer, we have even more proof for just how much importance consumers place on each others’ opinions and recommendations when shopping. Turns out…

  • …22% of consumers always read reviews, 43% do so most of the time, 33% read them occasionally, and only 2% never do.
  • …the majority (68%) require 4 or more reviews before they make a decision to buy, and 22% won’t settle for less than 8
  • …64% place peer reviews on their wish list for all websites, above anything else, including special offers and coupons
  • …product reviews by peers are the most frequently visited (55%) product research tool, trumping comparison charts (22%), expert reviews (21%) and shared shopping lists (1%)

No wonder last year, for the first time in retail history, customer satisfaction with online retailers surpassed that with brick-and-mortar stores. By 12%, which is a lot. On a 100-point scale, online retail scored 83 points and offline got an underwhelming 71. And Amazon, the mother of all reviews, topped the chart with 88 points. Could the reviews have something to do with it? (You’re nodding vigorously now, right? Just making sure.)

PICTURE THIS

After last week’s huge upgrade to the image search process, we seem to be on a roll. This week’s hot pick: retrievr, an experimental color recognition system that lets you draw with colors on a digital canvas and delivers image results from Flickr that feature the space/color combination you sketched out. Or, if you’re not into drawing, you can upload an image and retrievr hunts down images with similar space/color schemes.

retrievr.jpg

Although the algorithm doesn’t recognize shapes (say you sketch the rough outline of an apple), it does match colors and the colors’ spatial position within the image.

Sounds awkward and complicated explained, but it’s actually incredibly simple and brilliant — so see for yourself.

11 JANUARY, 2008

Feeling Thoughts, Playing Visions

By:

Public display of emotion, world-saving vocabulary, the new jet set, David Lynch, the animal in us, what Mike Gravel and Moby have in common, why parting with our miniature sheep collection finally seems doable, and how everything begins with music.

HEART OF A CITY

The Nordic countries, always the beacon of design and innovation, are bringing yet another refreshing new project to the cultural table. Emotional Cities is the work of Swedish artist Erik Krikortz and is a multilayer, concrete, visual reflection of the world’s emotional pulse as it changes in real time.

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The concept is both simple and elaborate. First, there’s the website where you pick your current emotional state on a seven-level scale by clicking the visual representation of your mood. Then there’s the elaborate part that turns it into a public art installation of an emotional snapshot.

mood.png The project aspires to calculate and plot the average values for cities, countries and the world in real time. You can also create custom groups by using the Emotional Cities Facebook app and mood-track your workplace, your posse or your roommate. The idea is to make us more aware of our own emotions and those of others, and hopefully to help us understand them better — after you’re asked the “how?” question about your emotional state, you can also choose to answer the “why?” in a private diary on the website, encouraging you to deal with emotion in a healthy, intelligent way.

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Here’s the elaborate part: in some cities, the city’s current emotional state is projected onto a light installation in a public space. So if you were flying into Stockholm, you’d be able to instantly get a feel for the city’s cumulative emotional state at that time.

And to say the concept has gigantic social potential would be an understatement. Emotional transference or mimicry is a tremendously powerful, primal force that we humans are neurologically wired for. For details on the back-end, read up on mirror neurons and indulge in Daniel Goleman’s brilliant book “Emotional Intelligence.” But, meanwhile, let’s just say that the Emotional Cities project has the potential to virally infect real people and entire cities with positive emotion, improving everything from the stress level of the daily grind to our overall standard of living.

How are you today?

SYMBIOTIC BETTERMENT

Ask Chaucer, and he would’ve probably told you literature can save the world. And you would’ve probably laughed. Possibly pointed. Well, put that finger down because FreeRice, a smart new sister site to aspirational poverty-assassin Poverty.com, is feeding the hungry while enhancing your vocabulary.freerice1.png

Here’s how it works: you play a web game that tests your knowledge of fancy words (remember those SAT questionnaires?) and for every word you get right, FreeRice donates 20 grains of rice through the United Nations World Food Program to help end world hunger.

And that’s not all. These are serious folks — the “game” is built by professional lexicographers to ensure maximum benefits for your vocabulary. So you’re helping the world while helping yourself sound smarter, formulate ideas better, make greater impact with your speech, score better on tests, nail job interviews…you get the idea.

To kick up the challenge, you can set your computer to remember your vocabulary level as you play, so the game pushes you to make actual progress. There are 50 levels total, but getting above 48 is Shakespearean.

We dig the idea — it sounds like symbiotic quality-of-life improvement: for the world’s poor, relieving hunger clearly improves their lives; and in the world of capitalism, improving vocabulary, which is integral to your image and therefore a “self-marketing” currency, will ultimately improve your life.

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The site is entirely ad-supported, which allowed the project to double its impact — it actually started out with a 10-grains-per-word contribution, but it got a tremendous response. And because more traffic means more advertising revenue for the program, they were able to double the donation in November. Still, it may seem like tiny chip at the world poverty problem — eliminating which, along with all its related diseases, the UN estimates will cost $195 billion a year.

So scurry off to FreeRice and make yourself a better person in more ways than one. Heck, let’s go crazy — bookmark it and spend a minute on it every day. It may save a life.

Word.

BIG BIRDS, BIG EGOS

dopplr.pngWhat happens when you combine business networking, social networking, travel, and real-life fun get-togethers? Dopplr happens, a brand new service for the city-hopping business elite. It lets frequent biz travelers share plans with their friends and colleagues so that if they happen to be in the same city as a buddy at any given time, they can swap the boring staring-at-my-hotel-wall evening for a night on the town in good company. Trade in the pay-per-view for, you know, actual humans.

Seems like we’re running a Nordic theme here — Finland-based Dopplr (the country seems to be on an innovation spree lately) is the brainchild of several business geniuses, media executives and designers with extensive upmarket experience — the same crowd that embodies the site’s average user.

But with the success, smarts and talent of this set also comes some networking snobbery — right now, Dopplr is invite-only (just like uber-exclusive luxury social net darling aSmallWorld.net.) The folks behind it say the main reason is that they’re focusing on the business clientele and want to maintain maximum security, but they also admit they like to maintain an air of exclusivity. Yep, someone’s gotta cradle all those big egos. Plus, replicating people’s real-life relationships to lend the service some word-of-mouth credibility wouldn’t exactly hurt.

Do check it out — it may sound like a niche project, but we think it’s a sign of a powerful trend that’s starting to emerge. These same new-age business execs may well be the hot new commodity, a lucrative demo driving both culture and economy forward. Watch out.

NO ELABORATION NEEDED

Why we love David Lynch and simple parody.

Download it and watch it on your iPhone here.

UNTRIVIA

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Okay, let’s do nerd-talk for a second: Goal-Gradient Hypothesis. (Man up, you can take it.) It’s the behaviorist idea that animals expend more effort when there’s an imminent reward. And because we’re all just animals (no, not like that, you dirtball), our behavior is shaped by the same patterns.

Case in point: an interesting study by a bunch of Columbia and Fordham researchers substantiated the “duh” knowledge we already have by backing it up with numbers. They looked at exactly how and by how much the prospect of a reward changes everyday human behavior. And they found that when folks joined the reward program at their local coffee shop (you know, the buy-10-get-1-free kinda thing), their interpurchase times dropped by 20%. That’s a lot. The pattern was also projected onto online behaviors, like rating a certain number of songs on a music-rating site to redeem an Amazon gift certificate. The idea is that once people have a tangible reward at the end of a task, they accelerate towards that goal beyond how they would normally complete the task. Yeah, we know, “D’oh!”

But even more interestingly, they also found that people who joined the reward program were also…

  • 19% more likely to chat with cafe employees
  • 12% more likely to say smile
  • 8% more likely to say “thank you”
  • 18% more likely to leave a tip.

So besides being numbers-based evidence for the obvious loyalty and incentive programs many companies already use, we think there’s a bigger human truth behind it — we all appreciate feeling appreciated. We want tangible proof that we matter — whether it’s to a cafe or to our bosses or to our friends — and it all becomes a loop of reciprocity.

The point here is, tangible appreciation does’t just make better customers: it makes better people. So go ahead and send that old-school thank-you note to your great aunt, even though you were so not feeling that reindeer sweater. You’ll feel better, as will she. And, who knows, maybe she’ll get you a Modbook next year.

THINKTUBE

And while we’re being brainy, the big news on that front this week is BigThink — a brand new online video network that aims to empower the “citizen-consumer” by providing access to the brains of today’s greatest thinkers and a venue for those absorbing the ideas to respond.

The army of experts spans an enormous range, from faith to science to politics to art, and everything in between. And the idea people are as diverse as former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, presidential candidate Mike Gravel, Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, University of Pennysilvania President and political theorist Amy Guttman, iconic entrepreneur Richard Branson, and time-changing artist Moby. Plus a ton more.

Currently, the site is in private beta. But the idea is that once people immerse themselves in the world of ideas, they’d be inspired to respond and contribute, uploading their own videos. Right now, BigThink is simply an amazing and rare library of ideas, professionally organized and neatly gathered in one place. Which is great. But whether or not the project truly succeeds (and we sincerely hope it does) depends entirely on the willingness of that same “citizen-consumer” to shift from the passive lean-back comfort that current web video has become and lean forward into the active world of thought.

Time to quit watching other people’s cats do funny things and maybe think about the nature of humor.

CLUTTERBOARD

Lately, it seems like stop motion has been having a field day with award shows, YouTube popularity and the sorta-indie-but-skewing-mainstream set. And, sure, the most recognized representatives of the genre are often the most elaborate, big-budget productions backed by a corporate merchant of cool. (Hey there, Sony and Guinness.)

But it’s neat to see a fresh stop-motion spot from an unexpected, even traditionally “boring” category. Let’s face it, it’s a little easier to get excited and inspired by plasma TV’s and beer than it is by, say, storage. Which is why we dig “Tide.”

Out of London-based agency CHI & Partners, by director Dougal Wilson, this Bronze-Lion-winning spot is visually indulgent, yet short and to-the-point: it really makes us think about the pack-rattish clutter in our own lives that we’re drowning in — heck, nothing’s come this close before to making us feel like it’s time to stash our miniature sheep collection away.

MEDIUM/MESSAGE

frame_davis.jpg There’s no question that music has ignited some of the greatest fires in civilization’s belly. Still, it’s rare that the artistic vision music inspires uses both music’s medium and its content to craft new kinds of art. But that’s exactly what SoCal mixed media artist Daniel Edlen has done in vinyl art, using white acrylic and vinyl records to create portraits of the artists right on the physical canvas of their music.

Although the artist says his “payoff is people’s reaction when they see the pieces for the first time,” you can help support his work and vision with a more tangible payoff by buying one of the few yet-unsold pieces, framed in a clean black metal LP frame with the original album sleeve as background.

20 DECEMBER, 2007

The Last and the Curious

By:

Democracy, rashes, the big ambush, Eastern Europeans for free, why the ‘burbs are cool again, how 40 tons can make you really, really uncomfortable, what gingerbread has to do with sustainability, and just dance, dammit.

THE INDEPENDENT MASSES

Let’s face it, neither big labels nor online music sales are exactly a conducive trampoline for indie artists looking to make the big jump, however talented they may be. The few who rose from the indie ranks and made it big may have the traction to give the labels the finger (hello, Radiohead and LiveNation folk), but what about the little guys, the next Beatles and Kinks and Blondies humbly making great music in their basements?

ourstage.jpgLuckily for them, there’s OurStage: one big, brilliant community talent contests. It allows emerging talent to gain exposure by uploading work, then — here’s the smart part — it lets the community decide in a completely democratic vote. Every month, the overall winner gets $5,000 (and the top 5 rankers in each genre channel get some pocket change — $100, to be exact — to fuel those practice sessions with beer and pizza so they can do better next month.)

We sampled some of the top-ranked talent — and talent it is, we were pleasantly surprised to find. Current rank topper Julie Odell oozes promises of Joni-Mitchellish vocals and Rufus-Wainwrightean piano work. And runner-up Wandering Bards blends Lynard Skynardesque Southern rock with early Dave Matthews Band rasp, plus a kick all their own. And, is Sydney Wayser for real? Please come to and give the woman a record deal already.

All in all, OurStage seems to reflect a bigger trend of late — the concept of individualism by the numbers. It helps indie artists remain, well, indie, while building a community fueled by individual opinions but moving forward by means of critical mass. Who knew democracy wasn’t the repugnant villain big labels and the Billboard charts make it out to be?

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifAlright, alright, maybe the Billboard charts aren’t all crap — if you know how to read them, that is. The big B published the annual recap on what was hot in the year past, spanning every imaginable genre, category and music publishing method. But we were most intrigued by a little something that goes by Tastemakers Chart.

It’s intended to balance out the big music retailers’ influence on the rest of the charts, which are largely shaped by sales figures from the major chain stores. But the Tastemakers Chart reflects music sales in thousands of small, independent stores where, coincidentally, cultural “tastemakers” often first discover new music. It’s the long tail, if you will. And while its entrants are strikingly similar to those popping up in the mainstream charts, it still tells a different story — and we like different stories.

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And while we’re on the subject, might as well resist the urge to snub TIME Magazine‘s 50 Top 10 Lists of 2007, including the music one: we’re sensing the onset of a distinct overexposure rash with all that Amy Winehouse dominance. (Oh come on now, the “OD-ing on Amy” joke would’ve been too cheap a shot.)

BIG THINGS START SMALL

Sure, it was a matter of time. But we kind of expected fanfare, grandeur, or at least another campfire event in Mountain View to announce it. Nope, Google has decided to take down the social networking giants quietly and stealthily.

reader.pngThis week, Google Reader (you know, the nifty RSS aggregator that lets you keep track of content updates on sites you’ve elected to actually care about *cough cough*) tapped into users’ address books for a social function that lets you see what your friends are reading.

And that’s just two months after Google Maps quietly added the same function, leveraging the existing custom-mapping and local user reviews. Thanks to the (not yet but soon) almighty address book, people can share routes and trails with friends, click through reviews and see what else that person reviewed, and add links and photos.

Not to mention personal Google profile pages have been around for a while, letting people show the world a no-bells-and-whistles snapshot of who they are, where they’re at, and what they’re into.

Sure, the Goog folks still need to streamline things and intersect Reader profiles with Map profiles with Docs sharing and whatever other personal/social components they’re brewing up for the Google army of apps. But the point here is, the address book is a tremendously powerful tool.

Really, if we’re talking about real social networking, your social foundation — your circle of close friends and all the acquaintances you actually care to keep in touch with — is bound to be in your address book. Heck, even the expression “keeping in touch” wouldn’t live outside the context of some sort of address book. So we can’t wait to see how the Google touch transforms a field that has traditionally been done backwards, adding social contacts (who may or may not be actual friends) once the network is formed. Slap OpenSocial to this whole shebang, and something big, something long overdue is starting to emerge.

And while we’re on the subject of putting the individual up front and center, perhaps the most noteworthy of Google’s latest is a new tool they’re beta-testing that goes by knol (which stands for “unit of knowledge”) — based on the screenshots, it sounds like Wikipedia on steroids: it organizes all the world’s information by having thousands of experts in specific, niche areas write “knols” on what they know inside and out.

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Google folks make a good point about how all other public media (books, articles, music, etc.) have a known author, but the Internet, for the most part, somehow evolved without that key component. So they say the idea is to claim authorship back and build a momentous pool of knowledge by highlighting the author in a way that fosters top-notch info and credibility.

WILL REWARD FOR INFO

One word: huh?

This oddball, reminiscent of the infamous Counterfeit MINI campaign, has been gathering viral momentum and generating massive web-wide head-scratching for months. Across the several duplicates posted to YouTube, it’s got some half million cumulative views. And all it points to is this Romanian website, where there seems to be some Romanian auto-parts retailer tie-in.

It’s also a featured example on Unruly Media, a service that seeds brand-backed viral videos to publishers who cash in on views. Their clients include big-wig names like Pepsi, Glaxo Smith Klein, Budweiser, Motorola, BBC and more, plus a ton of conglomerate- owned agencies — and a Romanian auto-parts shop?

The site is registered to one Bogdan Popescu and his questionable kin, Morek Popescu, seems to have designed it. We have no idea how common of Romanian names these are, but Bogdan (if that’s even “his” real name) seems to be either a computer science researcher in Amsterdam or involved in an electronic software solutions company. Or, you know, Borat’s cousin. Oh, and they’ve bought keywords — Bogdan’s name, alongside “viral video,” pulls the mysterious website as the top search result. Yah, we know, “HUH?!”

We love the brilliant absurdity of the viral vid, but something ain’t right here — anyone who’s got info on what the deal is, do speak up. We’re willing to offer authentic Eastern Europeans as a reward.

SUBURBAN OUTFITTERS

Behold Urban Outfitters, that glorious haven for pseudo-rebels and budding stick-it-to-the- man folk. But all questionable stereotypes and blatant counterfeiting charges aside, the chain — which includes college-aimed Urban Outfitters, grown-up chic Anthropologie and the lesser- known but possibly most original Free People — does have distinct style and vibe, plus some plain cool stuff.

But here’s a question: what happens when the Urban Outfitters loyalists grow up, settle down and swap their hip urban lofts for picked-fenced suburban houses but still wanna keep their hip? President and Chairman Richard Hayne saw a market opportunity there, mixed in a smart jump on the recent gardening trend, got “inspired by the greenhouse” (who isn’t these days, with all the greenwashing going around?), decided to cash in on the growing male market, and — voila! — in May, he announced Urban Outfitters’ latest venture: a home and garden store by the name of Terrain targeting 30-to-45-year-old green-thumbed men and women alike.

The plan is to launch in 2008 and open 50 of them in the next 15 years — yeah, a time-frame too eye-rollingly distant for Urban’s core consumer, but let’s see where these kids flock for pots and pans in a decade.

THIS STORY IS NOT A FAIRY TALE

Very rarely are we so torn between the creative merit of a project and its bare-bones humane impact. But artist Johnathan Harris took us to that state of uncomfortable ambivalence in a matter of seconds with his latest project: The Whale Hunt.

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In May, he spent 9 days living with an Inupiat Eskimo family and documenting the thousand-year-old tradition that is the big whale hunt. Starting at the very beginning with the Newark Airport cab ride, he took 3,214 photographs by the end of the hunt, which resulted in two dead whales weighing around 40 tons.

Harris calls the project “an experiment in human storytelling” and even the image narrative sequence is presented on a heartbeat-like timeline. The entire concept is unquestionably original, offering a gritty glimpse into a whole different world. But we can’t help being a bit shaken by this epic death chase of these epic animals.

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Okay, so this insures the community’s annual food supply. And it’s strictly regulated by international law with a limit of 22 whales per year. But there’s something about the snow that makes it feel all the more chilling when blood-stained. Something about calling it a “harvest” — isn’t this something the Earth gives, rather than something violently ripped from her? — that’s hard to swallow.

Food for thought. But, then again, the Inuits living at -22 °F need more than thought to live off of. So we won’t sit here with our tuna salad waiting in the fridge and judge.

STREET PICKINGS

Count on Whole Foods to make off-the-grid living sound like tons of fun and remind us what the holidays, this month-long tribute to conspicuous consumption, are really about — because besides the food and the fun, there’s also that giving back thing. Literally: who more important to give to than Earth, and what more important to give back than what was originally hers?

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So get those LED lights already, take it easy on the pointless waste mechanism that is gift wrapping and, um, go have some food and fun, eh?

DO THE DANCE

What better way to send the year off than with one of its gemmist viral gems? Especially if it’s one that gets you in just the right body/mindset for those night-long parties coming up.

The humbly killer video for D.A.N.C.E. by French electro-rock band Justice took the web by storm and earned a GRAMMY nomination along the way, among a slew of other awards. And it snagged the one that counts the most: a massive worldwide fan-base reflected in the 5 million YouTube views, 29,000 times the vid has been favorited, and close to 5,000 raving comments pinned on it.

We’re not ones to sheepishly follow the masses — but, c’mon, the masses are right on the money with this one. Go ahead, chug the Kool-aid.