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Follow The Money: Visualizing the Structure of Large-Scale Communities

Visual economics, or what virtual currencies have to do with real neighbors.

Money makes the world go ’round. Or so the saying goes. Whether or not that’s true, money does go around the world, wrapping it in an invisible web of socioeconomic and geopolitical patterns.

Northwestern University grad students Daniel Grady and Christian Thiemann are on a mission to visualize these patterns. Their project Follow the Money investigates the structure of large-scale communities in the US through the prism of how money travels. Using data from the popular bill-tracking website Where’s George?, the team identified geographically compact communities based on how much currency is changing hands within them as opposed to between them.

This may sound like dry statistical uninterestingness, but the video visualization of the results is rather eye-opening, revealing how money — not state borders, not political maps, not ethnic clusters — is the real cartographer drawing our cultural geography.

When we made the video, we wanted to produce something that anybody could watch and understand what was happening, but at the same time we didn’t want to have to dumb down any of the ideas.” ~ Daniel Grady

The project was a winner at the 2009 Visualization Challenge sponsored by the National Science Foundation and AAAS and.

But as cash nears extinction in the age of plastic and electronic transations, we’d be curious to see a visualization of payment networks in all the forms and formats today’s money lives in — physical, electronic, and even virtual currencies like Facebook’s AceBucks, World of Warcraft’s gold, or Second Life’s Linden dollars.

via Visual Complexity


The Apology Line

How to exorcise your indiscretions, or what art from the 80’s has to do with modern guilt.

In 1980, conceptual artist Allan Bridge began his Apology Line project — a telephone hotline, where anonymous callers could unburden themselves from their guilty confessions on an answering machine. Two decades before PostSecret and a quarter century before We Feel Fine, the project pioneered crowdsourced layman voyeurism and went on to collect hundreds of daily confessions for over fifteen years. It was featured in the most groundbreaking cultural commentaries of the day, from an article in then-toddler Wired to an early episode of This American Life.

Though Bridge’s original tape anthology, The Apology Line: Uncut Gems From Year Zero (1980-1981), is long lost in the analog ether, after a few hours of relentless poking around the intertubes, we were able to uncover the only surviving digitized recording of the project, which you can download for your listening pleasure. Uncomfortably honest, sometimes funny and often shocking, these anonymous confessions offer a raw slice of human complexity, with all its tortured tribulations and daily dramas.

But something much richer than a digital recording is taking the project’s legacy into the present era.

In 2007, UK filmmaker duo James Lee and William Bridges revived The Apology Line, launching it across the UK and inviting Britons via posters, flyers and newspaper articles to call the anonymous line and unload whatever is weighing them down. They then made a short documentary about it, which went on to grain critical acclaim across the film festival circuit, showing at Sundance and Cannes in 2008 and being awarded at the Prix UIP Best European Short Film at the Cork International Film Festival.

Now, the team behind The Apology Line is using Kickstarter (which we so love) to bring the project to the US. Their goal is to collect confessions from Americans all over the country, eventually unleashing an art exhibition beginning in New York and traveling all over America.

You can pledge anything from $5 to $100 and help create an avenue where we can safely scratch the itch of guilt for lunching on someone else’s sandwich in the office fridge and telling grandma you’re abstaining until marriage. In exchange, you’ll get a varying magnitude of voyeurism fixes with randomly selected apologies from stranger.

Go ahead, microfund the apologetic exorcism of guilt. You won’t be sorry.

via Coudal


Popular Science, Digitized

137 years of human curiosity, or what lawnmowers have to do with nuclear detectives in China.

Thousands of magazines have stuffed our mailboxes and collected dust on our coffee tables over the years, but very few have captivated the attention of geeks and dreamers as long as Popular Science.

A hundred and thirty-seven years ago, Edward L. Youmans founded the publication to help bring scientific knowledge to the educated layman. Topics ranged the scientific gamut from the birth of electricity to the mystery of the brain. In addition to staff writers, our modern world of science has been covered by the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, T.H. Huxley, and Louis Pasteur.

Luckily for historians and the ever-curious, Popular Science has teamed up with Google to archive all 137 years of the magazine. (You may remember Google’s groundbreaking similar partnership with LIFE Magazine in late 2008.) Not only is this spectacular treasure of information free, but it’s available in original format — which means that besides enjoying antique articles about human-powered flying machines, you can also enjoy the advertisements of eras past. (Cigarettes, whiskey and riding lawnmowers seem to populate the 60’s.)

The archives aren’t indexed by volume. Instead, a fairly accurate search function brings up all the relevant articles from the past century for you to wade through. This time machine of science is beautiful to navigate, and even looks fantastic on the iPhone.

For those of you who are new to the archives, we’ve taken the liberty of finding a few nuggets of nostalgia to get you started:

The Moon — So Far (May, 1958): “Look hard, next full moon (April 3, May 3). Our oldest-established permanent satellite looms over the trees, familiar and close, yet mysterious and distant…We are ready to stretch across 240,000 miles to touch it…”

A nuclear detective looks at China’s atom bomb (Feb, 1965): “To an atomic scientist, what are the implications of China’s atomic bomb? We asked Dr. Ralph E. Lapp, a physicist who participated in the World War II Manhattan Project…”

Traveling telephones — new technology expands mobile service (Feb, 1978): “There’s a button labeled SND on Motorola’s futuristic –looking Pulsar II radiotelephone. I pushed it, and a number stored in its microcomputer memory began stepping, digit by digit, across the red LED handset display.

Go ahead, dive in.

Len Kendall is the cofounder of the3six5 project. (Featured on Brain Pickings here.) He enjoys being clever, quippy, and constructively grumpy.


World AIDS Day Spotlight: Interview with Travis McCoy

What a pair of sneakers has to do with a bridge in Manila and mobile cinema in South Africa.

When Gym Class Heroes front man Travis McCoy traveled to South Africa, India and the Philippines last June, he met the leaders of three projects funded by the Staying Alive Foundation, MTV’s global grant-giving organization fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS by empowering young leaders. Inspired by his incredible experience, Travis launched the Unbeaten Track project and wrote the single One At a Time, which drops today — World AIDS Day — with 100% of proceeds going directly to the Foundation to fund even more AIDS-fighting projects around the world.

Today, we sit down with Travis and pick his brains about the Unbeated Track project, how social entrepreneurship differs from philanthropy, and whether there’s a shift in the economy of cool.


Hey Travis, good to have you. Straight to the point — what’s your story of getting involved with the Staying Alive Foundation?

I first became involved with Staying Alive back at the Europe Music Awards in 2008. I was asked to do some filming on the red carpet on behalf of Staying Alive where I would ask fellow artists questions on their attitude towards HIV and AIDS, and other related issues like relationships, cheating and condom use. After spending more time with Georgia — the founder of the Foundation — and seeing what amazing work they did, I immediately asked what else I could do to help. They asked me to be their next Ambassador, and that was that.

It’s a cause that’s important to me because I lost somebody close to me to AIDS when I was younger. At the time I was uneducated about HIV and AIDS so I was afraid. I’d shared the same cutlery as this person; we’d used the same shower… I had so many questions — and looking back — a lot of what I thought to be true about the virus was incorrect. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people out there still don’t know enough about it and that’s why I think it’s important for those of us in the public eye to educate and set a good example. My life has taken me to a point where I am in the position to influence my fans, and if I can influence the way they dress, the music that they listen to and so on, why can’t I get them to think and be more aware about more serious issues like HIV and AIDS?


It’s often the littlest things that give you the greatest a-ha moments. Do you recall any such seemingly small but monumentally telling anecdote from your travels in June that really opened your eyes to the impact of the Foundation?

Getting to actually meet the young projects leaders and get to know them a bit better, for me, was a definite highlight. Bulelani, Alex and Mandakini are three of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Their work is tireless, their attitude selfless.

There are few real standout moments though… In South Africa, Bulelani took me on a tour of Site B in Khayelitsha, which is where he lives. It’s the second largest township in South Africa and has an incredibly high HIV infection rate. Bulelani spreads HIV prevention and awareness messaging through a creative filmmaking process with local youth. He then shows the films produced using his Mobile Cinema, which is funded by the Foundation.

I was walking along with him chatting about his work and I asked him what he’d do if Hollywood came knocking with a million-dollar deal… His response cemented my original thoughts about him — without hesitation, he said that he’d turn them down because his work as a filmmaker is in Khayletisha where he sees a problem that needs to be addressed. I love the fact that the Foundation is able to find and fund these dedicated and motivated individuals who are really making a difference in their communities.

Another moment on the trip that really affected me was visiting Kaybuboy Bridge in Manila.

There were around 80 families living under this bridge in absolute poverty, and it made me think of all the people who publicly pride themselves on coming from “the hood” and the fact that where they grew up is so tough; and I just thought, ‘live under a bridge for two years, and then tell me how hard your life is.’

I came out from under that bridge a different person — it made me realize that we really need to stop being selfish and start thinking more about not only our community, but also our world as a whole.


For the past two decades, MTV has been a powerful merchant of cool, shaping much of what youth admires and aspires to. All throughout, it has faced criticism – especially from academia – for promoting superficial belief systems and lifestyles. But in recent years, MTV has championed a number of socially-conscious causes, from sustainability to anti-smoking to AIDS. How do you see celebrities’ and the media’s responsibility in reframing of the concept of “cool,” shifting it from the ownership of cool things, a.k.a. “bling,” and towards the doership of good deeds?

I think it’s important that anybody who has the power to make an impression on others must use their role wisely. Sometimes artists are naïve and stubborn and think they don’t have a responsibility in inspiring youth. I hate when artists take the attitude of “Oh, I’m not a role model. I’m just a young person just trying to live my life.” Well, of course you are, but at the same time, you can’t deny that in this position you’re very influential to the kids who are coming out to see you and buying your CD. I was stubborn for a long time. I’m human. But in time, I ended up seeing right in front of my face the effect I have on kids, whether it’s influencing the way they dress or the music they listen to. And if I can have that effect on kids, I hope I can have the effect or urge them to educate themselves and practice safe sex.

If I can get them to spend however much money on a pair of sneakers, hopefully I can get them to spend three dollars on a box of condoms.

No celebrity can deny it, kids look up to us, and we have to make sure that we’re setting a good example when they do look to us.


Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift from a philanthropic model – the dishing out of aid to passive recipients — towards social entrepreneurship and microfunding, where capital ends up in the hands of active local leaders, empowering them to facilitate change from the inside and growing exponentially as they build on what they’ve been given. How does the Foundation’s mission differ from the traditional aid model?

The Foundation is definitely a believer in this newer business model. If you compare the funding from the Foundation to that of an angel investment, it’s pretty much the same deal. The Foundation funds those who would otherwise find it very difficult to get funding.

That’s what makes the Foundation so different. It only funds small projects that have had little or no funding at all. These projects must also be run by young people. The Foundation gives these young people a chance to get their projects off the ground and develop them into stronger, more independent organizations. The Foundation has recently developed a training scheme whereby grantees get training to allow them to continue developing even after the Foundation funding stops after a maximum of four years.


There’s no question music offers a universal language and has been incredibly successful in generating awareness with efforts like LiveAid and Playing For Change. But as an artist, how do you think musicians can help tackle the quintessential challenge of moving the needle from mere awareness to actionable, tangible change?

Wow, that’s a great question. I think the first step is for us, as artists, to make sure we live by our lyrics and what we’re asking of people. It’s no use me putting this track out there and that being it. I need people to take action and buy the track to show their commitment to the cause.

I think the reason that the Unbeaten Track project works so well is that it goes beyond just raising awareness. The documentary, which is going out on all MTV Channels today, as well as to hundreds of third party broadcasters, will do an amazing job at raising awareness for HIV/AIDS as well as for the Foundation. But the track is really where the action happens, that’s where we can make a real tangible difference by raising money for the Foundation so they can carry on empowering and enabling these young leaders to continue making changes within their community. Moving forward, I think that it’s really important that these awareness-raising projects that artists lend their names to have to have a fundraising elements included.


AIDS is such a colossal problem that it can get overwhelming to think about our capacity as individuals to make a difference. Got any words of wisdom for how a single person can have impact, particularly on World AIDS Day?

My motto is “Each one, teach one.” People need to educate themselves about HIV/AIDS and then pass on that knowledge. Imagine if every single person in the world knew that protecting themselves from the dangers of HIV is as simple as wearing a condom. Imagine how much stigma it would lessen if people knew that you cannot catch HIV/AIDS from sharing cutlery or from touching. Educate yourself and then spread the word. And today, if YOU want to make an impact, help me support the Staying Alive Foundation by buying my track One At A Time from Staying Alive Foundation. Every single cent will go to funding current and future Foundation projects.

You can buy One At A Time for just ¢99 on iTunes in the US and from BandCamp globally — that’s ¢99 going straight to the fight against AIDS in parts of the world where many people live on $1 a day.


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