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September 11, 2007

'Music... is the new architecture' — Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin


Catchy, what?

Levitin, an associate professor of psychology at McGill University, is the author of "This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession," to be published in paperback this week.

He was interviewed by Monica Hesse for a story that appeared in the September 2, 2007 Washington Post, and follows.

    "If there was a tuba soloist, there would be tuba groupies."

    Daniel Levitin, Using His Head to Figure Out How That Song Got Stuck in Yours

    As a record producer turned neuroscientist — on a first-name basis with Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana — Daniel Levitin holds the title of Most Righteous College Professor. (At least until recent astrophysics PhD Brian May of Queen gets a teaching gig.) We caught up with the author of "This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession," whose rocking out is now confined to a sax and guitar gig with McGill University's Diminished Faculties.

    You're the expert, but doesn't the B.B. King riff playing in this lobby seem kind of weird for a Westin?

    When I came down for breakfast they were blasting a Steely Dan song about a drug dealer who made acid in an A-frame out in Oregon. It was really bizarre.... Especially since music today is becoming the new architecture. Kids under 20 are using music very differently... They don't have favorite bands; half the stuff they have on their iPods, they don't care who it is or where it came from. It's more about creating an atmosphere. It's sonic wallpaper.

    In your book you say music might be an evolutionary asset.

    Darwin thought the function of music was to attract members of the opposite sex.... A man who can dance for hours on end, always varying the steps — that shows great physical stamina and mental flexibility. Women could be subliminally thinking, "This guy is clever. This guy could bring home a bison."

    And now, in our bison-free era?

    Look at Mick Jagger. There's an ancient genetic echo that musicians are attractive.... In one study women were asked to rate various fictional potential mates. The guys were either creative or not creative, rich or not rich. When women were at their most fertile, they wanted to hook up with the creative guy. Other times, they wanted the rich guy. So if you're passing on genes, you want the creative guy.

    What if the creative guy is a tuba player? Are tuba players hot?

    Tuba players are hidden in an ensemble of 90 or 100 people. I would imagine that if there was a tuba soloist, there would be tuba groupies.

    Now I have "Stars and Stripes Forever" stuck in my head. Explain that to me.

    Scientists call songs that get stuck in your head "earworms" after the German Ohrwurm. We don't know a lot about how or why they happen — it's hard to get funding to study this type of thing — but we know a little. Like, it tends not to be a whole song that gets stuck in your head, just 15-20 seconds of one, and it tends to be a simple song that even non-singers can hum without effort.

    Is there a cure?

    Some people get earworms so bad that it interferes with their ability to sleep or work. For those people, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help. They relax the circuits. Then again, some people become musicians because they have earworms. Neil Young told me that he started writing songs because he couldn't get rid of the tunes in his head.

    Doesn't learning everything about how our brains interact with music ruin the magic of the listening experience?

    Like that famous Oz scene where the Wizard is revealed as a nebbish little man behind the curtain? For me it's been the opposite. Every time I get a modicum of insight into mystery I'm overwhelmed by the intricacy and the beauty.

    Where will you go next with your research?

    My lab recently completed a study in which we found an area of the brain that responds to the silence in between symphony movements. It's really a study about memory, and event segmentation, and how we define beginnings and endings.

September 11, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

5-Star Hotel On Wheels: The UnWoodstock


Nicholas Spencer, in an August 18, 2007 Financial Times story, wrote about the new new thing in road accomodations: An 18-wheel trailer truck that lets you use a handheld remote control to morph it in 30 minutes into an 11-bedroom hotel, complete with private bathrooms and a second floor outdoor terrace.


Here's the article.

Trendspotter: Mobile Style

Trendspotter has long had a sort of yearning to tap into the current enthusiasm for attending music festivals. But the idea of roughing it in a tent and queuing for toilets and showers just seems too, well, rough.

Wouldn't it be great to have a private house for you and your mates on site at Glastonbury in the UK, Benicàssim in Spain or Lollapalooza in the US?

Spanish company SuiteMóvil has come up with the ideal solution by creating a mobile hotel on an 18-wheel truck trailer.

"Once parked, just detach the cab and press play on a handheld remote control,"€ explains www.psfk.com. "After a 30-minute process of hydraulic presses, the trailer unfolds/pops out into an 11-bedroom hotel, complete with private bathrooms and even a second-floor outdoor terrace."€


SuiteMóvil says that the rooms are of five-star standard. Each has an ensuite bathroom, wood panelling, heating and air conditioning, complete sound and temperature insulation, electric sockets, an LCD television, a DVD player and internet connectivity. The unit can accommodate up to 47 people.


It can be linked into local services and utilities or be self-sufficient. A weekend rental costs $8,000 but serious festival-goers can buy one for about $500,000.

September 11, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

La Doncella — Frozen Inca Child Sacrifice Unveiled


In Salta, Argentina, at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, after eight years of study and preparation, the 500-year-old mummy of a 15-year-old girl known as "La Doncella" (the maiden) has just been placed on display for the world to wonder at.

Denise Grady's story in today's New York Times Science section has the details, and follows.

Photos of the three frozen child mummies discovered in 1999 appear above and below.

In Argentina, a Museum Unveils a Long-Frozen Maiden

The maiden, the boy, the girl of lightning: they were three Inca children, entombed on a bleak and frigid mountaintop 500 years ago as a religious sacrifice.

Unearthed in 1999 from the 22,000-foot summit of Mount Llullaillaco, a volcano 300 miles west of here near the Chilean border, their frozen bodies were among the best preserved mummies ever found, with internal organs intact, blood still present in the heart and lungs, and skin and facial features mostly unscathed. No special effort had been made to preserve them. The cold and the dry, thin air did all the work. They froze to death as they slept, and 500 years later still looked like sleeping children, not mummies.

In the eight years since their discovery, the mummies, known here simply as Los Niños or “the children,” have been photographed, X-rayed, CT scanned and biopsied for DNA. The cloth, pottery and figurines buried with them have been meticulously thawed and preserved. But the bodies themselves were kept in freezers and never shown to the public — until last week, when La Doncella, the maiden, a 15-year-old girl, was exhibited for the first time, at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, which was created in Salta expressly to display them.


The new and the old are at home in Salta. The museum faces a historic plaza where a mirrored bank reflects a century-old basilica with a sign warning churchgoers not to use the holy water for witchcraft. Now a city of 500,000 and the provincial capital, Salta was part of the Inca empire until the 1500s, when it was invaded by the Spanish conquistadors.

Although the mummies captured headlines when they were found, officials here decided to open the exhibit quietly, without any of the fanfare or celebration that might have been expected.

“These are dead people, Indian people,” said Gabriel E. Miremont, 39, the museum’s designer and director. “It’s not a situation for a party.”

The two other mummies have not yet been shown, but will be put on display within the next six months or so.

The children were sacrificed as part of a religious ritual, known as capacocha. They walked hundreds of miles to and from ceremonies in Cuzco and were then taken to the summit of Llullaillaco (yoo-yeye-YAH-co), given chicha (maize beer), and, once they were asleep, placed in underground niches, where they froze to death. Only beautiful, healthy, physically perfect children were sacrificed, and it was an honor to be chosen. According to Inca beliefs, the children did not die, but joined their ancestors and watched over their villages from the mountaintops like angels.

Discussing why it took eight years to prepare the exhibit, Dr. Miremont smiled and said, “This is South America,” but then went on to explain that there was little precedent for dealing with mummies as well preserved as these, and that it took an enormous amount of research to figure out how to show them yet still make sure they did not deteriorate.


The solution turned out to be a case within a case — an acrylic cylinder inside a box made of triple-paned glass. A computerized climate control system replicates mountaintop conditions inside the case — low oxygen, humidity and pressure, and a temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In part because Salta is in an earthquake zone, the museum has three backup generators and freezers, in case of power failures or equipment breakdowns, and the provincial governor’s airplane will fly the mummies out in an emergency, Dr. Miremont said.

Asked where they would be taken, he replied, “Anywhere we can plug them in.”

The room holding La Doncella is dimly lighted, and the case itself is dark; visitors must turn on a light to see her.

“This was important for us,” Dr. Miremont said. “If you don’t want to see a dead body, don’t press the button. It’s your decision. You can still see the other parts of the exhibit.”

He designed the lighting partly in hope of avoiding further offense to people who find it disturbing that the children, part of a religious ritual, were taken from the mountaintop shrine.

Whatever the intention, the effect is stunning. Late in August, before the exhibit opened, Dr. Miremont showed visitors La Doncella. At a touch of the button, she seemed to materialize from the darkness, sitting cross-legged in her brown dress and striped sandals, bits of coca leaf still clinging to her upper lip, her long hair woven into many fine braids, a crease in one cheek where it leaned against her shawl as she slept.

The bodies seemed so much like sleeping children that working with them felt “almost more like a kidnapping than archaeological work,” Dr. Miremont said.


One of the children, a 6-year-old girl, had been struck by lightning sometime after she died, resulting in burns on her face, upper body and clothing. She and the boy, who was 7, had slightly elongated skulls, created deliberately by head wrappings — a sign of high social status, possibly even royalty.

Scientists worked with the bodies in a special laboratory where the temperature of the entire lab could be dropped to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and the mummies were never exposed to higher temperatures for more than 20 minutes at a time, to preventing thawing.

DNA tests revealed that the children were unrelated, and CT scans showed that they were well nourished and had no broken bones or other injuries. La Doncella apparently had sinusitis, as well as a lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, possibly the result of an infection.

“There are two sides,” Dr. Miremont said. “The scientific — we can read the past from the mummies and the objects. The other side says these people came from a culture still alive, and a holy place on the mountain.”

Some regard the exhibit as they would a church, Dr. Miremont said.

“To me, it’s a museum, not a holy place,” he said. “The holy place is on top of the mountain.”

The mountains around Salta are home to at least 40 other burial sites from ritual sacrifices, but Dr. Miremont said the native people who live in those regions do not want more bodies taken away.

“We will respect their wishes,” Dr. Miremont said, adding that three mummies were enough. “It is not necessary to break any more graves. We would like to have good relations with the Indian people.”


A slide show accompanies the Times article.

September 11, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Bamboo Bicycle


Long story short: Since 1996 Craig Calfee has produced about 100 bamboo frames, each starting at $2,695.

From the Calfee Design website:

Bamboo Bike

This is not just a cool bike. It is appropriate for everyday use and for racing. The vibration damping is a performance advantage on longer rides. Each frame is built to order and every frame is a unique. Tubes are selected for the weight of the rider. The geometry of the frame can be any of our usual geometries: Pro, Tri or Cross. Custom frames can also be made.

Details. The bike is made from bamboo that has been smoked and heat-treated to prevent splitting. Lugs are available in carbon fiber or hemp fiber for the all-natural look. The chainstays are available in carbon fiber for extra stiffness in the drivetrain.

Finish. We coat the bamboo with tung oil to seal it up.

Awards. Calfee bamboo bikes have won awards for Best Road Bike, Best Off-Road Bike and Peoples' Choice Award at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.


• A Calfee bamboo bike won 1st place in the open class at the Great Western Bicycle Rally's Concourse d'Elegance show.

• If there were an award for "Bicycle with lowest carbon footprint" (least amount of carbon dioxide emissions in the production of the frame), this frame would win hands down.

Bamboo Bike Features:

• High performance frame — weighs about 4 pounds but has good stiffness.

• Crash tolerant — bamboo is a lot of tougher than most people realize.

• Amazing vibration damping — even better than carbon fiber!

• Looks cool — a work of art!

• 10 year warranty.


Can they grow one — oops, I meant build one — for you?

Inquire within.

September 11, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

'Present-day Tokyo looks like vomit' — Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo


Above, my nominee for best quote of the month by someone in a position to know.

It appears in an interview with Ishihara appearing in the September issue of Monocle, Tyler Brûlé's new magazine.

More from Ishihara's interview: "Because we didn't have any proper city planning, it [Tokyo] has turned into a mess."


If I ever meet Brûlé I'm gonna ask him if he has a sister named Crème.

September 11, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Guardian Headphones — Now you can watch your kid go deaf


Susan Morse reviewed this innovative product in the September 4, 2007 Washington Post Health section; her piece follows.

    How Loud? So Loud I Can See It.

    The Product: The Guardian wired headphone by Hamilton Electronics, with a visible sound-level monitor.

    Target Audience: Parents who want to protect their children's hearing — assuming the kids are compliant enough to switch their earbuds for these clunkers and let Mom and Dad monitor their home use.

    The Concept: It doesn't seem so long ago that you were listening to Mick and Janis and Jimi full blast, and now, you suspect, you have the hearing loss to prove it. If only you'd known. These days, when you watch your kids hooked into their PlayStations and MP3 players, you can't help wondering if they're heading down the same road. Audiologists, who say the incidence of hearing loss is rising, would support your concern.

    The Guardian headphone was designed to end the mystery — at least while a child is under your watch. A light (visible to others, but not the user) flashes green when the hearing level is safe, red when it exceeds 90 decibels (comparable to truck traffic or a motorcycle engine). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to provide protection for workers exposed for eight hours to noise at this level. Ten to 15 minutes of such noise is plenty through headphones, said Teri Wilson-Bridges, director of the Hearing and Speech Center at Washington Hospital Center, who tested the product and found it performed within an error margin of five or 10 decibels.

    "It's a great device," she said. "I'm impressed."A red light is the cue for a concerned parent to step in, says Shelly Goldstein, president of VCOM International Multimedia Corp., the parent company of Hamilton Electronics. "If they see that red light glowing, they're gonna say one of two things: 'You're listening to this way too loud'... or... 'Are you having trouble hearing? Maybe we should get [your hearing] tested.' "

    Will your children appreciate the gift — and your concern? There's no telling, Goldstein admits.

    "I've lived through the teenage years.... When I gave my son a cellphone, he said, 'What's this, my electronic leash?' "

    Price: With a charger, about $40. The product (one size, with adjustable headpiece) does nothing, of course, to reduce potential harm from earbud headphones, which may pose more of a hearing risk.


September 11, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

HeyWhatsThat.com — What you'll see from the mountaintop


This website generates a diagram of the view from any high spot including the names of visible mountain peaks.

Very cool.

September 11, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Red Arum Wall Stickers


That's different.

From the website:

    Red Arum Wall Stickers

    A quick and easy way to make a big decorating statement.

    Designed and made in France, giant pre-cut stickers peel off, press on — and peel off again for repositioning.

    Set of three arums are 50", 70" and 76" high but may be positioned any which way.

    Go a little wild and remember — you can always move them.


September 11, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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