Great unveiling

Like The Medium‘s Virginia Heffernan, I too am a self-confessed TED addict. Sparked by my first viewing of director Jehane Noujaim‘s presentation after she received the TED prize in 2006, I’ve since been keeping close tabs on the various speakers specialized in a wide variety of disciplines encapsulated by the ‘technology, entertainment, design’ cachet that the conference series has set out for itself from the time of its inception. Held annually since 1990 after it was founded by graphic designer and architect Richard Saul Wurman six years prior, the lectures limited within an inspiringly rigorous eighteen-minute time-frame offer over 300 insights of expertise freely available online today. Focused on a marked contribution to contemporary issues related to the sciences and humanities, the TED talks culminate with the awarding of the TED Prize each year, giving three individuals $100,000 alongside their being granted one wish ‘to change the world’ (Noujaim‘s wish had been to organize Pangea Day, with an aim to foster cross-cultural understanding through film).

Ordinarily held in Monterey, the TED 2009 Conference will be held in Long Beach, California this year. And commencing in five days, the programme is set to bring together an unrivalled set of speakers throughout its four-day duration, including Bill Gates, marketing guru Seth Godin, futurist Juan Enriquez, musician Herbie Hancock, and many more. A few of them have already been featured in previous years, though there’s no doubt that the calibre of discussion created will be as unprecedented as ever. I’m particularly excited about the upcoming lecture by maestro Dr. José Antonio Abreu, one of this year’s recipients of the TED Prize, and the founder of El Sistema in Venezuela. For some comprehensive insight into his revolutionary system of music education and its reformative socio-economic impact over the past thirty-four years, I strongly recommend you get your hands on BBC’s Imagine episode featuring music director Gustavo Dudamel and airing this past November.

As usual, the talks will soon be available on the TED site, YouTube and Miro. And another to look out for on the TED calendar will be the TED Global Conference, which will be held in Oxford this year. So luckily for fellow TED addicts who might be stranded in the UK this summer, registration is still open for those who would enjoy a less virtual viewing venue.

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: Seth Godin’s Blog

Pangea day (pieces at random)

Playing genetics

Move over Furby, there’s a new toy in town. Welcome to the next generation of childhood entertainment, where the line blurs between cutting edge genetics and hours of endless fun with ‘the only bioengineered buddies’ around. Genpets™, according to specifications listed in the catalogue, are ‘living, breathing mammals’ available with seven different personality types, a fully functional heart monitor with LED display, and even a handy sell-by date mechanism to guarantee freshness of the creature upon purchase. These organic, mass-produced pets are allergen-free, child-safe, low-maintenance, and ‘life-perfected’ through to their very core. According to Bio-Genica, the bio-research company responsible for manufacturing the Genpet line, the models you see were grown in assisted breeding lab farms and produced based on an original prototype created using a process called ‘Zygote Micro Injection’. They also resemble a mix of something out of The Gremlins and Alien: Resurrection, which is why by now you should probably realize that they’re actually not real. ‘Genpets’ is in fact an award-winning work of art by Canadian sculptor, programmer and designer Adam Brandejs. Launched in 2005, it has since been displayed in museums and galleries worldwide, along with its site having been a sensational hit with millions of visitors.

But shockingly enough, zygote micro-injection does indeed exist — a method of combining DNA by inserting certain proteins from different species into a fertilized cell. According to Brandejs’ statement about his performance project, ‘In 1985, the US Patents and Trademarks Office ruled that genetically engineered plants, seeds and animal tissue could all be patented’. Today, this has led to agricultural crops being modified (GM food) and human DNA being injected into animal eggs to create part-human, part-animal hybrid embryos. And it is this precise issue amongst others that Brandejs wants viewers of his Genpets to think about. Aside from being a brilliantly thought-out example of bio-hacking for the new millennium (or else may be seen as simply a hoax by some), it highlights the ethical implications of genetic engineering technologies so rapidly advancing today. Stories abound on the newswire already indicate the possibility of soon one day having superhumanly attractive and intelligent ‘test-tube babies‘ be only a doctor’s visit away. But what of the increasingly popular process of DNA screening that allows parents-to-be to selectively cull embryos in the hope that their child will have been spared inheriting genetic predisposition towards various forms of disease?

Posing several tough but very much needed questions regarding the fundamental alteration of the lives of animals and humans, the underlying message of Genpets and Bio-Genica is one more relevant — if not worryingly pressing — than ever.

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: Juan Enriquez on genomics and our future (TED Talks)

Paper cut-out snowflakes

Myths Series by Andy Warhol, 1981

As Pat Hackett most invariably came to find whilst transcribing Warhol’s vast collection of tape-recorded audio for the various publications he went on to publish in the 1970s and early 80s, Andy often drew a parallel between life and television — and quite possibly in no other time before could that comparison be more blatantly evident than today. Not all things are as they appear, and 2008 has certainly done very well to demonstrate that. It seems to be that so much of what our present generation has taken for granted (the realities of the social constructs that shape each and every one of our lives) has faced a challenge leading inevitably to the newswire-hooked re-thinking of entire social systems, both great and small, on a global scale. By this I of course make reference to the state of justice and current political affairs, the ebb and flow of cross-cultural dialogue and its associated development, the unscrupulously suspect realms of banking and finance, the institution of art and commercialization of anything that can generate revenue, ad infinitum. As our lives become increasingly downsized, digitized, monetized, mis-sensitized and controversialized, what will 2009, 2010, or even that famed hallmark of 2020 possibly bring for us when one considers the general prevailing trends? Only time will truly tell (my commiserations to George), naturally, as history-in-the-making continues on in its roundabout ways, down the trail thrusting humanity to the edge of the very precipices and watersheds omni-handedly reached by our seemingly good-willed accomplishment and ironical undoing.

Yet on a personal level, it’s  but another 365 days come and gone in a blur curiously resembling the morning after your last amazing night out. Though I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions and such sentimentality and projection of the sort, I always do find a peculiarly momentary state of retrospection unavoidable. Glossing over recent events past as marked by the occasion of a new year appears to me a mechanism through which we may attempt to examine our linear progression of (many) failings and (few) successes — a personal learning-curve audit in the midst of all the gold tinsel, red ribbon and mistletoe clichés. Thinking back now, as it always happens, it is as evident as ever that that which was expected was dwarfed by the unexpected. And it is through the unexpected that I find myself owing the utmost of gratitude: to all friends and family who have made 2008 worthwhile, as well as the many thanks  indebted to all of you who have regularly contributed to my work here, whether be it through your invaluable feedback or being a constant source of inspiration in the realm of  all things art-and-design related. So it is on that note that I wish you a very merry if not snowy Christmas filled with ample joy, relaxation, reflection, pepparkakor and glögg (with extra emphasis on the cognac). Happy holidays, everyone!

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

See also: ‘Paint by numbers’ (pieces at random)

‘Commemoration’ (pieces at random)

On the money

In spirit of the Financial Times and my constant obsessing over the visual output of legendary artist Shepard Fairey alongside the Obey Giant poster propaganda, this week’s release of the video shown above could not have come at a more suitable time. Featuring the first (and undoubtedly soon-to-be hit) single ‘Money’, it arrives well-ahead of the issue date pre-destined for N.A.S.A.’s highly anticipated album debut. Until The Spirit of Apollo hits shelves in February 2009, however, this visual feast bringing together directors Syd Garon, Paul Griswold, and the historically-influenced work of Fairey in animated format does more than merely satisfy one’s expectations. In almost word-for-word pictographic representation, the heavily posterized, brightly-rendered ‘Megalomaniac‘ paletted style is almost reminiscent of a blend between the works of David Scharf in digital animation, Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis, and the graphic illustration of the thematically similar I.O.U.S.A documentary by Patrick Creadon. I had always wondered about the degree of brilliance Fairey would be able to achieve had he ever decided to set his signature imagery into motion. Luckily, not gone to waste is such apt representation of lyrics surpassing the conventional depth of a great deal of hip-hop abound in recent years, and it is very much well-deserved by this pleasantly surprising group. Indeed there’s a lot more to N.A.S.A. than first meets the eye, other than the fact that the four-lettered moniker translates into ‘North America South America’.

N.A.S.A. are an international collective of cross-genre musicians fronted by  Squeak E. Clean (LA-based Sam Spiegel) and DJ Zegon (Ze Gonzales from São Paulo) and founded in 2003. Bringing together artists as diverse as Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Tom Waits, they’ve been able to pool together a number of collaborative efforts enough for the fruition of  an LP in full. The artistic and cultural variety, naturally,  has brought along with it the themes of politics, language, and cultural identity; and this eclectic collection of musicians  on a single album provides much food for thought in an age when the political and culture landscapes are rapidly transforming worldwide. They hope, it is said, that through their music they can demonstrate the superficiality of any divisions in the world still standing between us as people of different origins and backgrounds. Undoubtedly a refreshing conceptual deviation from the recent ‘I Kissed a Girl‘ hype and the Madonna/Guy settlement. With the single already released digitally on the ANTI- label, it comes bundled with the video and a remix by The Count Of Monte Cristal. And judging by the positive reception so far given to the single ‘Gifted‘ (the guest-starring of Kanye West, Santogold and Lykke Li pretty much says it all), N.A.S.A. will no doubt be successful in spreading their message of the importance of unity, collaboration and that rare genuine, non-discriminatory cross-boundary understanding to many listeners in the two Americas and beyond.

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

See also: ‘Itsu desu ka?’ (pieces at random)

Squeak E Clean

Obey Giant

Scent of desperation

‘Fire Meets Desire’ screenshot

Sometimes I find it simply too difficult to understand the marketing ploys of ailing companies trying to revive their once illustrious brands in the eyes of newly discerning, disapproving customers. Granted it didn’t take much re-education to bring the American fast-food industry to its own demise, considering the operative premise behind a multi-million dollar franchised conglomerate built around the concept of bread bun, burger pattie and trans fat was doomed to clog an artery in an age when obesity is at its most alarming level. So when it had once been so easy to follow the seemingly inspired trend of blaming Big Business for one’s own individual failing to actively seek adequate, ‘slow’ nutrition elsewhere, even the banning of lawsuits by the US House of Representatives back in 2004 was not enough to stifle the battle cries of overly-indulgent self-neglecters and bad press further fueled by Morgan Spurlock’s pseudo-science Super Size Me documentary, the all-revealing publication of Fast Food Nation, and sheer good old-fashioned common sense. And despite all efforts of the National Restaurant Association to lobby for a change of heart in the public consensus over an anti-fast-food campaign so quickly picking up pace and empathy, an invitation to head over to Mickie Dee’s with a friend today is more than likely to spark a heated debate over the National Weight Control Registry, even if you do happen to walk in on healthy salad day.

But just when you thought there was no breathing room left to try, Burger King Corp. (in affiliation with the same ‘Have It Your Way Technology’ that brought about the curiously-named Simpsonize Me microsite) has recently begun to market a men’s fragrance that smells like… Well, would you believe me if I said meat? Because that’s precisely what FLAME™ is being advertised as smelling like, and with an almost revoltingly stomach-churning hook to boot, ‘the scent of seduction with a hint of flame-broiled meat’ unwittingly points to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (the 1908 meatpacking equivalent of Eric Schlosser’s famed topic of investigative journalism in 2003). Currently on sale (and sold-out) in New York for $3.99 via Ricky’s Costume Superstore, I’m not exactly too sure whose image this body spray is supposed to help: BK’s or Ricky’s? No less with a website designed to bring the bad taste of bachelor-pad kitsch to the mouth, this is perhaps the funniest product I have come across since the release of the iBod vibrator. Now only time will tell whether this is an item to be taken at all seriously, though whilst gauging shoppers’ responses thus far, I can already see that that probably won’t be the case (my favourite line, by Chris from WV: ‘this is a great way to meat woman’ [sic]). But what is likely, however, is that FLAME™ will achieve cult status, soon going on to become a limited edition item whilst further spreading news at lightning speed around the world…

And fait accompli: Burger King will have managed to stimulate (and perhaps even expand) its market-base. It serves to distract us for five minutes from what it’s really known for (angina) through a clever though awkward showing of horizontal differentiation in marketing-development structure, inevitably lending a hand to mainstream consumers and ad junkies to help associate it with the sort of macho humour that might spark a drive up in sales. But even if this does manage to once more make fast-food cool, sexy, and unhindered by public disrepute through legal castration, I think it all looks embarrassingly desperate more than anything else — much like any man who would dare to wear it.

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

See also: Burger King Corporation

‘Burger chain markets meat scent’ (BBC News)

Super Size Me (SnagFilms)

Exponential growth

Are you a proponent of music fascism? I unfortunately wouldn’t be able to tell you, though luckily there is someone who might. Because this is precisely the question I asked myself this morning whilst re-fueling over my cafetière, around the same time as when I came across the work of a computer programmer from Colombia and a special calculator for the quandary at hand. For a while now I’ve been regularly running into the three-letter acronym ‘AEP’ around — and after not paying it much attention at first, I soon decided that it was unlikely to mean ‘application environment profile’ given the particular context. Upon closer inspection, however, I discovered that it was in fact the abbreviation for a term coined by user C26000 (more commonly known as David Maya), referring to his anti-exponential points system. The AEP Calculator thus provides a way for devotees to calculate what amounts to the numerical value of their music-listening habits in terms of multiformity and preferential bias. More simply, it measures how diverse your tastes in music are through factoring in the top fifty artists from personal audioscrobbled chart data as compiled in your user library.

The calculator itself was devised by Dave (alternatively davethemoonman), fashioned after Maya’s now ubiquitous formulaic points approach. The mathematics, in brief, can best be broken down as a function translating in what would visually appear as Malthusian growth (if you think back to the days of high school maths and recall what the graph of an exponential curve looked like, that’s basically what it amounts to). With a visual parallel drawn to users’ charts, there is a curve as artist-counts gradually dwindle whilst going down in rank. Being ‘anti-exponential’ according to the system would then signify that your charted curve is less steep and therefore more diverse. And the formula, with the slope equivalent to the difference in value of the first artist in the chart and the fiftieth, is as follows: AEP = 5 – 25 x (slope ÷ average top 50 artists), with AEP often resulting as a value less than 5, with a 4 indicating rather diverse taste, a 3 standing at fairly diverse, and less than 0 indicating bias towards a tightly-niched handful of artists — or as Dave so eloquently puts it, ‘you only really like Britney Spears but occasionally you listen to other things’ or ‘have wide-ranging musical tastes but also a tendency to leave your MP3 player on repeat and go out to the pub’.

Depending on which end of the AEP spectrum you land, there are groups you can join to specifically fit the bill: either (1) We Have Exponential Profiles, or (2) We Don’t Have Exponential Profiles. And as the latter of the two represents the flat-curvers of the bunch, it’s closed to anyone with an AEP value less than 4. So it would appear that an increase in exponential growth — also coincidentally referred to as exponential decay by math-wizards — could be a source of embarrassment because as Maya proclaims in the group’s description, ‘there are so many good artists out there to listen to just a few ones’. And I would agree entirely, though perhaps the bit of online audio-elitism between the two groups is what I find a tad unnecessary. But going back to the initial question in the debate that sparked it all, I am a music fascist only so far as 3.74 will take me, which makes me fall short just by a margin of 0.26 points in order to be granted access to the ironically exclusive anti-exclusive collective. It all reminds me of an opinion piece I had written back in September regarding a study that was widely publicised by the Associated Press relaying the work of Dr. Adrian North at Heriot-Watt University — a study which ultimately surmounted as an oversimplification of musical tastes in reflecting the very nature of who we are as individuals.

Yet though the AEP calculation is essentially a numerical simplification of musical inclination and diversity (especially once one considers the fifty-artist scope within which the function is bound), it provides positive empirical interpretation rather than normative statistical assessment. Today an increasingly popular tool as evidenced by the sheer number of users who now ‘wear’ their AEP count as badges on their profiles, the social music platform has once more bridged the realms of music, psychology and social anthropology as users further elevate understanding of their music-listening activities to introspective, scientific levels. Albeit diversifying one’s collection does indeed take an entire lifetime in what would heftily add up to a costly endeavour in both time and pocket, it would not at all be ill-advised to branch out and diversify in order to see (or more importantly hear) what’s out there both past and present in the ever-expansive music archives. And for further musical self-analysis, Maya has also devised the handy, easy-to-use Extra Stats programme for Windows.

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

See also: ‘In personal stereo’ ( Journal)

‘Love thy neighbour’ (pieces at random)

Universal declaration

One of the most immediate of things I recall to have learnt during my first year studying law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first outlined by the United Nations General Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot of Paris in 1948. Upholding the fundamental covenants of humanity, dignity and equality — in short, standards of living far too often taken for granted despite the ongoing and appallingly widespread human rights abuses evident worldwide — it was ratified by individual nations in 1976 and has since been upheld as a Bill of international law. With yesterday, the 10th December, marking its anniversary in the celebration of Human Rights Day, the video above is a subtle yet beautifully concise presentation of the thirty Articles contained within the Declaration. Created by artist and shoe designer Seth Brau, produced by Amy Poncher and featuring music by the LA-based Rumspringa (courtesy of Cantora Records, home of MGMT), it is as much of a fantastic exercise in motion typography as it is a worthy reminder of the importance and value of human life.

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

See also: FOllOWME

Amnesty International

Human Rights Action Center