Celebrating the Golden Lobes at IdeaFestival

Greetings from Louisville! Will, Mangesh and I are here for IdeaFestival. Yesterday, Mangesh spoke to some of the nation's smartest middle schoolers, who grilled him in a lively Q&A. We embarrassed ourselves at an adult spelling bee last night. And this afternoon there's a panel featuring some of our Golden Lobe Award winners. Here's a little bit about archaeologist Patrick McGovern, composer Tristan Perich, and high school student Sejal Vallabh, who lucky IdeaFestival attendees will get to meet today.

Golden Lobe: Nerdiest Beer (2011)

Of the hundreds of bottles of beer on the wall, only one provides a history lesson in every pour. And for that, you can thank brewmaster Sam Calagione and molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern.

For the past decade, these Indiana Joneses of the brewing community have dedicated themselves to whipping up the tastiest beers in history—all of history—and they’ve got the archaeological evidence to back it up.

The story starts in 1997, when McGovern began investigating crockery samples from the tomb of King Mita, the Turkish royal who inspired the King Midas myths. After running a chemical analysis on some of the king’s cups, McGovern realized that the man with the golden touch liked his ale. Determined to figure out what the king’s beer tasted like, he took the analysis to Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. Together, the pair sought to reconstruct the 2,700-year-old beverage using authentic ingredients such as Muscat grapes, saffron, and honey. The result? An ancient ale they dubbed Midas Touch Golden Elixir.

Incredibly, this old-fashioned beverage has become a modern-day hit. Dogfish Head describes the drink as “somewhere between wine and mead.” But the beverage isn’t just popular at bars; it’s also a hit with critics. The drink nabbed a silver medal at the 2005 Great American Beer Festival and a bronze at the 2008 World Beer Cup. The success has also inspired Calagione and McGovern to dig deeper for historical recipes. Today, Dogfish Head offers an entire Ancient Ales series. The line includes Chateau Jiahu, based on a spiced beer found in 9,000-year-old crockery from northern China, and an Aztec beer called Theobroma, which was recreated using residue from 3,000-year-old pottery in Honduras. The former contains rice flakes and chrysanthemum flowers; the latter boasts notes of cocoa, chili, and annatto. And while we have no idea what annatto is, we’re not questioning it. Each sip just makes us happy that history is repeating itself.

Golden Lobe: Highest Achievement in Low Fidelity (2011)

At first glance, composer Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony looks like a regular CD in a jewel case. It’s actually something much, much cooler. There’s not even a compact disc in the case! Instead, Perich’s package includes a battery, a tiny circuit, and a headphone jack. When a listener slips his headphones into the slot, a handcrafted circuit performs a five-movement electronic symphony that Perich has programmed in low-fidelity, 1-bit audio.

In addition to being just flat-out neat, the technology behind Perich’s symphony subtly questions the way listeners receive their music. Whereas a normal CD or MP3 file plays back music that’s already been recorded, Perich’s circuit takes the composer’s source code and actually performs the music with electronic pulses each time it’s switched on. Technically, you’re not listening to a recording at all; you’re being treated to a live performance as the electricity pulses out of the microchip.

What keeps Perich’s project from being just another interesting-but-academic exercise? The music is amazing. The work is no mere collection of Atari-esque bloops and bleeps. Rather, the composition rewards listeners by delivering on the symphonic promise of its name, piling up familiar minimalist sounds to create stunningly lush and upbeat movements. If the Mario Brothers were classical music fans, this is what they’d listen to. And they’d shell out a few gold coins to do it, too.

Golden Lobe: Blind Ambition (2012)

In the summer of 2010, high school sophomore Sejal Vallabh was interning in Japan when she saw her first game of blind tennis. Developed in 1984, today nearly 300 people compete in Japan’s blind tennis tournaments, diving and lunging for balls, embracing a sport built for the sighted. But why hadn’t the sport translated abroad? Upon returning home, the teenager from Newton, Mass., started Tennis Serves—a charitable organization dedicated to advancing blind tennis in the U.S. Vallabh’s first coup was convincing Perkins School for the Blind to offer lessons. Here’s how the game works: Blind tennis is played on a badminton court, with the net dropped to ground level. But in lieu of a standard ball, players use a large foam ball that jingles. Those with limited sight get two bounces to get to the ball, while the fully blind get three. Although some institutions have been slow to embrace the sport, Vallabh is working hard to advance the cause. Today, Tennis Serves has three national chapters where volunteers give lessons to the blind. And while she hopes to get the game recognized by the Paralympics soon, Vallabh’s primary focus is simpler: giving the visually impaired an opportunity to enjoy the sport she loves.

For more about IdeaFestival, visit their site or follow along on Twitter.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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