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September 29th, 2006

Youth culture: Making records only young people can hear

Youth culture: Making records only young people can hear

Youth culture has always been partly defined by its music. Now technology is allegedly being used to add sounds to a record that only young people can hear.

As we age, our ears become less sensitive to noise. This isn’t extreme enough to explain why one generation’s banging choons is another generation’s bloody racket, but it’s enough to drive loiterers away from shopping centres: Compound Security started off with a mosquito alarm, which emits a high pitched noise that annoys young people but which cannot be heard by older adults. It’s sold as a security device, to stop teenagers hanging around at shopping centres.

Now Compound Security tells the BBC it has commissioned a dance record that uses the same technique to provide an additional layer of harmony that only young people can hear.

Maybe this is just smart marketing. Music and youth culture are often about rebellion and forging a group identity, and what could be more exclusive than having secret music that fogeys can’t hear even if they’re sat right next to you?

As a man on the senior side of 25, I couldn’t tell whether Compound Security is telling the truth, any more than I can be sure that you and I see the same colour as green.

Sadly, the technique is only being applied to some of the notes. Until they invent the record* that’s completely silent for older people, young people will be nagged to turn it down. They will continue marching to their rooms, slamming the door and moaning ‘God! Don’t you know anything! It’s supposed to be loud! Tcho!’

(*A record was a flat plastic thing like a CD but black and literally groovy. As well you know).

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September 21st, 2006

It's time for App Idol

It's time for App Idol

My Dream App is a contest where aspiring software designers compete for the opportunity to have their software built and sold, bringing them royalties. It’s a bit like Pop Idol for geeks. Voting has just opened on the 24 finalists. Remember, you decide!

While there are some nice ideas there, a lot of them wouldn’t have lasted long in Alan Sugar’s boardroom. Some of the proposals sounded more like features than viable shareware applications in their own right. Now the word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and web browser have been invented it’s hard to come up with the next revolution.

Voting is fairly evenly split so far. There are 24 applications and the vote share for most hovers around the 4% they would get if votes were shared out fairly.

My favourite was a tool for turning your singing or whistling into MIDI data for feeding into music software. The software is also supposed to take someone’s finger drumming and turn it into real drumming. That’s a tool I can see people having fun with and finding useful. A new way of creating cartoon animations was well-thought-out (it needs to export into Flash, mind). There is a fun productivity tool too, that observes what applications you use and uses it to nourish an animated plant. Use Excel and Word and it gets healthier. Play Quake and it starts to wither.

Software for wardrobe planning, recipe management and putting pets online probably has a (massive?) market out there somewhere, but nobody’s struggling to live without them. It’s disappointing to see yet another multiplayer game stealing ahead as well. You’d think that’s the kind of thing that there were enough of in the world, or enough other ways to finance at least.

Through the contestants’ blogs, we can get to know them like they’re on reality TV. Will there be goodies and baddies? Will one of the judges make some poor geek cry? There’s at least one thing this does better than reality TV: voting is free.

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September 13th, 2006

Nuclear waste: sending a warning to the future

Nuclear waste: sending a warning to the future

Nuclear waste is a problem that’s been vexing the industrialised world for some time now, but this report at Wired News really brings home how big the problem is. The story concerns a burial ground for nuclear waste from the US military programme in the middle of the New Mexico desert. It’s half a mile underground, and it will be dangerous for about 10,000 years.

Scientists and linguists are working together to find a way to warn future generations that what’s there is dangerous. Language could have changed completely by then.

The proposed solution involves creating giant stone spikes at a four mile perimeter to scare people away. The spikes will have warnings carved into them and the area will be scattered with disks with warnings too. The warnings are written in English but include illustrations of a woman screaming and a man in pain. At the middle of the site, a 33 foot high berm will seal the waste in, with magnets embedded in it to make clear that it’s man-made. Detailed information on what’s there will be kept in a room underground.

It’s an oppressive sight, but if language really has changed beyond recognition by then, there’s no reason to believe this will keep people away. Wired notes that the pyramids – designed to protect the dead – attracted treasure hunters. If a civilisation came across this structure and had no way of knowing what was there or of understanding the English text, its explorers would most likely be attracted to start digging.

There’s also some politicking in the project: it uses English because that’s the language of the US, on the assumption that the US will still be around in 10,000 years time and English will still be its language. It might have been more sensible to include the text in some other leading languages too, including Chinese.

It will cost a billion dollars to send this warning to the future. But the pictures are so creepy, they should be considered a warning to the present.

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