I spoke with the CEO of Sennheiser about audio, virtual reality and the notion of legacy

Working as a technology journalist is a privilege that allows me to play with hardware that I could never afford to own. Last week, while I was in Montreal for the opening of Sennheiser's new Canadian office, for example, I was able to spend some quality time with the company's crazy $50,000 made-to-order HE 1 headphones. For a guy that reviews audio hardware for a living, it was a ridiculous treat.

There are times that the privilege of doing what I do extends beyond all of the gear that I get to play with. Among the Sennheiser employees, audio nerds like me, and other folks attending the company's opening day bash was Dr. Andreas Sennheiser. Andreas, an electrical engineer by trade, has been co-CEO along with his brother Daniel of their family's 70-year-old audio company for the past five years.

Here in North America, Sennheiser is mostly known for their professional audio products -- microphones and reference headphones for the rich and musically famous, and conference-call hardware for high falootin' boardrooms. In Europe, Asia and Africa, the German company's footprint in consumer audio is massive. They’re one of the oldest names in audiophile-grade headphones and an early, much-respected maker of audio hardware designed to augment virtual and augmented reality experiences.

They make cool shit.

Once the celebration was over and the caterers had absconded with the all of leftovers, Andreas was good enough to spend a few minutes with me, talking about his company, his family and the notion of legacy. Read the rest

Yaya and Friends: Athens, Greece, ca. 1927 (photo, Boing Boing Flickr Pool)

"Yaya and Friends," a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial (2.0) image from bigfatstupidslob's photostream, contributed to the Boing Boing Flickr pool. About the image, I asked him where it came from, and he explained:

It's my grandmother and some of her friends in what seems to be a dress-up photo studio. Who knew they had them way back when? And in Greece no less! That's Yaya on the top right - her name is Domna.

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Mad Libs creator Leonard B. Stern dies at 88

Mad Libs creator Leonard B. Stern died this week. Obituary writers seized the opportunity to insert blank spaces and [adverb] [noun] [adjective]s in their homages, to mimic the format of Mr. Stern's famous creation in cheap pursuit of lulz. Mr. Stern was also a prolific, Emmy-winning television writer who would have come up with more original material.

Around the web: New York Times, Reuters, Washington Post, NPR, Variety, LA Times.

Scanned vintage Mad Libs cover from the Flickr stream of Dan Goodsell. A very politically incorrect early page found at this blog, along with a nice collection of other vintage covers. Read the rest

Pentagon papers to be officially released in June

The Pentagon Papers will be officially released in June at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, 40 years after Daniel Ellsberg famously leaked the documents in 1971. Steven Aftergood in Secrecy News reports:

The National Archives announced this week that it "has identified, inventoried, and prepared for public access the Vietnam Task Force study, United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967, informally known as 'the Pentagon Papers'." As a result, 3.7 cubic feet of previously restricted textual materials will be made officially available at the Nixon Library on June 13, the Archives said in a May 10 Federal Register notice.

While any release of historical records is welcome, the official "disclosure" of the Pentagon Papers is in fact a sign of disarray in the government secrecy system. The fact that portions of the half-century old Papers remained classified until this year is a reminder that classification policy today is often completely untethered from genuine national security concerns.

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Eames Demetrios: legacy, ancestry, and future

I first became acquainted with Eames Demetrios through his work as a filmmaker: back in 2007, he shared with Boing Boing a stop-motion short about elephants that playfully explored a small piece of the legacy of his grandparents, the great American designers Charles and Ray Eames.

Like his grandparents, Eames works in a wide array of media: Charles and Ray made historic contributions to architecture and furniture design, as well as graphic design, fine art, and film. A generation later, Eames has an active role in preserving their legacy, but is also creating a legacy of his own that includes such unlikely media as earthworks and embroidery.

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His "three dimensional storytelling" project Kcymaerxthaere tells the tales of real and imagined realms through many media, including "installing bronze plaques and historic sites that honor events from the parallel world, in our linear world." Most recently, the project delivered some 100 tons of rock to one such site in New Mexico.

"I love the web," Eames tells Boing Boing, "But you can't lose track of the visceral, unmediated experiences. What I'm trying to do is use a full toolkit of media to create experience in your head, which is where all of the stories really happen anyway."

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The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

Photo of William Kamkwamba's wind turbine by Tom Reilly. licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

William Kamkwamba grew up in a village in Malawi, in southeast Africa. He could not attend school because his parents couldn't afford the tuition of $(removed) per year. From time to time, he sneaked into classes to learn math and English, but it wasn't long until the teachers discovered his presence and kicked him out.

Undaunted by poverty or the famines that affected his country, William taught himself by studying the books in the library of an elementary school in his village. In 2002, when he was 14 years old, he went to the library to find out what the English word "grapes" meant and he stumbled across a science book for elementary school students called Using Energy. William says that finding this book was the trigger that changed the course of his life.

He had a difficult time reading the book, but he pored over its diagrams for motors and generators, and eventually came up with the idea of building an electricity-generating wind turbine. His village did not have electricity (in fact, only 2% of Malawi receives electricity service, and that service is very spotty), and he dreamed of being able to read at night in his house.

William went about collecting the parts for a wind turbine from trash heaps and junkyards. He used old plastic pipes, a broken bicycle, a tractor fan, sticks, and bits of wire. He soldered the electrical components together using a piece of wire heated in a fire, and used a bent bicycle spoke as a wrench adapter. Read the rest

The Geopolitics of "Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

My family didn't have a home computer until I graduated high school, so my memories of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? involve more Rockapella and less pixelated police officers. But, like The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, I know the series of geography puzzle games left factoids floating around in my brain that will likely never be fully dislodged. Carmen Sandiego was part of how I shaped my view of the world. The trouble, as Madrigal points out, is that—unlike other educational sources, such as textbooks and lesson plans—we know next to nothing about what worldviews Carmen and her fellow edutainment helped create.

As far as I can tell, not a single academic paper has been written about the boom in edutainment games in the 1980s and 1990s. Not one! While Mimi Ito's Engineering Play chronicles the rise of the genre, it focuses more on the educational philosophies embodied in the games more than the content transmitted within the form.

Keep in mind that it's standard practice to look at primers and textbooks. These games serve the exact same function -- and may even be better at getting the information to stick -- and yet they've received no critical attention. We just don't know the geopolitics of Carmen Sandiego, and in some sense, it's really important to find out. What did the game include about history? More importantly, given the brevity of the information presented, what did it exclude? Were there outright falsehoods in these games or racial, ethnic, or gender biases?

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BBC Engineering Monographs from 1950s and '60s: Once 5 Shillings, Now Free

The legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop closed down in 1998, after 40 years. 50th-anniversary celebrations in 2008, and a just-published book by academic Louis Niebur, titled Special Sound (Oxford), have helped to secure the Workshop's legacy of sonic experimentation, notably the efforts of such figures as Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, and the creation of the theme song and sci-fi sound design for Doctor Who -- not to mention work on Quatermass serials and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

While I was finishing up a review of the Niebur book, a friend introduced me to the following. Over at the BBC website, there is a treasure trove of old technical monographs from the Radiophonic's heyday. The documents, packed with technical diagrams and detailed descriptions of BBC procedures, date back to the 1950s.

These include, for Radiophonic fans, a great one from November 1963. The monograph series deals with various aspects of the BBC's operations, but this specific one (number 51) is 21 pages long and is entirely dedicated to the Radiophonic Workshop. It cost five shillings upon release, but is available for free download these days. The above image, from Monograph 51, shows a "keying unit" that was rigged up in the studio: Read the rest