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Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath (Courtesy of the artist)

Sylvan Esso Performs 'Wolf' Live With Megafaun, Lambchop, Others

Jul 30, 2014

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Last fall, Sylvan Esso's Nick Sanborn was commissioned by Duke University and Alverno University in Milwaukee to put together a special concert with some of his favorite artists and collaborators. The result was a two-night stand that featured Sanborn and Sylvan Esso singer Amelia Meath performing alongside members of Sanborn's other band, Megafaun and Meath's former band, Mountain Man, as well as the group Field Report and Lambchop's William Tyler. Together they shared mostly acoustic versions of a number of Sylvan Esso songs, including this cut from the band's self-titled, debut record, "Wolf."

Shot in black and white, it's a surprisingly intimate and arresting arrangement of a song originally scored with throbbing electronics.

Sanborn tells us via email that the performances, called "Lend Me Your Voice," were designed to explore "the concept of the sideman musician and how another musician's vision is supported."

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The Great American Desk. (istockphoto.com)

Desk Desk Evolution

Jul 30, 2014

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Linton Weeks

With the disappearance of the desktop computer and the downfall of the deskphone, could we be seeing the demise of the office desk?

"We still need a place on which to set all that digital stuff," says Henry Petroski, a civil engineering professor at Duke University and author of numerous design books, including The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship.

Henry says his iPad is too heavy to hold comfortably."And I don't have a large enough lap for all the other devices." So for Henry, an office desk is an extension of his lap. For others, it's a repository for inboxes and outboxes and books and paper piles and a smattering of old business cards grown dusty and dogeared from neglect.

And now the Great American Desk - trying to be all things to all people — is going through an identity crisis. And a multi-faceted metamorphosis.

Recent desk developments include:

* The Superdesk — a sweeping platform that flows through the Barbarian Group office in New York.

_____

* The Kinetic Desk — from Stir "senses your presence" and encourages you to sit and stand throughout the day.

_____

* The Pull-Up Bar Desk — is just one of the un-official innovations at the the Brooklyn Boulders Active Collaborative Workspace in Somerville, Mass.

_____

Did this new Age of Deskovery begin, perhaps, with predictions of a "paperless office" in the 1990s? "The paperless office was said to arrive with the desktop computer," Henry Petroski says. "I am still waiting..."


The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers - Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers - of NPR. @NPRtpj

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A hodgepodge of languages share space on library shelves. (Courtesy of Queens Library)

Want To See The World? Try A Library In Queens

by Cristina Silva
Jul 30, 2014

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Cristina Silva

The aggressive vibrato of the bandoneon hung in the air. While the tango singer spoke of romantic spats, hopeless drunkards and lonely whores, an elderly Argentine couple clasped hands.

The haunting music would have made for a steamy evening if not for the setting. The celebration of Argentine tango took place not in some hip Latin club on the Lower East Side or in a dark corner of a Buenos Aires cafe, but in a drab basement room with plastic chairs and gray walls in the Jackson Heights branch of the Queens Library.

New York's Queens borough is among the most ethnically diverse counties in the nation, its immigrant-filled neighborhoods teeming with taco joints, Dominican beauty salons and women in headscarves. It's no surprise, then, that the borough's library system has also strived for unparalleled diversity.

The library system's 62 locations boast more than 800,000 foreign language books, thousands of foreign language DVDs and CDs, and six language specialists tasked with finding the most popular materials in Urdu, Polish, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, French and Spanish, among other languages. It also regularly hosts cultural events, such as the tango performance in Jackson Heights, to draw in immigrants unaware of how libraries or library cards work — or at least how they work in Queens.

Chinese romance novels are always popular, as is the Korean version of Twilight. The library system also caters to Albanians, Croatians and Serbians in Ridgewood, Tagalog speakers in Elmhurst, Woodside and Broadway, Farsi in Kew Garden Hills and Pashto and Dari in Flushing.

"We are the most diverse borough and we want to celebrate that," said Bridget Quinn-Carey, the library's COO.

Nearly half of all Queens' residents were foreign-born in 2010, according to U.S. Census data, with most hailing from Latin American and Asian nations. Among New York City's five boroughs, Queens has the highest number of residents who consider themselves as speaking English less than "very well," at 28 percent. Of those, 42 percent speak Spanish and 31 percent speak an Asian or Pacific Island language.

The library launched its New Americans Program in 1977 to provide services to the area's many immigrants. The staff's most significant challenge, apart from budget limitations and figuring out how to catalog book titles that don't use the Roman alphabet, is keeping up with the breakneck pace of New York real estate trends and demographic shifts. Employees rely on neighborhood clues including ethnic newspapers and produce sold at corner bodegas to keep library shelves stocked with the most useful material.

A decade ago, the library's Corona location demanded materials catering to Dominicans and Italians. Now, the neighborhood is primarily Mexican and Ecuadorian, said Vilma Daza, the Corona library manager. A dedicated following arrives at the library each day to read foreign-language newspapers, including the popular "Thinkana," a Bangla newspaper circulated in New York.

The library also offers citizenship and basic skills classes designed to help people assimilate more easily.

"It's very important because all those kids are growing up over here, so we need to have better communities, we need to enrich their lives, we need to make changes so this community will be successful tomorrow," Daza said.

Once an immigrant group reaches a mere 2,000 people, the library will attempt to offer services pertinent to that culture. International crises after spur the need for new library material. For example, the system's collection of Haitian Creole books grew to more than 5,000 titles after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.

Of all the languages the system offers, one is particularly in demand among foreign-born library patrons. On a recent registration day, more than 100 people lined up starting at 5 a.m. to nab one of 30 classroom slots available in Corona. Thousands of other immigrants flocked to similar classes across the Queens Library system in 2013.

The language they were all so eager to learn?English.

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Christopher Petrone, of San Diego, CA, towering over attendees in his handmade, to-scale Chewbacca costume. (Getty Images)

On Dipping An Introverted Toe In The Comic-Con Ocean

Jul 30, 2014

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Linda Holmes

The first time I took one of the online Myers-Briggs inventories and it spit out that I was an introvert, one of my friends questioned the results. Specifically, he said, "Are you sure you weren't holding the test upside-down?"

I wasn't, though. Crowds challenge me, as do bustling parties, as do chaotically noisy environments, as do spaces I can't get out of quickly. So I'd pretty much made up my mind that I'd never set foot at San Diego Comic-Con, which scores pretty high on the Writhing Humanity scale. Let me put it this way: Have you ever been right outside a stadium when a truly huge sporting event or a concert let out? Where you're just getting shoved along, you can't really go anywhere except as part of a river of humans, and you suddenly realize that if you were viewed from above as part of this gathering, you'd suddenly realize the insignificance of your existence?

Much of the San Diego Convention Center, inside and out, is like that nonstop for about four days.

But this year, we had an opportunity to take Pop Culture Happy Hour to Comic-Con for a panel discussion (thanks to Stephen Thompson's mother, Maggie, a comics luminary) (Maggie does the "In Memoriam" segment at the Eisner Awards, if you want to evaluate that luminariosity for yourself). It was right at the end of my two-plus weeks at press tour, so I was on the west coast anyway. Why not? (We'll be posting the audio of the panel as our weekly show this Friday.)

I would love to tell you here that it was not as bad as I feared, that the esprit de corps overwhelmed any anxieties, swept away any discomfort, and made me forget about my sense that if there were a fire, we'd be screwed. I would love to have come home feeling that I'd battled my own bustle-avoidant tendencies as successfully as my buddy Glen Weldon did last year when he wrote a series of Comic-Con diaries that I encourage you to read.

But, perhaps exhausted from press tour, perhaps simply unsuited to it, I freely admit that I was a toe-dipper. Not inclined to endure long lines either for high-profile panels or for the chance to buy stuff, I spent about 15 minutes on the show floor, clinging to the perimeter, before taking my bulging eyeballs right out of there. I did not dive. I waded.

And the first thing I learned — confirmed for myself, really — is that Comic-Con is much, much less weird than a lot of people who don't attend it make it out to be. I encountered so many contemptuous tweets about it in absentia, so many assumptions that this was, at best, some kind of Weirdo Dude Ranch where, for once, freaks have the opportunity to be among their own. And I'm not saying there's none of that, particularly if among freaks and weirdos you count those who would wryly attach that label to themselves. It is, quite clearly, a haven.

But I dare you to watch the documentary America's Parking Lot and conclude that the extreme football fan tailgaters profiled therein — who tend to be tagged as extreme in their enthusiasms but not socially derided — are less weird than the people of Comic-Con.

Let me get this out of the way first: People take a lot of pictures of the costumes, because they're cool. But most of the folks I saw there taking in panels and shopping on the show floor were not in costume at all. It's not the Star Wars cantina. It's more like you're walking through a crowd of people and most of them look like the people you'd see at the mall, and then suddenly one of them is Wonder Woman. As our own Petra Mayer talked about in her really excellent radio piece this weekend, cosplay is an extremely creative DIY hobby, not much different from anything else you might make yourself just to show people that you made it, just to make it, just to do something interesting. And again, why is it any weirder from putting on face paint at a football game while wearing a player's jersey?

I did go to a couple of panels while I was there, and here's how I picked them: I went into the first room that was open. Why? Because most of the things I was extremely familiar with fell into the category of "too much waiting in line," so I was stuck with the unfamiliar. So why not gamble?

I first wound up in a panel of women who do fan art and fan fiction surrounding the current TV incarnation of Teen Wolf. And you know what they were like? They were a lot like every other panel of geeky young writers I've ever seen. They spoke intelligently and thoughtfully about writing and creativity and what they like and don't like to make art about. They talked about the responsibility they feel when they write about mental illness and thoughtfully chewed over the idea of creating transgender characters to add to what's sort of a preexisting universe. They rolled their eyes at a video that was circulating in which Teen Wolf actors were placed on the spot and asked to read fan fiction aloud for yuks, shrugging it off as a cheap effort to make actors uncomfortable on camera and get them to dump on their own fans.

What filed into the room next was a jam-packed panel called "IS IT STEAMPUNK?" Now this, costume-wise, is the old-timey, goggle-wearing droid you are looking for. (Yes, I am mixing my everything. Shhhhh.) Roughly defined, steampunk is Victorian-era-ish science fiction (think goggles and gears, as far as the aesthetic), and I had the biggest blown mind of my entire Comic-Con experience when I learned that at least to these steampunk people, the greatest steampunk movie is understood to be ... wait for it ...

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I was not prepared for this!

The "Is It Steampunk?" panel included Andrew Fogel of The League Of S.T.E.A.M.; Claire Hummel, who worked on Bioshock Infinite; Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, who write the adventures of the "steampunk robot" Boilerplate; and Thomas Willeford, who makes steampunk stuff and arrived dressed as Steampunk Iron Man. They basically tried to define what exactly steampunk is — and distinguished it from other faux genres and subgenres including "clockpunk" and "dreampunk" — and then voted on various examples from pop culture as to whether they are steampunk.

The verdict: Back To The Future III is probably steampunk. As is the aforementioned Bioshock Infinite. But not Cowboys And Aliens. Thus began the most interesting discussion of Cowboys And Aliens I have ever heard.

They pretty much acknowledged, you see, that the 2011 film fit the definitions they'd given of steampunk up to that point: It is in fact science fiction of the right era. It has gadgets. It is, to use Willeford's definition, "an adventure in a speculative past." (He later acknowledged that despite that sweeping conceptual definition, without gadgets, he doesn't consider it steampunk.) But they still felt like it wasn't steampunk. Why? Weeeeell, there are aliens, so it's alien technology, not man-made technology, and it doesn't really have the aesthetic, and, hmm, well, you know what it came down to?

They don't think it's very good, so they have trouble calling it steampunk.

It was a very interesting little distinction. In a way, this gatekeeping exercise seemed awfully silly to me at first: why does it matter whether a particular movie fits or doesn't fit the definition? What is the value in fussing over definitions? But this Cowboys And Aliens business was really enlightening. The lines between defining and evaluating are very, very blurry. When are you really classifying according to a neutral and factual definition, and when are you saying ... "I don't like it"?

That's not a real superhero movie. That's not a real romantic comedy. That's not hip-hop. That's not literary fiction. That's not fusion. He's not a movie star. She's not a critic.

This isn't pop culture. This isn't a story.

The point of a steampunk panel — the point of Comic-Con in general — is not only to hang around with other people who like the same things you like. It's also an opportunity to experience uncut enthusiasm itself. How does it work? How does it operate between groups of people? How does it change the way we approach culture?

Comic-Con isn't nerd camp, it doesn't smell, it doesn't feel sad, nobody seems desperate — it's just not that weird. If anything, you know what's weird? What's weird is me vibrating from anxiety because I can't see the door. The thing itself is just ... an event. It's just a concentrated blast of engagement with things, with all of its attractive and unattractive aspects, with all of its commercialized and obscure and handmade and mass-marketed tchotchkes. You can look at the guy standing in line for a hotel shuttle with a numbered Comic-Con exclusive Shadow Stormtrooper figure, and you can think, "Nerd." Or you can think, "That dude loves that movie/franchise/universe so much that he stood in line with several hundred other people for the privilege of buying that, and that is fascinating."

So yes, it's still true that it freaks me out. But it's not the costumes, and it's not the attitudes, and it's certainly not the people, who were almost unreasonably lovely (as they must be to survive packed in like sardines, please pause here while I dab my brow and take a sedative). It's just a lot. It's a lot. Perhaps more than any other pop culture thing that has ever existed, Comic-Con is ... a lot.

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Video shows a woman trying to outrun a train. (YouTube)

WATCH: Video Shows Women Narrowly Escape Death On Railroad Tracks

by Eyder Peralta
Jul 30, 2014

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Eyder Peralta

The video is harrowing. It shows two women narrowly escaping death after a train is unable to come to a stop before running them over.

The Indiana Rail Road, which released the video to show the dangers of tresspassing on rail roads, describes the scene like this:

"The person who first saw the trespassers was the engineer in the lead locomotive of a northbound, 14,000-ton Indiana Rail Road (INRD) freight train traveling at 30 mph. Imagine, if you will, rounding a curve just before a 500-foot-long, 80-foot-high bridge, only to find two subjects sitting in your train's path.

"The engineer followed all appropriate protocols, immediately applying an emergency brake application and repeatedly sounded the horn. However, as the subjects ran toward the opposite end of the viaduct, the engineer was helpless to do more. The ever-slowing train was still catching up to the fleeing trespassers.

"Nearly every locomotive in North America - including INRD's - is equipped with video cameras for safety and security purposes. Video shows that with more than 100 feet left to the end of the bridge, and the train still catching them, one woman slammed her body onto the ties between the rails. The other veered to the left and nearly fell off the bridge, and then with the locomotive approximately 30 feet away, she too 'hit the deck' between the rails.

"By the time the train came to a stop, the locomotives were off the bridge; they completely passed the point where the subjects stopped running. The engineer assumed he had just killed two people; Monroe County Sheriff's Department was quickly alerted. Miraculously, however, the two subjects survived, and escaped to a nearby vehicle and fled the scene."

Here is the video:

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