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National Jukebox starts with a bang

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Library of Congress technicians examined multiple copies of each 78 RPM record -- down to each individual groove -- to determine which is the most pristine copy and should be preserved. (Library of Congress)

The Library of Congress has a smash hit on its hands. Its new National Jukebox — which went live Tuesday morning and streams more than 10,000  recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1901 and 1925 — has gotten more than 1 million page views and 250,000 streams in its first 48 hours, the LA Times music blog Pop and Hiss reports.

There are some gems there — among them, an early version of the country standard “Wreck of the Old 97,” George Gershwin performing “Rhapsody in Blue,” and a half-dozen tracks by contralto Marian Anderson (who famously performed at the Lincoln Memorial after being banned from Constitution Hall because she was black, and wanted to sing for an integrated audience). The Atlantic highlights nine more great recordings here.

This being a government operation, their disclaimers are numerous and telling. The genre “ethnic characterizations” — which includes several minstrel songs — warns that they “may utilize outmoded and offensive stereotypes.” And under “humorous songs,” the Library begs us to “note that the use of the term ‘humorous’ indicates only the intention of the work at the time the recording was made.” Which means A) they ain’t funny no more, and B) don’t blame us for songs like “Mammy’s Shufflin’ Dance.” But the Library deserves credit for not censoring a part of American pop culture that, though highly offensive today, is a part of history and deserves to be studied.

Their “making of” section also shows the painstaking work that goes into transferring these recordings from dusty, fragile 78s to high-quality digital WAV files. For example, the songs weren’t always recorded or mastered at the correct speed — a common problem in those days. So the Library’s audio engineers sometimes had to play a keyboard note and tweak the record’s playback speed until the song fell into tune. (Of course, that also assumes the singer or guitar was in tune in the first place, which in the case of some old blues is up for debate.)

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Excelsior! GPO publishes first comic book

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Printing government budgets year after year may have gotten a little stale for the Government Printing Office, so they’ve decided to spice things up a bit. GPO today announced the publication of its first comic book, “Squeaks Discovers Type!”

In the comic, the titular hero traces the history of printing, from cuneiform, to medieval illuminated manuscripts, to Gutenberg’s printing press, to the Internet age. (You can read a few sample pages here.) The whole thing was handled in house — GPO promotions manager Jim Cameron wrote the story, graphic designer Nick Crawford illustrated and colored it, and the agency printed 5,000 copies of the educational funnybooks on its own presses. GPO even held an autograph session with the creators Sept. 1.

GPO wanted to find some way to explain how important printing still is as part of its 150th anniversary celebration, and hit on the comic book idea as a good way to reach kids.

“I think the challenging part of the project was to make sure that it was historically accurate and that all of the information was correct while making it cool,” Crawford said in a promotional video. “I wanted to make it so that it was something kids would gravitate toward.”

Although GPO’s not yet ready to take on Marvel and DC Comics, they’re on their way. But something tells me that in 10 years, they’ll hire Frank Miller (“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”) and Alan “Watchmen” Moore as contractors to handle the inevitable “grim-and-gritty,” antiheroic reinvention of Squeaks. (Here’s a story suggestion for the sequel: An older, troubled Squeaks — perhaps with a drinking problem caused by his torment over the decline of printed media — comes out of retirement for one last job and gets more than he bargained for.)

(Oh, and if you’re not a comic geek, you’re probably wondering what’s up with the whole “excelsior!” thing. That’s the catchphrase Spider-Man and X-Men creator Stan Lee uses to sign off his columns.)

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NASA engineers join forces with rock band OK Go

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OK Go bassist Timothy Nordwind, after being thoroughly slimed by NASA

OK Go bassist Timothy Nordwind, after being thoroughly slimed by NASA

You may have seen the music video for OK Go’s song “This Too Shall Pass.” But what you probably don’t know is that the amazing, extended Rube Goldberg device that is its centerpiece was partly designed by a few engineers and staffers at NASA’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JPL engineers Mike Pauken and Heather Knight, planetary scientist Eldar Noe Dobrea, and intern Chris Becker joined forces with Syyn Labs, a group of engineers who “twist together art and technology” and were tapped to build OK Go’s machine. The results — featuring dominos, a falling piano, a Mars rover, and a TV showing the band’s “treadmill” video, all perfectly synchronized with the catchy song – took months to design and build, and required more than 60 takes to go off without a hitch.

NASA posted a great interview with the four earlier this week, in which they go into some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and challenges. (For instance, the small items were some of the hardest to pull off correctly, because even dust can throw off the timing of their chain reactions.) Their creativity and sense of humor helps show why NASA continually ranks among the best places to work in the government.

Oh, and don’t listen to the trolls griping on the NASA page about it being a waste of tax dollars. The engineers did it all on their own time and with materials provided by the band, or collected from junkyards and thrift stores. Anyone who finds something to criticize in this video has no soul.

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Massive Livermore lab laser to create tiny star

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The Livermore lab's laser may look something like this.

The Livermore lab's laser may look something like this.

File this story under “cool things the government does.” The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory plans to use the world’s largest laser to create a controlled fusion reaction it hopes will eventually result in “nearly limitless” energy.

Livermore this summer will fire a mile-long laser beam, split it into 192 smaller beams, and focus the beams on a pinpoint of deuterium and tritium — two reactive hydrogen isotopes that can be extracted from seawater. CNN reports that the fusion reaction is expected to be so intense it will actually create a tiny star.

If the experiment works – and proves lasers can create the same type of controlled fusion reactions that take place in the sun – Livermore said it could pave the way for commercial fusion power plants. One gallon of seawater could provide the same energy as 300 gallons of gasoline, according to the lab. But that won’t happen for at least another 20 years.

Livermore says there’s no danger from this experiment. The tiny, 100 million-degree-Celsius star they will create will die in 200 trillionths of a second. And spokeswoman Lynda Seaver says there’s no way it can explode: ”The [worst possible] mishap is, it doesn’t work.”

That reminds me. Large Hadron Collider, we’re still waiting for that planet-killing black hole. Don’t leave us hanging.

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Roads? Where DARPA’s going they don’t need … roads …

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back-to-the-future small

DARPA had a hover-conversion done in the early 21st century.

This is, hands down, the best solicitation I’ve seen in a long time: The mad scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are moving forward with their plans to develop a flying car.

Seriously. This $55 million flying car will need to seat four troops and their gear, operate like a regular SUV on land, and be able to turn into a vertical-take-off-and-landing aircraft that can fly 250 miles, at up to 10,000 feet above sea level, on a single tank of fuel.

“This presents unprecedented capability to avoid traditional and asymmetrical threats while avoiding road obstructions,” DARPA said in its solicitation. The flying car — I can’t stress enough how awesome that is — would be used for military strikes, counterinsurgency operations, reconnaisance, medical evacuation and logistical supply operations.

DARPA calls the project “Transformer,” but I prefer to think of it as a real-life version of Doc Brown’s flying DeLorean from the end of Back to the Future. Now if only they can figure out an efficient way to generate 1.21 gigawatts.

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