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4 ways American Idol is like the Hunger Games

Full disclosure: I love televised singing competitions, and American Idol is a regular feature on my DVR. Despite the overly-maudlin backstories and ubiquitous product placement, it’s hard to forgo the delicious pleasure of ruthlessly judging people from the comfort of my own home–especially since it lets me live their dreams vicariously and forget that I could never do what any of those kids do. The show creators have hit on an endless vein of drama centered around lifting up and then crushing very young, very vulnerable and very talented people, and I tune in every week to see who gets stomped on and who gets a stay of execution.

This description could apply to many shows on TV right now–the compelling nature of competition is that someone wins and someone loses. But the manner in which the kids on American Idol compete is evocative of a recent literary and cinematic phenomenon called the Hunger Games. You may have heard of the series, considering the book’s been lighting up bestseller lists for the last 140+ weeks and the movie grossed $600 million internationally so far. Just in case you haven’t, the series centers around 16-year-old Katniss, a resourceful and rebellious citizen of Panem who is forced into a cruel competition that pits 24 children (called “tributes”) against each other in a highly-publicized (and televised) fight to the death. Of course it’s fictional, but it features strong parallels to the cultural TV phenomenon that is American Idol. Quick disclaimer: I don’t mean to make light of children murdering each other, nor do I wish to accuse American Idol of crimes against humanity. I do understand the difference between a voluntarily-entered singing competition and a government-mandated, homicidal tragedy. I’ve just noticed some structural similarities between the US super-hit and the most popular show in Panem. Here are some elements the two share:

Left: Ryan Seacrest; Right: Caesar Flickerman (played by Stanley Tucci)

1. Charmingly benevolent celebrity host. Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci in the “Hunger Games” film, is charismatic, fashionably dressed, and charged with putting the contestants at ease while sussing out their stories to win them sympathy from the audience. Sound like anyone on American Idol? Ryan Seacrest has been a fixture of American Idol since its first season, and is a natural as the harmless and popular master of ceremonies. It’s his job to root for everyone, even though almost all of them will fall prey to the whims of the nation. It’s also his job to encourage audience investment in the contestants, telling viewers that they “must vote for [their] favorites.” (As a personal aside, I’d love to see the site traffic analytics for AmericanIdol.com on voting night.)

2. Elaborate strategies for winning over hearts and minds. In the Hunger Games arena, as on the Idol stage, the support of the public is vital to the success of the contestants. Gifts from sponsors often mean the difference between life and death for Katniss and the other tributes, while votes determine Idol contestants’ fates. And to win gifts or votes, contestants need to develop careful strategies for garnering favor. Your fashion choices, your touching backstory, your strategy in the competition–all of it matters, both in Panem and in the world of televised singing competitions. From song choice (Idol) to fabricated love stories (Games), moves are calculated. The thing is, it works; even though I know I’m being manipulated, I’m regularly moved to tears by the performances, just as the citizens of the Capitol wail and swoon watching the romance blossom between Peeta and Katniss. I vote for contestants who make me feel something.

Top: Eben Franckewitz, 15-year-old American Idol contestant; Bottom: Rue, 12-year old Hunger Games tribute (played by Amandla Stenberg)

3. Young and innocent contestants. The rules of the Hunger Games dictate that the tributes must be between twelve and eighteen years old, ensuring that they inspire maximal sympathy and emotional involvement from the citizens of Panem. The innocence of the contestants also contributes to the horrific cruelty of the Games, of course. The Idol rules allow for contestants between the ages of 15 and 28 (it used to be 16-24). The four remaining contestants this season are 16 (Jessica Sanchez), 18 (Hollie Cavanagh), 19 (Joshua Ledet), and 21 (Phillip Phillips). This gets to heart of the parallels I see; there’s a reason child actors are so often traumatized by the early vulnerability of the spotlight, and I feel for the youngest kids as they’re told they aren’t good enough. The guilt doesn’t stop me from tearing apart their performances or voting against them, though. Who do you think I am, a saint?

4. Cultural saturation. The Hunger Games are mandatory viewing in Panem, and much of the citizens’ lives are dominated by the ramifications of the event. Each of the twelve Districts sends two of its youthful citizens as tributes, and each District is consumed by the desire for one of their tributes to prevail. This fervor has a very different tone in the Idol contestants’ hometowns than in the fictional Districts; instead of dread, the Idol competitors’ neighbors look on with excitement as one of their own achieves fame. T-shirts, lawn signs and storefront displays are splashed with contestants’ faces; some town even have billboards made in honor of their finalist. And while Idol ratings have dropped off somewhat, the show still draws millions of viewers nationwide each week and is a regular source of water cooler discussion. Even after the show ends, many finalists achieve very real commercial success, dominating not only TV ratings but also radio waves and the iTunes charts. Idol is a cultural phenomenon 11 seasons strong, with no end in sight.

 

-Benevolent Siren

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Getting your groove on…during your lunch break? Swedish “lunch discos” keep the work day fun

She may have to go back to work in an hour, but right now it's party time!

How do you stay motivated and keep your energy up during the work day? Do you listen to pump-up music through a pair of headphones? Take frequent short breaks? Sneak in a nap when the boss isn’t looking?

 

How does a midday dance party sound?

 

If your answer is “pretty freaking awesome,” you’re not alone. A new Swedish craze called “Lunch Beat” is another European trend that puts a spin on traditional dance club practices (see last week’s post by AudiOdysseus on the “silent disco”). It combines the best thing about the work week–lunch breaks–with the best thing about the weekend: getting your dance on. The concept was created in 2010 in Sweden, and has since spread to other European countries. The gatherings are not-for-profit affairs, though a small entrance fee is required to cover the cost of the venue and provided lunch.

The idea behind the lunchtime discos is to encourage “playfulness, participation & community,” according to the movement’s official website. An hour to let loose and get your blood moving has positive effects on the workday as well, giving workers a burst of energy and helping them avoid a mid-afternoon slump. Plus, in my humble opinion, dancing is its own reward. Who doesn’t need a little joy in the middle of their day?

If you’re inspired to organize your own lunch disco, check out the organization’s guidelines. If we start throwing these at Velodyne headquarters (and possibly give some DD-18+ subs a workout), you can bet offices in a 5-mile radius will want to join in on the party. Keep an eye on our YouTube channel just in case we start to get some blackmail-worthy videos of dancing Velodyne employees…

 

-Benevolent Siren

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Join us in celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge

GG and the 64E

Velodyne's LiDAR sensor ready to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge

All of us here at Velodyne are lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Our offices are located in Silicon Valley, a short driving distance from San Francisco and, arguably, the most famous bridge in the world. Of course, I am referring to the Golden Gate Bridge. And it just so happens that this American icon turns 75-years-old this month.

I was unaware of this birthday when I recently got to play hooky and take Velodyne’s 64E LiDAR sensor up to the city by the bay for a photo shoot. And I fell in love with the beauty of San Francisco and the Golden Gate all over again.

Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco

Now, let me say that I am a New York girl at heart. That’s where I was born and raised and it will always be at the center of my soul. But I spent over five years living in San Francisco and, in that time, there was one thing that always amazed me. After five years of pounding the San Fran pavement, it was a regular occurrence to stop dead in my tracks, amazed at the beauty of the scenery. Every day I felt like I was living in a painting.

And that bridge in the background of the city is, in my opinion, just about as close as something man-made can get to rivaling the beauty of nature.

So, if you are lucky enough to live in or near San Francisco, be sure to join in the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. Make sure you don’t miss the fireworks display. And if you aren’t local, I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve posted for you.

Here are some facts about the Golden Gate Bridge that you may not know:

  • In total, the bridge is 8,981 feet across and its tallest point is 746 feet.
  • It is famously “over-engineered and is four times stronger than it needs to be.
  • It took over four years to build and cost over $35 million.
  • Each of its twin towers weighs more than 44,000 tons and the total weight of the bridge is almost 900,000 tons.
  • It is the second largest suspension bridge in the U.S. and, if you untangled all of its cables, they would stretch around the world three times.
  • The Golden Gate Bridge is painted a deep shade of International Orange, which is specially formulated to protect the bridge from the danger of rust from the moisture of the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean.
  • There is more than 10 million square feet of steel to paint on the bridge and painting it is hard work. It takes a team of about 30 painters. The only thing that stops them from doing their job is rain. But the bridge is wrapped in fog 70 percent of the time and the winds can blow 60 mph-which can cause problems because workers usually use spray guns.

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Wireless headphones and the “silent disco”

Honestly, when I first came upon this, I thought it was a joke. The term “silent disco” is, in and of itself, a kind of paradox. But it turns out that silent discos are a serious matter for people all over the globe. In fact, the term was added to the Oxford Dictionary Online in February, 2011.

Hold on just a second. What is a silent disco, you ask?

It’s just like clubbing, but with one major difference. Everyone is listening to the music on a pair of wireless headphones. The music is broadcast through an FM transmitter. This would present an odd looking party scene to those sans headphones, appearing as if people were dancing to the sound of nothing. These silent gatherings often feature dueling dj’s competing for listeners, as well as live musical acts.

The concept of the silent disco was born in 2005, as the result of noise restrictions at the Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, Somerset, England. A Dutch company called 433fm coined the term “silent disco” and circumvented noise restrictions by turning the festival into a large-scale wireless headset event. This was their first large-scale event, although they had been developing a plan for hosting a number of the same type of smaller music events across Europe since 2002.

A silent disco stage at the Exit Festival, 2011 in Serbia

The silent disco caught on quickly in The Netherlands with appearances at festivals like De Parade, Lowlands, and Pinkpop. And these days, 433fm takes it on the road to venues like Amsterdam’s Club 8. Each year there’s also a silent disco stage at the Exit festival, an annual summer music festival held in Novi Sad, Serbia.

After sweeping across Europe, the silent disco show is now popular in places like Brazil, China, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, and the United States.

The silent disco is not just for dj’s anymore. Each show is unique and can feature a variety of acts, including; live bands, comedians, rappers, actors, dancers, and video artists.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of the silent disco, be sure to check one out in your area. They seem to be popping up in major cities all across the United States.

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Getting Inside Outside Lands

If you haven’t heard of Outside Lands, it’s not too late. Tickets for this 3-day music, food, beer, wine and art festival in Golden Gate park August 10-12, 2012 go on sale tomorrow at noon.  It shouldn’t take you long to decide if you want to go. The full lineup has just been released and it is going to be incredible!

This festival began in 2008, and quickly burst onto the scene making quite the splash. Headlined by the most killer current artists and several stages with newer, up-and-coming, supporting acts, Outside Lands is geared toward being eco-friendly. There are bio-degradable cups, plates, bowls and utensils, solar-powered stages, and a refillable water program which encourages reusable water vessels to cut down on use of cups. Outside Lands also offers a bike valet service to encourage attendees to bike to the festival. Additionally,  golf carts are not used for production/transport but instead utilize cargo bicycles to go easier on the environment and conserve resources. I have never heard of such a thing, have you? Pretty cool.

The food and beverage choices are tantalizing, with some of the best local wineries, breweries and restaurants providing the festival fare.  While the food lineup has not yet been released, based on the previous years you can be certain this won’t be your typical hot dog and cardboard-pizza concert menu.

Outside Lands offers VIP cabanas based on availability, which overlook the main stage, and include hosted alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, access to catered food, a private entrance, 20 VIP tickets and 4 parking passes. No shortage of creature comforts to enhance your festival experience!

VIP, 3-day passes  at $495 are also offered based on availability and grant VIP’s Polo Club lounge seating, special viewing areas, access to massage therapists, access to restroom facilities, VIP food selection and beer, wine and cocktails.

Don’t have the cabbage to throw down for a cabana or a VIP pass? Regular 3-day passes were offered on an early bird basis for $165 that have already sold out. The regular 3-day ticket will go on sale tomorrow for $195. It’s not clear how many of those tickets are available, but when they sell out the price will go up to $210 and then $225. Other extremely helpful passes that may be purchased are a 3-day parking pass for $149.50, and a 3-day shuttle pass from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for $29.50. Fortunately the Civic is also very close to other public transportation such as Bart, Muni and Caltrain.

While I love to indulge in good food and wine with the best of them, it really comes down to the music for me. Who could pass up seeing legends like Neil Young, Stevie Wonder and Metallica at the same festival as Skrillex? One of the headliners for the festival this year is The Foo Fighters, one of my all time favorite bands. I have been a fan since they were founded in 1994 by Dave Grohl, former drummer for Nirvana. While I have loved all of their albums over the years, I was immensely proud of them for cleaning up at the 2012 Grammys (6 trophies!) and especially winning Best Rock Album. I have seen them live twice, and was completely blown away. Check out the Foo’s performance on Saturday Night Live last year of their 2012 Grammy-winning Best Rock Song, Walk. Dave and the boys just BRING IT.

I am also a huge fan of Jack White, who we featured on yesterday’s post as well as Beck, Franz Ferdinand, Norah Jones and more recently Fitz and the Tantrums.

And lastly, I leave you with this soothing, soulful melody by newcomer to the scene, Alabama Shakes. The Shakes first full length album was just released for streaming this month. I am pretty confident we will be seeing a lot more of them in the future. Enjoy!

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Jack White streaming his debut solo album “Blunderbuss” online via iTunes

Jack White’s “Blunderbuss” will be formally released in its entirety on April 23. But White is streaming it for fans right now on iTunes. If you like what you hear, you can pre-order it on the spot. ‘Blunderbuss’ features a total of 13 tracks and is being released on the singer’s own Third Man Records/XL Records. White produced the album himself.

The lead single, “Love Interruption” was released last month and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. White teams up with Ruby Amanfu, a singer from Nashville. The result is exactly what I would have hoped for it to be. Gritty. Beautiful. Quirky.

In classic Jack White style, Third Man Records premiered the track “Freedom at 21″ by launching 1,000 flexi-disc records attached to helium balloons. They were set free from the label’s headquarters in Nashville on April 1.

Not surprisingly, some of those flexi-discs reportedly landed right on ebay, where they were being sold for up to $3,000. Ahhh…capitalism.

Jack White is considered by many to be one of the most prolific artists to come along in decades. The Detroit native, the youngest of ten children, was one half of The White Stripes. Formed in 1997, the band erupted onto the music scene in 2001. They made music for over a decade until they officially ended their musical union in 2011.

The band was known for using the color combination of black, white and red in their live shows and artwork. When asked by Rolling Stone Magazine during a 2005 interview if those were always his favorite colors, White gave the following response:

Jack White discussing the making of "Blunderbuss" during a recent NPR interview

“After I apprenticed as an upholsterer for a few years, I opened my own shop, Third Man Upholstery. Everything was yellow, black and white. All my power tools were yellow and black. I had a yellow van. I ran my business like a cartoon. I was making out bills in crayon and writing poetry inside people’s furniture. I didn’t care if I made any money. I was so happy to pull up in front of someone’s house wearing a yellow-and-black uniform, with a yellow clipboard. But the White Stripes’ colors were always red, white and black. It came from peppermint candy. I also think they are the most powerful color combination of all time, from a Coca-Cola can to a Nazi banner. Those colors strike chords in people. In Japan, they are honorable colors. When you see a bride in a white gown, you immediately see innocence in that. Red is anger and passion. It is also sexual. And black is the absence of all that.”

Jack White is a master of expression through words and music. That’s why he’s one of my favorite musicians. That…and my favorite number is three.

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Must-Hear Song of the Day: Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye (ft. Kimbra)

“Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye (ft. Kimbra) is, in the words of American Idol judge Steven Tyler, “changing music.” This #1 hit stands in stark musical contrast to most other contemporary radio fare, featuring a xylophone solo and haunting vocals evocative of Peter Gabriel. This earworm has surfaced across many television platforms in multiple interpretations, from the Glee version dripping with brotherly angst to “The Voice” contestant Lindsey Pavao’s dubstep-influenced arrangement to the duet from “American Idol” semifinalists Elise Testone and Phillip Phillips. Which version catches your fancy?

Original (Warning: This video contains some nudity, but nothing graphic or explicit.)

Glee (Darren Criss and Matt Bomer)

 

The Voice (Lindsey Pavao)

American Idol (Elise Testone and Phillip Phillips)

 

Which version(s) do you think do this song justice?

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Join us in celebrating the third annual National Robotics Week 2012 (April 9-13)

It’s only natural for the Velodyne team to celebrate National Robotics Week. Our founder and CEO, David Hall, has been involved in the design and development of robot technology for over a decade.

If you’re a fan of Robot Wars: Extreme Warriors, you’ve probably seen his work. The Robot Wars television series was a competition involving radio-controlled vehicles built by mechanics, engineers and inventors. Mr. Hall built Drillzilla, a competitor robot on the first season of Robot Wars: Extreme Warriors. Drillzilla, named after the famous Japanese monster Godzilla, was a shufflebot. That’s a special type of walkerbot using sections of feet in line with each other, rather than the legs used by traditional walkers. This gave Drillzilla extra speed and weight, as well as pushing power.

Watch Drillzilla wipe the smile right off Conquering Clown’s face…

But robot technology isn’t just for games. In fact, Mr. Hall’s other robot, Da Claw, is a retired robot fighter spending his golden years as part of a permanent collection housed at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In 2011, Velodyne was honored to donate Da Claw, as well as two LiDAR sensors and other LiDAR technology. (Click to learn more about Velodyne LiDAR technology.)

“Technological advancement has always been a strong theme running through American history,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “The donations…not only reflect the historical record of robotic development, but offer a glimpse of-and inspiration for-the future.”

Glass is not the only one to value the development of robot technology. In 2009, Congress established the second week of April as National Robotics Week in recognition of this growing sector of the U.S. economy. The yearly event is designed to celebrate the U.S. as a leader in robotics technology development and to educate the public about how robotics technology impacts society, now and in the future. It’s also designed to inspire students to pursue careers in robotics, technology, engineering, and math-related fields.

This weeklong celebration of robotics isn’t taking place in just one location. There are events going on all over the country. The National Robotics Week Advisory Council invites people everywhere to use their creativity in organizing local activities. The council recommends hosting an open house to demonstrate robots, organizing a Robot Block Party, or holding a robot competition. Anyone participating can submit their event to the Advisory Council for inclusion on their website.

If you’re fresh out of ideas this year, maybe you can find inspiration at the RoboGames in San Mateo, California at the end of this month. This event is referred to as the “Olympics of Robots”. There are 50 different events with participants from around the world. These “participants” include combat robots, firefighters, LEGO bots, walking humanoids, sumo bots, and androids that do kung fu. Some robots are even autonomous. And anyone can compete.

If you’re more of a pacifist, your inspiration may come from this year’s second annual Robot Film Festival, which takes place in New York City July 14-15, 2012. This event is a two-day celebration of robots on film. The official awards ceremony of the Robot Film Festival is called the “Botskers” and takes place at the end of the second day. It is a black tie red carpet ceremony with films duking it out for a coveted botsker award. The award is a 3D printed robot statuette.

It’s clear that robots are no longer just for techies and engineers. They’ve clearly moved into mainstream society.

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Join Velodyne in sponsoring a student at the Tumaini Junior School in Tanzania

All of us here at Velodyne consider ourselves truly fortunate to be living in Silicon Valley, a beautiful place overflowing with opportunity. One of the main reasons this area is ripe with possibility is because its inhabitants, hailing from all over the world, have been afforded the chance for a good education.

This is what made sponsorship of students at the Tumaini Junior School in Tanzania a natural choice when we were considering the best way to give back.

The United Republic of Tanzania, located in East Africa, has a population of 39 million. A limited budget and poor infrastructure make it a challenge to provide quality education to young children. Many students from the majority of government-sponsored schools aren’t provided with the resources and materials they need to succeed. This has produced a high rate of truancy and, subsequently, dropouts.

Some concerned citizens have founded private institutions in an attempt to help the situation for their local youth. Modest Bayo, a Tanzanian native and founder of the Tumaini Junior School in Karatu, is one of these citizens. He and his wife used their small home to set up the first formal class. It didn’t take long before this space was too small to fill the needs of their ever-increasing number of students, who were eager to learn. In 2005, Bayo built the first official classroom in his backyard.

Each year since 2005, Bayo expanded his classrooms to accommodate the demand for educations. Bayo says his main goal is to instill a healthy degree of self-confidence in each student.

The word tumaini means “hope.”  And that’s exactly what Bayo is giving back to his community. If you would like to help Bayo to fulfill his goals and live his motto, “strive for excellence,” then click here to sponsor a student at the Tumaini Junior School.

Watch this video if you would like to learn more about the story of the Tumaini Junior School:

 

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