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Brainiac

It’s like your head was there

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

If the next time you’re at a concert in Boston you find yourself next to a mannequin with an emo haircut, take note: You’re witnessing an innovative sound project. Aaron Soloway of Cambridge proudly calls it “the highest fidelity binaural recording mannequin in the world.”

Soloway, a freelance audio engineer, is among a small group of enthusiasts trying to push the frontiers of binaural recording—a technique that produces uniquely lifelike sounds by spacing two microphones to capture the way sounds arrive differently in our right and left ears. (The effect is more exact and personal than traditional stereo.)

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Since Soloway was first transfixed by a binaural recording of airport sounds in college, he has traveled the world capturing binaural versions of music, places, and natural events, like the sound of ice crackling on a frozen Cape Cod pond. He makes his recordings not only with the mannequin, but also by placing a tiny microphone in each of his own ears.

Binaural technology has existed for more than a century and received a burst of attention when Pearl Jam used the technique in its 2000 album, “Binaural.” But it has really caught on over the last five years or so, as recording equipment has become less expensive. In many ways, binaural recording is the perfect sound medium for our age: It needs to be listened to with headphones, and aligns perfectly with our new hyper-individualized style of public display, in which we try to convey—through status updates and the like—precisely how the world appears to us.

To get a feel for how it sounds, Soloway created a mixtape for Brainiac, featuring a number of Boston-area bands and local places, like Harvard Square the night Barack Obama was elected president, and a concert at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge. The track of ice crackling on a pond on Cape Cod gives a particularly immediate impression of how binaural recording is unique. You can listen to it at www.boston.com/brainiac.

Swift evolution

We think of evolution as something that takes place over eons, but it often happens much faster—which may be what’s happening with a bird species that lives beneath highway overpasses.

According to a new study in Current Biology, cliff swallows find the vertical surfaces of highway overpasses to be an irresistible place to roost, and they die in huge numbers when they fly out of their nests and into the grills of oncoming vehicles.

For the last 30 years, biologists Charles Brown and Mary Bomberger Brown have counted road-killed cliff swallows in southwestern Nebraska, and they began to notice that the deaths were declining. Had the swallow population thinned? Or had traffic decreased? Were scavengers making quicker work of the carcasses?

They suggest something more dramatic had taken place: Over 30 years, they’ve found that swallows’ average wingspan has shrunk. Shorter wings mean faster takeoffs, which makes it easier for birds to get out of the way of your 65-mile-per-hour family vacation. They also observed that cliff swallows with longer wings tend disproportionately to end up dead on the side of the road. This leads them to conclude that in a relatively short period of time, evolution has likely given us a population of cliff swallows better suited to life in an interstate age.

Pope in a can

Pope Francis made news last week when he became the first pontiff ever to

Miriam Jonas’s “Polka Popes.”

wash a woman’s feet, as part of the Catholic Church’s ritual Holy Thursday celebration. Perhaps this gesture will qualify him for (or maybe spare him from) ­German artist Miriam ­Jonas’s treatment. Jonas has created a series she calls “Polka Popes”—miniature sculptures of fictional pontiffs, crafted out of colorful kid’s modeling clay and displayed inside empty fish tins. Jonas’s work reads first as a playful critique of the pomp that surrounds the papacy—but at the same time, there is a touch of affectionate reverence in the figures.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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