Celebrating the Golden Lobes at IdeaFestival


Greetings from Louisville! Will, Mangesh and I are here for IdeaFestival. Yesterday, Mangesh spoke to some of the nation's smartest middle schoolers, who grilled him in a lively Q&A. We embarrassed ourselves at an adult spelling bee last night. And this afternoon there's a panel featuring some of our Golden Lobe Award winners. Here's a little bit about archaeologist Patrick McGovern, composer Tristan Perich, and high school student Sejal Vallabh, who lucky IdeaFestival attendees will get to meet today.

Golden Lobe: Nerdiest Beer (2011)

Of the hundreds of bottles of beer on the wall, only one provides a history lesson in every pour. And for that, you can thank brewmaster Sam Calagione and molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern.

For the past decade, these Indiana Joneses of the brewing community have dedicated themselves to whipping up the tastiest beers in history—all of history—and they’ve got the archaeological evidence to back it up.

The story starts in 1997, when McGovern began investigating crockery samples from the tomb of King Mita, the Turkish royal who inspired the King Midas myths. After running a chemical analysis on some of the king’s cups, McGovern realized that the man with the golden touch liked his ale. Determined to figure out what the king’s beer tasted like, he took the analysis to Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. Together, the pair sought to reconstruct the 2,700-year-old beverage using authentic ingredients such as Muscat grapes, saffron, and honey. The result? An ancient ale they dubbed Midas Touch Golden Elixir.

Incredibly, this old-fashioned beverage has become a modern-day hit. Dogfish Head describes the drink as “somewhere between wine and mead.” But the beverage isn’t just popular at bars; it’s also a hit with critics. The drink nabbed a silver medal at the 2005 Great American Beer Festival and a bronze at the 2008 World Beer Cup. The success has also inspired Calagione and McGovern to dig deeper for historical recipes. Today, Dogfish Head offers an entire Ancient Ales series. The line includes Chateau Jiahu, based on a spiced beer found in 9,000-year-old crockery from northern China, and an Aztec beer called Theobroma, which was recreated using residue from 3,000-year-old pottery in Honduras. The former contains rice flakes and chrysanthemum flowers; the latter boasts notes of cocoa, chili, and annatto. And while we have no idea what annatto is, we’re not questioning it. Each sip just makes us happy that history is repeating itself.

Golden Lobe: Highest Achievement in Low Fidelity (2011)

At first glance, composer Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony looks like a regular CD in a jewel case. It’s actually something much, much cooler. There’s not even a compact disc in the case! Instead, Perich’s package includes a battery, a tiny circuit, and a headphone jack. When a listener slips his headphones into the slot, a handcrafted circuit performs a five-movement electronic symphony that Perich has programmed in low-fidelity, 1-bit audio.

In addition to being just flat-out neat, the technology behind Perich’s symphony subtly questions the way listeners receive their music. Whereas a normal CD or MP3 file plays back music that’s already been recorded, Perich’s circuit takes the composer’s source code and actually performs the music with electronic pulses each time it’s switched on. Technically, you’re not listening to a recording at all; you’re being treated to a live performance as the electricity pulses out of the microchip.

What keeps Perich’s project from being just another interesting-but-academic exercise? The music is amazing. The work is no mere collection of Atari-esque bloops and bleeps. Rather, the composition rewards listeners by delivering on the symphonic promise of its name, piling up familiar minimalist sounds to create stunningly lush and upbeat movements. If the Mario Brothers were classical music fans, this is what they’d listen to. And they’d shell out a few gold coins to do it, too.

Golden Lobe: Blind Ambition (2012)

In the summer of 2010, high school sophomore Sejal Vallabh was interning in Japan when she saw her first game of blind tennis. Developed in 1984, today nearly 300 people compete in Japan’s blind tennis tournaments, diving and lunging for balls, embracing a sport built for the sighted. But why hadn’t the sport translated abroad? Upon returning home, the teenager from Newton, Mass., started Tennis Serves—a charitable organization dedicated to advancing blind tennis in the U.S. Vallabh’s first coup was convincing Perkins School for the Blind to offer lessons. Here’s how the game works: Blind tennis is played on a badminton court, with the net dropped to ground level. But in lieu of a standard ball, players use a large foam ball that jingles. Those with limited sight get two bounces to get to the ball, while the fully blind get three. Although some institutions have been slow to embrace the sport, Vallabh is working hard to advance the cause. Today, Tennis Serves has three national chapters where volunteers give lessons to the blind. And while she hopes to get the game recognized by the Paralympics soon, Vallabh’s primary focus is simpler: giving the visually impaired an opportunity to enjoy the sport she loves.

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