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Setting Times stories to music: From Goldfrapp to the National

August 31, 2013|By Kari Howard
  • Artist Olafur Eliasson's "Viewing Machine," a work of art in the shape of oversized outdoor kaleidoscope that visitors can use to look out on Inhotim, perhaps the world's largest open-air museum.
Artist Olafur Eliasson's "Viewing Machine," a work of… (Julia Wagner / For The Times )

You know how once in a great while when you meet someone for the first time, there’s this moment of recognition? Like, I get you and you get me. (Compulsive song accompaniment: “Strange,” by Pains of Being Pure of Heart.)

This week, I found a website, largeheartedboy, that's been doing story-song combos on a grand scale for years now. In the feature called Book Notes, writers offer the soundtracks to their books, with some wonderful commentary.

Sometimes it’s the songs actually in the books (the latest entry has 50 of them—a novelist after my heart). Sometimes it’s the songs the authors listened to while writing the books. Sometimes it’s the songs that inspired the book. Any way, I’m thrilled to discover all these soul mates who see the connection between music and literary creativity.

The only drawback: With eight years of entries to get through, I’ll have time for nothing else for the foreseeable future. (“You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” by Marshall Crenshaw.)

Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story-song combo!

Monday’s Great Read:

Civic-minded hackers code well for the future

On a recent day at work in a San Francisco loft, Moncef Belyamani was sporting a hipster “LOVE” T-shirt and riffing, with obsessive detail, on the evolution of vinyl record production.

The Android coder and sometime dance-club DJ wrapped up by explaining how Google's language translator could be rigged to produce an excellent beat-box.

Belyamani isn't exactly the kind of guy you expect to bump into in a government building. But if you happen to be hanging out in San Mateo County offices, that's exactly where you'll find him many days.

The 38-year-old is part of an experiment in municipal government driven by hackers like him who want to help make the public sector as responsive as the Yelp app on a smartphone.

From their buzzy loft, these 28 tech wizards spend their days tapping on laptops, scribbling formulas into spiral notebooks and “ideating” — hacker-speak for tossing ideas around. Then they fan out across the country, embedding themselves within the beige conference rooms, dense procedure manuals and maddeningly slow pace of the machinery of municipal government.

They call themselves the Peace Corps for Geeks.

Code for America, as the nonprofit they work for is called, condensed its improbable mission down to a few words in its recent annual report: use technology to make government “simple, beautiful, easy to use.”

#storysongs combo: “Modern Technology,” by the Daktaris. A little bit of Afrobeat for a Monday morning. Love how he pronounces technology.


Tuesday’s Great Read:

A strong voice in Louisiana's Cancer Alley

The police asked the right question.

“Can you think of anyone who would want to do you harm?” investigators asked Wilma Subra, trying to understand who might have fired a gun at the diminutive grandmother.


Subra could arrange them alphabetically, or geographically, or in descending order according to how much her work as an environmental chemist had cost them in money or public embarrassment.

She had gone after so many corporate polluters over the decades, the question had just too many possible responses.

Authorities never found the person who shot at her while she was working at her desk by the front window. The soft-spoken crusader's response to the threat was to put bars on her windows, move her desk to the back of the house — and keep going.

Seven years later, at 69, Subra is still working to rein in environmental degradation along Cancer Alley, an eye-watering corridor of more than 150 industrial facilities along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that produce a quarter of the nation's petrochemicals.

She's a winner of a MacArthur “Genius grant” who totes her grandchildren to public hearings, giving them crayons to scribble on the back of scientific papers. She's a fighter who has taken on refineries, chemical manufacturers and oil and gas companies, including BP over its cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.

Most important, admirers say, she's a dedicated enabler, teaching people in some of the nation's poorest communities to help themselves by using the latest technology to track air and water quality in their own backyards.

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