Professional thinker-about-the-future Ray Kurzweil describes a moment he calls "the Singularity," a point where technology goes literally beyond our wildest dreams — so much so that we can't even imagine what is possible. Here in Middle Tennessee, we might not have arrived at that point on the timeline just yet, but electrode-activated prosthetic legs and atomic mosquito repellant — both developed right here in Nashville — are helping push the boundaries of what we can do. And they are but two of the forward-thinking projects we present here, in our third annual Innovations issue, where we train our scopes on the ingenious, the progressive and the unexpected. Of course, sometimes it takes looking backward to move ahead, so while one Vanderbilt scientist bellies through ancient caves in search of organisms that could be used to create cutting-edge medicines, a team of chefs has decided to cook right in front of their guests — stripping away all the trappings of "progress" in restaurants. In between there's a motorized record shop, a social media widget for notable quotes, an environmentally savvy street plan, a website that makes music licensing a snap and a mixed-use development that is more than meets the ear. Who knows — maybe you'll read about something you couldn't even imagine was possible five minutes ago.
1. Digging for Drugs: Cave Chemistry
- John Russell, Vanderbilt University
- Brian Bachmann collecting bacterial samples in Snail Shell Cave
Hundreds of feet beneath the earth's surface, organisms that never see the light of day engage in never-ending battle for food and territory. As weapons, they've evolved their own microscopic systems of chemical warfare — substances that can destroy predators or vanquish prey. To Brian Bachmann, associate professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt, these arsenals could play a part in defeating another foe: cancer.
Or malaria. Or other diseases — the reasoning behind what may be the only medical research team in the world that literally plumbs the earth's depths searching for new treatments. A longtime caver whose interest dates back to his college days at Virginia Tech and Johns Hopkins, Bachmann is one of the leaders of a group of Vanderbilt chemists who gather samples of cave-dwelling organisms, in hopes that the unique compounds they produce can be harnessed for modern medicine.
With guidance from noted Middle Tennessee caver John Hickman, Bachmann and his assistants have begun to explore the microbial riches of Tennessee's more than 9,600 caves. Taking care to preserve each ecosystem, which has flourished underground for millions of years, the researchers walk, scoot and rappel into a literal underworld with no way to communicate above ground. Asked what safety precautions the team takes in such circumstances, the lanky Bachmann, boyish and bespectacled, just laughs.
"First, tell people you're going," Bachmann says. "Second, tell them when you plan to be back. Then take an expert who knows the cave."
Before pharmaceutical labs were able to generate synthetic chemical compounds by the thousands, what's known as "natural product drug discovery" was responsible for life-changing advances in medicine, such as penicillin. Some 75 percent of all antibiotics are derived from natural products. And yet, even though synthetic compounds sometimes may lack the molecular complexity that helps a treatment find its target, natural-product discovery has fallen out of favor — largely because of the time and expense involved. If he finds a novel drug in his research, Bachmann says, it will take at the very least a decade of development and testing and up to hundreds of millions of dollars before it reaches the market.
But the hypercompetitive world of cave dwellers increases the chances of finding a compound of interest. The fight for food never lets up in cave systems, Bachmann says, and because microbes can produce successive generations so rapidly, they can evolve quickly in response to new threats. Even though some of the cave organisms he's studied have never seen the earth's surface, Bachmann says they've proved resistant to currently prescribed antibiotics.
"They have an innate ability to chew up drugs," he says.
The caving is part of his research that everybody finds fascinating, Bachmann says, but "the really exciting work" is being done by co-investigator John McLean at a facility on the Vanderbilt campus that looks like Goldfinger's lair. There, McLean and his team attempt to identify novel molecular compounds from the soupy cultures grown in the team's research labs. In a device called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which resembles a lunar capsule, a needle-thin tube containing samples travels down a one-story column of air to be assessed, surrounded by electromagnets so powerful their range is measured on the floor in blue linoleum as a warning.
"Don't step in the blue zone," Bachmann cautions, "or it might erase your credit card." JIM RIDLEY
2. Front of the House: The Catbird Seat
- Eric England
- Chefs Josh Haber and Erik Anderson
Chefs cook for many reasons: for money, for praise, for pride, for art's sake, for the possibility of getting their own show on cable television. But one of the oldest motivations for cooking is to see the look of pleasure on the face of the person eating the food you just made. And yet, somewhere in the evolution of fine dining, thickets of hierarchy sprang up between the chef and the diner.
So of all the things that are unique about The Catbird Seat — the new project that restaurateur brothers Ben and Max Goldberg plan to open this fall — the direct interface between chef and customer is probably the most intriguing.
The Catbird Seat is small — just 30 seats around a U-shaped bar in a little dining room atop the Goldbergs' chic cocktail bungalow, Patterson House. Two co-chefs will work inside the improbably small space in the center of the U, cooking on a tiny kitchen island and serving dishes directly to the diners seated around them.
Since customers will be taking a leap of faith with the seven-course fixed-price menu, the Goldbergs have recruited two hugely accomplished chefs to man the little kitchen: Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson.
The two chefs met while cooking at Alinea in Chicago (proclaimed "the best restaurant in North America" on the 2011 San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list) and later worked together at Porter & Frye in Minneapolis. Both have cooked in high-status, highly stratified kitchens around the world, but Habiger says it was a real eye-opener when he took a detour from the kitchen side to tend bar in the early days of Patterson House.
"As a chef, you can make something, and someone else will bring it out ... and the rest of the experience happens in the front of the house — and the chef's in the back of the house," he says. "As a bartender, we could put something in front of someone ourselves and watch them taste it and see their initial reaction. ... So the beauty of The Catbird Seat is we're making eye contact with every person that comes in."
Anderson puts it this way: "There's no barrier. There's no buffer zone. It's cool because you get the reaction right away."
But what about reactions that aren't positive? "For better or worse, I'm sure there's going to be people who don't respond positively to every single thing we put in front of them," Habiger says. "But we can then resolve that situation instantly and make another dish for that person, or make it again omitting one of the ingredients or whatever we need to do to make that person happy."
Happiness, communication, mutual satisfaction? Sounds at odds with popular restaurant reality shows, where chefs dispense pungent verbal abuse more liberally than lardons in a frisée salad. "That's so over," Habiger says. "The screaming chef is over." DANA KOPP FRANKLIN
3. Wheels of Steel: The Rolling Record Store
- Jo McCaughey
- The Rolling Record Store outside Third Man Records
South by Southwest 2011: Baking in the oppressive swelter of the midday Austin sun, you round a corner to find a massive, gleaming, aureate cube of a vehicle. Emblazoned with the Third Man Records emblem across its side, this former DHL delivery truck — now christened the Rolling Record Store — is making its debut at the annual all-things-indie fest.
Third Man Records — the Nashville-based label founded by Jack White, his nephew Ben Blackwell and White's longtime partner-in-crime Ben Swank — has garnered an especially voracious flock of fans. Some of them are audiophiliac vinyl fetishists, some are White Stripes superfans. But nearly all of them, it seems, want a peek inside the Third Man shop — into White's mystifying chocolate factory, with all its special-edition and limited releases and buzzed-about live performances.
But not all TMR fans can make the trek to Nashville. So, White & Co. thought, why not bring the shop to them?
"We were doing all these pop-up shops, and we were just getting requests from everybody to do them in different towns and things like that," Swank says. "It just kind of evolved from that. This was wholly Jack's idea, to do the truck. ... We just wanted to get it in different places so A) we don't have to invest all the money in doing pop-up shops all the time, and B) just because it's actually a lot cooler and easier to do. [Laughs.]"
The Ford E450 was already yellow, but Third Man sent it to a customization shop in Cincinnati, where it was repainted and fitted with miniaturized versions of all the amenities of the permanent shop: gold-colored tin ceiling tiles, yellow wall paneling and even a "marshmallow couch," as Swank puts it. The Rolling Record Store is also outfitted with a small sound system for DJ sets and live performances — like the one at South by Southwest, in which cult-status blues-folk artist Seasick Steve played a live set in front of the truck. (Afterward, White himself played two songs for the zealous sea of Third Man loyalists who had gathered to peep his new ride.) The truck even carries a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder — Swank characterizes it as being relatively "primitive," but something they can potentially use to archive performances for a later release.
Throughout the remainder of the summer and into the fall, Third Man tentatively plans to send the Rolling Record Store to more music festivals — most notably MI Fest, Orlando Calling and the Voodoo Music Experience, all of which Third Man flagship band The Raconteurs are playing. Swank says they'll continue to stock the truck with merch and Third Man releases, primarily the ones from the past year and in-demand items like White Stripes 7-inch reissues.
In the meantime, Third Man Records is hosting the Nashville Cream — that's the Scene's music blog — Fifth Anniversary Party on Aug. 20 (see story on p. 47). And maybe — just maybe — you'll be able to sneak a peek of the big yellow beast there. D. PATRICK RODGERS
4. Atomic Bug Spray: VUAA1 Insect Repellant
We have Ralph Waldo Emerson to blame for the cliche, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." (In fairness to the Transcendentalist, that's actually a misquote.) While they haven't perfected the mousetrap on West End, a team of entomological researchers at Vanderbilt, led by molecular biologist Laurence Zwiebel, may have developed a new way to repel an even more bothersome pest: the mosquito.
Zwiebel's team claims to have discovered an insect repellant thousands of times more effective than DEET, the long-time industry standard for insect deterrence. The compound — Vanderbilt University Allosteric Agonist Number One (or VUAA1, in the interest of brevity) — uses a technique familiar to anyone who's ever been subjected to a poorly mixed noise band or been packed into a small space with a friend who went a little heavy on the atomizer: It overwhelms the meager sensory system of ye crawling ferlie.
Mosquitoes — and a number of other insects — don't smell the same way we upright, walking, fully frontal-lobed vertebrates do. They have a sort of two-step system: Their antennae are lined with receptors, each "tuned" to a different odor — grass, waste, danger and, most importantly, blood; once those detectors are set off, the second set of receptors then guides the little beastie to paydirt — usually your scrumptious blood vessels.
This new compound sets off all of those first-level receptors simultaneously. The insects, suddenly primed to sense everything, basically detect nothing but olfactory noise. VUAA1 basically blows their little insect minds.
"It could overwhelm the insect's sense of smell, creating a repellant effect akin to stepping onto an elevator with someone wearing too much perfume, except this would be far worse for the mosquito," post-doc fellow Patrick Jones explains.
Here in the States, a new level of effective mosquito repellant is welcome enough news, but that's not what Zweibel's team was looking for.
Their research — ongoing for six years — was funded via a grant from the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, funded by the Foundation for the NIH, ultimately through a grant from the charitable arm of Mr. Microsoft himself: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Gates Foundation has long been seeking ways to eradicate malaria in the developing world, and while drainage and DEET (which simply masks the scent of humans) have done their part, there's more to do.
Zweibel's folks are now working with Vandy's Drug Discovery Program to get rid of all the parts of VUAA1 that don't actually contribute to its use, and then there's round after round of toxicity tests. Vanderbilt went ahead and filed the patent, and any future profits from the compound go to the World Health Organization and back into research per the Gates Foundation grant agreement.
Even if VUAA1 doesn't prove viable for widespread use, the research at Vanderbilt has the potential to shape future research on mosquito repellant — and the world will beat a path to West End, indeed. J.R. LIND
5. Deaf Jam: The Porter East Development
Bookended by Montessori East at one end and Cooper's gastropub at the other, the row of shops and other businesses that comprise the Porter East development in East Nashville looks much like any other retail strip in the city. But just to the right of J + HP — the husband-and-wife-owned boutique where two mannequins occupy the front window, one wearing a smart bow tie, the other a stylishly upcycled vintage dress — a frosted-glass door opens onto a wide hallway, which spills into a spacious common area complete with flatscreen TV and kitchenette. It's a fairly typical entertainment room, except, perhaps, for one feature: a video phone, free to Porter East residents, that can connect directly between callers, or to a relay service that provides an American Sign Language translator.
More than a lounge, this is a kind of de facto community center for Nashville's deaf. And much more than a strip mall, Porter East is the only mixed-use development in the country dedicated to affordable housing for the hearing-impaired.
"Having a community hub — that's the need we found," says Brent Elrod, project manager for Urban Housing Solutions, as he describes Porter East's transformation from abandoned nursing home to, as he calls it, "an intentional community" for the deaf.
Working with Hearing Bridges (formerly the League for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the EAR Foundation), Elrod and his cohorts have turned what was a boarded-up shell into a hive of activity — both in the street-level shops and in the lounge, where game nights and other community get-togethers have become regular events.
"Because of their shared experiences, the bond is so strong," Elrod says of the deaf community here. "It's like family."
Past the lounge area — which also provides free Wi-Fi, a help to low-income residents, some of whom have trouble finding work due to their lack of hearing — are the apartments themselves. The airy, open-design rooms are outfitted with a kind of visual doorbell — a strobe light mounted near the ceiling flashes when activated — and look out onto a large courtyard that Elrod says they hope to improve in the second phase of construction, which will include building two-bedroom units and an expansion of Montessori East.
And while some developments might have trouble filling an apartment that shares a wall with a clangorous restaurant kitchen, that's not a problem at Porter East — the neighbors here never complain about the noise. STEVE HARUCH
6. Music Licensing
Splother. The word itself is British slang for excessive fuss. But for songwriters and other publishing owners working to land song placements, the local Internet startup splother.com aims to allay that fuss.
When National Music Publisher's Association President and CEO David Israelite declared the publishing industry's antiquated, labyrinthine licensing infrastructure "broken" at an annual meeting in June — citing sites like YouTube, legislative stumbling blocks and, perhaps most importantly, the threat of creative new business models — many in the field were left scratching their heads looking for solutions. Veteran musician and publishing executive Dave Durocher — a former VP of both Bug Music and Brumley Music Group, not to mention a former drummer for artists like Marty Stuart, Marshall Crenshaw and Robert Earl Keen — says he has one.
Durocher founded and developed Splother along with Jason Collins, an executive whose product development and branding résumé includes K-Swiss and Griffin Technology, and Steve Toland, a publisher and A&R vet, also formerly of Bug Music.
The site, which also has offices in Los Angeles, claims to be the music industry's first digital "click to pay" music licensing service — a subscription-based virtual A&R outlet where staff-selected independent artists and record labels, who are in complete control of their own publishing, can post their material for sale to lurking music supervisors and brand managers looking for tunes. Think of it as the music-publishing equivalent of stock photo suppliers like Getty Images Inc. or Corbis.
"The sync world is clogged — the clogged sync," says Durocher. "[It's] become music libraries that look like the phonebook." Splother aims to separate the indie wheat from the vast indie chaff, and present it for scouts on a clean and easy, artist- and user-friendly digital platform. But instead of offering tracks to merely stream and download, shoppers can purchase the music for synchronization use, effectively jettisoning the traditional copyright administrator from the equation.
"A&R has kind of gone out the window at the majors. Gatekeepers are gone," Durocher says, "So I came up with idea of Splother as a service to artists that would provide the opportunity to get that [representation]. ... If we represented these people, and they owned everything, why couldn't we have a model that was much like designing a car online?"
Launched only in April, Splother is, according to Collins and Durocher, already receiving submissions nearly every day, and signing one or two new artists a week. ADAM GOLD
7. Limbs 2.0:
- John Russell, Vanderbilt University
- Engineer Michael Goldfarb
In the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, South African sprint runner Oscar Pistorius made history for a delectable irony: He was the first man whose competitors claimed he had an unfair advantage because he was a double amputee — or more to the point, because his prosthetic carbon-fiber limbs were considered a boost, not a hindrance.
But to many amputees, so-called "body-powered" prosthetic limbs remain cumbersome, uncomfortable and limited in their movements and capacities. Advanced models can be prohibitively expensive — published estimates vary from $6,000 to $35,000, depending on type and other factors — yet still feature relatively few individual movements, or what's often referred to as "degrees of freedom."
About the time Pistorius was making headlines, however, Vanderbilt professor of mechanical engineering Michael Goldfarb was testing a radical idea: prosthetic limbs that hinged upon an ingenious application of rocket propulsion — specifically, the type of motor system used to position the space shuttle in orbit. Using a motor powered by pencil-sized cartridges filled with hydrogen peroxide, which converts to pure steam at 450 degrees Fahrenheit, the prototypical limbs were able to perform functions such as lifting and walking up stairs.
It's an image that conjures up visions of steampunk robotics — and as Goldfarb admits, it was a creative end run around the limitations of batteries and micro-electronics at the time. The idea was ultimately discarded. But in just five years, battery power, materials and electronic capability have increased dramatically — and so have the possibilities for astounding advances in prosthetic limbs.
Video footage released by Vanderbilt shows some of the potential. Instead of the two-pronged, unwieldy hook many amputees wear, a researcher demonstrates an exoskeletal hand with five distinct fingers, which gently close together around a soda can. But electrodes that measure electrical impulses on the skin transmitted from the brain cause the thumb, index finger and remaining knuckle-jointed fingers to move separately — something no body-powered hook can do.
"The hand is the least mature of our prototypes," says Goldfarb, who became fascinated with prosthetics in high school, when he worked summers at a local VA hospital. With the help of his fellow researchers, including a veteran physical therapist and an upper-extremity amputee, he says he has addressed four of the five major concerns amputees have about prosthetic devices: aesthetics, function, weight — his prosthetic arm weighs 500 grams, or slightly more than a pound — and neural control, the ability to send signals directly from the brain to the stamp-sized microcontroller that activates movement.
The fifth concern is a tall order: sensory response — i.e., touch. But Goldfarb says this is an exciting time to work in his field, as the technology has just started to catch up to the researchers' vision: "You can do this for real now," he says. JIM RIDLEY
8. After-School Sessions:
Notes for Notes
"The studio is the great equalizer," says Philip Gilley, co-founder of Notes for Notes, a program that will equip and staff two fully operational recording studios inside Nashville Boys and Girls Clubs this fall.
The program — first launched in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2007 and expanding to Music City thanks in part to a grant from the Hot Topic Foundation — gives kids an opportunity to sit at the controls and learn the recording process in a fully operational studio, with the guidance of staff mentors, visiting music pros and the occasional special guest. (Jack Johnson, for one, dropped in one of the Santa Barbara locations earlier this year.)
"It's a vibe and a culture as much as a facility," Gilley says, emphasizing the program's open-ended and inclusive nature. So far, that vibe has attracted some big names in support: The Steve Miller Band recently helped raise $50,000 at a benefit concert for the organization, and the Notes for Notes advisory board includes luminaries the likes of Jeff Bridges, David Crosby, Carol Burnett and Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, to name but a few.
Where Music Row exists to churn out hits and hitmakers, Notes for Notes has a broader, less results-oriented set of goals. "A lot of these kids don't have anywhere else to go, and where they want to go is the recording studio," Gilley says. "What keeps them coming back is the relationships that form — not just between us and them, but with the other kids."
Gilley says getting kids to believe in their own creative power can create reverberations far beyond the mixing board. And while performing may be the most identifiable aspect, the music industry as a whole encompasses many jobs — from sound engineers to promoters to lighting and stage crew — that kids might not know about. "If we give them that taste and that introduction," Gilley says, it can open doors that weren't just closed, but invisible.
Even so, Notes for Notes is not a vocational program, any more than it's a star factory. "We just want to show kids that music is empowering," Gilley says. "It's not like we're trying to create the next Taylor Swift. They may start off doing music and do a song, and even if it doesn't turn into something they want to pursue, they might think, 'I made this — what else can I do?' " STEVE HARUCH
9. The Social Network: QuoteTh.is
"The quote is an art unto itself. A great quote is a perfectly packaged parcel of wisdom; self-explanatory yet enticing."
That quote, about the beauty of quotes (how meta!), is from the website for QuoteTh.is, a new social media widget being developed by Nemonics Media, a startup headed by East Nashvillian Jacob Gordon, a writer who's contributed to Dwell, GOOD, MSN and Discovery Channel's sustainability website,TreeHugger.
QuoteTh.is has two main facets. First, people who create digital content of any kind — blogs, news websites, ebooks, etc. — can add a bit of simple code that allows readers to share a quote across multiple platforms with just a couple of mouse clicks or finger taps. Here's how it works: The writer selects the noteworthy quotes, and when you, the reader, run your mouse over those highlighted quotes, the QuoteTh.is icon pops up. Click it, and you're taken to an interface where you can simultaneously post it on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. The quote is automatically formatted to fit each platform — featured quote and link on your Facebook wall, hashtags and shortened links on Twitter. All you have to do is click "Share."
Second, readers can use QuoteTh.is to share any quote they like, even if it hasn't been preselected by the author. Just drop the bookmarklet into your browser toolbar. When you see a quote you want to share, highlight it, click QuoteTh.is — and voilà!
As a digital journalist and professional podcaster, Gordon knows firsthand how important it is for online content to be shared between friends and networks around the Web. Furthermore, he envisions a bigger purpose for QuoteTh.is: All the quotes shared using the application will accumulate into what is essentially a crowd-sourced quote library. "The next time you go onto Google and search for a quote on, say, rioting in London or improved fuel economy standards, you could find yourself on a QuoteTh.is page with a quote about the subject, info on the person who shared it, and then a link back to the article where it was originally published online."
Eventually, he adds, you'll be able to go to QuoteTh.is and search for any topic. "Similar to Twitter, we'll have trending topics as well, based on keywords and tags," he says.
Gordon and his tech-whiz business partner Nathan Loyer (formerly the senior open source Web architect at Asurion) currently have QuoteTh.is in alpha testing. If all goes well, he hopes it will eventually be even more ubiquitous on the Internet than his face is. See, before he moved to Nashville, Gordon worked at American Apparel in Los Angeles, in a variety of roles: copywriter, manager of the LA factory's environmental footprint (a position he created) and last but not least, model. Google "hipster V-neck," and Gordon is still one of the top image results, even four years after his last modeling job there. He's not a bad-looking guy — and you can quote us on that. JACK SILVERMAN
10. Nashville's First Complete Street: The 28th/31st Avenue Connector
- Gresham Smith and Partners
When the mayor's office announced in September that construction would soon begin on a new street connecting Jefferson, West End and Charlotte via 28th and 31st avenues, the focus was rightly on the rift in the city's demographic infrastructure it will help mend. But the new connector is more than just another stretch of asphalt that bridges three sectors of the city too long isolated from each other: It's also the first large-scale project to be built under Nashville's Complete Streets directive.
Executive Order No. 40 did not generate much fanfare when Mayor Karl Dean signed it on Oct. 6, 2010. But it moves Nashville forward in an important way by mandating a progressive policy of multimodal, environmentally conscious design for all new Nashville streets. The first construction project under Complete Streets was the renovation of Deaderick Street downtown, giving it new life as Tennessee's first so-called "green street," complete with porous concrete and solar powered parking meters. The 28th/31st Avenue Connector — which was already in the planning stages when Executive Order No. 40 was being drafted — will be the first ground-up Complete Streets build, with an emphasis on low-impact construction and including wide sidewalks, color-coded bike lanes, LED markers, a rain garden median (designed to both retain water for irrigation and divert stormwater from the roadway and drains) on-street trash and recycling, bioswales (eco-friendly drainage and filtering gardens) and a new transit service that will likely be part of a university run that includes stops at the TSU, Vanderbilt and Belmont campuses. The connector will also be home to six new bus shelters, painted by local artists.
While some may decry the inefficacy of government, Complete Streets' many moving parts interlock surprisingly well. High-level officials from MTA, Public Works and the Water and Parks departments all been involved in the planning and design of the 28th/31st Avenue Connector, not to mention input from TDOT and nonprofits including the Land Trust of Tennessee and the Cumberland Compact. The Complete Streets program — along with similar initiatives in McKinney, Texas, and Portland, Maine — also garnered an EPA Technical Assistance Grant, providing both financial backing and specialized training. (Incidentally, TDOT regulations do not allow pervious paving surfaces on major streets yet, though there are test patches already in place around Nashville.)
The result of all this research and planning — a state-of-the-art, multiuse surface that accommodates cars, bikes and pedestrians, and is specifically designed to minimize environmental impact — reflects not just a new thoroughfare, but a new direction for Nashville as well. STEVE HARUCH