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10​,​000​-​Year Earworm to Discourage Settlement Near Nuclear Waste Repositories

by Emperor X

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Listen to the whole episode here:

99% Invisible commissioned this audio project as an experiment in cultural engineering. The task: write a folk song conveying the concept of radiological warning cats ("raycats.") Moreover, they told me, it should be written such that no one will forget it for a significant portion of the lifespan of dangerous radiation at repository sites. In other words, I had to write a song about nuclear waste so catchy and annoying that it might be handed down from generation to generation over a span of 10,000 years. These audio files are the result of that commission.

* * *

"Don't Change Color, Kitty"

Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Stay that pretty gray.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Keep sickness away.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Please, 'cause if you do,
or glow your luminescent eyes
we're all gonna have to move.

Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Stay that pretty gold.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color,
and we'll keep you from the cold.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, 'cause
we need your kind around.
But the minute you change your looks,
we're bringing you with us out of town.

Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
No, I don't know why.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
God said it's not right.
So don't change color
or flash your eyes.
Lord knows if you do,
I hope you think it's cozy in your travel case,
because it's time to move.

Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Stay that midnight black.
The radiation that the change implies
can kill, and that's a fact.
The radiation, whatever that is,
is something we don't want,
'cause it withers our crops
and it burns our skin
and it turns our livestock gaunt.

So don't change color, little kitty.
Don't flash your eyes.

* * *

Track 1:
This is a simple high-resolution rendering of the folk song/earworm "Don't Change Color, Kitty," the lyrics of which only make sense when one is familiar with the concept of raycats.

Track 2:
After a listen to the first track, hearing an instrumental version demonstrates the efficiency of melody as a compression technique for informational content. Many words and even some complex concepts might be easily recalled on hearing the cloying, repetitive melody, even without lyrics.

Track 3:
This audio was rendered by resampling at the lowest-possible bit depth and compression bit rate while still maintaining minimal vocal and musical clarity. In a future without cheap energy but which maintains some knowledge of digital audio and data storage technology, a premium would be placed on each bit of data. Because it will be more affordable than data-rich MP3s, this digitally-crushed sound file quality may, like the wax cylinders of the early 20th century, be the most reliable way to transmit a recording to future generations. Of course written notation and oral tradition are more dependable in a low-tech future, but it's worth considering what a musical recording would sound like if, in the name of resource conservation, only its most crucial elements were preserved.

Track 4:
This audio takes the destructive, compressive concept of the previous track to a further extreme by preserving only the melody and accompaniment. How many words are still recallable now? Maybe not as many as before, but the recall rate per byte is very high here; this audio is a mere 123 kilobytes, which makes it storable in the RAM of primitive office calculators.

Track 5:
In "Deep Time," science fiction author and physicist Gregory Benford writes extensively on cultural engineering to warn off would-be settlers from nuclear waste sites. One concept he and several other scientists considered was the creation of a landscape so horrifying that no one would dare settle there. In his words: "...the local stone [would be] dynamited and bulldozed into a crude square pile covering the whole project. It rears above the landscape, hard to hike through, a place destroyed, not made...a purpose/use for 20th century atonality, functional disorder -- but how do we make it memorable?...A face with hands, sculpted in abject horror, as in Edvard Munch's painting, 'The Scream.' Or perhaps an eloquent warped face, nauseated. With the wind blowing through the monoliths, coaxing mournful resonances from their curves, a dissonant and wailing aura should surround the place. Whatever cultures come and go, they could inherit a legend of a spooky, disagreeable place-whether or not anybody knows exactly why it is that way any longer...We are creating, in a sense, hell." This track is an imagining of what sounds could come from a geologic/acoustic hellscape designed along the principles of an aeolian wind harp, but made out of stone rather than wood and crafted to repel rather than to edify.

Track 6:
A more direct approach in using sound to repel would-be settlers is inflicting actual physical pain. Though harmless on short-term exposure, the audio in this track could drive anyone in its reach to the threshold of insanity in time. It would be technically daunting, but the use of durable materials such as advanced ceramics and long-lasting solar or kinetic battery power supplies to make a 10,000-year-long shrill emitter is not inconceivable. This track simulates what such an implement might sound like.

Track 7:
It is not impossible that the melody and words of "Don't Change Color, Kitty" could be forgotten completely, replaced by a dance to an accompaniment loosely based on the chord structure of the original folk germ. Some important parts of the warning message could trickle through to future cultures even in the absence of words and melody. The resulting simple dance accompaniment music might sound something like this audio.

Track 8:
Perhaps, 9,999 years from now, the last solid-state hard drive remaining from our civilization will lie beneath New Mexico sand dunes and contain a massive but scratchy repository of files so compressed as to be nearly unrecognizable. If an a cappella version of "Don't Change Color, Kitty" made it into such an archive, this is what it might sound like, the last echo of our civilization's odd warning against its biggest, least-cleanable, and most life-threatening radioactive mess.

Chad Matheny
Boston, MA
May 13, 2014


released May 12, 2014




Emperor X Berlin, Germany

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