Society

Mozart Is Yellow: How A Self-Professed Cyborg *Listens* To Colors

Neil Harbisson was colorblind, until he strapped on an "eyeborg" and connected his mind's vision to what he was hearing.

Neil Harbisson listening to music with his "eyeborg"
Neil Harbisson listening to music with his "eyeborg"
Aleksandra Lipczak

Until the age of 11, Neil Harbisson, 31, didn’t know that what he was seeing weren’t colors but shades of grey. He was finally diagnosed with achromatopsia, a rare and incurable vision disorder.

When studying music composition in London, he met a cybernetic fan who agreed to help him extend his sense of vision. Together they’ve created the “eyeborg,” a device mounted to the head that provides the ability to perceive colors trough hearing.

GAZETA WYBORCZA: What is exactly the eyeborg?
NEIL HARBISSON: The model I’m using now consists of a head-mounted camera that senses colors in front of me and translates colors in real-time into sound waves, thanks to a chip pressed to the back of my head, I can now hear colors trough the bone, like dolphins. This year I’m undergoing a first-of-its-kind surgery to place the chip inside my head.

Why sounds?
Colors and sounds have something in common: the color of a light wave corresponds to an audio frequency. The electronic eye translates the color it is pointed at into the corresponding sound. It can also transform the saturation to the volume: I can hear vivid red stronger than pale green.

At first, I was translating colors as if I was studying a new language. At some point there was a click between the software and my brain. Then, the emotions came. In my dreams I was looking at the sky and I could hear a very clear Cis.

To see only in black and white, is it like turning off the colors in TV?
For you it’s always “turning off” – a loss. Maybe it’s you who cannot see the world in black and white? I used to hate colors; sooner or later they appear in every conversation: the Red Cross, green tea. I had to smell the glass to know what I was drinking. I was embarassed. I’ve never felt handicapped though, just excluded.

Can you now recognize all 360 colors?
I can do more. I’ve decided to extend my vision spectrum to ultraviolet and infrared. But at the same time, with my eyes closed I can’t know if a person in front of me is black or white: skin always sounds orange, there’s just a bit more red or yellow in the background. I need to open my eyes and see if the skin tone is dark or fair.

Your outfit is very colorful.
I used to dress exclusively in black and white – I couldn’t stand the thought that I didn’t know what I was wearing. Now, I try to compose my outfit so that it sounds well. I’m currently working on a fashion line – you could wear your favorite song as a T-shirt. I also make “sound portraits” of famous people. By the way, a person who doesn’t have harmonious features may sound surprisingly well, for example Prince Carol sounds similarly to Nicole Kidman.

How do I sound?
Your hair is a G. Eyes, wait a minute – he points his eyeborg on me –, one is an Ais and the other one is a B. They never sound the same. Your lips are an E, your skin a Fis. People whose eyes and hair have a similar color sound uniformly whereas in your case there’s a contrast; that’s nice.

Do you sometimes take a break from the eyeborg?
No, never. If I want to turn it off, I point it towards the ceiling. At home I have my bedroom in black and white because the eyeborg doesn’t react to those colors.

What’s your favorite one?
Eggplant. It has a beautiful, strong and high sound. Violet is by the way very dangerous, it has the highest frequency, hence sounds aggressively. The traffic lights should have violet instead of red, which has a very low frequency and sounds soft and innocent.

Which painter sounds best?
Warhol, Miró, Rothko, because they sound very clear. Da Vinci, Velázquez and Munch, on the contrary, used various shades of the same color, so they emit many similar sounds. It’s like horror music.

Do you hear colors when listening to music?
Mozart is yellow, Beethoven is violet or blue. But since I’ve been using the eyeborg, the classical music seems very basic. It’s all about 12 colors repeating themselves on and on. I prefer listening to electronic music. I also really enjoy instruments out of key. An unknown shade of turquoise may suddenly pop up.

You claim to be the first cyborg recognized by a government.
In 2004, when renewing my British passport, the administration wouldn’t allow me to attach a photo with the eyeborg on my head. Finally, with a medical expertise and a letter from the university, I succeeded in persuading them that the eyeborg is a part of my body. So now in my passport I have a photo with the electronic eye. One can say I’m officially a cyborg.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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