It’s a show about a puppeteer who’s doing a puppet show about a puppeteer


On the rooftop patio of an old actors’ hotel on a sleepy Sydney street, Ronnie Burkett is contemplating neck joints. For years, he’s been convinced his are the best in the world, but some rare footage has just surfaced on YouTube, showing an obscure design used in America during the ’40s. “The puppet’s head went side to side,” he says, eyes widening, “and I thought I was going to have an orgasm.” The waters of the harbour a few blocks away shimmer in the midday heat as Burkett pledges to duplicate, if not surpass, this miracle of cranial manipulation. It will have to wait, though, until he returns to his Toronto studio. In a few hours, Burkett will leave this quiet oasis and walk to work, cutting down to the shore so he has an unobstructed view of the waterfront’s famous white half shells as he approaches them. “It’s one of those pinch-me moments,” he explains. “You go, ‘How did a puppet show from Medicine Hat get to the Sydney Opera House?’” A moment of pride gives way to gentle self-mockery: “I mean, it’s just a puppet show.”

more from Alex Hutchinson at The Walrus here.

our friend Tom Bissell has lost his mind….


Once upon a time I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down “only” a thousand words. Once upon a time I played video games almost exclusively with friends. Once upon a time I did occasionally binge on games, but these binges rarely had less than a fortnight between them. Once upon a time I was, more or less, content. “Once upon a time” refers to relatively recent years (2001-2006), during which I wrote several books and published more than 50 pieces of magazine journalism and criticism – a total output of, give or take, 4,500 manuscript pages. I rarely felt very disciplined during this half decade, though I realise this admission invites accusations of disingenuousness. Obviously I was disciplined. These days I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction – excepting those I was also reviewing – in the last year. These days I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon and spend my evenings playing video games. These days I still manage to write, but the times I am able to do so for more than three sustained hours have the temporal periodicity of comets with near-earth trajectories.

more from Tom at The Observer here.


From Edge:

Mullis500 [KARY MULLIS] We're working on a way to manipulate the existing immune system so it can attack things it's not already immune to. We've been controlling bacteria for years with antibiotics, but the bacteria are catching on. We've never been good at controlling viruses unless we prepare for them well in advance by vaccination, but now we can use the same method for them too, and in both cases the cure is not administered until you are infected, and it works right away. It sounds to good to be true, so did antibiotics—they called them “miracle drugs.” In order to understand what we're doing, I should explain how the immune system works. Most people know you've got this system, but not how it actually functions down on the level of molecules and cells.

It's a collection of lots of different kinds of cells, each with their own purposes. There are about as many as you have in your brain distributed mostly in special areas all over your body. The business end of the system is a set of hungry cells that will destroy and ingest things that are designated by the whole system as being “other.” The rest of the system is charged with preventing them from eating anything else. New cells are always being born. And they are right away tested for their ability to make antibodies that attach themselves onto things that are “other”. Antibodies are molecular markers.

More here.

No Bones about It: Ancient DNA from Siberia Hints at Previously Unknown Human Relative

From Scientific American:

New-hominin-species_1 For much of the past five million to seven million years over which humans have been evolving, multiple species of our forebears co-existed. But eventually the other lineages went extinct, leaving only our own, Homo sapiens, to rule Earth. Scientists long thought that by 40,000 years ago H. sapiens shared the planet with only one other human species, or hominin: the Neandertals. In recent years, however, evidence of a more happening hominin scene at that time has emerged. Indications that H. erectus might have persisted on the Indonesian island of Java until 25,000 years ago have surfaced. And then there's H. floresiensis—the mini human species commonly referred to as the hobbits—which lived on Flores, another island in the Indonesian archipelago, as recently as 17,000 years ago.

Now researchers writing in the journal Nature report that they have found a fifth kind of hominin that may have overlapped with these species. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) But unlike all the other known members of the human family, which investigators have described on the basis of the morphological characteristics of their bones, the new hominin has been identified solely on the basis of its DNA.

More here.



For most of the 20th century the National Gallery in London kept Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833) rolled up in its vaults, like a guilty secret. The painting had caused a sensation at the time of its initial exhibition in Paris in 1834, when it was sold to a Russian aristocrat for the highest price ever paid for a single work. Perhaps as a result, on seeing it in later years, the revolutionary poet Théophile Gautier delivered one of art history’s more damning reviews: “I hated Paul Delaroche, whom I had never seen, with a savage and aesthetic hatred,” he declared. “I could have eaten him, and thought him good eating, as the young Redskin thought the Bishop of Quebec.” Gautier’s verdict, published when Delaroche was the starriest painter among Europe’s nobility, stuck. Delaroche was a history painter when such painting was becoming history. He was subsequently and universally characterised as a bourgeois dead end at the birth of the radical lineage of modernism that went from Delacroix through Manet to Cézanne and on to Picasso. “Delaroche was not born a painter,” Gautier wrote. “He belonged to the middle classes. He tried to be interesting, which is a matter absolutely secondary in art.”

more from Tim Adams at The New Statesman here.

haiti and us


The United States has been leading the response to the Haitian earthquake for all of the reasons that we would expect: our geographical proximity, our competence at emergency response, and our innate generosity. That fits the narrative most of us hold in our heads, for we typically think of Haiti and America as a basket case and a basket, joined only by their contradictions, and the beneficence of one to the other. On the surface, that is true enough. Haiti was desperately poor well before this latest catastrophe and routinely faces problems that border on the biblical — floods, epidemics, and a deforested landscape that suggests a plague of locusts (sadly, it was just human beings). The United States is the world’s all-time winner, whether defined by Olympic medal count or GDP or any other national sweepstakes. Yet a closer look at the early history of the United States and Haiti — proudly, the two oldest countries in this hemisphere — suggests that the relationship was once very different. In fact, it was the island’s wealth that turned heads in those days. And the United States was hardly a foregone conclusion. In the darkest days of the American Revolution, when it seemed preposterous to believe that the mighty British empire might allow 13 rogue colonies to come into existence as a new nation, the support that came from a 14th colony — French Saint Domingue, Haiti’s predecessor — made an important difference.

more from Ted Widmer at The Boston Globe here.

Two points. Many paths. Mathematical bliss.


The most familiar ideas of geometry were inspired by an ancient vision — a vision of the world as flat. From parallel lines that never meet, to the Pythagorean theorem discussed in last week’s column, these are eternal truths about an imaginary place, the two-dimensional landscape of plane geometry. Conceived in India, China, Egypt and Babylonia more than 2,500 years ago, and codified and refined by Euclid and the Greeks, this flat-earth geometry is the main one (and often the only one) being taught in high schools today. But things have changed in the past few millennia. In an era of globalization, Google Earth and transcontinental air travel, all of us should try to learn a little about spherical geometry and its modern generalization, differential geometry. The basic ideas here are only about 200 years old. Pioneered by Carl Friedrich Gauss and Bernhard Riemann, differential geometry underpins such imposing intellectual edifices as Einstein’s general theory of relativity. At its heart, however, are beautiful concepts that can be grasped by anyone who’s ever ridden a bicycle, looked at a globe or stretched a rubber band. And understanding them will help you make sense of a few curiosities you may have noticed in your travels.

more from Steven Strogatz at The Opinionater here.

Wednesday Poem

The Trout

Flat on the bank I parted
Rushes to ease my hands
In the water without a ripple
And tilt them slowly downstream
To where he lay, tendril-light,
In his fluid sensual dream.

Bodiless lord of creation,
I hung briefly above him
Savouring my own absence,
Senses expanding in the slow
Motion, the photographic calm
That grows before action.

As the curve of my hands
Swung under his body
He surged, with visible pleasure.
I was so preternaturally close
I could count every stipple
But still cast no shadow, until

The two palms crossed in a cage
Under the lightly pulsing gills.
Then (entering my own enlarged
Shape, which rode on the water)
I gripped. To this day I can
Taste his terror on my hands.

by John Montague

from Collected Poems;
The Gallery Press,
Oldcastle, 1995

The most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s

David Frum in Frum Forum:

6a00d8341c691053ef0105357e660e970b-800wi2 Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.

No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

More here.

Green Zone

Michael Williams in Messiest Objects:

6a00d8341c22f253ef0120a95ed119970b-800wi My favorite scene is when Matt Damon, after some intense action out in the chaotic streets of Baghdad, walks out behind the Republican Palace which we were using as the US “Embassy” to meet his CIA contact by the swimming pool. The look on his face and on his men's faces is perfect. Utter confusion, as though they were wondering, “did we pass out and wake up back in the US somewhere?” That disconnect was spot on and is something I not only experienced in the Green Zone but witnessed on not a few members of the armed forces' faces in that very spot. Not that I was really ever “in the shit”, but it was a pretty unreal place and having spent some time out in downtown Baghdad, the Green Zone (officially called The International Zone; Green Zone was “local” slang and I myself always preferred to call it the Interzone) was undeniably a real-life study in stark contrast. Employees of the DoD hanging out and sunbathing in speedos and bikinis, drinking beer and carrying on as though they were trying to really be in Key West, while a half mile away on the other side of mortar walls was a city in pain and disaster at every turn. That to me was what the film captures best all around, and specifically so in this scene.

More here.

The History of the Honey Trap

Phillip Knightley in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_01 Mar. 24 08.08 MI5 is worried about sex. In a 14-page document distributed last year to hundreds of British banks, businesses, and financial institutions, titled “The Threat from Chinese Espionage,” the famed British security service described a wide-ranging Chinese effort to blackmail Western businesspeople over sexual relationships. The document, as the London Times reported in January, explicitly warns that Chinese intelligence services are trying to cultivate “long-term relationships” and have been known to “exploit vulnerabilities such as sexual relationships … to pressurise individuals to co-operate with them.”

This latest report on Chinese corporate espionage tactics is only the most recent installment in a long and sordid history of spies and sex. For millennia, spymasters of all sorts have trained their spies to use the amorous arts to obtain secret information.

The trade name for this type of spying is the “honey trap.” And it turns out that both men and women are equally adept at setting one — and equally vulnerable to tumbling in. Spies use sex, intelligence, and the thrill of a secret life as bait. Cleverness, training, character, and patriotism are often no defense against a well-set honey trap. And as in normal life, no planning can take into account that a romance begun in deceit might actually turn into a genuine, passionate affair. In fact, when an East German honey trap was exposed in 1997, one of the women involved refused to believe she had been deceived, even when presented with the evidence. “No, that's not true,” she insisted. “He really loved me.”

More here. [Thanks to Shekhar Bhatia.]

What it means to be white

From Salon:

White In 2000, the Human Genome Project finally answered one of the most fundamental questions about race: What, if anything, is the genetic difference between people of different skin colors — black, white, Hispanic, Asian? The answer: nearly nothing. As it turns out, we all share 99.99 percent of the same genetic code — no matter our race — a fact that, geneticist J. Craig Venter claimed, proves that race is a “social concept, not a scientific one.” But as Nell Irvin Painter explains in “The History of White People,” her exhaustive and fascinating new look at the history of the idea of the white race, it's a social construct that goes back much further and is much more complicated than many people think. In the book, Painter, a professor of American history at Princeton, chronicles the evolution of the concept of whiteness from ancient Rome — where, she points out, the slaves were largely white — to the 21st century America and explains how, in the era of Obama, our once-narrow concept of whiteness has become at once far broader and less important than ever before.

The elevation of some ethnic groups — Germans and Scandinavians — as “whiter” than others can largely be tied to a small number of scientists who shared an obsession with both measuring people's skulls and pinpointing the world's “most beautiful” people. As Painter writes, a number of social and demographic upheavals (which she dubs “enlargements of whiteness”) over the last two centuries have gradually thrown many of those assumptions into question. Salon spoke to Painter over the phone, about the meaning of “Caucasian,” America's obsession with racial difference, and the real meaning of Stuff White People Like.

More here.

Worries over electronic waste from the developing world

From Nature:

Comp Public-health problems and environmental degradation caused by recycling of old computer equipment could skyrocket in the next two decades, as increasingly wealthy consumers in countries such as India and China ditch their obsolete hardware. Within six to eight years, developing countries will be disposing of more old computers than the developed world, suggests a study published today in Environmental Science & Technology1. And by 2030, these nations will be disposing of two to three times as many computers as the developed world, perhaps resulting in up to 1 billion computers being dumped worldwide every year — up from a global total of around 180 million units per year now.

What this means, says study author Eric Williams, an environmental engineer at Arizona State University, Tempe, is that even if the flow of obsolete computers exported from the developed world for recycling is completely shut off, the developing world will still have to cope with a massive amount of domestic electronic waste.

More here.

A Profile of Rudolph Carnap

Carnap200Julian Willard in The Philosophers' Magazine:

“A towering figure” is how W. V. O. Quine, himself one of the greatest twentieth century philosophers, described Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970): “I see him as the dominant figure in philosophy from the 1930’s onward, as Russell had been in the decades before.”

A German-born philosopher who moved to America in 1935, Carnap was one of the leaders of the Vienna Circle, a movement commonly referred to as Logical Positivism. Its members – including Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Herbert Feigl, and Hans Hahn – aimed to solve particular problems in the philosophy of mathematics and the physical and social sciences. Carnap himself made important contributions to semantics, the philosophy of science, probability, and inductive logic.

A central creed of logical positivism, in part inspired by Wittgenstein, was the verification principle – that sentences gain their meaning by specification of the means by which we determine their truth or falsity. The Circle’s manifesto, which Carnap completed with Neurath and Hahn, articulated a philosophical standpoint which was to reverberate around English-speaking universities for a generation: “If anyone asserts, ‘There is a God’, ‘The primary cause of the world is the Unconscious’…we do not say ‘What you say is false’; rather, we ask him ‘What do you mean by your statements?’” And since these assertions are neither testable against experience, nor analytic – somehow true by definition – it follows that they are meaningless.

White Egrets by Derek Walcott

White-EgretsKate Kellaway in The Observer:

I read the new collection looking for Walcott as a recognisable, distinctive human being and observed him disappear repeatedly behind his own majestic lines. He would often launch himself into the first person, then retreat into the mercy of the third, as if the exposure of speaking as himself were too great.

It is easy to guess why this might be. For in this collection, he is writing his own valediction (a risky undertaking). He wonders whether, at the age of 80, these poems might be his last. He explains that if he felt his gift had “withered”, he would “abandon poetry like a woman because you love it/ and would not see her hurt, least of all by me….” It is an uncomfortable expression of a painful thought but he pulls himself together to conclude:

“be grateful that you wrote well in this place,/ let the torn poems sail from you like a flock/of white egrets in a long last sigh of relief “.

Egrets, in this collection, are multitaskers. Walcott even refers to himself as an “egret-haired Viejo”. And there is no need to shy away from the observation that egret is only one letter away from regret – Walcott does not resist the rhyme. His particular regret is about unrequited love – the keen humiliation of the old man who falls for a younger woman:

“It is the spell/ of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets/stalk the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners/ forlornly trailing their flags; they are the bleached regrets/of an old man’s memoirs, their unwritten stanzas./ Pages gusting like wings on the lawn, wide open secrets.”

Walcott is never fully available for comment; his heart is a million miles from his sleeve. Here, the egrets are again on duty to rescue him from himself and, for a second time, he likens them to poems. Actual and written landscapes frequently become hybrids in Walcott’s work – a stale device upon which he over-relies. Wriggling insects are “like nouns”, sunflowers are “poems we recite to ourselves”, barges “pass in stanzas along canals”. The breakers Walcott loves so much are trusted collaborators. They roll and smash their way into poem after poem. They shore up the verse. And birds become gracefully blameless alter egos.

A Land Without Google?

GooglecnRelevant in the wake of Google redirection of Chinese users to uncensored websites in Hong Kong and the reaction by the People's Republic of China, Jane Qiu in Nature:

“Research without Google would be like life without electricity,” says Xiong Zhenqin, an ecologist at Nanjing Agricultural University in Jiangsu province.

Xiong is not alone in thinking that Google is indispensable. Its search engine is a powerful tool for helping scientists to find academic papers and details of conferences or identify potential collaborators. And for most researchers around the world, access to Google — and all its related products, including the literature search Google Scholar — is as unfettered as their access to heat or light.

But that's not the case for China's roughly 380 million Internet users. Results from Google's main search engine,, are censored by the Chinese government, and the local Chinese site is voluntarily filtered by Google itself.

Researchers' access to Google was threatened further when, on 12 January, Google's senior vice-president and chief legal officer David Drummond said that the company may pull out of China altogether. He explained that after a spate of cyber attacks on Google Mail, believed to come from within China, the company was no longer willing to censor results from He added that the company would discuss with the Chinese government “the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all”, and that “we recognize that this may well mean having to shut down

If Google — or the Chinese government — acts on this threat, how would scientists in China be affected?

The Winding Road to Spiral Jetty

Timothy Don in Lapham's Quarterly:

ScreenHunter_02 Mar. 23 17.18 Today the object of my journey is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, an earthwork belonging to an aesthetic movement known as land art, which the Prestel Dictionary of Art and Artists defines as “art which, rather than depicting nature, instead tries to awaken ecological, cultural or social consciousness of the environment through interventions or performances in the natural world itself.” In Nevada in 1969, Michael Heizer excavated a quarter of a million tons of sandstone to create Double Negative, a straight trench thirty feet wide, fifty feet long, and a third of a mile deep. Since 1972 he has been bulldozing his way across the Nevada desert to create City, a series of five massive installations promising to become the largest piece of art ever made. “I’m building this work for later,” Heizer has said. “I’m interested in making a work of art that will represent all civilization to this point.” Unsurprisingly, it remains unfinished. From 1973-77 Walter De Maria planted four hundred stainless steel posts in a grid one mile long and one kilometer wide in a mountain-rimmed valley in New Mexico: Lightning Field. Well beyond in museum halls, scattered around the American West like versions of Stonehenge and Machu Pichu, these and other such works are difficult to reach, intended to be seen by pilgrims such as myself.

Smithson once said “there is nothing natural in the Museum of Natural History.” Seeing the world on calendars and postcards colors one’s idea of nature, occludes any view of what it actually is. He was interested in sites without scenic meaning, unframed and hence “liberated” places.

More here.