Why Prince May Have Been the Greatest Guitarist Since Hendrix

Debeacafcd0f62a70642622316721ee395e7df34Jack Hamilton at Slate:

By the time Prince emerged into superstardom, the notion of a post-Hendrix black rock guitar god had become more or less unthinkable to rock fans, who were mired in the throes of the “Disco Sucks” movement. (Never mind that the best guitar player on the face of the Earth in the late 1970s was probably Chic’s Nile Rodgers.) Purple Rain, the 1984 film and accompanying album that made Prince a superstar, brought the Minneapolis prodigy’s guitar chops to the forefront, literally: The soundtrack’s lead single, “When Doves Cry,” opens with a distortion-drenched run that’s one of the more breathtaking displays of virtuosity ever heard on the instrument. (In a recent interview with the Washington Post, ZZ Top’s great guitarist Billy Gibbons spoke of the many hours he’d spent over the years trying pin down that opening lick.) The movie included copious footage of Prince as guitar hero, from the torrential outro of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the soaring, gorgeous solo that closes “Purple Rain” itself.

But in years since Prince’s position in the rock pantheon has remained unstable. On Rolling Stone’s list, he ranked 33rd, five spots beneath Johnny Ramone, a guitarist widely beloved for not being very good. Any list like this is stupid, but this is really, really stupid. Prince may have been the greatest guitarist of the post-Hendrix era and often seemed to carry Hendrix’s aura more intrepidly than anyone, most notably in his incredible versatility. Our pop-cultural memory of Hendrix is dominated by gnashing feedback squawls and pyrotechnics both figurative and literal, a misguided belief that his signature moments were the last few minutes of “Wild Thing” at Monterey or quoting “Taps” in the early morning at Woodstock. But Hendrix’s true greatness lay in his ability to do almost anything and everything with the instrument, from the dreamy Curtis Mayfield-isms of “Little Wing” to the psychedelic frenzy of “Purple Haze” to the chicken scratches and pentatonic howls of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” to the sumptuous melodicism of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.”

more here.

Same but Different

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New Yorker:

IdOn October 6, 1942, my mother was born twice in Delhi. Bulu, her identical twin, came first, placid and beautiful. My mother, Tulu, emerged several minutes later, squirming and squalling. The midwife must have known enough about infants to recognize that the beautiful are often the damned: the quiet twin, on the edge of listlessness, was severely undernourished and had to be swaddled in blankets and revived. The first few days of my aunt’s life were the most tenuous. She could not suckle at the breast, the story runs, and there were no infant bottles to be found in Delhi in the forties, so she was fed through a cotton wick dipped in milk, and then from a cowrie shell shaped like a spoon. When the breast milk began to run dry, at seven months, my mother was quickly weaned so that her sister could have the last remnants.

Tulu and Bulu grew up looking strikingly similar: they had the same freckled skin, almond-shaped face, and high cheekbones, unusual among Bengalis, and a slight downward tilt of the outer edge of the eye, something that Italian painters used to make Madonnas exude a mysterious empathy. They shared an inner language, as so often happens with twins; they had jokes that only the other twin understood. They even smelled the same: when I was four or five and Bulu came to visit us, my mother, in a bait-and-switch trick that amused her endlessly, would send her sister to put me to bed; eventually, searching in the half-light for identity and difference—for the precise map of freckles on her face—I would realize that I had been fooled. But the differences were striking, too. My mother was boisterous. She had a mercurial temper that rose fast and died suddenly, like a gust of wind in a tunnel. Bulu was physically timid yet intellectually more adventurous. Her mind was more agile, her tongue sharper, her wit more lancing. Tulu was gregarious. She made friends easily. She was impervious to insults. Bulu was reserved, quieter, and more brittle. Tulu liked theatre and dancing. Bulu was a poet, a writer, a dreamer. Over the years, the sisters drifted apart. Tulu married my father in 1965 (he had moved to Delhi three years earlier). It was an arranged marriage, but also a risky one. My father was a penniless immigrant in a new city, saddled with a domineering mother and a half-mad brother who lived at home. To my mother’s genteel West Bengali relatives, my father’s family was the embodiment of East Bengali hickdom: when his brothers sat down to lunch, they would pile their rice in a mound and punch a volcanic crater in it for gravy, as if marking the insatiable hunger of their village days. By comparison, Bulu’s marriage, also arranged, seemed a vastly safer prospect. In 1967, she married a young lawyer, the eldest son of a well-established clan in Calcutta, and moved to his family’s sprawling, if somewhat decrepit, mansion.

More here.

How Europe exported the Black Death

Andrew Lawler in Science:

BlackThe medieval Silk Road brought a wealth of goods, spices, and new ideas from China and Central Asia to Europe. In 1346, the trade also likely carried the deadly bubonic plague that killed as many as half of all Europeans within 7 years, in what is known as the Black Death. Later outbreaks in Europe were thought to have arrived from the east via a similar route. Now, scientists have evidence that a virulent strain of the Black Death bacterium lurked for centuries in Europe while also working its way back to Asia, with terrifying consequences.

At the Society for American Archaeology meetings earlier this month in Orlando, Florida, researchers reported analyzing the remains of medieval victims in London; Barcelona, Spain; and Bolgar, a city along the Volga River in Russia. They determined that the victims all died of a highly similar strain of Yersinia pestis, the plague bacterium, which mutated in Europe and then traveled eastward in the decade following the Black Death. The findings “are like pearls on a chain” that begins in western Europe, said Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, an author of a soon-to-be-published study. (The lead author is Maria Spyrou, also at Jena.) That chain may have stretched far beyond Russia. Krause argues that a descendant of the 14th century plague bacterium was the source of most of the world’s major outbreaks, including those that raged across East Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and one afflicting Madagascar today.

More here.

Friday Poem

The Glassblowers, 6 A.M.

Night draws its plough through the fields.
A fine mist: the breath
of a black horse, dreaming.
Under its eyelid, the moon.

This early no one wakes
but the glassblowers
secretive insects in their hive.
At the end of each sting
a dollop of luminous honey.

Mostly they are just boys,
lean shadows aping the maestros.
When nobody's looking they clown around
swapping greasy sombreros, goosing each other,
then lapse from play so quickly it seems
a mirage
the after-image of that childhood
they've long since left behind.

Muscles steaming with sweat
eyes glazed by smoke
how they dance round the furnace
transforming night's lead into gold!
Even while eating they circle the fire.
The ordinary sun cannot draw them
outside, where the black horse churns the furrow
and girls in flowering blouses
stroll to the dairy.

No magnet beyond this centre
and the girls know it
crowding the doorway for a glimpse
of ruddy flesh,
scattering at the first sight
of those burning, devoted eyes.

by Susan Glickman
The Power to Move
Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1986.

Wikipedia Is Basically a Corporate Bureaucracy, According to a New Study

Jennifer Oullette in Gizmodo:

Dvfqfmn2zx4e4bbkqwumWikipedia is a voluntary organization dedicated to the noble goal of decentralized knowledge creation. But as the community has evolved over time, it has wandered further and further from its early egalitarian ideals, according to a new paper published in the journal Future Internet. In fact, such systems usually end up looking a lot like 20th century bureaucracies.

Even in the brave new world of online communities, the Who had it right: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

This may seem surprising, since there is no policing authority on Wikipedia—no established top-down means of control. The community is self-governing, relying primarily on social pressure to enforce the established core norms, according to co-author Simon DeDeo, a complexity scientist at Indiana University. He likens the earliest Wikipedia users—most of whom hailed from the ultra-nerdy Usenet culture of the 1990s—to historical figures like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson. “But what happens when a tiny Thomas Jefferson Libertarian fantasy has to grow up?” he told Gizmodo.

To find out, he and Indiana University undergraduate Bradi Heaberlin decided to examine the emergence of social hierarchy and online behavioral norms among the editors of Wikipedia.

More here.

EXPERT TEXTPERT: A review of three recent books on criticism

James Ley in the Sydney Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_1899 Apr. 28 18.23Many years ago, back when I was a fresh-faced postgraduate student, I was invited to lunch at the home of my aunt and uncle. It was, I seem to recall, a pleasant spring afternoon. Warm yellow sunlight was falling through the dining-room window across a well-furnished table, where I was seated beside my aunt, who spent much of the meal quizzing me about the thesis I was in the middle of writing on the work of James Joyce.

Everything was proceeding quite amiably, until I happened to declare my admiration for Molly Bloom’s celebrated soliloquy in Ulysses. Expressing myself no doubt with a certain callow enthusiasm, I began to describe the extraordinary labour that went into its composition, mentioning in passing that it was written entirely without punctuation – motivated as I was at that time by the belief that this remarkable fact was not widely known, or at any rate was not as widely known as it should be. It was at this point that another of our dining companions, an acquaintance of my uncle’s, a flushed and corpulent fellow with a pronounced squint, who had apparently made vast sums building shopping centres or something, and who signalled his good fortune by driving around in an expensive sports car, the prestigious make of which now escapes me, but which I can report was indeed red – anyway, it was at this point that my uncle’s rather well-lubricated guest leaned slowly into the sunlight, granting everyone a distinct view of the minor Pollock of exploded capillaries that bloomed across his empurpled proboscis, scanned the table with a single bleary bloodshot eye, and said in a loud and scornful voice:

What’s … the use … of that …?

Suffice to say, the afternoon began to go downhill. A frank exchange of views ensued, during which it transpired that our dining companion held eminently practical opinions on all manner of topics. These included a general disdain for the various academic disciplines that fall under the rubric ‘humanities’, an unshakeable belief in the virtues of trickle-down economics, and a strong disinclination to educate poor people.

More here.

Bill Gates reviews “The Vital Question” by Nick Lane

Bill Gates in his own blog:

ScreenHunter_1898 Apr. 28 18.11Last year Trevor Mundel, who runs our foundation’s global health work, suggested that I read a book called The Vital Question. I had never heard of the book or its author, a biologist at University College London named Nick Lane. A few months later, I hadn’t just read The Vital Question—I had also ordered Nick’s three other books, read two of them, and arranged to meet him in New York City.

Nick reminds me of writers like Jared Diamond, people who develop a grand theory that explains a lot about the world. He is one of those original thinkers who makes you say: More people should know about this guy’s work.

At its heart, Nick’s work is an attempt to right a scientific wrong by getting people to fully appreciate the role that energy plays in all living things. The Vital Question begins with a bang: “There is a black hole at the heart of biology.” (I wish more science books got off to such a ripping start.) “Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life on earth shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from simple bacterial progenitors on just one occasion in 4 billion years. Was this a freak accident, or did other ‘experiments’ in the evolution of complexity fail?” Why does all complex life—every plant and animal you can see—share certain traits, like getting old and reproducing via sex? Why didn’t different types of complex life evolve? And if there is life on other planets, would it necessarily have these same traits? Or could E.T. reproduce by cloning himself?

Nick argues that we can only start to answer these questions by fully appreciating the role of energy.

More here. [Thanks to Sean Carroll.]

Hungary and the Strange Bedfellows of Anti-refugeeism

Holly Case in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_1897 Apr. 28 17.33Last September an article on the front page of a leading Hungarian daily began, “The story of the ever-deepening refugee crisis is taking ever more unexpected turns.” A prominent Hungarian intellectual and former dissident, György Konrád, had come out in support of the efforts of the Hungarian government to build a wall to keep out newcomers and to cast them as economic opportunists rather than political refugees. In another corner of the Hungarian media, pundits were citing passages from The Final Tavern (A végső kocsma), a 2014 book by Holocaust survivor and 2002 Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who passed away last month. In the book, Kertész was sharply critical of liberals’ welcoming attitude toward Muslim refugees and migrants. His and Konrád’s statements were registered with incredulity in the liberal press and with undisguised relish on the right.

Anyone who has followed the serpentine trajectory of Hungarian politics since the controlled collapse of state socialism in 1989 might be forgiven for throwing their hands up in confusion. For more than two and a half decades, Hungarian political life has been a story of reversals. The party of the Young Democrats (Fidesz), founded in 1988 by a few-dozen college students, has mutated from a member of the Liberal International to the torchbearer of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe. Hungarians who once described themselves as liberal, including the current prime minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán, have shed the epithet. Already in 1994, Orbán favored replacing it with “free-thinking.” Twenty years later, his metamorphosis was complete when he wondered whether being part of the European Union was an obstacle to the reorganization of the state into “an illiberal nation state within the EU.”

More here.

on C. E. Morgan’s ‘THE SPORT OF KINGS’

9780374281083Michael LaPointe at the Times Literary Supplement:

One literary stereotype associates long, sprawling, ambitious novels with male writers. The notion might have crystallized with the conspicuously masculine Americans of the post-war period – Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, William Styron, Philip Roth – who seemed to produce imposing tomes as self-conscious statements of seriousness. As Mailer declared inAdvertisements for Myself (1959), he would “try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters”. The gender lines were barely coded: so-called “major” writers produced robust, shadow-casting books, while “minor” ones contented themselves with subjects more deserving of slender treatment. In this century, however, the finest “major” novels have more often than not been written by women. Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt, Eleanor Catton, Meg Wolitzer and Elena Ferrante are among those hitting the long balls in contemporary fiction, and with The Sport of Kings, a world-encompassing colossus second novel (All the Livingwas published in 2009), C. E. Morgan has joined their ranks.

Born into a distinguished farming family, “Kentuckians first and Virginians second and Christians third”, Henry Forge is thrust into the tumultuous mid-twentieth century, when Brown v. Board of Education is uprooting the segregated basis of Southern society. His father, John Henry, is possessed of a virulent desire to preserve tradition, and Morgan provides no softening, nostalgic touches to his depiction; he is the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman, not To Kill a Mockingbird. A single page can range over the breadth of John Henry’s bigotry: “The core of femininity is a softness of resolve and mind; reason is not their strong suit . . . [but] I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are”. When an African American servant is caught in an adulterous relationship with John Henry’s wife, he has occasion to back his words with deeds, and this blood guilt will haunt Henry Forge’s life long after his father is dead.

more here.

Young Mr Turner: The First Forty Years, 1775–1815

Df1adb0e32208bd54c45b4be955b6e26Tim Hilton at Literary Review:

Turner’s passage from boyhood in the rowdy surroundings of Maiden Lane to professional affluence was rapid. What did he think about the world in which he wished to rise? Shanes boldly reappraises and even retitles a 1793 watercolour of Windsor Castle, which Turner magically transferred to an imaginary landscape with echoes of the Avon Gorge near Bristol. He calls this work Britain at Peace. Around the royal residence we discern a factory, farmland, a canal and a pack mule that, we are told, represents commerce. The spire of a church is visible. The sky is calm. But there is no sign of the military. Such is the ideal life of our island for Turner at the age of eighteen or so – hence Shanes’s title.

Whatever we think of this interpretation, it is certain that Turner was a fine artist of peace or, often, of peace threatened. Such is the theme of many of his landscapes. However, his marine paintings tell us that the deepest conflicts are not with national enemies but with the sea itself, in which frail boats are helpless when faced with the high waves of storm. Turner was the first marine painter to depict the waters as heavenly or demonic.

When did he first excel as a mature artist? Perhaps with the magnificent Battle of Trafalgar of 1808, which treats that conflict as though it were a clash of metaphysical forces. Turner was then in his early thirties, yet painted like an old master.

more here.

Remembering the impenetrable genius, and musical achievements, of Prince

160502_r28100-690Vinson Cunningham at The New Yorker:

What a concept, genius. Especially in an age like ours—secular, rational, disenchanted. No one, perhaps, was more suited to exploit the idea of genius-as-enigma than Prince Rogers Nelson, who died on Thursday at his Paisley Park compound, outside Minneapolis, at the age of fifty-seven. Prince played impenetrability like a guitar. To think about him was to ask a series of questions: Why purple? Whence the glyph? Did he really love spaghetti and orange juice? What was up with the retinue of light-skinned, long-legged women, who were visually identical to one another and to him? Vis-à-vis sex and sexuality and gender: what, if anything, was he trying to say? Such was the depth of Prince’s mystique that any story about him was interesting, as proved, hilariously, by the “Chappelle’s Show” sketch in which Charlie Murphy (Eddie’s brother) describes a night of pickup basketball (“shirts versus blouses”) and pancakes at Prince’s. Even his diminutive size served as a kind of metaphor: he was energy compressed. One imagined his bones as birdlike; he might’ve up and flown away on a whim.

But there’s a way in which the notion of the special person, landed from nowhere, does the artist an injustice. It steers us away from the specifics of Prince’s achievement. He was his generation’s most startling and dramatic guitarist, guiding his solos through a landscape of varied terrains: first rocky, dissonant bends, then long, plainlike notes, sustained like breaths. He’d often finish them by repeating an anthemic, singable melody, altered minutely until its intensity helped it lift off.

more here.

The war on elephants

Alistair Leithead in BBC News:

EleBloated and eerily upright the large adult elephant was still standing where it had been killed – just next to the stream – its face hacked off. It had been fleeing the carnage in the mud 100m or so away, where the remains of four other adults and one young elephant lay fallen and disfigured, their tusks and trunks all taken for ivory and meat. Like a macabre statue, this faceless animal stood as a landmark to the horrors of poaching, of the ivory trade, and of the mass slaughter of the last remaining elephants in central Africa. The pilot of the light aircraft was out on a regular reconnaissance mission when circling vultures drew him to the scene. The armed rangers on patrol nearby hadn't heard the shots, so it was the scavengers feasting on the carcasses that had raised the alarm.

Garamba, in the north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is one of the oldest national parks in Africa, designated in 1938. It covers 14,000 sq km (5,500 sq miles) dominated by savannah grasses, which when green and lush can reach 3m in height, enveloping the elephants and concealing them even from the air. It's tough going on foot with the criss-crossing streams that feed the great Congo River, punctuated by papyrus marsh, forest and scrub. The park was made a World Heritage Site in 1980 for its rare Northern White Rhinos, and with 22,000 elephants back then, they never seemed in danger. But the last rhino was seen some years ago. Poaching has wiped them out, and now with 95% of the elephants gone, and the killing continuing week after week, these giants are going the same way.

It's not a good neighbourhood for conservation.

More here.

Scientists use skin cells to create human sperm

From PhysOrg:

SpermScientists in Spain on Wednesday they had created human sperm from skin cells, a medical feat which could eventually lead to a treatment for infertility. The researchers said they were working to find a solution for the roughly 15 percent of couples worldwide who are unable to have children and whose only option is to use donated sperm or eggs. “What to do when someone who wants to have a child lacks gametes (eggs or sperm)?” asked Carlos Simon, the scientific director of the Valencian Infertility Institute, Spain's first medical institution fully dedicated to assisted reproduction. “This is the problem we want to address: to be able to create gametes in people who do not have them.”

The result of their research, which was carried out with Stanford University in the United States, was published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, the online journal of Nature. They were inspired by the work of Japan's Shinya Yamanaka and Britain's John Gordon who in 2012 shared a Nobel prize for the discovery that adult cells can be transformed back into embryo-like stem cells. Simon and his team managed to reprogramme mature skin cells by introducing a cocktail of genes needed to create gametes. Within a month the skin cell was transformed to become a germ cell, which can develop into sperm or an egg, but it did not have the ability to fertilise, they found. “This is a sperm but it needs a further maturation phase to become a gamete. This is just the beginning,” Simon said. It is a step further than that reached by Chinese researchers who earlier this year announced they had created mice from artificial sperm.

More here.

What Would Happen If We Just Gave People Money?

Andrew Flowers in FiveThirtyEight:

ScreenHunter_1893 Apr. 27 17.33Daniel Straub remembers the night he got hooked on basic income. He had invited Götz Werner, a billionaire owner of a German drugstore chain, to give an independent talk in Zurich, where Straub was working as a project manager for a think tank. He had read an article about the radical proposal to unconditionally guarantee citizens an income and spent a few years casually researching the idea. Straub had heard Werner was a good speaker on the topic, and that night in 2009 he was indeed excellent at connecting with the audience, a sold-out house of 200. “It was a very intense evening; people were paying attention,” Straub recalled.

Werner posed a pair of simple questions to the crowd: What do you really want to do with your life? Are you doing what you really want to do? Whatever the answers, he suggested basic income was the means to achieve those goals. The idea is as simple as it is radical: Rather than concern itself with managing myriad social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would instead regularly cut a no-strings-attached check to each citizen. No conditions. No questions. Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live.

Straub had studied business, international policy and psychology at school and spent years working for IBM, the International Red Cross and a Montessori school. Basic income “struck a nerve,” he said. “People are burned out more than ever. You come to Switzerland and talk to people, they aren’t happy. They fear for their jobs. There is a gap between the economic possibility in this country and the quality of life.”

After Werner’s talk, Straub quit his job at the think tank and began to campaign for a basic income full time.

More here.

In Cold Fusion 2.0, Who’s Scamming Whom?

The researcher claiming a cold fusion breakthrough is in the midst of a $100 million lawsuit, all while others race to duplicate his efforts, trying to prove that this time it's not all smoke and mirrors.

David Hambling in Popular Mechanics:

ScreenHunter_1892 Apr. 27 17.27The name “cold fusion” is so toxic the researchers who work on it nowadays don't even call it that. After years of being rejected by the scientific mainstream over false claims and outsized hype, they've taking to calling their field low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR). But whatever you call this field, something strange has been happening in the last few years, with reputable companies like Toyota and Nissan openly sponsoring LENR research and other big players have taken an interest (even if they've preferred to avoid the toxic label).

Now, it's about to come to a head.

Much of the interest is focused on a nickel-hydrogen process, and in particular the extravagant claims Italian inventor Andrea Rossi has made about his Energy Catalyser, or E-Cat, which he was been working on since 2007. Rossi's invention is basically a cylinder the size of a wine bottle, filled with powdered nickel and hydrogen, which generates vast amounts of heat by an unspecified reaction. (Rossi, of course, won't tell the world how E-Cat works. Here's one “best guess” at the physics.) Earlier experiments with nickel-hydrogen claimed to create barely measurable fractions of a watt of excess heat. Rossi, meanwhile, claims to produce hundreds or thousands of watts. If this were true, it could be the key to the limitless, cheap, clean energy cold fusion backers have always promised.

More here.