Attuned to chemistry of a genius

Eric Berger in the Houston Chronicle (via Accidental Blogger):

311xinlinegallery_1A starter violin costs about $200. A finely crafted modern instrument can run as much as $20,000. But even that’s loose change when compared with a violin made three centuries ago by Antonio Stradivari.

His 600 or so surviving violins can cost upward of $3.5 million.

For more than a century, artists, craftsmen and scientists have sought the secret to the prized instruments’ distinct sound. Dozens have claimed to have solved the mystery, but none has been proved right.

Now, a Texas biochemist, Joseph Nagyvary [in photo above], says he has scientific proof the long-sought secret is chemistry, not craftsmanship. Specifically, he says, Stradivari treated his violins with chemicals to protect them from wood-eating worms common in northern Italy. Unknowingly, Nagyvary says, the master craftsman gave his violins a chemical noise filter that provided a unique, pleasing sound.

More here.  [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]

Bill Gates: A Robot in Every Home

William Henry Gates in Scientific American:

Screenhunter_01_dec_29_0119Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an industry based on groundbreaking new technologies, wherein a handful of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for business use and a fast-growing number of start-up companies produce innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and other interesting niche products. But it is also a highly fragmented industry with few common standards or platforms. Projects are complex, progress is slow, and practical applications are relatively rare. In fact, for all the excitement and promise, no one can say with any certainty when–or even if–this industry will achieve critical mass. If it does, though, it may well change the world.

Of course, the paragraph above could be a description of the computer industry during the mid-1970s, around the time that Paul Allen and I launched Microsoft. Back then, big, expensive mainframe computers ran the back-office operations for major companies, governmental departments and other institutions. Researchers at leading universities and industrial laboratories were creating the basic building blocks that would make the information age possible. Intel had just introduced the 8080 microprocessor, and Atari was selling the popular electronic game Pong. At homegrown computer clubs, enthusiasts struggled to figure out exactly what this new technology was good for.

But what I really have in mind is something much more contemporary: the emergence of the robotics industry, which is developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago.

More here.

The Audacity of Hope

Barack Obama in the New York Times:

Hart450It’s been almost ten years since I first ran for political office. I was thirty-five at the time, four years out of law school, recently married, and generally impatient with life. A seat in the Illinois legislature had opened up, and several friends suggested that I run, thinking that my work as a civil rights lawyer, and contacts from my days as a community organizer, would make me a viable candidate. After discussing it with my wife, I entered the race and proceeded to do what every first-time candidate does: I talked to anyone who would listen. I went to block club meetings and church socials, beauty shops and barbershops. If two guys were standing on a corner, I would cross the street to hand them campaign literature. And everywhere I went, I’d get some version of the same two questions.

“Where’d you get that funny name?”

And then: “You seem like a nice enough guy. Why do you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?”

I was familiar with the question, a variant on the questions asked of me years earlier, when I’d first arrived in Chicago to work in low-income neighborhoods. It signaled a cynicism not simply with politics but with the very notion of a public life, a cynicism that-at least in the South Side neighborhoods I sought to represent-had been nourished by a generation of broken promises.

More here.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Bruges-la-Morte

D111

When, in the 1920s, the Italian Futurists had fantasies about concreting over the canals of Venice and turning them into roads, they were not just indulging in gratuitous vandalism but reacting against the accumulated weight of dead-city literature that the Symbolist and Decadent writers of the fin de siècle had generated. The fin-de-siècle cities ended in whimpers, but the Futurists wanted them to go with a bang. It needed a big, bloody war – violent death and the flattening of entire towns under mortar shells – to revise the way people thought about the deaths of cities and their human inhabitants. The exaggerated exultation of the Futurists and Vorticists about machine-age death and destruction can partly be traced to the glut of pallid degeneration narratives on which they would have been drip-fed: dead-city poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Henri de Régnier and Gabriele D’Annunzio, wispy lyrical novels and countless atmospheric travelogues that revisited the same tropes and clichés of urban exhaustion and desuetude.

The central figure in the dead-city cult was the Belgian poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach, and the totemic city was Bruges, or, to give it its full fin-de-siècle name, Bruges-la-Morte, the title of Rodenbach’s novel of 1892.

more from the TLS here.

Ernst Tugendhat thinks about god and death

Faust avoided Gretchen’s question “Do you believe in God?” But what should someone say who refuses to avoid the question and yet isn’t naive? I believe that on the one hand the need to believe in God is not only a cultural, but also an anthropological phenomenon, founded in the structure of human being. Today, however, people can’t give in to this need without fooling themselves. What we have here is a contradiction between need and feasibility. Seen logically, such contradictions are harmless, and relatively normal in human life.

Let me clarify this with an example. People – at least in general – have a need to go on living. That too is anthropologically founded. Yet this need stands in contradiction to reality: all individual life ceases to exist after a time. However the need to go on living is so deeply rooted that people in all cultures have attempted in one way or another, with or without religion, to construct a life after death.

more from Sign and Sight here.

Am Anfang war die Tat

Following up on Abbas’ post, in this video, Akeel Bilgrami discusses Gandhi’s nonviolence and how it stands in contrast to the moral psychology of liberalism and the Enlightenment.

AkeelbilgramiAkeel Bilgrami argues that Gandhi, who was assassinated on Jan. 30, 1948, believed the adoption of moral principles generated criticism of others and eventually led to violence. In contrast with Western understanding, Bilgrami argues that Gandhi believed exemplary actions, not principles, are at the root of his philosophy on non-violence.

Countering Google and Anglo-Saxon Cultural Imperialism

You think the French would’ve learned from the model of national champions, the Concord, minitel, etc.,  but apparently not:

The war waged by French president Jacques Chirac against “Anglo-Saxon” cultural imperialism suffered a blow today when the Germans announced they were pulling out of a rival European search engine to Google.

Earlier this year Mr Chirac announced a series of ambitious technological projects designed to challenge the global dominance of the US. They included Quaero, a Franco-German search engine whose name is Latin for “I search”, but which was swiftly dubbed “Ask Chirac”.

Today German officials confirmed they were abandoning the €400m (£270m) project. Senior officials in Germany’s economics and technology ministry said they had decided to dump Quaero because they had been sceptical it would ever be able to challenge the might of Google and Yahoo!

Cooperation with France had “not been simple,” they said. Asked today what had gone wrong, a ministry spokeswoman told the Guardian: “There were disagreements. The French wanted a search engine. We wanted something else.”

Instead, Germany has now decided to launch its own national search engine, Theseus.

Would the Left and Everyone Else Have been Better Off Had Ford Won in 1976?

In Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn makes the case:

If Ford had beaten back Carter’s challenge in 1976, the neo-con crusades of the mid to late Seventies would have been blunted by the mere fact of a Republican occupying the White House. Reagan, most likely, would have returned to his slumbers in California after his abortive challenge to Ford for the nomination in Kansas in 1976.

Instead of an weak southern Democratic conservative in agreement to almost every predation by the military industrial complex, we would have had a Midwestern Republican, thus a politician far less vulnerable to the promoters of the New Cold War.

Would Ford have rushed to fund the Contras and order their training by Argentinian torturers? Would he have sent the CIA on its mostly costly covert mission, the $3.5 billion intervention in Afghanistan? The nation would have been spared the disastrous counsels of Zbigniev Brzezinski.

Those who may challenge this assessment of Ford’s imperial instincts should listen to the commentators on CNN, belaboring the scarce cold commander-in-chief for timidity and lack of zeal in prosecuting the Cold War. By his enemies shall we know him.

The Most Dangerous Roads in the World

From Thrilling Wonder:

2. Bolivia’s “Road of Death”

North Yungas Road is hands-down the most dangerous in the world for motorists. If the previous road is just impassable, this one clearly endangers your life. It runs in the Bolivian Andes, 70 km from La Paz to Coroico, and plunges down almost 3,600 meters in an orgy of extremely narrow hairpin curves and 800-meter abyss near-misses. A fatal accident happens there every couple of weeks, 100-200 people perish there every year. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank named the La Paz-to-Coroico route “the world’s most dangerous road.”

295154263_2f8c8efdf2

5. Most Dangerous Tourist Hiking Trail (China)

Not a car road, but the most hair-raising experience you can have on your own two legs. This is a heavy-tourist traffic area in Xian (Mt.Huashan); this link explains more about the area:

277085765_371c698d63

More here.

An Animal Holocaust?

Regular 3QD contributor Justin E. H. Smith in Dissident Voice:

Images1In his 1954 essay, “The Question concerning Technology,” the philosopher and unrepentant Nazi Martin Heidegger wrote: “Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacture of corpses in the gas chambers and death camps.” The former rector of Freiburg has by now been (almost) universally denounced for his equation of Auschwitz and agribusiness, notwithstanding a few academic disciples who remain convinced that their master could do or say no wrong. Heidegger, it seems, wanted nothing short of peasants in quaint national costumes dirtying their hands to bring viands to his austere Black Forest table (machine-picked cabbage is so inauthentic). Among European philosophers, Heidegger’s contemptuous idiocy would remain unrivaled until Jean Baudrillard’s quip about the World Trade Center’s former workers that “the horror for the 4,000 victims of dying in those towers was inseparable from the horrors of living in them – the horror of living and working in sarcophagi of concrete and steel.”

Yet there is one respect in which the comparison of modern farming methods to the mass killing of humans cannot but strike one as fair. To wit, 10 billion cows, pigs, lambs, chickens (and scattered other creatures) are slaughtered per year in the United States alone, bringing a painful end to their short, miserable, lives in squalid and stinking crates. As with what I have written on the death penalty, my inclination is to spare the reader the details. We all know them, after all, and any ignorance at this point is only of the willful variety.

More here.

A relatively dark conversation with Frank Gehry

Akhil Sharma in the Wall Street Journal:

Prague_dancing20houseProbably more than most architects, one sees Mr. Gehry’s buildings–buildings that have been described as resembling ruffling sails or looking like they are melting–and has a sense that there is a single personality behind them.

“I don’t know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do,” Mr. Gehry says. “Architects have to become parental. They have to learn to be parental.” By this he means that an architect has to listen to his client but also remain firm about what the architect knows best, the aesthetics of a building. This, Mr. Gehry says, is what makes an architect relevant in the process that leads to a completed building. “I think a lot of my colleagues lose it, lose that relevance in the spirit of serving their client, so that no matter what, they are serving the client. Even if the building they produce, that they think serves the client, doesn’t really serve the client because it’s not very good.”

More here.

The Curse of Oil

John Ghazvinian in the Virginia Quarterly Review:

The Niger Delta is made up of nine states, 185 local government areas, and a population of 27 million. It has 40 ethnic groups speaking 250 dialects spread across 5,000 to 6,000 communities and covers an area of 27,000 square miles. This makes for one the highest population densities in the world, with annual population growth estimated at 3 percent. About 1,500 of those communities play host to oil company operations of one kind or another. Thousands of miles of pipelines crisscross the mangrove creeks of the Delta, broken up by occasional gas flares that send roaring orange flames into the already hot, humid air. Modern, air-conditioned facilities sit cheek-by-jowl with primitive fishing villages made of mud and straw, surrounded with razor wire and armed guards trained to be on the lookout for local troublemakers. It is, and always has been, a recipe for disaster.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that for fifty years, foreign oil companies have conducted some of the world’s most sophisticated exploration and production operations, using millions of dollars’ worth of imported ultramodern equipment, against a backdrop of Stone Age squalor. They have extracted hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, which have sold on the international market for hundreds of billions of dollars, but the people of the Niger Delta have seen virtually none of the benefits. While successive military regimes have used oil proceeds to buy mansions in Mayfair or build castles in the sand in the faraway capital of Abuja, many in the Delta live as their ancestors would have done hundreds, even thousands of years ago—in hand-built huts of mud and straw. And though the Delta produces 100 percent of the nation’s oil and gas, its people survive with no electricity or clean running water. Seeing a doctor can mean traveling for hours by boat through the creeks.

More here.

Gerald Ford: Steady Hand for a Nation in Crisis

From Time:

Ford2_1227 He was not only an accidental President but a famously and endearingly accident-prone one as well. Fate evidently had elaborate designs on Gerald Rudolph Ford and fulfilled them on the world’s stage in a dazzling combination of high pomp and low slapstick.

He was the nation’s first appointed Vice President, chosen in October 1973 by President Richard Nixon under the terms of the recently ratified 25th Amendment to succeed the disgraced Spiro Agnew. Less than a year later, on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned rather than face a Senate trial on three articles of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives, and Ford took the oath to be the 38th President of the U.S.

More here.

Hidden delights you may have missed …

From Guardian:

Bookshop11 Nasrin Alavi’s We Are Iran (Portobello £9.99, pp384) comprises blogs, which would normally be my idea of hell. But to people living under Iran’s totalitarian regime, blogging has a point, and that is probably why 64,000 Farsi-language bloggers are at work. This beautifully organised book has you learning the long history of Iran almost by sleight of hand. Evocative and weirdly gripping, it makes you feel more like an eavesdropper than a reader.

Kate Kellaway

I am not sure that the audience of 211 Things a Bright Boy Can Do by Tom Cutler (Harper Collins £10.99, pp288) is, as its author claims, boys of 16 to 106. I urge all thinking – or, for safety’s sake, unthinking – women to buy a copy. Part of the satisfaction of grazing through this compendium is not needing to undertake any of the activities within. Imagine, instead, the menfolk at play. The book is written with an intelligent brio that is in contrast to its material. It made me laugh aloud and often.

More here.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What About the Iraqis?

Christian Caryl in the New York Review of Books:

20070111baghdadAmericans, by now, can be forgiven for believing that we know something about the situation in Iraq; we hear about it, after all, every day, in what seems like benumbing detail. And yet, in reality, what we know about the lives of individual Iraqis rarely goes beyond the fleeting opinion quote or the civilian casualty statistics. We have little impression of Iraqis as people trying to live lives that are larger and more complex than the war that engulfs them, and more often than not we end up viewing them merely as appendages of conflict. The language of foreign policy abstraction and a misplaced sense of decorum on the part of the press and television also conspire to sanitize the fantastically disgusting realities of everyday death.

More here.

A Discussion on Tan Dun’s The First Emperor

At Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum, a video of the roundtable discussion of the Metropolitan Opera’s The First Emperor.

A roundtable discussion with Columbia faculty and the distinguished artists who are collaborating on the production of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, which has its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House on December 21.

In what promises to be the most elaborate Met production since Prokofiev’s War and Peace, composer Tan Dun creates an epic new opera set in the ancient court of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. The First Emperor is a story of love, power and betrayal. Legendary tenor Plácido Domingo sings the role of the emperor.

Participants
  • Tan Dun, composer, conductor and co-librettist (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Tea; The Map: Concerto for Cello, Video and Orchestra; Water Passion after St. Matthew)
  • Zhang Yimou, film director (House of Flying Daggers; Hero; Raise the Red Lantern)
  • Ha Jin, National Book Award-winning novelist and co-librettist of The First Emperor (Waiting; War Trash)
  • Lydia Liu, professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature and author (The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making)
  • James Schamus (program moderator), screenwriter, film producer and film executive (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Ice Storm; Brokeback Mountain)

Devious Butterflies, Full-Throated Frogs and Other Liars

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_03_dec_27_1332A croak is how male green frogs tell other frogs how big they are. The bigger the male, the deeper the croak. The sound of a big male is enough to scare off other males from challenging him for his territory.

While most croaks are honest, some are not. Some small males lower their voices to make themselves sound bigger. Their big-bodied croaks intimidate frogs that would beat them in a fair fight.

26lyingGreen frogs are only one deceptive species among many. Dishonesty has been documented in creatures ranging from birds to crustaceans to primates, including, of course, Homo sapiens. “When you think of human communication, it’s rife with deception,” said Stephen Nowicki, a biologist at Duke University and the co-author of the 2005 book “The Evolution of Animal Communication.” “You just need to read a Shakespeare play or two to see that.”

As Dr. Nowicki chronicled in his book, biologists have long puzzled over deception. Dishonesty should undermine trust between animals. Why, for example, do green frogs keep believing that a big croak means a big male? New research is offering some answers: Natural selection can favor a mix of truth and lies, particularly when an animal has a big audience. From one listener to the next, honesty may not be the best policy.

More here.

India’s IT industry not as successful as it seems?

Athar Osama at SciDev.net:

Screenhunter_02_dec_27_1327Since India, Ireland, and Israel emerged as ‘software super-powers’ in the mid-to-late 1990s, many developing countries have joined the race for economic development led by information technology (IT).

Information and communications technology can level the playing field between advanced and under-developed countries in terms of access to information and knowledge. But it cannot be a panacea for the developing world’s quest for economic growth and prosperity.

Many countries have tried to replicate India’s success by developing IT-led economic development strategies, designed to “propel their economies into the twenty-first century”. Serious effort and precious resources have been spent on these endeavours.

But new evidence suggests that this might not be a viable way forward.

More here.

The YouTube cultural clearinghouse

Robert Lloyd in the Los Angeles Times:

Here in the Western world, we live defined by media: We are what we watch, what we listen to. (A few of us are still the papers we read.) And because this identification is so strong and thoroughgoing, one can feel that anything that has ever been recorded or taped or filmed should be available to hear or see, and that there is even something heroic, in a Promethean way, about those who arrange to make this happen. In earlier days, this fire-stealing manifested itself as the bootleg-record industry, whose High Baroque period, marked by expensive and often beautifully designed boxed sets, was cut dead by the Internet, where such fast and efficient file-sharing technologies as bit torrent have created vast networks dedicated to getting the music and pictures of the music out for free.

One vision of the Net maintains that it ought to be controlled and owned and exploited, farmed and ranched and arranged in such a way that nothing moves without the owner (which is not necessarily to say the creator) getting his cut. The other — the Wikipedia, OpenOffice, open-source way of no-business — holds that it is common ground, free and open, a place built and shaped by the people who use it, where sharing is the ultimate good.

Both approaches are manifest in YouTube, which is at once a commercial enterprise, now cutting revenue-sharing deals with major labels to legally show their videos, and a tool for moving around other people’s intellectual property.

More here.