Monday, May 31, 2010

Marina Abramovic and art tedium

Is this "art". I guess it could be no worse than listening to Maurice Ravel's Boléro a few hundred times.

"700-Hour Silent Opera Reaches Finale at MoMA"


Holland Cotter

May 30th, 2010

The New York Times

At 5 p.m. Monday the longest piece of performance art on record, and certainly the one with the largest audience, comes to an end. Since her retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art on March 14, the artist Marina Abramovic has been sitting, six days a week, seven hours a day in a plain chair, under bright klieg lights, in MoMA’s towering atrium. When she leaves that chair Monday for the last time, she will have clocked 700 hours of sitting.

During that time her routine seldom varied. Every day she took her place just before the museum doors opened and left it after they closed. Her wardrobe was consistent: a sort of concert gown with a long train, in one of three colors (red, blue and white).

Always her hair, in a braided plait, was pulled forward over her left shoulder. Always her skin was an odd pasty white, as if the blood had drained away. Her pose rarely changed: her body slightly bent forward, she stared silently and intently straight ahead.

There was one variable, a big one: her audience.

Visitors to the museum were invited, first come first served, to sit in a chair facing her and silently return her gaze. The chair has rarely, if ever, been empty. Close to 1,400 people have occupied it, some for only a minute or two, a few for an entire day.

Sitting with Ms. Abramovic has been the hot event of the spring art season. Celebrities — Bjork, Marisa Tomei, Isabella Rossellini, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright — did a stint. Young performance artists seized a moment in the limelight. One appeared in his own version of an Abramovic gown to propose marriage. Certain repeat sitters became mini-celebrities, though long-time waiters on line stared daggers at those who sat too long.

Thanks to the Internet many people saw all of this without being there. A daily live feed on MoMA’s Web site,, has had close to 800,000 hits. A Flickr site with head shots of every sitter has been accessed close to 600,000 times. Yet foot traffic has been heavy. By the museum’s estimate, half a million people have visited all or part of the Abramovic retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” of which the atrium piece is a small part.

The rest of the show, installed on the museum’s sixth floor, is a problem. It is made up primarily of videos and photographs of the artist’s performances over nearly 40 years, beginning when she was a student in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where she was born in 1946.

Her solo work from the early 1970s was hair-raisingly nervy. She stabbed herself, took knockout drugs, played with fire. For one piece she stood silent in a gallery for six hours, having announced that visitors could do anything they wanted to her physically. At one point a man held a gun to her neck. Her eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t flinch.

In 1976 she started collaborating with the German artist Uwe Laysiepen, known as Ulay. Some of their performances were punishing athletic events, as they slammed their bodies together or into walls. Others were almost aggressively passive. For a piece called “Imponderabilia” they stood facing each other, nude, in a narrow doorway in a museum. Anyone wanting to go from one gallery to another had no choice but to squeeze awkwardly and intimately between them.

Ms. Abramovic restaged “Imponderabilia,” along with some other works, for the MoMA show using actors. And although the nudity caused a buzz, the restaging fell flat. Two elements that originally defined performance art as a medium, unpredictability and ephemerality, were missing. Without them you get misrepresented history and bad theater.

Evidently Ms. Abramovic doesn’t agree. In 2005, at the Guggenheim Museum, she restaged vintage performance pieces by other artists (Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys) with herself in the leading roles. She recently established the Marina Abramovic Institute for Preservation of Performance Art, to be housed in upstate New York.

In the near future she will be collaborating with the director Robert Wilson on a stage work based on her life. By the sound of it, this project will mark her furthest departure yet from old-school performance art and into the realm of closely scripted theater. What it will have, however, is her charismatic personal presence, and that means a lot. That presence is probably the most important ingredient missing from the restagings. It is what makes the atrium performance compelling. For better and worse, it has carried Ms. Abramovic’s career.

One of her lifelong heroes is the opera singer Maria Callas, to whom she can bear a striking physical resemblance. Callas was a disciplined, risk-oriented musician, made vulnerable by a voice that began to disintegrate early. Increasingly, as she aged, every performance became an ordeal, an invitation to failure. Her willingness to face failure became the prevailing drama of her life. It was a drama of survival, and her fans had a part in it: she needed them to need her, so they did.

That’s that classic diva dynamic. And what we’re seeing in the MoMA atrium is basically a 700-hour silent opera. Ms. Abramovic, with her extravagant costume, her bent shoulders and her mournful gaze, is the prima donna. Visitors are cast as rapt audience, commenting chorus, supporting soloists. Unpredictability is in the air: Will she make it through the day? Will she faint from pain? Will she cancel at the last minute?

When I dropped by last week, one sitter, a repeater, sat across from Ms. Abramovic with his hands clasped to his chest, like a tenor about to burst into song or a worshiper transported in prayer. Perfect. That Ms. Abramovic will be collaborating with Mr. Wilson, a once-radical creator of epic experimental works and now best known for his ritualistic productions of Puccini and Wagner, is also perfect.

Of restagings I remain an unbeliever. Of Ms. Abramovic’s recent overblown solo pieces, seen in video in the sixth-floor installation, I’m not a fan. But the atrium performance works because she is simply, persistently, uncomfortably there. As of 5 p.m., she won’t be, though. The klieg lights will dim. The audience will move on. Something big will be gone, and being gone will be part of the bigness.

Antanas Mockus--update

Juan Manuel Santos

"Colombia election surprise: Juan Manuel Santos routs Antanas Mockus"

Polls had suggested that upstart Antanas Mockus was in a dead heat with Juan Manuel Santos in the Colombia presidential election. But Mr. Santos won the first round handily. He will face Mr. Mockus on the final ballot on June 20.


Sara Miller Llana

May 30th, 2010

The Christian Science Monitor

A race that was in a deadlock ahead of presidential elections in Colombia today ended with a clear lead for former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, who captured 46.6 percent of votes.

Because Mr. Santos, a staunch ally of conservative President Álvaro Uribe, did not get 50 percent of the votes, he will face off against former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus on June 20. Mr. Mockus, second in a field of 9 candidates, captured 21.5 percent of votes.

Mockus had surged before the race, with polls showing he would capture 32 percent of votes, just slightly less than Santos with 34 percent. Many analysts surmised that his popularity represented a shift in priorities for Colombians, away from security and towards jobs and more transparency.

But the results of the first round Sunday, with 99 percent of votes counted, show that security remains a top concern. Otilia Girado, who was born on the islands around the Caribbean city of Cartagena, says that President Uribe's tough stance against guerillas, drug lords, and paramilitaries transformed their lives. Before he was president, fewer visitors came to Cartagena – and the islands – because they were afraid of violence in surrounding rural areas, she says.

“Now we have jobs,” says Ms. Girado, looking on a beach overrun with tourists on a recent day. “I hope that Santos continues to keep the peace, because nothing matters without peace.”

Unexpected turnabout

Both candidates promised they would not negotiate with the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but Santos, who served as defense minister under Uribe, was the obvious candidate of continuity. Although Mockus was neck-and-neck with Santos in the weeks leading up to the race, Santos crushed Mockus today.

The latest Ipsos Napoleon Franco poll on May 23 showed that in a run-off, Mockus would win with 45 percent of votes, compared to 40 percent for Santos. But it appears Mockus faces a tough battle in the weeks ahead of June 20.

Mockus, the green party candidate who has largely shunned traditional politics, relied on social networking sites such as Facebook to fuel his campaign. He has appealed to so many here, especially university students, the same way “outsiders” have won elections among voters tired of traditional politics across Latin America.
Mockus's 'outsider' image

Mockus, who was a popular mayor of Bogotá, is known for the priority he gives good governance. As mayor of Bogotá, he dubbed himself “Super Citizen” as a lesson for other capital residents to follow.

While Uribe has received high marks from fans and foes alike for his security policies, he has come increasingly under fire for the human rights and political scandals that have rocked his presidency, including claims of illegal wiretapping and illegal military killings.

Across the country, from the capital Bogotá, to the city of Medellín, to the steamy city of Cartagena, residents say they hoped Mockus could bring a new style of governance to Colombia.

Yet Mockus was equally known for his antics. Most well-known of all: the time he mooned the university in Bogotá when he was serving as rector. And that has turned some voters off. Candelaria Colon Bello, who voted for Santos today, says Mockus seems to her naive. “Santos is more serious,” she says. “Colombia needs a serious president.”

Antanas Mockus vs Juan Manuel Santos--Colombia's presidential candidates

Deceased--Robert L. McNeil Jr.

Robert L. McNeil Jr.
1915 to May 20th, 2010

"Robert L. McNeil Jr., chemist who promoted Tylenol, dies at 94"

After his family's drug company was sold to Johnson & Johnson, he became a philanthropist.


Thomas H. Maugh II

May 31, 2010

Los Angeles Times

Robert L. McNeil Jr., a Philadelphia chemist who developed a little-known pain reliever called paracetamol into the global blockbuster Tylenol, creating a fortune that he freely distributed to charities, universities and museums, died May 20 of a heart ailment at his home in Wyndmoor, Pa. He was 94.

McNeil was not a brilliant synthetic chemist discovering new compounds through long hours in the laboratory, said Arnold Thackray of the nonprofit Chemical Heritage Foundation, whose goal is to preserve the history of chemistry. Instead, he had the insight to discern that paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen, had the potential to become an important drug and the creativity to develop an effective marketing campaign.

Paracetamol was discovered by French chemist Charles Gerhardt in 1852, but the discovery languished for nearly a century until British researchers in the late 1940s demonstrated that it could safely and effectively alleviate pain and reduce fevers. About the same time, other research began to link excessive aspirin use to gastric bleeding and other problems.

Nonetheless, pharmaceutical companies were not interested in developing paracetamol because they feared that it would take sales away from their profitable aspirin products.

McNeil, research director for his family-owned McNeil Laboratories, saw a niche for the drug, guessing successfully that it could be marketed as a safe product for children. After commissioning safety and efficacy trials to obtain Food and Drug Administration approval, the company began marketing Tylenol Elixir for Children in 1955 as a prescription-only product. It was sold in a box shaped like a fire engine and carried the slogan "for little hotheads."

Eventually, the elixir and other Tylenol products for children and adults became available without prescriptions and the brand became one of the best-known drug names. Annual sales exceed $1 billion a year, despite the plethora of generic and branded products that compete with it.

Robert Lincoln McNeil Jr. was born in 1915 in Bethel, Conn., during a visit to his mother's parents. He graduated from Yale University in 1936, then earned a bachelor's degree from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, now the University of the Sciences, in 1938.

After graduation, he joined the family business, which had been started by his grandfather as a neighborhood pharmacy in 1879. By the 1920s, the company had abandoned retail sales and was manufacturing drugs for sale to doctors and hospitals. It incorporated as McNeil Laboratories in 1933.

In 1955, Robert Sr. retired from the company and Robert Jr. became chairman of the board; his brother Henry became president. In 1959, the pair sold the company to Johnson & Johnson for about $33 million in stock. Robert Jr. remained as chairman of McNeil Laboratories until 1964 to ease the transition to corporate ownership.

After retirement, he became an active philanthropist, establishing the Barra Foundation — named after the McNeil clan's ancient home, the Isle of Barra off the west coast of Scotland — which gave generously to many Philadelphia-area institutions.

In 2005, he received the prestigious American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal for his pioneering work on acetaminophen — a name, incidentally, that he coined. A colleague suggested Tylenol, an abbreviation of the chemical name N-acetyl-p-aminophenol, for the brand name.

McNeil is survived by his wife, the former Nancy McKinney; two daughters, Victoria Le Vine and Joanna Lewis; two sons, Collin and Robert III; and 11 grandchildren.

John Harvey Kellogg and the corn flake...serendipity in action

Ah, a day in history:

In 1884, a patent for "flaked cereal" was applied for by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. He was trying to improve the vegetarian diet of his hospital patients, by searching for a digestible bread-substitute by the process of boiling wheat. Kellogg accidentally left a pot of boiled wheat to stand and become tempered. When it was put through a rolling process, each grain of wheat emerged as a large, thin flake. When the flakes were baked, they became crisp and light, creating an easy to prepare breakfast when milk was added. His brother Will Keith Kellogg (W.K.) began his cereal-making career in the 1890's when he assisted his brother, then saw the potential, and on 19 Feb 1906, he created the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co.

He offered a sugar high and attempted to quell human sexuality.


He was " advocate of sexual abstinence, Kellogg devoted large amounts of his educational and medical work to discouraging sexual activity, on the basis of dangers both scientifically based at the time - as in sexually transmissible diseases - and those taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He set out his views on such matters in one of his larger books, published in various editions around the turn of the 20th century under the title Plain Facts about Sexual Life and later Plain Facts for Old and Young. Some of his work on diet was influenced by his belief that a plain and healthy diet, with only two meals a day, among other things, would reduce sexual feelings. Those experiencing temptation were to avoid stimulating food and drinks, and eat very little meat, if any."

John Harvey Kellogg [Wikipedia]

Tony the Tiger [Wikipedia]

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Marcel Bich--revolution in writing instruments

Marcel Bich
July 29th, 1914 to May 30th, 1994

The name ring a bell? Just remove the "h" and think again. How about ball point pens and lighters? He wasn't the inventor of the ball point pen for that belonged to László Bíró but Bich and his partner Edouard Buffard bought the patent in 1950 and the rest is history. Personally, I despise the pens preferring cartridge fountain pens.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Synthetic life...a problem of concern?

"Is Synthetic Life Dangerous?"


Stuart Fox

May 27th, 2010


The announcement last week of the first synthetic living cell generated sensational headlines and thinly sourced reports that its creator, J. Craig Venter, is "playing God." But most experts in the field would say otherwise, suggesting the creation is somewhat run-of-the-mill.

Ethicists and other researchers do point out real reasons for concern that don't involve a devout being, however.

Scientists and others worry that if the synthetic organism escapes, it could mutate into a deadly pathogen or affect the environment adversely in some way. They're also worried the technology might be used to make biological weapons. With these potential risks, scientists are urging agencies to regulate the safe handling of any synthetic organism.

“If the upside is that we can potentially genetically engineer algae to produce biofuels, for example, the downside is that we could inadvertently create an environmental hazard we cannot easily control and correct for,” said William FitzPatrick, an associate professor of philosophy at Virginia Tech and a specialist in bioethics. “Simple prudence therefore recommends caution and sufficient regulation to guard against potential dangers.”

Making of a genome controversy?

The study scientists essentially transplanted a genome they had constructed from the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides into a M. capricolum cell (now the first cell with a complete synthetic genome) that had been emptied of its own genome. Once the DNA "booted up," the bacteria began to function and reproduce in the same manner as naturally occurring M. mycoides.

The breakthrough could help scientists with many research efforts, from pursuing cancer treatments to figuring out the origin of life.

Advances in cloning and legislation involving stem cells inevitably generate conflict between proponents of the technology and those who believe tampering with the raw material of life amounts to playing God.

The Venter creation, however, shouldn't amount to such philosophical bickering for a number of reasons, experts say, including the low complexity of the organism in question, and the limited scope of the specific experiment in particular. Additionally, years of research and genetic experimentation has made these discoveries commonplace, and thus less likely to shock the public.

“If Venter had created the first synthetic human, you would expect a lot more controversy, but I don't think this rises to that level. What he has done is not that distinct in the moral categories used by people in the United States,” said John Evans, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and author of “Playing God?: Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate” (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

What would cause controversy

To provoke a fervent response, Venter would have to create a new life form that resembles an animal the public knows, like engineering a cat that has wings, or creating a synthetic human being, Evans said. Bacteria are invisible and mostly abstract to most Americans, making it difficult for people to connect viscerally with the news, Evans said.

This new technology also doesn’t seem to generate new concerns that differ enough from previous experiments to instigate a new round of outrage, said Adina Roskies, a professor of philosophy, and bioethics specialist, at Dartmouth College. Society has already wrestled with the consequences of genetic engineering, and this new advance falls squarely within the morality constructed by those earlier debates, Roskies said.

"I don't think there's anything on the face of it that's particularly troubling. It doesn't seem different, really, than fiddling with genomes, which we've been able to do for a while.” Roskies said.

Additionally, the public has acclimated to scientific discoveries and engineering advances with profound implications, said Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University and author of “Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science” (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Starting with the atomic bomb, Americans have lived under the shadow of potentially dangerous scientific advances for so long that announcements like Venter’s no longer produce the same level of dread, Godfrey-Smith said.

Real risks of synthetic life

However, like the atomic bomb, synthetic biology poses a number of practical risks. For instance this technology could produce devastating biological weapons, or escape, mutate and cause unforeseeable damage to the ecosystem, Evans and Godfrey-Smith both pointed out.

"What would happen if he took this thing and threw it out in the grass behind his lab? I don't think anyone knows for sure, and you want to have regulation to prevent that kind of behavior," Evans said. "Someone needs to do that for the same reason that I'm not allowed to have toxic waste in my garage."

Venter and genetics watchdog organizations like the ETC Group differ on which regulatory scheme strikes the best balance between safety and business, but even those opponents agree that the technology does not violate any deeper ethical boundaries.

Venter and his opponents, as well as Evans, Godfrey-Smith and Roskies, all agreed that like every technological advance since fire and the sharpened stick, the ethical concerns surrounding synthetic biology rest not with the tool itself, but the hand that wields it.

"It's how you use it, and what you use it for, that matters,” Roskies said.

Creativity and mental illness

"Creative minds 'mimic schizophrenia'"


Michelle Roberts

May 29th, 2010

BBC News

Brain scans reveal striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia.

Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought.

It could be this uninhibited processing that allows creative people to "think outside the box", say experts from Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

In some people, it leads to mental illness.

But rather than a clear division, experts suspect a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits but few negative symptoms.
Art and suffering

Some of the world's leading artists, writers and theorists have also had mental illnesses - the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and American mathematician John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind) to name just two.

Creativity is known to be associated with an increased risk of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Similarly, people who have mental illness in their family have a higher chance of being creative.

Associate Professor Fredrik Ullen believes his findings could help explain why.

He looked at the brain's dopamine (D2) receptor genes which experts believe govern divergent thought.

He found highly creative people who did well on tests of divergent thought had a lower than expected density of D2 receptors in the thalamus - as do people with schizophrenia.

The thalamus serves as a relay centre, filtering information before it reaches areas of the cortex, which is responsible, amongst other things, for cognition and reasoning.

"Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus," said Professor Ullen.

He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark.

This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss.

Schizophrenics share this same ability to make novel associations. But in schizophrenia, it results in bizarre and disturbing thoughts.

UK psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society Mark Millard said the overlap with mental illness might explain the motivation and determination creative people share.

"Creativity is uncomfortable. It is their dissatisfaction with the present that drives them on to make changes.

"Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It's like looking at a shattered mirror. They see the world in a fractured way.

"There is no sense of conventional limitations and you can see this in their work. Take Salvador Dali, for example. He certainly saw the world differently and behaved in a way that some people perceived as very odd."

He said businesses have already recognised and capitalised on this knowledge.

Some companies have "skunk works" - secure, secret laboratories for their highly creative staff where they can freely experiment without disrupting the daily business.

Chartered psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon says an ability to "suspend disbelief" is one way of looking at creativity.

"When you suspend disbelief you are prepared to believe anything and this opens up the scope for seeing more possibilities.

"Creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions that society places on us. Of course the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as 'mentally ill'."

He works as an executive coach helping people to be more creative in their problem solving behaviour and thinking styles.

"The result is typically a significant rise in their well being, so as opposed to creativity being associated with mental illness it becomes associated with good mental health."

Interesting blog by Robert Genn...

The Painter's Keys

Greed in Greece?

"Insulin giant pulls medicine from Greece over price cut"


Malcolm Brabant

May 29th, 2010

BBC News

The world's leading supplier of the anti-diabetes drug insulin is withdrawing a state-of-the-art medication from Greece.

Novo Nordisk, a Danish company, objects to a government decree ordering a 25% price cut in all medicines.

A campaign group has condemned the move as "brutal capitalist blackmail".

More than 50,000 Greeks with diabetes use Novo Nordisk's product, which is injected via an easy-to-use fountain pen-like device.

A spokesman for the Danish pharmaceutical company said it was withdrawing the product from the Greek market because the price cut would force its business in Greece to run at a loss.

The company was also concerned that the compulsory 25% reduction would have a knock-on effect because other countries use Greece as a key reference point for setting drug prices.


Greece wants to slash its enormous medical bill as part of its effort to reduce the country's crippling debt.

International pharmaceutical companies are owed billions in unpaid bills. Novo Nordisk claims it is owed $36m (£24.9m) dollars by the Greek state.

Pavlos Panayotacos, whose 10-year-old daughter Nephele has diabetes, has written to Novo Nordisk's chairman to criticise the move.

"As an economist I realize the importance of making a profit, but healthcare is more than just the bottom line," he wrote.

"As you well may know, Greece is presently in dire economic and social straits, and you could not have acted in a more insensitive manner at a more inopportune time."

The Greek diabetes association was more robust, describing the Danes' actions as "brutal blackmail" and "a violation of corporate social responsibility".

The Danish chairman, Lars Sorensen, wrote to Mr Panayotacos stressing that it was "the irresponsible management of finances by the Greek government which puts both you and our company in this difficult position".

People with diabetes in Greece have warned that some could die as a result of this action.

But a spokesman for Novo Nordisk said this issue was not about killing people. By way of compensation, he said the company would make available an insulin product called glucagen, free of charge.

Novo Nordisk [Wikipedia]

Antanas Mockus vs Juan Manuel Santos--Colombia's presidential candidates

"Philosopher King"?...make that "Philosopher President". Limelight global politics is being nudged to allow another...Antanas Mockus who was former mayor of Bogotá and now running for Columbia's president.

"Philosopher Antanas Mockus rattles Colombia election"

Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus – a mathematician, philosopher, and former mayor Bogotá – has seen a surge in popularity in the Colombia election. What sets him apart, he tells the Monitor, is his 'decency.'


Sibylla Brodzinsky

May 28th, 2010

The Christian Science Monitor

The airport security guard's wand squealed when it passed over the pocket of presidential candidate Antanas Mockus's trousers as he prepared to embark on a recent campaign trip.

Puzzled, Mr. Mockus reached in and pulled out a No. 2 pencil with a metallic band around the eraser.

"They discovered my weapon," he says, recalling the incident with an impish smile. The pencil is one of the symbols of his campaign, which emphasizes education as a tool to transform society.

A few months ago, no one thought Mockus – a mathematician, philosopher, and former mayor of Colombia's capital, Bogotá – had much of a chance in the elections, but his unorthodox campaign style has turned Col­ombia's race for the presidency on its head.

Rising from a distant 3 percent in opinion polls in March, Mockus has surged over 30 percent, placing him in a dead heat with former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, considered the heir to the legacy of the famously popular president, Álvaro Uribe.

The latest Ipsos-Napoleon Franco poll gives Mr. Santos 34 percent of the vote in the first round, compared with 32 percent for Mockus. But if neither candidate secures the 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright in the first round, Mockus would win a run-off with 45 percent to Santos’ 40 percent on June 20, according to the May 23 poll.

'Super Citizen' antics

Mockus's political career has been marked by his steadfast refusal to participate in traditional party politics. As mayor of Bogotá, he made a name for himself with his wacky antics, such as dressing up in spandex tights as "Super Citizen." But he is also recognized for his uncompromising honesty and zero tolerance for corruption.

It is that quality that appears to have captured the imagination of a nation that has tired of corruption, vote buying, and an "anything goes" attitude.

"Mockus represents a new way of doing politics," says analyst Ricardo Garcia, "and he has managed to act as a catalyst for the desire of voters to do away with the political favors and short cuts" that have historically plagued politics in Colombia.

That has allowed him to win over followers from both the pro-Uribe camp and the opposition. "Some Uribistas see him as a good follow-up to Uribe, and the opposition sees him as a much-needed change," Mr. Garcia says.

Francisco Sanchez, a business consultant, says that he sees many similarities in the proposals from Mr. Santos and Mockus; the difference is the way that the two men do politics.

"The big thing at stake here is a change in the political culture," says Mr. Sanchez, who plans to vote for Mockus. "We have a chance to radically change the paradigm that politics has been built on, which is political favors and patronage."

Primary appeal is 'decency'

In an interview while speeding through the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta in a bullet-proof SUV, Mockus explains his own meteoric rise in the simplest of terms:

"Colombians see in me someone who's good," he says, adding that he represents, above anything else, the desire for "decency."

Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, can shift quickly from a distant philosophical air to a playful, eccentric demeanor. At rallies his often lofty platitudes are lost on some followers.

But his wingmen, Luis Eduardo Garzón and Enrique Peñalosa (also both former Bogotá mayors who are essential to his team), and his running mate, Sergio Fajardo (a former mayor of Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín), have the magnetism to rouse the crowds with thundering speeches.

And his followers have been inspired to take the initiative in his campaign.

"Mockusians" design and print campaign posters on their own computers. Young voters organize flash mobs where they freeze in a certain position in any public area until enough passers-by express interest, then reveal their green Mockus T-shirts and chant his slogans.

Much of the political organizing happens on Facebook and Twitter, new elements in Colombian electoral politics, elements that Mockus has dominated.

Still, for many people in the countryside, where rebels and militias roam free, security is a top issue and many people there know little about Mockus, Facebook, or philosophy. Opponent Santos is expected to carry many of the rural areas in the election.

"We could still see a lot of surprises May 30," says Jaime Duarte, a political analyst at Bogotá's Universidad Externado.

Antanas Mockus [Wikipedia]

Friday, May 28, 2010

Birthing phenomenon and side show atmosphere

Marie, Cecile, Yvonne, Emilie and Annette

76 years ago today the world was treated to an unusual circumstance...the Dionne quintuplets and a side show atmosphere.

As of May 28th, 2010...

Birth order...

Yvonne Edouilda Marie Dionne--deceased
Annette Lillianne Marie Dionne
Cécile Marie Emilda Dionne
Émilie Marie Jeanne Dionne--deceased
Marie Reine Alma Dionne--deceased

Dionne quintuplets

World Science Festival--2010

That time of year again and if you are in New York City check out the World Science Festival. Some venues are free and some cost a few bucks. Stephen Hawking will be there.

World Science Festival

"World Science Festival"--New York city 2008

One word says it all...maybe

This certainly wasn't limited to Oxford. I remember some 40 years ago that the final exam question in a philosophy ethics class was the word "cabbage".

"Oxford Tradition Comes to This: ‘Death’ (Expound)"


Sarah Lyall

May 27th, 2010

The New York Times

The exam was simple yet devilish, consisting of a single noun (“water,” for instance, or “bias”) that applicants had three hours somehow to spin into a coherent essay. An admissions requirement for All Souls College here, it was meant to test intellectual agility, but sometimes seemed to test only the ability to sound brilliant while saying not much of anything.

“An exercise in showmanship to avoid answering the question,” is the way the historian Robin Briggs describes his essay on “innocence” in 1964, a tour de force effort that began with the opening chords of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and then brought in, among other things, the flawed heroes of Stendhal and the horrors of the prisoner-of-war camp in the William Golding novel “Free Fall.”

No longer will other allusion-deploying Oxford youths have the chance to demonstrate the acrobatic flexibility of their intellect in quite the same way. All Souls, part of Oxford University, recently decided, with some regret, to scrap the one-word exam.

It has been offered annually since 1932 (and sporadically before that) as part of a grueling, multiday affair that, in one form or another, has been administered since 1878 and has been called the hardest exam in the world. The unveiling of the word was once an event of such excitement that even non-applicants reportedly gathered outside the college each year, waiting for news to waft out. Applicants themselves discovered the word by flipping over a single sheet of paper and seeing it printed there, all alone, like a tiny incendiary device.

But that was then. “For a number of years, the one-word essay question had not proved to be a very valuable way of providing insight into the merits of the candidates,” said Sir John Vickers, the warden, or head, of the college.

In a university full of quirky individual colleges with their own singular traditions, All Souls still stands out for the intellectual riches it offers and the awe it inspires. Founded in 1438 and not open to undergraduates, it currently has 76 fellows drawn from the upper echelons of academia and public life, most admitted on the strength of their achievements and scholarly credentials.

Previous fellows include Sir Isaiah Berlin, Sir Christopher Wren, William Gladstone and T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia). Hilaire Belloc and John Buchan are said to have failed to get in. In recent years, fellows have included a Nobel Prize winner, several cabinet members, a retired senior law lord and a lord chancellor.

In addition, two young scholars are chosen each year from among Oxford students who graduated recently with the highest possible academic results. Called examination fellows, they get perks including room and board, 14,783 pounds (about $21,000) a year for a seven-year term and the chance to engage in erudite discussions over languorous meals with the other fellows.

But first they have to take the exam. It consists of 12 hours of essays over two days. Half are on the applicants’ academic specialties, the other half on general subjects, with questions like: “Do the innocent have nothing to fear?” “Isn’t global warming preferable to global cooling?” “How many people should there be?” and the surprisingly relevant, because this is Britain: “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

Those are daunting enough. But it is the one-word-question essay (known simply as “Essay”) that candidates still remember decades later. Past words, chosen by the fellows, included “style,” “censorship,” “charity,” “reproduction,” “novelty,” “chaos” and “mercy.”

It was not a test for everyone.

“Many candidates, including some of the best, seemed at a loss when confronted with this exercise,” said Mr. Briggs, a longtime teacher of modern history at Oxford.

Others found it exhilarating. “Brilliant fun,” a past applicant named Matthew Edward Harris wrote in The Daily Telegraph recently, recalling his 2007 essay, on “harmony.”

He had resolved, he said, that “No matter what word I was given, I would structure my answer using Hegel’s dialectic.” And then, like a chef rummaging through the recesses of his refrigerator for unlikely soup ingredients, he added a discussion of Kant’s categorical imperative and an analysis of the creative tensions among the vocalists in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (he didn’t get in).

The writer Harry Mount, an Oxford graduate and the author of “Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life,” didn’t get in, either. His essay, in 1994, was on “miracles.”

What was in it?

“Crying Madonnas in Ireland, that sort of thing,” Mr. Mount said. “And the battle between faith and cynicism. I was a cynic and didn’t believe in miracles, and perhaps that was bad. I had just read about Karl Popper and his theory of falsification, so I threw in a bit about that.”

Justin Walters, the founder and chief executive of Investis, an online corporate communication service company, said that writing his essay, on “corruption,” was not half as bad as the oral exam several weeks later, conducted by a long row of fellows peering across a table.

“ ‘Mr. Walters, you made some very interesting distinctions in your essay. Are you prepared to defend it?’ ” he remembered one of the fellows asking. Unfortunately, he had only a vague recollection of what he had written. “You’re the teacher — you figure it out,” he recalled thinking. (He must have done something right: he got in.)

Sir John, the current college warden, has worked as the Bank of England’s chief economist and been president of the Royal Economic Society, among other jobs. He draws a self-protective veil over the memory of his own essay, in 1979, on “conversion.”

“I do shudder at the thought of what I must have written,” he said.

Dormant, not dead

"Who to blame for flu? Maybe the U.S., study finds"


Maggie Fox and Peter Cooney

May 27th, 2010


The United States may provide an incubating ground for some flu strains, helping them migrate to warmer climates, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

For many years, researchers assumed that flu strains were mostly the product of China and Southeast Asia.

But a team at the University of Michigan, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Florida State University found that not all strains of flu circulating in North America die off at the end of influenza season.

Some of those appear to head to South America, and some migrate even farther, the reported. That may have happened with the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, they added.

"We found that although China and Southeast Asia play the largest role in the influenza A migration network, temperate regions -- particularly the USA -- also make important contributions," said Trevor Bedford of the University of Michigan, whose study appears in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Pathogens.

He and his colleagues tested genetic sequences from seasonal flu viruses collected from patients around the world between 1998 and 2009. They built a sort of family tree, charting the relationships among the viruses.

The new understanding of flu may require public health officials to change some of their strategies for fighting flu, they said.

For example, aggressive use of antiviral drugs such as Roche AG's Tamiflu could promote drug resistance if flu strains never really die out in the United States.

"We found, for instance, that South America gets almost all of its flu from North America," Bedford said in a statement.

"This would suggest that rather than giving South America the same vaccine that the rest of the world gets, you could construct a vaccine preferentially from the strains that were circulating in North America the previous season."

The findings could also be used to keep better track of flu strains, the team said.

"By doing this kind of research, we get a clearer idea of where in the world flu is actually coming from. We know that it's mostly Southeast Asia, but now we see that it can come out of temperate regions as well, so our surveillance needs to become more global," Bedford said.

The first cases of H1N1 swine flu were diagnosed in the United States. Experts are still unsure where swine flu originated, but genetic analysis suggests it came from pigs and had been circulating for many years before it was detected.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reading gestures

"Researchers make gesture-based computing interfaces more accessible"

New system uses single piece of inexpensive hardware and multicolored glove


Larry Hardesty

May 20th, 2010

MIT News Office

Academic and industry labs have developed a host of prototype gesture interfaces, ranging from room-sized systems with multiple cameras to detectors built into laptops’ screens. But MIT researchers have developed a system that could make gestural interfaces much more practical. Aside from a standard webcam, like those found in many new computers, the system uses only a single piece of hardware: a multicolored Lycra glove that could be manufactured for about a dollar.

Other prototypes of low-cost gestural interfaces have used reflective or colored tape attached to the fingertips, but “that’s 2-D information,” says Robert Wang, a graduate student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who developed the new system together with Jovan Popović, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “You’re only getting the fingertips; you don’t even know which fingertip [the tape] is corresponding to.” Wang and Popović’s system, by contrast, can translate gestures made with a gloved hand into the corresponding gestures of a 3-D model of the hand on screen, with almost no lag time. “This actually gets the 3-D configuration of your hand and your fingers,” Wang says. “We get how your fingers are flexing.”

The most obvious application of the technology, Wang says, would be in video games: Gamers navigating a virtual world could pick up and wield objects simply by using hand gestures. But Wang also imagines that engineers and designers could use the system to more easily and intuitively manipulate 3-D models of commercial products or large civic structures.

The glove went through a series of designs, with dots and patches of different shapes and colors, but the current version is covered with 20 irregularly shaped patches that use 10 different colors. The number of colors had to be restricted so that the system could reliably distinguish the colors from each other, and from those of background objects, under a range of different lighting conditions. The arrangement and shapes of the patches was chosen so that the front and back of the hand would be distinct but also so that collisions of similar-colored patches would be rare. For instance, Wang explains, the colors on the tips of the fingers could be repeated on the back of the hand, but not on the front, since the fingers would frequently be flexing and closing in front of the palm.

Technically, the other key to the system is a new algorithm for rapidly looking up visual data in a database, which Wang says was inspired by the recent work of Antonio Torralba, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of CSAIL. Once a webcam has captured an image of the glove, Wang’s software crops out the background, so that the glove alone is superimposed upon a white background. Then the software drastically reduces the resolution of the cropped image, to only 40 pixels by 40 pixels. Finally, it searches through a database containing myriad 40-by-40 digital models of a hand, clad in the distinctive glove, in a range of different positions. Once it’s found a match, it simply looks up the corresponding hand position. Since the system doesn’t have to calculate the relative positions of the fingers, palm, and back of the hand on the fly, it’s able to provide an answer in a fraction of a second.

Of course, a database of 40-by-40 color images takes up a large amount of memory — several hundred megabytes, Wang says. But today, a run-of-the-mill desktop computer has four gigabytes — or 4,000 megabytes — of high-speed RAM memory. And that number is only going to increase, Wang says.

Since the glove is made from stretchy Lycra, it can change size significantly from one user to the next; but in order to gauge the glove’s distance from the camera, the system has to have a good sense of its size. To calibrate the system, the user simply places an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper on a flat surface in front of the webcam, presses his or her hand against it, and in about three seconds, the system is calibrated.

Wang initially presented the glove-tracking system at last year’s Siggraph, the premier conference on computer graphics. But at the time, he says, the system took nearly a half-hour to calibrate, and it didn’t work nearly as well in environments with a lot of light. Now that the glove tracking is working well, however, he’s expanding on the idea, with the design of similarly patterned shirts that can be used to capture information about whole-body motion. Such systems are already commonly used to evaluate athletes’ form or to convert actors’ live performances into digital animations, but a system based on Wang and Popović’s technique could prove dramatically cheaper and easier to use.


Dashiell Hammett...mystery and adventure

Dashiell Hammett
May 27th, 1894 to January 10th, 1961

PBS's American Masters series

December 30th, 2003

Dashiell Hammett was born on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1894. The second of three children, he dropped out of school at the age of thirteen. He worked a succession of low-paying jobs including freight clerk, railroad laborer, messenger boy, and stevedore. In 1915 he began working on and off as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency. In less than ten years he would be turning these experiences into some of the most popular detective stories of his time. Unlike the intellectualized mysteries of earlier detective novels, Hammett’s less-than-glamorous realism transformed the genre into a serious response to the urban culture of the times.

Hammett spent his early twenties working as a detective in San Francisco before enlisting in the army during World War I. He became a sergeant in the Motor Ambulance Corp, where he contracted tuberculosis. Upon returning from the service, he realized that his ailing health made it impossible to continue as a detective. Quitting the agency, he tried his hand at writing. His first story was published in 1922 by the upscale society magazine THE SMART SET. His new gritty style of detective story, however, was better suited to the pulp crime magazines of the time. In 1923, one of the most popular, BLACK MASK, published his story “Arson Plus.”

For the next several years Hammett would hone his skills as a storyteller in the pages of BLACK MASK. There he introduced a nameless character referred to only as “the Continental Op.” This down-to-earth operative working for the Continental Detective Agency was the antithesis of the glamorous all-knowing investigators that made up much of the detective genre. The “Op,” with his rough speech and matter-of-fact attitude, was incredibly popular. In 1928 he wrote a full-length novel with the “Op,” incorporating much of what he had seen at the Pinkerton Agency. RED HARVEST was a psychological thriller narrated in a voice both penetrating and off-the-cuff. It was the raw, unadorned style of Red Harvest that would come to be known as “hard boiled.” Within a year Hammett published his second book, THE DAIN CURSE. By 1930 he had built a strong following, and decided to branch out with a new character.

For his next novel, Hammett created Sam Spade, a rough and solitary man who worked outside of the law. This independent detective made his first appearance in what was to become Hammett’s most famous book, THE MALTESE FALCON (1930). A story of greed and betrayal, THE MALTESE FALCON went into seven printings in its first year. In the 1941 movie version Humphrey Bogart played a reluctant, yet idealistic detective who epitomized the “hard boiled” hero. He tackled society’s corruption with an unyielding search for the truth, and a lack of concern for what it took to find it.

Hammett followed THE MALTESE FALCON a year later with THE GLASS KEY, a story of political intrigue focused on the social relations of the rich and the corruption of power. The New York Times described it as combining “the tradition of Sherlock Holmes with the style of Ernest Hemingway.” His new-found fame brought him into contact with a number of writers, including Ernest Hemingway. That same year he began a tempestuous affair with the playwright, Lillian Hellman. Hellman was strong, witty, intelligent and socially connected. Their affair introduced him to the thrilling new world of high society. To Hellman’s dismay, Hammett continued his life-long habits of excessive drinking and womanizing. Though their thirty year affair was often rocky, the two remained friends throughout Hammett’s life.

By the mid-thirties Hammett was at the height of his fame. No longer struggling to pay the rent, he moved to Hollywood and lived within the exclusive world of the Hollywood elite. In 1934 he published THE THIN MAN, which portrayed an ex-detective reluctantly investigating a disappearance. At the center of the story was a couple living a liquor-soaked open marriage. Scandalous for the times, THE THIN MAN, was repeatedly censored, but remained Hammett’s greatest commercial success. After THE THIN MAN, Hammett worked for the major studios re-writing other people’s scripts. Though he would continue to write for radio during the forties, THE THIN MAN was to be his final novel.

For the remainder of his life, Hammett dedicated himself to left-wing political involvement and the defense of civil liberties. During World War II, at the age of forty-eight, Hammett enlisted as a private in the army. Three years later he was honorably discharged as a sergeant. Leaving the army, he began to teach writing in New York at a Marxist institute. It was then that Hammett’s political integrity would be challenged. As the president of New York Civil Rights Congress, Hammett had posted bail for a group of communists on trial for conspiracy. When they jumped bail, Hammett was jailed for refusing to give the names of the sources of the bail money. After serving five months in prison, he was let out, only to find that the IRS was charging him with one hundred thousand dollars in back taxes.

Hammett spent the last ten years of his life in a small rural cottage in Katonah, New York. No longer at the center of the literary world, he continued to drink heavily in isolation. In 1955 he suffered a heart attack, and died six years later in New York City. Though his output was limited to only five novels, Hammett remains one of the most influential writers of his time. His introduction of the “hard-boiled” genre has had a profound effect on both television and the movies, and his uncompromisingly vernacular prose has influenced generations of writers as diverse as Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs.

The Maltese Falcon



Directed by John Huston

The Thin Man



Directed by W. S. van Dyke

Dashiell Hammett [Wikipedia]

Middlesex University update

Not the same thing, but you get the idea.

"University suspends philosophy professors after sit-in over closure"


Tim Ross and Miranda Bryant

May 27th, 2010

London Evening Standard

Academics have been suspended by a university after staging a sit-in over the closure of their department.

Middlesex University disciplined two professors, one senior lecturer and four students after they occupied the philosophy department for 12 days this month. Staff and students are to hold fresh demonstrations later today against the suspensions and the decision to close the faculty.

Campaigners claim there is no justification for shutting the department, which has an international reputation and was the universitys highest rated research section. The Government this week announced a further £200 million of cuts to national university budgets, on top of almost £1 billion of reductions set out by Labour.

Universities are preparing to make thousands of redundancies and turn away hundreds of thousands of students. Leading academics from around the world have written in support of the Middlesex protesters. Professor Peter Hallward, one of the suspended lecturers, said: “The Middlesex philosophy programmes are among the most successful and highly regarded of their kind in the UK. There are no credible academic or financial grounds for closing them down.”

The others who have been suspended are Professor Peter Osborne, head of Middlesex's Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, and senior lecturer Dr Christian Kerslake.

Professor Osborne, who has taught there for more than 20 years, said: “I'm annoyed, to put it mildly. The suspension is unjustified because there's no specific allegation against me.

“The university is deliberately using the suspension to keep us from informing our colleagues about the details of the programme's closure. This is a spasm of managerial self-destruction. It's extraordinary.”

The academics are all banned from contacting each other or their students without university permission. The occupation ended after the university obtained a High Court injunction.

A University spokesman said: “The suspensions are part of standard policy to enable a thorough internal investigation into alleged misconduct to proceed unhindered.

“The university has to intervene when protest is illegal or puts the health and safety of staff at risk.”

Academic cutbacks are metastasizing