Sunday, February 27, 2011

Google Science Fair?

See "Google Science Fair Is Global Competition for Genius Kids" .

Google Science Fair

John Evelyn's forestry


John Evelyn
October 31st, 1620 to February 27th, 1706

John Evelyn was an "English country gentleman, diarist, author of some 30 books on the fine arts, forestry, and religious topics. A lifelong member of the Royal Society, he produced for the commissioners of the navy the book, Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-trees, and the Propagation of Timber (1664), encouraging estate owners to plant timber for the navy. It was the first important work on conservation, published at a time when English forests were being stripped of timber to build ships for the expanding British Navy. The book gave a description of the various kinds of trees, their cultivation, uses, and advice on pruning, insect control, wound treatment, and transplanting. The study, with numerous modifications, had gone through 10 editions by 1825."

Lots of links to primary sources...

John Evelyn [Wikipedia]

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cats and the fair gender

Theodore Czebotar

How complex the relationship between humans and pets can be.

"Cats Adore, Manipulate Women"

Cats attach to humans, and particularly women, as social partners, and it's not just for the sake of obtaining food.


Jennifer Viegas

February 24th, 2011

Discovery News

The bond between cats and their owners turns out to be far more intense than imagined, especially for cat aficionado women and their affection reciprocating felines, suggests a new study.

Cats attach to humans, and particularly women, as social partners, and it's not just for the sake of obtaining food, according to the new research, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Behavioural Processes.

The study is the first to show in detail that the dynamics underlying cat-human relationships are nearly identical to human-only bonds, with cats sometimes even becoming a furry "child" in nurturing homes.

"Food is often used as a token of affection, and the ways that cats and humans relate to food are similar in nature to the interactions seen between the human caregiver and the pre-verbal infant," co-author Jon Day, a Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition researcher, told Discovery News. "Both cat and human infant are, at least in part, in control of when and what they are fed!"

For the study, led by Kurt Kotrschal of the Konrad Lorenz Research Station and the University of Vienna, the researchers videotaped and later analyzed interactions between 41 cats and their owners over lengthy four-part periods. Each and every behavior of both the cat and owner was noted. Owner and cat personalities were also assessed in a separate test. For the cat assessment, the authors placed a stuffed owl toy with large glass eyes on a floor so the feline would encounter it by surprise.

The researchers determined that cats and their owners strongly influenced each other, such that they were each often controlling the other's behaviors. Extroverted women with young, active cats enjoyed the greatest synchronicity, with cats in these relationships only having to use subtle cues, such as a single upright tail move, to signal desire for friendly contact.

While cats have plenty of male admirers, and vice versa, this study and others reveal that women tend to interact with their cats -- be they male or female felines -- more than men do.

"In response, the cats approach female owners more frequently, and initiate contact more frequently (such as jumping on laps) than they do with male owners," co-author Manuela Wedl of the University of Vienna told Discovery News, adding that "female owners have more intense relationships with their cats than do male owners."

Cats also seem to remember kindness and return the favors later. If owners comply with their feline's wishes to interact, then the cat will often comply with the owner's wishes at other times. The cat may also "have an edge in this negotiation," since owners are usually already motivated to establish social contact.

Although there are isolated instances of non-human animals, such as gorillas, bonding with other species, it seems to be mostly unique for humans to engage in social relationships with other animals. In this case with cats, it's for very good reason. Cats could very well be man's -- and woman's -- best friend.

"A relationship between a cat and a human can involve mutual attraction, personality compatibility, ease of interaction, play, affection and social support," co-author Dorothy Gracey of the University of Vienna explained. "A human and a cat can mutually develop complex ritualized interactions that show substantial mutual understanding of each other's inclinations and preferences."

Dennis Turner, a University of Zurich-Irchel animal behaviorist, told Discovery News the he's "very impressed with this study on human-cat interactions, in that it has taken our earlier findings a step higher, using more modern analytical techniques to get at the interplay between cat and human personalities."

Turner, who is also senior editor of The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour (Cambridge University Press), added that he and his colleagues "now have a new dimension to help us understand how these relationships function."

Kotrschal's team is presently involved in a long-term study of man's other well-known animal best friend: dogs.



This was brought to my attention by POSP stringer Tim...those giants and king of trees--the Redwoods.

Mario D. Vaden's Redwood Forest & Giant Redwoods Photo Album 1.

Why some redwood locations are secret

And an interesting educational film...

Redwood Saga [1940]

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What if...decent chemical warfare were used

Okay, I am a fan of the Three Stooges and I saw an episode [Boobs in Arms (1940)] the other day. I realize that nasty chemical warfare is prohibited but what if nitrous oxide [laughing gas] were used?

Plot [Wikipedia]

The short fits neatly into three parts. In the beginning the Stooges are street peddler greeting card salesmen who anger a man on the street after an accidental altercation. They are then approached by a woman (Evelyn Young) with a request to help her make her husband (Richard Fiske) jealous. The Stooges defend themselves against the irate husband with their usual combatives and flee from the husband shouting his threats. In hiding from him, they line up on a queue that takes them to a recruitment office by mistake and end up joining the army.

The second part of the short has them meeting their Drill instructor-sergeant Hugh Dare aka the irate husband/man on the street. The Stooges do the traditional military drill comic routines including bayonet practice with gusto and irritate the sergeant even more.

The last part of the short has the Stooges going to war against a fictional country and becoming casualties of a laughing gas shell that explodes on them, rather than the enemy, due to their pointing the cannon upward. They and their sergeant are captured by an anonymous enemy in European type uniforms who appear to speak pig latin. Hopped up by the gas, the Stooges gleefully use their violence in a wild free for all fight against their captors — including an accidental sword thrust to the rear of the sergeant and his retaliatory punch to the enemy captain that makes him fall on the pointed end of his pickelhaube helmet.

The Stooges knock out everyone, including all the enemy soldiers and their sergeant. After emerging victorious, several guns fire at them, with shells whizzing past, the Stooges always ducking in laughter or leaning back giggling, each time missing another shell. Finally, the last shot's shell passes between their legs and takes them into the clouds.

Shuttle Discovery

The old work horse made its last stand...soon to pasture.

February 24th, 2011
4:50pm EST

Celebrate a single tree...the "Survivor Tree"


Oklahoma City National Memorial [Wikipedia]

Survivor Tree


"Watson’s a Kindle, humans are iPads"

February 22nd, 2011


I missed the first and last days of IBM Watson’s assault on humanity, played out innocently on a game show. But Tuesday’s edition of Jeopardy alone was as demoralizing for me as a human as it exhilarated my android side.

Part of the fun is what the IBM Language Team came up with to make humans comfortable in Watson’s presence. The supercomputer had that tad of inflection and a tone of voice which put one in the mind of HAL 9000 before, well, you know. Watson mixed up the banter at least once with a “Let’s finish out … ,” instead of just naming the category and amount. Watson displayed some frailty on display by giving the same wrong answer human competitor Ken Jennings had just before — I have seen humans do this, so why not a supercomputer?

For many, though, Watson’s weakness wasn’t something with which to commiserate but a way to cling to a small hope that we weren’t sowing the seeds of our own destruction. As Wired put it on Twitter during day two’s massacre: “For those not watching @IBMWatson on Jeopardy, we won’t spoil it, but you might want to stock up on provisions. #skynet”

Watson was remarkable in many mundane ways. It showed the value of pure R&D. It continued an entrepreneurial tradition of showmanship to dramatize technology. It demonstrated, within limits, the kind of natural language processing power that Star Trek fans have always known is the future of computing.

One of those limits was that Watson doesn’t hear — it doesn’t respond to voice commands at all. This is just as well, since a voice interface isn’t ready for prime time. We humans are still required to adapt by providing the verbal equivalent of command-line instructions: particular words in a particular order. However, when I can say “I could really use a burrito” and trigger my car’s on-board computer to start tracking down menus, restaurants and phone numbers — or have it suggest a nice salad instead — then we’ll have something to talk about.

Even if interpretation is perfect, voice input isn’t always preferable. It could be great in a passenger car and for advanced avionics or a hospital’s operating theater — places where acting as fast as you can think is important, or where you need your hands for other things. But it’s the last thing you’d want in an office’s cubicle city.

Which is why Watson’s achievements in bridging the enormous gap between semantic and programmatic language are far more significant than it’s ability to quickly produce a correct fact, or even sound like one of the guys (it has a male simulated voice, for some reason).

Watson was designed for the specific showdown: It was prepared for simple questions, and “knew” they were questions (well, “answers” in the inverted world of Jeopardy). But the questions themselves were not tailored to accommodate Watson. Rather, it was the other way around — witness the first Final Jeopardy answer debacle in which Watson’s question implied it thought Toronto was a U.S. city.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves what really was the wow factor. There are internet search engines which parse semantic language. The first to make this claim, Ask Jeeves, was launched way back in 1996. The latest is from Wolfram-Alpha. Even Google serves up relevant answers pretty darn quick.

So far it’s much simpler for a machine to process an inquiry in text form than it is to figure out how to get a machine to “hear” you and interpret our irrational and incomplete ramblings. Indeed, Watson was getting the Jeopardy answers in text form as the human were hearing them.

For a studio-bound server farm Watson’s Jeopardy prowess certainly unleashed all manner of man versus machine gallows humor. And the machines we make may someday run amok even if they don’t become self-aware, like runaway trains on steroids.

But even after Watson’s superb Jeopardy showing, I’m not worried. Machines that do one thing well — even better than any human — are nothing to be afraid of. Yet.

"Garry Kasparov on IBM's Watson"


Garry Kasparov

February 22nd 2011

The Atlantic

Unless IBM's Watson can do more than play Jeopardy!, Garry Kasparov sees it as little more than a complicated toy.

That's what the Russian world chess champion said when asked for his thoughts on last week's Jeopardy! contest between two champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, and IBM's new Jeopardy!-playing supercomputer. Kasparov reviewed the three-day contest and offered his initial thoughts exclusively to The Atlantic.

The true test of Watson's significance, Kasparov says, will be whether it can be translated "into something useful, something groundbreaking"—applied in a more meaningful way, beyond the game show.

In the annals of man vs. machine competition (the topic of this month's Atlantic cover story), Kasparov holds the most prominent of historic places. The Russian world chess champion defeated IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1996, then lost in a six-game rematch in 1997 that surprised many and revealed a nascent truth: In closed-system contests of raw data computation, computer technology had evolved an edge over the most talented and disciplined human minds. Kasparov accused IBM of cheating in the match and requested a rematch but was denied.

Find below Kasparov's initial take on Watson, offered via e-mail through an aide:

* A convincing victory under strict parameters, and if we stay within those limits Watson can be seen as an incremental advance in how well machines understand human language. But if you put the questions from the show into Google, you also get good answers, even better ones if you simplify the questions. To me, this means Watson is doing good job of breaking language down into points of data it can mine very quickly, and that it does it slightly better than Google does against the entire Internet.

* Much like how computers play chess, reducing the algorithm into "crunchable" elements can simulate the way humans do things in the result even though the computer's method is entirely different. If the result—the chess move, the Jeopardy answer—is all that matters, it's a success. If how the result is achieved matters more, I'm not so sure. For example, Deep Blue had no real impact on chess or science despite the hype surrounding its sporting achievement in defeating me. If Watson's skills can be translated into something useful, something groundbreaking, that is the test. If all it can do is beat humans on a game show Watson is just a passing entertainment akin to the wind-up automata of the 18th century.

* My concern about its utility, and I read they would like it to answer medical questions, is that Watson's performance reminded me of chess computers. They play fantastically well in maybe 90% of positions, but there is a selection of positions they do not understand at all. Worse, by definition they do not understand what they do not understand and so cannot avoid them. A strong human Jeopardy! player, or a human doctor, may get the answer wrong, but he is unlikely to make a huge blunder or category error—at least not without being aware of his own doubts. We are also good at judging our own level of certainty. A computer can simulate this by an artificial confidence measurement, but I would not like to be the patient who discovers the medical equivalent of answering "Toronto" in the "US Cities" category, as Watson did.

* I would not like to downplay the Watson team's achievement, because clearly they did something most did not yet believe possible. And IBM can be lauded for these experiments. I would only like to wait and see if there is anything for Watson beyond Jeopardy!. These contests attract the popular imagination, but it is possible that by defining the goals so narrowly they are aiming too low and thereby limit the possibilities of their creations.

Watson wins on "Jeopardy"

Those pesky "moral dilemmas"

"Are we more -- or less -- moral than we think?"

February 22nd, 2011

If asked whether we'd steal, most of us would say no. Would we try to save a drowning person? That depends—perhaps on our fear of big waves. Much research has explored the ways we make moral decisions. But in the clinch, when the opportunity arises to do good or bad, how well do our predictions match up with the actions we actually take?

A study by Rimma Teper, Michael Inzlicht, and Elizabeth Page-Gould of the University of Toronto Scarborough tested the difference between moral forecasting and moral action—and the reasons behind any mismatch. Published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science, the findings look encouraging: Participants acted more morally than they would have predicted.

But lest we get sentimental about that result, lead author and psychology PhD candidate Teper offers this: "There has been other work that has shown the opposite effect—that people are acting less morally" than they forecast.

What's the missing link between moral reasoning and moral action? Emotion. Emotions—fear, guilt, love—play a central role in all thinking and behavior, including moral behavior. But when people are contemplating how they'll act, "they don't have a good grasp of the intensity of the emotions they will feel" in the breach, says Teper, so they misjudge what they'll do.

For this study, three groups of students were given a math test of 15 questions. One group was told that a glitch in the software would cause the correct answer to show on the screen if they hit the space bar—but only they would know they'd hit it. This group took the test; a $5 reward was promised for 10 or more right answers. Another group was given a description of this moral dilemma, and was then asked to predict whether or not they would cheat for each question. The third group just took the test without the opportunity to cheat.

During the trial, electrodes measured the strength of participants' heart contractions, their heart and breathing rates, and the sweat in their palms—all of which increase with heightened emotion. Not surprisingly, those facing the real dilemma were most emotional. Their emotions drove them to do the right thing and refrain from cheating.

The students asked only to predict their actions felt calmer—and said they'd cheat more than the test-takers actually did. Students who took the test with no opportunity to cheat were calmer as well, indicating the arousal that the students in the first group were feeling was unique to the moral dilemma.

But emotions conflict, and that figures in decision making too. "If the stakes were higher—say, the reward was $100—the emotions associated with that potential gain might override the nervousness or fear associated with cheating," says Teper. In future research, "we might try to turn this effect around" and see how emotion leads people to act less morally than they forecast.

"This time, we got a rosy picture of human nature," coauthor Michael Inzlicht comments. "But the essential finding is that emotions are what drive you to do the right thing or the wrong thing."

Hate groups on the rise

This isn't surprising.

"Annual report cites rise in hate groups, but some ask: What is hate?"

The Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of US hate groups has topped 1,000 for the first time. But conservative critics say a too-broad definition of hate stifles legitimate debate.


Patrik Jonsson

February 23rd, 2011

The Christian Science Monitor

Even as the Southern Poverty Law Center points out that the number of US hate groups has topped 1,000 for the first time, the civil rights organization is receiving flak from critics on the right who say an overbroad definition of “hate” vilifies innocent people and stifles vigorous debate about issues critical to America's future.

Tension erupted recently between the SPLC and a slew of Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota (who tops the SPLC's “militia enablers list”), who protested the SPLC’s listing of the conservative Family Research Council as a hate group. The SPLC said the Family Research Council is knowingly pushing falsehoods about gay people.

The tension between the SPLC and its critics on the right underscores that “conflicts in America today are deeper than they were in the 1850s,” says Donald Livingston, an Emory University philosophy professor and a former member of the pro-secessionist League of the South, which the SPLC today lists as a hate group.

The Montgomery, Ala.-based SPLC, which became well-known for civil lawsuits that weakened the KKK and other white supremacist groups, is careful to note that organizations on its list don't necessarily advocate violence. Its definition of a hate group and “ideologues” includes groups and people who suggest that an entire group of human beings are, by virtue of class characteristics, “somewhat less,” says Mark Potok, the editor of the SPLC's Intelligence Report, which published its findings Wednesday.

“We're not in any way suggesting that these groups should be outlawed or free speech should be suppressed ... but it's a kind of calling out the liars, the demonizers, the propagandists,” says Mr. Potok. While the groups themselves may not advocate violence, he says, such speech has “driven people and will continue to drive people to murder.”

Driven by fears about changing demographics, the first black president, and a harrowing economy, “[the] three strands of the radical right – the hatemongers, the nativists and the antigovernment zealots – increased from 1,753 groups in 2009 to 2,145 in 2010, a 22% rise,” the report says. “That followed a 2008-2009 increase of 40%.”

Neo-Nazi-like hate groups grew by nearly 10 percent since 2009, to 1002; anti-immigration vigilante groups grew by 3 percent, to 319; and antigovernment “Patriot” groups – defined as “conspiracy-minded organizations that see the federal government as their primary enemy” – grew by 60 percent, to 824. (See the SPLC's “hate map” here.)

Potok notes that the slowdown in the increase of the number of so-called "nativist" anti-immigration groups is probably related to the enactment of tough new measures against illegal immigrants, such as in Arizona. But while legislators in states such as Virginia and Montana have proffered a slew of antifederal legislation this year, the mainstreaming of hard-right issues hasn't dramatically “taken the wind out of the sails” of Patriot groups, he says.

“[Despite] historic Republican gains, the early signs suggest that even as the more mainstream political right strengthens, the radical right has remained highly energized,” the report states.

As evidence, the report points to an 11-day period in January when “a neo-Nazi was arrested headed for the Arizona border with a dozen homemade grenades; a terrorist bomb attack on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., was averted after police dismantled a sophisticated anti-personnel weapon; and a man who officials said had a long history of antigovernment activities was arrested outside a packed mosque in Dearborn, Mich., and charged with possessing explosives with unlawful intent. That’s in addition, the same month, to the shooting of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, an attack that left six dead and may have had a political dimension.”

While the SPLC's investigations and studies are used by some law enforcement agencies concerned about domestic terrorism, its overall work, its critics on the right say, has taken on an overtly political dimension by giving ideological cover for attacks primarily on white conservatives and by turning the word “patriot” into a euphemism.

In December, 22 Republican lawmakers, among them Speaker Boehner and Representative Bachmann, three governors, and a number of conservative organizations took out full-page ads in two Washington papers castigating the SPLC for “character assassination” by listing the conservative Family Research Council as a hate group.

Professor Livingston’s own run-in with the SPLC is over his previous association with the League of the South, initially a largely academic organization that promoted the notion that the South might have to secede. The SPLC lists him as an "ideologue" of the neo-Confederate movement.

According to the SPLC, the League of the South today “is a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by ‘European Americans.’ The league believes the ‘godly’ nation it wants to form should be run by an ‘Anglo-Celtic’ (read: white) elite that would establish a Christian theocratic state and politically dominate blacks and other minorities.”

Livingston says he left the League after it became more political in nature, but adds that it is not a hate group.

Emory University, Livingston says, looked into claims in a college newspaper story that used the SPLC's designation to link him to a "hate group," but he was cleared and backed by the university.

"They really need to explain what they mean by hate and how in the world [Loyola economist Thomas] DiLorenzo or myself could be associated with something called hate," says Livingston. "We don't hate anybody."

In January, Mr. DiLorenzo was called out on the House floor for being a member of the League of the South. Mr. DiLorenzo says he's not a member, but Loyola University in Baltimore is investigating.

Livingston, who describes himself as a former supporter of the SPLC, questions whether the organization's "hate group" reports are primarily tied to its fund-raising activities. He also notes that many of those listed by the SPLC take it as a "badge of honor," much as tea party activists took to wearing "I'm a right-wing extremist" T-shirts.

Nevertheless, he says, "it's time for some reality check on this sort of thing, beginning with the very concept of hate. The SPLC has a political agenda and they vilify people, that's what they do. There's very little in the way of an empirical examination of groups that might pose a threat to civil order. There's almost nobody left in the Klan, so what they do is they find respectable groups or high-profile people and they say, 'X is linked to Y, who is linked to a hate group.' That's what McCarthy did."

The SPLC’s Potok takes the criticisms in stride.

"We are regularly accused of trying to shut down people's speech rights, of trying to send anyone to prison who is not politically correct," Potok says. "Those criticisms are ludicrous, and they come from people who don't read what we write."

Celluloid film art characteristic in itself

Tacita Dean

I have argued for celluloid film stock for years. Digital images cannot replace the ambiance of film grain associated with celluloid film stock. Digital is flat. Digital does have its place in news information and scientific data gathering but a motion picture film is best left to celluloid film stock.

"Save celluloid, for art's sake"

When Tacita Dean went to make a 16mm film for Tate Modern she was shocked to find the lab had stopped using it. Why can't digital and celluloid coexist, she asks


Tacita Dean

February 22nd, 2011

On Tuesday last week, the staff at Soho Film Laboratory were told by their new owners, Deluxe, that they were stopping the printing of 16mm film, effective immediately. Len Thornton, who looks after 16mm, was told he could take no new orders. That was it: medium eviction without notice. This news will devastate my working life and that of many others, and means that I will have to take the production of my work for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall commission out of Britain.

Soho Film Lab was the last professional lab to be printing 16mm in the UK. In recent years, as 16mm has grown as a medium for artists, the lab has been inundated with work, both from this country and abroad. Contrary to what people imagine, it is a growing and captive market, albeit a small one, with a new generation of younger artists turning to analogue technologies to make and show their work: Thornton says he handles work from more than 170 artists. Then there's the effect that this will have on the BFI and their conservation of the many thousands of reels of Movietone news footage, television, documentaries, features and much else.

These last few days have been like having my bag stolen and remembering, bit by bit, what I had inside it. My relationship with the lab is an intimate one; they watch over my work, and are, in a sense, its protectors. I have made more than 40 films, and each one has several internegatives (a copy of the original negative). In the vaults of Soho Film Lab are racks packed high with cans containing my life's work to date, including the negatives of films I never made. I order countless prints each year, as projecting my films on loop systems in museums and galleries inevitably means that they become scratched and exhausted. Thornton and his colleagues know the titles of all these films, and when I make a new film, I turn up at the lab and grade every colour in every scene. Film is chemistry: chemistry that has produced the miracle of the moving image. Decades of knowledge, skill and experience have gone into my saying, "I think that shot is too green, but the next one is too pink."

Deluxe (who responded that they have "nothing to say at this time") are, admittedly, ending only one tiny part of an ongoing process: they will not stop processing 16mm negative, and will continue to process and print 35mm. It is not as though they are giving up the chemicals and going dry. But they are stopping 16mm print because the cinema industry does not need it any more, and it is they who run the labs and are dictating that movies go digital and celluloid be phased out. Printing 16mm is an irritant to them, as it is time away from printing feature films, and features are the industry and all that matters. Pitched against this, art is voiceless and insignificant. My films are depictions of their subject and therefore closer to painting than they are to narrative cinema. I shoot on negative that is then taken to the lab, in much the same way you used to drop your photos off to be developed. The 16mm print I get back is called the rush print. The negative stays in the lab. Working alone on a cutting table over many weeks, I cut my film out of the rush print. Using tape, I stick the shots together, working as both artist and artisan. It is the heart of my process, and the way I form the film is intrinsically bound up with these solitary hours of watching, spooling and splicing.

When I have finished, I take my reel of taped film, now called my cutting copy, to a negative cutter, who cuts the original negative and delivers it to the lab, which then prints it as a film. My relationship to film begins at that moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. Along the way, there are several stages of magical transformation that imbue the work with varying layers of intensity. This is why the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics but something deeper – something to do with poetry.

Many of us are exhausted from grieving over the dismantling of analogue technologies. Digital is not better than analogue, but different. What we are asking for is co-existence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.

The real crux of the difference is that artists exhibit, and so care about the final presentation and presence of the artwork in the space. Other professions have their work mediated into different formats: TV, magazines, billboards, books. It remains only in galleries and museums that the physical encounter is so critical, which is why artists, in the widest sense, are the most distressed by the obsolescence of analogue mediums. But it is also in these spaces that a younger generation born in the digital age are taking up analogue mediums in enormous numbers. At the recent Berlin art fair, 16mm film projections outnumbered digital projections by two to one.

The decision to end 16mm print at Soho Film Lab, newly named Deluxe Soho, seems to be worldwide policy (they have already ended 16mm printing in their labs in New York and Toronto), so it is unlikely we will be able to reverse the decision locally. I spent my weekend writing to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who are both understood to care about celluloid film, even 16mm. I am also trying to make contact through the Guggenheim with the US owner of Deluxe, Ron Perelman, who, as a patron of the arts, might not have understood the devastating impact this presumably financially negligible decision might have on a growing group of contemporary artists, the galleries and museums that show them and the national collections that own their work.

In the end, the decision is more cultural than fiscal, and needs to be taken away from the cinema industry. What we need in the UK is a specialist laboratory for conservation-quality 16mm and 35mm prints, possibly affiliated to the BFI. This needs to happen quickly, before the equipment, technology and experience is irreparably dismantled, and Deluxe must help with this. In the meantime, I will look to the last remaining labs in Europe to print my 16mm films.

We are getting older

Billy Collins [William James Collins]...Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.

Face it, it will happen to all of us.



The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Billy Collins [Poetry Foundation]

Billy Collins []

Billy Collins [Wikipedia]

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Trees" at the Getty


Fort Osage, Missouri

Uranyl Nitrate/Sepia

ca. 1967

An Oak Tree in Winter

William Henry Fox Talbot

ca 1842-43

"Trees branch out at the Getty"


Liesl Bradner

February 19th, 2011

The Los Angeles Times

Throughout history, humans have embraced trees for their beauty, strength and spiritual symbolism. Artists have been equally fascinated with the wooded perennial as a model, perhaps for its serene, low-maintenance temperament, easy accessibility and its timeless, simple quality. The J. Paul Getty Museum examines the photographic interpretations of trees as seen through the lenses of 29 artists with "In Focus: The Tree."

On view are 37 images drawn from the museum's permanent collection, including works from Carleton Watkins, William Eggleston, Bret Weston, Dorothea Lange, Albert Renger-Patzsch and Henri Cartier-Bresson. "It's a thematic show that charts the progress of photography," said Anne Lyden, associate curator, "from the early days of daguerreotype and gelatin silver prints to the Eliot Porter dye transfer process and digital prints of the 21st century."

One of the earliest images was taken around 1842 by William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the calotype process. "An Oak Tree in Winter" displays a lace-like pattern of bare branches against a stark sky on his property in England. "The wind was a problem back then because the long exposure would create a blur, so he chose the bleakest point of winter for practical purposes," said Françoise Reynaud, curator of photographs at Paris' Musée Carnavalet and co-curator of the show along with Lyden.

The show depicts a wide range of representations of the tree and how it relates to its surroundings. "The beauty of a tree is ubiquitous, and we often take it for granted," Lyden said. Many images have obvious ecological underpinnings but one adds a droll touch to the plight of the tree: Diane Arbus' "Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, Long Island" displays a tinsel-strewn tree squashed in a living room corner.

One of the more remarkable photos is Darius Kinsey's "Felling Cedar Tree Thirty Miles East of Seattle, 76 Feet in Circumference." Shot in 1906, the photo recalls a time long before deforestation was a political issue. Shown are loggers taking a break from chopping, their axes and saws barely visible, resembling tiny toothpicks in contrast to the great cedar trunk.

For her large-scale photograph "Forest," Australian-based Singaporean photographer Simryn Gill tore pages from books that held meaningful narratives or unique fonts and fashioned them into strips and wrapped them around a coconut tree. "It's a play on natural and man-made coming together in a very organic way," said Reynaud of Gill's creation. South Korean artist Myoung Ho Lee used the standard photographer's prop, a backdrop, for "Tree #3. "He placed it outside behind the large tree so it can remain in its natural element; he digitally removed the people and devices holding the backdrop in place, revealing a lone tree set against a clean, white canvas yet in a landscape setting.

"People attach a personal feeling to trees," Reynaud said. "It goes back to childhood and the simple act of climbing a tree."

The show runs through July 3.

Deceased--Thelma Z. Lavine

Thelma Z. Lavine
February 12th, 1915 to January 28th, 2011

"Thelma Z. Lavine, who brought an accessible approach to philosophy, dies"

Thelma Z. Lavine, a professor at several Washington area universities who was known for making Western philosophy broadly accessible in her writings and television appearances, died Jan. 28 at age 95.


Emma Brown

February 21st, 2011

The Washington Post

Thelma Z. Lavine, a professor at several Washington area universities who was known for making Western philosophy broadly accessible in her writings and television appearances, died Jan. 28 at her home in the District of cardiac arrest. She was 95.

Dr. Lavine specialized in 19th century German philosophy, the sociology of knowledge, and American philosophy, particularly the writings of psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey.

Described in a Washington Post profile as "an evangelist for philosophy," she taught at the University of Maryland during the 1950s and '60s and then for two decades at George Washington University. She was on the George Mason University faculty from 1985 until she retired in 1998.

At all three schools, she was known for teaching popular courses that emphasized connections between philosophy, economics, history and contemporary American culture.

"One of the things that intrigues my students is that I laugh a lot," she told The Post in 1985. "Philosophy is comic because a lot of it is gamesmanship, and the efforts on either side of an issue are never entirely conclusive."

She was the author of "From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest" (1984), a concise history of Western thought that used plain language to raise provocative questions, such as whether one could prove the existence of God and the meaning of existential author Jean-Paul Sartre's statement that man is "condemned to be free."

"From Socrates to Sartre," which a Post review called "thoroughly accessible to the budding philosopher," grew out of a 30-part series of Dr. Lavine's lectures that were initially broadcast by Maryland Public Television and later were shown by public television stations across the country. The series brought thousands of letters from viewers.

"She made me see how philosophy reaches into every single minute crevice of life," a former student, Lisa Seigel, told The Post in 1985. "She taught me how to think."

Thelma Zeno Lavine was born in Boston on Feb. 12, 1915.

Her father, a designer of women's clothing, chose her middle name, which came from Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism - that philosophy of fortitude and self-control. "It was part of his very sober view of human life," Dr. Lavine later said. "He was not exactly an enlightened optimist."

She received a bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College in 1936 and received doctorates in philosophy and psychology from Harvard University.

Dr. Lavine taught at Wells College in Aurora, N.Y., and Brooklyn College before joining the University of Maryland faculty in 1955.

She was the author of scholarly articles and reviews and was a past president of the Washington Philosophy Club and the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy.

Dr. Lavine's other memberships included the Cosmos Club in Washington and the executive board of the Washington School of Psychiatry's Forum on Psychiatry and the Humanities.

Her husband of 40 years, Jerome J. Sachs, died in 1984. Survivors include a daughter, Margaret V. Sachs of Athens, Ga.

From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest


Thelma Z. Lavine

ISBN-10: 0553251619
ISBN-13: 978-0553251616

Monday, February 21, 2011

Marginal notations

Mark Twain left a comment about “Huckleberry Finn,” in his copy of “The Pen and the Book” by Walter Besant.

"Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins"


Dirk Johnson

February 20th, 2011

The New York Times

Locked in a climate-controlled vault at the Newberry Library here, a volume titled “The Pen and the Book” can be studied only under the watch of security cameras.

The book, about making a profit in publishing, scarcely qualifies as a literary masterpiece. It is highly valuable, instead, because a reader has scribbled in the margins of its pages.

The scribbler was Mark Twain, who had penciled, among other observations, a one-way argument with the author, Walter Besant, that “nothing could be stupider” than using advertising to sell books as if they were “essential goods” like “salt” or “tobacco.” On another page, Twain made some snide remarks about the big sums being paid to another author of his era, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

Like many readers, Twain was engaging in marginalia, writing comments alongside passages and sometimes giving an author a piece of his mind. It is a rich literary pastime, sometimes regarded as a tool of literary archaeology, but it has an uncertain fate in a digitalized world.

“People will always find a way to annotate electronically,” said G. Thomas Tanselle, a former vice president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and an adjunct professor of English at Columbia University. “But there is the question of how it is going to be preserved. And that is a problem now facing collections libraries.”

These are the sorts of matters pondered by the Caxton Club, a literary group founded in 1895 by 15 Chicago bibliophiles. With the Newberry, it is sponsoring a symposium in March titled “Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell.”

The symposium will feature a new volume of 52 essays about association copies — books once owned or annotated by the authors — and ruminations about how they enhance the reading experience. The essays touch on works that connect President Lincoln and Alexander Pope; Jane Austen and William Cooper; Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.

Marginalia was more common in the 1800s. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a prolific margin writer, as were William Blake and Charles Darwin. In the 20th century it mostly came to be regarded like graffiti: something polite and respectful people did not do.

Paul F. Gehl, a curator at the Newberry, blamed generations of librarians and teachers for “inflicting us with the idea” that writing in books makes them “spoiled or damaged.”

But marginalia never vanished. When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa in 1977, a copy of Shakespeare was circulated among the inmates. Mandela wrote his name next to the passage from “Julius Caesar” that reads, “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”

Studs Terkel, the oral historian, was known to admonish friends who would read his books but leave them free of markings. He told them that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation.

Books with markings are increasingly seen these days as more valuable, not just for a celebrity connection but also for what they reveal about the community of people associated with a work, according to Heather Jackson, a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

Professor Jackson, who will speak at the symposium, said examining marginalia reveals a pattern of emotional reactions among everyday readers that might otherwise be missed, even by literary professionals.

“It might be a shepherd writing in the margins about what a book means to him as he’s out tending his flock,” Professor Jackson said. “It might be a schoolgirl telling us how she feels. Or maybe it’s lovers who are exchanging their thoughts about what a book means to them.”

Just about anyone who has paged through a used college textbook has seen marginalia, and often added comments of their own.

Not everyone values marginalia, said Paul Ruxin, a member of the Caxton Club. “If you think about the traditional view that the book is only about the text,” he said, “then this is kind of foolish, I suppose.”

David Spadafora, president of the Newberry, said marginalia enriched a book, as readers infer other meanings, and lends it historical context. “The digital revolution is a good thing for the physical object,” he said. As more people see historical artifacts in electronic form, “the more they’re going to want to encounter the real object.”

The collection at the Newberry includes a bound copy of “The Federalist” once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Besides penciling his initials in the book, Jefferson wrote those of the founding fathers alongside their essays, which had originally been published anonymously.

“It’s pretty interesting to hold a book that Jefferson held,” Mr. Spadafora said. “Besides that, if we know what books were in his library in the years leading to the writing of the Declaration of Independence, it tells us something about what might have inspired his intellect.”

In her markings, Rose Caylor gave us a sense of her husband, the playwright Ben Hecht. In her copy of “A Child of the Century,” which Mr. Hecht wrote, she had drawn an arrow pointing to burns on a page. “Strikes matches on books,” she noted about her husband, who was a smoker.

Some lovers of literature even conjure dreamy notions about those who have left marginalia for them to find. In his poem “Marginalia,” Billy Collins, the former American poet laureate, wrote about how a previous reader had stirred the passions of a boy just beginning high school and reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”

As the poem describes it, he noticed “a few greasy smears in the margin” and a message that was written “in soft pencil — by a beautiful girl, I could tell.” It read, “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Deceased--Roy Gussow

Roy Gussow
November 12th, 1918 to February 11th, 2011

"Roy Gussow, Abstract Sculptor, Dies at 92"


Dennis Hevesi

February 20th, 2011

The New York Times

Roy Gussow, an abstract sculptor whose polished stainless-steel works with swooping contours gleam in public squares and corporate spaces, died on Feb. 11 in Queens. He was 92 and had lived and worked in Long Island City, Queens, for nearly half a century.

The cause was a heart attack, his daughter Jill Gussow said.

New Yorkers passing by the Family Court building at Lafayette and Leonard Streets in Lower Manhattan may not have known Mr. Gussow’s name, but they were probably struck by “Three Forms,” his eight-foot-high sculpture on a two-foot granite base. (The sculpture had stood outside the courthouse since 1974 but was recently taken down for renovation.)

The work is a blend of three distinct flowing shapes. What is striking about it — as with many of Mr. Gussow’s sculptures — is its mirrorlike finish, which casts reflections from all directions as the spectator moves around it.

“I strive for lyrical equilibrium among distinctly different elements, and I like to think I am suggesting optimism, beauty and well-being,” Mr. Gussow said of “Three Forms” — as he could have said of most of his work.

Large-scale pieces by Mr. Gussow stand in more than a dozen cities, including outside the Civic Center in Tulsa, Okla., the Xerox building in Rochester and insurance company buildings in Hartford, and on the campus of North Carolina State University.

Outside City Hall in Harrisburg, Pa., Mr. Gussow’s “Crystal” was unveiled in 1983. Standing 17 feet high, its six wedge-shaped facets reach out to viewers while reflecting the sun and casting images of passing clouds.

In 1967, Mr. Gussow helped fabricate a sculpture designed by José de Rivera: a 16-foot-long continuous swirl of stainless steel in front of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of History and Technology, now the Museum of American History. Mounted on a granite-sheathed tower, it stands 24 feet high and was one of the first abstract sculptures to adorn a major public building in Washington.

Mr. Gussow’s smaller works are in the collections of many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Brooklyn Museum. When some of his sculptures were exhibited at the prominent Borgenicht Gallery on upper Madison Avenue in 1973, James R. Mellow wrote in The New York Times, “This is precisionist work of a high degree, every effect calculated for maximum effect and carried off with perfect aplomb.”

Born in Brooklyn on Nov. 12, 1918, Roy Gussow was one of three children of Abraham and Mildred Gussow. He wanted to be a farmer and went to Farmingdale State College on Long Island but changed course and earned a degree in landscape architecture in 1938.

While serving in the United States Army in France during World War II, Mr. Gussow met the painter George Kachergis, who urged him to pursue a career in art and design. Returning to the United States, he enrolled at the Institute of Design in Illinois, where the cubist sculptor Alexander Archipenko became a mentor. Mr. Archipenko took him to his summer school in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1946. There he met Mary Maynard, whom he would later marry. She died in 2004.

Besides his daughter Jill, Mr. Gussow is survived by two other daughters, Mimi Gussow and Olga Hauptman; two grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Mr. Gussow taught at Bradley University, the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs and the North Carolina School of Design near Raleigh before moving to Manhattan in 1962. Two years later he moved to an industrialized section of Long Island City, becoming one of the first of a wave of artists to settle there.

In a building that had been a silver-plating factory, he set up his home and his studio and began bringing in drill presses, polishing grinders, a hydraulic lift and a band saw that his daughter said was “the size of a truck.” All to fashion sleek, seemingly seamless works.

Enter "Roy Gussow" in Google's image search engine for more samples.

Borders bookstores--going down

"Borders 'store closing' sales attract shoppers"

About one-third of Borders bookstores are expected to shut by the end of April, including 21 in Southern California.


Andrea Chang

February 21st, 2011

Los Angeles Times

Bargain hunters were out in force this weekend as liquidation sales began at 200 Borders locations slated to close as part of the company's bankruptcy filing.

The affected stores — about one-third of the bookseller's locations — are expected to close by the end of April. Twenty-one underperforming stores in Southern California will be shut, including stores in Sherman Oaks, Century City, Long Beach and Orange.

Huge "store closing" and "everything must go" posters covered the windows at Borders in Pasadena and Glendale, which were bustling with customers Sunday. Many sections were already picked over, with shelves left bare and items such as notebooks, journals and photo albums strewn about.

Most items were discounted 20% to 40%, with markdowns expected to increase in coming weeks.

"As long as there's a deal, I'm going to take advantage of it," said Jordan Francke, 27, who was checking out the games section at the Glendale store.

"It's just the changing landscape of literature these days. It's all electronic," Francke, a television schedule coordinator, said of the chain's bankruptcy. "I can only imagine it's a struggle for a place like Borders to stay relevant."

That's a harsh reality for regular customers such as Kathleen O'Reilly, 52, who was at the Pasadena Borders carrying a shopping basket laden with discounted stationery and magazines.

The Pasadena resident said she was "old school" and enjoyed seeing and touching books before making a purchase. She said she would miss visiting the store with her teenage daughter.

"I spend several days a week here," said O'Reilly, a college counselor at a high school. "I actually debated whether I even wanted to come because I was worried I'd be too upset to see the store torn apart."

Business is expected to continue as usual on the company's website and at stores that aren't closing.

After a slew of competitive blunders and missteps in the last decade, Borders Group Inc. found itself in trouble and had to cut staff, shut stores and shake up its top management.

Critics said the company botched its move into the digital age, causing sales and earnings to plummet. At the same time, mass merchants including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. became major players in the book-selling market, often offering lower prices than Borders and rival Barnes & Noble Inc.

But Borders maintains it isn't done for good. In a letter e-mailed to customers and posted on the company's website last week, Borders President Mike Edwards said the company hoped to emerge from Chapter 11 as "the destination of choice."

About 6,000 of the chain's roughly 19,000 workers will be laid off as part of the closures. Among them is Rich Kilbury, who was pushing a cart stacked high with books at the Pasadena location Sunday.

"It's depressing, but we kind of saw it coming," he said. "Business had dropped off."

The promise of discounts attracted Victoria Rose to the Pasadena store, where she was browsing mystery and thriller books. The 60-year-old high school English teacher said she was never a regular customer because she could find a better selection and lower prices elsewhere.

"I rarely come here," she said. "Between Amazon and Vroman's, I'm well-taken care of."

"Sunday At Borders, Bankruptcy Notwithstanding"


John C Abell

February 20th, 2011


Borders, which pioneered the idea that a bookstore could be more like a combination of a library and your living room — a welcome place to hang out and browse and relax and not just buy — filed for bankruptcy protection last week. The chain is a victim of the harsh realities of operating a massive bricks and mortar operation as your product turns to bytes.

Whether Borders thrives or disappears in the coming years, it is a poster child of life in the age of media disruption.

Many stores will close, we already know. And in Ann Arbor, where the company started, it is ground zero for nostalgia.

“This city’s connection to Borders is as much emotional as financial,” said in an editorial. “It was the sophisticated book-lovers of Ann Arbor who provided the original audience for Borders to emerge and grow. In turn, Borders changed the book-buying experience with its impressive inventory, its come-in-and-browse-a-while ambiance, and particularly with its knowledgeable, helpful staff.”

In a letter to members of its award program, CEO Mike Edwards took pains to assure that nothing is changing for now (apart from store closings).

There is a Borders in my town, and it is not one of the approximately 200 stores targeted for closing. For those of you who have never subscribed to a print newspaper, or remember a time that you had to go to a big bookstore to find something that wasn’t today’s best seller — or who only know chain bookstores from your local mall — the quiet discovery possible in such a place isn’t something to give up lightly.

And related...

"A world tour of bookstore cafes"

What better place to check out a new city than a warm, welcoming bookstore?


Mark Vanhoenacker

February 6th, 2011

Los Angeles Times

After an espresso or two has kicked jet lag into the long grass, I find no better place to plot a course in a city than at an independent bookstore cafe. Many operate more as cultural and community centers than as businesses, with late hours and a medium-sized town's worth of on-site readings, tastings and concerts out of any weather that may be annoying you. Check out their posters and bulletin boards for options farther afield. And ask the staff: Bookstore cafes usually have a nicotine-tinged finger or two on a city's pulse.

Local patrons, too, tend to be welcoming and helpful even in the world's most frenzied metropolises. A bookstore cafe, after all, is the last place you'd go in a hurry.

Although bookstore cafes unlock the cultural life of the surrounding area, some are so special that they are destinations in their own right. In this sense, the world's finest bookstore cafe may well be the Montague Bookmill, housed in a marvelous 19th century structure above the Sawmill River in Montague, Mass.

The Bookmill is owned by screenwriter Susan Shilliday ("thirtysomething," "A Wrinkle in Time," "Legends of the Fall"), who relocated to western Massachusetts after three decades in Los Angeles. Once a regular at Santa Monica's 18th Street Coffee House and the now-shuttered Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, Shilliday's daughter introduced her to the "shared secret" of the Bookmill (slogan: "Books you don't need in a place you can't find"). She found it to be the ideal place to write, read, socialize and caffeinate, and long dreamed that one day she'd see a "For Sale" sign outside. In 2007, she did.

The Bookmill offers used books as well as the usual poetry readings, happy staff and hummus plates. And the area's unexpectedly vibrant music scene fills it with concerts and its windows with posters. Yet the life of the Bookmill — as much as the coffee, the books and the music — is the Sawmill River, visible at every turn. In spring it surges with snowmelt, and in summer the sight and sound of it cool the hottest afternoons. By October, the famous New England foliage blows over the mill and into the rushing waters.

But the Bookmill is most magical in the heart of winter. If snowflakes aren't tumbling into the half-frozen rapids, pale sunlight filters through the bare trees and old windows onto the mill's charactered wood surfaces. The mill has many corners — grab a hot chocolate and find one for yourself. Read, chat or simply listen to the voices in the cafe, the river running under the ice outside and the pages turning all around you.

The Trident Booksellers & Cafe on Newbury Street in Boston — the Puritans' snow-dusted answer to Rodeo Drive — isn't the most obvious venue for an establishment aiming to exemplify a "Buddhist notion of right livelihood." But owner Bernard Flynn wanted to offer customers "the opportunity to connect to others or to be alone … in a space that's open and warmhearted."

His longstanding success, as chain bookstores and cafes rise and fall around him, owes much to the eclectic mix of books that Flynn has been handcrafting for 34 years. His broad-mindedness carries over to the cafe menu, which includes the Truck Stop Special (one pancake, home fries, sausage, two eggs and toast) and Tibetan vegetarian dumplings, and an award-winning newsstand that encompasses reading materials as diverse as National Review and Reiki News.

Establishments along Trident's lines are a natural fit for Boston, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. But in rural America too, travelers are discovering bookstore cafes and their unexpectedly vibrant cultural resources. Explorers on the back roads of eastern Arizona, for example, may find themselves in the town of Payson, about 80 miles northeast of Phoenix. A wrong turn or two after the Wal-Mart will bring them to East West Exchange, a charming and friendly establishment that's an ideal place to pause on a road trip.

The country element — both on the CD player and on live nights (look no further for Willie Nelson tributes) — is no surprise. But add yoga classes (good for car-contorted roadtrippers), poetry readings and Native American flute concerts, and East West Exchange has the contented feel of a place that brings people together.

Like most independent bookstore cafe proprietors, East West owners Chip and Lisa Semrau say they're not "doing this to get rich. The biggest thing we're providing is community." Break your journey with an Italian soda, a chat with locals and ideas for exploring nearby Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the Mogollon Rim.

Among European cities, London's bookstore cafes have the most distinguished pedigrees. The city's legendary 18th century "penny universities" used to charge for access to both coffee and literature. Though free refills haven't been seen in Britain since, London's bookstore-cafe scene is once again thriving.

Start at the London Review Bookshop, a scone's throw from the British Museum. Just a few years old, the bookshop and its adjacent cake shop are a worthy and much-loved play on the city's remarkable coffeehouse past. Enjoy the sticky cakes, the plentiful copies of the London Review of Books and the chance to share the large central table with Londoners or fellow travelers.

Or try Foyles, on Charing Cross Road, Britain's avenue of bookstores. Foyles stands out as one of Britain's largest and best-loved bookshops. But it is also one of the easiest and least expensive places for visitors to plug themselves into the cultural life of London. Its extraordinary selection of readings, debates and exhibits is diverse and mostly free (no small matter in one of the world's priciest cities). Its author events involve, as Foyles modestly claims, "practically every great writer of the age." Come too for the music, including classical concerts and a regular jazz series, and for the pleasingly run-down cafe. In a country not particularly known for its sandwiches or customer service, Foyles excels at both.

Perhaps it's the British heritage at work, but among Asian cities Hong Kong offers a unique selection of bookstore cafes. The sleek Kubrick Café, in the Yau Ma Tei area of Kowloon, is indulgently artsy, while cultural revolutions of another sort are addressed at People's Recreation Community in the Causeway Bay district on Hong Kong Island. The specialty here is cake and books banned in mainland China.

For one more cultural upheaval, try Bookworm, in the village of Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island. A short ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, the excursion is a trip in several senses, as central Hong Kong's "Blade Runner"-meets-Wall Street vibe is replaced by the ideal stage set for a Cantonese "Tales of the City." Amble up the pier (past the "All you need is love" graffiti), and down the main street. Bookworm is on your right.

Inside this tiny cafe, lime-green tables and "Pride Destroys Everything" signs are set off against a peculiar offering of used books, including a vast selection of Spanish-language guides to Greek isles. The menu is equally esoteric: Try shepherdess pie, "Buddhist-friendly" pizzas and "Hello organic cakes!!" Are they offering such cakes, or greeting them? Who knows. But count on Bookworm for erratic hours, friendly staff and music nights.

Like Hong Kong, Mexico City has a selection of memorable bookstore cafes, all branches of El Péndulo, a local chain of elegant "cafebrerías" (cafe plus librería) scattered across this sprawling megalopolis. Each has a full menu of Middle East-accented Mexican food and reasonable English-language sections.

The Zona Rosa branch is an oasis of class in the city's increasingly run-down gay district, or you can walk through nearby Condesa to its inaugural branch. Browse your way to the second-floor terrace, where no one minds if you linger for hours under a canopy of fine-leafed trees. But don't miss the concerts, readings and courses that make El Péndulo Mexico City's most accessible cultural resource for travelers.