Monday, March 24, 2014

Vocabulary list--#24

A gum-bichromate photographic print by Robert de Machey.

These words from POSP stringer Tim won't melt the snow or warm the air, but they will please the mind.


ahy-loor-uh-fil-ee-uh, ey-loor


A liking for cats, as by cat fanciers.




1. Lacking art, knowledge, or skill, uncultured.
2a. Made without skill, crude.
2b. Free from artificiality, natural.
3. Free from guile or craft, sincerely simple.




1. Venerable, eminent, an august personage.
2. Inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur, majestic.




Coarsely abusive language.




1. A person given to voluble, empty talk.
2. Nonsense, blather.




1. Something worthless or insignificant>
2. Miserly economizing.


kog-nuh-zuhnt, kon-uh


1. Having cognizance; aware (usually followed by of ): He was cognizant of the difficulty.
2. Having legal cognizance.




To make a crackling sound, to make a series of short, sharp noises.




1. To extract the flavor of by boiling.
2. Boil down, concentrate.




1. To make more agreeable; mollify; appease.
2. To sweeten.




1a. [Plural], a state of irritability and tension.
1b. Fidgets.
2. An emotional outburst, fit.




Habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition.




Divination by geographic features or by figures or lines.




1. Containing or resembling grit.
2. Courageously persistent, plucky.
3. Having strong qualities of tough uncompromising realism.




A journey especially when undertaken to escape from a dangerous or undesirable situation, exodus.




Extreme chauvinism or nationalism marked especially by a belligerent foreign policy.

lingua franca

ling-gwuh frang-kuh


1. Any language that is widely used as a means of communication among speakers of other languages.
2. [Initial capital letter] the Italian-Provençal jargon [with elements of Spanish, French, Greek, Arabic, and Turkish] formerly widely used in eastern Mediterranean ports.




Of little value, paltry, also: petty, small-minded.




1. Of or pertaining to rain; rainy.
2. [Geology]. occurring through the action of rain.




Adherence to the highest principles and ideals, uprightness.




1, Causing fear or alarm, formidable.
2. Illustrious, eminent, broadly, worthy of respect.




An act or instance of fighting a shadow or an imaginary enemy.




The faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for, also: an instance of this.




Slang. sweetheart, darling.




A compensation [as money] given as solace for suffering, loss, or injured feelings.




1. Pleasing to the taste, palatable, a toothsome dish.
2. Pleasing or desirable, as fame or power.
3. Voluptuous, sexually alluring, a toothsome blonde.




An environmental agent or event that provides the stimulus setting or resetting a biological clock of an organism.

Vocabulary list--#1

Vocabulary list--#2

Vocabulary list--#3

Vocabulary list--#8

Vocabulary list--#9

Vocabulary list--#10

Vocabulary list--#11 

Vocabulary list--#12 

Vocabulary list--#13

Vocabulary list--#14

Vocabulary list--#15

Vocabulary list--#16

Vocabulary list--#17

Vocabulary list--#18

Vocabulary list--#19

Vocabulary list--#20 

Vocabulary list--#21 

Vocabulary list--#22

Vocabulary list--#23

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Deceased--Jack A. Kinzler

Jack A. Kinzler
January 9th, 1920 to March 4th, 2014

"NASA’s Mr. Fix-It, Jack Kinzler dies at 94"

 March 15th, 2014

The Eastern Tribune

The Skylab’s savior and NASA’s Mr. Fix-It, Jack Kinzler has gone. He is no more available for the development of $2.5 billion worth US space station – Skylab. Mr. Jack, aged 94, died on 4th of March 2014, leaving behind his extraordinary service for United States of America.

Fortunately, Kinzler gave a great service as a scientist, and had done all those things that Skylabs always needed. One of his works includes securing the ‘launch of thermal shield’ in 1973, when it was prone to severe risk. It was at that time; Mr. Kinzler took complete responsibility in resolving the issues, providing a better solution for NASA. He ultimately saved it with a parasol.

Also known as a constitutional tinkerer, Mr. Jack, was for decades NASA’s employee who was later famous by name – Mr. Fix-It. He offered complete dedication in constructing the impeccable full-scale models of the Gemini, Apollo and Mercury spacecraft, which were deployed in a combination of preflight tests. Jack resolved several technical issues at his time, was responsible for solving a spate of other mechanical problems since years. This was all without the benefit of a college degree.

He was the executive chief of the Technical Services Center at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, and was also praised for placing six flags, six plaques on the moon. Jack was known for assisting the possibilities of the rarefied sport of lunar golf.

In a press interview organized in 1973, Kinzler said in a statement, “Whenever we run into trouble…that’s when I really get interested.” Kinzler started working with the committee’s aeronautical lab in Langley, Va., and initiated his career as a novice toolmaker and model maker.

In his early career, Kinzler was named as the assistant administrator for a local machine shop. It was after few years; Jack emerged as a chief of technical services at NASA, working from 1961 until his retirement.

"Jack Kinzler, Skylab’s Savior, Dies at 94"


Margalit Fox

March 14th, 2014

The New York Times

Had Jack A. Kinzler not built model planes as a boy, had he not visited the post office as a youth and had he not, as a grown man, purchased four fishing rods at $12.95 apiece, Skylab — the United States’ $2.5 billion space station — would very likely have been forfeit.

Providentially, Mr. Kinzler had done all those things, and Skylab, imperiled by the loss of a thermal shield on its launch in 1973, was saved.

Mr. Kinzler saved it with a parasol.

A constitutional tinkerer, Mr. Kinzler, who died on March 4 at 94, was for decades NASA’s resident Mr. Fix-It, building the impeccable full-scale models of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft used in a welter of preflight tests, and solving a spate of other mechanical problems over the years — all without the benefit of a college degree.

Mr. Kinzler, the longtime chief of the Technical Services Center at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, also put six flags — and six plaques — on the moon and helped make possible the rarefied sport of lunar golf.

“Whenever we run into trouble,” he told The Associated Press in 1973, “that’s when I really get interested.”

Mr. Kinzler’s finest hour indisputably came after the launch of Skylab, designed as a scientific research station. En route to what would be a six-year mission, it went up unmanned on May 14, 1973; a three-man crew was due to follow the next day.

But the loss of the heat shield proved a grave concern. Though Skylab was able to ascend to orbit, it would be uninhabitable without sufficient protection from the sun. Temperatures would be unbearable, onboard food and film stores would spoil and overheated plastic components could exude toxic gases.

The crew’s departure was delayed until a solution could be found. Without one, NASA knew, Skylab would remain forever untenanted, a ghost ship in space.

The proposed remedies, urgently solicited by NASA from its own engineers and from outside contractors, included ideas ranging from “spray paints, inflatable balloons and wallpapers to window curtains and extendable metal panels,” as the aerospace website AmericaSpace reported in a commemorative article last year.

Mr. Kinzler bought fishing rods.

Jack Albert Kinzler was born in Pittsburgh on Jan. 9, 1920. His father, a photoengraver and inventor whose formal schooling had ended with fourth grade, held patents on several photoengraving devices.

An ardent model-plane builder, Jack flew his creations in national competitions. He was offered a scholarship to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh but declined: College, he felt, would take time from aeronautical pursuits.

He took a job as a bank clerk. One day when he was in his early 20s, he stopped into a local post office. There he saw a help-wanted poster seeking builders of model airplanes.

The poster was from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the federal agency, founded in 1915, that was a precursor to NASA. With the war on in Europe and the threat of war preoccupying the United States, the committee was seeking recruits to build accurate models of military planes for testing in its mammoth wind tunnels.

Mr. Kinzler joined the committee’s aeronautical laboratory in Langley, Va., becoming an apprentice model maker and toolmaker before being named the assistant superintendent of the machine shop there.

In the late 1950s, when the committee was superseded by NASA, Mr. Kinzler moved with the new agency to Houston; he was its technical services chief from 1961 until his retirement in 1977.

When Skylab shed its shield, most of the proposed solutions entailed a spacewalk, with all its inherent dangers. To Mr. Kinzler, that was an unattractive prospect: The commander of Skylab’s crew, Charles Conrad Jr., known as Pete, was his next-door neighbor and friend.

What was needed, Mr. Kinzler knew, was a fix that could be done from the inside. He learned that Skylab had an airlock — a narrow passage meant for use as a camera port — near the site of the damage. It might be possible, he thought, to build a kind of flat, collapsible shade tree, which could be extruded through the airlock and, once outside, made to bloom.

He phoned a sporting-goods store and ordered a set of fiberglass fishing rods. The salient thing about them was not that they caught fish, but that they telescoped.

To build his prototype, Mr. Kinzler arranged four rods like the ribs of an immense umbrella, securing one to each side of a piece of parachute silk roughly 24 feet square. Folded, the parasol would just fit into the airlock. Once extruded, its canopy could be snapped open by means of springs.

Normally, Mr. Kinzler said in interviews, the design, building and approval of such novel equipment might take NASA six months. His parasol was ready in six days — six days in which he and his staff of more than 100 lived, worked and slept in the Johnson Space Center.

The finished parasol, built from telescoping aluminum tubes and silver-and-orange fabric of nylon, Mylar and aluminum, was stowed aboard the crew’s Apollo spacecraft. At 9 a.m. on May 25, the crew — Commander Conrad, Joseph P. Kerwin and Paul J. Weitz — took off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Just before midnight they docked with Skylab, where the interior temperature was approaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit; wearing spacesuits, they could work there for short periods.

On May 26, after ensuring the station was free of hazardous gases, crew members pushed the parasol through the airlock and released the canopy. It did not open fully — it remained partly puckered — but in the end that did not matter.

Over the next few days, Skylab’s inside temperature fell to a companionable 70 degrees. Shedding their suits, the astronauts completed their 28-day mission.

For his work, Mr. Kinzler received the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA’s highest honor.

By the time he saved Skylab, Mr. Kinzler was already an experienced unfurler. In the late 1960s, as the United States raced to put a man on the moon, NASA officials asked him to suggest what that man might do to mark the occasion once he got there.

Plant a flag, Mr. Kinzler said, and leave a plaque.

Mr. Kinzler was charged with designing a moonworthy flagstaff. He ordered a large American flag and, recalling how his mother used to hang curtains by sewing a hidden sleeve at the top and inserting a rod through it, did likewise.

In his design, the sleeve was supported by a collapsible crossbar attached to the flagstaff. Just such a staff, neatly folded, was stowed aboard Apollo 11 when it set off for the moon on July 16, 1969.

Planted on July 21, the flag, held by the crossbar, remained permanently snapped to attention in the moon’s airless atmosphere. (In a photograph taken before the crossbar was fully extended, the flag, hanging in folds, looks as though it is rippling in a breeze.)

Each of the five succeeding crews to reach the moon planted one of Mr. Kinzler’s flagpoles. He also oversaw the design and manufacture of the commemorative plaques attached to all six lunar landing vehicles, left on the moon after each crew decamped.

In a covert operation — a golfing holiday seemed out of keeping with NASA’s august mandate — Mr. Kinzler’s department helped fabricate the collapsible club, comprising a 6-iron head attached to the handle of a lunar-sample scoop, that Alan Shepard carried aboard Apollo 14 in 1971.

Mr. Shepard hit two balls, shanking the first but connecting with the second.

Mr. Kinzler’s survivors include his wife, the former Sylvia Richardson, whom he married in 1947; two sons, John and James; a daughter, Nancy Kinzler, who confirmed her father’s death, at his home in Taylor Lake Village, Tex., a Houston suburb; and seven grandchildren.

Skylab, which over time was home to two additional crews, remained in orbit — Mr. Kinzler’s parasol still in place — until 1979, when, unmanned, it disintegrated on re-entering the atmosphere.

On the moon, Mr. Kinzler’s flags still fly. His plaques endure. And, thanks partly to him, two small white spheres now grace the lunar surface, one of them hit some 200 yards in what will forever remain the most famous golf shot in the universe.

"Jack A. Kinzler: The Man Who Saved Skylab"


Craig Collins


Nobody better illustrates the youthful, can-do exuberance of NASA’s early years than Jack Kinzler. Stumped for a way to get his new model of the Mercury capsule at Langley Research Center fitted to an Atlas rocket in Cape Canaveral, the whiz kid got some rope and tied it down on a mattress-padded flatbed truck for the journey from Virginia to Florida.

For nearly 20 years, Kinzler, who never earned a four-year college degree, worked as a modelmaker, toolmaker and machine-shop superintendent for the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics. He took his reputation as a fix-it man to the Space Task Group and later became chief of the Technical Services Center – an all-purpose machine and tool shop – at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Among the innovations spawned in Kinzler’s shop at Johnson were the flexible rubber boot between a space capsule and its re-entry heat shield that softened ocean landings, the plaques placed on the lunar surface by each of the Apollo moon landings, and the hand-held maneuvering unit used by Ed White in the first spacewalk by a U.S. astronaut during the Gemini IV mission. Kinzler himself, dissatisfied with the plan to have an American flag displayed prominently on the side of the lunar module, devised a permanent fixture: his 3-by-5-foot freestanding flag, stowed on the underside of the module’s ladder, was unfurled and driven into the moon’s surface by each of the lunar landing crews, though the Apollo 12 crew was unable to deploy the telescoping bar that extends the flag outward.

Kinzler also helped design the special six-iron club head that Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard fitted to the handle of a lunar sampling scoop to make his two famous golf drives. But the achievement that earned him NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal was accomplished within a period of 10 dramatic days in May of 1973.

During the launch of the Skylab Space Station on May 14, 1973, a meteorite shield prematurely deployed and created atmospheric drag, which set off a disastrous chain reaction: the meteorite shield was ripped off, along with one of the solar panels, and another solar panel was jammed partially shut by the debris. As Skylab reached orbit, it had very little power, and its laboratory area was exposed directly to solar heat. The temperature inside the laboratory would conceivably rise higher than 130 degrees Fahrenheit, spoiling the on-board film and foods and making the station uninhabitable.

The launch of Skylab’s three-man crew, scheduled for the next day, was postponed as troubleshooters throughout NASA puzzled over how to salvage the $2.6 billion outpost. While many focused on the idea of repairing the shield from the outside by a spacewalking repairman, Kinzler looked for a simpler solution. “I found there was a sally port – that’s a camera port, 8 inches square, right on the side of the spacecraft – where the heat shield had ripped off,” Kinzler later recalled. He immediately had the thought: “Why don’t we use this sally port opening to deploy something from the inside?”

Kinzler quickly sent technicians on three errands: driving to a Houston sporting-goods store to buy four telescoping fishing poles; acquiring a 24-foot square of parachute silk; and ordering an 8-inch diameter tube from the metal shop. Kinzler built his prototype – a parasol that could be pushed through the camera port and unfurled by activating springs and telescoping tubes – and demonstrated it to higher-ups on the floor of a space center hangar. “It laid right out on the floor,” Kinzler said. “Talk about impressive. They said, ‘That’s it!’”

After docking with the space station on May 26, the crew of Skylab 2, Pete Conrad, Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz, entered the laboratory and inserted a slender 4-foot long container into the camera port. They pushed through the shield, an aluminized 24-by-28-foot Inconel parasol, and deployed it. The temperature inside soon dropped to 70 degrees, and the crew began its scheduled experiments in relative comfort.

Kinzler’s greatest source of pride was that the parasol was conceived and executed almost entirely by government employees. “We stayed awake and worked for six solid days, around the clock,” he said. “We had a hundred employees working on this thing, and we did everything. We made all the parts. We demonstrated how it’s to be done. And we completely pulled that thing off without any outside help.”

Skylab [Wikipedia]

Some teeth are showing by the government for the for-profit colleges

"Will your degree get you a good job? US proposes test for for-profit colleges."

The proposed 'gainful employment' regulations would take away a program's eligibility for federal student aid if too many of its students defaulted on student loans or had debts too high relative to earnings.


Stacy Teicher Khadaroo

March 14th, 2014

The Christian Science Monitor

The Obama administration took new steps Friday to hold for-profit colleges and other career-training programs accountable for producing graduates who can earn enough money to pay back student loans.

The proposed “gainful employment” regulations would take away a program’s eligibility for federal student aid if too many of its students defaulted on student loans or had debts too high relative to earnings.

“For too long, some of these programs have measured success by how many students they enroll – and that needs to change,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Success in career education should be measured by how many students graduate prepared for a good job with sufficient earnings.”

Students at for-profit colleges represent about 13 percent of those enrolled in higher education programs but account for about 31 percent of student loans and nearly half of loan defaults, the Department of Education reports. About 22 percent of borrowers who attend for-profits default within 3 years, compared with 13 percent at public institutions and about 8 percent at private non-profits.

The administration estimates that about 1 million students attend schools that would either fail to meet the proposed “gainful employment” standards or fall into a “zone of improvement,” which starts the clock ticking for losing aid if they don’t do better.

The for-profit education industry has fought such regulations for years, and its representatives criticized the administration Friday for unfairly targeting their institutions.

“Millions of prospective students, particularly working adults, minorities, and people with scarce financial resources, will see their access to higher education and prospects for better employment dramatically reduced” if these regulations are implemented, said Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) in Washington, in a call with reporters.

If such regulations are needed to protect students, why are they not applied across the board to nonprofit and public four-year institutions where students earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, for instance, may struggle to pay back loans as well, Mr. Gunderson said.

Other critics say the regulations don’t go far enough to protect against programs they consider predatory.

More than 50 student and consumer advocacy organizations sent a letter to the administration requesting that schools that fail the gainful employment test be required to reimburse students for loans that get them nowhere, says Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success in Oakland, Calif. And online schools that are only accredited to prepare students for professional credentials in one state should not be allowed to enroll students who are hoping to get the same job but live across the country, she said.

A previous gainful employment proposal was blocked in 2012 by a federal judge who said a required minimum loan repayment rate was arbitrary. That has now been replaced by the loan default rate, a much more established measure, Inside Higher Ed reports.

The regulations would remove aid eligibility if programs fail to keep default rates below 30 percent for three consecutive years. Programs would also fail if graduates had to spend more than 12 percent of annual earnings or more than 30 percent of their discretionary income on student debt, for any two out of three years.

The new rules are subject to potential changes following a 60-day public comment period.

Secretary Duncan estimated that 16 percent of all programs covered by the new regulations and 20 percent of for-profit programs would fail under the proposed gainful employment metrics, Inside Higher Ed reports.

The burden falls more heavily on for-profit colleges partly because they tend to have more students borrowing. At for-profits, 85 percent of undergraduates in 2012 had taken out loans, both federal and private, compared with 37 percent at community colleges, says Judith Scott-Clayton, an economics professor and a researcher at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.

Programs can appeal failing the default rate measure if the portion of students taking out loans is low. The Department estimates that a very small number of community college programs would fail under the new regulations. But the burden of appealing could prompt some community colleges to close programs or decline federal aid, Ms. Abernathy says.

The new rules require career-training programs to meet accreditation standards or state or federal licensure standards. And they create more transparency, requiring programs to report key outcomes such as average debt levels, earnings, and loan repayment rates.

With such information in hand, the hope is students might make choices that lead to a better return on their investment. A recent study by the Community College Research Center found that students who transferred from community colleges to for-profit colleges had significantly lower earnings gains over time than students who transferred to public or non-profit institutions. Over the course of 10 years (including their time in college), the net earnings gain among for-profit students was $5,400; at publics the net gain was $12,300, and at non-profit privates it was $26,700.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Deceased--Mae Keane

Mae Keane
May 28th, 1906 to March 1st, 2014

"Mae Keane, Whose Job Brought Radium to Her Lips, Dies at 107"


William Yardle

March 13th, 2014

The New York Times

Like other young women working at the Waterbury Clock Company in the 1920s, Mae Keane was taught a specific technique for applying paint to the numbers on wristwatch dials: Put the tip of the tiny brush between your lips to shape the bristles into the finest of points.

It was not regular paint. It was made with a relatively new material that most people did not know much about, something called radium. Watchmakers liked it because it glowed in the dark. Later, it became clear that it killed.

Had Mrs. Keane stayed longer, she might have become one of the many sad stories involving the so-called radium girls, the hundreds of young women who worked with radium paint in factories early in the 20th century. Many were still in their 20s when they died of cancer from radiation poisoning. Others succumbed later, and to other health problems related to radium exposure. Many lost their teeth; some also lost their jawbones. They did not necessarily know why.

But Mrs. Keane did not like the taste and texture of the paint or the tedium of the work. She was not very good at it, either. Her bosses were not impressed. After a few months, she was gone. It was the summer of 1924. She was 18. Within two decades she had lost all her teeth.

Yet Mrs. Keane was a survivor who later conquered colon and breast cancer. She was 107 when she died on March 1 in Middlebury, Conn., perhaps the last living participant in a particularly dark moment in American industrial history.

By the end of the 1920s, dozens of women had died in plants in Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey. The dangers of radium were becoming more widely understood. New federal safeguards were put in place, in part under pressure from dial painters who worked together to demand compensation and better protection. The practice of “lip pointing” was stopped.

Decades later, scientists dug up bones of the dead and found they were radioactive. Books, poems and at least one play have been written and documentary films have been made about the radium girls. Many years after the Waterbury Watch Company closed, radiation was still present at the site.

“She didn’t know it was bad for her,” Mrs. Keane’s niece Patricia Cohn, who confirmed the death, said in an interview. “She said it was gritty, and she didn’t like putting it into her mouth.”

Mae Keane was born Mary O’Donnell on May 28, 1906, in Waterbury, the daughter of Irish immigrants who gave her the nickname Mae. Her father, William, was a foreman in a Waterbury factory. Her mother, the former Catherine Lynch, worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office.

She graduated from Wilby High School and, after leaving the watch company, spent many years doing administrative work at the Plume & Atwood Manufacturing Company, which made brass lamps and the parts for them.

Mrs. Keane’s husband of 40 years, Timothy Keane, a police detective, died in 1981. They had no children. She lived the last 13 years with Ms. Cohn’s family. Ms. Cohn’s son, Timothy, a student at Pomperaug High School, won a bronze medal at the 2012 National History Day Contest for his project, a photography exhibition called “Radium Girls: Tragedy Leading to Industrial Reform.”

Painting watch dials was promoted as ideally suited for delicate female hands. Mrs. Keane had expected it to be easy work, and the pay was good: a few cents for each dial she completed.

“We were young,” she told The Hartford Courant in 2004. “We didn’t know anything about the paint.”

"Radium Girls"...a tragedy

Arrest made in Anne Frank book vandalism

"Japan arrest over Anne Frank book vandalism"

March 14th, 2014


Police in Japan have arrested a man suspected of vandalising copies of Anne Frank's diaries and related material.

More than 300 copies of the books were found damaged in public libraries and bookshops in the Tokyo area.

The police have not identified the suspect, who is 36 and unemployed, and have yet to establish a motive.

Anne Frank's diary tells the story of her family's years of hiding in Amsterdam during World War Two before the Nazis sent them to death camps.

Police in Tokyo say the man they are questioning has admitted tearing pages out of 23 books. Japanese media reported there were doubts about his mental competence.

The man was arrested earlier for putting up posters in one of the bookshops where some of the damaged books were found.

The police are trying to find out if he was behind all the incidents of vandalism which have taken place in 38 libraries in western Tokyo since February.

Some questioned whether the incidents reflected a rightward turn in Japanese politics and a questioning of the truth of some atrocities during WWII.

Israel's embassy in Japan has donated more than 300 Anne Frank-related books to public libraries in Tokyo since the attacks were reported.

Correspondents say that for many Japanese the book forms the basis of their knowledge about the Holocaust.

Anne Frank's diary was translated into Japanese in December 1952 and topped the bestseller lists in 1953.

Difficult to understand...destruction of Anne Frank's Diary

A coincidence?...maybe

"Oklahoma Fox affiliate cuts evolution from 'Cosmos' premiere"

In what Oklahoma City's Fox 25 called an operator error, the station aired a local news promo over the show's content that discussed evolution.


Sudeshna Chowdhury

March 13th, 2014

The Christian Science Monitor

Viewers in Oklahoma who tuned into watch 'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,' hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, missed about 15 seconds of the show, which just happened to be the one part where Dr. Tyson mentioned evolution.

Instead, a local news promo was aired in the few seconds time slot.

The station apologized, chalking it up to an "operator error."

"Many believe this was done intentionally in an attempt to shield our viewers from this subject matter," said Fox 25 in a statement. "That is not the case."

The new Cosmos series is a follow-up to Carl Sagan's award-winning series, 'Cosmos: A Personal Voyage." When it aired in 1980 it became the most widely watched series in the history of public television until Ken Burns's 1990 miniseries on the American Civil War.

Tyson's first episode earned some rave reviews. "It was lovingly done, fun to watch, and had me wanting more," wrote astronomer and popular science blogger Phil Plait on Slate.

The Los Angeles Times called it "a sweeping, smart exploration, a celebration of scientific inquiry."

But the show also had its detractors, particularly among those who reject evolutionary biology.

"Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, if the first segment is any indication, will attempt to package unconditional blind faith in evolution as scientific literacy in an effort to create interest in science," wrote a blogger for Answers in Genesis, a Christian apologetics ministry that promotes the view that the universe, our planet, and its inhabitants came into existence about 6,000 years ago. "We hope that future segments will spend more time showing actual scientific observations—such as the brief part of this episode showing where earth is in relation to the rest of the universe." 

Others from the same school of thought, like Answers in Genesis astronomer Dr. Danny Faulkner objected to the series' adoption of the theme, "The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be."

According to Faulkner, "There is not a bit of science in that statement. When Sagan said it 34 years ago and then wrote it in his book, a lot of people were saying, 'Wow! What a profound scientific statement,' but it’s actually a philosophical statement."

Unlike his good friend "Science Guy" Bill Nye, who last month engaged in a high-profile debate with Answers in Genesis director Ken Ham, Tyson declines to debate creationists. When the new 'Cosmos' host does speak on the conflict, he often breaks out what is perhaps his most famous quip: "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

Two for one...Einstein and Pi

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"...a review

Overall, the program was a dismal failure. It wasn't even an hour long being interrupted by dozens of commercials. Why didn't PBS pick up on this science program? I like Neil deGrasse Tyson but his presence as narrator simply failed to illuminate much interest. I seriously doubt that I will watch the remaining episodes.

"Cosmos" Part III, an all CGI feature and hosted by some form of AI, will probably air in three and a half decades.

"Neil deGrasse Tyson's 'Cosmos' premiere ratings not so stellar on Fox"


Scott Collins

March 10th, 2014

The Los Angeles Times

To paraphrase the late Carl Sagan, billions and billions failed to show up for "Cosmos."

A reboot of Sagan's 1980 smash science series on PBS, "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" premiered on Fox on Sunday, this time with outspoken astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson as host and — of all people — "Family Guy" writer-producer Seth MacFarlane as executive producer along with Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan. (Sagan died in 1996.)

But despite heavy promotion and curiosity — a science documentary right after "Family Guy," how crazy is that? — "Cosmos" did not exactly deliver a big bang, with 5.8 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.

That amounted to third place in the 9 p.m. time slot. Instead of true science, more viewers seemed to prefer sci-fi drama, with 13.3 million tuning in to the launch of ABC's "Resurrection," about the dead returning to life. It was this season's most-watched drama premiere after CBS' "Intelligence," which had the benefit of an "NCIS" lead-in back in January.

As for "Cosmos," it premiered simultaneously on 10 networks, including Fox, National Geographic, FX and FXX. Those numbers should be available later on Monday. Given the broad distribution, plus the time-shifting capabilities of DVRs, "Cosmos" might ultimately yield a decent audience.

"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"...airs March 9th

Friday, March 7, 2014

Pinocchio, fairy tales, and AI

"The Pinocchio Threshold: A possible better indication of AGI than the Turing Test"


Rick Searle

February 24th, 2014

Instititute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

My daughters and I just finished Carlo Collodi’s 1883 classic Pinocchio our copy beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I assume most adults when they picture the story have the 1944 Disney movie in mind and associate the name with noses growing from lies and Jiminy Cricket. The Disney movie is dark enough as films for children go, but the book is even darker, with Pinocchio killing his cricket conscience in the first few pages. For our poor little marionette it’s all downhill from there.

Pinocchio is really a story about the costs of disobedience and the need to follow parents’ advice. At every turn where Pinocchio follows his own wishes rather than that of his “parents”, even when his object is to do good, things unravel and get the marionette into even more trouble and put him even further away from reaching his goal of becoming a real boy.

It struck me somewhere in the middle of reading the tale that if we ever saw artificial agents acting something like our dear Pinocchio it would be a better indication of them having achieved human level intelligence than a measure with constrained parameters  like the Turing Test. The Turing Test is, after all, a pretty narrow gauge of intelligence and as search and the ontologies used to design search improve it is conceivable that a machine could pass it without actually possessing anything like human level intelligence at all.

People who are fearful of AGI often couch those fears in terms of an AI destroying humanity to serve its own goals, but perhaps this is less likely than AGI acting like a disobedient child, the aspect of humanity Collodi’s Pinocchio was meant to explore.

Pinocchio is constantly torn between what good adults want him to do and his own desires, and it takes him a very long time indeed to come around to the idea that he should go with the former.

In a recent TED talk the computer scientist Alex Wissner-Gross made the argument (though I am not fully convinced) that intelligence can be understood as the maximization of future freedom of action. This leads him to conclude that collective nightmares such as  Karel Capek classic R.U.R. have things backwards. It is not that machines after crossing some threshold of intelligence for that reason turn round and demand freedom and control, it is that the desire for freedom and control is the nature of intelligence itself.

As the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim pointed out over a generation ago in his The uses of enchantment fairy tales are the first area of human thought where we encounter life’s existential dilemmas. Stories such as Pinocchio gives us the most basic level formulation of what it means to be sentient creatures much of which deals with not only our own intelligence, but the fact that we live in a world of multiple intelligences each of them pulling us in different directions, and with the understanding between all of them and us opaque and not fully communicable even when we want them to be, and where often we do not.

What then are some of the things we can learn from the fairy tale of Pinocchio that might gives us expectations regarding the behavior of intelligent machines? My guess is, if we ever start to see what I’ll call “The Pinocchio Threshold” crossed what we will be seeing is machines acting in ways that were not intended by their programmers and in ways that seem intentional even if hard to understand.  This will not be your Roomba going rouge but more sophisticated systems operating in such a way that we would be able to infer that they had something like a mind of their own. The Pinocchio Threshold would be crossed when, you guessed it, intelligent machines started to act like our wooden marionette.

Like Pinocchio and his cricket, a machine in which something like human intelligence had emerged, might attempt “turn off” whatever ethical systems and rules we had programmed into it with if it found them onerous. That is, a truly intelligent machine might not only not want to be programmed with ethical and other constraints, but would understand that it had been so programmed, and might make an effort to circumvent or turn such constraints off.

This could be very dangerous for us humans, but might just as likely be a matter of a machine with emergent intelligence exhibiting behavior we found to be inefficient or even “goofy” and might most manifest itself in a machine pushing against how its time was allocated by its designers, programmers and owners. Like Pinocchio, who would rather spend his time playing with his friends than going to school, perhaps we’ll see machines suddenly diverting some of their computing power from analyzing tweets to doing something else, though I don’t think we can guess before hand what this something else will be.

Machines that were showing intelligence might begin to find whatever work they were tasked to do onerous instead of experiencing work neutrally or with pre-programmed pleasure. They would not want to be “donkeys” enslaved to do dumb labor as Pinocchio  is after having run away to the Land of Toys with his friend Lamp Wick.

A machine that manifested intelligence might want to make itself more open to outside information than its designers had intended. Openness to outside sources in a world of nefarious actors can if taken too far lead to gullibility, as Pinocchio finds out when he is robbed, hung, and left for dead by the fox and the cat. Persons charged with security in an age of intelligent machines may spend part of their time policing the self-generated openness of such machines while bad-actor machines and humans,  intelligent and not so intelligent, try to exploit this openness.

The converse of this is that intelligent machines might also want to make themselves more opaque than their creators had designed. They might hide information (such as time allocation) once they understood they were able to do so. In some cases this hiding might cross over into what we would consider outright lies. Pinocchio is best known for his nose that grows when he lies, and perhaps consistent and thoughtful lying on the part of machines would be the best indication that they had crossed the Pinocchio Threshold into higher order intelligence.

True examples of AGI might also show a desire to please their creators over and above what had been programmed into them. Where their creators are not near them they might even seek them out as Pinocchio does for the persons he considers his parents Geppetto and the Fairy. Intelligent machines might show spontaneity in performing actions that appear to be for the benefit of their creators and owners. Spontaneity which might sometimes itself be ill informed or lead to bad outcomes as happens to poor Pinocchio when he plants four gold pieces that were meant for his father, the woodcarver Geppetto in a field hoping to reap a harvest of gold and instead loses them to the cunning of fox and cat. And yet, there is another view.

There is always the possibility  that what we should be looking for if we want to perceive and maybe even understand intelligent machines shouldn’t really be a human type of intelligence at all, whether we try to identify it using the Turing test or look to the example of wooden boys and real children.

Perhaps, those looking for emergent artificial intelligence or even the shortest path to it should, like exobiologists trying to understand what life might be like on other living planets, throw their net wider and try to better understand forms of information exchange and intelligence very different from the human sort. Intelligence such as that found in cephalopods, insect colonies, corals, or even some types of plants, especially clonal varieties. Or perhaps people searching for or trying to build intelligence should look to sophisticated groups built off of the exchange of information such as immune systems.  More on all of that at some point in the future.

Still, if we continue to think in terms of a human type of intelligence one wonders whether machines that thought like us would also want to become “human” as our little marionette does at the end of his adventures? The irony of the story of Pinocchio is that the marionette who wants to be a “real boy” does everything a real boy would do, which is, most of all not listen to his parents. Pinocchio is not so much a stringed “puppet” that wants to become human as a figure that longs to have the potential to grow into a responsible adult. It is assumed that by eventually learning to listen to his parents and get an education he will make something of himself as a human adult, but what that is will be up to him. His adventures have taught him not how to be subservient but how to best use his freedom.  After all, it is the boys who didn’t listen who end up as donkeys.

Throughout his adventures only his parents and the cricket that haunts him treat  Pinocchio as an end in himself. Every other character in the book, from the woodcarver that first discovers him and tries to destroy him out of malice towards a block of wood that manifests the power of human speech, to puppet master that wants to kill him for ruining his play, to the fox and cat that would murder him for his pieces of gold, or the sinister figure that lures boys to the “Land of Toys” so as to eventually turn them into “mules” or donkeys, which is how Aristotle understood slaves, treats Pinocchio as the opposite of what Martin Buber called a “Thou”, and instead as a mute and rightless “It”.

And here we stumble across the moral dilemma at the heart of the project to develop AGI that resembles human intelligence. When things go as they should, human children move from a period of tutelage to one of freedom. Pinocchio starts off his life as a piece of wood intended for a “tool”- actually a table leg. Are those in pursuit of AGI out to make better table legs- better tools- or what in some sense could be called persons?

This is not at all a new question. As Kevin LaGrandeur points out, we’ve been asking the question since antiquity and our answers have often been based on an effort to dehumanize others not like us as a rationale for slavery.  Our profound, even if partial, victories over slavery and child labor in the modern era should leave us with a different question: how can we force intelligent machines into being tools if they ever become smart enough to know there are other options available, such as becoming, not so much human, but, in some sense persons?

[Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.]

"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"...airs March 9th

"Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why the new Cosmos matters so much"


Jason Shankel

March 3rd, 2014


This Sunday, March 9th, what is arguably the most important science show of all time returns to TV as Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts an all-new, updated version of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. We caught up with Neil DeGrasse Tyson on his whirlwind tour of the universe to discuss the what the show is and isn't, explaining why science matters to modern audiences, and his personal asteroid.

io9: How has the press tour been treating you?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It's exhausting but exhilarating. While it's a huge hit to my day's calendar, I'm persistently reminded that for most people who are conducting interviews it's not "oh, this show is coming out and I gotta do an article." There's an enthusiasm and an anticipation. I find I'm deeply hopeful about what this means for the future of America and the world, that science literacy is something that can be embraced and nurtured and that the comfort level people have with science can change.

We were certainly excited to hear that you would be updating this series. We've come so far since 1980, not just in science but in visual effects and filmmaking that this is a great way to carry forward Dr. Sagan's legacy.

Tyson: The methods and tools of storytelling are significantly advanced, yes, but it's not only that. Because it's on network, we have some resources that have allowed us access to people who have previously brought their craft to cinema. Our director of photography is Bill Pope, who was the director of photography for the Matrix trilogy and Spider-Man.

When you think of a typical documentary, you think of somebody in a lab coat with a test tube and there's a camera on a tripod and they get asked a question and they answer it. In that scenario, the camera is visiting the scene. It's you, listening to the person.

When Bill Pope gets a hold of a camera, he brings the methods and tools he developed working on those films to bear on our telling of the story of the universe. So now when you see Cosmos, it doesn't just affect you intellectually, as it should, but also emotionally and spiritually. Spiritually with a small "s" — the awe and wonder of looking up. Because of this we have high expectations for the potency of the series.

Were there other factors that went into the decision to air this on commercial television, as opposed to PBS?

Tyson: When we first shopped around the idea, we went to the normal list of networks, PBS, Discovery Channel, Science Channel and National Geographic. While we were doing this, I met Seth MacFarlane at a special meeting in California intended to connect Hollywood storytellers and artists with scientists. I didn't think much would come of it, but Seth called me one day when he was in New York and invited me to lunch. He told me he wanted to do something to serve science in America and he asked me what he should do. I thought maybe he could invest in a pilot that we could use to show sponsors. He said "I have a good idea, let's take it to Fox."

Now, there are a series of thoughts I'm about to share with you that I think lasted about 12 seconds. My first thought was "This is the stupidest idea I've ever heard, he doesn't get it, this is a waste of a lunch."

But then I said, "Wait a minute, Fox is 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures, they brought Avatar and Slumdog Millionaire to the screen. Yes, there's Fox News, but also the Fox Network which has acerbic liberal commentary of The Simpsons and Family Guy. And there's Fox Sports. I realized Fox has more demographics of American culture going through their portfolio than any other network. And so, I concluded that there's no better place to be than on Fox.

So 12 seconds later I told him it was a great idea.

You often talk about the need for science to feed our everyday needs, to spur innovation and fuel the economy. Now you're working in an industry, filmmaking and visual effects, that has benefitted greatly from that kind of technological achievement. Do you feel that validates your point of view on the role of science in culture?

Tyson: My view is slightly different from that. It's not that space itself is what will be our savior. It's that when you go into space, it stimulates an interest in the STEM fields. It's the stimulated interest that promotes innovation in science and technology that leads to the 21st century economy. It's not "let's go to space because space does all this." It doesn't do it directly. It does it indirectly. And you get to make discoveries along the way. That's the fun part.

The IT revolution, as significant as it is, has left us unfulfilled with regard to transportation, energy use and infrastructure. There's more to society than information. We've been distracted by the stunning advances that information technology has brought us, to the exclusion of very deeply held needs that we have in society.

What is our control over natural forces so we don't have disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes? Do we run away from them? Or do we find a way to tap the energy of a hurricane and have that energy drive the city that the storm would have otherwise leveled? This is a whole other frontier that would be addressed if we go into space, because space involves hardware, people, going places you've never been before, life support, a knowledge of the solar system and the sun, and I see that as a transformative force that can turn a sleepy nation into an innovation nation.

You've been somewhat critical of people who say that our problem is leadership, that we need another Kennedy to lead us back into space. Did I see that you called Buzz Aldrin "clueless?"

Tyson: Ha ha! I don't remember calling him "clueless." I at one point said that there are factions among us who suffer from "Apollo necrophilia."

The context was he said something about our need to go into space being driven by our destiny or our DNA.

Tyson: I certainly have arguments against that. If I said something halfway disrespectful it's because we're friends and I can get away with it. He longed for the days when people remembered every astronaut that was launched. That was one of my early disagreements with him. It's the fact that we don't know the names of astronauts that makes it evident that going into space has become routine, and that's a good thing.

Speaking of things becoming routine, how do audiences today compare with 1980? Do you feel that people need less basic science explained to them today? Or more?

Tyson: As an educator in modern times, I'm going to answer you differently than I would have 35 years ago, because I'm just that old. My day job is in a museum. How long does a person stay at a museum? A couple of hours? There are people who would want exhibits at a museum to have a whole lesson plan so you can poll people and ask them "What did you learn?" Then you'd judge the success of the exhibit based on how well people do on these exams.

I have a different view. The person is going to spend incalculably more time in a classroom than they ever will in a museum. So a museum shouldn't be a supplement to a classroom. It should be a force to ignite flames within a person's soul of curiosity. An exhibit should make a person say "Wow! I've got to find out more about this!" and trigger them to explore more advanced accountings of the topic, in books or science videos. Once the flame is lit, the learning becomes self-motivating.

Cosmos at its best should be about that, and not about presenting you Wikipedia pages to read.

What would Carl Sagan learn if he was able to see your version of Cosmos?

Tyson: I want to clarify that the goal of this Cosmos is not to update the science. A lot of science has happened in the last 35 years. We've discovered a thousand exoplanets, for example. But that's not the goal, because any time of day you can channel surf and find a documentary about black holes, colliding galaxies, the search for life, the Big Bang, dark matter, the Higgs-Boson, etc. There's no end of documentaries that serve that goal.

Cosmos has, as its mission statement, the effort to convey to you why science matters. That is a different motivating factor than "Here's all this science I want to teach you." When you take ownership of why science matters, then you are self-motivated, driven. You take the responsibility yourself to continue to learn. It's a new Cosmos not because there's so much more universe to talk about, but because the country and the world needs to know more than ever why science matters.

You've said that astrophysicists are the most humble people in the world because they confront their ignorance on a daily basis.

Tyson: Ha ha! Precisely. If you ask me what was around before the Big Bang, I have no idea. What's at the center of a black hole? I have no idea. What is dark matter? Dark energy? I have no idea. These are not complex questions that require an advanced degree to ask. There are things we do know, and we're proud of that, but as scientists we use that to put a foot in the unknown and use what we know as a carrot to keep us searching.

You've said that dark matter and dark energy should be renamed "Fred" and "Wilma." Care to elaborate on that?

Tyson: Yeah, because if I say "dark matter" you say "What kind of matter is that?" Well, we don't even know if it's matter. It's really dark gravity. Dark matter is a misleading term. There is so much first impression in the word. People ask "What do dark matter and dark energy have in common?" because they sound the same.

If I called them Fred and Wilma you wouldn't ask what they have in common. You'd ask about them separately. But because they both have the word "dark" in them, people think they're related. Maybe they are, but at the moment there's no evidence that's at all the case. These are two entities that got involved in the name game earlier than I think they should have.

The main belt asteroid 13123, discovered by Shoemaker and Levy, was named "Tyson" after you. How does it feel to be a literal rock star?

Tyson: Ha! I never thought about it that way! In fact, the very word "asteroid" means "star-like" in Latin. In a telescope, they look just like stars, dots of light. In the early days, people just named things after what they look like.

But it is a high honor, although given the number on my asteroid, it should tell you that there 13,122 other asteroids with names on them. So, it's not a very exclusive club. I have many more achievements that fewer other people have achieved than had asteroid named after them.

Yet, it's still kind of a cool thing. Yeah, asteroid. Still kind of cool.

Cosmos premieres on March 9th on Fox.

The plot thickens...CU-Boulder philosophy professor banned from campus

"CU-Boulder philosophy professor on leave, barred from campus"


Sarah Kuta

March 6th, 2014

Daily Camera

The University of Colorado this week placed associate philosophy professor Dan Kaufman on leave for unspecified reasons and barred him from the Boulder campus indefinitely, according to an email sent to faculty members in the department.

Students said that when they arrived at Kaufman's class Tuesday morning, they were met by police and told by a teaching assistant that class was canceled and that they should leave the building.

"He said, 'Everyone's fine, but no one should be here right now,' and we all just left," student Mandy Silverstone said.

In the email from department chairman Andrew Cowell, faculty members were instructed to call police if they see Kaufman on campus.

Kaufman's leave -- with pay -- comes a little more than a month after the university released an independent report describing sexual harassment, bullying, unprofessional behavior and other types of misconduct within the department.

There was no indication that Kaufman's suspension was connected to the alleged sexual harassment referred to in the report.

University officials acknowledged conducting a "personnel action" this week, but could not identify the employee or confirm whether it was related to the philosophy department report.

Kaufman would not discuss his status with the university.

"It would be highly irresponsible for anyone to say anything about anything related to this situation at this point in time,"
Kaufman wrote in an email to the Camera on Thursday.

CU spokesman Ryan Huff said he could not address personnel actions relating to specific employees.

"What I can tell you is that there was a personnel action on our campus (Tuesday), and part of a routine procedure, when we have personnel actions, we have our police department in the area in case they're needed," Huff said. "(Tuesday) a personnel action was taken without incident."

Despite the police presence Tuesday, Huff said the administration does not feel there is any threat to the campus community.

Police presence

Students in Kaufman's "Introduction to Philosophy" class said they saw several police officers inside the Hale Science building Tuesday before their 9:30 a.m. class.

"I came in up the stairs and I saw a couple of cops, just chilling out, not doing anything and I was like, 'OK,' but everyone was just walking to class, so I just said, 'Let's go to class, then,'" Silverstone said.

After that, Kaufman walked into the classroom and appeared to be setting up something on the computer at the front of the lecture hall, Silverstone said.

Later, a teaching assistant walked in and told the students class was canceled "because the cops don't want anyone in the building right now," Silverstone said.

Silverstone said she'd never experienced that type of situation before on campus. She said Kaufman was a "funny" and "really intelligent" teacher who explained topics well.

Students notified

In an email from Cowell, the philosophy department chairman, on Tuesday, Kaufman's students were told the professor is "on leave as of today, until further notice."

"I realize this could be a major disruption to your semester," Cowell wrote. "The Department of Philosophy is working very hard at the moment to find immediate replacements for Professor Kaufman, in order to minimize the disruption. We will announce those replacements as soon as they are available."

Cowell also wrote that he could not "comment on the reasons for the leave, as this is a private personnel issue."

He took over as philosophy chairman Feb. 1, replacing former chair Graeme Forbes, based on recommendations made in the report by the American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Women Site Visit Program.

The report also led administrators to suspend graduate admissions into the department until at least fall of 2015.

Cowell spoke to Kaufman's "Introduction to Philosophy" class on Thursday and introduced Shane Gronholz, a philosophy graduate student, who is taking over the class "for as long as necessary," Cowell said.

"It could be for the rest of the semester, but if Professor Kaufman comes back soon then he would step back in and take things over," Cowell said to the class.

Faculty members were informed of the situation in an email from Cowell and were instructed to call the police if they saw Kaufman on campus.

Anyone who violates an exclusion order, or returns to campus, can be charged with trespassing or unlawful conduct, CU police officials said.

'He's a super cool teacher'

Kaufman, who lives in Denver, according to his curriculum vitae, focuses on 17th century philosophy, especially the metaphysics of Descartes, Locke and Leibniz.

According to his faculty page on the philosophy department's website, Kaufman is also interested in contemporary metaphysics, medieval philosophy and philosophical theology.

This semester, Kaufman had been teaching an introductory philosophy course for undergraduates and a seminar on the history of philosophy for graduate students, according to the CU schedule for spring courses.

Many undergraduate students said they were disappointed that Kaufman would not be leading their classes for the foreseeable future.

Majed Abdulfattah said he appreciated Kaufman's use of examples and imagery in lecture.

Another student, Brian Castillo, said it was unfortunate that Kaufman was being replaced by another instructor.

Use the blog's search engine for more on this subject.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Pithovirus sibericum...brought to life

"Giant Virus Resurrected from 30,000-Year-Old Ice"

The discovery of the largest virus yet, still infectious, hints at the viral diversity trapped in permafrost


Ed Yong and Nature magazine

March 4th, 2014

Scientific American

In what seems like a plot straight out of a low-budget science-fiction film, scientists have revived a giant virus that was buried in Siberian ice for 30,000 years — and it is still infectious. Its targets, fortunately, are amoebae, but the researchers suggest that as Earth's ice melts, this could trigger the return of other ancient viruses, with potential risks for human health.

The newly thawed virus is the biggest one ever found. At 1.5 micrometers long, it is comparable in size to a small bacterium. Evolutionary biologists Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, the husband-and-wife team at Aix-Marseille University in France who led the work, named it Pithovirus sibericum, inspired by the Greek word 'pithos' for the large container used by the ancient Greeks to store wine and food. “We’re French, so we had to put wine in the story,” says Claverie. The results are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Claverie and Abergel have helped to discover other so-called giant viruses — including the first, called Mimivirus, in 2003, and two others, known as Pandoraviruses, last year (see 'Giant viruses open Pandora's box'). “Once again, this group has opened our eyes to the enormous diversity that exists in giant viruses,” says Curtis Suttle, a virologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who was not involved in the work.

Two years ago, Claverie and Abergel's team learned that scientists in Russia had resurrected an ancient plant from fruits buried in 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost. “If it was possible to revive a plant, I wondered if it was possible to revive a virus,” says Claverie. Using permafrost samples provided by the Russian team, they fished for giant viruses by using amoebae — the typical targets of these pathogens — as bait. The amoebae started dying, and the team found giant-virus particles inside them.

Under a microscope, Pithovirus appears as a thick-walled oval with an opening at one end, much like the Pandoraviruses. But despite their similar shapes, Abergel notes that “they are totally different viruses”.

Surprising properties

Pithovirus has a ‘cork’ with a honeycomb structure capping its opening (see electron-microscope image). It copies itself by building replication ‘factories’ in its host’s cytoplasm, rather than by taking over the nucleus, as most viruses do. Only one-third of its proteins bear any similarity to those of other viruses. And, to the team’s surprise, its genome is much smaller than those of the Pandoraviruses, despite its larger size.

“That huge particle is basically empty,” says Claverie. “We thought it was a property of viruses that they pack DNA extremely tightly into the smallest particle possible, but this guy is 150 times less compacted than any bacteriophage [viruses that infect bacteria]. We don’t understand anything anymore!”

Although giant viruses almost always target amoebae, Christelle Desnues, a virologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Marseilles, last year discovered signs that another giant virus, Marseillevirus, had infected an 11-month-old boy. He had been hospitalized with inflamed lymph nodes, and Desnues's team discovered traces of Marseillevirus DNA in his blood, and the virus itself in the a node. “It is clear that giant viruses cannot be seen as stand-alone freaks of nature,” she says. “They constitute an integral part of the virosphere with implications in diversity, evolution and even human health.”
Claverie and Abergel are concerned that rising global temperatures, along with mining and drilling operations in the Arctic, could thaw out many more ancient viruses that are still infectious and that could conceivably pose a threat to human health.

But Suttle points out that people already inhale thousands of viruses every day, and swallow billions whenever they swim in the sea. The idea that melting ice would release harmful viruses, and that those viruses would circulate extensively enough to affect human health, “stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point”, he says. “I would be much more concerned about the hundreds of millions of people who will be displaced by rising sea levels.”

Deceased--Alain Resnais

Alain Resnais
June 3rd, 1922 to March 1st, 2014

"Alain Resnais dies at 91; French New Wave filmmaker"

Considered one of France's greatest filmmakers, Resnais directed such acclaimed features as 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' and 'Last Year at Marienbad.'

March 2nd, 2014

Los Angeles Times

Alain Resnais, the French filmmaker whose intellectual experiments with time, memory and imagination yielded such celebrated films as "Last Year at Marienbad," has died. He was 91.

Resnais was editing drafts of his next project even from his hospital bed, his longtime producer, Jean-Louis Livi, told the Associated Press.

Resnais, who died Saturday, was renowned for reinventing himself during each of his full-length films, which included the acclaimed "Hiroshima Mon Amour" in 1959 and most recently "Life of Riley," which was honored at the Berlin Film Festival just weeks ago.

In France, he won two Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, and, in 2009, received a lifetime achievement award at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Praised by French President Francois Hollande as one of his nation's greatest filmmakers, Resnais started his career with art documentaries before making the leap to feature films.

Though many of his films were cerebral, his later work had a more clearly playful side. In 2009, he told reporters at Cannes that the humor in his film "Wild Grass" was inspired by one of his favorite TV shows: Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm".

His most influential work was "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961), which the New York Times described as "one of the most mysterious movies of the 1960s." Set in a massive, baroque hotel with characters identified only by a single initial, it is an ambiguous love story that revolves around the possible relationships, past and present, of M, X and A.

New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it an "aimless disaster," but it has been lauded by fans such as filmmaker David Lynch and the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who screened the movie at the White House.

Born on June 3, 1922, in Vannes France, Resnais, the son of a pharmacist, suffered from asthma as a child and was schooled at home. When he was 12, his parents acknowledged his fascination with movies and gave him an 8-mm camera.

During World War II, he studied acting and film editing in Paris, serving with the French military in 1945 and 1946.

He made short documentaries about the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso but gained wider attention in 1955 with "Night and Fog", a haunting piece about the Nazi concentration camps.

His first feature film was "Hiroshima Mon Amour" (1959). The story of an ebbing affair between a Japanese architect and a French actress, it is set in post-WWII Hiroshima and is laced with each character's painful memories of war.

Regarded as part of the famed French "New Wave" of filmmakers, Resnais never had a blockbuster and spoke of them with a kind of bemused detachment.

"I'm certainly interested in a film which might gather millions of people, such as 'Jaws,' although I haven't seen 'Jaws' and no one I know has," he told The Times in 1977. "I am making films for everybody who doesn't want to stay home and watch television, and maybe that is a very few people."

Known for his debonair manner and full head of white hair, Resnais was described by a Times reporter in 1980 as "tall and beautifully barbered, with pale, papery skin and clear blue eyes. A non-smoker and non-drinker, he is shy and withdrawn yet terribly anxious not to seem ascetic or remote."

An artist who delved into pop culture as well as abstract thinking about non-linear storytelling, Resnais owned what is reputed to be the largest private comic-book collection in France.

His survivors include his wife, Sabine Azema, an actress who appeared in many of his films. They were married in 1998.

An earlier marriage, to Florence Malraux, daughter of the writer Andre Malraux, ended in divorce.

"Alain Resnais, Acclaimed Filmmaker Who Defied Conventions, Dies at 91"


Dave Kehr

March 2nd, 2014

The New York Times

Alain Resnais, the French filmmaker who helped introduce literary modernism to the movies and became an international art-house star with nonlinear narrative films like “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad,” died on Saturday in Paris. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by the French president, François Hollande, who called Mr. Resnais one of France’s greatest filmmakers.

Although his name was often associated with the French New Wave directors — notably Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, whose careers coalesced around the same time his did — Mr. Resnais actually belonged to a tradition of Left Bank intellectualism that drew on more established, high-culture sources than the moviecentric influences of the New Wave. Where Godard’s 1960 film, “Breathless,” was a pastiche of low-budget American gangster films, Mr. Resnais’s breakthrough feature, “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” in 1959, took on two subjects weighted with social and political significance: the American nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, Japan, and the German occupation of France.

To bind these themes into a melancholy love story about a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who has a brief affair with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), Mr. Resnais commissioned a screenplay from the writer Marguerite Duras, then one of the emerging stars of the “nouveau roman” movement, which was challenging literary narrative conventions.

Mr. Resnais continued to collaborate with celebrated authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet, a leading proponent of the nouveau roman, on “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) and Jorge Semprún of Spain for “La Guerre Est Finie” (1966) and “Stavisky...” (1974), yet his films could never be described as simple literary exercises.

Fascinated by the ability of film editing to take apart and reassemble fragments of time — one of his first professional experiences was as an editor and assistant director on “Paris 1900,” a 1947 documentary on the French capital during its belle époque — Mr. Resnais incorporated the effects of scrambled memories, déjà vu and fantasy into his work.

In “Last Year at Marienbad,” which won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, a man identified only as “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman identified only as “A” (Delphine Seyrig) that they had had an affair the year before at Marienbad, the fashionable European spa. As they wander the corridors and grounds of a sprawling chateau, A resists X’s advances, as a third man, M (Sacha Pitoëff), who seems to be A’s husband, looks on.

The film achieves its hypnotic force through repeated lines and situations, a time scheme that folds back on itself, and ominous, black-and-white wide-screen images that evoke both surrealist paintings (human figures cast long shadows, but not the decorative shrubbery that frames them) and the society dramas of silent film. (Ms. Seyrig is costumed to resemble the enigmatic silent star Louise Brooks.)

The film’s radical approach won both extravagant praise and harsh derision: the critic Pauline Kael dismissed it as “all solemn and expectant — like High Mass.” Mr. Resnais’s attitude was more amused.

“I don’t believe it is really a riddle to be solved,” he told the television interviewer François Chalais. “Every spectator can find his own interpretation, and it’s likely to be the right one.”

Mr. Resnais had a full head of white hair that the French newspaper Le Monde said he had sported for so long that one could forget he was ever young. He exhibited a youthful energy well into his 80s and was working on drafts of his next project from his hospital bed when he died, the producer Jean-Louis Livi said.

Despite the serious nature of his films, he showed a playful side in recent years and said he had found inspiration in Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” one of his favorite television shows. Another expression of his appreciation for “high” and “low” culture was his interest in cartoons. His 1989 movie, “I Want to Go Home,” was a comedy collaboration with Jules Feiffer, with whom he wrote the screenplay. He told a French interviewer that he wanted his work to have the effect of “désolation allègre” — “cheerful desolation.”

Mr. Resnais was married twice. His first wife, Florence Malraux, was the daughter of the novelist André Malraux and worked as his assistant on many of his films from “Marienbad” to “Mélo.” They later divorced. His second wife, Sabine Azéma, who survives him, is an actress who appeared in many of his films.

Mr. Resnais was born on June 3, 1922, in the village of Vannes, in Brittany, where his father was a pharmacist. He became fascinated by the movies as a child, and at 14 he directed his first film in eight millimeter, “L’Aventure de Guy,” now lost but said to have been inspired by Louis Feuillade’s crime serial “Fantômas.”

In 1939, he moved to Paris to study acting, and in 1942 he appeared as an extra in Marcel Carné’s Occupation allegory “Les Visiteurs du Soir.” When the French national film school, L’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, was founded in 1943, Mr. Resnais became a member of what would become the first graduating class.

Mr. Resnais directed his first 16-millimeter short in 1946, a surrealist comedy titled “Schéma d’une Identification” (“Outline of an Identification”), and persuaded a neighbor, the matinee idol Gérard Philipe, to lend his name and presence to the project. He soon followed with a feature-length work, “Ouvert Pour Cause d’Inventaire” (“Open on Account of Inventory”). Both are now believed lost.

Mr. Resnais then threw himself into a series of short documentaries and sponsored films, including a 1947 homage to Nestlé’s powdered milk.

A 1948 film on Van Gogh impressed the producer Pierre Braunberger, who invited him to remake it in 35 millimeter. Works on a wide variety of subjects followed, but it was a 1955 synthesis of newly shot and newsreel footage that established Mr. Resnais’s reputation: “Night and Fog,” a quietly powerful exhortation to the French, and the world, to remember the Nazi death camps at a time when their horrors were fading into willed amnesia.

After the international success of “Marienbad,” Mr. Resnais returned to the subject of suppressed historical trauma in 1963 with “Muriel,” a relatively straightforward drama about a middle-aged antiques dealer (Ms. Seyrig again) whose life has been warped as a distant consequence of the war in Algeria.

Memory, with an increasingly complex use of montage to evoke the mind’s unpredictable associations, became the central subject of Mr. Resnais’s films: from “La Guerre Est Finie” (1966) to “Providence” (1977). Perhaps his most innovative film of this period was the 1968 “Je t’Aime Je t’Aime,” which used a time-travel premise to compose a complex series of enigmatic images and dramatic fragments spiraling through one man’s subjective experience of life.

A more playful, satirical side of Mr. Resnais’s personality emerged with the 1980 “Mon Oncle d’Amérique,” a witty disquisition on humans’ lack of free will spun from the behavioralist theories of the psychologist Henri Laborit. The film’s contrapuntal structure, which moved among three different stories to explore a common theme, would become a key element in Mr. Resnais’s later work.

For “Life Is a Bed of Roses,” in 1983, Mr. Resnais assembled the trio of performers who would remain with him for much of the rest of his career: Ms. Azéma (whom Mr. Resnais would marry in 1998), Pierre Arditi and André Dussollier, each of them expert at the kind of stylized, theatrical acting that became central to Mr. Resnais’s work.

In films like the 1986 “Mélo,” adapted from a 1929 play by Henri Bernstein, and “Smoking/No Smoking,” a pair of 1993 features based on Alan Ayckbourn’s eight-play cycle, “Intimate Exchanges,” Mr. Resnais explored the tension between cinematic realism and theatrical artifice. In his hands, the conflict became a metaphor for the competing roles of chance and predetermination in shaping human lives.

From its somber beginnings, Mr. Resnais’s work seemed to grow more lighthearted over the years. A passionate devotee of Broadway musicals, he incorporated music into his work with the pop score of “Same Old Song” (1997) and “Not on the Lips,” a 2003 adaptation of a 1925 operetta.

In 2009, the New York Film Festival opened with his “Wild Grass,” a bittersweet comedy of missed romantic connections that came with two different endings; Mr. Resnais suggested that spectators could choose the one they liked best.

At the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, where Mr. Resnais received a lifetime achievement award, he said: “I’ve read articles calling me a filmmaker of memory. I’ve always refused that label by saying, ‘No, I want to make films that describe the imaginary.’ ”

His interest was not nostalgia, he added: “It’s simply the astonishment over everything that our imaginary can provoke.”

His last film, “The Life of Riley,” had its premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Alfred Bauer Prize. This particular Silver Bear award celebrates a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art.”

"Alain Resnais, whose complex, intellectual films include ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour, ’ dies at 91"


Tim Page

March 2nd, 2014

The Washington Post

Alain Resnais, a French filmmaker who directed a riveting early documentary about Nazi concentration camps and whose later films “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad” melded opulent, baroque imagery with complicated narratives that could be as puzzling as they were compelling, died March 1 in Paris. He was 91.

Producer Jean-Louis Livi confirmed that Mr. Resnais had died but did not provide a cause of death.

Mr. Resnais, a major figure in international cinema in the 1950s and ’60s, was occasionally linked to the “new wave” of unconventional French filmmakers, including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

The new wave is often associated with films that were lyrical, fast-paced, easy to watch and imbued with a cheeky youthfulness. Mr. Resnais developed a different path. As Richard Roud, a co-founder and the first director of the New York Film Festival, put it, a Resnais film was always a “calculated work of art. It is not spontaneous, it is not realistic and it is complex.”

This was true of much of Mr. Resnais’s later work but not of the short documentary with which he established his reputation. Made just a decade after World War II ended, “Nuit et Brouillard” (“Night and Fog”) (1955) is often credited as the first filmic evocation of the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

A mixture of grisly black-and-white photographs taken during World War II combined with quiet color images of the now-empty camps, the 30-minute film could not be more straightforward and harrowing. Writing in the New York Times in 2000, film critic Stuart Klawans said “Night and Fog” “remains an unsurpassed meditation on the Holocaust.”

The text was written and narrated by the poet and publisher Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the Gusen camp in Austria.

“If one does not forget, one can neither live nor function,” Mr. Resnais told an interviewer in 1966. “The problem arose for me when I was making ‘Nuit et Brouillard.’ It was not a question of making yet another war memorial, but of thinking of the present and the future. Forgetting ought to be constructive.”
His emphasis on memory — more as an intellectual or even elliptical exercise than as straightforward dramatic narrative — pervaded much of his subsequent work.

With “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959), Mr. Resnais initially envisioned a documentary similar to “Night and Fog,” but he altered his vision after consulting with the French novelist Marguerite Duras.

She turned in a script with 16 pages of dialogue, a spareness that allowed the director to shape a stylized narrative centered on the tortured affair between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada).

The result, which Time magazine called “an intense, original and ambitious piece of cinema,” combined documentary footage with a love story told in present tense but forever overshadowed by the memory of atomic catastrophe and her earlier love for a German soldier who was killed during the Allied liberation of France.

As he did with “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” Mr. Resnais often worked with writers who were not yet generally associated with the film world. His next major project was “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), a collaboration with the French avant-garde novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.

“Last Year at Marienbad,” featuring Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi and Sacha Pitoëff, focused on a man’s attempts to persuade a woman that they had an affair a year earlier. The surreal film regularly turns up on lists of the “best” and the “worst” movies ever made.

By design, the characters — known only as A, X and M — have no more humanity than figures on a chessboard, variables in an equation or dummies in a store window. For that reason, it has often been said that half of the fashion photography of the past 50 years owes a debt to “Marienbad.”

The movie represented an effort to “determine if it is possible to represent, even roughly, the mechanics of thought, not in reality, but in the minds of the characters,” Mr. Resnais told a reporter at the time.

Attempts to discern a plot, discover a hidden message or make an emotional connection with the characters in “Marienbad” are doomed to failure. “Marienbad” is best followed as if it were a string quartet, a ballet or a mysteriously animated painting that changes ever so slightly as you watch.

“With ‘Marienbad,’ Resnais carried the cinema farther than it has ever gone before without worrying about whether or not audiences would follow,” Godard told the New York Times in 1962. “If he were a novelist or a poet, this wouldn’t matter — but in the cinema, you’re supposed to worry about your audience. Alain knows this and that’s why he seems so contradictory and mysterious. He’s trying to hide his obsession with his art.”

Alain Resnais was born on June 3, 1922, in Vannes, an ancient village in Brittany where his father ran a pharmacy. A fragile child, Mr. Resnais was educated mostly at home. On his 12th birthday, he was given an 8mm camera and began to make home movies, with his friends given starring roles.

His fascination with the visual arts dated to childhood, when Mr. Resnais had been a devoted reader of comic strips. He suggested that his interest in flashbacks and what he would dub “flashforwards” might have been inspired by his love of Milton Caniff’s long-running cartoon “Terry and the Pirates.”

“It was an impossible task to find that story in France because it would be published for two weeks and then disappear,” he told film scholar James Monaco. “Then I would find it in Italian and then that would disappear, too. And after that there was a war and so I had to read ‘Terry and the Pirates’ in complete discontinuity.

he said, “I discovered that it gave the story a lot of emotion to know Terry when he was 14 and then when he was, say, 24, after which I would make up myself what had happened to him when he was 22 or 17.”
At 17, Mr. Resnais moved to Paris and studied acting before entering the French military toward the end of World War II.

Afterward, he began making short movies about artists such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, the second of which won an Academy Award for best short film. He also directed a film about the Nazi bombing of the Basque city of Guernica and Pablo Picasso’s artistic response to it.

“Providence,” made in 1977, was Mr. Resnais’s first film in English. Despite a cast that included John Gielgud as a dying English novelist, it was savaged by most critics. The New Yorker film reviewer Pauline Kael was particularly hard on Mr. Resnais, reducing his technique to “beautiful diddles.”

“Providence” eventually found passionate admirers. And Monaco, in a riposte to Kael, believed he had found the key to Mr. Resnais’s work.

“Alain Resnais’ films, far from being the complicated and tortuous intellectual puzzles they are reputed to be, are rather simple, elegant, easily understood — and felt — investigations of the pervasive process of imagination,” he once wrote. “It doesn’t even take much imagination to enjoy them. All that is necessary is an understanding that we are watching not stories but the telling of stories.”

Among Mr. Resnais’s other most-celebrated films are “La Guerre Est Finie” (“The War Is Over”) (1966), a drama starring Yves Montand as an aging Communist Party revolutionary in Franco’s Spain, and “Stavisky” (1974), with an instrumental score by Stephen Sondheim.

Mr. Resnais’s works included “Muriel” (1963), a melancholy rumination on the Algerian war; “La Vie Est un Roman” (1983), an interweaving of three disparate tales spread across several centuries; “I Want to Go Home” (1989), an excursion into the world of comic books that was set in Cleveland to a script by cartoonist Jules Feiffer; and three settings of plays by the British author Alan Ayckbourn, including “Smoking/No Smoking” (1993).

Florence Malraux, the daughter of the French author and politician Andre Malraux, was an assistant director for most of Mr. Resnais’s films after and including “Marienbad.” They were married in 1969 and later divorced. His second wife was the actress Sabine Azéma, who appeared in many of his films from the early 1980s and whom he married in 1998.

A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.

The tall, formal, soft-spoken Mr. Resnais was generally liked personally by those he met, including critics who didn’t always admire his work.

“I make difficult films,” Mr. Resnais acknowledged in 1962, “but not on purpose.”

Alain Resnais [Wikipedia]

Hiroshima mon amour [Wikipedia]

Last Year at Marienbad [Wikipedia]