29 outubro 2009

Edgar Allan Poe travel for Halloween weekend

From Gadling:

Even though Edgar Allan Poe's funeral do-over in Baltimore was a couple weeks ago, there are several locations where it's not too late to pay tribute to this literary master of horror. Poe, a traveler himself, moved between Boston, Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia and Baltimore, plus a few towns in between. Because several of the Poe-related landmarks still exist, it's possible to follow his trail from his birth to his death.
Given that this is the 200th year of his birth, why not pay Poe tribute by heading to one of these locations for a Halloween weekend remembrance?
Bring a copy of his short stories or poems with you to add to the ambiance. Make sure "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" are among them: some of the stops are where they were written.

First stop, Boston:
  • Poe was born on Carver Street where an historical marker denotes the location of his birthplace. Poe was born to actor parents January 19, 1809
  • Fort Independence at Boston Harbor, now a state park, is where Poe enlisted as a private at age 18 in order to support himself. This was after he dropped out of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the next stop on this Poe tour.
Virginia was an important state at various points in Poe's life.
In Charlottesville:
  • At the University of Virginia, you can visit Poe's dormitory room at 13 West Range. It holds artifacts like the quill pen Poe might have used. His top hat and green coat are part of the Poe legacy the university has maintained.
In Richmond:
  • St. John's Church, 2401 East Broad St., Richmond. The church graveyard is where Poe's mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe is buried, as well as Thomas Willis White, his boss when Poe worked at the Southern Literary Messenger.
  • Elmira Shelton House, 2407 East Grace Street, Richmond. Even though Poe courted Shelton for several years until and she agreed to marry him, they never did have the wedding. He died in Baltimore 10 days before the ceremony was to take place. This was where Shelton lived when Poe came back to Richmond.
  • Talavera, 2315 West Grace St., Richmond. Once the home of writer Susan Talley, a friend of Poe's sister, this is where Poe gave a reading a few weeks before his death. He and his sister Rosalie visited this house often.
  • Poe Statue on the grounds of Virginia's state capitol building in Richmond.
In Petersburg:
  • The Hiram Haines House at 12 Bank St. in Petersburg is where Poe spent his honeymoon. Back then the building was a coffee house
Other Virginia locations are covered in Poe Revealed where I found the above information. This site is an unusual glance into American history, as well as, an interesting round-up of Poe inspired places.
Next stop, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:
  • Head to Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. This house is where Poe lived and wrote for part of the seven years he lived in Philadelphia. While he was in Philadelphia, Poe penned: "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" among others.

Last stop, Baltimore, Maryland.

  • To orient yourself to Poe's life in Baltimore--and elsewhere, start off at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. He lived in the house from 1883 to 1885 before he moved to Richmond. One of the more unusual displays at this museum are several of the bottles of cognac that have been left on Poe's grave over the years. This mysterious "Poe Toaster" started paying respect in 1949. Three red roses are always included in the offering.

  • For a real creep-out part of the tour, stop by Church Hospital, formerly Washington College Hospital. This hospital is where Poe died after possibly being drugged and beaten. His death wasn't easy. According to the description of physician's notes, he wandered in and out of consciousness making morbid outbursts each time he was conscious.

  • At the Enoch Pratt Free Library, you'll find several Poe artifacts, letters, poetry and photographs. The collection also includes a lock of Poe's hair and a piece of his coffin.

  • As an end point of this Poe tour, linger at Poe's grave in the graveyard at Westminster Hall. The hall is a converted Gothic style church. Of course Poe would be buried next to a Gothic church. The gravestone is not the original and its location is approximate to where it is thought he was buried. When Poe died, he didn't get much of a send off. Only 10 people (or less) attended his funeral.

Baltimore has been making up to Poe by throwing Nevermore 2009, a year-long, city-wide festival of events for the 200th year of his birth.

White Collar Widget

Happy 40th birthday to the internet

What a busy old year 1969 was.
When man wasn't landing on the moon, the Beatles were performing their last concert together, Led Zeppelin were releasing Led Zeppelin I and the Rolling Stones were playing Altamont. Say no more.
Meanwhile, on October 29, the first Arpanet network connection between remote computers was established.
Arpanet was the military precursor to what we now know as the internet (the term "internetting" would not be coined until 1977).
Anyway, at 10.30pm precisely, the first message was sent over the Arpanet between the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Stanford Research Institute by student Charley Kline. The message itself was the word "login". The "l" and the "o" transmitted without problem but then the system crashed. So, trivia fans, the first message transmitted over the internet was "lo".
To mark the internet's coming of middle age, our friends at the service provider Easynet Connect have produced this rather spiffy video.
Sure, it's a little self-serving in parts, but we liked the gist so much we thought we'd share.
Happy birthday, internet!

28 outubro 2009

Flashback Booth: «How I Wrote Life of PI»

by Yann Martel 
I would guess that most books come from the same mix of three elements: influence, inspiration and hard work. Let me detail how each one came into play in the writing of Life of Pi.


Ten or so years ago, I read a review by John Updike in the New York Times Review of Books. It was of a novel by a Brazilian writer, Moacyr Scliar. I forget the title [editor's note: it's Max and the Cats], and John Updike did worse: he clearly thought the book as a whole was forgettable. His review — one of those that makes you suspicious by being mostly descriptive, without critical teeth, as if the reviewer were holding back — oozed indifference. But one thing about it struck me: the premise. The novel, as far as I can remember, was about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther. What displeased Updike about the story? I don't remember him being clear about it. Was it that the allegory marched with too heavy a tread, the parallel between the black panther and the Nazis too obvious? Did the premise wear its welcome out? Was it the tone? The style? The translation? Whatever it was, the book fatigued Updike but it had the effect on my imagination of electric caffeine. I marvelled. What perfect unity of time, action and place. What stark, rich simplicity. Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise. I felt that same mix of envy and frustration I had felt with Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, that if only I had thought of it I could have done something great with it. But — damn! — the idea had been faxed to the wrong muse. I looked for the book, but booksellers consulted their computers and shook their heads. And then I forgot about it. I wanted to forget about it. I didn't really want to read the book. Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer. Worse, what if Updike had been wrong? What if not only the premise but also its rendition were perfect? Best to move on. I wrote my first novel. I travelled. Romances started and ended. I travelled some more. Four or five years went by.


I was in India. It was my second time. Another stint to shake me and dazzle me. The start of the trip had been rough. I had arrived in Bombay, which is indeed a crowd, but one that was bypassing me. I felt terribly lonely. One night I sat on my bed and wept, muffling the sounds so that my neighbours would not hear me through the thin walls. Where was my life going? Nothing about it seemed to have started or added up to much. I had written two paltry books that had sold about a thousand copies each. I had neither family nor career to show for my 33 years on Earth. I felt dry and indifferent. Emotions were a bother. My mind was turning into a wall. And if that weren't enough, the novel I had planned to write while in India had died. Every writer knows the feeling. A story is born in your mind and it thrills you. You nurture it like you would a fire. You hope to see it grow and eventually be born on paper. But at one point, you look at it and you feel nothing. You feel no pulse. The characters don't speak naturally, the plot does not move, the descriptions don't come to you ? everything about your story is thankless work. It has died.

I was in need of a story. More than that, I was in need of a Story.

I got to Matheran, the hill station closest to Bombay. It's a small place high up, with beautiful views over the surrounding plains, and it has the peculiarity of not being able to accommodate cars, autorickshaws or motorcycles. You get there by toy train or by taxi, and then you must walk or ride a horse. The closest you get to the noises of a motor on Matheran's streets of fine, reddish earth are the rumbling, horking sounds of Indians spewing out betel juice. The peace of the place is blessed and utterly un-Indian. It was there, on top of a big boulder to be precise, that I remembered Scliar's premise.

Suddenly, my mind was exploding with ideas. I could hardly keep up with them. In jubilant minutes whole portions of the novel emerged fully formed: the lifeboat, the animals, the intermingling of the religious and the zoological, the parallel stories.

Where did that moment of inspiration come from? Why did I think that religion and zoology would make a good mix? How did I think up the theme that reality is a story and we can choose our story and so why not pick "the better story" (the novel's key words)?

I could give approximate answers. That India, where there are so many animals and religions, lent itself to such a story. That tensions simmering just below my level of consciousness were probably feverishly pushing me to come up with a story. But in truth I don't know. It just happened. Some synapses in my brain started firing off and I came up with ideas that were not there a moment before.

I now had a reason to be in India.

Hard Work

I visited all the zoos I could find in the south of India. I interviewed the director of the Trivandrum Zoo. I spent time in temples, churches and mosques. I explored the urban settings for my novel and took in the nature around them. I tried to immerse myself as much as possible in the Indianness of my main character. After six months I had enough local colour and detail.
I returned to Canada and spent a year and a half doing research. I read the foundational texts of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. I read books on zoo biology and animal psychology. I read castaway and other disaster stories.

All the while, in India and in Canada, I took notes. On the page, in a smashed-up, kaleidoscopic way, Life of Pi began to take shape. I took a while to decide what animal would be my main animal protagonist. At first I had an elephant in mind. The Indian elephant is smaller than the African, and I thought an adolescent male would fit nicely in the lifeboat. But the image of an elephant in a lifeboat struck me as more comical than I wanted. I changed to a rhinoceros. But rhinos are herbivores and I could not see how I could keep a herbivore alive in the high seas. And a constant diet of algae struck me as monotonous for both reader and writer, if not for the rhino. I finally settled upon the choice that in retrospect seems the obvious one: a tiger. The other animals in the lifeboat ? the zebra, the hyena and the orang-utan ? arose naturally, each one a function of a human trait I wanted to embody, the hyena cowardliness, the orang-utan maternal instincts and the zebra exoticism.

I chose meerkats because I wanted a small ferret-like creature without the connotations that ferrets have. I wanted a neutral animal upon which I could paint a personality of my choice. Also, meerkats rhymed somewhat with mirage and meekness.

The blind, cannibal Frenchman in the other boat came to me in those first moments of inspiration in Matheran; in other words, I don't know where he came from. In my first draft, the scene with the Frenchman was much longer, close to 45 pages. It was one of my favourite sections. It was Beckett in the Pacific, I thought. Which was precisely the problem, my editor told me. It was funny and absurd, she told me, but in the wrong place, like a good joke told at a funeral. The tone was wrong; it broke with what came before and after. So I had to cut it down substantially.

The algae island floated into my imagination from the same dark luminous place from whence came the meerkats, the Frenchman and, indeed, the novel as a whole.

The rest was hard, fun work, a daily getting it down on the page that came not without hurdles, not without moments of doubt, not without mistakes and rewrites, but always, always with deep, gratifying pleasure, with a knowledge that no matter how the novel would fare, I would be happy with it, that it helped me understand my world a bit better.

Real Places Behind Famously Frightening Stories

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Ponden Hall and Top Withens, England
Brontë probably had two places in mind when she imagined Wuthering Heights, the haunted house in Yorkshire at the center of her only novel. The Heights’ remote, windswept location could have been that of Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse that overlooks the moors south of her hometown of Haworth. The structure itself could have been based on Ponden Hall, a 19th-century manor house also near Haworth; the single-paned window on the second floor may well have been the one that Catherine Linton’s ghost tried to climb through one wild, snowy night. (Ponden’s owners, Stephen Brown and Julie Akhurst, do offer tours to small groups.)

Life of Pi

Ang Lee boards Life of Pi film:

"I'm delivering the first draft," he said. "I think I've cracked the structure of the movie and I'll figure out how to do it later.

"How exactly I'm going to do it, I don't know … A little boy adrift at sea with a tiger. It's a hard one to crack!"

Lee said the film would most likely be out in two years' time.

On Language II

From the NYT 2008 Food Issue

The Food Issue - Against Meat, by Jonathan Safran Foer

“Even at the worst times, there were good people, too. Someone taught me to tie the ends of my pants so I could fill the legs with any potatoes I was able to steal. I walked miles and miles like that, because you never knew when you would be lucky again. Someone gave me a little rice, once, and I traveled two days to a market and traded it for some soap, and then traveled to another market and traded the soap for some beans. You had to have luck and intuition.
“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“Of course.”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

the On Language column of the New York Times, reposted here, starting today

The origin of the title

how silly is it to «discover» such an amazing author... who's famous, there's a movie with Elijah...

EMMY HITLER ate lamp shades in her third trimester.
    Frances Edison had inexplicable cravings for tungsten (which was then still known as wolfram), and glass.  Doctor Williams, who'd known Frances since she was knee-high to a corn stalk, told her to control herself.  Couldn't be good for her, or the baby. Pregnancy..., he said, every now and again you see it do something funny to a woman.
    It wasn't funny, though, when Reba Carter chased down three pounds of unshelled peanuts with a handful of Not Cool for Cal in '24! buttons -not funny to her esophagus which was jabbed and pricked by the buttons's needle backings, and not funny to her rectum that had to pass Coolidge and shards of undigested shells, only centimeters from her birth canal.  Nor was it funny to Wade Carter when he received the phone call notifying him that his wife was in the emergency room, three-quarters-crazy, and that perhaps he should come home.
    May Earhart sat in front of her Windmaster fan, mouth open, letting the air move into her like a long leg into a stocking.  For hours she would sit in front of the propeller blades, which she propped up on a bookshelf by the window so she could watch the clouds flirt and exchange vapor.  She daydreamed of ailerons and elevators, fuselages, rudders and leading-edge flaps, friction, airfoils, air flow, air pressure, columns of heated and cooled air, thrust, and lift.  She walked herself to the hospital when it was time, arms spread out at her sides, palms cupped, collecting wind like sails.
     Cinderella's mother, her real mother, longed for glass.  But unlike Frances Edison, who was content with thick or thin glass, clear glass or tinted, Sestina fancied stained glass.  Her craving, (a passion she might have called it) , the intense hunger which drove her to wander the streets at night looking for high windows at which to throw rocks, left her lacerated and empty.  Chipped teeth, bloody gums, torn gut ... Cinderella, she said at her navel (for she had known both that she was to have a daughter, and her unborn daughter's name since she herself was only a child, Cinderella it's killing me. I can't do it. It's not within the covenant of motherhood.
    Vera Wilde extinguished matches on her blackened tongue, and blew wafts of smoke out of her mouth.
    Sabina Curie saw through her husband, but spread her legs anyway.  She craved a tighter belt.
    The wife of C.W. Scheele, the man who discovered wolfram (now known as tungsten), drank mercury to get her husband's attention. While she knew she was no 1.5 parts per million of the earth's crust, relatively useless in the production of record needles, and hadn't had a high boiling point since she was a teenager, she refused to be ignored. 1741 was a cold year--too cold for the quick silver in her stomach.  So she died in childbirth.
    Betty Astaire yearned for the tap-tap-tapping in her abdomen to stop.
    Mary wanted to be left alone.
    When her water broke, Jacques Cousteau's mother was performing cunnilingus on her swim instructor (who was also heavy with child, but one month behind Mrs. Cousteau), in the showering room, after a long lesson.  It was the smell of the sea she craved.  The taste of the ocean.  To be around, up, and in the body of a true swimmer.  That clitoral pebble which washed up on the beach, after centuries of turning over and over, of being smoothed by evolution's slow, deliberate surf -that was what she wanted between her lips.  She thought about her instructor in that way as Mr. Cousteau reached the coital meridian that would, five months later, be the swell in her stomach.  That was the first time.  It scared her--a feeling so foreign she wanted to call it a symptom.  It happened again when she first felt Jacques kicking, as if his translucent foot was a bass drum pedal. BOOM, BOOM... the sea ... BOOM,, BOOM... the ocean floor.  She had an acute awareness of Jacques's positioning in her belly.  She tracked him, blindly, using genetic sonar.  His deep heart beat ping resonated back to her, and her's to him.  What was that thing in her stomach that moved her, that possessed her to roll around in bloated 69? to tango that double fetal distend on the cold blue tile floor of the shower room?
    Mary Coltrane also felt the bass pedal, but the captivating rhythm was enough to make her drink her own blue-tinted breast milk, and eat flowers from the neighborhood park.  Her stomach became a garden of swing--blossoming pulse, throb, and cadence.  High-hat pansies.  Double-bass daisies.  Rim-shot rose-pedaled diarrhea-inducing botany.  Boom, tssszz.... The areolas of her tom toms moved outwards, like concentric ripples emanating from a pebble hitting the water.  Boom, ta tssszz... She was all the way mad.  And lonely. The fairy with the straight blue pubic hair (Geppetto was nowhere near the slouch that legend would have us believe) ate formica.
    Frank Lloyd Wright's mother knew she was going to give birth to greatness.  She didn't have sex during her pregnancy, fearing a too-sharp jab of Mr. Wright's pelvic t-square (which, let's face it, was not so different from Pinocchio's nose) might rip into the embryonic sac.
    Methuselah's mother couldn't sleep at all the last two weeks, but still had waking nightmares of milk and honey.
    Leda gnawed on her down pillows when the crests of her tidal contractions broke too far over her head.
    The mother of Pope Pius II swallowed gold coins during the winter of 1427.  She would quarter an apple and embed a coin in one of the slices, so she didn't have to think about swallowing such a large circle of metal.  It was a game of currency roulette, in which each spin of the Red Delicious wheel might mean another clink clink in her stride.  She checked her bowel movements, but none of the coins were ever returned. He's rich in there, she thought, like a king.  And her belly was a finance house, investing placental vitals, and collecting tuberculosis
and malaria as interest.  She also died in childbirth.
    Chelsea Braille ate her husband' s eyeglasses when she realized the condom broke.
    Like Mrs. Cousteau, Caesar's mother longed for the sea.  She slept at night with shells tied around her ears, and imagined chesty mermaids serenading her from all sides.  She massaged anchovies into her body, training closed the pedaled lips of her vagina, until the vulvan moss showed no breaks -no weaknesses in the bulwark.  He would have come out in the tenth month, or even the ninth, if he had had an access of escape.  I won't do it, she said to herself.  I won't.  The stomach was her husband's idea.
    Instead of crying, Brucha Chagall licked the blue bottles in which she collected rain water.
    Erna Lamaze was compelled to strangle herself at night.  Not to death, of course -until she could feel her hands shake, and the floor shake beneath her, and watch her stomach rise and fall in tiny ripples.  When she came to, she would search her raw, swollen neck for any cuts, and promise herself that this was the absolute, unequivocal last time.  Until the next night.
    Hitler.  Could it be that all Emmy craved was lamp shades?  Not sweet pickles, or tapioca pudding, or even semi-sweet chocolate?  Not blue glass, not jazz, not feathers, not air?  It's too eerie to believe.
    But there was something more thing she craved.
    She felt so much like a candle holder on a high shelf, never made full with a candle, never knowing the weep of soft, hot wax.  Had he even seen her naked body since that night?  Had he shown any interest when she told him of the hammering, how it felt like baby Adolf (for she had also known the sex and name of her son since she was a child) was trying to pound his way out?  Had he ever put his ear to her stomach and said: Lady, I swear by all flowers that this child will do wonderful things?
    She longed for the attention received by a painter's wife the feel of lamplight on her face, the sound of a brush laying her down on canvas.  And fingers.  She craved fingerprints on her skin, epidermal tires skidding across the roadway of her torso. . And light.  And light.  To be around it.  To encapsulate it.
     What about Jack the Ripper's mother?  Judas's?  Napoleon's?  Houdini's?  What did Charlemagne's mother wake her husband for in the earliest hours?  What was it that she needed?

because I just discovered Jonathan Safran Foer

FOR the last 20 years, New York City parks without designated dog runs have permitted dogs to be off-leash from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. Because of recent complaints from the Juniper Park Civic Association in Queens, the issue has been revisited. On Dec. 5, the Board of Health will vote on the future of off-leash hours.

Retrievers in elevators, Pomeranians on No. 6 trains, bull mastiffs crossing the Brooklyn Bridge ... it is easy to forget just how strange it is that dogs live in New York in the first place. It is about as unlikely a place for dogs as one could imagine, and yet 1.4 million of them are among us. Why do we keep them in our apartments and houses, always at some expense and inconvenience? Is it even possible, in a city, to provide a good life for a dog, and what is a “good life?” Does the health board’s vote matter in ways other than the most obvious?

I adopted George (a Great Dane/Lab/pit/greyhound/ridgeback/whatever mix — a k a Brooklyn shorthair) because I thought it would be fun. As it turns out, she is a major pain an awful lot of the time.

She mounts guests, eats my son’s toys (and occasionally tries to eat my son), is obsessed with squirrels, lunges at skateboarders and Hasids, has the savant-like ability to find her way between the camera lens and subject of every photo taken in her vicinity, backs her tush into the least interested person in the room, digs up the freshly planted, scratches the newly bought, licks the about-to-be served and occasionally relieves herself on the wrong side of the front door. Her head is resting on my foot as I type this. I love her.

Our various struggles — to communicate, to recognize and accommodate each other’s desires, simply to coexist — force me to interact with something, or rather someone, entirely “other.” George can respond to a handful of words, but our relationship takes place almost entirely outside of language. She seems to have thoughts and emotions, desires and fears. Sometimes I think I understand them; often I don’t. She is a mystery to me. And I must be one to her.

Of course our relationship is not always a struggle. My morning walk with George is very often the highlight of my day — when I have my best thoughts, when I most appreciate both nature and the city, and in a deeper sense, life itself. Our hour together is a bit of compensation for the burdens of civilization: business attire, e-mail, money, etiquette, walls and artificial lighting. It is even a kind of compensation for language. Why does watching a dog be a dog fill one with happiness? And why does it make one feel, in the best sense of the word, human?

It is children, very often, who want dogs. In a recent study, when asked to name the 10 most important “individuals” in their lives, 7- and 10-year-olds included two pets on average. In another study, 42 percent of 5-year-olds spontaneously mentioned their pets when asked, “Whom do you turn to when you are feeling, sad, angry, happy or wanting to share a secret?” Just about every children’s book in my local bookstore has an animal for its hero. But then, only a few feet away in the cookbook section, just about every cookbook includes recipes for cooking animals. Is there a more illuminating illustration of our paradoxical relationship with the nonhuman world?

In the course of our lives, we move from a warm and benevolent relationship with animals (learning responsibility through caring for our pets, stroking and confiding in them), to a cruel one (virtually all animals raised for meat in this country are factory farmed — they spend their lives in confinement, dosed with antibiotics and other drugs).

How do you explain this? Is our kindness replaced with cruelty? I don’t think so. I think in part it’s because the older we get, the less exposure we have to animals. And nothing facilitates indifference or forgetfulness so much as distance. In this sense, dogs and cats have been very lucky: they are the only animals we are intimately exposed to daily.

Folk parental wisdom and behavioral studies alike generally view the relationships children have with companion animals as beneficial. But one does not have to be a child to learn from a pet. It is precisely my frustrations with George, and the inconveniences she creates, that reinforce in me how much compromise is necessary to share space with other beings.

The practical arguments against off-leash hours are easily refuted. One doesn’t have to be an animal scientist to know that the more a dog is able to exercise its “dogness”— to run and play, to socialize with other dogs — the happier it will be. Happy dogs, like happy people, tend not to be aggressive. In the years that dogs have been allowed to run free in city parks, dog bites have decreased 90 percent. But there is another argument that is not so easy to respond to: some people just don’t want to be inconvenienced by dogs. Giving dogs space necessarily takes away space from humans.

We have been having this latter debate, in different forms, for ages. Again and again we are confronted with the reality — some might say the problem — of sharing our space with other living things, be they dogs, trees, fish or penguins. Dogs in the park are a present example of something that is often too abstracted or far away to gain our consideration.

The very existence of parks is a response to this debate: earlier New Yorkers had the foresight to recognize that if we did not carve out places for nature in our cities, there would be no nature. It was recently estimated that Central Park’s real estate would be worth more than $500 billion. Which is to say we are half a trillion dollars inconvenienced by trees and grass. But we do not think of it as an inconvenience. We think of it as balance.

Living on a planet of fixed size requires compromise, and while we are the only party capable of negotiating, we are not the only party at the table. We’ve never claimed more, and we’ve never had less. There has never been less clean air or water, fewer fish or mature trees. If we are not simply ignoring the situation, we keep hoping for (and expecting) a technological solution that will erase our destruction, while allowing us to continue to live without compromise. Maybe zoos will be an adequate replacement for wild animals in natural habitats. Maybe we will be able to recreate the Amazon somewhere else. Maybe one day we will be able to genetically engineer dogs that do not wish to run free. Maybe. But will those futures make us feel, in the best sense of the word, human?

I have been taking George to Prospect Park twice a day for more than three years, but her running is still a revelation to me. Effortlessly, joyfully, she runs quite a bit faster than the fastest human on the planet. And faster, I’ve come to realize, than the other dogs in the park. George might well be the fastest land animal in Brooklyn. Once or twice every morning, for no obvious reason, she’ll tear into a full sprint. Other dog owners can’t help but watch her. Every now and then someone will cheer her on. It is something to behold.

Mother Tongue

More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to...'
Only Bill Bryson could make a book about the English language so entertaining. With his boundless enthusiasm and restless eye for the absurd, this is his astonishing tour of English. From its mongrel origins to its status as the world's most-spoken tongue; its apparent simplicity to its deceptive complexity; its vibrant swearing to its uncertain spelling and pronunciation, Bryson covers all this as well as the many curious eccentricities that make it as maddening to learn as it is flexible to use.
Bill Bryson's classic Mother Tongue is a highly readable and hilarious tale of how English came to be the world's language.

27 outubro 2009

"The corporate sponsored creation of a disease is not a new phenomenon, but the making of Female Sexual Dysfunction is the freshest, clearest example we have."

White Collar


The Art of Mehmet Ozgur

Wishlist: Annotated Draculas, time to purchase another one ;)

I already have the one on the left,
edited by Professor Leonard Wolf

now it's time for the New one :-[
Click to visit the author's website

Didn't think I needed another reason to Adore this Man - Edward Norton runs with the Maasai

Edward Norton and I are in a cab on the way to the airport, where three Maasai warriors named Samson, Parashi, and Sunte are landing from Kenya. Norton’s invited them to run with him in the New York City Marathon in order to call attention to the plight of the African ecosystem.

In between Norton’s explaining, earnestly, how all of this came about, we’re contending with the driver, Hamdid, who’s quite excited that Norton is the fare. He’s singing “A movie star is in my cab, a movie star is in my cab!” and bragging over the phone to a friend, in Arabic, of his good luck. “Italian Job is my favorite movie,” Hamdid says, over his shoulder. “Yeah, it’s the best one I’ve ever made,” replies Norton, drily. “Can I have your picture? That’s all I want, a picture of me and the movie star in my cab!” Norton rolls his eyes. “Sure, as long as you get us to the airport alive,” he says.

Then he returns to telling how all this happened. The short story is that Norton is very involved in a charity called the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which aims to protect the biodiversity of the Maasai lands in Eastern Africa. He’d exhausted his circle of upscale donors and wanted to try a grassroots approach to fund-raising, which is when he thought of the run. “A marathon is something the guys can come over to the U.S. and participate in,” Norton explains. “They run, they’re great runners, and they totally get the idea of a race—it’s very much a part of their culture, the idea of doing something bold and brave; that’s what their warrior culture is all about.”

Norton will tell you the longer version of the story if you ask (it involves water self-sufficiency, community integration, and the global conservation agenda), but the traffic is light, so he’s interrupted mid-explanation by Hamdid, asking what terminal to go to. At the curb, Norton is good to his word and takes a smiling cell-phone picture with Hamdid before we enter the airport.

The three warriors aren’t difficult to spot. They wander out of the baggage area, blinking in the harsh lights, red multipatterned cloth draped over their slender frames. They have on what look to be homemade sandals, form-fit to their soles. One carries a Jansport backpack. Neither Parashi nor Sunte has been outside Kenya before. Norton knows these men well: He first went to Kenya a decade ago, and trained with the three men there for the marathon this summer. One of them, Samson, has visited New York before, where he discovered he loved buffalo burgers and was an excellent natural bowler.

“Was this the first jet plane you have been in?” Norton asks the other two as we all pile into the SUV he’d ordered to take us back to the city. “I thought it would be more—” Parashi makes a violent bobbing movement with his body. Everyone laughs.

Traffic is much worse on the way back. “Now this is like Nairobi,” says Norton. Everyone again laughs as we inch toward Manhattan. The warriors and the actor compare running injuries—Samson is having tendon problems and Norton says he can take him to a good doctor who has run marathons himself. “He’s done a race called the Iron Man. Iron is the metal, so it means, like, hard man,” Norton explains.

Pointing out the window, Norton describes some of the sites to his guests. “This is the baseball stadium,” he says, passing Citi Field. Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, Norton gestures to the Empire State Building. “When this building was built, it was the tallest in the world. We can go to the top,” he promises. On the Manhattan side, the warriors notice the pigeons. “Those are actually in the dove family,” says Norton, following their gaze. The plan is for them to go shoe shopping the next day so they can train.

The warriors will be staying in Norton’s apartment in the Village for the week leading up to the race. “This doesn’t look like our village!” says Samson with a giggle.

Second pic from Jezebel, text from NYMag

More Fun Theory

O Mar nas Veias

We are on the threshold of a new age of intelligence


Earlier this year, it was declared that we are in the age of intelligence: 2,000 delegates at the 14th International Conference of Thinking in Kuala Lumpur embraced the fact that instead of thinking agriculturally, informationally or technologically, we will finally think intelligently. And as the year draws to an end, it seems that they were on to something. Everywhere in the world, intellectual capital has become the new buzz phrase ; people are realising that the brain is now the prime resource and the main currency is intelligence.

China has creative thinking on its curriculum, Malaysia has said its nation will be mentally literate. In Britain, Wellington College has declared it will become a beacon as a “thinking and intelligent” school, the LSE is providing introductions to intelligence and thinking skills to its new intake and tonight a Channel 4 series on race starts with a show exploring intelligence and ethnicity (see right) .

So what does it mean to be intelligent today? The notion was born at the turn of the 20th century, designed to test reading, verbal and numerical abilities. Today, people denigrate IQ test but it was only 100 years ago that we made these huge steps, to be able to determine an individuals’ intelligence quotient by the level of their verbal and numerical abilities.

However in the 1960s and 1970s a number of people, including me, began to question that as an all-inclusive definition. Many people with high verbal and numerical capacities seemed to be acting unintelligently. In a social situation, they tried to dominate everything with their words and numbers and bored people to distraction. It became apparent that there was a social intelligence that was, in many instances, far more important.

The flower of multiple-intelligence theory bloomed and, as well as verbal and numerical intelligence, several other types were established. There was personal intelligence (the ability to get on with people and be your own best friend); physical intelligence (the ability to be an all round healthy individual); sensual intelligence (the ability to use all your senses); spatial intelligence (the ability to negotiate three-dimensional space and handle moving objects); creative intelligence (the ability to think flexibly at speed, originally and with volume) and spiritual or ethical intelligence (the capacity to have compassion, love and concern for others). The recent idea of “emotional intelligence” would be part of personal and spiritual.

Our notions of how to teach and nurture intelligence are also changing. The global education system was based on industrial and military revolutions: people were trained to obey and to remember things needed to survive in the factory and in the military. We are no longer in that age, nor in the information technological age that followed.

Many schools are now embracing the intelligence revolution, teaching children first how to learn and then what to learn. A child in school now is going to be a worker. In the future, they are going to be an intelligent.

Use Your Head by Tony Buzan, Mind Set, £9.99
The big brains on the big question
Baroness Greenfield
Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at the University of Oxford and director of the Royal Institution
Intelligence comes from the Latin root intelligere, of understanding. Just because I know a fact doesn’t mean that I can put it into a context. The more intelligent someone is, the more they can see a fact in terms of other things. The greatest form of intelligence is someone who can make big links between different contexts, such as the scientist F. M. Burnet, who applied the principles of evolution to the immune system. IQ tests might measure agility, the ability to see a fact in an abstract sense, but it doesn’t require a person to see the full background or to have an understanding of history, say, or economics.
Bonnie Greer
Critic and Deputy Chairman of the British Museum
A few years ago, I co-won, on a points system, a contest called “The Battle Of the Brains” as part of an Horizon series about measuring human intelligence. There were two type of tests: the regular, conventional IQ tests and the newest, more unconventional tests coming on stream. My co-winner was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology quantum physicist descended from Bertrand Russell. This alone should tell you all you need to know about measuring human intelligence: there is no fail-safe method, no definitive rule. This is simply because we cannot guarantee that our systems of measure are perfect, infallible, true for every human in every situation. Nevertheless, we still love trying to measure each other’s brain capacity. If they aren’t taken too seriously, IQ tests can be harmless fun.
Mary Beard
Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge
“Intelligence” quite simply equals “brain power”. So can you, quite simply, measure it? Are really intelligent people the equivalent of the Aston Martin (where the rest of us are Ford Fiestas?) Happily, the answer is no. After 30 years teaching in a university, I’ve begun to understand that, even among the boffins, brain power comes in many different forms: from the knack of high-level theorising through razor-sharp logic to imaginative originality. There is no single scale for measuring all that.
Sir Peter Lampl
Chairman of the Sutton Trust, which helps deprived children to get to Oxford
Highly able children express their intelligence in many ways: the analytical skills needed to master a wide range of information and identify quickly relevant trends or issues; the communication skills needed to present facts in a meaningful way; and the people skills that are so essential for forming fruitful relationships: knowing when and what to say and to whom. Often it is the combination of all these that make people successful in life.
A. C. Grayling
Professor of Philosophy, Birkbeck College
The marks of intelligence are alertness, perceptiveness, wit, curiosity, creative responses to opportunities and problems, and the ability to learn quickly from errors. Intelligent people tend not to be mentally lazy or pedestrian, because being smart enough to recognise that one is either or both these things makes for dissatisfaction. Intelligent people are more often than not self-motivating and ambitious and derive pleasure from putting their talents to use. The value of what results depends, of course, on whether the intelligence in question is bent to good or bad ends.
Dr Maria Leitner
British Mensa Supervisory Psychologist
With regard to Mensa membership, the definition of intelligence is in fact a score on a well-validated IQ test. More broadly, there is simply no commonly agreed definition of intelligence. Most IQ tests (and most available attempts at definition of intelligence) focus on a background that ties together a set of skills. These will reflect a person’s ability to problem solve, to think logically and reason; to adapt to change; to think “outside the box”. One can argue that what ties the skills together is a quite primitive notion of dealing well with one’s environment — that is, in evolutionary terms, having a brain that is likely to facilitate one’s survival.
Sir Patrick Moore
The question “what is intelligence?” is not easy to answer. It is not a case of pure scholarship; for real intelligence you have to see what lies beyond. Not everyone can do this. To show what I mean, you have only to look at some leading politicians of today. They are conventionally intelligent, otherwise they would not have risen to top positions. Yet looked at broadly they are unutterably stupid. Scholarship and intelligence do not go together, which is why this question is difficult.
Dame Wendy Hall
Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton
I don’t equate intelligence with cleverness. I think people who are intelligent have a touch of humanity about them. Their ideas, insight and vision set them apart from others, but they also have an understanding of what makes the world tick and how their ideas can impact for the greater good. Interestingly, as the World Wide Web has evolved so has the concept of collective intelligence, which is best encapsulated in the evolution of Wikipedia. This is a new form of intelligence that could lead to new insights into our understanding of the key challenges that face us as an increasingly global society.
John Humphrys
Journalist and Mastermind presenter
It may be easier to say what intelligence is not. It’s not being quick-witted and articulate. If it were, politicians would probably be the most intelligent. It’s not knowing lots of stuff. If it were, the Mastermind champion would be the brightest. And it’s not even being wise, which calls for experience. So maybe it’s being able to see the flaw in every argument — especially your own.
Antony Beevor
There are probably as many different definitions of intelligence as there are of beauty. Some definitions can be mutually exclusive. For example, a brilliant Asperger type of numeracy is unlikely to go with emotional intelligence. Others are interlinked, such as mathematical and scientific intelligence, which so often go with musical gifts. We now have become aware that children with learning difficulties, who in the past would have been written off as of low intelligence, can astonish everyone with talents later, as businessmen or artists. In short, we still know so little about the human brain and its development that all pigeon-holeing should be avoided at all costs.
Anne Robinson
Broadcaster and TV presenter
Intelligence is easy enough to recognise, but more difficult to define. The most critical attribute of an intelligent person is the ability to think quickly, laterally and recognise when someone is talking nonsense. Beyond that, I can only add that intelligence combined with a sharp wit makes even the ugliest bloke seem dangerously sexy.

Interviews by Chloe Lambert:
The more I talk of intelligence, the stupider I feel
People like me, apparently, “feel that their ability to understand and deal with their own emotions is barely acceptable”. In fact I feel no such thing; actually after five years deep delving with a psychoanalyst I tend to feel the exact opposite, but this slapdown was the diagnosis following a 106-question internet test of my “emotional intelligence”, which included a series of questions hypothesising about the imagined feelings of various people in photographs. In other words, I thought the test was crude bullsh**, but whoever set it thought it was a fabulous diagnostic tool for a certain kind of intelligence.

There is a great deal to be lost or gained in possessing or not possessing “intelligence”, which may be why I was so annoyed. We can easily see that University Challenge, for example, tests a very specific set of skills (dubbed “crystallised” intelligence by one acadamic, as distinct from “fluid” intelligence) and allow that many bright folk might be rubbish at quizzes. But it is much less obvious what we mean when we use the word “intelligent”, other than as a broad idea to connote the kind of mental ability we are now describing. Yet measures of intelligence are constantly being invoked. When I was a teenager battle raged around the question of IQ tests and whether they indicated genetic (or, indeed, racial) predispositions towards cleverness or stupidity. Was it the case that the poor were stupid, or that the stupid were poor? Then this pessimistic determinism was replaced by the suggestion that we were all — except in the Far East — becoming dumber. But since then the work of James R. Flynn in the US has shown that, as measured by IQ tests, we have steadily become cleverer. Allowing for the effect of the constant recalibration of IQ tests (we don’t take the same ones we did 40 years ago) Flynn’s work suggested that, in America, the mean IQ had gone up by 9.7 points over the decades, and that most of the gain had been at the lower end of IQ scores. Such an outcome seriously undermines genetic explanations for IQ, suggesting that social, cultural and technological factors are just as, if not more, important. Are we made “cleverer” because the world we live in demands that we should be? Why be clever in, say, a rural farm setting, when there is no need for it?

Why worry about being clever at all, you may wonder, if, as some claim , computers will, one day, be as or even more “intelligent” than we are? They will surpass us by 2050, someone helpfully predicted a few weeks ago. Or do we intuit that such intelligence can’t possibly compete with the deeply socialised ability of a human being to respond, often unconsciously, to the equally unconscious promptings of other human beings?

I don’t know. But it is a personal paradox that the more I talk about intelligence, the more confused and therefore the stupider I feel. Just as the emotional intelligence test said.
David Aaronovitch
The big issue that needs to be tackled
Every decade or so, the toxic issue of whether or not intelligence is genetically distributed across the races is brought into the spotlight. There is then a huge furore, a lot of emotional accusations and then it is swept under the carpet again .

In the past I have interviewed warlords and militia leaders who have said terrible things. I’m used to and attracted by examining and putting under the spotlight people who espouse ideas and beliefs that the vast majority of us find repugnant and abhorrent. In tonight’s programme for Channel 4, I have looked at the arguments of scientists who have advanced the theories that black people are genetically, immutably, less intelligent than other races and evaluated the actual scientific evidence behind it.

Obviously, it was difficult to sit opposite scientists who were saying things that felt like a direct attack on me and my children. It is hard to stay calm, and impartial, but that is the only way to win the argument.

Quite aside from my gut reaction, I discovered that there is no knockout killer blow for those who advance this argument. The science is not there and the claims are being made by social scientists, not geneticists. The issue of why black boys, in particular, underperform, is still there, but it cannot be answered through genetics. IQ is a measure of nurture more than nature and, as one sociology professor told me, I can better tell from your IQ scores whether your mum drives a Volvo than whether you are naturally gifted at maths.

People will, doubtless, ask why we are giving airtime to this subject, whatever our conclusions. But the topic is already out there and it needs to be tackled head on, on its own terms.
Rageh Omagh 
Race and Intelligence: Science’s last Taboo is on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight

Meet the architects rebuilding our future

As temperatures rise and ice melts, it has become clear that Man’s attempt to impose his will on Nature has gone awry. A new breed of scientists is beginning to approach our myriad problems from a new, humbler perspective; how, they ask, can we learn from Nature and borrow some of its extraordinary inventiveness in the fight against climate change.

The deep ocean is an unlikely source of inspiration for one project, which aims to make our cities alive and glowing. The plan sounds almost biblical; the lighting of the world from a multitude of fish.

Dr Rachel Armstrong, an architectural researcher from University College London, wants to transform buildings from being sterile, inert objects into entities that interact and evolve with the natural environment. She sees this as the fulfilment of what architects have always seen as the purpose of their work. “We’ve likened the city to an organism, but so far it has been a symbolic description. In the future, architecture will be literally alive,” she said.

Imagine the cityscape of the future. Forget skyscrapers studded with undimmed lights. Instead, think of crystal whites and luminous blues forging the city’s silhouette. Picture a city that sucks in carbon and uses bacteria harvested from dead fish to light the darkness. The city as a living character will no longer be a literary conceit, but a reality. From metaphor to concrete in one generation.

One of her projects starts with a simple premise. Leave a fish rotting in a bowl of water for long enough and it will begin to glow. The light comes from bacteria in the fish. In certain species, such as the flashlight fish and the anglerfish, a symbiotic relationship with this bacteria, Vibrio phosphoreum, allows the fish to glow and flicker in the deep ocean. The flashlight fish carries the bacteria in pouches beneath its eyes, which it opens to show off the glimmering organisms or closes to hide them, depending on whether it wishes to lure in prey or evade predators. But how have scientists leapt from flashes of light in the sea to a new vision for our cities? Welcome to the world of nanoarchitecture.

With her colleagues at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Armstrong is focusing on “grunge” solutions to global warming: technologies that are cheap and relatively simple. We’ve already seen a sliver of this idea. Steven Chu, the United States Secretary of Energy, is an advocate of the use of whitewash on our houses. “If you take all the buildings in the world and make their roofs white and you do this uniformly?.?.?.?it’s the equivalent of reducing the carbon emissions due to all the cars on the road for 11 years,” he told a meeting in London earlier this year.

But Armstrong and her peers have ideas that reach far beyond whitewash. One intriguing possibility is the use of bioluminescent bacteria, organisms that give off a blue-green glow, as low-energy urban lighting. In the US, urban lighting accounts for more than 8 per cent of the country’s total electricity consumption. The sides of buildings and billboards could be covered in sparkling bacteria, such as Vibrio phosphoreum — the fish bacteria. This produces light automatically when a pigment contained in the bacteria called luciferin, from the Latin meaning light bringer, reacts with oxygen in air or water. At present, the light emitted is not strong enough to illuminate a street, but scientists believe that it could be engineered to do so. Another possibility is using bacteria to metabolise carbon dioxide through photosynthesis so that the bacterial coating would effectively eat up carbon dioxide by turning sunlight into energy.

“When dealing with climate change we don’t always have to invent something new, we have to think very cleverly about what we already have,” Armstrong said. “It doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to envisage how much more useful the surfaces of our buildings could become if covered in bacteria that glow in the dark or remove pollutants from the atmosphere.”

Choosing which bacteria to use would be the easy part, according to Armstrong, as scientists have already identified numerous common species that carry out these functions. She is now looking at the possibility of using cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, to capture carbon dioxide.

What remains to be addressed, however, is how best to cultivate such organisms on the surfaces of our houses, offices and schools. Armstrong views this challenge as a form of gardening. “Bacterial gardens don’t really exist and that’s what we need to create,” she says.

Simon Park, a microbiologist at the University of Surrey, already has some experience of bacterial gardening. He has been exploring the use of naturally bioluminescent bacteria in art, using Vibrio phosphoreum to make dazzling blue abstract displays. Park cultivates the bacteria by placing them in agar gel in petri dishes and providing them with salty water, which replicates a marine environment, and glycerol, on which they feed. Park’s art installations normally last for a few days before the bacteria run out of food and gradually fade to darkness, but if fed continually the displays could be permanent, he said.

Transferring the concept to urban design would mean ingraining the necessary nutrients in the fabric of the building. Armstrong says that this could be achieved by using porous materials, such as chalk and sandstone, seeded with bacteria-friendly substances.

Again looking to nature for inspiration, scientists are trying to artificially recreate the process of limestone formation, in which atmospheric carbon dioxide is transformed into a solid carbonate form. In nature this happens over thousands of years, with atmospheric carbon dioxide first being dissolved in acidic rain water, and then combining with calcium to form calcium carbonate. Nanoarchitects are aiming to speed the process up to a matter of days. They believe it could be done simply by coating the walls of buildings with tiny droplets of engine grease. The grease would be laced with a common salt such as magnesium chloride. When the magnesium reacts with carbon dioxide in the air, a solid magnesium carbonate pearl begins to form. This serves as the seed for the growth of white, wheatsheaf-shaped carbonate crystals. The large surface area of a droplet of grease maximises the interface between the magnesium and the atmospheric carbon, speeding up the rate of the reaction. Within days, the grease would be transformed into a sparkly crystalline coating similar in appearance to heavy frost or snowfall.

What is done with the carbonate deposit would be as much an aesthetic as a scientific decision. One option would be to scrape off the carbonate and dispose of it or reuse it as a building material. Armstrong likes the idea of making a feature of it. “We could bring back the façade,” she said. A green city as envisaged by Armstrong would look like Narnia under the White Witch, crystal white and beautiful. The carbon choking our planet could become a harmless decorative feature.

Having demonstrated that the technology to create carbon-eating walls works in principle, Armstrong and her colleagues are now conducting experiments to speed up crystal growth and vary the size of the crystals by changing the size of oil droplets and testing different salts. They are also calculating how much carbon can be absorbed per hour per square metre of surface covered.

Despite the research being at a relatively early stage, it has already come to the attention of commercial practitioners such as the Canadian architect Philip Beesley. He said: “Traditionally, the architecture industry is tremendously conservative but there’s a hunger for this technology. We could be seeing these buildings on our streets eight years from now.” Beesley is presenting a joint exhibition about the technology with Armstrong at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.

The low-tech approach has the advantage of being easy to implement and cheap. However, one potential drawback of using simple oil droplets is that once all the magnesium has been turned into carbonate and the oil has evaporated, no more carbon will be captured — at least until another oily coating is added. Armstrong believes that the solution to this problem could lie in the development of “protocells”: artificial cells that, while lacking DNA, can divide and replicate in a similar manner to living cells. If scientists can create such cells, Armstrong says that they could carry out the same function as the oil droplets, but be programmed to run on salty water, making them more self-sufficient. She is in early discussions about this with synthetic biologists at the University of Southern Denmark. Professor Steen Rasmussen, the director of the university’s Centre for Fundamental Living Technology, predicts that functioning protocells will be a reality within a few years. “Certainly within the next ten years someone will have done it,” he said. “To be specific and say that these cells will be capable of carbon capture at this point would be speculation. But it is already clear to me that they’ll have a huge impact in environmental sciences.”

Oil droplets, bacteria and protocells are the cornerstone technologies of this new grunge architecture, which has the power to be the dominant aesthetic of 21st-century landscapes. As Beesley says: “Until now, the sustainability movement has been quite separate from cultural expression in architecture. Sustainable architects have tended to follow an anti-fashion trajectory closing up windows, not using glass — basically making hair-shirt buildings. The concept of living architecture combines the two.”
From Eureka, our new science and environment magazine