Brief Notices XVI

A recent selection of items I wish I had more time to expound upon.

Stefan Kanfer has written a marvelously amusing and informative history of vaudeville in City Journal. Focusing on the period after vaudeville had been separated from burlesque by Tony Pastor, the essay  quite rightly treats the impressarios (Keith, Hammerstein, Albee and others) as equal in importance to the roster of stars (Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, etc) who trod the stages.

Slate has a wonderful review of an exhibition of Chinese restaurant ephemera at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York.  "One's visit begins with an absence: the never-photographed first Chinese eateries in America, known as "chow chows," which sprang up in California in the mid-19th century to serve Cantonese laborers. True holes in the wall, they were marked, as per a Chinese tradition, with yellow cloth triangles. No menus have survived, if ever there were any; who knows but that they served stir-fried buffalo."

As an old fart myself, I look back in wonder at the changes in computing that have happened just in my working life.  Of particular interest to me is the development of Graphical User Interface, or GUI.  I recently came across this good if incomplete survey.  Looking further, I found the excellent entry at Wikipedia, supplemented by this interesting collection of screen shots.  Perhaps most interesting of all, and a marvel that is has come down to us, is Doug Engelbart's original 1946 presentation that kicked off the whole GUI idea.

May 9, 2005 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Brief Notices XV

Another selection of items I wish I had more time to dwell on.

To start, there is an excellent scholarly review by Denis Dutton of Joseph Carroll's "Literary Darwinism:  Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature."   Carroll posits that "the narrative proclivities of human beings, far from being an incidental by-product of the evolved mind, are central to some of its most human functions."  Fiction, he says "provides us templates for a normal emotional life."   Fascinating stuff.

Tv_dinner_copy_1Talking of fiction, I remember as a young writer in the mid-1960s discovering Terry Southern through a collection called, I believe, "Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Stories."  I devoured everything of his I could get my hands on. An article in the Washington Post reminds me that Southern's "The Magic Christian" features "Guy Grand, a billionaire who amuses himself by staging elaborate pranks that cause people to reveal how much they're willing to degrade themselves for money."  Does that remind you of any TV shows you've seen recently?

And while you "enjoy" all those reality TV shows, perhaps you will also be "enjoying" a TV dinner, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year.  A good little article in the Christian Science Monitor informs us that the TV dinner was created first to deal with an excess of poultry after the 1953 Thanksgiving season.  The first TV dinner sold for 98 cents and "let customers feast on turkey with corn bread stuffing, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes - right in front of their television screens."

Finally, and completely unconnected, I want to mention this wonderful site -- -- through which I am sure one could learn the fundamentals of guitar playing.  It is incredibly enriching that people put this stuff out there for free.

November 22, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Brief Notices XIV

Some items of interest over the last few weeks that I haven't had a chance to comment on further.

First, I want to note the extraordinary fracas that ensued upon George Lucas changing parts of the original Star Wars trilogy.  The freaks were outraged.

"Foes had mobilized long before the trilogy hit the market, circulating an online petition demanding that Mr. Lucas reverse what he considers improvements. During the Hollywood DVD premiere, one reporter indignantly told a Lucasfilm executive that Star Wars does not belong to the man who created it. When the DVD went on sale, a newspaper columnist's headline commanded: "Stop messing around with our Star Wars" ... "Each and every one of us thirtysomethings that spent our allowance on multiple showings of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of The Jedi are now the true owners of this work of art."

What incredible bullshit.  I agree entirely with the BoxOfficeMojo editorial that these views approach fascism in their intent, that

"tyranny typically begins with censorship. And censorship begins with the extermination of the individual's right to create, speak and write.  The evidence is unmistakable and it is everywhere, from government intervention in speech on talk radio, politics and the Super Bowl to efforts to eradicate sex, guns and cigarette smoking from music, television and movies. The assault on George Lucas' right to Star Wars is the latest example; it demonstrates that, when the state restricts speech, the mob will not only oblige -- it will offer suggestions."

The opposite of fascism, of course, is tolerance.  And a fine example of tolerance was exhibited recently by the Royal Navy when it allowed a sailor to practice satanism with all the rights due other religions.

"That allows him to perform satanic rituals aboard and permits him to have a non-Christian Church of Satan funeral should he be killed in action.  A spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defence told CNN Sunday that it had a duty to allow members of the forces to practice their religion.  He added that the MoD was an "equal opportunities employer" which did not stop anyone having their own religious values."

Hard to imagine this happening in the navy of the land of the free and home of the brave.

Equally hard to imagine is the complexity of the brain's physical reaction to music.  Luckily we have scientists to explain it to us. 

"Why is music--universally beloved and uniquely powerful in its ability to wring emotions--so pervasive and important to us? Could its emergence have enhanced human survival somehow, such as by aiding courtship, as Geoffrey F. Miller of the University of New Mexico has proposed? Or did it originally help us by promoting social cohesion in groups that had grown too large for grooming, as suggested by Robin M. Dunbar of the University of Liverpool? On the other hand, to use the words of Harvard University's Steven Pinker, is music just "auditory cheesecake"--a happy accident of evolution that happens to tickle the brain's fancy?"

The results of the studies are way too complicated for me to attempt a paraphrase here, beyond suggesting that music has a biological basis, but the essay is well worth reading.

November 7, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Brief Notices XIII

The Morning Post has a funny and fascinating list of insider tips from various trades. It runs the gamut from mechanic ("If you have to change a light bulb where the glass is broken, you can press a potato into the metal base to unscrew the remains of the bulb from the fixture") to piano salesman ("If you see a potential customer eyeing a piano, estimate their age and calculate what year it was when they were 18 years old. Play a big hit from that year on the piano they’re looking at") and Lounge Singer ("Never agree to Christmas sing-alongs if there is alcohol involved.")

One occupation the list doesn't have is the kind of doctor that can grow a new jaw for a man from material in his back. The German patient enjoyed a bratwurst sandwich for the first time since his face was disfigured by cancer nine years ago. "He eats steak now, but complains to his doctor that because he has no teeth he has to cut it into such small pieces that by the time he gets to the end of the steak, it's cold."

From Karl Zimmer's The Loom I learn all about bacteriophages -- the true masters of the earth.

There are about 10 million phages in every milliliter of coastal sea water. All told, scientists put the total number of bacteriophages at a million trillion trillion (10 to the 30th power). Bacteriophages not only make up the majority of life forms, but they are believed to have existed just about since life itself began. Since then, they have been evolving along with their hosts, and even making much of their hosts' evolution possible by shuttling genes from one host to another. Thanks in large part to bacteriophages, more and more bacteria are acquiring the genes they need to defeat antibiotics. Bacteriophages also kill off a huge portion of ocean bacteria that consume greenhouse gases. If you suddenly rid the world of all bacteriophages, the global climate would lurch out of whack.
One can only suspect that the bacteriophages have taken power in Serbia. This is a failed country with more problems that most. To this they have decided to add ignorance by ordering teachers to instruct their pupils in creationism alongside evolution. Sad.

China has problems of a different sort -- a shortage of water in the northern half of the country. The government is planning to deal with the situation with another of thier huge mega-projects; this time the South-North Water Diversion first conceived by Mao fifty years ago. It is "a $25 billion public works project to transfer 50 billion cubic meters of water a year from the Yangtze River and its tributaries in the south to the drying Yellow, Huai and Hai rivers in the north." This article from SFGate is a good introduction to the issues.

September 12, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Brief Notices XII

magicI have always loved magic. I am particularly impressed by hand magic, but I have also been enraptured by the best of the stage illusionists. Professional illusion designer and magic historian Jim Steinmeyer has written just the book for me. His "Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear" takes us back to the giolden age of the illusionists, from their beginnings in about 1850 through the Great Depression of the early twentieth century. In her excellent review of the book, Kirsti Potter says that "[w]ithout stooping to bleary-eyed nostalgia, Steinmeyer evokes a time before CGI, when wonder outweighed suspicion and illusions were magical."

I could never be a magician because I'd never remember all the steps needed to complete a trick. I'd get locked in a closet without a key or something. But now I have an excuse for this faulty memory of mine. Apparently, according to a controversial theory, some memories are actually destroyed by the very act of remembering them. They are, if you like, one-off memories, remembered once and then lost forever. It is a very complicated matter involving protein-synthesis, signal-transduction cascades, and CREB, the details of which, while fascinating, are rather advanced.

Equally advanced -- at least for a semi-Luddite like me -- is the idea of "stealth wallpaper". According to an item in the New Scientist, stealth wallpaper is a "type of wallpaper that prevents Wi-Fi signals escaping from a building without blocking mobile phone signals ... The technology is designed to stop outsiders gaining access to a secure network by using Wi-Fi networks casually set up by workers at the office." It is a bizarre world that needs this stuff!

I'm much more fascinated by quite the opposite -- a world in which there is no need for a word for "three" or "they". Such is the world of the Piraha, a small group, 200 perhaps, of hunter-gatherers in the Amazonian jungles. Here is a CNN article that discusses the tribe's inability to meet US math requirements -- d'oh! I was fascianted and did some digging. A Google search leads to quite a lot of similar material on Piraha linguistics, which is great, but disappointingly little on other aspects of their lives.

On the other hand, a group of aboriginal people who are receiving a great deal of coverage are the Australian Aborigines. Or, rather, their historical relationship with the conquering white colonists is coming under scrutiny. It is received wisdom that "the settler society had engaged in a pattern of conquest, dispossession and killing of the indigenous inhabitants." As this article from the Australian notes, this view has "influenced critical High Court judgments on land rights, including the Mabo decision". However a cadre of historians, led by Keith Windschuttle who wrote "The Fabrication of Aboriginal History", has attacked this as a "leftwing" view, unsupported by the historical evidence. Outrage in academe as the establishment closes in on itself.

August 21, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Brief Notices XI

A wide range of topics in this edition of Brief Notices, and nary a link between them.

First up is a fascinating piece about the rise of the Queen in chess. Cultural historian Marilyn Yalom (who has an intresting background herself) has written the book on the subject. She speculates that the emergence of the all-powerful chess piece occured either as a function of the medieval veneration for St. Mary, or as a response to the powerful real-life queens -- such as Isabella of Spain -- of the age.

shishkin9I haven't before heard of 19th century Russian realist painter, Ivan Shishkin. However, he has apparently become "popular" and his works can fetch $750,000 at auction. So, too, it seems can far cheaper works by other artists which have been modified and passed off as the work of Shiskin. A Russian dealer said: "Western auctioneers now have fakes in their catalogues all the time." Leading artists alleged to have been faked include Korovin, Gorbatov and Maliavin. "Russian art has suddenly become so valuable." This piece from the Guardian is an intriguing look into the world of rich collectors and unscrupulous forgers and dealers.

Talking about fakes, the St Petersburg Times has a good story about the town of Clearwater, Florida, which is rapidly becoming Scientology's version of Salt Lake City. Already more than 200 businesses of all kinds are operated in the town by Church members, and there are plans for huge condo developments and a doubling of business activity. Why not, I say.

Part of Scientology's teachings, I am sure, like every other religion concern themselves with the level of consciousness in the believer. Perhaps they will be interested in the cutting edge work of Nobel physiologist Gerald Edelman who has worked extensively on the question "What is consciousness?" According to Dr. Edelman:

"[T]he brain is “context bound.” It is not a logical system like a computer that processes only programmed information; it does not produce preordained outcomes like a clock. Rather it is a selectional system that, through pattern recognition, puts things together in always novel ways. It is this selectional repertoire in the brain that makes each individual unique, that accounts for the ability to create poetry and music, that accounts for all the differences that arise from the same biological apparatus—the body and the brain. There is no singular mapping to create the mind; there is, rather, an unforetold plurality of possibilities. In a logical system, novelty and unforeseen variation are often considered to be noise. In a selectional system such diversity actually provides the opportunity for favorable selection.
wormConsciousness of self is supposed to be one of the attributes of hiumanity. Therefore, it is unlikely that Osedax frankpressi, a species of worm, has it. However, in so many other respects it is literally a fabulous beast. Found 5,000 feet below the surface of the sea, living entirely on a diet of whale bones, these bizarre 2-inch worms, without eyes or mouth, are all female, or so it seemed. In fact, scientists have discovered that up to 100 vestigial males live within each female. This world of ours is simply incredible

August 6, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Brief Notices X

When I was first studying evolution and biological diversity, it was stressed that the inheritance of acquired or learned characteristics did not occur and that to argue otherwise was the scientific heresy known as Lamarckianism. However, recent research in the form of beautifully elegant experiments has shown that Lamarck may have been on to something, that certain characteristics can be inherited through generations without a change in the DNA sequence.

What doesn’t change, it seems, is the harshness of life in Siberia. James Meek in the London Review of Books reviews a new book on “The Siberian Curse”. He tells the sad tale of the failure – at horrific human cost -- of the Tsars, the Commissars, and the modern Russian State to tame the vast glacial wilderness.

Maybe those northern Russkies should leave it all in God's hands as has, it appears from a report in the Times of India via The Revealer, the minister of transportation in the Indian state of Bihar. "Indian Railways is the responsibility of Lord Vishwakarma [God of Machines]. So is the safety of passengers... It is His duty, not mine. I have been forced to don His mantle," the Minister said. "I keep telling Him whatever accident or incident takes place on the tracks is His responsibility." So, say a quick prayer before buying a ticket!

ThreeHaresSolTalking of religion, British researchers are travelling to China to try to solve the mystery of the "three hares" symbol that is known from ancient sites around the world. "Striking depictions of three hares joined at the ears have been found in roof bosses of medieval parish churches in Devon, 13th century Mongol metal work from Iran and cave temples from the Chinese Sui dynasty of 589-618."

July 8, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Brief Notices IX

There are three sports that are my particular favourites. Unfortunately, I have nothing today about ice hockey; however ...

... I was fascinated to read that the Chinese government has determined to make China a world power in cricket over the next few decades. "The prospect of the sound of leather on willow reverberating throughout the world's most populous nation is exciting international cricket officials. Lured by the commercial potential of the game in a country with 1.3 billion people, the Asian Cricket Council will formally accept China as its newest member in nine days' time."

... and as for road cycling, the Tour starts this weekend! Maybe Ulrich can finally stop the Armstrong train this year. Ideally timed, The New Criterion has Robert Messenger review a history of the Tour de France. "The race defies ordinary explanation. It is a team sport in which an individual wins. It is an athletic event that actually harms the athletes’ bodies."

Mounting a major musical on Broadway might be considered a sport by some, I guess. There are not so many new musicals these days and Terry Teachout puts that down to a decline in American confidence and a growing cyncism apparently personified in Stephen Sondheim.

Talking of show tunes, Johann Hari has an intriguing piece on the number of homosexual men in leadership roles in the supposedly violently anti-gay fascist movements around the world.

July 2, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Brief Notices VIII

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin -- Madison have completed what is being called an "elegant" experiment to identify a particular part of the brain that seems to synthesize learning during sleep. The discovery shows that sleep is valuable for consolidating new information and is not a simple 'standby' mode.

Regarding sleep of a more permanent kind, the Guardian recently reported on the 6th Great Obituary Writers' International Conference . During ther opening event it was announced that Ronald Reagan had died. To quieten the resultant hubbub, the presented grabbed the microphobne and shouted these immortal words:

"Reagan's dead and he'll be deader. Let's go on with the show."
One way to be dead, of course, is to stand in the streets of Bogota, Colombia. A new study shows that if the drug dealers' bullets don't get you, the city's aggressive car drivers will!

Perhaps wishing they were dead, a recent survey suggests that British women are "suffering a lifestyle crisis of unfulfilling sex, drudgery, frustration, money worries and pressure to look young and slim."

In Mongolia, however, there are different concerns -- like choosing a new surname.

"After seizing power in the early 1920s, the Mongolian Communists destroyed all family names in a campaign to eliminate the clan system, the hereditary aristocracy and the class structure. Within a few decades, most Mongolians had forgotten their ancestral names."
Now that Mongolians are obliged to have surnames again -- for ID cards, of course -- the hunt is on for a good name.

June 18, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Brief Notices VII

Simon Sebag Montefiore has written a broad new biography of Joseph Stalin called "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar". Montefiore has had the advantage of an avalanche of previously unobtainable original materials recently released by the Russian authorities. He has, says reviewer Robert Conquest in the Atlantic, made "able use" of the new records to focus "on the human element (especially the family lives of the dictator, his associates, and his victims), generally treating the vast events of the era as scenery." Another extract in The Telegraph looks at Stalin's love for the movies.

"Stalin inherited Goebbels's movie library after the war; he loved Chaplin and films such as In Old Chicago (1937) and It Happened One Night (1934). In the archives, I found a document requesting Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)."
Speaking of Georgian dictators, there is a thoughtful piece by Ronald Asmus and Bruce Jackson at Policy Review berating the West for ignoring the political and strategic importance of the Black Sea region -- that region which includes the littoral states of the Black Sea, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and the Southern Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. As the authors point out "the Black Sea has been a civilizational black hole in the Western historical consciousness." I suspect this is an important essay.

An "intellectual black hole" is never a charge that could be levied at Google. This is a company whose very culture is academic achievement. In this article from the New York Times, it notes that

"Google ... prefers those who have been trained for the maximum time setting on the university's dial and who have experience in organizing their own research agenda. The company has not released data about its Ph.D's for two years, but based on its history, the number is probably more than 100 ... Google encourages all employees to act as researchers, by spending 20 percent of their time on new projects of their own choosing."

Two other companies that have a clear idea of who they want to be are delivery rivals Fedex and UPS. According to this very informative column at, both companies are in lockstep growth strategies at this point. UPS purchased Mailboxes Etc to give them a retail presence, and Fedex followed by acquiring Kinkos. As the article's author says: "This is a battle worth watching, not because of dueling ad campaigns but because both companies fundamentally understand what branding is all about."

At Butterflies and Wheels, Paul Dore writes an insider's guide to the ineffective strategy and rapid collapse of the Stop The War Coalition in Great Britain. Typical schismatics on the left side of the fence it seems to me.

Finally, intriguing evidence for the dates and directions of the migrations into Oceania; evidence from rat DNA.

"The researchers claim [their results] allows them to reject two well-known theories for the colonisation of Polynesia, including the Express Train To Polynesia (ETP) theory and the Bismarck Archipelago Indigenous Inhabitants (BAII) theory. These two theories are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The ETP theory focuses on a rapid dispersal from Taiwan to Polynesia. The BAII proposes that there was no migration into Near Oceania, and that the Lapita culture arose from indigenous people in the area. [The authors] argue that the truth was somewhere in between."

June 8, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack