June 2012 Archives

China's Air Quality Dilemma

Fascinating commentary in JAMA (related primarily to this article). The article and the commentary focus on the extraordinary pollution mitigation and control strategies undertaken by the Chinese government in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics.

To ensure acceptable air quality during the Olympics (held from August 8-24) and the Paralympics (held from September 6-16), the Chinese government launched a series of aggressive measures to reduce pollutant emissions. To reduce industrial emissions, the operations of combustion facilities were restricted in smelters, cement plants, power plants, nonattainment boilers, and construction and petro-chemical industries. To reduce traffic emissions, certain vehicles and trucks were banned, 70% of government-owned vehicles were kept off the streets, and other vehicles could travel through the city only on alternating days.

The pollutant reductions are striking and substantial — reductions in mean concentrations of sulfur dioxide (-60%), carbon monoxide (-48%), nitrogen dioxide (-43%), elemental carbon (-36%), fine particulate matter (PM2.5, -27%), ozone (-22%), and sulfate (-13%), were reported. (Of note, even during the cleanest days in Beijing, mean concentrations exceeded the worst days in LA).

The study by Rich et al in JAMA (linked above) presents compelling evidence of changes in biomarkers due to the decreased pollution that point towards the vast potential for improved health with air quality regulation. The nitty-gritty scientific details are interesting, but more salient, I believe, are the policy ramifications. The reductions in ambient air pollution under the pressure of the IOC and widespread, international attention prove that change is possible, though at a potentially steep economic cost.

China’s dilemma, like many countries with emerging industries, is how to reconcile rapid economic growth with environmental protection. In recent decades, China has achieved industrialization and urbanization. However, China has been much less successful in maintaining the quality of urban air. Several factors challenge the implementation of air pollution controls in China: heavy reliance on coal as a main heating system, especially in subsidized housing; lack of political incentives for trading slower growth for less pollution; economic factors: most Chinese factories and power plants run on extremely thin margins and fines for polluting are generally lower than the cost of controlling emissions; and economic transformation of the landscape, from ubiquitous construction sites to the rapid expansion of the nation’s vehicle fleet. If air pollution in China and other Asian nations cannot be controlled, it could spread to other continents. A recent study by Lin et al provides compelling evidence that Asian emissions may account for as much as 20% of ground-level pollution in the United States. Clean air is a shared global resource. It is in the common interest to maintain air quality for the promotion of global health.

Drink Coffee*, Reduce Heart Failure

The health benefits of coffee [joe, java, brown sludge, nectar of the gods, liquid happiness] have been widely unproven in the peer-reviewed scientific testing. Studies have flip-flopped on the impact of coffee consumption on various health endpoints more than Mitt on… everything.

A recent systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), found that moderate coffee consumption — of around 2 US cups per day (between 295 - 590 mL) — was health protective and decreased the risk of heart failure by 11%. This flies in the face of the current statement on coffee by AHA, based on a single study, which states that coffee may increase the risk of heart failure. The previous study failed to control for potential characteristics of the evaluated population that may also contribute to heart failure.

The systematic review looked across the medical literature beginning in 1966 and found 5 valid studies that followed a cohort of people over time. These studies, when combined, included 6522 heart failure events among 140,220 participants. Four of the studies were conducted in Sweden; one was conducted in Finland. The relationship between coffee consumption and heart failure did not vary by sex, history of myocardial infarction, or diabetes.

There are some shortcomings to the study, of course. The 5 studies included in the analysis relied on self-reported coffee consumption. The type of coffee consumed — that is, the strength of the coffee, whether it was caffeinated or blasphemous decaffeinated, and the brewing method — were not noted in the original studies.

All that said, the review convincingly argues that moderate coffee intake is healthful and heart-protective.

I’m off to sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world with mug o’joe in hand.

* in moderation

Affordable Care Act Upheld, Explained in a single paragraph

From SCOTUSblog, via the Atlantic:

In Plain English: The Affordable Care Act, including its individual mandate that virtually all Americans buy health insurance, is constitutional. There were not five votes to uphold it on the ground that Congress could use its power to regulate commerce between the states to require everyone to buy health insurance. However, five Justices agreed that the penalty that someone must pay if he refuses to buy insurance is a kind of tax that Congress can impose using its taxing power. That is all that matters. Because the mandate survives, the Court did not need to decide what other parts of the statute were constitutional, except for a provision that required states to comply with new eligibility requirements for Medicaid or risk losing their funding. On that question, the Court held that the provision is constitutional as long as states would only lose new funds if they didn’t comply with the new requirements, rather than all of their funding.

From the ruling:

Today we resolve constitutional challenges to two provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010: the individual mandate, which requires individuals to purchase a health insurance policy providing a minimum level of coverage; and the Medicaid expansion, which gives funds to the States on the condition that they provide specified health care to all citizens whose income falls below a certain threshold. We do not consider whether the Act embodies sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the Nation’s elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenged provisions.

From the New Yorker:

On the last possible day, the Supreme Court upheld most of the Affordable Care Act. (Here’s a pdf of the opinion.) Who won, then? John Roberts, the Chief Justice, who put himself in the majority with the Court’s four liberals, and may have changed the definition of what we call “the Roberts Court”; President Barack Obama, whose first term was defined by it; our sense of how the balance of powers ought to work, and against, perhaps, our growing cynicism about the Court’s politicization (although there is a fine line between cynicism and simple prudence). A conservative court, and a conservative justice, upheld a law passed and treasured by liberals. This is not the way the Court has worked in recent years, for either side. “The Court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act,” according to the majority opinion, written by Roberts. No one asked it to.

But, really, the winners are Americans—the more than fifty million of them who don’t have health insurance, but also the rest. Income and well-being have increasingly come to define each other; this is a victory for our sense of fairness, and that there need not be two Americas—one where, say, a mother can get good prenatal care and a cancer patient has choices, and another where pregnant women show up at emergency rooms, “preëxisting conditions” can be a death sentence, and medical costs are one of the leading causes of bankruptcy and foreclosure. It won’t be immediate. This is a major step toward American fairness.

And (surprisingly, from error/spoiler CNN), a nice page collecting lines from the justices.

Michael Lopp / Rands in Repose: "The future is invented by the people who don't give a shit about the past."

Your success is delicious. Others look at your success and think, “Well, duh, it’s so obvious what they did there - anyone can do that” and, frustratingly so, they’re right. Your success has given others a blueprint for what success looks like, and while, yes, the devil’s in the details, you have performed a lot of initial legwork for your competition in the process of becoming successful.

More bad news via metaphors. Your enticing success has your competition chasing you, and that means that, by definition, that they need to run harder and faster than you so they can catch up. Yes, many potential competitors are going to bungle the execution and vanish before they pose a legitimate threat but there’s a chance someone will catch up, and when they do, what’s their velocity? Faster than yours.

Shit.

The reward for winning is the perception that you’ve won. In your celebration of your awesomeness, you are no longer focused on the finish line, you now lack a clear next goal, and while you sit there comfortably monetizing eyeballs, you’re becoming strategically dull. You’ve forgotten that someone is coming to eat you and if you want until you can see them coming, you’re too late.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

via Daring Fireball.

The Antlers: Drift Dive

Anti- records has posted the first track from The Antlers’ Undersea EP at SoundCloud (embedded below). Combines all that lovely, layered ambience they are so good at with a wee bit less melancholy. Can’t wait for this EP.

Update: NPR has posted a second track as part of their Summer Music Preview.

Enjoy.

200 Years of the New England Journal of Medicine

The New England Journal of Medicine - among the most preeminent medical journals - is 200 years old this year. In recognition of that two century milestone, they’ve put together a number of special (and accessible) articles available here.

In “The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine,” authors David Jones, Scott Podolsky, and Jeremy Greene outline shifting patterns of disease and their effect on the role of medicine in society.

diseasestatuschange.gif

The article contains numerous anecdotes, some unbelievable, about diseases and disease states that were common 100 years ago. Some sound familiar; others, not so much. I find the article particularly interesting when it starts to delve into how we define and prioritize diseases, and how that ties into inequities in well-being:

A population’s disease status can also be gauged by lists of common diagnoses at clinics or hospitals, but no single measure definitively characterizes a population’s burden of disease. Choosing among metrics is as much about values and priorities as about science, and it directly affects health policy. Whereas advocates of clinical and research funding for cardiovascular disease might use mortality data to support their claims, mental health advocates can cite morbidity measures in seeking greater resources. Data on causes of childhood mortality would justify certain priorities; analyses of health care spending would justify others. An ideal, sophisticated health policy would integrate all measures to form a holistic map of the burden of disease, but in practice competing interests use different representations of disease burden to recommend particular policies.

And, later in the article:

The persistence of health inequalities challenges our scientific knowledge and political will. Can we explain them and alleviate them? Genetic variations don’t explain why mortality rates double as you cross Boston Harbor from Back Bay to Charlestown or walk up Fifth Avenue from midtown Manhattan into Harlem. Nor do they explain why Asian-American women in Bergen County, New Jersey, live 50% longer than Native American men in South Dakota. Although we know something about the relationships among poverty, stress, allostatic load, and the hypothalamic - pituitary - adrenal axis, doctors and epidemiologists need more precise models that sketch in the steps between social exposure, disease, and death. … Disparities in health and disease are outcomes that are contingent on the ways society structures the lives and risks of individuals.

In many respects, our medical systems are best suited to diseases of the past, not those of the present or future. We must continue to adapt health systems and health policy as the burden of disease evolves. But we must also do more. Diseases can never be reduced to molecular pathways, mere technical problems requiring treatments or cures. Disease is a complex domain of human experience, involving explanation, expectation, and meaning. Doctors must acknowledge this complexity and formulate theories, practices, and systems that fully address the breadth and subtlety of disease.

The article hints at the relationship between public health, health policy, and medicine, but doesn’t delve fully into how those relationships have evolved over the 200 year history of the Journal. It would be interesting to learn more along that vein - how medicine has informed policy and influenced public health measures, etc. Overall, though, an interesting, enlightening read.

Matthew Cusick's Map Art

Matthew-Cusick_203.jpg

Impressive collages made entirely from bits and pieces of various maps. No painting done on top of the maps, though some minimal inking to bring out certain contrasts. I’m struck by the tones and the obvious deliberation that went into the placement. There’s also something intriguing about deconstructing the geographies of maps to create new visuals.

Matthew Cusick, the artist, in an interview with My Modern Met

I found that maps have all the properties of a brushstroke: nuance, density, line, movement, and color. Their palette is deliberate and symbolic, acting as a cognitive mechanism to help us internalize the external. And furthermore, since each map fragment is an index of a specific place and time, I could combine fragments from different maps and construct geographical timelines within my paintings.

I never paint on the maps. I let the maps be themselves and they establish the palette for me. Sometimes there will be an underpainting that is revealed when I scrape off maps that aren’t working. These areas are never planned though, just happy accidents. I do often paint the sky of a composition a single flat color.

If I need to manipulate the values of the maps in order to achieve richer darks, I use ink, mostly walnut ink that I make myself. This way I am not really adding a new medium to the map, only increasing one that is already there—the ink.

Rio +20 Recycled Art

As part of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) an enormous outdoor installation of fish was constructed using discarded plastic bottles on Botafogo beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The sculptures are illuminated from the inside at night creating a pretty spectacular light show.

Many of the photos from Rio +20 are worth checking out. See them here.

via Colossal

Cookstoves & the shadow of the past

There’s been a lot of “controversy” in the development sphere over the value of cookstove projects, stemming largely from one large trial in one country using one (arguably not) improved stove. The abstract nicely sums up their point:

We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and this study’s field findings appears to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and use ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

Cheers to JPAL for bringing in researchers from diverse backgrounds to think about and work on household air pollution and cookstoves. The field moves forward when alternative perspectives force us to think in new ways.

The rub, though, is that many of us in the field are acutely aware of the explicit requirement that any intervention be fully vetted with the community before being deployed. This isn’t the first time the development world has been interested in cookstoves; past large-scale interventions have had mixed success in part due to precisely what’s outlined in the article. Fully vetting devices in the community to make sure they are culturally appropriate, usable, clean, and efficient is a known requirement.

There’s always a chance an intervention will still fail, but due diligence dictates prolonged and complete community engagement. Because a product is available on the local market and has claims of “proven” laboratory performance means little. The laboratory provides a first step to grade stoves — but the field is where final decisions should be made. And the value of an ‘improved’ label is heavily diluted - we’re barraged by dozens of these products regularly. We derive value from meaningful, beneficial, and unobtrusive interaction with and use of appliances. Devices that fail to provide those traits fail to be used. This is definitely true here and seemingly true everywhere.

Two fundamental conclusions from the recent brouhaha stand out. First, the astonishing hype surrounding this article fits within the larger patterns we see in the news machine. A single article, statement, or editorial snowballs and catalyzes a lot of discussion (in the popular media for a news cycle, and in academia for an eternity). Not a bad thing in and of itself, but problematic when the media ignores the history of available knowledge and treats the news as something profoundly new and unequivocally true. Second, the coverage helps focus and hone the message of those working in the field — never a bad thing. It reminds us of past learnings and helps light a path forward.

In a blog post from June 18 on National Geographic, Radha Muthiah (the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) and the authors of the above article write,

This research, and the work of others, suggests that the first goal must be to develop cookstoves that people would actually want to acquire, use, and maintain—in addition to ones that meet clear guidelines and standards for cleanliness, efficiency, and safety. To ensure that scarce development resources are spent wisely, all promising cookstove designs must be tested in real world settings to assess their long-run benefits on health and greenhouse gas emission prior to large scale adoption of clean cookstoves. Moreover, additional research should continue in order to provide greater insight into what types of social marketing can improve the general acceptance of the stoves.

No argument there.

Murakami Bingo

Brilliance from artist Grant Snider. From his blog, notes

I’ve spent the last few years devouring the books of Haruki Murakami. Twelve novels, three short story collections, and one memoir later, I came up with this comic. If you have yet to experience the genius of Murakami, keep this Bingo card handy as you delve into his work. I recommend starting with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, or Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Stamen Maps

Stamen design creates some amazing maps and variations of existing map tiles. They’re a design firm based in SF. Two of their most intriguing maps are Toner and Watercolor.

San Francisco

London

Luzinterruptus: Light "Interventions" in Madrid

Pretty fascinating social commentary / artwork by a group in Spain. They subvert various issues at local to international scales — nuclear power / waste, environmental degradation, loss of a local swimming pool to development — using simple, community-engaged art projects. The results are striking. A few of my favorites are posted below — but check out their website for more details of their work.

via colossal

Thrill Murray: A Coloring Book

Greatest. thing. ever.

Be it in Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Rushmore or Lost in Translation Bill Murray has become a diamond of the modern screen, the heartbeat of any worthy DVD collection….

We asked 24 different illustrators to create 24 different images, each one inspired by the great man himself. WE PUT THEM TOGETHER AND MADE THIS BILL MURRAY INSPIRED COLOURING BOOK

Be you young, old, wrinkly, thin, drunk, happy, disillusioned or a bit bored you can enjoy colouring in!

Relative Expense of Retina Macbook Pro

Most of the reviews on the web note how much more expensive the new Retina Macbook Pro is relative to the newly-upgraded ‘standard’ MBPs. Thought I’d do a little comparison to see how things shake out when we look at equivalently configured machines, considering the entry-level Retina MBP as our baseline.

Caveat: It doesn’t seem necessarily reasonable to compare the two base models — they’re different machines (same processor, but different storage technologies/ capacities and different amounts of ram, etc). But to hell with it.

2.3GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz

8GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM - 2x4GB (+$100)

256GB Solid State Drive (+$500)

SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)

MacBook Pro 15-inch Hi-Res Antiglare Widescreen Display (+$100)

Moshi Mini DP to HDMI Adapter with Audio Support (+$34.95)

Total Price: $2,533.95

Now, let’s adjust the Retina MBP into an equivalent configuration.

2.3GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz

8GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM

256GB Flash Storage

Apple USB SuperDrive (+$79)

Backlit Keyboard (English) & User’s Guide

Apple Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter (+$29)

Total Price: $2,307.00

Of course, this also isn’t really fair. The addition of the SSD on the standard MBP bumps the price up significantly and reduces the storage capacity from the default configuration.

Going in the other direction — increasing the “flash” capacity of the Retina MBP to 768GB on the higher end model to match the HDD capacity of the standard model (750GB) — adds a hefty $500, pushing the total cost upwards of $3400. In that case, the standard model comes out looking like the winner (but without a Retina display and solid state storage).

Download David Byrne & St. Vincent's Who

Posted about this collaboration a few months ago and was pretty excited.

An email went out to DB’s mailing list today describing how the project - titled ‘Love this Giant’ - came to be, when to expect it, where to get tour details, and how to get the first song from the collaboration. A few highlights below:

I found that writing words to this brass-centric sound meant I had to re-think my lyrical approach. Brass has many associations—marching bands, Italian banda, New Orleans bands, classical chorales, RnB and funk. In general it’s not a subtle sound, so the words had to respond to that. We worked with a group of great arrangers, usually passing them midi versions of the parts that we had created on computers. They did their arrangements and often sent us synthesized versions to hear before the real players came in. The process involved a number of steps, so it took a while. On some songs I re-wrote the words about three times before I hit a direction I felt worked!

We both had other records and tours in the works, so this project was done in fits and starts, and each series of recording sessions involved a lot of players. It was an education that involved figuring out the variety of sounds and approaches one could come up with using more or less the same group makeup on every song—we could go funky or majestic with the exact same band. When John Congleton added some beats we could see a surprisingly song-centric record emerging. A lot of people, hearing a description of this project, assumed that it might be an artsy indulgence, but somehow it didn’t turn out that way. It’s a pop record—well, in my book anyway. I started to sense that we were ending up with a sound and approach I’d never heard before. There were elements that were reminiscent of things I’d heard, but a lot of it was completely new. Very exciting!

The track is poppy, weird, and recommended. Download here.

Yayoi Kusama: the Obliteration Room

Before: After:

Really cool concept. Take everyday furnishing, strip them of all color, and turn them into a canvas for kids (of all ages). Give the attendees to the exhibit little round stickers of varying sizes and colors and let them go to town and “obliterate” the room.

Obliterate, invigorate.

The obliteration room 2011 revisits the popular interactive children’s project developed by Yayoi Kusama for the Queensland Art Gallery’s ‘APT 2002: Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’. In this reworked and enlarged installation, an Australian domestic environment is recreated in the gallery space, complete with locally sourced furniture and ornamentation, all of which has been painted completely white. While this may suggest an everyday topography drained of all colour and specificity, it also functions as a blank canvas to be invigorated — or, in Kusama’s vocabulary, ‘obliterated’ — through the application, to every available surface, of brightly coloured stickers in the shape of dots.

As with many of Kusama’s installations, the work is disarmingly simple in its elemental composition; however, it brilliantly exploits the framework of its presentation. The white room is gradually obliterated over the course of the exhibition, the space changing measurably with the passage of time as the dots accumulate as a result of thousands and thousands of collaborators.

Environmental Health Narratives: "The New Stove"

Pillarisetti A. (2012) “The New Stove.” In Mendenhall E, Koon A, Burque HA (Eds). Environmental Health Narratives: A Reader for Youth. University of New Mexico Press; 2012.

Perfection: Xaver Xylophon's "FOR HIRE! BANGALORE RICKSHAW"

This short animation captures the cadence of local travel in India perfectly. It nails those conflicting sensations of monotony, adventure, and relief.

Green, yellow, black. They are the blood in the veins of Bangalore: the 450,000 rickshaws and their drivers. Knocked together from bits and pieces, decorated, ready for the junk heap or carefully maintained like antique cars, the vehicles are as charismatic as their owners, who brave the monstrous traffic of this metropolis daringly, sleepy, chattering or stoic, making sure the passanger’s trip from A to B will be full of memorable experiences.

Based on days of riding around in rickshaws and drawings made locally, this animation captures the tough workaday life of a rickshaw driver, seen through the eyes of a European visitor.

Result of a one month trip to Bangalore, India as part of the project “The Law of the Market” at the University of Arts Berlin Weißensee, 2011

Star Wars: The Baroque Version from Mattias Adolfsson

In the vein of Kottke’s excellent post today of Star Wars as reimagined by someone channeling Dr. Seuss, I present another awesome reframing — this time, in a baroque style. Click here to see the full set.

Nothing lasts forever... not even Giant Turtle Love.

The world’s oldest animal marriage looks set to have turtley ended after an incredible 115 years when the two Giant Turtles at an Austrian zoo refused to share their cage anymore.

How’d the zookeepers know? (Also, great Salmon in the sky, TURTLEY? barf.)

Zoo staff realised the pair had fallen out after Bibi attacked her partner - biting off a chunk of his shell - and then carrying out several further attacks until he was moved to another enclosure.

Although they have no teeth Giant Turtles have a horn rimmed mouth and powerful jaws that are a potent weapon when they want to cause damage. Each of the 100 kilo animals has the ability to kill the other if they wanted.

Zoo staff have told the experts that nothing has changed in the pair’s routine - but Bibi in particular wanted to have the cage to herself and be a single.

Typical.

Astronaut Don Pettit's Photos from Space

“My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, then ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.”

Fascinating and striking. Also, Don Pettit seems like the coolest imaginable dude. Megan Garber reported in the Atlantic that

Pettit has found a totally worthwhile way to pass the time not spent berthing space capsules, installing scientific equipment, being a bold explorer into the final frontier, etc. Pettit has been orchestrating space-based science demonstrations, broadcasting them to earth via YouTube in a series he calls Science off the Sphere.

Pettit is clearly incredibly excited about these demonstrations — and his enthusiasm makes for buoyant viewing, even in zero gravity. A couple weeks ago, the astronaut, chemical engineer, and Eagle Scout took zero-gravitied water droplets and used sound waves to manipulate them. It was beautiful and powerful and weird. Yesterday, though, Pettit outdid himself — by stripping down to a seemingly self-cut muscle T, taking a vacuum cleaner hose, and using said hose to create a makeshift, spaceborn didgeridoo.

None of that is a typo.

James Nizam: The Lighthouse

A few weeks ago, The Morning News featured photographs from James Nizam of Vancouver. They referred to an article in Canadian Art that described Nizam’s process in more detail.

The large black and white photographs depict the transformation of darkened rooms into uncanny light sculptures that intersect elegant geometry with math-class daydreaming. Bridling sunlight into streamlined rays via perforated and sliced walls, and with the aid of artificial fog to intensify the slants of light, Nizam creates imagery that might bend our perception of photography.

The majority of works in the exhibition were created in a darkened studio space where small mirrors were fastened to ball joints for easy pivoting, perfect for manipulating the light streaming through holes in the walls. The logistics were no small feat; Nizam sometimes had as little as five minutes of perfect sunlight in which to create his images. And the process of waiting for those brief periods no doubt felt like déjà vu for a photographer who has spent plenty of time in dim rooms watching dust dancing in sunlight.

The effect is striking. Highly recommend checking out more of his work at Nizam’s website and at TMN. More on the specific process used to create these images is available here.

Bill Murray, Ladakh, Magic

I love Bill Murray. I love Ladakh.

Should get that stuff out of the way early and bluntly. Aaron Cohen put together a long list of Bill Murray interviews. Pretty cool stuff. One of the oldest interviews was with Timothy Crouse of Rolling Stone in 1984. In it, Bill Murray discusses his time in Ladakh filming The Razor’s Edge. This blew my mind. Excerpts follow.

You realize just how big the mountains are: you’re not flying over them; you’re flying between them. Coming in to land, the plane goes between two mountains and there is about forty feet of clearance on either side, When the wind comes up, the planes don’t go there, because you can lose forty feet in half a second. You’ve never really lived until you’ve landed a plane in that shoebox there.

At the airport, we were met by a fleet of black jeeps driven by Tibetan[s] who drive like cow­boys. A big chain of black jeeps set out and headed toward the monasteries, where we were going to shoot. In sixty miles of the Himalayas, I saw about all the spectacular things I ever saw in the Rockies. It was like a hall of fame of mountain majesty. There were Stupas everywhere - these big reliquaries - and monks walking on the road. Then we came over a rise and saw the first real mountain. It wasn’t Everest or anything, it was just one of the boys, and it was much bigger than the biggest mountain I’d ever seen.

We also needed an older man to play the high lama. They were reading actors for it in London, and I said “Look, we’re going to find the guy over there; don’t worry about it”. We’re not going to hire Ben Kingsley to play this part; we’re going to find a real guy to do this.” Well, we found the guy - he was the uncle of the owner of the Yaktail Hotel, the same guy who did the paintings - but he didn’t speak a word of English. So we then needed a Ladahki who spoke English, to teach him his lines, but we couldn’t find anyone. But the hotel owner had given me the address of this monk who worked up at some school centre and spoke English.

He turned out to be younger than me, and his name was Chiptan Chostock, but we called him Tip. Tip spoke English, Hindhi, Ladhaki, Tibetan, Kashmiri - you name it. He would huddle together with the old guy and repeat the line “You are closer than you think,” over and over. They did it for hours at a time. Once Tip arrived, we had no more problems with the monks. It was like “Hey, he’s one of our guys”. It was like having an Indian scout. All of a sudden, we had somebody who spoke all of the languages, and the unspoken too.

Anyway, he became my partner. He was just so interested in everything. He loved riding in the jeep and looking through the camera. And we put him in the movie. Here’s this incredibly spiritual guy who walks 200 miles back and forth between this monastery and the school where he teaches. And these A.D.’s are saying, ”Can we get Tippy-Tip in here, please.” “Does he need any makeup?” “No, he’s very dark already, he’ll be fine.”

The last night I was there, he said, “I want you to come over to my place.” I thought, okay, I’ll see where he lives, meet his family; I’ll probably have to sign a lot of autographs, have my picture taken with the sisters. So we drive to Tip’s father’s, which is on the outskirts of Leh, a big house with a garden. We go inside, and I’m thinking that we maybe should have asked the driver in. Tip said, “I did ask him in, but he wouldn’t come in because he’s a Shiite, and Shiites won’t take anything from Buddhists.”

By this time, Tip’s father had appeared, and he said, “but we Buddhists take everything from them” At which point I realized that Tip’s father spoke English. Now Tip had gone to a school where he learned with a lot of English people - he learned English from me as well - but there was no explanation for his father’s English, because he’d lived in this place for his whole life, and anyone who spoke English had only come but recently, and he didn’t have any truck with anybody. He just sort of knew it, intuitively. Which was real spooky cause you got it real clear that this guy spoke the language and wasn’t trying. We sat down and started making buttered tea, and Tip’s mother came with various desserts made out of butter. So, after about a gallon and a half of buttered tea, all twelve courses of buttered desserts, they said, “Would you like to stay for dinner?” I thought that was pretty good considering that these people all weighed about 105 pounds apiece. I said I really had to go back.

So they showed me the house, they took me to the kitchen. It was a dark room, and there were all these Asian faces, and the walls were full of these copper pots covered with carbon, and there was a hole in the ceiling where the smoke went out, and it looked right up to the stars.

The stars were very bright, they lit up this room and everybody’s faces and all the pots on the wall. And all of a sudden, all the children - there were twelve - sort of materialized out of the walls, The father looked like Fu Manchu - he was the only man I saw over there who was over six feet tall - and I was attacking him and tickling him, and hitting myself on the head with pots, and showing him my stomach, and stuff like that. We were all laughing and all the sound was going right up through the skylight.

There was a perfect exchange of something between the stars and what was happening in the room. I don’t think I’ve ever felt comfortable like that. I felt like if I stayed there longer, something magical would happen, like they’d break down and say, Okay, Bill, you passed the test; you’re one of us. I really wanted to stay there. They were so free, so open. They made you feel that you could act like a fool and not feel bad about it, and they made you feel like there was more to it than that, and if you watched yourself you’d know even more.

Alan Alda's Flame Challenge

When actor, scholar, and activist Alan Alda was eleven, he asked a teacher a question that had been plaguing him. “What’s a flame? What’s going on in there?”

The teacher paused, as Alda recollects, and replaced one unknown with another, commenting, “It’s oxidation.” Alda notes that as an encounter with the failure of scientific communication.

Unbeknownst to me, Alda has pursued science communication pretty actively over the last few years, between interviews on Scientific American Frontiers and work at SUNY Stony Brook. He wrote recently,

I began to think that clarity in communicating science is at the very heart of science itself. And I wondered if written and oral communication skills could be taught systematically throughout the entire length of a student’s science education. The State University of New York at Stony Brook picked up on this idea, founding the Center for Communicating Science. I became part of the teaching faculty, and we began experimenting. We are now teaching communication courses for credit to graduate students in the sciences. Students learn to distill their message and write without jargon. They also experience an innovative course in improvisation, which teaches them to communicate with a live audience with the ease and familiarity of an animated conversation. The intention, of course, is not to turn scientists into actors but to allow them to be more authentically themselves in public inter- actions. Most of all, we discourage any form of “dumbing down” the science. The goal is to achieve clarity and vividness.

He also returned to that original question about flames and opened a competition. The winner is embedded below — pretty outstanding little video created by Ben Ames, an American PhD student studying quantum optics.

A Unified Theory of... Muppets

The same thing is true of Muppet Theory, a little-known, poorly understood philosophy that holds that every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet. Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running.

Click and Clack Signing Off

Sad. I’ve been listening to these two for as long as I can remember.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, the famous comedian mechanics who host NPR’s Car Talk, told their listeners this afternoon that as of this fall, they’ll no longer record new programs, but that the weekly call-in series will continue to be distributed by NPR drawing on material from their 25 years of show archives. The note from the Magliozzis to their listeners is in full at cartalk.com.

From the brothers’ blogpost:

RAY: Hey, you guys. My brother has always said, “Don’t be afraid of work.”

TOM: Right. Make work afraid of YOU!

RAY: And he’s done such a good job at it, that work has avoided him all his life.

TOM: And with Car Talk celebrating its 25th anniversary on NPR this fall (35th year overall, including our local years at WBUR)…

RAY: …and my brother turning over the birthday odometer to 75, we’ve decided that it’s time to stop and smell the cappuccino.

TOM: So as of October, we’re not going to be recording any more new shows. That’s right, we’re retiring.

RAY: So, we can finally answer the question, if my brother retired, how would he know?

TOM: The good news is that, despite our general incompetence, we actually remembered to hit the “record” button every week for the last 25 years. So we have more than 1,200 programs we’re going to dig into starting this fall, and the series will continue.

RAY: Every week, starting in October, NPR will broadcast a newly assembled Car Talk show, selected from the best material in our archives.

TOM: Sorry, detractors, we’re still going to be on the air!

RAY: But to our fans, don’t be sad. We’ve managed to avoid getting thrown off NPR for 25 years, given out tens of thousands of wrong answers, generated lawsuit threats from innumerable car companies, and had a hell of a lot of fun talking to you guys.

Tim Kreider on Ray Bradbury

…it is worth pausing, on the occasion of Ray Bradbury’s death, to notice how uncannily accurate was his vision of the numb, cruel future we now inhabit.

Mr. Bradbury’s most famous novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” features wall-size television screens that are the centerpieces of “parlors” where people spend their evenings watching interactive soaps and vicious slapstick, live police chases and true-crime dramatizations that invite viewers to help catch the criminals. People wear “seashell” transistor radios that fit into their ears. Note the perversion of quaint terms like “parlor” and “seashell,” harking back to bygone days and vanished places, where people might visit with their neighbors or listen for the sound of the sea in a chambered nautilus.

Mr. Bradbury didn’t just extrapolate the evolution of gadgetry; he foresaw how it would stunt and deform our psyches. “It’s easy to say the wrong thing on telephones; the telephone changes your meaning on you,” says the protagonist of the prophetic short story “The Murderer.” “First thing you know, you’ve made an enemy.”

Anyone who’s had his intended tone flattened out or irony deleted by e-mail and had to explain himself knows what he means. The character complains that he’s relentlessly pestered with calls from friends and employers, salesmen and pollsters, people calling simply because they can. Mr. Bradbury’s vision of “tired commuters with their wrist radios, talking to their wives, saying, ‘Now I’m at Forty-third, now I’m at Forty-fourth, here I am at Forty-ninth, now turning at Sixty-first” has gone from science-fiction satire to dreary realism.

“It was all so enchanting at first,” muses our protagonist. “They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

WSJ: GZA + Science: Rapper Finds Muse in the Stars

So, so dope.

On an early May afternoon in the offices of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, a model of Saturn caught the eye of a 45-year-old high-school dropout, and a lyric was born.

“I thought, this is probably the longest spinning record in the world,” said GZA, the hip-hop artist and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, referring to the ring system surrounding the planet. About a week later, the words crystallized and he offered them over a vegetarian lunch on the Upper West Side.

“God put the needle on the disc of Saturn / The record he played revealed blueprints and patterns,” he rapped in his signature rhythmic baritone, offering a taste from his forthcoming album, “Dark Matter,” an exploration of the cosmos filtered through the mind of a rapper known among his peers as “the Genius.”

Informed by meetings with top physicists and cosmologists at MIT and Cornell University, “Dark Matter” is intended to be the first in a series of albums that GZA—born Gary Grice in Brooklyn in 1966—will put out in the next few years, several of which are designed to get a wide audience hooked on science.

“Dark Matter” is scheduled for a fall release. Another album will focus on the life aquatic, a subject he’s fleshing out with visits to the labs of marine biologists and researchers, as well as meetings with the likes of Philippe Cousteau.

“After ‘Dark Matter,’ he said, “we’ll be back on earth, but in the ocean.”

Still, he believes that “Dark Matter” will tap into the innate curiosity of listeners—even those with no outward interest in science.

“I don’t think people have ever really been in touch with science,” he said. “They’re drawn to it, but they don’t know why they’re drawn to it. For example, you may be blown away by the structure of something, like a soccer ball or a geodesic dome, with its hexagonal shapes. Or how you can take a strand of hair and can get someone’s whole drug history. They’re different forms of science, but it’s still science.”

He plans to package “Dark Matter” with a short illustrated book that may also include the album’s lyrics and a glossary, “like an epic textbook,” he said.

What Lies Beneath the New York Times?

Fascinating short piece by Claire O’Neill about the man responsible for the NYT Archives — and the archives themselves. I got a little kick out of Claire taking a photo, with Instagram, of a picture of William Faulkner taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Worlds colliding, a bit — a quick snapshot of an old print filed away underground in an antiquated fashion. (Also, Faulkner slays, even in a photo of a photo. Slays).

By the numbers: It’s 4,000 cabinet drawers of newspaper clips, according to Roth, and 5 to 6 million photographic prints and contact sheets, cross-referenced by card catalogs made on typewriters and amended by hand. The scope is downright unfathomable, the system impossibly antiquated.

Some of the photos from the archive are now being resurrected and uploaded to a fantastic Tumblr run by NYT called The Lively Morgue.

According to the Lively Morgue, “if we posted 10 new archival pictures every weekday on Tumblr, just from our print collection, we wouldn’t have the whole thing online until the year 3935.”

Beamer for Mac

Beamer’s tag line sums it up: “Play any movie file directly via Apple TV.” A bargain at $7. Drop AVIs, MKVs, etc on Beamer and it shoots them over to your AppleTV. Started an mkv movie and watched an episode of TV using it — works like a charm. All it needs is some volume control and it’ll be golden.

Flickr Blog: Japanese Manhole Covers

Flickr’s blog recently featured a set of Japanese manhole covers from MRSY’s photostream. There’s also a pretty expansive group featuring similar shots.

courtesy MRSY

A little about Japanese manhole covers, from Remo Camerota, author of Drainspotting:

In the 1980s cities began making customized manhole covers. Today nearly 95 percent of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan sport their own specially designed manhole covers. Designs range from images that evoke a region’s cultural identity, from flora and fauna, to landmarks and local festivals, to fanciful images dreamed up by school children.

Funny or Die: The Wire: The Musical

Michael Kenneth Williams stars alongside Sonja Sohn, Larry Gillard Jr., Andre Royo & Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from The Wire in The Wire: The Musical where they will allow you to experience America’s failing drug war through the magic of song!

Yes, yes, yes. So ridiculous, so hilarious. Faizon Bell as Stringer Bell is a particularly good touch. As is Michael Kenneth Williams’s ridiculous dancing.

NYT Magazine: 32 Innovations that Will Change Your Tomorrow

Mixed feeling about this article — entirely Western-focused. Looks bad in the context of solving bigger global problem through innovation. In NYTs defense, though, they do title the article with “your tomorrow” which points toward their base, who probably aren’t as concerned with water, sanitation, household energy, and other blights of the bottom billion.

All that aside, this bit is really nice and broadly applicable.

We tend to rewrite the histories of technological innovation, making myths about a guy who had a great idea that changed the world. In reality, though, innovation isn’t the goal; it’s everything that gets you there. It’s bad financial decisions and blueprints for machines that weren’t built until decades later. It’s the important leaps forward that synthesize lots of ideas, and it’s the belly-up failures that teach us what not to do.

When we ignore how innovation actually works, we make it hard to see what’s happening right in front of us today. If you don’t know that the incandescent light was a failure before it was a success, it’s easy to write off some modern energy innovations — like solar panels — because they haven’t hit the big time fast enough.

Worse, the fairy-tale view of history implies that innovation has an end. It doesn’t. What we want and what we need keeps changing. The incandescent light was a 19th-century failure and a 20th- century success. Now it’s a failure again, edged out by new technologies, like LEDs, that were, themselves, failures for many years.

That’s what this issue is about: all the little failures, trivialities and not-quite-solved mysteries that make the successes possible. This is what innovation looks like. It’s messy, and it’s awesome.

Via kottke.org.

In My G4 Over Da Sea

Complete madness. NMH’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea mashed up with hip-hop. Utterly weird, a little uncomfortable, mind-bendingly disconcerting and, at points, outstanding. Track list is hilarious:

  1. King Of Ante Up, Pt 1 03:44

  2. King Of Jesus Walks, Pts 2 & 3 03:51

  3. My 1st Airplane 04:26

  4. Look At The Two-Headed Boy 04:27

  5. The Fool (Skit) 01:06

  6. Miami, 1981 04:15

  7. Communist Mic 04:40

  8. Oh Dougie 05:13

  9. Forgot About Ghost 04:07

  10. Untitled Paint Job 04:09

  11. There Two-Headed Boy Go, Pt 2 04:03

Also, ridiculous cover art.

Via kottke.org.

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