From the archives: Science

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Suggested reading, jet-lagged edition

Monday, 29 March 2010 — 9:45pm | Assorted links, Film, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I haven’t read the Internet in almost two weeks, thanks to my various globetrotting commitments. But never fear—these selections from early March are here.

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On the origin of specious journalism

Sunday, 14 March 2010 — 1:45pm | Canadiana, Journalism, Science

I read something dumbfounding today. You could say it was founded on dumb.

On first inspection, John Ibbitson’s article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail (“Core support keeps the PM in thrall”) is an ordinary, forgettable opinion piece that uses the recent silliness over the lyrics to the national anthem as a springboard for restating the obvious: the Conservatives can’t win a majority because every time they’re close, the mythical Republican-style rabble-rousers lying in ambush in the tall grass of the Alberta prairie celebrate with a premature volley from their unregistered firearms, and the rest of the country begins to have second thoughts about whether letting them win is a good idea.

Never mind the questionable statistical basis for linking one issue to the other. This isn’t news to anyone who follows Canadian politics in a sound state of mind, nor is Ibbitson’s sensible identification of the Tory core as moderate centrists (however incongruent that may be with partisan caricatures from both the left and right). There’s nothing here to see.

But the way he puts it is bizarre:

The great political irony for the Conservative Party is that, while it must avoid estranging core conservatives at all costs, extreme core conservatives keep the party from winning a majority. They are the social Darwins.


Most of the time, these right-wing nuts are ignored. But whenever Mr. Harper appears to have enough support to form a majority government, the base starts to get excited and aggressive, and social Darwins “bare their teeth and embrace things that the majority of Canadians don’t want to see,” says Mr. Turcotte. This frightens enough centrists to keep the Liberals in the game and the Conservatives confined to minority governments.

For those of you who are unaware, I am presently writing from what must surely be the Darwin capital of the world. It’s wall-to-wall Darwin here. All year long I have bathed in the most glorious talk of the literary Darwin, the proto-feminist Darwin, the abolitionist Darwin, the invalid Darwin, the patriarchal Darwin, the imperialist Darwin, the epistemological Darwin, the analogical Darwin, the cultural Darwin, the impressionist Darwin, and Quentin Blake’s cartoon Darwin. I am a stone’s throw away from Darwin’s letters, Darwin’s Plots and the Darwin College bar. I’ve seen the poor fellow’s name used and abused in every imaginable way.

I don’t have the foggiest idea what John Ibbitson means by “social Darwins.”

Continued »

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Suggested reading, recollected edition

Monday, 8 March 2010 — 12:01pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Harry Potter, Hockey, Literature, Music, Pianism, Science, Video games

Fall away from the Internet for a week or two and the Internet falls on you. Here’s some of what I saw when I succumbed to its gelatinous reach:

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Orson Welles’ Bikini bombshell

Thursday, 4 March 2010 — 10:54pm | Film, Science

While reading up on the Bikini atomic experiments for my post on Three Tales, I came upon a most interesting find: a contemporaneous broadcast about the tests by America’s greatest radio voice and one of my personal heroes, Orson Welles. It was the second episode of Welles’ short-lived 1946 series of political radio commentaries, and runs fifteen minutes in length. Listen.

Around this time last year I spent an inordinate portion of my time rediscovering the early radio work of Orson Welles, which I so fondly remembered from my childhood—The Shadow, Suspense, The Mercury Theatre on the Air and so on—so I had come across this series before. (“The Affidavit of Isaac Woodward”, Welles’ unforgettable diatribe about the vicious assault of a black American soldier who had returned from decorated service in the war, is required listening for anyone interested in the oratory of civil rights.) Somehow I’d missed the episode on the hydrogen bomb. No matter; I’ve listened to it now. And here’s something else I’ve learned: painted on the first H-bomb to see a practical test was the likeness of Rita Hayworth.

Welles had this to say about the glamorous actress who was then his wife:

Not long ago I watched quite another sort of young lady paint her lips with something called, over the counter, the Atom Lipstick—the case of the cosmetic being fashioned according to the popular conceptions of the original war-engine. I’m sure you all need to be told that Miss Hayworth is not one to use such a thing or to hold it as anything less than a very hideous conceit.

Her face is not on the atom bomb, then, by her own choosing, but by election of the flyers who will drop the bomb and work clearly for business according to their tastes. As regards selection I find their taste beyond reproach, but the bomb-dropping itself had better be worthy of the accompanying photograph.

Is this, Faustus claimed of Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Well, I want a better toast, a better boast, for Rebecca. I want my daughter to be able to tell her daughter that Grandmother’s picture was on the last atom bomb ever to explode.

As we all know, the world didn’t heed his words, and the shadow of nuclear annihilation is now an ordinary background to our lives. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

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Tales of the Minimalist Freighter

Wednesday, 3 March 2010 — 10:40pm | Classical, Film, Music, Science

Last month I attended a performance of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s “documentary digital video opera” Three Tales at the ADC Theatre, the first production in Britain since the UK premiere in 2002. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

On the surface it looks straightforward enough. The 65-minute composition for voice, acoustic instruments, and video divides neatly into three segments on subjects from the public face of twentieth-century technology—the Hindenburg disaster, the atomic bomb test in the Bikini Atoll, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. We hear the familiar Reich technique of displacing and superimposing copies of repeated motifs slightly out of phase, which catches the ear well enough in recordings but in live performance has the air of a magic trick. As in Reich’s seminal string quartet Different Trains, many of the melodic ideas are derived from the pitches and articulation of human speech—but not, in Three Tales, the rhythms; here, the speech recordings are subtended to click into the frame of a regular pulse. The video speed, too, is synchronized to musical time and not “mimetic” time or real-time, if you get my meaning.

We see some captivating archival images in the first two movements, chiefly the ones that draw attention to the logistics of large-scale technology, like the construction of the Hindenburg (set to variations on the Nibelung motif from Wagner’s Ring) or the dislocation of indigenous people and livestock in preparation for the Bikini tests (with thunderous sforzandi from Genesis to spice things up). What I can’t quite fit into the picture is the Dolly movement, a contrapuntal collage of video interviews with prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins, Marvin Minsky, and Rodney Brooks. Korot tells us the work, as it was conceived, is more accurately called “Two Tales and a Talk”. Here’s how Reich described it:

Each of the three acts not only looks and sounds like it’s historical period, each is formally organized quite differently to comment on that period. […] [Dolly] is non-stop with certain kinds of material recurring in no clearly discernible pattern. Musically one might say Dolly was a kind of free rondo. The forms of each act reflect the historical period they describe.

But what does the piece say about technology? It sets up a debate instead of taking a firm position, adopting the ambivalence that is often so necessary for art to say anything at all. Commentators have remarked on the obvious irony of critiquing technology in a technologically enabled medium, but I think it would be facile to stop there: as in most of his earlier works, Reich’s crucial gesture is to forsake electronic synthesizers and recreate the effects of audio manipulation in acoustic human performance. It is an incursion of man on the domain of machine, not the other way round.

Yet the Dolly movement remains an uneasy fit. Consider a crude reading of the work:

  1. Hindenburg—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! That didn’t turn out very well.
  2. Bikini—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! That didn’t turn out very well.
  3. Dolly—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! I wonder if it will turn out well?

I believe what we have here is a case of arson, murder, and jaywalking. Dolly now feels like a quaint late-nineties relic as revolutionary as Deep Blue—that is to say, not at all, in the grand scheme of humanity’s future. Cloning isn’t dragging us to the Singularity anytime soon, and conjuring images of Ray Kurzweil musing about robots replacing us all is a bit of a logical stretch.

Perhaps, as someone too irreligious to get his pants in a twist about the classic Promethean fears of man indulging in acts of creation proper to God, the message of Three Tales is lost on me. Or maybe the point is that the message is lost on everyone else.

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