Monday, 31 March 2014
The Fulda Gap, the pass between the Rhön mountain range and the Vogelsberg massif, was known to strategists for a long time with the armies of Napoleon retreating from Leipzig along this route and the final push of the Allied armies following the same path into Germany in the final days of World War II. Today, the preserved installation is a conference centre, a youth camp and a museum. I noticed that many of the parents visiting were having a hard time explaining the place and artefacts to their young kids—not that I could do much better. Speaking of the whites of their eyes, I have updated this map of occupied Germany to include Soviet posts.
Not that all Americans were (are) necessarily better integrated into their host communities and did not create their own little ghettos, the Russian units stationed in the DDR had no interaction with the “economy” and very little evidence or memory remains of their presence. Far from some historical curiosity or conundrum, I am glad we took the time for reflection and that such places have been preserved and honoured.
Sunday, 30 March 2014
When trying to recall, with a little help, the details of a science brief we saw on the news a couple weeks ago, about an engineer whose water-collection system—an alternative to water-filtration on a mass-scale, especially for communities where access to clean water is prohibitively expensive and no one seems forthcoming—I was only looking for the name of the Onymacris unguicularis, also known as the fog-basking darkling beetle.
On this day in 1867 (depending on whether one employed the Georgian or Julian calendar, still in use by the Russian Empire at the time), the United States senate formally ratified the purchase of the territory that would become the state of Alaska from Russia, brokered by US Secretary of State, William H. Seward.
The czar, Alexander II, was little engaged with his North American colony, and having been recently trounced by a coalition led by the British in the Crimean War, was eager to unburden himself of this wasteland, lest Russia loose it to their colonial neighbours without compensation. Those lands that would become Canada had little interest in buying the land, and Russia assumed that the UK would just as likely appropriate the peninsula in some future war or for past reparations, the Empire approached the Americans as buyers for the difficult to defend outpost. At the time, the American public did not think it much of a bargain and the newly acquired territory, twice the size of Texas, became known as Seward's Folly, paying some seven million dollars, two cents an acre, for what was regarded as a frozen wilderness.
Collectors' Weekly features a fascinating little show-and-tell of the nineteenth century phenomena of sweetheart pendants, when aristocratic families of Prussia exchanged their gold and silver jewelry for austere and gothic-looking iron brooches, blackened with a flaxen coating to prevent rust, to help fund the Napoleonic Wars. These so-called intricate Berlin Iron pieces often bore patriotic (and shaming) slogans like “Gold gab ich für Eisen” (I gave gold for iron)—which was something en vogue for later conflicts, too, though not restricted to the upper-classes, like the saying that goes round the edge of this skillet from the Great War that I found: In World War 1916, the German Housewives shared in the spirit of sacrifice by giving up their copper for iron (it rhymes in German).
In any case, it was installed in 2000 for the occasion when Hünfeld was a regional host for Hessentag, a statewide showcase of local culture and attractions. I wonder if such statues, and sponsoring foundations, help keep kids like these off the streets.
Friday, 28 March 2014
Though the mandate was delayed and not without controversy, reforms to standardise the naming-convention for bank accounts, to make the IBAN (International Bank Account Number) coding sequence also apply to domestic transactions—the changes incorporated for what is called the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA), came across pretty seamlessly. Compliance helps eliminate the potential for dysglossia or duplication during transcription.
I noticed, however, that in practise, it yielded another affront against the maligned Umlaut. I enjoy completing payments with the automated tellers as it is one of the rare chances for me to use a German keyboard layout and try to use the language properly. Due to SEPA parameters, though, what are considered special characters are culled. It's like the initiative in the UK to remove all punctuation marks from street names so as to ensure that they are not garbled in navigation devices. “Turn left at St#àààààààà John█qwkl Wood.” I am surprised that the ü and ö are still accommodated on German vehicle license plates, as lands that employ Cyrillic (or Greek) characters are hardly afforded the same: only Latin appearing letters are allowed (though the H is really an E) and one will never see a backwards R, Space-Invader combination on a Bulgarian plated car. Space and data is not really a premium any longer and one has to wonder about the enforcement of old call-signs and the frailties of computing platforms, like the wondrous but technical legacy of British zip-codes—and registration plates. I wonder how this policing might change in the future, now that the US has relinquished its hold on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and now the world at large can fix standards.
Thursday, 27 March 2014
Ever ready to take recourse to its core values—seemingly that of safeguarding the interest of powerful industry lobbies that know no bounds of patriotism but are exceedingly well-versed in all sorts of jingoism—the United States invoked a star-spangled jibe at its European allies during the G7 summit, which seemed to make quick amends of all America's recent transgressions and wiped the collective memories of those in attendance.
Some traditions hold that Asclepius was struck down by a bolt from Zeus for bringing back to life the other tragic character of Hippolytus in exchange for a handsome treasure. Apollo, in turn, killed the Cyclopes, outraged, who forged Zeus' righteous thunder. Asclepius was resurrected and placed among the stars in order to restore Zeus' quiver. This confusion is mostly regulated mostly to institutions in the States, however other agencies have incorporated the family crest appropriately, like the licensed dispensaries in Germany, who hang the sign of the Bowl of Hygieia, one of Asclepius' graceful daughters who was able to charm the enduring spectre of over-medication.
Wednesday, 26 March 2014
Although an independent Scotland has already extended assurances that, like all the Commonwealth Realms, it would continue to recognise Queen Elizabeth II as their liege and there is the possibility too that Scotland may choose to form a republic and reject all royalty, the local's Spanish edition shares an interesting speculation:
Monday, 24 March 2014
It seems rather strange that the sense of taste is a myth-bearer, and once disabused of these traditional beliefs, the contrary is still widely held, and usually as only an enhancement to the palette.
Sunday, 23 March 2014
Veteran reporter and author, Masha Gessen writing for Slate, shares her warzone coverage memories on the anniversary, nearly fifteen years ago to the day, when in 1999 NATO forces, under US leadership, began the intervention in Kosovo, and their presence remains today.
We experimented with a nice recipe calling for halibut served on a bed of fennel slaw with mustard sauce. The fish's scientific name is hippoglossus from the Greek for horse-tongue, referring to the shape of the fish's body and not to its more distinctive, I think, feature of having one of its eyes migrate over to the other side of its head as it flounders its adult life on the sea floor. The common name, halibut, means holy-flatfish, as it is very popular for feast days of obligation during Lent.
For two to three portions, one will need:
- 500 – 600 grams of Halibut (fresh or fully thawed)
- 100 ml of cream
- 2 stalks of leek
- 1 good sized fennel root
- 1 small onion
- 1 large carrot
- Four to six small potatoes
- 1 glass of dry white wine
- Aluminum foil, Salt, butter, and one tablespoon of Dijon Mustard
Saturday, 22 March 2014
Wired Magazine reports on how a genetically engineered variety of maize designed specifically to kill one of the crop's biggest plagues, the corn root-worm (a beetle belonging to the genus appropriately named Diabrotica), has lost its efficacy. Accounting currently for some seventy-five percent of the US, the bio-tech harvest has been a casualty of its own success and wide-spread adoption, which in a text-book demonstration of accelerated natural selection, caused the pest to evolve by making dominate the mutation that accorded a small population of the worms resistance to the targeted toxin.
Though not quite on the frontier of forensic science as the technical capabilities have been explored for a decade and longer, genetic researchers are just discovering now the score or so of genomes from a sample that determine ones outward appearance, forehead, chin, ears, eyes, nose, lips, etc. (excluding nurture, vanity and lifestyle) that could be quickly scanned and extrapolated to produce police-sketches of suspects, possible even creating a visual match—for those populations not already in a registry.
Friday, 21 March 2014
While the US, in its usually cheeky fashion, is dismissive of the counter-sanctions of the Russian government, declaring senior members of the Senate as personae non grata—as EU and US authorities are freezing the bank-accounts of certain Russian nationals and imposing travel-restrictions, canceling debit cards, and believe their ribald attitude has dissuaded Russia from pursuing this tactic. Russia, however, I am certain is more than a few moves ahead of the parties that would boycott and blackball Russia for its posture in the Crimea and other satellites in its orbit, trying in fact to counter perceived or real expansionist's ambitions with appeasement (even though it is never presented openly).
Thursday, 20 March 2014
Wednesday, 19 March 2014
After days and days of no resolution and aggravating, conflicting accounts and patience that's out-waited even the stingy faith of the insurance-brokers, the families of the missing souls of Flight MH370 who disappeared with no trace must be enduring a waking nightmare. Despite every modern, hyper-connected nuance there is to transportation, surveillance and other forms of cleverness, the combined efforts of many nations cannot locate the airliner, and while I sadly suspect that people's expectations of what such domineering technology can deliver under-estimate the vast scale of the Pacific Ocean, there are many theories out there—mostly I believe with the intent of keeping hope alive and not just useless grand-standing, fed by the changing details of authorities.
Ockham's Razor is a sort of philosophical decision-chart, lex parsimoniae, holding that the explanation with the least assumptions is probably the right one. This guidance, however, also contains its own anti-thesis (an anti-razor) since the principle also holds that the only remaining explanation after others have been duly eliminated, however implausible, must be true. Just after contact was lost, it was disclosed that three passengers on the manifest were traveling under false credentials, and despite being initially dismissed as the kind of paranoia that makes the best crowds for security-theatre, the high-jacking supposition now is accepted fact. Some suggest that the whole plane was kidnapped and is being ransomed by sky-pirates with the condition of a total media blackout; others believe that the aircraft was spirited away for some future high-profile attack on a metropolitan centre and is in the mountain lair of an evil-genius, and all explain how this could be carried out, convincingly—more less. Considering the changing stories, some believe that some military power, testing out a new, secret weapon accidentally vapourised the wrong target. Conspiracy theories are usually not given the chance to thrive and not a one quite seems like blind-faith, but I do think that officials are not being exactly transparent with their search and believe something lies underneath. Whatever the truth ultimately revealed, I hope the families find their peace and I hope that dispatching search teams and enormous resources is not exactly the diversion that the alleged masterminds behind this tragedy was hoping for.
Tuesday, 18 March 2014
Partnerships of convenience, long-lasting alliances and a much poorer Church emerged from the turmoil. Das Völkerschlachtdenkmal (the monument for the Battle of the Nations) was completed in its unique and defining neo-classical, betraying influences from the Meso-Americans and the Ancient Egyptians and previsioning the Art Déco (Jugendstil) movement, in 1913 for the one-hundredth anniversary of the decisive campaign and underwent extensive restoration of its interior crypt during the past few years for its centennial, honouring the anniversary of the battle this past October.
We were able to see the halls and galleries, a clime of some five-hundred steps (with a lift too but some chambers, like the ancient ziggurats it borrows from, could only be reached through a labyrinth of stairwells that sometimes had one ascending through the colossal statues.
The monument was misused at times as a symbol of German mysticism and exceptionalism, like the Barbarossa monument commissioned by the self-same German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, that sought to strengthen ties among a disparate assemblage of former petty kingdoms as the German Empire, and its East German caretakers proposed at one time to tear it down. I am glad that they didn't and consistently appreciate the charge of a curator.
Saturday, 15 March 2014
Designer and artist Katerina Kamprani has reimagined a whole gallery of familiar everyday items but with a twist on their usefulness. The Uncomfortable collection has tableware, containers and other practical accessories that really make one think about grip, stability and other tactile qualities that we've grown accustomed to.
These objects still fulfill their purpose, and retain their semiotic niche, but would be awkward to handle. It's sort of like computer icons of envelopes, pad-locks, chains, paint-cans, rubbish bins or key fobs—whose function is transparent but whose avatars are only masks. Wouldn't you appreciate the standard form of a fork or drinking glass after trying to handle one of these pieces?
Friday, 14 March 2014
Wednesday, 12 March 2014
In response and in anticipation to a marked upswing in the trend, a group in Brazil has minted a form of alternative protest currency, called the Surreal—opposed to the real (reais), the fiat tender of the country, Der Spiegel reports (auf Deutsch).
The New Yorker has an excellent little extract regarding the Stanford Achievement Test proctors' effort to make the standardized college entrance exam more relevant to students, to assess the skills they need to develop in this brave new world.
Tuesday, 11 March 2014
I suppose the panel of judges for beauty contests and OPM (the Office of Personnel Management, which actually bestows these honours) have about the same mentality. Ambitious or not, the uniformed services and associated civilian counterparts, from whom many careers are built as their networks, platforms and jargon require interpreters, aims to monitor every move of their title-holders—at least, every move on the internet, easily retrieved but also easily faked and only want the computer says. Having seemingly forgot that this sort of surveillance is already not only possible but also carried out, the spooks, trustees and petty tyrants are concerned about their privacy, but more to the point they also have concerns for the integrity of the actual secret business that they are doing, also subject to a continuum of voyeurs.
A balmy winter in western Europe that could have better weathered the valves being shut off for delivery of natural gas from Russia or America's announcement to scale back the army and military presence in Europe, deemed stable and no longer interbellum and relics of the long, Cold War being cannibalised for adventures further east. It's a bit of a reach but I wonder if this was not some sort of double-bluff, a head-fake, to bolster new Europe's alignment with the West, and legitimize America's missile shield in Poland and mission-creep elsewhere.
Moldova, with an offensive to expose the hollow promises of joining Europe, demonstrating that economic integration is other than rosy, including Russian-influenced embargoes on Moldovan wine exports. In exchange, the nations, which in turn harbour break-away republics with limited recognition like Transnistria or Georgia's South Ossetia in 2008, are portrayed as presented with false taunts and alternative life-styles. Regardless of circumstance or politicking, citizens reserve the rights to secede, devolve or resist, but this sort of partitioning is a bit scary on both sides, interest reserved—whether or not one is just spinning diplomatic wheels.
Sunday, 9 March 2014
Taking advantage of the spring weather, we took a short rumble down a portion of the Romantic Road (die Romantische Straße), the route of fairy tale castles, palaces and fotresses that criss-cross the borders of Bayern and Baden-Württemberg in the western reaches of Franconia to Upper-Bavaria. Towards the end of our trip, we passed through the village of Creglingen on the Tauber river, nicely rendered in this landscape by the artist Carl Grossberg in 1926. We did not photograph this particular vista because of the afternoon sun, but I was really captured by the artist's modern, cartoonish style.
Afterwards, I researched a bit further, got a lesson in art-history and found more of Grossberg's works and discovered that the collection epitomizes the German New Objectivity movement (Neue Sachlichkeit, new matter-of-factness) that aimed to capture the practicality of form and function associated with civic involvement and political engagement of Germany's inter-war Weimar Republic and an off-shoot of the Bauhaus movement.
As opposed to Futurism or Expressionism, this impartial attitude emulated the perceived values of America's infatuation with work and progress and represented an inward-turning towards institutions and public life, and Grossberg did in fact produce many interesting schematics depicting industry. I do, however, really enjoy his imaginative way of inserting sloths and monkeys into office-settings for effect and comment.
In an apparent about-face to the regime's earlier courtship of technology and telecommunications and in response to opposition politicians that have hijacked the internet as a platform for lies and libel, at least—according to the incumbents, the government of Turkey is looking to curtail freedom of expression on-line when the integrity of the public and republic is at stake, including the whole-sale blocking of certain popular sites.
The European Union is joining a chorus of Turkish protesters in revolt, however this individual-mandate, which Turkey wants to install as a way for policing the internet and dousing out sparks before the lead to righteous conflagrations, blocking the activity of certain persons or a link before they can blossom or metastasize—though blatant censorship is little different from roving arbiters and trolls that have door-stops within governments to get their way and can be scarier yet than calling twitterpation a “menace (tehdit) to society.” These laws are ostensibly meant for protection of individual privacy and dignity, adding a bit of amnesia to the internet which never forgets—which seems on the contrary like something quite positive and reasonable, since going back to the idea of an individual-mandate, great freedom also carries with it great responsibility—especially when evangelizing, but the potential for abuse is always there, as those most eager to do the judging usually have no business doing so.
Saturday, 8 March 2014
Marine biologists studying a specific species of mantis shrimp (Fangschreckenkrebse) that inhabits coral reefs—an explosion of colour, shade and shadow, have found that these crustaceans have some of the most advanced eyes compound eyes in the animal kingdom. These shrimp have sixteen distinct photo-receptive cells, ommatidium whereas human eyes only have four to filter for red, green and blue and contrast, to differentiate, to tune for three times more colours and perceive polarised light and across different spectra.
Thursday, 6 March 2014
Beyond mermaids and unicorns—and even enjoying less widespread popularity than rarer chimeras like griffins, harpies or the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (cotton, not so much a monster), there is a neglected bestiary, which the marvelous Atlas Obscura pays tribute to. My favourite creature enrolled here is the odd Lidérc from Hungarian folklore—a sort of familiar, hatched as the first of a brood from a black hen, after being incubated in a human armpit—according to some traditions.
This newly-hatched imp, industrious and loyal, eventually becomes also a curse and a liability. Though always at their master's disposal, such congress becomes a dangerous thing, but can be gotten rid of through a variety of equally specific rituals, like giving one's Lidérc an impossible task, like a logical feed-back loop that will eventually cause a fatal-error. It reminds me of the notion that vampires exhibit arithmomania and are compelled to count whatever is cast out in front of them, like grains of rice, or the Greek custom of setting out a colander during the Christmas season to trip up evil spirits, since they are obsessed with numbers and will try to count all the holes. They only make it as far as two, however, since three, the Holy Trinity, makes them disappear and start all over. It's interesting that monsters are framed with compulsions and I wonder what that means.
Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Kottke shares some interesting developments on the world-wide initiative to harness essential limitless energy with nuclear fusion by creating a wee constellation of tiny terrestrial (or at least mundane—that is, below the sphere of the Moon). The project has a commendable mission statement, as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor abbreviated ITER, or rather iter from the Latin for the way, it aims to bend physics to satisfy man's needs, like with Prometheus—punished for giving humanity the gifts and curses of fore-thought and fire, in a sustainable manner. Whether it is possible to contain this sort of power is uncertain, but progress seems in jeopardy due to the bureaucratic nature of such a collaboration.
Such a complex engineering project has even spawned its own form of currency to facilitate funding of grants, and I am sure that there are secreted cautions among the members, especially those who supply the world's traditional fuels—who spread rumours that bringing the CERN collider on-line would ingest the Earth in a microscopic blackhole. Kottke's posts are always value-added, waxing philosophical and triangulating with curious but cogent parallels, and wonders if in this case, it is not an effort better handed off to industry. Many of today's businesses, flush with money and not only interested in preserving the status quo (though dominance and vertical monopolies are not much different) might want their own stellar prestige project.