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December 25, 2004

Bliss in the form of words


Q. What do W.G. Sebald, Ian McEwan, Robert Lowell, Edward P. Jones, A.M. Homes, and Dave Eggers have in common?

A. Each has a piece in the current issue of the New Yorker.

It's the year-end double issue, dated December 20 & 27, 2004, and it costs $4.95 on the newstand.

Worth twice that at least.

Maybe more.

Oddly, you can't access it online: when you go to the New Yorker website, you get the November 23 issue.

The best I could do was this press release for the issue under discussion.

There are hours of superb reading in this magazine.

I started with novelist A.M. Homes' chilling memoir of how, in 1992, when she was 31, her birth mother (Homes was adopted) tracked her down and got in touch with her.

The disturbing story only grows more lurid and twisted when her birth father enters the picture.

Then there's a selection of letters from Robert Lowell to his life-long friend Elizabeth Bishop.

The brilliantly insightful, troubled poet unburdens himself of anything and everything, and the language is to swoon from.

W. G. Sebald, who was, to my mind, 99.9% certain to win the Nobel Prize in literature before his untimely death in a car crash in England in 2001 at the age of 57, muses about the strands of fate and time that bind us to our past and future and each other in an essay first delivered as a speech at the opening in 2001 of the Stuttgart House of Literature.

No reason, really, not to find a comfy chair at the library, Barnes & Noble, or Borders and read it there.


But don't forget that the next issue of the magazine will appear on the shelves this coming Monday the 27th, so if you want to spend time with the double issue without buying it, better do so this weekend.

December 25, 2004 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Jennifer's Language Page


Jennifer Runner has created a superb language resource: a links page that takes you directly to dictionaries and the like in over 70 languages.

Continually revised since its inception in 1997.

December 25, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Can we measure the onset of consciousness in an infant?'


This question was addressed by Cal Tech physicist David Gross at a recent conference in Santa Barbara examining 25 areas of potential major interest for physics in the 21st century.

Gross speculates that such an event is what physicists call a "phase transition," like the sudden freezing of water into ice, when a microscopic change triggers a large-scale change in behavior.

Or the sudden inflation of an infinitely small particle in a vacuum, followed by an explosion of incomprehensible magnitude that some life forms call the "Big Bang."


Gross pointed out that any such measurement would first require a definition of consciousness.

Considering that we're really no closer now to such an understanding than we were before the dawn of the age of modern science, I'd say we probably won't get very far by continuing down this road.


Rather, I'd consider thinking on a much larger - and, at the same time, smaller - scale.

Forget about understanding consciousness, and instead focus on death.


What happens when death occurs?

Is anything truly dead, when examined closely enough?

And, by extension, is anything ever alive?


Or are they one and the same, part of a much more encompassing, all-embracing universe that laughs at such trivial questions?

December 25, 2004 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

How to peel a grapefruit


Robert L. Wolke writes Food 101 for the Washington Post's Food section: in it, he answers all manner of arcane questions in a sprightly, informative fashion.

Wednesday's Q&A was about why it's so much more difficult to peel a grapefruit than an orange, and how the pros do it.

Here's the citrus truth, the whole segment and nothing but the fruit, so help me God.

    Q. Although I can generally peel oranges quite easily, I have found it impossible to peel a grapefruit by hand without splitting or tearing the fruit. So how do they produce the perfect, skinless segments found in cans?

    A. By one method you can adopt at home, and another that you probably cannot.

    In between the colored peel of a citrus fruit and the juicy inner segments is a layer of spongy white pith called the albedo.

    In many oranges, and especially in tangerines, the albedo and the peel aren't cemented to each other as tightly as they are in grapefruit.

    There are several methods for separating the two layers.

    At home, you can immerse the unpeeled fruit for a few minutes in hot or boiling water.

    The heat will expand the peel and puff up the gas-filled albedo.

    Then, after cutting off a slice from one end to start the peeling, you can separate the two layers rather easily.

    In one widely used commercial method, the rinds are first scored by machine, after which the fruits are immersed completely in a solution of an albedo-digesting enzyme (pectinase) and subjected to a vacuum.

    The vacuum sucks the gas out of the albedo, and when air is let back in, the enzyme solution runs into the evacuated pores, where it attacks and loosens the albedo sufficiently to allow it to be removed by hand.

December 25, 2004 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'15 deaths a day as China digs deep for coal'


"Behind every great fortune is a great crime."

I came across this line many years ago, spoken by a writer who specialized in biographies of America's early industrial titans such as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Clay Frick, Leland Stanford, and their ilk.

I have no reason to believe anything's changed.

Behind every great nation or empire - or rather, under - are the bodies of countless faceless people who perished in the rise to power.

Present-day China is the best example of this process in action.

The headline of this post was the headline of Mure Dickie's story in Tuesday's Financial Times about the tremendous cost in human lives being paid by China's coal miners as that nation attempts to satisfy its limitless need for raw materials and resources to power its ascension to the status of the most dominant nation on our planet, currently on schedule and, in my estimation, slated to happen between 2020 and 2030.

Consider the front-page news Tuesday in the U.S. about the deaths of 14 American soldiers in the Mosul bombing, then consider that China has the equivalent every single day, without much ado.

In fact, the miners' death rate is well below the government's official target.

"This is the lowest rate in history," said Wang Xianzheng, director of China's State Administration of Work Safety.

For comparison, China's death rate among coal miners is about 100 times greater than that in the U.S.

Here's the article.

    15 deaths a day as China digs deep for coal

    It was business as usualin the world's deadliest mining industry yesterday.

    Fourteen miners were killed in a coal mine gas blast in China's western province of Sichuan.

    Only three survived.

    The deaths in the county of Xingwen are the latest sorry addition to the appalling safety record of China's coal industry, which provides most of the fuel for the country's booming economy.

    Just last month 166 people died in a blast in northern Shaanxi province; in October, 146 were killed in an explosion in central Henan province.

    Despite the remorseless rise in the death toll, 2004 is likely to prove a better year than most for China's army of coal miners.

    According to a government tally, 5,286 people died in accidents between January and November - 451 fewer than in the first 11 months of 2003, and well within the official target.

    With coal output climbing from last year's 1.67bn tonnes to a forecast 1.9bn tonnes in 2004, the industry's fatality rate has been cut to just under three deaths per million tonnes from 3.8 last year.

    "This is the lowest rate in history," Wang Xianzheng, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, said recently.

    Officials say the improvement follows increased investment in safety by mining companies.

    In addition, the state has allocated more than Rmb3.4bn ($411m) to support reforms in 880 collieries in the past two years.

    The government's emphasis on socially focused policies, summed up in the slogan "Putting people first", may have persuaded mine managers to pay more attention to safety, particularly as a more outspoken domestic media are making it harder to cover up disasters.

    And yet casualty rates remain stunningly high by global standards.

    The official count shows the fatality rate per tonne of coal for China's miners was nearly 100 times that of their US counterparts.

    To make matters worse, the statistics do not take account of the long-term health risks for workers who spend years toiling with rudimentary equipment in often poorly ventilated mines.

    To reduce the toll, China is relying largely on calls for existing rules to be enforced more vigorously and on a restructuring of the industry aimed at making mining operations more efficient and safer.

    Small, privately run and often technically illegal mines have long been blamed for much of the carnage, as well as for running wasteful operations that pay little attention to environmental protection.

    The state safety administration says deaths per million tonnes at small village and township mines are nearly six times as high as at large "national-level" collieries.

    "By continuing to deepen safety management and by weeding out small mines or closing them down for reform, the hidden danger of accidents can be reduced at its source," the National Development and Reform Commission said in a policy paper last month.

    Beijing intends to finalise plans early next year for the creation of 13 coal "bases" around the country.

    These will consolidate mining operations into large companies and integrate them with processing and power industries.

    The 13 bases will include the country's 40 biggest coal mines, with reserves estimated by state media at 691bn tonnes - 70 per cent of the national total.

    In north-eastern Heilongjiang, for example, four state coal companies will merge to create a group with sales estimated at Rmb15bn.

    It plans to issue shares to overseas investors in Hong Kong next year.

    There is a strong sense of déjàvu about attempts to crack down on small mines, however.

    A similar campaign in the late 1990s did bear fruit while coal prices were low but success proved temporary.

    "After coal supplies became tight in the past two years, tens of thousands of companies big and small have been fighting for rights to mine coal resources and in some areas there has been blind and unregulated prospecting," the NDRC said in its policy paper.

    Even if officials do better this time round, closing small mines will not be a panacea for the industry's ills.

    Corporate governance is weak even in the country's most prestigious industrial groups and the urge to boost profits by cutting corners can be strong.

    China's coal miners are likely to be living dangerously for a while.

    December 25, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    'What he did was to paint terribly well the weight of space on that circular form'


    Pablo Picasso on looking at Paul Cézanne's paintings of apples.

    "The weight of space on that circular form."

    How prophetically this phrase cuts to the heart of modern physics, which posits that the Higgs boson - a theoretical particle never yet detected - by its interaction with matter gives objects mass and, in effect, creates the world as we know it.

    But this isn't about bosons and such, it's about Cézanne's apples.

    A new show, "Cézanne and the Dawn of the Modern," at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany through January 16, then moving to New York's Guggenheim Museum on February 10, 2005, is drawing rave reviews.


    Jackie Wullshlager of The Financial Times termed it "magnificent" and "magisterial."

    She wrote that it is "a spectacular and original canvas-by-canvas exploration of Cézanne's impact on his immediate followers."

    Matisse called Cézanne "le père de nous tous" [the father of us all].

    Picasso said that that Cézanne's pictures were full of anxiety, reflecting the master constantly battling against himself.


    The show features more than a dozen pictures borrowed from Russian museums, rarely seen in the West and far more colorful than the works of Cézanne most frequently seen in European and American museums.

    December 25, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    BehindTheMedspeak: Situs Inversus


    Latin for reversed.

    The term in medicine means that the internal organs of the body - stomach, liver, spleen, and intestines - are backward, the opposite of their normal placement.

    Dextrocardia - a condition in which the heart is on the right instead of the left, as in the X-ray above - without situs inversus is found in 1 person in 29,000.

    Dextrocardia with situs inversus occurs in 1 person in 8,500.

    It happens when each parent carries a gene for the disorder: each of their children has a 1 in 4 chance (1/2 x 1/2 = 1/4) of having the anomaly.

    The chance of a person with dextrocardia having a child with the same condition depends on their partner's genes: if the other individual is a carrier, there's a 50% chance of their child being affected.

    If the other person is not a carrier, then every child will be a carrier, but none will have the disorder.

    Genetics is fun when it's like this; it's when crossing over and chromosomal transpositions got involved that I found the going rough.

    Anyhow, I only brought up the topic because of a nicely done piece that appeared in Tuesday's New York Times Science section.

    Written by Cortney Davis, a nurse practitioner in a women's health clinic, it's an interesting story about what it's like to unexpectedly encounter a very rare condition.

    Most people with these transpositions lead normal, healthy lives with no unusual associated problems, though presenting symptoms for a heart attack or appendicitis, reversed from their usual location, might be confusing to a less than conscientious history taker in the ER.


    I have yet to have a patient with either situs inversus or dextrocardia.

    December 25, 2004 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (47) | TrackBack

    'There 29 million video cameras videotaping people in airports, government buildings, offices, schools, stores and elsewhere'


    So wrote Joseph Pereira in his Wall Street Journal article this past Tuesday on the rise of the machines (video category).

    The thrust of his article, though, was the recent emergence of technology that films consumers not for security purposes but rather for market research.

    The research cameras, with lenses as small as a quarter and steadily shrinking, provide data on everything from the density of shopping traffic in an aisle to the reaction of individual shoppers looking at a specific item.

    Some stores film consumers at the checkout counter, and have the capability of linking a transaction's credit card number with the face of the shopper.

    All the companies taking part in this burgeoning industry either refuse to comment or say that the film is destroyed when the research is done.


    Not to worry, though; if there are 29 million cameras filming, there can't possibly ever be enough people to watch what's going down in front of them all.

    And the computers that are supposed to do the data mining and analyses?

    They've got much, much better things to do....


    Here's the story.

      Spying on the Sales Floor

      'Video Miners' Use Cameras Hidden in Stores to Analyze Who Shops, What They Like

      Stepping into a Gap store at the South Shore Shopping Plaza on a recent evening, Laura Munro became a research statistic.

      Twelve feet above her, a device resembling a smoke detector, mounted on the ceiling and equipped with a hidden camera, took a picture of her head and shoulders.

      The image was fed to a computer and shipped to a database in Chicago, where ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a consumer research firm, keeps count of shoppers nationwide using 40,000 cameras placed in stores and malls.

      ShopperTrak, whose profile has risen this holiday season as appetite grows for more real-time shopping data, is a leader in "video mining" - an emerging field in marketing research enabled by technology that can analyze video images without relying on human eyes.

      ShopperTrak says it doesn't take pictures of faces.

      The company worries that shoppers would perceive that as an invasion of privacy.

      But nearly all of its videotaping is done without the knowledge of the people being taped.

      "I didn't even know there was a camera up there," says Ms. Munro, a public-transit manager who popped into the mall on her way home from work to find a gift for her 12-year-old daughter.

      Using proprietary software to gauge the size of the images of people, a ShopperTrak computer determined that Ms. Munro was an adult, not a child, and thus a bona fide shopper.

      Weeding out youngsters is critical in accurately calculating one of the valuable bits of data ShopperTrak sells - the percentage of shoppers that buys and the percentage that only browses.

      It arrives at this data, including the so-called conversion rate, by comparing the number of people taped entering the store with the number of transactions.

      Ms. Munro's visit was tallied up twice: once as a visitor to the Gap and once in a national count of shoppers.

      Gap Inc., of San Francisco, pays ShopperTrak for the tally of Gap shoppers. ShopperTrak sells the broader data - gleaned from 130 retail clients and 380 malls - to economists, bankers and retailers.

      ShopperTrak takes into account how much shoppers spend, data that it gets from credit-card companies and banks, and extrapolates outward to the entire retail landscape.

      "We can get sales and traffic figures that are identical to the government's, two months before they can issue their report," says Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's founder and president.

      Of the millions of shoppers videotaped daily in the U.S., many are aware that security cameras are watching to detect shoplifting.

      In some cases, stores post signs to disclose such monitoring.

      But there is far less awareness by consumers that they are being filmed for market research.

      ShopperTrak discloses its clients - a list that includes Gap and its Banana Republic unit; Limited Brands Inc., of Columbus, Ohio, and its Victoria's Secret chain; PaylessShoe Source Inc., of Topeka, Kan; American Eagle Outfitters Inc., of Warrendale, Pa.; and Children's Place Retail StoresInc., of Secaucus, N.J.

      Several other research companies that videotape shoppers say they sign agreements with clients in which they pledge not to disclose their names.

      They say their clients want the taping to be secret - and worry shoppers would feel alienated or complain of privacy invasion if they knew.

      Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of Caspian, a Cambridge, Mass., consumer-advocacy group, says consumers have "no idea such things as video tracking are going on" and should be informed.

      When she tells them about such activities, she says the response she often hears is, "Isn't this illegal, like stalking? Shouldn't there be a law against it?"

      There aren't any state laws forbidding retailers from videotaping shoppers for research - although in New Jersey last week, Caesars Atlantic City Hotel Casino was fined $80,000 for videotaping the breasts and legs of female employees and customers with cameras intended for security.

      Some research companies' cameras, with lenses as small as a quarter, can provide data on everything from the density of shopping traffic in an aisle to the reactions of a shopper gazing at the latest plasma TV set.

      The cash register is a popular spot for cameras, too.

      But cameras can be found in banks, fast-food outlets and hotel lobbies (but not guest rooms).

      Video miners say their research cameras are less invasive than security cameras, because their subjects aren't scrutinized as closely as security suspects.

      Images, they say, are destroyed when the research is done.

      Robert Bulmash, founder of the Private Citizen Inc., of Naperville, Ill., which advocates for privacy rights, says that being in a retailer's store doesn't give a retailer "the right to treat me like a guinea pig."

      He says he wonders about assurances that images are destroyed, since there isn't any way to verify such claims.

      The pictures "could be saved somewhere in that vast digital universe and some day come back to haunt us," he says.

      Already, video images can be subpoenaed from retailers for law-enforcement purposes.

      Technology capable of matching a photo with an individual's identity, say from credit-card transactions, "has certainly arrived," says Rajeev Sharma, a Penn State University computer science professor who has launched a company that is creating shopper-monitoring systems.

      It isn't certain whether retailers are availing themselves of the know-how.

      Credit card companies currently aren't sharing individuals' financial information with retailers, he adds, but retailers have their own customer databases as the result of loyalty cards, store credit cards and other in-house programs.

      Theoretically, they could link a transaction at a cash register with the face of a shopper appearing on the videotape.

      Dr. Sharma's start-up, Advanced Interfaces Inc., of State College, Pa., is expected this week to launch a Web site, videomining.com, highlighting the company's patented "computer vision" technologies.

      In a pilot project conducted last year in the Philadelphia area, Advanced Interfaces set up nine cameras in each of two McDonald's Corp. restaurants to find out which consumer types would find a new salad item most appealing.

      The research was done without consumers' knowledge, says Dr. Sharma, who is Advanced Interfaces' chief executive.

      Seven of the cameras were already in place for security purposes and needed only to be reconfigured using Advanced's sensors.

      Two additional cameras were positioned in the ceiling directly over cash registers.

      By measuring the shapes of people's faces, the sensors were able to provide a breakdown of the fast-food customers by race, gender and age group, he says.

      The videos also revealed the length of time customers spent waiting in line or looking at the menu before ordering. Mr. Sharma declined to discuss the findings.

      All of the video was subsequently destroyed, he says.

      "Only the computers and no humans saw the pictures of the customers," Mr. Sharma says.

      Advanced is conducting similar consumer-behavior analysis this holiday season for three other retailers that Mr. Sharma declined to identify.

      Video mining is being spurred by digital video cameras.

      Unlike their analog counterparts, digital video cameras can be programmed so that the images can be quickly read by computers - taking only hours to complete tasks that might have taken weeks for humans to do.

      In a recent assignment that Kahn Research Group, of Huntersville, N.C., completed for American Express Co., computers took only a couple of days to sift through 64 hours of tape.

      Kahn researchers hid four cameras near the checkout counter at a couple of supermarkets in Southern California to study whether American Express gift cards should be displayed off in a spot by themselves, or lumped with competing brands near the cash registers.

      Researchers were interested in customers' facial expressions and eye movements as they spotted the gift cards, and whether they walked to a display to pick up a card.

      Kahn cameras, each the size of a golf ball, were hidden behind the displays.

      The devices were programmed to detect fast-eye movement, smiles and frowns, says Greg Kahn, the company's CEO.

      The research, which involved filming 2,000 shoppers, was "really not invasive," Mr. Kahn says.

      "Nobody knew they were being recorded and our work didn't interfere with the store environment.

      Had we tried to interview people, the process would have taken much longer."

      And had people known they were being taped, he says, "I know many of the shoppers would have stuck their hands in front of the camera lens and refused to be recorded."

      A spokeswoman for American Express described the project as a "pilot program... that's not for public consumption" and declined to comment further.

      It isn't clear whether the American public will be as tolerant of secret market research using videotape as they are of security cameras.


      There are 29 million cameras videotaping people in airports, government buildings, offices, schools, stores and elsewhere, according to one widely cited estimate in the security industry.

    December 25, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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