Piano String Theory

by Jessie Roberts

John Freeman praises Abandoned City, a new album by the German composer Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann), who uses alternative techniques to “look at what makes abandoned cities attractive and weird”:

[E]very sound on the album was created on a standard piano, using the ‘prepared piano’ technique, mastered by Bertelmann over the last decade. “A prepared piano is a method that involves taking a piano sound and adding an object – it could be metal or felt or plastic – to a piano string or between the hammer and the string to create a new tone on top of the piano note,” Bertelmann explains. “By using the prepared piano method, I get to use every single element of the piano, which gives me the freedom to do very modern, almost electronic, sounding music without using electronics as a sound source. On Abandoned City I used only delays with a little distortion to process the sound – everything you hear was played on a piano.”

So it transpires that the jagged percussion patterns on ‘Elizabeth Bay’ (a disused Namibian mining town) were created by jamming wooden sticks between the piano strings, while Bertelmann achieved the brittle clang of ‘Pripyat’ by blocking strings with his fingernail. This ambitious dedication to craft such an array of sounds – be it an imagined harp, drum or even a Melodica – using such simple, yet imaginative, techniques ensures Abandoned City carries a sense of wonder and intrigue.

Shared Cinema

by Jessie Roberts

Casey N. Cep views moviegoing as “a collective escape: something we do with others, something we experience together”:

Just as we go looking for the lives of others on the screen, we get to look at them around us in the theater. In the age of bowling alone, when so many community organizations and spaces are in decline, the movie theater remains a place where the many become one: various ages and varied professions all watch the talkies together.

That mix is what I miss most when I watch a movie at home:

The chatty teenagers near the concession stand, the gossiping couples who are always first in their seats; the collective sighs and gasps and enthused whispers of commentary during the film; even the hokey clapping at the movie’s end. I suppose we have comment sections and message boards as digital surrogates, but I live for the unexpected conversations that follow movie screenings; even if I’m only eavesdropping, those conversations are as memorable to me as the movies themselves.

But as technology shifts us away from the cinema, Cep worries that “cinemas are well on their way to making moviegoing a luxury experience”:

It might be that in a few years only a limited number of movies debut in theaters and the rest of what’s on offer will have already proven itself in the direct-to-video market, or that everything on cinema screens is a few years or even decades old, screened not as a test, but as a celebration of popularity. Our cinemas will become something like museums, displaying what has already proven popular or earned acclaim, instead of galleries, where new art appears first for assessment. The picture shows won’t end, but they’ll become the last rather than the first stop for Hollywood.

All The War’s A Stage

by Jessie Roberts & Chris Bodenner

Mark Harris is out with a new book, Five Came Back, which chronicles the wartime service of the great American directors Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens. Tom Carson suspects that “movie buffs will never think of any of these filmmakers in quite the same way again”:

[T]he mind boggles at imagining Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino all donning uniform for the duration to make films championing the Iraq war’s righteousness. That their very approximate 1940s equivalents did just that—generally for a fraction of their peacetime pay—is a trenchant reminder that World War II was different. …

Despite the constant tension between their essential function as propagandists and their new responsibilities as documentarians, all five directors certainly managed to keep busy and even do good work. Peppy as ever, Capra oversaw the Why We Fight series and rode herd on those of his fellow filmmakers who were also attached to the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps. Ford, the lone exception, joined the Navy and got a shrapnel wound while filming the battle of Midway. His waywardness undimmed by working for the Pentagon, Huston shot three documentaries—Report From The Aleutians, San Pietro and Let There Be Light—uncompromising enough to horrify the brass, the reason the last of them, about the rehabilitation of shellshocked GIs, was suppressed for decades.

David Denby focuses on San Pietro (scene embedded above, full version here):

In early 1944, John Huston made a film about an infantry unit’s tortuous struggle to clear the Germans out of San Pietro, a small town northwest of Naples, and the surrounding countryside. When “The Battle of San Pietro” came out, in 1945, it was hailed for the power and the grit of its combat scenes and for its portrait of civilian misery, and Huston was praised for his courage. The film has been honored in those terms many times since.

Yet, as Harris reports, the scenes in “The Battle of San Pietro” were largely re-created after the town had been taken from the Germans.

Huston had access to official accounts of the struggle, culled from interviews with soldiers who had fought in it, and he used maps and a pointer to keep the American tactics and the chronology straight. But the bloody progress of the G.I.s across fields and along a stony ridge outside the town was staged; Huston’s actors were soldiers whom the Army assigned to the project. The men certainly look the part, their faces fatigued and worried. Huston asked them to stare into the camera now and then, as people do in newsreel footage. At times, the camera jerks wildly, as Ford’s camera had in Midway. Huston turned the signatures of authenticity into artifact.

But Denby doesn’t seem to mind much:

Huston not only presents the physical hardships of battle; he creates the war as a cultural and moral catastrophe. The sense of desolation is broken only at the end of the movie, by a scene of children playing in the street, their innocent faces making a minimal claim against despair. Even if the images are mostly contrived, “San Pietro” is aesthetically of a piece—and magnificent.

Philip French touches upon the post-war side of Five Came Back:

Hollywood was in transition when they returned, the major studios being broken up by order of the supreme court. None, however, made a real success as an independent producer, and this excellent book is ultimately a tale of disappointment and disillusionment. But there is a heartening moment in 1950 at the height of the McCarthy era, as vindictive rightwing investigators descended on Hollywood. The deeply conservative Cecil B DeMille and his reactionary cronies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals attempted to depose the liberal Joseph L Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Writers Guild and impose a loyalty oath on all members. Wyler, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Capra came together in a grand reunion to oppose the move and they carried the day.

As Seen On Chinese TV

by Jessie Roberts & Chris Bodenner

Moira Weigel, an American, spent a month working at a Shanghai TV station “to learn how rising China spins its story to itself”:

The Department of Propaganda may not have had any mysterious purpose in renaming itself a Department of Publicity. It had become an association of what were effectively PR companies, like ICS, making advertisements—if not for individual products, then for the high life available in China’s booming coastal cities. Slicker than CNN, more aggressively confident than CNBC, it was our own publicity apparatus refracted back to us—in a country where largesse and wealth still carried the scent of overall growth, rather than sour, curdled privilege. … What I found was not propaganda in the grim midcentury sense. Rather than apparatchiks, we had presenters in miniskirts, faces dewy with an aerosol spray that held their makeup and made them all smell like flour. The scripts I read were not injunctions to follow Mao Zedong Thought but ejaculations of positivity about new products.

Like Red Bull, perhaps:

Christopher Beam, the very white American seen in the video, talks about his performance:

When I signed up for “You Can,” I figured I would dance so badly that it would expose the singular awfulness of Chinese television. Not that it needed my help: Flip through the channels at any given moment and you’ll see a predictable combination of World War II epics (Chinese good, Japanese bad), Korean soap operas, Korean-inspired Chinese soap operas, plus a slew of identical-looking talk/dating/talent shows, the most popular of which are Chinese copies of foreign programs. While most networks run like businesses, the party still has final say over content—a system that discourages risk-taking. And when foreigners go on television, it’s often as the proverbial “trained monkey,” the strange Other to be gawked at. I thought that by embracing that role and pushing it to the extreme, I could somehow transcend it.

He didn’t; he lost; his dance never aired. But it’s YouTube gold.

Why Animals Adopt

by Jessie Roberts


Humans aren’t the only animals who foster-parent. Jason G. Goldman highlights a study on the seals of Año Nuevo Island, off the coast of California:

[A]ll the foster parents were female. That’s perhaps unsurprising, since part of what drives orphans to seek out care is the need to nurse. Yet among females, the most common foster seal was a mother who had lost her own pup. Why might this be? One possible reason is that fostering helped these females reproduce later on. Regular nursing may induce ovulation, which in turn could make a female more likely to give birth to her own pup the following season. The evidence supporting this explanation is tenuous, but the hypothesis is at least reasonable.

Another possibility is that mothers are behaviourally and physiologically prepared to care for their pups immediately following birth. Given the absence of their own young, the motivation towards maternal care may be so great that they redirect their attention onto other, unrelated pups. Biologist George C Williams called this phenomenon “misplaced reproductive function”.

One other common form of adoption occurred when a female who had never given birth still cared for an unrelated infant. Riedman speculated that those females might gain valuable maternal experience, increasing their own parenting competence. So perhaps there is something in it for foster parents after all.

(Photo of elephant seal with pup at Piedras Blancas elephant seal beach by Anita Ritenour)

First-Responding Robots

by Jessie Roberts

When Michael Belfiore visited the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) in December, he was “by turns delighted, amused, and spooked” by advances in general purpose robotics. He suggests that although smart appliances “are often seen as expensive novelties reserved for those who can afford them, they might well come to be viewed as necessities for a growing [and rapidly aging] population”:

The DRC programme manager Gill Pratt looks at those trends and sees robots – robots helping people in their homes just as dishwashers and vacuum cleaners do now. Nor does Pratt want to limit DRC-style bots, whose prototypes are relatively expensive, to big, high-profile disasters such as Fukushima. He foresees a day when large production runs will make them affordable enough for fire departments around the world. In that scenario, they would be just another tool available to first responders along with fire trucks and defibrillators. …

If DARPA’s deputy director Steven Walker is right, we can expect the robots competing in the future DRC Finals to demonstrate the ability to smoothly and efficiently perform such tasks as walking from place to place, using power tools, and perhaps even driving cars with their own processors doing most of the work of interpreting human commands. From there – if the road taken by driverless cars is any indication – humanoid robots will be just a few years of development (by companies such as Google) away from much greater autonomy.

The World’s Growing Hunger For Meat

by Jessie Roberts

Bee Wilson checks in on meat-eating habits across the globe:

Currently, the whole of Asia gets through around 18 billion chickens a year. If consumption continues to rise at current levels, by 2050 this figure will have increased more than tenfold to 200 billion chickens.

But China and India will never be able to live like this – ‘simply because there isn’t enough to go around’. [Farmageddon author Philip] Lymbery appears to hope that higher meat prices will force consumption down, but since meat-eating is a consequence of wealth, prices would need to rise astronomically to have an impact. It would be as easy to persuade Americans to take their turn at eating dal and rice for a few centuries – it’s only fair – as it would to tell the new Asian middle classes not to buy meat for their families.

In Planet Carnivore, an excellent short ebook, Alex Renton looks into how much meat we’d have to give up in order to be sustainable. Renton points out that even though eating meat has become more popular in India, ‘the average Indian consumes a thirtieth of the meat that an Australian or an American does – around 4.4 kg in 2009’ whereas in the US it is ‘120 kg per head per annum, as much or more meat than anyone’. To reduce our consumption enough to mean that intensive farming could be abandoned would entail getting much closer to Indian levels, which for many would feel like virtual vegetarianism.

Transplanting Technology

by Jessie Roberts

Regulations in the US prohibit the recycling of implanted medical devices after their owners die, but Frank Swain reports that there’s “a growing trend to recover them for use in the developing world”:

At $4,000 for a pacemaker and $20,000 for an ICD [internal cardiac defibrillator], a second-hand implant is the only way that millions of people will be able to afford this life-saving equipment. In the UK, charity Pace4Life collects functioning pacemakers from funeral parlours for use in India. In a similar effort, the journal Annals of Internal Medicine recently published the results of a US programme called Project My Heart Your Heart, which found that 75 patients who received second-hand ICDs showed no evidence of infection or malfunction. The group are now applying for FDA approval to send recycled heart devices overseas.

Back in Nashville, Standing With Hope has adopted a similar approach by shipping prosthetic limbs to Ghana.

Do Extroverts Find Life More Rewarding?

by Jessie Roberts

A new study suggests yes:

A key finding is that extraverts reported more happiness than introverts during what the researchers defined as effortful “rewarding” activities, such as sports and exercise, and financially rewarding work tasks. In contrast, there was no difference in extraverts’ and introverts’ happiness during merely low effort, low importance “pleasurable, hedonic” activities, such as watching TV, listening to music, relaxing, and shopping. … Based on the broad pattern that extraverts experience more happiness during rewarding activities, but not during pleasurable activities, the researchers suggested that existing theories should be refined. It’s not that extraverts have a more responsive pleasure system, but rather that they have a more active and responsive “desire system”. …

Even after controlling statistically for the fact that extraverts spend more time with other people and on rewarding activities, there remained a strong relationship between extraversion and happiness.