Saturday, November 30, 2013

Richard Dawkins dialogs with Eryn Brown of the Los Angeles Times

"Q&A: Richard Dawkins discusses evolution, religion and his fans"

British author and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins talks about evolution, religion and his 'appetite for wonder.'


Eryn Brown

November 30, 2013

Los Angeles Times

Richard Dawkins was enjoying a coffee at the Mondrian Hotel when a star-struck waiter interrupted him to thank him for his work. It was the kind of thing that happens a lot at the swanky West Hollywood hot spot — but usually to showbiz celebrities, not biologists.

Dawkins is used to the adulation. The British intellectual has become a celebrity thanks to his books on evolution — including "The Selfish Gene," written in 1976 — and his vocal atheism, expressed in works like "The God Delusion," published in 2006. His latest offering is the first volume of his new autobiography, "An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist," which describes his childhood in colonial Africa and his early scientific work.

Dawkins talked with The Times about his writing, his fans and what people do and don't understand about evolution.

You have a lot of readers who are not scientists.

Yes. I would like people to appreciate science in the same way they appreciate the arts. Science has a timeless quality to it.

The usefulness of science is sometimes exaggerated. You'd never talk about music being useful, or art being useful.

People do talk about music being useful, as a tool for training the brain.

They do, that's true. If you're really struggling to find something to say, that's what you'd come up with. It's not quite as bad as saying it's useful because it's good exercise for the violinist's right arm.

But music is beautiful, music is inspiring. And so is science. I'm of the Carl Sagan school of science writing — it should be beautiful and inspiring and enthralling and thrilling. Because reality is all those things.

We are privileged to be in reality. We get here by a process which happens to be my subject — evolution, Darwinian evolution — and the fact that we understand how we got here is itself wonderful.

Do you think people understand evolution?

Jacques Monod, the great molecular biologist, said that the trouble with natural selection is that everyone thinks he understands it.

It's a simple idea. And yet, simple as it is, nobody thought of it until the 19th century, which is remarkable when you think of what clever things had already been thought of in mathematics and physics. On the face of it, it would seem to need less cleverness to think of natural selection than to think of Newton's Laws, the mathematics of Archimedes or Pythagoras, or the astronomy of Galileo or Kepler.

How do you define natural selection?

That the bodies that survive are the ones that are good at surviving, and they pass on the genes that made them good at surviving.

Some living things stay planted in the ground, like trees. Some fly, some hop, some run, some dig, some climb, some eat animals, some eat plants. All are doing the same thing fundamentally, which is preserving and propagating the genes that made them do it and allowed them to survive.

It's why animals and plants look so beautifully designed — although with flaws and shortcomings, which are themselves revealing. They are flaws and shortcomings which no "intelligent designer" would ever have built in.

What do people misunderstand about natural selection?

In many cases they think that living, surviving animals turn into other surviving animals, as in: "I've never seen a dog turn into a cat," or "I've never seen a monkey turn into a man."

Another common misunderstanding: They also fail to realize that evolution is terribly slow. People want to see it happening before their eyes.

One of the difficult things to get across to people is how immensely long it takes. That may be why it took so long for Darwin to arrive on the scene. People are not used to things grinding out over such a long period of time.

Has scientists' understanding of evolution improved since Darwin?

It has definitely improved. I suppose the biggest change was the importing of Mendelian genetics into evolution. People realized that Darwinian natural selection had to be interpreted as changes in frequencies of genes. The best genes become more frequent in the gene pool.

Genes are sitting in bodies at any one time. But because of sexual reproduction they jostle with each other and vie with each other to get into the next generation's gene pool.

The frequencies of genes in the gene pool change as generations go by, and that is evolution. That was a big leap forward.

Do you get to interact much with readers of your books?

Yes — I meet hundreds of people in book signing queues, and they nearly all say something nice as they get their book signed.

I find that moving and humbling. Some say, "I became a scientist because I read 'The Selfish Gene'" — quite a lot say that actually. Some say, "I gave up religion when I read 'The God Delusion,'" or "I'd already given up religion, but you gave me the courage to say so."

Can science and religion coexist?

Obviously they can, because they do — in the same individual brains, in many cases. But I personally find it mysterious that they do.

Do people ask you about that a lot?

All the time, yes. I get a bit fed up with it.

What scientific work are you particularly interested in today?

I'm fascinated by the idea that genetics is digital. A gene is a long sequence of coded letters, like computer information. Modern biology is becoming very much a branch of information technology.

What do you think of projects that sequence entire genomes? Can having all that data change the study of molecular biology and evolution?

I think they're fascinating. Genome sequencing has changed taxonomy. Darwin relied on comparative anatomy — how organisms' bodies differed — to know that we were closer to African apes than to Asian apes.

Nowadays you can do the same thing, but by comparing DNA. It's hugely more data to work from. You really can compare letter by letter. The complete tree of life should be gettable, if only we could sequence everything, and that's limited only by money and time.

What have we learned about evolution by studying genes?

There have been some surprises. One was the discovery through genetic evidence, a decade or so ago, that whales come off from right in the middle of the cloven-hoofed animals. They're especially close cousins of hippos.

At some point there was a branch, and the hippos went one way, and a similar animal went the other way, into the sea. All the other cloven-hoofed animals staying on land remained pretty much the same — pigs and cows and deer and antelope and camels and sheep and goats.

Whales just took off like a balloon, heading off with no need to worry about gravity anymore, supported in the water. Totally different structure, different skeleton. Everything changed.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Thief at the Girolamini Library

"Rare Books Vanish, With a Librarian in the Plot"


Rachel Donadio

November 29th, 2013

The New York Times

It was one of the most dramatic thefts ever to hit the rare-book world, the disappearance of thousands of volumes — including centuries-old editions of Aristotle, Descartes, Galileo and Machiavelli — from the Baroque-era Girolamini Library in Naples. Now, prosecutors at a trial here are trying to show how such a wholesale violation of Western cultural patrimony could have taken place.

The very man charged with protecting these treasures, Marino Massimo De Caro, a politically connected former director of the library, is accused of being at the center of a network of middlemen, book dealers and possibly crooked conservators — all part of what prosecutors say is a sometimes corrupt market for rare books in which much is spent and few questions are asked. Apart from Mr. De Caro, 13 others are charged, including a priest.

The full extent of the losses is not known — the Girolamini Library lacks a complete catalog — but prosecutors, with some bombast, have compared it to the destruction of Dresden during World War II. In 2012, the authorities recovered more than a thousand library volumes that were found in a self-storage unit in Verona traced to Mr. De Caro.

“This is the biggest books scandal to hit in the past 150 or 200 years,” said Fabrizio Govi, the president of the Italian Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, adding that nothing of this scope had happened since the case of Count Guglielmo Libri, a 19th-century Italian collector who absconded with books on a grand scale.

Rare books admired by connoisseurs have been fetching increasingly higher prices. Last week, the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English in North America, became the most expensive ever bought at auction when it sold for $14,165,000.

But questions of provenance have grown, thanks partly to the Naples case. Last year, the International Association of Antiquarian Booksellers issued a warning for buyers and sellers to check any Italian books from the 15th through 17th centuries purchased in the first half of 2012, in case they had been removed from the Girolamini.

Using techniques perfected in international organized-crime cases, Naples prosecutors are now focusing on rare-book dealers and collectors who may have bought works they probably knew had been taken from the library. They are slowly exposing the practices of the rare-book market, where deception sometimes reigns, prices can reach into the millions of dollars, and the trail often goes dead at the Swiss border.

“The international market absorbed, without batting an eye, books that they couldn’t not have known came from the Girolamini Library,” Giovanni Melillo, the Naples prosecutor who is leading the investigations, said in an interview this week. “The rule ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is what governs the rare-book market,” he added. Prosecutors have requested cooperation from across Europe, as well as from the United States and Argentina.

Mr. De Caro, 39, is a character who seems to have been conjured jointly by Jorge Luis Borges and the Italian crime novelist Andrea Camilleri: a rare-book lover; a figure in the nebulous orbit of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi; a sometime consultant in the renewable-energy field; and, by his own admission to prosecutors in official court documents, the architect of the most successful forgery of a book by Galileo ever executed.

In March, in a previous trial with a smaller scope, Mr. De Caro was convicted of theft and embezzlement. He is now serving a seven-year sentence under house arrest. Partway through the first trial, he began cooperating with prosecutors and admitted to taking some books from the library, but not all of those he is accused of removing.

Mr. De Caro said that he had wanted to sell them to raise money to restore the library and that its plunder had begun long before his tenure. Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Girolamini is a hybrid of a state library and a religious institution. It has now been placed under the receivership of the Italian Culture Ministry.

Prosecutors began investigating after Tomaso Montanari, an art historian, wrote an article in an Italian newspaper in March 2012 reporting disarray at the library. Mr. Montanari was called as a witness in a hearing on Monday, as was Filippo Maria Pontani, a classical philologist, who breathlessly recounted how he had visited the library to consult a manuscript in early 2012 and found the wood-paneled reading room in chaos.

Mr. De Caro and his associates were eventually found out by a brother-and-sister team of whistle-blower librarians at the Girolamini who gave prosecutors video surveillance footage showing Mr. De Caro and his associates removing boxes of books from the library before covering a camera’s lens.

The associates traveled to Munich and Paris; the atelier of a conservator in Rome, who erased the marks showing the books’ provenance; and even to Pompeii, where they held a secret meeting with Mr. De Caro.

In the widening investigation, in August, police arrested a rare-book dealer in Munich, Herbert Schauer of the auction house Zisska & Schauer, on charges of complicity in receiving books taken from the Girolamini. He is being held in a prison outside Naples and contests the charges.

How Mr. De Caro, a self-taught bibliophile without a college degree, became director of the Girolamini Library in the first place appears to involve political connections. In 2010, he was named an adviser on energy issues to the agriculture minister in the government of Mr. Berlusconi, who was then prime minister. When that minister moved from agriculture to the culture portfolio in 2011, Mr. De Caro followed, and began a successful campaign to become director of the library.

Other prominent politicians figure in the plot. The lower-court sentence noted that Mr. De Caro had given Marcello Dell’Utri, then a senator and a longtime associate of Mr. Berlusconi’s, several books taken from the Girolamini as gifts, but that Mr. Dell’Utri had been unaware of their provenance. Once the investigation began, Mr. Dell’Utri gave the books back.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Dell’Utri confirmed that account. He said he had not recommended that the former culture minister appoint Mr. De Caro to lead the Girolamini. “He got there by himself,” he said. Once the scandal broke, he added, “I was shocked.”

In one of the most intriguing elements in the lower-court proceedings, Mr. De Caro also testified that he had several copies of Galileo’s “Siderius Nuncius” forged in Argentina, including one that he placed in the national library in Naples, and that he had taken the original. Last year, Nick Wilding, a scholar, uncovered the forgery.

Asked on Monday outside the courtroom in Naples how you go about forging a book by Galileo, let alone one that was sold at auction and fooled some of the world’s leading experts, Mr. De Caro smiled with excitement.

“Borges, in ‘Ficciones,’ wrote that when a book is false, it is equal to, if not better than, the original,” he said. One of his lawyers quickly approached and said the conversation was over.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Tired of football? "The Story of Science"

Watch streaming or download the episodes.

What Is Out There 

What is the world made of? 

How did we get here?

Can We Have Unlimited Power 

What is the secret of life? 

Who are We 

Physicist's use of ancient lead is not making archaeologists happy

"Lead extracted today is naturally contaminated with the isotope Pb-210, which prevents it from being used as shielding for particle detectors"....

Is this true?

"Use of ancient lead in modern physics experiments ignites debate"

November 29th, 2013


Physicists and archaeologists are at odds over the use in contemporary experiments in particle physics of lead recovered from ancient shipwrecks.

Scientists from a dark matter detection project in Minnesota and from a neutrino observatory in Italy have begun to use the specimens, but archaeologists have raised alarm about what they say is the destruction of cultural heritage artifacts.

More than 100 lead ingots from a Roman ship recovered in the waters off Sardinia have been used to build the advanced detector of neutrinos -- almost weightless subatomic particles -- in Italy. Lead ingots recovered from an 18th century shipwreck off the French coast have found their way into dark matter detector located in a mine in Minnesota.

Why the desire for ancient lead in modern experiments?

"Roman lead is essential for conducting these experiments because it offers purity and such low levels of radioactivity -- all the more so the longer it has spent underwater -- which current methods for producing this metal cannot reach," underwater heritage expert Elena Perez-Alvaro from the University of Birmingham said.

"Lead extracted today is naturally contaminated with the isotope Pb-210, which prevents it from being used as shielding for particle detectors," physicist Fernando Gonzalez Zalba from the University of Cambridge said.

The two researchers, writing in the journal Rosetta, address the dilemma: Should we sacrifice part of our cultural heritage to achieve greater knowledge of the universe?

"Underwater archaeologists see destruction of heritage as a loss of our past, our history, whilst physicists support basic research to look for answers we do not yet have," said Perez-Alvaro, "although this has led to situations in which, for example, private companies ... trade lead recovered from sunken ships."

Perez-Alvaro and Zalba say they encourage dialogue between both disciplines, and call for legislation that regulates such activities without limiting them exclusively to archaeologists, and to allow use by physicists.

"Recovery for knowledge in both fields, and not merely for commercial reasons,"
they stress.

Lunar property rights

"Hands Off Our Lunar Landing Sites? Not So Fast"

A new paper argues against the wisdom of the U.S. declaring sovereignty over parts of the moon


Michael D. Lemonick

November 28th, 2013


The Moon has been kind of a backwater lately. During the 1960’s, and early 1970’s it was the hottest possible destination, what with unmanned probes from the U.S. and U.S.S.R. touching down on the lunar surface, followed by American astronauts tromping and joyriding across the dusty landscape. It’s not that scientists have lost interest by any means, but most of what they’ve learned in recent decades has come from orbiting spacecraft like GRAIL and LCROSS and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

All that is changing, however, as China gears up to launch its first lunar rover, the Chang’e-3 in mid-December, following the success of the Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 orbiters in 2007 and 2010.  The Russians have plans to return with unmanned probes as well, and so does at least one private company named Astrobotic Technology. While this new flurry of interest in up-close lunar exploration could be terrific for science, it could also threaten to disrupt or damage the historic sites of previous landings, where 60’s-era technology still sits, undisturbed.

And undisturbed is how it should stay, say Henry Hertzfeld and Scott Pace, of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Although we might assume the best of intentions for such [new] missions,” they write in a policy paper in the current Science, “they could irreparably disturb the traces of the first human visits to another world.”

It’s not an entirely new worry. In the 1950’s, in fact, before the first primitive probes headed to the Moon, a panel of scientists warned the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to “make haste with due care” in exploring our closest neighbor. They were worried about contaminating the Moon’s then-pristine environment, but last summer the House of Representatives drafted legislation that would create the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historical Park to safeguard artifacts from the heroic early years of the Space Age.

It’s a noble idea, says Hertzfeld, but there’s one glaring problem. “If the bill were to become law,” he says, “it would be very easy for other nations to say the U.S. is aggressively declaring sovereignty over parts the Moon”—something explicitly prohibited by the U.N.-sponsored Outer Space Treaty created in 1967. Indeed, the new American law would violate not merely the spirit of that 46-year international one, but the letter of it too since all national parks fall under the jurisdiction  of the National Park Service, whose charter is to manage its assets “for the benefit and inspiration of all the people of the United States.”

That sounds an awful lot like a declaration of sovereignty, worries Hertzfeld. It might be possible instead to have the Apollo sites and other places with remnants of unmanned landers declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites—but again, says Hertzfeld, “all of those sites are on sovereign territory,” raising that tricky question again.

A better route, he and Pace argue, might be to create a new international treaty through the U.N. That, however, could take many years to push through, and with a new Moon rush about to begin, the diplomatic pace might not keep up with the exploratory one, leaving the historic sites vulnerable to damage. “The lunar regolith is dusty,” says Pace, “and if you kick up a lot of dust, you can inadvertently cause a lot of damage.” If lunar tourism ever begins in earnest—even if it’s virtual tourism, with a rover taking customers on a video ride-through of Apollo landing sites—the danger of flinging dust and, worse yet, obliterating astronaut footprints, would be even greater.

The most efficient solution, Hertzfeld and Pace say, is to approach Russia directly, and, as of next month, China as well. “We should engage with those nations, despite some obvious political issues, and make a multilateral agreement that simply says ‘you leave our stuff alone, we’ll leave your stuff alone.’” As for lunar tourism, he says “any company that wants to do it will have to get permission from their government first,” so any multiparty agreement would presumably be binding on private companies as well.

The good thing about last summer’s Congressional bill, Hertzfeld believes, is that while it might never actually be passed into law, it jump-started an important conversation. The new paper is part of that conversation. “Our suggestion would need a lot more study and negotiation before it could be implemented,” he says, and acknowledges that someone might come up with an even better idea for preserving these monuments to space exploration.

“Of course,” Hertzfeld says, “we’re assuming they’re worth preserving. But I think that’s a given.” Anyone who’s ever been inspired by the drama and adventure of space exploration would find it hard to disagree.


Yesterday's time lapse indicated that the bulk of the comet had fell victim to the sun [above], but it appears that it survived.

Cancel the funeral. Comet ISON is back from the dead. Yesterday, Nov. 28th, Comet ISON flew through the sun's atmosphere and appeared to disintegrate before the cameras of several NASA and ESA spacecraft. This prompted reports of the comet's demise. Today, the comet has revived and is rapidly brightening.

 Before the flyby, experts had made many predictions about what might happen to the comet, ranging from utter disintegration to glorious survival. No one predicted both.

Karl Battams of NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign says, "[colleague] Matthew Knight and I are ripping our hair out right now as we know that so many people in the public, the media and in science teams want to know what's happened. We'd love to know that too! Right now, here's our working hypothesis:

"As comet ISON plunged towards to the Sun, it began to fall apart, losing not giant fragments but at least a lot of reasonably sized chunks. There's evidence of very large dust in the long thin tail we saw in the [SOHO coronagraph] images. Then, as ISON plunged through the corona, it continued to fall apart and vaporize, losing its coma and tail completely just like sungrazing Comet Lovejoy did in 2011. What emerged from the Sun was a small but perhaps somewhat coherent nucleus that has resumed emitting dust and gas for at least the time being."

Battams emphasizes that it is too soon to tell how big the remnant nucleus is or how bright the resurgent comet will ultimately become. "We have a whole new set of unknowns, and this ridiculous, crazy, dynamic and unpredictable object continues to amaze, astound and confuse us to no end. We ask that you please be patient with us for a couple of days as we analyze the data and try to work out what is happening."

Astrophotographer Babak Tafreshi has edited an HD video that compares views of ISON from both of SOHO's coronagraphs. "It seems the comet could become a naked eye object with several degrees of scattered tail by Dec 2nd or 3rd," he predicts. "It's not the comet of the century for sure, and fainter than the Lovejoy sungrazer in Dec. 2011, but an interesting imaging target is just a few nights away!"

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A different Thanksgiving

"My Thanksgiving at a KFC in China"


Matt Schiavenza

November 27th. 2013

The Atlantic

In the late summer of 2004, days before I was to move to Lianyungang, China, to teach English for a year, I spoke to an acquaintance who had spent a few years in the country.

"Holidays are hard," he said. "But oddly, not so much Christmas. Christmas isn't that bad. It's Thanksgiving that's hard."

At the time, surviving the holidays was the least of my worries. I was moving to a country where I didn't speak the language, understand the culture, or know the history, in order to do a job that I had never done and didn't know how to do. And not only that, I was going to a city—Lianyungang—that I hadn't even heard of, and could find no information about online.

Other than that, I was completely prepared.


Lianyungang, 300 miles or so north of Shanghai, is a port city of around 750,000 people and is famous in China for being the birthplace of the Monkey King, a literary hero from the 16th century novel Journey to the West. But in 2004, it looked like any other city in the country: full of tall, gray skyscrapers, neon signs, and belching taxis.

Foreign residents in Lianyungang were few and far between. I was told that the first English teacher arrived in 2000 and when she—a middle-aged New Zealander with white hair—walked around, bicyclists sometimes slammed into parked cars. By the time I arrived four years later, there were about ten Western teachers in the city, but we still caused a minor frenzy when we ventured into a crowd of people. 

Usually, there were the "hellos": Young Chinese people would shout the word, accompanied by peals of laughter, as I walked in the city. Other people would tail me and ask for my phone number or address. Once, when walking through a university campus, I attracted a small mob of people who, wishing to practice their English, bombarded me with questions.

"Do you like Chinese food?" "Can you use chopsticks?"

Yes, and yes—we have them at home.

"What is your favorite Chinese city?"

"Uh, Lianyungang." Except for a few hours in Beijing on the day I arrived, I hadn't been anywhere else.



Within a couple of months, the euphoria of being in China had worn off, and I found myself settling into a routine. During the day, there was work: I taught two hour-long classes of 15 and 16-year-olds, and, because I assigned no homework and rarely gave out tests, spent the afternoons either reading or making a halfhearted attempt to learn Chinese.

At night, after dinner at my school's canteen, I'd walk to a store down the street and buy a pirated DVD, which usually cost about 50 cents. The quality of the copies were variable—sometimes, they were filmed with a camcorder inside a cinema, which worked okay until someone stood up in front—but watching them kept me from having to deal with my Chinese reality. I was desperately homesick. "Just get through this year," I told myself. "Then you can leave."

When Thanksgiving came around, I decided it'd be easiest if I just ignored it. In China, this isn't difficult; unlike Christmas, which many Chinese people commemorate with decorations, music, and festivities, Thanksgiving slips past unnoticed—it's just another Thursday.

And so it was. I walked to school, taught my classes, did some lesson planning, and came home. But as I sat on my sofa, watching the next film from the James Bond box set I bought for $12 at a local shop, I felt a sense of shame. What was I doing? It was Thanksgiving, damn it. I needed to have a proper Thanksgiving dinner.

There was only one problem. In Lianyungang, as in most small Chinese cities, there's no turkey. Or cranberry sauce. Or stuffing, yams, pumpkin pie, or anything else. In fact, in the entire city of 700,000 people, there was exactly one restaurant whose food even resembled, at a distance, Thanksgiving fare.

Kentucky Fried Chicken.

And so that's where I headed.

Lianyungang's one KFC was located near my school, but until then I had refused, in an effort to preserve a degree of cultural authenticity, to go in. But on Thanksgiving, after I waved hello to Colonel Sanders and walked through the front door, what I found was a revelation. Unlike any of the other restaurants I had been to in town, KFC had clean floors, a functional public bathroom, and central heat. Its patrons were smartly dressed young professionals. Several people, I noticed, were even there on dates. The line behind the cash register was orderly, and within minutes of my arrival I found myself in possession of a bucket of crispy fried chicken, a tub of mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and a dubious-looking "dinner wrap" I selected from the menu.

I pinched myself. Was this China?

I sat down and tore into my food. Every last bite was delicious. About halfway through the meal, I felt the familiar wave of nausea—tinged with self-loathing— I recognized from a lifetime of eating fast food. But I didn't care. It was Thanksgiving, and I wanted my food coma.

As I left, walking to a busy street to look for a cab, I heard footsteps and turned around: A young man wearing a suit had followed me from the restaurant and wanted to tell me something. Oh God. What did he want?

"Happy Thanksgiving!" he said. "I hope you have a good day."

With that, he turned around and ran off. And my first Thanksgiving in China—there would be five more—was complete. More complete than I would have imagined it being in Lianyungang, anyway.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Brockhurst Observatory and William Sadler Franks

Brockhurst Observatory
ca. 1932


William Sadler Franks (1851-1935) was astronomer-in-charge at F.J. Hanbury’s private observatory at Brockhurst, near East Grinstead, Sussex, from 1909 until his death in 1935. This paper reviews the observational projects Franks undertook at Brockhurst, including his work on double stars, red stars, diffuse nebulae and dark nebulae, as well as his involvement with the commissioning of a 24-inch reflector built by Thomas William Bush (1839-1928).

"William Sadler Franks and the Brockhurst Observatory" by Jeremy Shears

ISON comet...the latest

"NASA captures Comet ISON speeding toward the sun"


Traci Watson

November 27th, 2013


Comet ISON, a shopping-mall-sized chunk of dust and ice that makes its closest approach to the sun Thursday, is refusing to show its hand. Researchers know it will skim roughly 1 million miles from the fiery solar surface around 1:30 p.m. ET, but what will happen next is the subject of feverish scientific speculation.

If the comet is still intact for its close encounter, there's a good chance it will become visible to the naked eye, perhaps as a glowing arc across the pre-dawn sky. On the other hand, if ISON disintegrates before its embrace with the sun, most of us on Earth will see … nothing.

"It could very well turn out to be really awesome," says astronomer Yan Fernandez of the University of Central Florida. "Or it could all turn out to be a big disappointment."

As of Wednesday morning, the signs from the sky were encouraging. New images from one of NASA's solar telescopes show the comet is getting brighter, exactly as it should if it's still a comet rather than a lifeless rock pile. And a telescope in Spain detected signs of life in ISON Wednesday.

But whether the show will be ho-hum or spectacular probably won't be known until three or four days after Thanksgiving, says theoretical astronomer Kevin Walsh of the Southwest Research Institute. Even then, the forecast could be only "a ballpark," he says. "If there's anything about comets that we know for sure, it's that they always surprise us."

ISON has been surprising the best comet-watchers in the world for a long time now. Discovered in 2012 by two Russian amateur astronomers, it came our way from the Oort Cloud, a distant cometary parking lot halfway to the next star. On its trip to the sun, ISON has showed signs of death, revived, showed more signs of death and generally behaved in a way to confuse and exasperate astronomers watching it. Now wary scientists refuse to predict the erratic comet's fate.

"We won't know if #ISON survives until it actually does, or vaporizes," ISON observer Karl Battams of the Naval Research Laboratory tweeted Wednesday. "There's zero way of knowing."

Even if the comet falls apart before reaching the sun, it could still be visible from the backyard if it splits into a few big pieces, Walsh says. And if it falls apart just after it starts swinging away from the sun, its demise could create "a beautiful paintbrush swath on the sky," ISON observer Carey Lisse of the Applied Physics Laboratory said at a NASA briefing Tuesday.

But the best bet for a memorable display would be for the comet to stay in one piece, in defiance of the scorching temperatures and dangerous gravitational forces exerted by the sun. In astronomers' dreams, an intact comet could form a bright, curving streak that would span a large part of the sky. Any signs of ISON would be visible in the first few weeks of December just before sunset or just before sunrise, Lisse said. But no one should be surprised if there's nothing to see at all.

"In French … there is a saying that you should not make any plans (based) on a comet," says ISON-watcher Emmanuel Jehin of the University of Liege in Belgium. "This is the trouble with these great comets. You really never know."

Comet ISON in 2013...maybe quite a show

Thanksgiving Day comet

“Too Much Johnson”...Richard Brody's comments

"“Too Much Johnson,” All Welles"


Richard Brody

November 26th, 2013

The New Yorker

News of the rediscovery and preservation of sixty-six minutes of footage shot by Orson Welles in 1938 made me both eager and skeptical. The film was intended to serve as prologues to the three acts of Welles’s stage production of the play “Too Much Johnson”; its seemingly miraculous reappearance and restoration could, I feared, prove to be of greater interest than the material itself, which was unveiled at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival last month. Monday night’s New York première, at the DGA Theatre, allayed any such fears. The film is far more than a curiosity; it’s a major rediscovery, one that deeply traces the roots of Welles’s art, both stylistically and thematically—and its importance is revealed all the more by the magnificent scholarship that went into the restoration, which was done under the auspices of the George Eastman House.

The 1894 play that Welles staged was an elaborate romantic farce starring Joseph Cotten as a philandering New York playboy who flees to Cuba with his mistress’s husband in hot pursuit. It involves mistaken identity, sudden revelations, an elaborate batch of side stories that Welles trimmed out, and a complex setup that the film footage was intended to supplant. The rediscovered footage was a work print that Welles edited with his own hands, but it still had a long way to go—some sequences feature unedited multiple takes. Nonetheless, the footage, both as shot and as edited, reveals a distinctive visual preoccupation that would flourish there and throughout his career. Already in early 1938, at the age of twenty-two, Welles had a cinematic sensibility that went radically against the grain of prevailing Hollywood practices, defying and outrunning—by means of an extreme pictorialism—the finely tuned, script-centered classicism of the studios’ golden age.

The screening was augmented both by Philip C. Carli’s live electric-piano accompaniment, based on the original score by Paul Bowles, and by live commentary from Eastman House specialists who worked on the project, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Daniela Currò, Anthony L’Abbate, and Caroline Yeager. And what they unearth is astonishing and moving—especially for a native New Yorker.

Welles staged the play as a period piece, and the movie was intended as an homage to silent cinema, with references to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops and Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last”—and with the action sped up to resemble silent-film projection—but there are hints of Sergei Eisenstein throughout. The opening sequence features Cotten and the woman in question (Arlene Francis) in her bedroom, a cardboard contrivance of explicit artifice from which Cotten climbs through the rickety window to come out—with a visual jolt—on the fire escape of a big Manhattan building.

That’s where the true wonder begins. The mustachioed husband chases Cotten through the Washington Market (now the meatpacking district); amid the comedy, Welles delights in pure geometric form, with overhead shots that flatten the characters against enormous numbers of circular baskets and rectangular crates. (There’s also an ingenious jump-cut sequence in which the action leaps from foreground to background along an array of parallel alleys.) Then the “Safety Last” chills, done with overt realism, kick in: Cotten takes to the sloping roofs of old buildings in the market district, running along them with an intrepid indifference and clambering atop them while wrestling with a heavy extension ladder that threatens to hurl him to the ground with its counterweight. It’s not a sequence for acrophobes to watch.

The chase continues along the fire escapes and roofs farther down on the lower West Side, in what was then the Syrian neighborhood, near what is now the World Trade Center. (In their commentary, the scholars explain the meticulous detective work that went into their identification of the exact locations where Welles filmed.) The buildings are from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Welles films them at cocked angles that make the rooflines slashing diagonals of dynamic vectors and turn a series of chimneys into a jagged cutout of abstraction against the sky. For all its visual invention, there’s an essential element of documentary at work, a fascination with the tones and textures, the forms and moods of the teeming, clotted, already old-fashioned neighborhood.

The old-city sequence, together with other, even more overtly historicized scenes featuring a comical restaging of a suffragette march and the arrival of an already antique automobile at a dock (followed, pointedly, by a horse-drawn carriage) reveal that, for Welles, their essential subject was their antiquity. At the age of twenty-two, Welles was already making a film suffused with nostalgia. He depicts a raw, rough-and-tumble city and the changes afoot, summoning childhood memories and family lore to conjure a world that was vanishing. With his unpolished but highly confected comedy, he was already looking ahead to the regretful retrospective tragedies of “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

The “Cuban” sequences were filmed in upstate New York, in a quarry near the Hudson River, with rented palm trees serving as the outdoor décor. Here, Welles emphasizes another aspect of his visual imagination: the contrast between foreground and background. He puts Cotten in closeup, on a side of the screen, while his pursuer is clearly seen in the deep background; or there’s a palm frond in the foreground, action in the middle ground, the river shimmering far away. Welles was anticipating the extreme deep-focus methods of his first features. Above all, he was already detaching the image from dialogue, creating images that weren’t merely illustrative but highly expressive; his sense of visual storytelling was based on an intensity of rhetorical inflection. He wasn’t just filming a story, he was creating a picture-track to which his radio-based soundtracks would line up contrapuntally.

Had Welles made no films but the footage for “Too Much Johnson,” he would have been an inspiration to assiduous filmmakers in search of artistic liberation. With this occasional footage—which was never completed and never used in Welles’s actual stage production’s two-week run—Welles was already, secretly, a filmmaker for the ages.

The footage of “Too Much Johnson” was preserved in its very incompletion, including its essentially unedited sequences. I hope that a DVD of it becomes available soon—and that it remains intact and is presented exactly as it was last night, with Carli’s music and a commentary track. The unexpected discovery was too good not to be widely known, and to enter belatedly into the history of cinema intact.

Orson Welles' film “Too Much Johnson” discovered

"Too Much Johnson" redux

The Maltese Falcon prop sells for $4,085,000

"Maltese Falcon sells for $4m"

Prop of statuette used in 1941 Humphrey Bogart movie goes for huge sum in auction of memorabilia at Bonhams

November 25th, 2013

A statuette of a bird featured in the classic 1941 detective thriller The Maltese Falcon sold for more than $4m at auction on Monday. The final price on the prop was $4,085,000, according to Bonhams auction house. The winning bid came over the phone.

The black figurine is one of two known statuettes made for the film, but the only one confirmed by Warner Brothers' archives as having appeared in it, Bonhams said. It has a Warner Brothers inventory number etched into the base and bears the name of the movie, which starred Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade.

In the film, the statuette is a "priceless" work of art, which is the cause of several murders, and at one point changes hands for $10,000.

It was one of a number of pieces of classic movie memorabilia on sale.

And this from The Art of Film blog...

February 3rd, 2013

"The Maltese Falcon (1941)- The Stuff Dreams are Made of"

There are a few wonderful films in which the entire plot surrounds the pursuit of a single object, in Hitchcock’s words, a “Macguffin.” I put it to you that no fictional object is more desired in the film itself, and even today, than the Maltese Falcon.

This wonderful statuette is the catalyst of the plot of the Hammett novel, The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930. The book introduces one of Hammett’s immortal characters, the hardboiled private eye, Sam Spade. Like many of Hammett’s novels, The Maltese Falcon is not the average or even light mystery it may pose to be. I find Hammett had an uncanny ability to encapsulate human weakness and flaws in his characters. But I digress, the novel was adapted a few times, but the undoubtedly superior version is 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his most famous roles.

In the novel and in the film, the whole story follows attempts of different characters to acquire this mysterious “Black Bird.” Spade is hooked by the alluring Miss O'Shaughnessy, who draws him in but reveals little of the object of her desire. Gradually, it is revealed by “the Fat Man,” Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet in his debut role), that the Maltese Falcon is a statuette of amazing value. Hammett created an elaborate history that was put forward in the film. Without going into too much detail, the Falcon was originally cast of gold and gems as a gift of tribute to the King of Spain by the Order of the Knights of St. John, who were given the island of Malta. The extremely valuable object was stolen before getting to Spain and passed through a number of hands. Though made of gold, it’s been covered in black enamel to hide its value. Gutman was on the scent in the early ‘20s, but it slipped through his fingers. For 17 years, he’s attempted to find the statue and eventually discovered it in Istanbul. It was stolen by O’Shaughnessy and her loyal bodyguard, for Guttman, but they stole it and it was lost again.

Eventually, by basically a  miracle, Spade receives the statue, and after being promised money on his terms, turns it over to obsessed searchers. There is a celebrated unwrapping of the bird when (Spoiler) it is discovered that it simply a worthless lead copy. The characters are prepared to go back to following the trail of Falcon- but Spade turns them all over to the police. In the famous final line, a cop asks what the statue is, and Spades responds, in homage to Shakespeare, “It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

Throughout the film, Cairo, Gutman and O’Shaughnessy are obsessed with finding the bird and gaining immeasurable wealth. This is beautifully exhibited when they desperately unwrap the bird, believing their toils are over. Crazed with greed, they think of nothing else and sacrifice anything, even their friends, for its attainment.

Like the bird itself, they believe under their dark covering, their obsession, they are rich and sophisticated inside. Each character puts on airs they don’t have, believing that wealth is imminent. Like the statue itself- inside they are as valueless as the Falcon- rotten to the core with their greed. They have lost themselves in attempting to retrieve history’s lost object. The Maltese Falcon is a symbol of obsessive greed and of the people who fall victim to it. They sacrificed everything for its possible attainment, and eventually lost even themselves to the pursuit.

Besides being a lovely model of obsession of greed in films, it’s also a lovely object. Hammett almost assuredly based the statuette on the Kniphausen Hawk, a ceremonial pouring vessel in the Duke of Devonshire’s personal collection. This Hawk is made of garnet rubies and gems of incredible value and was created as a gift of some Duke or Count of something.

Warner Brothers gave one Fred Sexton, a notable LA artist of the time, the job of creating the statue. Of note, Sexton was friends with the man believed to be the Black Dahlia killer. But that’s an aside. Sexton originally cast the bird in plaster. Many copies of the falcon were made during shooting, but few exist today. There are three copies of note that have incredible value. There are two lead copies that are, by the way, extremely heavy. During filming, Bogart dropped one on his foot, causing it to dent. There is also a more elaborate and beautiful (as well as lighter) resin copy that was used in many of the shots where Bogart was actually holding the statuette.

Originally Jack Warner gave a lead copy to a friend, William Conrad. This has passed through hands. Another copy belongs to a collector and the resin copy was put up for auction a few years ago, netting much money. I also believe some more worthless plaster versions were given to some members of the cast. These either were lost, destroyed, or valueless- I can’t find out which.

The Maltese Falcon prop is one of the most desired in all of film history. One of the Falcons was actually stolen from the restaurant it was exhibited in for many years and is still missing. People still are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for actual versions of the Falcon and even hundreds for crappy replicas. Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, went to extraordinary measures to create an accurate replica of resin and lead, which are exceptionally beautiful.

The price of the actual props used in the film are as valuable as Gutman’s assessment of the actual Maltese Falcon, if it were real. Truly, this Falcon is the stuff dreams are made of- perhaps not worthy of the obsession of the film’s characters, but certainly close. 

The Maltese Falcon film [Wikipedia]

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Some alchemy manuscripts

"Manuscript trove illuminates the roots of chemistry"


Stephan Salisbury

November 26th, 2013

It's not every day that you have the opportunity to buy a 600-year-old cookbook. It's even rarer that the ancient handwritten recipes detail how to create the Philosopher's Stone - essential in transforming base metals into gold.

So it's hardly a surprise that James R. Voelkel, rare-book curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, 315 Chestnut St., was intrigued to learn that Joost R. Ritman's Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, an Amsterdam library of philosophical arcana and "secrets," might bring a number of manuscripts to the market.

"People frequently ask, 'What kind of manuscripts do you have?' " Voelkel said recently in the rare-book room of the foundation's Othmer Library, devoted to the history of chemistry and science. "Well, we have almost entirely printed books. But these 15th-century alchemical manuscripts are so rare that, buying them one at a time, it would not be clear that we could build up a collection if we just got the odd thing that came on the market. So getting all of these things at once, all of a sudden, was an opportunity."

Acting quickly, the foundation snapped up a sheaf of manuscripts, largely related to alchemy, the proto-chemistry best known for its obsessive focus on finding a process to make gold from base metals.

But alchemy was, in fact, not just the province of crackpots and mystics; a growing body of scholarship treats it as a precursor of modern science. Alchemists studied chemical transformations and viewed the world as an unending chain of changes and reactions.

The foundation, which began at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s and became an independent scholarly center, library, and museum in 1987, has 160,000 journals and books focused on the history of chemistry. In its 6,000-volume rare-book collection, 1,000 deal with alchemy. Some scientific greats, including Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, both richly represented in the collection, pondered alchemical processes extensively.

The library has now acquired nine manuscripts and a set of three 15th-century allegorical images on parchment that once, long ago, were part of illuminated manuscripts.

Voelkel unlocked a wood cabinet faced with mesh and took out a substantial volume, Petrus Bonus' Pretiosa margarita novella (The Precious New Pearl), hand-lettered on paper in Latin in Spain circa 1450. He placed it gently on a cushion and opened it.

"This is the reason that we bought this collection, this is the manuscript that I really wanted the most," he said. "It is about 1450, which is just about the time Gutenberg starts experimenting [with printing] and about five years before the Gutenberg Bible. . . . There are, of this book, six complete copies, and as of yet there hasn't been a definitive edition. So anybody who wants to do the definitive edition of this text has to come and look at this copy. It's at the forefront."

The book is a copy of a text written around 1330 by a doctor in Ferrara, Italy, and places alchemical ideas in the broader context of 14th-century philosophy and theology - in Voelkel's words, "a discussion of the arguments for and against alchemy."

Next he took out a small, thick volume, bound in red leather decorated with nail heads forming stars within circles.

"This one is also very interesting," he said, placing on the cushion a cookbook in Latin. "There are something like 500 different recipes in here. This belonged to the genre in literature in which different . . . chemical recipes are brought together for all different kinds of things - from making perfumes to making toothpaste to treating diseases to transmuting base metals into gold, making dyes, inks."

The volume, dating from about 1430, was copied out in northern Italy. It contains well over 500 recipes and discusses the possibility of transmuting metals, offering various metallurgical directions. "There are numerous recipes related to metal working, always closely related to alchemy, as well as medical recipes [for humans and animals], household, cosmetic, and agricultural recipes," noted Lawrence M. Principe, professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University, who wrote a description of the acquisitions for the foundation.

Essentially, Voelkel said, the book demonstrates the importance of alchemical labors to very early chemistry. Alchemists above all focused on how chemical reactions transformed substances: "How do you manipulate the stuff around you to make things that are useful," he said. "But also there are things we know work in here and things that don't work. This tradition of doing stuff with chemistry goes back to the magicians. That's where chemistry comes from - being able to make semiprecious things look precious, being able to make something look like gold that isn't."

Another book, a 15th-century recipe compilation of work by Johannes De Rupescissa and others, is written on parchment, not paper, and the pages are smudged and stained with what looks like soot.

"It looks like somebody had this in the lab with them cause of all this gray and black smudge on page after page," Voelkel said. "This kind of points to the . . . engagement of those alchemists both with texts and with the lab. A fair number of alchemical books have this kind of staining."
The manuscripts and illuminated paintings are not yet on display; talks are underway about the best way to exhibit them.

It will not be the foundation's first exhibition of alchemical materials. There is a current show of alchemical images painted on glass (free and open to the public) and a major exhibition from the foundation art collection of genre paintings focusing on alchemy, largely as a foolish endeavor. The paintings, on the library mezzanine, are open to the public by appointment.

The main museum, with artifacts showing the evolution of chemistry and science, is free and open to the public Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"What's interesting to me about the history of alchemy is that after the chemical revolution, when chemists and others realized that elements could not be broken down and transmuted one into the other, it became clear that was never possible," said Voelkel. "The assumption was that the people that wrote about it were delusional: They talked about doing it and it's not possible, therefore what they were talking about was false and delusional and foolish. It's a reasonable conclusion, looking back from the surety of the 19th century.

"But the false conclusion was that they were doing nothing. What we're learning now is that they were actually very capable chemists who were experimenting with transforming substances one into the other."

Monday, November 25, 2013

CBS Radio Mystery Theater presents "Murder on the Space Shuttle"

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater presents Jacques Futrell's "Murder on the Space Shuttle" dramatized by Lewis, G. Frederick and staring Velia Greay, Gordon Heath, Paul Hecht, and Gilbert Mack. Episode #1169 first aired on March 9th, 1981.

"Murder on the Space Shuttle"

Internet Archive...

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater (or CBSRMT) was an ambitious and sustained attempt in the 1970s to revive the great drama of old-time radio. Created by Himan Brown (who had by then become a radio legend due to his work on Inner Sanctum Mysteries The Adventures of Nero Wolfe and other shows dating back to the 1930s), it aired on affiliate stations across the CBS Radio network. The series began its long run January 6, 1974; the final episode ran December 31, 1982.

The show was broadcast nightly and ran for one hour, including news and commercials. Typically, a week consisted of three to four new episodes, with the remainder of the week filled out with reruns. There were 1,399 original episodes broadcast.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater [Wikipedia]

Complete series

Saturday, November 23, 2013

T. rex has company

"Meet the newly discovered dinosaur that even tyrannosaurs were afraid of"

Lance Tillson

November 23rd, 2013

National Monitor

Researchers from The Field Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) and North Carolina State University (NCSU) note that the new dinosaur is the first of its kind to be found in North America.

More than 30 feet long and weighing more than four tons, Siats meekerorum was the top predator in its ecosystem.

“This dinosaur was a colossal predator second only to the great T. rex and perhaps Acrocanthosarus in the North American fossil record,” noted lead author Lindsay Zanno, Director of Paleontology at NCMNS/NCSU, in a statement.

The large predator was found in 2008 by Zanno during a trip to the Cedar Mountain Formation in Utah. It took two summers to remove the fossils of this giant animal.

According to the researchers, Siats is not a close relative of T. rex and other tyrannosaurs that were the prominent predators in North America for the last 20 million years of the age of dinosaurs. Siats belongs to the  carchardontosaurian group of theropods. Furthermore, the large predator belongs to a branch of the carcharodontosaurian family tree that was previously unknown in North America.

“We were thrilled to discover the first dinosaur of its kind in North America and add to mounting evidence that dinosaurs were widely dispersed across the globe 100 million years ago,” posited study co-author Peter Makovicky, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Field Museum.

The teeth of tyrannosaurs from the Cedar Mountain Formation suggest that the tyrannosaurs living alongside Siats were a lot smaller in size.

“The huge size difference certainly suggests that tyrannosaurs were held in check by carcharodontosaurs, and only evolved into enormous apex predators after the carcharodontosaurs disappeared,” added Makovicky.

The study’s findings are described in detail in the journal Nature Communications.

Sir Isaac Newton's "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" at auction

"Sotheby’s to offer first edition of Newton's 'Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy'"


Ashoke Nag

Nov,ember 23rd, 2013

The Economic Times

On 27th November 2013, Sotheby's London will offer a first edition of the most important book in the history of science - Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical principles of natural philosophy"), which was published for the Royal Society in 1687. The highlight of Sotheby's Music, Continental and Russian Books and Manuscripts sale, this exceptionally rare first issue copy of the first edition, which is in its contemporary vellum binding, is estimated to realize £250,000-300,000.

The Principia explained a system of the universe that, once established, was unchallenged until the twentieth century ushered in quantum theory and the theories of relativity. Probably fewer than three hundred copies of the first edition of Principia were printed.

Dr David Goldthorpe, Sotheby's senior director, senior specialist, Books and Manuscripts Department commented in an email statement: "This book changed man's understanding of the universe. Newton's Principia was the culmination of the scientific revolution, effectively ushering in the era of modern science and modern physics with its mathematical explanations of gravity and motion. Through its legacy, the book has probably done more to shape the modern world than any other ever published. Even Einstein, whose theories of relativity eventually came to revise those of Newton's, declared that the Principia was 'perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make'."

Annie Dookhan sentenced

"Mass. chemist pleads guilty in drug lab scandal"


Bob Salsberg

November 22nd, 2013

A former chemist at a Massachusetts drug lab who admitted faking test results in criminal cases pleaded guilty Friday and was sentenced to prison in a scandal that has jeopardized thousands of convictions.

Annie Dookhan changed her plea Friday in Suffolk Superior Court on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence. She was sentenced to three to five years in prison, followed by two years’ probation.

The diminutive Dookhan showed no emotion during the hearing and did not address the court. She answered ‘‘guilty’’ and replied to a series of routine questions from the judge in a barely audible voice. She was led away in handcuffs and will begin serving her sentence immediately at the state women’s prison in Framingham.

Her attorney did not comment after the hearing, and her parents left without speaking to reporters.

Dookhan sent the state’s criminal justice system into a tailspin last year when state police shut down the state Department of Public Health lab she worked at after discovering the extent of her misconduct.

Prosecutors said Dookhan admitted ‘‘dry labbing,’’ or testing only a fraction of a batch of samples, then listing them all as positive for illegal drugs, to ‘‘improve her productivity and burnish her reputation.’’

Since the lab closed in August 2012, at least 1,100 criminal cases have been dismissed or not prosecuted because of tainted evidence or other fallout from the lab’s shutdown.

Anne Kaczmarek, the state’s prosecutor, asked Judge Carol Ball to impose a five- to seven-year sentence, citing the ‘‘egregious nature’’ of Dookhan’s actions. Ball had already said in a written memo that she would not sentence Dookhan to more than three to five years if she changed her plea.

Defense attorney Nicolas Gordon asked for a one-year sentence for his client, who was born in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago and has no previous criminal record.

Prosecutors said Dookhan’s actions had caused serious damage to the criminal justice system and cost the state millions of dollars to assess the damage and mitigate the effect on thousands of people charged with drug offenses during the nine years Dookhan worked at the lab. The court system has been flooded with motions for new trials filed by defendants in drug cases.

As of Friday, the state had spent a total of $8.5 million responding to the drug lab crisis, and another $8.6 million was authorized to be spent in the current fiscal year, according to Alex Zaroulis, spokeswoman for the state office of Administration and Finance. The Legislature has authorized as much as $30 million to cover costs incurred by the court system, prosecutors, public defenders and other state agencies.

‘‘This ends one chapter in this situation, but the story goes on for the thousands of individuals whose lives have been affected by the conduct of Annie Dookhan,’’ said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency. ‘‘There are millions of dollars more that will be spent and a lot of time spent by a number of people in the criminal justice system trying to deal with the fallout of what happened in that lab.’’

Dookhan also pleaded guilty to falsely claiming that she held a master’s degree in chemistry. One of the conditions set for her probation was that she not use the false credentials when seeking employment after serving her sentence. She was also ordered to have mental health evaluations after leaving prison.

Number 2 in Massachusetts crime lab scandal

1,141 inmates could benefit from Annie Dookhan's mistakes

A few years in jail for a serious crime--Annie Dookhan

Thursday, November 21, 2013

GoldiBlox recruiting girls as engineers

"GoldiBlox: The girls' toy commercial sweeping the Internet"


Susan Rohwer

November 21st, 2013

If you haven’t seen it, check out the commercial for GoldiBlox that’s sweeping the Internet. It’s an ad for a set of interactive toys and books that encourages girls to build their own castles rather than wait for princes to come do it for them. In an age when girls’ toys painfully adhere to gender stereotypes, the message in this commercial is clear: Girls want more than princess toys for Christmas.

The commercial opens with three girls watching TV and looking unimpressed with what they’re seeing: other little girls in precious party dresses dancing around a tea set. They switch on their record player, grab their hard hats and tool belts and get to work on a Rube Goldberg apparatus assembled with household items and typical girls’ toys (everything from a tea set to a tiara and a baby doll cradle). The record player plays the Beastie Boys song “Boys,” but it’s been rewritten as “Girls” and it’s now a rallying cry against princess-toy culture: “It’s time for a change, and we deserve to see a range, ‘cause all our toys look just the same, and we would like to use our brains.”

GoldiBlox CEO Debbie Sterling invented the engineering toys tailored specifically to girls after being frustrated by the lack of other female students in her undergraduate engineering program at Stanford University. She spent a year researching how she could create a building toy for girls beyond making it pink. Her research led her to the conclusion that girls tend to have strong verbal skills, that they want to have stories and characters rather than to build for the sake of building. She incorporated these findings into her toy design and GoldiBlox was born.

The goal of GoldiBlox is to “get girls building.” And that is no small task. Women are vastly outnumbered by men in fields such as science and technology, making up only 11% of the world’s engineers. According to a report on women in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation, girls tend to lose interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) between the fourth and eighth grades. Discouraging messages from the media, parents and teachers can squash curiosity in STEM. Fostering an enthusiasm in these subjects can spark an interest that could turn into a career.

Studies have shown that the way toys are marketed has an enormous impact on reinforcing gender roles, and toy companies are woefully behind on offering gender-neutral toys. Gender gaps are closing in certain areas, according to a study of more than 4,000 kids in 12 countries done by Marketing Store Worldwide — except in the realm of toys. Boys are much more likely to have construction toys and girls are much more likely to have dolls and stuffed animals.

Although there are toys like the Easy Bake Oven that are now (and only after very pubic pressure) being marketed as gender neutral, some would argue that in the last decade the toy industry has actually increased its gendered marketing. Elizabeth Sweet, a doctoral candidate at UC Davis, researched the gendered marketing of toys in 20th century Sears catalogs and found that although the 1970s showed an increase in gender-neutral marketing of toys, this trend reversed in 1990s. By the end of the 20th century, the gendered marketing of toys had crept back to levels not seen since the 1950s. As Sweet argues, it is even more extreme today.

As any parent who has braved the toy aisles knows, girls and boys are sold vastly different kinds of toys. Girls’ aisles are brimming with pink toys, often geared toward domestic pursuits or beauty, while boys are sold action figures, construction sets and toy guns. But in a sign of a growing unease with such blatant gendering, Toys R Us in Britain recently declared that it would blend all toys together and get rid of the signs indicating boys and girls sections.

The message of toy marketing is that some toys are “naturally” for boys and some for girls, which has a powerful effect on young people. When girls are told they should play only with tiaras, baby dolls and play kitchens, it can reinforce the idea they are meant to be only domestic caretakers, not doctors or scientists. Sadly, the more educational toys — such as construction and science kits — are largely marketed to boys. This is the niche that GoldiBlox is hoping to fill.

As a girl growing up in the 1980s, I was obsessed with princesses and Barbie, but (thanks to my brothers) I also played with LEGOs and GI Joes. Pink princesses aren’t all bad, but girls should have choices about what they want to play with, and it only takes one trip to the toy store to see that the options are stark.

As a mom of a baby girl, I am heartened by the message and mission of GoldiBlox. Even if my daughter wants nothing to do with a construction set, it’s encouraging to know she has the option of having one. As best put in the commercial: “Don’t underestimate girls.”

"Will the Goldieblox ad make little girls dream of being engineers rather than princesses?"

The combination of a Rube Goldberg machine and a reworked Beastie Boys track is certainly fun. With any luck, this ad will raise some girls' aspirations as well as a smile or two


Jane Martinson   

November 21st, 2013

The Guardian

US toy company Goldieblox was founded by Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling last year because "girls need more choices than the pink aisle has to offer". The latest ad features three young girls using a selection of pink and pretty toys to set up an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption - of the kind popularised in recent years in videos by the band OK Go - which runs through the house into the garden outside.

The words, set to the tune of Beastie Boys' Girls, turn the original lyrics on their head: "Girls, you think you know what we want. Girls. Pink and pretty is, girls. Just like the 50s, it's girls."

OK, it's a commercial, selling an interactive book and construction set starring Goldie, a blonde girl who "loves to build". When it launched on YouTube one commenter declared: "I am NOT buying in to the feminist marketing that is in demand". Just Google "girls toys" if you want to see how much that demand is really being met. The top toys are Barbie's "Hairtastic", a Barbie cash register and a Monster High toy that allows children to "add detail to the monster's hair, clothing and skin". Grooming and money, what more could a girl want?

Goldieblox toys are no panacea to the stereotyping of childhood. For a start, the toy is based on the idea that girls need more than just construction to keep them interested, a story about helping friends, say, and there is also quite a lot of pink and purple in the product itself.

But with so much research suggesting that engineering and computer science - two fields becoming more and more important in our digital age - are increasingly male dominated, any effort should be welcomed. A report from the National Science Foundation in America found that 18.2% of computer science degrees were awarded to women in 2010 compared with 29.6% in 1991, while 18.4% of engineering graduates were women in 2010 compared with 15.5% 19 years earlier.

When girls as young as eight start saying that building and construction isn't for them, a toy that shows that they can make cool stuff too can't be a bad idea, can it?

"GoldieBlox Crushes Girl Stereotypes With Jaw-Dropping Engineering Toys"


Eliza Murphy

November 20th, 2013

ABC News

Move over Barbie, there’s a new toy in town.

Judging by the insanely instant viral success of GoldieBlox’s new commercial, it’s safe to say the toy company promoting strong, smart, engineer-focused girls with a passion for building is here to stay.

The undeniably catchy re-worked lyrics to Beastie Boys’ 1987 hit, “Girls,” was certainly instrumental in the hugely successful commercial featuring three adorable little girl engineers creating one of the coolest, most elaborate mechanical toys the Internet has ever seen. But the true driving force behind the video was simply the company’s message: “To show the world that girls deserve more choices than dolls and princesses,” and that “femininity is strong and girls will build the future — literally.”

GoldieBlox founder Debbie Sterling is a Stanford engineering grad who was inspired to create toys for girls that offered more options than what is typically found in the “pink aisle.”

After she found herself isolated as one of the few female engineering majors at Stanford in 2005, she had a conversation with a friend, one of the only other females in mechanical engineering, and decided it was time for a change.

That’s when GoldieBlox, the interactive book series and construction set starring Goldie, a kid inventor who loves to build, was born.

“In our culture, the sad truth is that math and science and engineering is a boys’ club, and it starts at such a young age,” Sterling, 30, told “There’s Bob the Builder, Bill Nye the Science Guy and all these other boy geniuses, but I wanted a role model, a strong character girls can relate to.”

GoldieBlox is single-handedly crushing the typical female stereotypes, working to  increase the miniscule 11 percent of women in engineering today, which Sterling says is “one of the fastest-growing jobs in America.”

“The response has been wonderful,” she explains of her brilliant campaign highlighting the young girls, six engineers and Brett Doar, the mastermind behind OK Go!’s Rube Goldberg machine, turning a normal house in Pasadena, Calif., into a “massive, magical contraption.”

“Girls love it. They are building all kinds of cool things with it,”
Sterling added. “It’s bringing a lot of people to tears. So many moms say, ‘I was really good at math,’ or ‘I could have done this, too. My daughter can do anything, but let’s give her the choice I didn’t have.’”

Parents Convince Kids Their Dinosaur Toys Come to Life in Magical ‘Dinovember’

The product is really resonating with dads, too.

“So many dads are looking for ways to really connect with their daughters,” said Sterling. “Sometimes it’s hard or awkward for dads to play with dolls, and they can really bond with their girls over toys like this.”
The music video commercial has already amassed more than 3.5 million views since the company posted it to YouTube on Nov. 17.

“You make something and put it out in the world and cross your fingers,” Sterling said. “The video we made was so ambitious and really hits on this message I wanted to send. We don’t want to bash girls or make them feel ashamed for playing with dolls and playing dress up. I did that when I was little too, but just know there are more options out there for you to explore.”

Toys R Us ad...

[NOTE: Once again someone complained and the commercial was pulled. Never trust a link for stability.]

CEO Debbie...

Sheldon Cooper would not approve.