October 24, 2009

No privacy in Britain

It has become commonplace to call Britain a “surveillance society,” a place where security cameras lurk at every corner, giant databases keep track of intimate personal details and the government has extraordinary powers to intrude into citizens’ lives.

A report in 2007 by the lobbying group Privacy International placed Britain in the bottom five countries for its record on privacy and surveillance, on a par with Singapore.

This article in the NY Times details how little it takes to set this surveillance apparatus in motion:
In a way, that is true: under a law enacted in 2000 to regulate surveillance powers, it is legal for localities to follow residents secretly. Local governments regularly use these surveillance powers — which they “self-authorize,” without oversight from judges or law enforcement officers — to investigate malfeasance like illegally dumping industrial waste, loan sharking and falsely claiming welfare benefits.

But they also use them to investigate reports of noise pollution and people who do not clean up their dogs’ waste. Local governments use them to catch people who fail to recycle, people who put their trash out too early, people who sell fireworks without licenses, people whose dogs bark too loudly and people who illegally operate taxicabs.

Posted by David at 1:56 PM | Comments (1)

October 23, 2009

Art of the Samurai at the MMA

Can't wait to see this exhibition, now open until January. Reviewed in the NY Times today:

“Art of the Samurai” represents a decade of work by Morihiro Ogawa, special consultant for Japanese arms and armor at the Met; he was assisted by Donald J. La Rocca, curator of the museum’s arms and armor department. All but about 10 of its 214 objects, including lacquer sword rests or luxurious surcoats worn over armor, are from Japanese museums, and nearly half are officially designated National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese. Many are exhibited only rarely in Japan, much less allowed to leave the country.
One visit will not be enough:
Due to their fragility, not all objects will be on view at once: about 60 will be rotated out of the show during the first week of December, to be replaced by similar objects of equal caliber. And some displays will be gone long before then. For example the battle-scarred 12th-century cavalry armor that greets viewers in the show’s first gallery will be on view for only two weeks. Visit early and often.
Exhibition website is here.

Posted by David at 2:10 PM | Comments (0)

October 22, 2009

Cantonese in eclipse

He grew up playing in the narrow, crowded streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown. He has lived and worked there for all his 61 years. But as Wee Wong walks the neighborhood these days, he cannot understand half the Chinese conversations he hears.

Cantonese, a dialect from southern China that has dominated the Chinatowns of North America for decades, is being rapidly swept aside by Mandarin, the national language of China and the lingua franca of most of the latest Chinese immigrants.

From the NY Times.

Posted by David at 4:14 PM | Comments (0)

Traffic rules for bikes

Bicycles really fall through the cracks when it comes to US road rules. What is expected from the cyclist varies radically from person to person, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. As things now stand, applying rules intended for cars to bikes is often so obviously inappropriate that police tend to turn a blind eye -- even in cases where intervention is clearly called for (wrong-way travel and riding at night without lights or reflectors are probably the most egregious).

Will things improve any time soon? Unlikely. This Slate article discusses the situation, including Idaho's commendably rational adoption of a law that permits cyclists to make safe rolling stops -- a move unfortunately not being emulated elsewhere.

Posted by David at 10:21 AM | Comments (0)

Asterix, 50 years later

On 29 October 1959, the first adventure of the diminutive warrior Asterix appeared in the comic magazine Pilote. It was the work of the Italian-born artist Albert Uderzo, who, with his script-writer friend René Goscinny, had dreamed up the idea a few months previously on the terrace of his Bobigny flat.

Half a century later Asterix - and Uderzo - are still going strong. On 22 October, a new album comes out, the 34th in the series, entitled, "Asterix and Obelix's birthday - The Gold Book". And, over the following week a series of events will be held across Paris to mark the anniversary. They include a musical, a seminar at the Sorbonne and a costumed pageant on 29 October.

But all is not as it was:
But while The Gold Book will doubtless sell as well as ever, the continuing commercial success of the Asterix series masks a painful reality that many fans prefer to ignore: For the past 30 years - ever since Goscinny's death in 1977 - the books have been frankly second-rate.

That at least is the view of serious lovers of the Asterix books. For them, the last album of true merit was Asterix in Belgium, which was also the last book that Goscinny worked on. The subsequent 10 albums were not just drawn, but also written, by Uderzo, and the decline in quality has been drastic. . .

What saddens admirers of the essential Asterix even more is that it now looks as if the character will be allowed to continue his existence indefinitely into the future.

Earlier this year - after a painful family rift with his daughter - Mr Uderzo sold rights to the series to the publishing conglomerate Hachette, and he has appointed three young artists to take over when he dies.

Full article here.

Posted by David at 9:47 AM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2009

Biggest orb web spider

A new and rare species of "giant" orb web spider has been discovered in Africa and Madagascar.

In the journal Plos One, researchers describe Nephila komaci as the largest web spinning spider known to science.

Only the females of this groups of species are giants, with a leg span of up to 12cm (4.7in); the male spiders are tiny by comparison.

Scientists say the female spiders are capable of spinning webs that reach up to 1m (3ft 3in) in diameter.

From the BBC.

Posted by David at 8:43 AM | Comments (0)

October 20, 2009

Golden eagles vs caribou calves

Golden eagles have been filmed hunting and attempting to kill reindeer calves.

One eagle was filmed swooping down and grabbing a calf, while another pulled out of an attack at the last minute.

Article and video clips here.
To kill a reindeer, the birds strike it in a specific region in its haunches, driving their talons into the mammal's kidneys.

"They are not killing anything instantly so they have to ride like a rodeo cowboy on the back of the calf," explained Dr Oakes.

This is yet another instance where the locals had long been familiar with how "their" animals interacted, but were not believed by scientists until the scientists witnessed it themselves.

Posted by David at 9:22 AM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2009

Hot bunny poop

A government contractor at Hanford, in south-central Washington State, just spent a week mapping radioactive rabbit feces with detectors mounted on a helicopter flying 50 feet over the desert scrub. An onboard computer used GPS technology to record each location so workers could return later to scoop up the droppings for disposal as low-level radioactive waste.

The Hanford site, overseen by the federal Department of Energy, produced roughly two-thirds of the plutonium used in the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, beginning in World War II and ending in the 1980s. . .

Yet the helicopter flights, which covered 13.7 square miles and were paid for with $300,000 in federal stimulus money, took place in an area that had never been used by the bomb makers.

The area had, however, been used by rabbits that had also burrowed into other areas that were contaminated. . .

Technicians have monitored rodents and waterfowl at Hanford for radiation since 1947, and have identified about 5,400 incidents of “biological intrusion.” It is not only animals; tumbleweeds have roots deep enough to pull up radioactive material and then carry it as they blow away . . .

From the NY Times.

Posted by David at 5:15 PM | Comments (1)

Oldest painting showing a watch?

Art experts think they may have found the world's oldest painting to feature an image of a watch.

The Science Museum is investigating the 450-year-old portrait, thought to be of Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence, holding a golden timepiece.

Curators have sent their findings to renaissance experts at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, and are awaiting their comments.

The painting is being shown as part of the museum's Measuring Time gallery.

The first watches appeared shortly after 1500 in Germany and horologists believe the picture, painted by renaissance master Maso da San Friano around 1560, "may well be the oldest to show a true watch".

From the BBC. Read more about the Science Museum's Measuring Time exhibit here.

Posted by David at 10:46 AM | Comments (0)

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