February 2, 2011

International Year of Chemistry.

Its difficult to throughly endorse a worldwide celebration of chemistry, and its "contributions to our well-being", when it's sponsored by chemical industry corporations of such notorious disrepute as BASF (with partner Monsanto in the shadows), the Dow Chemical Co., and DuPont. In fact, it may be even more imperative with sponsors such as these to contemplate the negative impact of industrialised chemistry during a year of events where that particular side of the matter is unlikely to be widely scrutinised.

But then the International Year of Chemistry is an initiative of the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which has been endorsed by the UN with the stated aim of raising awareness among the general public of the vital contributions chemistry makes to our lives ever day (and hopefully attract youngsters to the field). The aim of the year's events is also to raise awareness of the potential chemistry has for solving contemporary as well as future global problems. Both these aims are quite worthwhile.

It may also be pertinent to reflect on the fascinating history of the field, from the dimly lit alcoves of ancient alchemists to the gleaming laboratories (and toxic waste sites) of today. Especially when the year coincides with the 150th anniversary of the first printing of Michael Faraday's (1791 - 1867) The Chemical History of the Candle, based on a series of lectures for young people which today have transmogrified into the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures (not to forget the 220th anniversary of Faraday's birth). It also coincides with 350th anniversary of the first printing of Robert Boyle's (1627 - 1691) The Skeptical Chymist, a volume considered a cornerstone in the field, which contributes to Boyle being regarded as the founder of modern chemistry.

More importantly, as the organisers have noted, the year coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize being awarded to Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867 - 1934) — the perhaps most renown among female scientists in any field. As such it presents an ample opportunity to highlight the work of the many female chemists (like, among many others, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, Lise Meitner, Clara Immerwahr, Ida Noddack, Rachel Fuller Brown, Agnes Pockels, Rosalind Franklin, or Irène Joliot-Curie), as well as female scientists in other fields, whose contributions to our knowledge of the universe we inhabit generally remain widely unrecognised and unacknowledged. Chemistry, after all, is the one field of science which connects material sciences, astronomy, physics, biology, and geology, through its concern with the very building blocks of everything (atoms and their subatomic particles: protons, electrons, and neutrons).

Most of the year's official events are organised through national chemical societies and regional chemical federations, hence for the most part consist of rather exclusive or trade oriented events — such as conferences, congresses, fairs, meetings, and symposia. However, there are a number of "outreach" events planned as well, including lectures, open discussions, workshops, and art exhibitions actually aimed at increasing public (rather than fellow chemists) appreciation of chemistry. Luckily, by the very nature of chemistry, the general public need not rely on "official" efforts to educate itself. As the science of matter and the changes it undergoes, chemistry — through its concentration on the composition, behaviour, structure, and properties of matter — is perhaps the most substantial, hands-on science, which can be practically engaged in by anyone with practically anything.

Everyone engages in it everyday, through simple acts like boiling an egg, without necessarily being aware of it: chemistry is all around us. With a little help form the nearest public library, and an assortment of ordinary household items, we can all easily set about exploring the wonders of the matter that surrounds us, binds us together, and makes us what we are from the comfort of our own homes.

January 26, 2011

Hear Again: Tyranny (For You).

Twenty years ago the Iron Curtain had been pulled back in Europe, the Berlin Wall had come down, maps were being actively redrawn, the entire world appeared to be shifting, and history itself — it was brazenly declared — was coming to an end. Some even dared argue it had simply reached its natural conclusion; Western liberal democracy had finally vanquished all possible alternatives. How fitting then that a sombre note of sober skepticism should sound from Front 242, one of the bands that perhaps best captured the pervasive paranoid mindset of the last Cold War decade. Not only were they perfectly equipped for the task, having honed their skills in manipulating multimedia in a manner akin to much larger propaganda outfits, but being Belgian also perfectly placed — in a small European state cobbled together like a collage of historical necessity — at the major intersection of European affairs.

"What's the horse on the shore waiting for?", inquires lyricist and main vocalist Jean-Luc De Meyer in the languid album opener Sacrifice, seemingly drawing a parallel between the new order, the (as it turned out) brief period of rejoicing that followed the collapse of the old, with the infamous wooden stratagem the cunning Achaeans unleashed on the Trojans. De Meyer, assuming the guise of a blinded sybil, then laments the loss of the future's predictability. Two decades on, his opening lines on Front 242's fifth album, Tyranny (For You), appear almost prophetic, as our world has indeed changed from half a century of clearly defined lines, locking the world's largest powers in a seemingly static battle, to a place so unpredictable few of us even dare to entertain visions of the future.

Doctor Fukuyama may well have been right about the end of history: he merely faltered on whose specific history was ending and when. Front 242 seem to pitch their tent in the "cyclical" camp, as indicated by the album's centerpiece Gripped By Fear; bringing closure to the so called Atomic Age with the assertion that every tyranny, every regime, every reign sooner or later falls. More often than not defeated by its subjects simply outliving it. But even as Front 242 sounded an "Achtung!" — "beware!" — quite different from the boomer nostalgia peddled by contemporaries U2 later that same year, history appeared to not only have caught up with the unbridled celebrations of free-market liberalism's "victory", but stood ready to repeat itself. Mere days before the release of Tyranny… , the Gulf War — which saw Belgian participation in coalition with 31 other nations — began in earnest.

The brief conclusion of this, the first war to be practically broadcast live to a global television audience, soon had other thinking-persons' pop groups (the Pet Shop Boys among them) reflecting on the stage at which humanity had now arrived, but despite De Meyer's opening lament that his "gift is of no use", Front 242 had (perhaps unwittingly) preempted the coming doomsayers of the 1990s with their last album of the 1980s. Yet Tyranny… is not completely a work of pessimism, as Rhythm of Time, the album's second track and the third and final single to be lifted from it (and in a sense its true opener, if Sacrifice is interpreted as merely an overture), unabashedly declares an unyielding belief in the human spirit.

"We believe in the future of the human race!", sing De Meyer and second vocalist and drummer Richard Jonckheere, making the track simultaneously a response to Boomer apologism as well one of the most positive songs in the Front 242 catalogue. Rather than pointing a finger, seeking to apportion blame, Rhythm of Time provides its own answers ("What's above? New planets to conquer!"), alluding again to the cyclical nature of time, and hinting at environmental issues as potentially being one of the "Achaean surprises" waiting in that suspicious looking wooden horse. The album's second half opens with the first single taken from it, Tragedy (For You), a track that uses a souring romantic relationship as a metaphor for environmentalism.

Such sudden frankness on an issue, reinforced by the unconventional video for Tragedy… directed by Dutch shutterbug and videographer Anton Corbijn, certainly wasn't expected of a band that had previously carefully avoided being explicitly political. But environmentalism could never have been far from the consciousness of musicians who, as legend has it, had once rehearsed in the garage of future environment minister of the Brussels-Capital Region Évelyne Huytebroeck — who also encouraged her friend and band member Richard Jonckheere's foray into local politics for the francophone green party Ecolo in the mid-1990s, as well as his candidacy in the Belgian general elections in 2007. Fittingly, it's future green-politician Jonkcheere that plays the lead in the Tragedy… video, alongside actress Maja van den Broecke.

Before the album proper is over, De Meyer's lyrics also identify spiritual, personal matters as another area of concern, with various systems of belief pouring in to fill the void left by "discredited" ideologies. (Though they may also be personal reflections on De Meyer's own exhaustion with and within the band.) Spiritualism as well as the murkier side of human mentality are identified as further "Achaeans" haunting the future's shores in the album's closer Soul Manager — perhaps more so in The Untold, one of the most distressing and menacing tracks recorded by Front 242 despite (or, perhaps, precisely because of) its unhurried pace and sparse arrangement. Both tracks reveal a band increasingly confident with the process of producing and mixing complex arrangements, the use of samples more subtle in their sourcing yet more deliberate in application.

Across the whole album the band's music moves away from being mainly driven by synthesisers to being dominated by samplers and digital effects processors in particular, attaining a vast, almost cavernous soundscape with percussive elements often far from their "traditional" positions in the mix. Indicating the direction the band would pursue in the future, Front 242 achieve an immersive listening experience on Tyranny… , highly conducive to being enjoyed via headphones but unfortunately not one that plays well on low-end systems with poor stereo separation. Tyranny… is also a culmination, a bookend of sorts, incorporating nearly all the themes, tropes, and methods Front 242 developed and utilised over the preceding decade.

Among these the most obvious are the image of a distorted, twisted visage on the sleeve (in this instance that of keyboardist Patrick Codenys immersed in in a plexiglass tank), echoing practically every original sleeve previously conceived by the band, and the collusion of sports with politics — tracing the Ur-Fascist urge to celebrate physical activity as more "noble" and "pure" than the "abstract", suspect sphere of intellectual endeavours — as well as the correlation between athleticism and dance. But Front 242 merely toy with loaded imagery and themes on Tyranny…, devising a series of pictograms (representing "Man", "Globe", "Struggle", "Time", "Target", and "Speed") to rival their well-established logo, even engaging in every tyrant's favourite tool of confusion by naming a track Moldavia for no other reason than to lend it a title wholly unconnected with its contents — and thereby draw attention to the very process of nomenclature.

Although the band had forsaken their "urban warrior" wardrobe for smart sports gear in the accompanying promotional material (having band members active in handball, road cycling, and squash, undoubtedly helpful) — created with long-time collaborator photographer Alain Verbaert — they maintained their "in-house" approach, manipulating the sleeve artwork on Commodore AMIGA computers (no doubt to the delight of the then flourishing AMIGA demo community). Creating every aspect of their art themselves, from music to visuals, with only the odd collaborator brought in from "outside" not only allowed the band complete control of their vision but also strengthened the impression of Front 242 as multimedia "terrorist cell", engaging in public consciousness manipulation similar to some of the era's much more powerful political, mass-media, and promotional entities.

The continuous emphasis on energy and movement, the athleticism inherent in dance and club music also hinted at where the band were heading next — at least musically. As with most of their previous albums, on Tyranny… Front 242 once again included different interpretations of the same piece of music, with Moldavia and Neurobashing essentially being two versions of the same track. Though this time the possibilities digital music production offered to deconstruct and reconstruct a track in perpetuity, echoing the constant reworking, "remixing", and turntablism which had began to permeate every dance club at the time of the album's release, seemed to preoccupy the band far more than before.

Not satisfied with the two variations included on the album, Front 242 also released a "suite" of four further permutations of Moldavia on the accompanying Mixed by Fear EP, under the title Dance Soundtrack Music: This World Must Be Destroyed (with a further two "work in progress", Beta-versions appearing on the North American Gripped By Fear promo CD). Similarly, Tragedy… was remixed into Neurodancer (a title, as most correctly assumed, inspired by William Gibson's Neuromancer) and Punish Your Machine — the latter version, assuming a life of its own, becoming an audience favourite in performance. A further experiment in seemingly endless dilution is the album track Trigger 2 (Anatomy of a Shot), which appeared ahead of the album on the Tragedy… single in an alternative version dubbed Trigger 3, and as one of two "hidden" bonus tracks on the CD editions of Tyranny… (a version generally assumed to be Trigger 1).

While European editions of the album were released through Play It Again Sam subsidiary Red Rhino Europe (and their various intermediaries: Globus in Czechoslovakia, Nuevos Medios in Spain, Polydor in France, SPV in the rest of Europe), the Japanese editions on Alfa, the North and South American editions were released by Sony subsidiary Epic. The American major's gamble, signing the Belgians in the wake of their 1988 "breakthrough" hit Headhunter, paid off for label and band alike: within a month of its release Tyranny… sold in excess of 135,000 copies in the USA alone. It became Front 242's highest charting album in North America, despite it and its accompanying singles receiving very little airplay, charting at #95 and remaining on the billboard for 13 weeks. Both Tragedy… and Rhythm of Time reached #11 on the dance singles chart (higher than Headhunter, which only reached #13), with the latter even being included in the film Single White Female the following year. The moderate commercial success combined with the backing of a major label more importantly allowed the band the stage their most elaborate and extensive tour to date, with 76 concerts performed over seven months in Europe and North America.

Though formally known as the Tyranny Tour, it was quickly dubbed "la tournée de la pyramid à hélice" — "the tour of the propeller pyramid" — for the most prominent feature of the stage set designed by Jean-Luc De Meyer's younger brother Marc. An established artist in his own right, De Meyer the younger had devised a flexible set of 52 wood panels mounted on an aluminum framework, whose various podiums and structures could be adapted to the suit numerous stages differently. Decorated by Marc in oil, polyurethane, and latex to resemble surfaces of antique bronze and oxidized copper, the set was dominated by the infamous "exhaust-fan" structure that wouldn't have been out of place in the finale of Blade Runner. It was the largest investment Front 242 had made in lighting and scenography until then, and perhaps the clearest evidence of the band's ability to finally approach promotors of their own accord rather simply being "invited over" or to "open up" for other acts.

Having established their tyranny not only over their machines (as suggested by the aforementioned Punish Your Machine), but also over their domain, their particular method of producing music, Front 242 consolidated their strengths on Tyranny (For You). With four of the six main songs on the album being constructed around similar long accent leitmotifs embellished by various ostinait and numerous percussive elements, it's easy to suggest that the band really wasn't breaking much new ground and that in some ways the album was Front 242's swan song. As purveyors of multimedia collages, picking through the massmedia detritus collecting at the crossroads they inhabited, Front 242 were at one point a quintessential Cold War pop group. Capturing the zeitgeist with some of the same tools and methods employed by the era's prevalent powers, skillfully manipulating sounds and images, exploiting the fears and anxieties of their audience.

With the old divisions gone, the besieged mentality seemingly outdated, and the whole continent (if not the entire world) suddenly turning into one massive love-parade techno-party, the "imperial phase" of Front 242 appeared to be over. Even the band themselves admitted at the time that Tyranny…, collating and compounding a decade's worth of Front 242 endeavours, was a tad "nombrilique" — "navel-gazing" — at times. Yet it presents the techniques honed by Front 242 during the 1980s at their peak. As the "annual reports" of Throbbing Gristle, the progenitors of industrial music and an influence on Front 242 (and whose Peter Christopherson (1955 - 2010) directed the Rhythm of Time video), Tyranny… is a conclusive report on a decade that saw the end of certain types of hegemonies, and hints of others waiting to rise — just as the sneaky Achaeans patiently did inside their wooden horse.

January 24, 2011

International Year of Forests.

Over 1.6 billion people around the world — almost a quarter of humanity — depend on forests for their livelihood. Forest products are a source of employment and economic growth, accounting for some US$ 270 million in global trade annually, sustaining communities around the world. Home to some 300 million people worldwide, forests are also integral to regulating the climate and supporting biodiversity. Yet the world's forests, and the people who depend on them, are under increasing pressure from unsustainable logging, and agriculture and biofuel producers competing for land.

Each year 130,000 km² of the worlds forests are lost, mainly through conversion to agricultural land, unsustainable harvesting of timber, unsound land management, and the creation of new human settlements. Covering over 31% of the world's total land area, the Earth's forests and forest soil store more than one trillion tons of carbon, twice the amount found in the world's atmosphere. Forests offer the quickest, most cost effective and largest means of curbing global emissions, while deforestation accounts for up to 20% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Not only impacting carbon emissions and climate change, forest degradation also destroys animal and plant habitats, contributes to soil erosion and siltation of rivers and streams, frequently destroying the livelihoods of the poorest among (forest dependent) people. Harbouring 80% of the world's biodiversity, providing habitats for about two-thirds of all species on Earth, the continuous deforestation of closed tropical rainforests in particular could account for the loss of as many as 100 different species every day. Which is why the United Nations is launching the 2011 International Year of Forests at the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) to raise awareness about sustainable management, conservation, and sustainable development of all types of forests.

However, it seems that in Canada — proudly displaying a leaf as its national symbol — the current Conservative government is happy to mark the International Year with a mere pat on the Canadian forest industry's back. Claiming to have more protected forest, and more "third-party certified" forest than any other country, as well as some of the "toughest" forestry regulations in the world, Canada's government and forest industry seem quite content congratulating themselves for the country's position as the world's most successful exporter of forest products.

The Canadian forest industry's inroads in Asia are fodder for a government hungry for any signs of its dismal policies' successes, with Canadian wood exports to China, for instance, tripling in value over the past five years — from C$ 109 million in 2005 to C$ 385 million in 2009. Yet what government and industry frequently fail to mention is that less than 10% of Canada's forest are fully protected, and that logging of one of the world's three largest remaining "frontier forests" (the other two situated in Brazil and Russia) as well as clearcutting account for nearly 90% of all logging activity in Canada.

It may therefore be worthwhile to consider the importance as well as the future development of Canada's forest industry, especially at a time when logging remains the dominant activity in the country's forests. An estimated 50% of Canada's vast boreal forest, the "northern" forest which occupies 35% of the total Canadian land area and 77% of Canada's total forest land, is now accessible by highways and logging roads. Simultaneously, the Canadian Forest Service has experienced dramatic reductions in budget and staff, making access to information about the state of Canada's forests, as well as oversight and promotion of sustainable land management more difficult than before. In other words, it's now easier for Canadian's to find out exactly how large profits the forest industry is reaping than it is to see the forest for all the wood.

Comprising nearly 45% of the total Canadian land area, the forest's animals, plants, and products affect each Canadian every day, from the products we consume and depend upon on to the air we breathe. The "productive" forest areas of Canada total almost 2.5 million km², or roughly a quarter of Canada's total land area. Forestry is Canada's largest natural resource industry, with forest products' trade surplus almost eclipsing the combined surpluses of agriculture, energy, fisheries, and mining, making our country the largest exporter of wood products in the world.

Representing almost 2% of Canada's GDP, worth C$54 billion annually, the forest products industry is one of the country's largest employers, providing 240,000 direct jobs across the country (in silviculture, logging, wood industries, paper and allied products), as well as thousands of indirect jobs through purchases of goods and services. The Canadian forest industry is the economic heart of some 200 communities across the country — communities which have limited alternative economic and employment opportunities.

Clearly, there are many more reasons to take the opportunity over the coming year to consider the asset as well as natural wealth Canada's forests represent, and how we are managing the over a third of the world's boreal forest, the fifth of the world's temperate rainforest, and the tenth of the total global forest cover which lie within our borders. Clearly, our forests deserve more than a round of sanctioned cheers to celebrate how fast we’re managing to sell them.


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