January 22, 2009

International Year of Natural Fibres.

The International Year of Natural Fibres was officially launched in Rome today, with the objective to raise the profile of natural fibres, highlight their origin, history, wide range of uses, and value to consumers as well as producers, while devising ways of sustaining natural fibre production and emphasise their environmental benefits in the face of increasing competition from artificial and synthetic fibres. (Wood fibre will be covered during the International Year of Forests in 2011.) Events throughout the year will be organised jointly by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and producers of all manner of natural fibres.

A natural fibre is essentially any elongated substance produced by plants (like cotton seed hairs, flax and hemp stem fibre, sisal leaf fibre, or coconut husk fibre) or animals (wool, hair, or secretions like silk) that can be spun into filaments, threads, or ropes. Fabrics produced from natural fibres have been an essential part of human life as long as agriculture itself, and though the methods employed to produce fabrics have changed over time, their function has remained practically the same. Most natural fibres end up in the clothing, upholstery, containers and other textiles that insulate, soften, and decorate our surroundings. But an increasing amount is employed for industrial purposes as, for instance, components in paper and composite materials — including automobile parts.

Hemp and flax seeds have also been revealed to be rich sources of
omega-3 fatty acids and other valuable nutrients. Hemp oil in particular offers a balanced fatty acid spectrum, while hemp seed provides a reasonably well-balanced protein, significant amounts of vitamin E complex compounds and trace minerals. Its composition, taste, and culinary diversity make hemp oil and seed a promising staple in the growing market of "natural foods".

Apart from traditional and promising new industrial uses, natural fibres are a vital economic resource in numerous regions of the world, the roughly 30 million tonnes produced annually providing an important source of income to those who produce, process, and market them. More often than not the producers are small scale farmers in the world’s so called "developing" countries, hence the sale and export of natural fibres contributes significantly not only to clothing people, but also to maintaining food security and alleviating poverty.

One of the challenges faced by natural fibre producers in the last four decades is the increased competition from artificial and synthetic fibres (like rayon, nylon, acrylic, polyester, or spandex). Therefore, the year's activities also aim to contrast the significant environmental benefits of natural fibre consumption and production with that of synthetic, petrochemical varieties, and promote sustainability by ensuring that these benefits aren't compromised by unsound practices (for instance, a pesticide-intensive crop like cotton currently uses 25% of the world's insecticides and 10% of the world's pesticides).

events will include conferences, exhibits, and fashion shows, with at least one event set to take place in Canada.

January 21, 2009

Dušan Džamonja, 1928-2009.

The Croatian sculptor Dušan Džamonja has passed away. Some of his less monumental works can be seen here.

January 19, 2009

Anyone for tennis?

As the Australian Open commenced this week, the question on many tennis aficionado's minds wasn't who'd dominate centre court, who'd camp out by the net, who'd remain parked by the baseline, or even whether the two-handed backhand would remain the pro's weapon of choice. It was what Alizé Cornet would be wearing — a question which touches on sport in a most minimal fashion.

The nineteen-year old current top French player, ranked fifteenth in the world, made headlines some time prior, appearing in a mixed doubles match reportedly wearing a "see-through" top (not nearly as scabrous as it was reported). Duly outraged, grand old dames of tennis issued scathing comments, while Tennis Australia let it be known that any competitor in the upcoming Grand Slam tournament not adhering to its strict dress code would be fined some A$2.000 (C$ 1.650).

Now, neither French players nor the fashion house Lacoste — presently Ms Cornet's wardrobe sponsor — are strangers to controversy. Finding ways to combine their interest in tennis with their passion for fashion, they've endeavoured to break the dominance of unadorned white, on a court where gentlemen once only wore long trousers and ladies full-length dresses, long before the emergence of flamboyant players like Andre Agassi.

La Divine Suzanne Lenglen, winner of five consecutive Wimbledon titles between 1919 and 1923 (the last French woman to win that title until Amélie Mauresmo in 2006), pioneered dresses daringly cut for the time, just above the calf, while Le Crocodile René Lacoste introduced a tennis shirt of his own design in 1927 — adding his croc logo a year later — which he went on to mass market in 1933. Today, fashion houses of all stripes lure athletes with millions of dollars annually to endorse their wares. To the point where tennis starlets no longer need to possess nor display any athletic prowess (Ms Kournikova comes to mind).

Not wearing underwear may have been a poor choice in combination with a flimsy top, but the point of a bra is — ultimately — to provide support where it's needed. As Ms Cornet clearly isn't in need of any, this then becomes a question of mere nipples preventing distracted competitors, referees, and audience alike from keeping their eyes on the ball. It's a storm in a teacup understandably whipped up by those interested in hawking something other than sport — to which the ubiquitous logos will attest. No surprises there.

More perplexing is the fact that Tennis Australia has chosen to play along with Ms Cornet and her sponsors, making sure attention was drawn to the up-and-coming player — and, one presumes, by extension to the upcoming tournament. Any true opportunity for a serious discussion about the collusion of commercial interests with sport, and the ensuing consequential sexualisation of athletes, is hence lost to the self-interest of the organizing body.

The only truly shocking aspect of this affair is Tennis Australia's insistence that it actually possesses a dress code. Anyone who's ever endured the dominance of garish getups at the Australian Open — the fifth oldest event of its kind — knows it's hardly the last sartorial bastion of tennis, like Wimbledon. Professional sport is first and foremost a business, dominated primarily by what pulls the punters in.

No amount of public ballyhooing about nipples is likely to change that — as evidenced by the fact that Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, ranked 21st in the world, sponsored by Nike, made her Monday debut Down Under in an outfit tight enough to render her entire ribcage in vivid detail, never mind her nipples. No mention of a fine yet, though; and somewhere in Oregon a vendor of sports apparel smiles.

January 15, 2009

International Year of Astronomy.

Though preceded in some places (Berne, Edmonton, Hong Kong, and Stockholm among others), the official opening of the International Year of Astronomy is currently underway in Paris. The year's events and celebrations will coincide the 400th anniversary of the publication of Astronomia nova by Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630), in which he described the fundamental laws of planetary motions, and the first astronomical observation through a telescope by Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), changing our understanding of mankind's place in the Universe, rendering space a three-dimensional place rather than a mere canvas adorned with stars.

The main aim of the year's activities is to reignite the sense of wonder for our place in the Universe, and attempt to promote a greater appreciation of astronomy and the impact and contribution it and other fundamental sciences have on all our lives. The organisers, the International Astronomical Union (celebrating its 90th anniversary this year), UNICEF, and others, also aim to bring attention to how light pollution is diminishing the chances of an increasingly urban population engaging in one of humanity's oldest pastimes — one once heavily censured by religious fanatics with disasterous consequences not only for those who dared to gaze at the sky.

As one of the oldest fundamental sciences, astronomy has had a profound impact on human culture, and continues to be one of the most powerful expressions of human intellect. And while a mere century ago we were stuck at the bottom of an ocean of turbulent air, peering at distant worlds, today great telescopes are in Earth orbit observing the heavens in gamma rays, X rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, and radio waves. A hundred years age we were barely aware of our own galaxy. Today we know that the Universe we inhabit is composed of some 100 billion galaxies, of which the Milky Way, or "our galaxy" (as though anyone could possess it), just happens to be one.

Our sun — one of perhaps 400 billion in the galaxy — is just an average-sized, ordinary yellow star near the inner edge of one of the spiral arms, accompanied on its 250 million year journey around the centre of the Milky Way by an entourage of small worlds. Some are planets some are moons, some asteroids, some comets. We humans are one of some 50 billion species that happened to evolve on a fairly small planet that we call Earth, the third from the local star. A hundred years ago we had no means of knowing with certainty whether there were other solar systems in the Universe. Today we have observed more than 200 planets around other stars in our galaxy.

And while we have sent spacecrafts to examine some 70 of the worlds in our system, entering their atmospheres, even landing on the surfaces of a handful of them, much remains to be observed, examined, and discovered. For instance, what roughly 90 percent of our Universe is actually made of; or the peculiar distribution of galaxies (they hang out in packs, rarely alone); or the nature of gamma ray bursts in which entire solar systems are regularly gobbled up; or whether there is intelligent life anywhere else, and what the origin and fate of this Universe is. The most amazing discoveries will likely be ones we can't even possibly anticipate today.

Some of the exceptional events during the year include 100 Hours of Astronomy, aimed at allowing as many people around the world as possible to gaze through a telescope for the first time — much like Galileo did 400 years ago — in a 100-hour, round-the-clock, round-the-world event that will include live webcasts from research observatories, public observing events and other activities. Another is She is an Astronomer, aimed at promoting gender equality in astronomy and science in general. It’s still common in some places to consider women lacking in scientific abilities, to be too emotional to be objective, and not possessing the type of intelligence necessary for science.

Today women populate most of the subdisciplines of science, though they’re still a minority. In astronomy and planetary studies women only recently burst upon the scene, contributing a slew of discoveries and providing a desperately needed breath of fresh air. Their contributions, and those of the sky-gazers, astronomers, scientists, and engineers that preceded them, have replaced the tidy anthropocentric universe of our ancestors with a cold, immense, indifferent universe, in which humans are relegated to relative obscurity. Yet they have also revealed a universe of fascinating magnificence, and intricate, elegant order far beyond anything our ancestors ever imagined.

While it may be a question of preference, it must ultimately be better to understand the Universe as it really is, than inhabit an imaginary space ordered as we wish it to be. So, take some time this year to examine the sky above you, participate in events (Canadian events here), consider the place we inhabit, and get to know your Universe.

January 14, 2009

Patrick McGoohan, 1928-2009.

The Irish actor, director, writer, and producer Patrick McGoohan, perhaps best known for creating the cult television series The Prisoner, has passed away. "Be seeing you!"

January 9, 2009

Hear Again: Belief.

Nitzer Ebb's second album, released twenty years ago today, opens with the funky strut of Hearts and Minds, heralding a shift toward more intricate arrangements and rhythms. Although a track like Blood Money could easily fit on the band's previous album, the majority of music on Belief – still minimal in execution – cleverly layers motifs interspersed with brief pauses, creating cohesive pieces by exploiting the human auditory system's appetite for order "adding" notes were there aren't any.

The arrangements are enhanced by an elaborate process of sound generation and programming, the foundation of the band's signature sound, patching the original sound generator through a secondary device (often a large modular synthesiser), utilising its filters to add depth, then feeding the resulting sound through a third device (like a
vocoder) and applying its envelope shaping capabilities. The production of Mark "Flood" Ellis provides a crisp, clear mix to what could've easily been – what with the numerous parts and tricky sounds – a rather muddled affair.

The accompanying singles are well worth tracking down for their alternative takes on the album’s tracks, displaying more of Flood’s skills, as well as the contributions of William "Orbit" Wainwright, whose re-versions of Shame, Captivate, and Backlash (the last one a single track not included on the album) earned him an invitation to work alongside Kraftwerk a couple of years later. Many of these alternative mixes remain staples at more discerning dance clubs.

Musically, Belief moves beyond the electronic punk, pioneered by bands like Silver Apples, Suicide and Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, that inspired Nitzer Ebb, towards a kind of funky, electronic blues – with tracks like Captivate and Backlash in particular suggesting what Jagger and Richards could've sounded like had they kept their modular Moog back in '68, sacked the rest of the band, and applied themselves at mastering the electronic beast.

Thematically, the album deals with belief not merely in a religious sense, but all manner of faith in the trustworthiness of ideas or persons. Bellowed less than in the past, the vocals remain closer to sloganeering than lyricism, though tracks like
Control I'm Here – about the benefit of keeping one’s mouth shut – hint at the latter gradually taking over. It briefly touches upon reality in T.W.A, seemingly a comment on the hijacking of
TWA Flight 847, and similar acts where conscience is blunted by beliefs.

Fitting this stark slice of minimal electronic dance music, the artwork is based on Suprematist Kazimierz Malewicz's
Black Square, the title superimposed on either a black square on white ground, or hovering over a black void. More intriguingly, the anonymous section of a face gazing at the listeners appears to be appropriated from a self-portrait of the Dadaist Max Ernst, which would explain his (posthumous) mention in the sleeve credits. Casting Ernst as Big Brother seems rather appropriate, given that when asked about his favourite pastime as a child he purportedly answered "Seeing".

Despite the stark packaging and contents, Nitzer Ebb could hardly be dubbed a dour bunch, their humour surfacing in
Without Belief, as well as in the modified legalese that accompanied their recordings at the time, informing the listener that public performance etc. is "prohibited unless suitable incentives are offered", and that the records themselves were manufactured in "so called" Great Britain. Clearly these Chelmsford lads had little faith in the
grocer's daughter minding the shop.

January 7, 2009

Looking toward 2009, part II.

Astronomers can look forward to an exciting year, with the official launch of the International Year of Astronomy in January, aimed not only at celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei first demonstrating his improved telescope, but to stimulate interest in science generally and astronomy in particular. The main event will be April's 100 Hours of Astronomy, intended to encourage as many people as possible to peer through a telescope for the first time.

And there'll be plenty to crack a gander at: an annular solar eclipse in January, the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st Century in July, and three (in May, July, and December) triple conjunctions of Jupiter and Neptune. NASA will celebrate the 40th anniversary of humanity arriving on the Moon, by smacking the LCROSS probe into the pockmarked satellite — an event that will also be visible on Earth via telescope. NASA's Kepler Mission to discover Earth-like planets will hopefully be a lot less violent.

Back on Earth, physicists will eagerly anticipate the second attempt to start up the world's largest high-energy particle accelerator, the
Large Hadron Collider. The ensuing smacking around of protons in the world's largest machine, in order to discover hitherto hypothetical quantities of inner space fragments, may turn out to be the biggest (no pun intended) event in a century's particle research.

Save perhaps Tom Tykwer's (Run, Lola, Run) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's (Amelie) new films, cinema's prospects in 2009 appear rather dull. Tykwer’s The International has Clive Owen and Naomi Watts taking on a particularly evil bank
, while Jeunet's Micmacs à tire-larigot pokes fun at the arms trade. Faces familiar to Jeunet's fans, like Dominique Pinon, Albert Dupontel, André Dussollier, Yolande Moreau, and Dominique Bettenfeld will appear — though Jamel Debbouze has pulled out.

There's also The Maiden Heist, a comedy in which Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, and William H. Macy portray museum security guards with a somewhat unhealthy attachment to certain exhibits, and the likely most hyped film of 2009,
Star Trek. Among the myriad of things audiences will undoubtedly be left to ponder (apart from the usual time travel drivel) is whether the fact that the female Starfleet officers' miniskirts being longer now then they were in the 60s represents a step forward or back.

Children's books turned into film this year include Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) with a screenplay by McSweeney's founder David Egger, blending live action, animation, and CGI, with actors in large foam suits, as well as Roald Dalh's Fantastic Mr Fox, a stop-motion animation with characters voiced by George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Houston, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Meryl Streep among others, with Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) contributing "three, four" songs.

Old favourites being rehashed this year also include Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie (Snatch), with Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr Watson attempting to — oh, tedium — stop a conspiracy from destroying Britain, and The Prisoner, the iconic late 60s allegorical, psychological spy drama, which perplexingly (though such was its calling card) is being remade as a six part television

In gaming there's bound to be lots more of the usual jabbing, smacking, whacking, and gallivanting with gun in hand to be expected, though a few sophisticated titles are slated for release too. In January, twenty years after the city-building simulation game SimCity initiated a change in the average gamer profile, Electronic Arts plans to publish
SimAnimals, a fauna-simulation game allowing players to run their own forest complete with critters for NDS, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Wii.

In April, Microïds aim to release
Still Life 2, the long-awaited conclusion to the Post Mortem (2003) and Still Life (2005) adventure games. Far from physically challenging, these art-crime thrillers provided plenty of mental exercise in suspenseful settings, with one puzzle infamously tapping gamers' culinary skills to correctly interpret a gingerbread cookie recipe. Hopefully, the new installment will dispense with the predecessors quirks, while providing equally challenging and original puzzles within an exquisite tapestry of intrigue.

Atari's set it sights on the nostalgic, middle-aged gamer, with Ghostbusters: the Video Game set for a June release coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the first film’s premiere. It's the sixth computer game adaptation of the parapsychologists-cum-apparition-exterminators' adventures, this time around for NDS, PC, PS2, PS3, Wii, and X360. Identical to the pitch for Ghostbusters III, the story's written by original authours Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis, with Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts adding their voices; Rick Moranis couldn't be coaxed out of retirement and Sigourney Weaver simply wasn't game.

Gaming Boomers may appreciate MTV Games efforts to roll out The Beatles (working title) music video game for PS2, PS3, Wii, and X360 in time for Christmas. Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Olivia Harrison are involved in producing a game that would allow players to "interpret" 45 songs, ranging from the albums Please, Please Me to Abbey Road, in the guise of their favourite Beatle.

On the cutting edge, Heavy Rain from Quantic Dream will likely be the sharpest contender of 2009. The French outfit, which previously created the action-adventures Omikron: the Nomad Soul (1999, with contributions from David Bowie) and Fahrenheit (2005, titled Indigo Prophecy in North America), has presented
impressive previews, but will initially only design the game for PS3. A sequel to Fahrenheit might also be released this year, for PC, PS3, and X360.

January 3, 2009

Looking toward 2009, part I.

As the New Year dawns media commonly fills up with retrospectives and rankings, as though dwelling on the past could possibly teach us something. If history has ever taught anyone anything, it that it's never prevented anyone from indulging the very proclivities that make us human. A far more worthwhile pursuit would be to instead gaze forward, to the coming year's possibilities, opportunities and events.

One of the main events will no doubt be the end of the Bush-dynasty's reign for a foreseeable future, with the anointment of the first elected non-white leader of any Western state. Often compared to President Lincoln, who — had he been alive — would've turned 200 in February, Mr Obama will hopefully not only live up to the enormous expectations he has inspired, but also manage to stay alive in office longer than that protoplast of idealised American unity.

Lincoln happened to share his birthday with Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who first proposed the mechanism of natural selection. Although Mr Darwin too would've turned 200 in February, and his famous book,
On the Origin of the Species, celebrates 150 years in print this coming November, one suspects we'll hear more about the idolised president(s) than the much maligned evolutionary theorist.

Travellers confounded by local currency may fare somewhat better now that Slovakia has replaced its koruna with the euro, while the East African Community hopes to reintroduce the East African shilling as a common currency among its member states (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda) towards the end of the year. As for the EU's
Lisbon Treaty, no one seems quite sure of where it's at. It should, as of now, be in effect, but since it requires all 27 EU members approval — and the Irish distinctly don't — it obviously can't be.

While the EU tries to sort that snag out, the UK will take yet another tentative step towards becoming a democracy in the modern sense of the word by finally establishing an independent judiciary. The UK Supreme Court, as a court of last resort within the realm, will take on the judicial functions of the House of Lords, separating them from the Lords' legislative ones. Perhaps in another century or so the Brits may even jolly well pack the monarchy in.

Canada too could edge closer to a system of representation that actually reflects popular will, as British Columbia prepares to hold yet another referendum (in conjunction with a general election) on reforming our antiquated electoral system by introducing the
Single Transferable Vote. Of course, should it pass the change won't likely be in place until 2013, and then only in BC; federally such a change would no doubt take even longer. A safer bet is we'll face yet another federal election sooner.

In fact maybe as soon as the end of January, when the Conservative minority government presents its new budget. The government will either tone its reactionary antics down, allow the Liberals to prop it up, and deliver a budget that passes, or persist in its churlish childishness and lose power. In the first scenario, the Liberals will come across as wimps, take the blame for any budget deficits, get slapped around with confidence motion threats, and the knives will be out among the opposition parties, their coalition at an end. In the second, we either end up with a largely unpopular coalition government, or an election the opposition (never mind the electorate) can scarcely afford.

However, nonsense won't be restricted to politics in 2009. Take, for instance, Sheik Mo's Babylonian folly, the Burj Dubai (The Dubai Tower), slated for completion in September. A supertall skyscraper, the tallest man-made object of any sort ever constructed, currently at 780 m (2,559 ft) and
still rising. This time around an angered deity needn't confound anyone's language; simply messing with the economy should do the trick.

Closer to home, the Icon Towers are set to become Edmonton's tallest residential structures, at 92 m (303 ft) and 112 m (368 ft) respectively. Not quite tall enough for local oil sheiks to impress their foreign chums, due to the fact that Edmonton does have a municipal airport smack dabble downtown. Hence, Transport Canada (the government's aviation body) won't allow any buildings over 150 m anywhere near the city centre. So, short of actually flying, 42 floors are about as high as one can (legally) get here.

If bobbing around the ocean suits one better, then the forthcoming December maiden voyage of the Oasis of the Seas — the largest passenger vessel ever constructed — could be the ticket. Ridiculously oversized, this monstrosity will allow its 6000 or so passengers to forget their even at sea. Never mind exotic destinations — the craft, larger than an average aircraft carrier, is the destination. By contrast, the completion of the Chenab Bridge, spanning its namesake river in Jammu and Kashmir, seems infinitely more practical. At 359 m (1,178 ft), it will be the world's tallest railway bridge.


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