Archive for January, 2011

The latest winter storm to hit New York dropped 15 inches of snow on Central Park last Wednesday night – making it the fourth measuring at least 4 inches this winter.

According to the New York Daily News :

By 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the Central Park snowfall total for the winter was at 37.1 inches – well above the average amount of 22 inches.

We are due another five inches tomorrow.

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By complete coincidence I got to number 20 of A History of the World in 100 Objects – the British Museum’s statue of Ramesses II – as protests erupted in Egypt (incredible eyewitness photo).

The giant statue inspired poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to create Ozymandias in 1818 – but it seems startlingly relevant to current events.

He knew what had happened to Egypt after Ramesses – with the crown passing to Libyans and Nubians, Persians and Macedonians, and Ramesses’ statue itself squabbled over by European intruders.  Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ is a meditation not on imperial grandeur, but on the transience of earthly power, and in it Ramesses’ statue becomes a symbol of the futility of all human achievement.


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


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I spent the day trying to work while keeping one eye on Al Jazeera English’s excellent live stream of events in Egypt.

– Robert Fisk writes about Egypt’s day of reckoning and a new truth dawning on the Arab World :

It is not possible any more, for the people of the Arab world to lie to each other. The lies are finished. The words of their leaders – which are, unfortunately, our own words – have finished. It is we who have led them into this demise. It is we who have told them these lies. And we cannot recreate them any more.

– Yasmine El Rashidi has an eye witness account from Cairo, “Hosni Mabarak, the plan is waiting” (The New York Review of Books);

– and William Pfaff writes in the same publication on Uprisings: From Tunis to Cairo;

– The Atlantic has the story behind an iconic photo from the protests taken by one of the participants and posted online:

No need to hope mainstream media shows up. No need to wait for tomorrow’s papers. Everything can move quickly and though the Egyptian government has now blocked Facebook and Twitter, photos and videos are getting out. If there’s one thing that we should have learned from the file-sharing wars, it’s that the files will get out.

Today was also the 25th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in which the seven crew members lost their lives just 73 seconds after take off.  A quarter of a century later, I can still vividly remember coming home from school and sitting down in front of the TV to watch the launch while still in my uniform – and then the shock of seeing the images unfolding before my eyes.

I can also remember Dr. Richard Feynman during the subsequent hearings to find out why the Challenger failed. He dropped an O-ring into a cup of iced water to show that they became brittle and broke in cold weather which inspired my interest in science.

– another inspirational figure: Japanese woman who starts writing poetry at 92 and becomes a best seller (The Guardian)

Have a good weekend.

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“When people come to the museum, they choose their own objects and make their own journey round the world and through time, I think what they will find, is that their own histories quickly intersect with everybody else’s – and when that happens, you no longer have a history of a particular people or nation, but a story of endless connections.”

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum

A History of the World in 100 Objects combines two of my favourite things from home – Radio 4 and the British Museum. The book accompanying the series was a bestseller and I only managed to get a copy because I was in a shop just after a delivery (providing the perfect riposte to those who think you have to dumb things down to be successful).

I use a pestle and mortar to grind spices and through the podcast discovered a connection to the people of  Papua New Guinea who used a bird-shaped pestle in the same way 4,000 to 8,000 years ago.

This ancient pestle is also used to illustrate the time, about 10,000 years ago, when we became farmers and for the first time bred animals, cultivated plants and cooked them in new ways. Martin Jones, professor of archaeological science at Cambridge University, points out this gave humans a competitive edge over other species as we could eat food that would have been indigestible, or even poisonous, when raw.

Early human’s competitive advantage is also shown by the oldest object in the British Museum, a stone chopping tool made nearly two million years ago, found in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, East Africa :

“From this point on, we can’t survive without the things we make and, in this sense, it is making things that makes us human.”

Another object found in the Olduvai Gorge, a handaxe from between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago, highlights the beginning of speech. Scientists have found that areas of the modern brain that are activated when you make a handaxe overlap with those used for speech:

“It now seems very likely that if you can shape a stone you can shape a sentence.”

We transformed from toolmakers into artists as long ago as the Ice Age as shown by this beautiful sculpture of swimming reindeer carved from a mammoth tusk about 13,000 years ago.

These objects show that humans have not fundamentally changed.  Our ancestors had the same preoccupations that as us – family, religion, art, sex, love and food. As MacGregor says:

Leakey’s discoveries in the warm earth of the Rift Valley did more than push humans back in time, they made it clear that all of us descend from those African ancestors … So it’s good, it’s essential in fact, to be reminded that the idea of our common humanity is not just an enlightenment dream, but a genetic and a cultural reality.”

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As yesterday was the coldest day in New York since 2005 and it snowed again this morning, it seemed appropriate to watch this beautiful video by Jamie Stuart.

As movie critic Roger Ebert says : “Any professional will tell you the talent exhibited here is extraordinary.”

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And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

I am familiar with these famous words but as last Thursday was the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy becoming President I watched his inauguration speech for the first time. He was just forty-three, then the youngest President, but also the first born in the twentieth century and the first Catholic.

Half a century on, his hopes for a new age still ring true – we should be unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of human rights and that a free society needs to help the many who are poor to save the few who are rich.

Now the trumpet summons us again–not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need–not as a call to battle, though embattled we are– but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation–a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

NationalJournal on why Kennedy’s speech still speaks to America;

The Book Bench on 86-year-old poet Robert Frost reciting The Gift Outright at the ceremony;

six secrets of the speech’s success;

LIFE photos of the  day;

Smithsonian Magazine uses the anniversary to highlight Kennedy’s expansion of the power of the presidency, especially in foreign affairs, and the consequences for him, for America and for the rest of the world.

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National Geographic has launched a series of articles on the world’s population reaching seven billion this year. Some of the fascinating facts from the magazine :

“In 1975 only three cities worldwide topped ten million – today there are 21 such megacities.

Before the 20th century, no human had lived through a doubling of the human population, but there are people alive today who have seen it triple.

There are more than twice as many people on the planet today as there were in 1960.

The current population of the planet could fit into the state of Texas, if Texas were settled as densely as New York.”

– a 50-year anniversary:  The Tyranny of Defense Inc. in The Atlantic recalls President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address on January 17, 1961. He warned Americans of the dangerous rise of the “military-industrial complex”:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. Any nation that pours its treasure into the purchase of armaments is spending more than mere money. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

To emphasize the point, Eisenhower offered specifics:

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities … We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

– defence spending is not on the list compiled by Nobel Laureates of eight very small investments that will help the planet the most, number one being micronutrients;

– from The Social Animal in the The New Yorker:

I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”

– New York makes me happy even though it is the most unequal city in the most unequal state in the most unequal developed country in the world.

Have a good weekend.

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The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds 2010 at Tate Modern

I recently caught Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in London:

Each seed has been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape.

Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.

So it is heartbreaking to learn that Shanghai authorities have demolished his studio which he had the strength to describe as an ultimate work of art.

British journalist Jon Snow met Ai last October and the artist handed him some  sunflower seeds from the exhibition. Snow has kept them in his jacket pocket ever since.

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National Geographic has a great new map of United States based on the distribution of common surnames which gives an idea of the country’s immigration waves.

I was particularly interested to learn that :

Many of these names came from Great Britain, reflecting the long head start the British had over many other settlers. The low diversity of names in parts of the British Isles also had an impact. Williams, for example, was a common name among Welsh immigrants—and is still among the top names in many American states.

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“As the suggestion took root, I watched Martin push aside the text of the speech I’d helped prepare – a text it bears noting, that did not contain the phrase ‘I have a dream’ ”

Behind the Dream : The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation by Clarence B Jones

As it is Martin Luther King Day, it felt appropriate to read this behind the scenes look at the creation of the momentous “I Have A Dream” speech.

I was amazed to learn that Dr King improvised the most memorable parts of the speech. He paused after reaching the seventh paragraph of his prepared remarks and at that point singer Mahalia Jackson, who was listening on stage, called out : ” Tell ’em about the ‘Dream’ Martin, tell ’em about the ‘Dream!'”

“And he improvised it all. He spoke of children of different races holding hands. He spoke of a great metaphoric leveling of the land and a straightening out of ‘crooked places,’ which of course has an amazing dual meaning that would take some writers a lifetime to come up with.

It was hypnotic. Each time Martin told us that he had a dream, the world was pulled one step closer inside it. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The crowd was rapt. I was charged with a feverish kind of love for my friend. By the time Martin quoted Samuel Francis Smith’s “America” I figured you could measure the tears of joy in the crowd by the gallon.”

Proof that the right person at the right time with the right words really can change history.

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