A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for September 2014

[LINK] “You Call This Thai Food? The Robotic Taster Will Be the Judge”

Via Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen I found Thomas Fuller’s article in The New York Times describing how the government of Thailand is hoping to use robotics to solve the problem of sub-par Thai food in the wider world.

Hopscotching the globe as Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra repeatedly encountered a distressing problem: bad Thai food.

Too often, she found, the meals she sampled at Thai restaurants abroad were unworthy of the name, too bland to be called genuine Thai cooking. The problem bothered her enough to raise it at a cabinet meeting.

Her political party has since been thrown out of office, in a May military coup, but her initiative in culinary diplomacy lives on.

At a gala dinner at a ritzy Bangkok hotel on Tuesday the government will unveil its project to standardize the art of Thai food — with a robot.

Diplomats and dignitaries have been invited to witness the debut of a machine that its promoters say can scientifically evaluate Thai cuisine, telling the difference, for instance, between a properly prepared green curry with just the right mix of Thai basil, curry paste and fresh coconut cream, and a lame imitation.

A boxy contraption filled with sensors and microchips, the so-called e-delicious machine scans food samples to produce a chemical signature, which it measures against a standard deemed to be the authentic version.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2014 at 11:30 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Saving Paris’s Oldest Bookstore”

The Atlantic‘s Victoria Baena writes about the campaign to save Paris’ Librarie Delamain from rising rents. Baena explores at length the ways in which the French economy is structured to inhibit the growth of chain and online bookstores, protecting independents.

It’s difficult to imagine the shuttering of a bookstore causing a similar outcry anywhere else—not to mention direct government involvement in the matter of a private lease. This has something to do with what the French call l’exception culturelle. It doesn’t just mean cultural exceptionalism; the phrase refers more precisely to the notion that cultural goods should not be subject to the whims of the free market—and should be protected from the homogenizing onslaught of global, and in particular American, cultural imperialism.

In the U.S., such a policy would smack of protectionism. The French prefer to justify it in terms of maintaining “cultural diversity.” L’exception culturelle is the source of production quotas for radio programs made in France. It’s the reason the initial arrival of Netflix executives in France was met with a letter from producers bemoaning the “implosion of our cultural model.” And in a more general sense, it is part of a conviction in France—albeit one increasingly debated—that cultural heritage is a good with its own internal logic and value system, one that the government has the duty not only to protect but to actively promote. France even entombs its most celebrated literary and cultural figures, among other “great men” (and now women), in the Panthéon in Paris.

In the publishing sphere, l’exception culturelle morphs from a committed ideal into concrete policy. It has allowed the French to mount a challenge to the digital revolution in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

As an independent bookstore, the Librairie Delamain already receives a partial merchandising subsidy—5,000 euros in 2013—from the Centre National du Livre. In 2013, the Ministry of Culture announced a further injection of 5 million euros into the independent bookstore industry, as well as the creation of a new bureaucratic position (the stereotypical solution to all French problems)—the “book arbitrator”—who could, in cases like this one, intervene in legal disputes without forcing the small businesses to involve themselves in expensive litigation. Booksellers like Delamain are also aided by the loi Lang, a 1981 law named after a former minister of culture, which limits discounts on books to 5 percent of their cover price. Earlier this summer, a so-called “anti-Amazon” amendment extended this limit to online booksellers and prohibits them from offering free shipping on reduced-price books.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2014 at 11:26 pm

[LINK] “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books”

Mic’s Rachel Grate has a nice piece examining how reading physical books is actually healthier than reading e-books.

It’s no secret that reading is good for you. Just six minutes of reading is enough to reduce stress by 68%, and numerous studies have shown that reading keeps your brain functioning effectively as you age. One study even found that elderly individuals who read regularly are 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than their peers. But not all forms of reading are created equal.

[. . .]

A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

Our brains were not designed for reading, but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. The brain reads by constructing a mental representation of the text based on the placement of the page in the book and the word on the page.

The tactile experience of a book aids this process, from the thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through the story to the placement of a word on the page. Mangen hypothesizes that the difference for Kindle readers “might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading.”

While e-readers try to recreate the sensation of turning pages and pagination, the screen is limited to one ephemeral virtual page. Surveys about the use of e-readers suggest that this affects a reader’s serendipity and sense of control. The inability to flip back to previous pages or control the text physically, either through making written notes or bending pages, limits one’s sensory experience and thus reduces long-term memory of the text.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2014 at 11:22 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Gay Africans Seeking Asylum in New York”

I’ve made two link posts so far this year about gay African refugees settling in New York City, one in April and one in June. At The New York Times‘ Lens blog, Fayemi Shakur has a photo essay examining the lives of gay refugees from Nigeria.

Nigeria’s passage of a law criminalizing same-sex relationships drew immediate international outrage earlier this year. In New York, gay activists held protests outside the Nigerian government’s offices, something that amazed Rahima Gambo. With so much of life hidden in Nigeria, she said, nothing so bold would have happened there.

That realization led Ms. Gambo, a Nigerian photographer raised in London, to explore the lives of the growing number of gay men who have fled to the United States seeking asylum and a chance to live freely. It was during the March protest in New York that she met Saheed Ipadeola, a young man living in Brooklyn who introduced her to other asylum seekers. They shared their stories in ways that would never be seen in Nigerian media, which she said reduced them to stereotypes without dignity.

She saw them as survivors.

“Many of the men I document are proud of their identities and still connected to family members in Nigeria, but there’s this constant strain of wanting to be vocal but fearing for family and loved ones,” Ms. Gambo, 28, said. “All of the men always say there was nothing to go back to. They all talk of this fatigue of the Nigerian system, and the law being passed was a final nail in the coffin.”

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2014 at 11:21 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “TTC says puncture from Metrolinx contractors led to subway stoppage”

Global News’ James Armstrong reports on the causes of today’s subway stoppage at Dundas West station. It sounds as if much more extensive repair work will be needed, likely involving more subway stoppages. One only hopes the next ones are planned.

Subway service was suspended both ways between St. George and Ossington stations this morning after water and silt fell onto the tracks forcing the TTC to stop trains at Dundas West station.

The silt and rain water made its way to the track floor through a puncture of the tunnel by Metrolinx contractors working on the Union Pearson Express nearby.

“It came to the point where the wheels of the train were going to be obstructed by the silt,” Mike Palmer, the deputy COO of the TTC said.

The TTC patched up the puncture a few weeks ago, Palmer said. But overnight, something “shifted” leading to Tuesday morning’s closure.

Close to 100 people are working on cleaning up the debris, Palmer said. The TTC fully reopened Line 2 at approximately 3 p.m.

But that’s only a temporary solution. The TTC and Metrolinx crews are working on coming up with a permanent solution to plug the hole for the next two to three decades, Palmer said – but right now, they don’t know exactly how they’ll do it.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2014 at 11:09 pm

[URBAN NOTE] On today’s TTC maintenance issues at the Dundas West subway station

My afternoon commute was made rather more exciting and deadline-packed than I preferred by the discovery of debris on the tracks at Dundas West station. Torontoist’s Sarah Sweet had an early report.

Subway service between Keele and St. George stations was halted at 8 a.m. this morning due to track issues at Dundas West Station. “The tracks are being blocked,” tweeted TTC Customer Service, “and for safety reasons we have to wait until area cleared.” A later message indicates the subway shutdown is now affecting service between Keele and Ossington stations.

Originally, the TTC announced service would resume by noon, but it is no longer offering a predicted time: “Please disregard the expected completion time for the delay at Dundas West Station. There is currently no expected clearing time.”

The situation is creating both subway and surface route delays: the shuttle buses pressed into service to run between the stations affected have had to be pulled off regular routes.

blogTO’s Chris Bateman had more. (Plenty of pictures from Twitter, too.)

The TTC was forced to shut down a large portion of the Bloor-Danforth line at the height of this morning’s rush hour after debris was found on the tracks near Dundas West station.

The closure forced packed trains to empty at Keele and St. George, leaving hundreds of people to crowd into station corridors and stairways. There were reports on Twitter of people fainting amid the crush.

A small portion of the line beyond St. George re-opened in an effort to reduce crowding. Right now, the subway is out between Keele and Ossington.

At a press conference this afternoon, TTC Deputy Chief Operating Officer Mike Palmer said a Metrolinx contractor punctured the concrete roof of the tunnel with a metal I-beam earlier in the week, but a subsequent inspection determined the structure was safe.

Palmer said changing ground water conditions allowed sand and silt to come through the roof. Repair crews are patching the leak in anticipation of removing the beam, which is protruding about three inches into the tunnel, at a later date.

Happily, the Toronto Star reports that things are back to normal. I’d comment that it’s fitting that an event like this happened at the end of the term of Rob Ford, a mayor who talked about boosting the TTC and building subways but actually ended up doing very little that was not destructive to urban mass transit.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2014 at 8:58 pm

[PHOTO] Dovercourt Road alley

Dovercourt Road alley

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2014 at 3:53 pm