Art world swoons over Romania’s homeless genius

From The Guardian:

The guests were chic, the bordeaux was sipped with elegant restraint and the hostess was suitably glamorous in a ­canary yellow cocktail dress. To an outside observer who made it past the soirée privée sign on the door of the Anne de Villepoix gallery on Thursday night, it would have seemed the quintessential Parisian art viewing.

Yet that would been leaving one ­crucial factor out of the equation: the man whose creations the crowd had come to see. In his black cowboy hat and pressed white collar, Ion Barladeanu looked every inch the established artist as he showed guests around the exhibition. But until 2007 no one had ever seen his work, and until mid-2008 he was living in the rubbish tip of a Bucharest tower block.

Today, in the culmination of a dream for a Romanian who grew up adoring Gallic film stars and treasures a miniature Eiffel Tower he once found in a bin, ­Barladeanu will see his first French exhibition open to the general public.

Dozens of collages he created from scraps of discarded magazines during and after the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu are on sale for more than €1,000 (£895) each. They are being hailed as politically brave and culturally irreverent.

For the 63-year-old artist, the journey from the streets of Bucharest to the galleries of Europe has finally granted him recognition. “I feel as if I have been born again,” he said, as some of France’s leading collectors and curators jostled for position to see his collages. “Now I feel like a prince. A pauper can become a prince. But he can go back to being a pauper too.”

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The Chess Master and the Computer

By Gary Kasparov, From the New York Review of Books:

In 1985, in Hamburg, I played against thirty-two different chess computers at the same time in what is known as a simultaneous exhibition. I walked from one machine to the next, making my moves over a period of more than five hours. The four leading chess computer manufacturers had sent their top models, including eight named after me from the electronics firm Saitek.

It illustrates the state of computer chess at the time that it didn’t come as much of a surprise when I achieved a perfect 32–0 score, winning every game, although there was an uncomfortable moment. At one point I realized that I was drifting into trouble in a game against one of the “Kasparov” brand models. If this machine scored a win or even a draw, people would be quick to say that I had thrown the game to get PR for the company, so I had to intensify my efforts. Eventually I found a way to trick the machine with a sacrifice it should have refused. From the human perspective, or at least from my perspective, those were the good old days of man vs. machine chess.

Eleven years later I narrowly defeated the supercomputer Deep Blue in a match. Then, in 1997, IBM redoubled its efforts—and doubled Deep Blue’s processing power—and I lost the rematch in an event that made headlines around the world. The result was met with astonishment and grief by those who took it as a symbol of mankind’s submission before the almighty computer. (“The Brain’s Last Stand” read the Newsweek headline.) Others shrugged their shoulders, surprised that humans could still compete at all against the enormous calculating power that, by 1997, sat on just about every desk in the first world.

It was the specialists—the chess players and the programmers and the artificial intelligence enthusiasts—who had a more nuanced appreciation of the result. Grandmasters had already begun to see the implications of the existence of machines that could play—if only, at this point, in a select few types of board configurations—with godlike perfection. The computer chess people were delighted with the conquest of one of the earliest and holiest grails of computer science, in many cases matching the mainstream media’s hyperbole. The 2003 book Deep Blue by Monty Newborn was blurbed as follows: “a rare, pivotal watershed beyond all other triumphs: Orville Wright’s first flight, NASA’s landing on the moon….”

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The Man Who Builds Brains

From Discover:

On the quarter-mile walk between his office at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and the nerve center of his research across campus, Henry Markram gets a brisk reminder of the rapidly narrowing gap between human and machine. At one point he passes a museumlike display filled with the relics of old supercomputers, a memorial to their technological limitations. At the end of his trip he confronts his IBM Blue Gene/P—shiny, black, and sloped on one side like a sports car. That new supercomputer is the center­piece of the Blue Brain Project, tasked with simulating every aspect of the workings of a living brain.

Markram, the 47-year-old founder and codirector of the Brain Mind Institute at the EPFL, is the project’s leader and cheerleader. A South African neuroscientist, he received his doctorate from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and studied as a Fulbright Scholar at the National Institutes of Health. For the past 15 years he and his team have been collecting data on the neocortex, the part of the brain that lets us think, speak, and remember. The plan is to use the data from these studies to create a comprehensive, three-dimensional simulation of a mammalian brain. Such a digital re-creation that matches all the behaviors and structures of a biological brain would provide an unprecedented opportunity to study the fundamental nature of cognition and of disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

Until recently there was no computer powerful enough to take all our knowledge of the brain and apply it to a model. Blue Gene has changed that. It contains four monolithic, refrigerator-size machines, each of which processes data at a peak speed of 56 tera­flops (teraflops being one trillion floating-point operations per second). At $2 million per rack, this Blue Gene is not cheap, but it is affordable enough to give Markram a shot with this ambitious project. Each of Blue Gene’s more than 16,000 processors is used to simulate approximately one thousand virtual neurons. By getting the neurons to interact with one another, Markram’s team makes the computer operate like a brain. In its trial runs Markram’s Blue Gene has emulated just a single neocortical column in a two-week-old rat. But in principle, the simulated brain will continue to get more and more powerful as it attempts to rival the one in its creator’s head. “We’ve reached the end of phase one, which for us is the proof of concept,” Markram says. “We can, I think, categorically say that it is possible to build a model of the brain.” In fact, he insists that a fully functioning model of a human brain can be built within a decade.

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MondayPoem: Michelangelo’s Labor Pains

By Robert Pinsky for Slate:

After a certain point, reverence can become automatic. Our admiration for great works of art can get a bit reflexive, then synthetic, then can harden into a pious coating that repels real attention. Michelangelo’s painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican might be an example of such automatic reverence. Sometimes, a fresh look or a hosing-down is helpful—if only by restoring the meaning of “work” to the phrase “work of art.”

Michelangelo (1475-1564) himself provides a refreshing dose of reality. A gifted poet as well as a sculptor and painter, he wrote energetically about despair, detailing with relish the unpleasant side of his work on the famous ceiling. The poem, in Italian, is an extended (or “tailed”) sonnet, with a coda of six lines appended to the standard 14. The translation I like best is by the American poet Gail Mazur. Her lines are musical but informal, with a brio conveying that the Italian artist knew well enough that he and his work were great—but that he enjoyed vigorously lamenting his discomfort, pain, and inadequacy to the task. No wonder his artistic ideas are bizarre and no good, says Michelangelo: They must come through the medium of his body, that “crooked blowpipe” (Mazur’s version of “cerbottana torta“). Great artist, great depression, great imaginative expression of it. This is a vibrant, comic, but heartfelt account of the artist’s work:

Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia
“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” —1509

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

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The Graphene Revolution

From Discover:

Flexible, see-through, one-atom-thick sheets of carbon could be a key component for futuristic solar cells, batteries, and roll-up LCD screens—and perhaps even microchips.

Under a transmission electron microscope it looks deceptively simple: a grid of hexa­gons resembling a volleyball net or a section of chicken wire. But graphene, a form of carbon that can be produced in sheets only one atom thick, seems poised to shake up the world of electronics. Within five years, it could begin powering faster and better transistors, computer chips, and LCD screens, according to researchers who are smitten with this new supermaterial.

Graphene’s standout trait is its uncanny facility with electrons, which can travel much more quickly through it than they can through silicon. As a result, graphene-based computer chips could be thousands of times as efficient as existing ones. “What limits conductivity in a normal material is that electrons will scatter,” says Michael Strano, a chemical engineer at MIT. “But with graphene the electrons can travel very long distances without scattering. It’s like the thinnest, most stable electrical conducting framework you can think of.”

In 2009 another MIT researcher, Tomas Palacios, devised a graphene chip that doubles the frequency of an electromagnetic signal. Using multiple chips could make the outgoing signal many times higher in frequency than the original. Because frequency determines the clock speed of the chip, boosting it enables faster transfer of data through the chip. Graphene’s extreme thinness means that it is also practically transparent, making it ideal for transmitting signals in devices containing solar cells or LEDs.

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J. Craig Venter

From Discover:

J. Craig Venter keeps riding the cusp of each new wave in biology. When researchers started analyzing genes, he launched the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), decoding the genome of a bacterium for the first time in 1992. When the government announced its plan to map the human genome, he claimed he would do it first—and then he delivered results in 2001, years ahead of schedule. Armed with a deep understanding of how DNA works, Venter is now moving on to an even more extraordinary project. Starting with the stunning genetic diversity that exists in the wild, he is aiming to build custom-designed organisms that could produce clean energy, help feed the planet, and treat cancer. Venter has already transferred the genome of one species into the cell body of another. This past year he reached a major milestone, using the machinery of yeast to manufacture a genome from scratch. When he combines the steps—perhaps next year—he will have crafted a truly synthetic organism. Senior editor Pamela Weintraub discussed the implications of these efforts with Venter in DISCOVER’s editorial offices.

Here you are talking about constructing life, but you started out in deconstruction: charting the human genome, piece by piece.
Actually, I started out smaller, studying the adrenaline receptor. I was looking at one protein and its single gene for a decade. Then, in the late 1980s, I was drawn to the idea of the whole genome, and I stopped everything and switched my lab over. I had the first automatic DNA sequencer. It was the ultimate in reductionist biology—getting down to the genetic code, interpreting what it meant, including all 6 billion letters of my own genome. Only by understanding things at that level can we turn around and go the other way.

In your latest work you are trying to create “synthetic life.” What is that?
It’s a catchy phrase that people have begun using to replace “molecular biology.” The term has been overused, so we have defined a separate field that we call synthetic genomics—the digitization of biology using only DNA and RNA. You start by sequencing genomes and putting their digital code into a computer. Then you use the computer to take that information and design new life-forms.

How do you build a life-form? Throw in some mito­chondria here and some ribosomes there, surround ?it all with a membrane—?and voilà?
We started down that road, but now we are coming from the other end. We’re starting with the accomplishments of three and a half billion years of evolution by using what we call the software of life: DNA. Our software builds its own hardware. By writing new software, we can come up with totally new species. It would be as if once you put new software in your computer, somehow a whole new machine would materialize. We’re software engineers rather than construction workers.

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