What’s so “alternative” about food??

Food is recognized as one way that ethnic cultures are assimilated into the mainstream culture. This week at Science Workshop, Valerie Imbruce will use her on-going research about Chinatown in Manhattan to show that ethnicity has been used to construct networks of trade that supply traditional Chinese foods in order to serve the needs of enclave, sustain ethnic foodways, and provide up to one-quarter of the jobs in Chinatown. Chinese food also holds a powerful place in America’s culinary imagination. Savvy restaurateurs have used humble Chinese foodstuffs to create a very public ethnic identity and promote the adoption of Chinese cuisine into American culture. This example illustrates how ethnicity is used in the material and symbolic construction of an alternative food network and how the alterity of alternative food networks does not just live outside of the mainstream, but interacts with it.

Keeping Up With the Literature

I just added a new category to the ‘Resources’ tab — high-quality blogs and news sites focused on what’s current and new in science.  Most of these are digests and reflections on current research publications, and some are provided by the best science writers going.  Some are more ‘meta’ but sometimes surprisingly provocative:

Check out a few (and they’ll lead you to others).  If you find them engaging or amusing, then you know you might be a nerd.  Join the crowd.  Pick the ones that interest you most and subscribe to their feeds (I use google reader cause it’s easy…).  Do be careful, though; there are plenty of crank-blogs and conspiracy sites, too — amusing, but not to be taken seriously.  Maybe we should make a collection of those, too?

Here’s a blog by one of our alums — Daniel Levitis ’00.  What’s stopping you?

Turtle wars!

Biologist Betsy Sherman took this video in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Grand Cayman. She studies coral reef biology under the auspices of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment. This summer she will lead another Field Course in Coral Reef Biology for students with some experience in biology. Students will have an opportunity to learn to scuba dive, work with international scientists and contribute to research on coral reef conservation. Stay tuned for updates!

Welcome to Bennington, Katie Montovan!

If you happen to stroll over to our faculty list this coming Fall, you’ll see a new name. Katie Montovan, an applied mathematician currently in the process of finishing her Ph. D. at Cornell University’s Center for Applied Math, will be joining us as our new full-time mathematics faculty member, teaming up with current mathematician Andrew McIntyre to offer a rich, innovative math curriculum. After accepting Bennington’s offer, Katie visited campus in early February to get acquainted with the area a bit and to meet with her soon-to-be colleagues. Ecology faculty member Kerry Woods and his wife Cas hosted an old-fashioned Vermont potluck (at their home in nearby Cambridge, New York) to welcome Katie and her partner Maggie to our community.

Katie Montovan (second from right) is welcomed at a mid-winter potluck by, among others not shown, Kerry and Cas Woods (far right and left) and Karen Schroeder (second from left).

Her mentors at Cornell enthusiastically praise her skills as a teacher. In addition to teaching foundation courses at Bennington, such as calculus, Katie proposed several novel offerings that will reach out to students beyond Dickinson. For example, there’s The Art of Mathematics, in which students “will investigate the connections between math and art by studying artworks that address mathematical concepts and learning mathematics through art”.

Ms. Montovan’s current research work is in using modeling, particularly game
theory and dynamical systems,to understand the evolutionary ecology of a parasite.The parasitic wasp she studies lays its eggs in eggs of its butterfly host—but never in more than 30% of the available eggs. Why? Ms. Montovan develops
mathematical models for a number of proposed biological answers, and compares
their results to experimental data. She discussed this work in a fascinating seminar in December and will no doubt continue to find interesting and accessible problems on which to practice her craft.

Katie wants to be not only a mathematician, but an active mentor and member of a
community, and we have the greatest confidence that she will be an ideal addition to the Bennington College community. Please feel free to leave a comment offering your own welcome to Katie. We’re all thrilled she’ll be joining us.


Exploring Sound and Sight in Three Dimensions: New York City, February 1-3, 2013

At the invitation of my good friend, Mark Mitton, I spent a weekend in New York City attending events dedicated to exploring how we reproduce the world—sonically and visually—in three dimensions.

The first event, on Friday night, was Sound and Shape Night, which was hosted by Mark and his friend, Greg Calbi, at Sterling Sound, Greg’s recording studio in Chelsea. Here, we witnessed a remarkable demonstration, by Edgar Choueiri, of his new Band-Assembled Crosstalk Cancellation Hierarchy (BACCH) filtering process for faithfully reproducing a three-dimensional sound stage through conventional stereo speakers. Edgar’s filtering methodology builds on the tried-and-true techniques of binaural recording, but isn’t plagued by the very unreal perception of the sound stage being ‘inside your head’ or the need to wear headphones in order to experience the 3D effect. The idea is this: traditional stereophonic and binaural recordings and their playback through speakers and headphones introduce a significant amount of crosstalk—that is, the sound that ‘bleeds’ between left and right channels and thus causes unreal (and sometimes unpleasant) colorations in each ear. To demonstrate the crosstalk effect, here’s an experiment—suggested by Edgar—that you can, indeed, try at home: First, sit down and listen to your favorite recording for a few minutes. Now, place a large mattress on its side (lengthwise) midway between the two speakers and listen to the same selection. Make sure that your chair is immediately in front of the mattress, and when you sit down, position your head so that your nose (e.g., the midline of your face) is directly up against the mattress. You should hear a dramatic difference—and hopefully an improvement—in the overall dimensionality of the sound. You’ve effectively applied an analog filter (the mattress) and cut down quite a bit (though not all) of the crosstalk between speakers. Edgar has implemented a similar approach—albeit in digital form—to the crosstalk problem, with the further innovation of tuning his BACCH filter to the individual listener’s head dimensions and position in the room.

Hearing is Believing: In the case of recordings that were made by Edgar from scratch (in large spaces, such as New York area churches) using binaural recording techniques and his own proprietary digital filter process, the sound stage seemed eerily real during playback through Sterling Sound’s high-quality studio monitors. Even though we never had to don headphones for the demo, Edgar did perform an individual preliminary calibration on a few of us, using a set of binaural microphones, before applying his filter and playing back the musical selection. It wasn’t necessary for each of us to undergo calibration measurements to hear a convincingly immersive 3D effect, as long as we positioned ourselves directly behind a primary listener for whom a calibration had been performed.

In contrast to Edgar’s ‘live from scratch’ recordings, selections of rock, electronic, and classical music that had been made years before–using conventional recording, mastering, and mixdown techniques–sounded impressively three-dimensional, but not necessarily ‘real,’ in the sense of what the producers and recording engineers might have originally intended (an important point made by Greg during our discussions after the demo).

For a profile of Edgar and his work, see the recent piece by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

Apart from Mark, Greg, Edgar, and me, also in attendance at Sound and Shape Night were diverse folks from the worlds of engineering, physics, sound recording, musical composition and performance, visual arts, and cuisine (long demos demand good eats), including Bo Gehring, George Zweig, Peter Steinberg, David Chesky, Ryan and Trevor Oakes, George Bisacca, and Nils Noren.

Needless to say, the post-demo discussion was lively and fascinating, and the dinner afterwards—prepared by Nils—was delicious beyond description (here’s a link to Nils’ Harlem eatery, Red Rooster).

The second event I attended during my ‘3D sound and sight’ weekend was a gathering on Saturday night that continued into Sunday afternoon, hosted by Ryan and Trevor Oakes at their Mercer Street studio. Ryan and Trevor are twin brothers and visual artists who have all but discarded the traditionally flat surface of the canvas in favor of curved media that are truer, in their geometry, to the curved surface of the retina at the back of the human eye. Using a method they devised involving the splitting of the visual fields and use of a curved easel, the Oakes brothers are able to realize, in their drawings, remarkable 2D transforms of 3D space (see photos below).

One of the panoramic pieces by the Oakes Brothers, shown in their Mercer Street studio.

Another panoramic piece by the Oakes Brothers, shown in their Mercer Street studio.

A series of panoramic pieces by the Oakes Brothers installed in their Mercer Street studio.

Apart from their ingenious intuitions about how to render images that are more faithful to the way we actually see the world, Ryan and Trevor have an amazing faculty for allowing the geometric properties of the media they employ dictate–and even constrain–the shape of the 3D forms they create. In addition to their renderings on parabolic surfaces, they also create amazing 3D sculptures using cardboard, matchsticks, and pipe cleaners. Their seemingly complex pipe cleaner pieces (see photos below) are especially breathtaking—particularly to any biologist familiar with the process of animal development.

Two of the 3D forms created by the Oakes Brothers from pipe cleaners by following simple rules. Oakes Brothers Studio, NYC.

Beginning with a set of very simple local rules (e.g., “start with six pipe cleaner ‘elements,” “green pipe cleaners can wrap around green pipe cleaners, but never around red pipe cleaners,” etc.), their pipe cleaner-based forms take on 3D morphologies during their creation that are strangely reminiscent of the body plans of a number of marine animals (e.g., various corals, bryozoans, and hydras, among others).

Detail of one of the pipe cleaner forms created by the Oakes Brothers. Three-dimensional morphology emerges from the application of simple rules that dictate how different-colored pipe cleaners interact with one another. The final shape of the structure is determined and constrained by the geometric properties of its constituent [pipe cleaner] elements.

When I mentioned this observation to Ryan and Trevor, they were really intrigued. But, if you think about it, animal development involves the application of local rules early on; as the number and heterogeneity of elements (e.g.,cells) increases, there are heightened constraints on the possible geometries that a developing animal’s form can assume. The creation of Ryan and Trevor’s pipe cleaner forms follows a similar set of local rules and mounting constraints—and therein lies the native ingenuity of their work.

My take-home impression of the time spent with the Oakes Twins? In a nutshell, their body of work represents an incredibly intuitive intersection of artist’s eye and hand with the workings of the biological and physical worlds. I’ve spent a long time thinking about stuff like how we see and the nature of animal form. But, Ryan and Trevor don’t need to apply this sort of forced deliberation to their creations; they simply let them take shape in the most intuitive way possible. That’s a special kind of genius.

My weekend exploration of 3D sound and sight in New York was thrilling and stimulating: one of those rare occasions during which people who occupy radically different intellectual and creative niches can walk together onto common ground and perceive a new, though reassuringly comfortable, vista ahead of them–or more aptly, all around them.

Many thanks to Mark Mitton for a deeply immersive and enlightening weekend!

Biodiversity Research in Central America

Costa Rica’s National Institute for Biodiversity (INBio) is a much admired and imitated cooperative undertaking to document and understand that small country’s vast

 taxonomic diversity.  Mara McPartland, a 2012 grad, put her studies in ecology and Spanish to use in an internship with INBio’s arthropod collections (here she is with one of the arthropods, a stick insect. Mara is the one in back).  She’s just moved on to a volunteer position at a field station in Nicaragua at Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo.