Reviews

Tuesday, May 01, 2001


Three inventions have literally changed the way we see the world. The telescope allowed us to gaze into the heavens; the microscope, to peer into our very cells. And the camera stopped time in its tracks, giving permanency to the ephemeral and the evanescent. Those captured images stirred scientific revolutions. "Suddenly we were able to see things we had never seen before," says curator Therese Mulligan of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. The first images of lightning were taken in the 1880s and were the basis for naming the different types of crackling energy strikes. "Doctors and physiologists used photography to examine diseases. Photographing the insane was the beginning of modern psychology," she adds.

The Eastman House (www.eastman.org) is a fitting homage to the man who revolutionized photography. The founder of Eastman Kodak, George Eastman simplified the elemental tools for taking pictures: cameras and film. In 1880, he invented a gelatin dry-plate coating that soon replaced clumsy wet-plate glass negatives. In 1900, he introduced the Kodak Brownie camera, which clicked with the American public at the low price of one dollar (film cost just 15 cents a roll). His chemists developed flexible celluloid film for one of Thomas Edison's new moving-picture cameras and helped spur the growth of the motion picture industry. And it was Eastman who set the international standard for moving film at 35 mm, four perforations per frame.

The museum, housed at Eastman's estate in the heart of Rochester, New York, is a mecca for photography and film buffs. Built in 1905 with the latest modern conveniences, including a central vacuum system, an internal telephone exchange, and an elevator, the 50-room mansion now contains a staggering 400,000 prints and negatives, 25,000 films, and 45,000 books. Its technology collection holds more than 23,000 items, including early daguerreotype cameras and some unusual Eastman Kodak products, including Coquette cameras with matching compacts and lipsticks and snakeskin- and alligator-covered Kodaks from the 1930s.

To learn about the history of photography, visitors should start with the Pencil of Nature interactive exhibition. Although photography grew directly from scientific investigations of the 1700s into chemistry, light, color, and vision, to the public it smacked of magic and alchemy and early on was often called "the black art." The dark chemical stains left on photographers' hands also contributed to the name.

Gallery exhibitions feature classic and contemporary photography, such as Dorothea Lange's 1936 portrait of a California migrant woman and Eddie Addams's 1968 photo of a Vietnamese general executing a countryman point-blank in the head on a Saigon street. Visitors can also call ahead to make an appointment to see major photographic documents of the Civil War or to screen films from the private libraries of Cecil B. DeMille, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee as well as to view unique cameras and other equipment usually kept in protective vaults. Whether your interest in photography is general or very specific, a trip to Eastman House will tutor your eye and enrich your soul.

 


Toys

A creepy-crawly you can love


Courtesy of WowWee
Forget about placing that emergency call to the exterminator. Here are some oversized bugs that you'll welcome as houseguests. Unveiled at the recent New York Toy Fair and scheduled to crawl into stores in September, B.I.O. Bugs are four-legged robots, about 1 foot long, whose movements are delightfully chaotic. Instead of moving in straight lines, "they do strange little things that you'd expect from an animal running across the floor," says their designer, Mark Tilden, a robotic physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The battery-operated bugs— B.I.O. stands for Biomechanical Integrated Organism— come in four species (Hasbro's WowWee Toys, $39.99 each) and are programmed to respond to infrared signals they beam to one another. If the bugs are of the same species, they move across the floor together as a herd; if not, they try to sit on one another. The plodding green bugs maneuver well over rough terrain like carpets, while the faster yellow bugs scamper quickly across smooth surfaces like wooden floors. The blue bugs are hoppers and travel willy-nilly from surface to surface. Then there are the villainous red bugs, which look and act like giant termites. "They are nasty," says Tilden. "They have a predatory attitude and will attack even creatures of their own kind."

A rash of sensors linked together by a "nervous network" determine how each individual B.I.O. Bug will react to more highly evolved creatures, namely humans. "It knows when it's being held up in the air by its back foot," Tilden notes. "And it is able to assess if it is losing or winning a push-and-pull war." Remarkably, a B.I.O. Bug can adapt its behavior in response to circumstances. For instance, if the critter's path is consistently blocked by a human foot, it will back up and take a running start.

B.I.O. Bugs feed on infrared waves emitted from a transmitter, which can be used as a remote control to direct their every move or just change the tone of their behavior to become, say, more or less aggressive. Strangely, the robotic insects also like to "snack" on waves from household appliances. Adults microwaving a midnight treat may suddenly find one in the kitchen. Just like a real bug.
Fenella Saunders

 


Television

Westward Ho!
Can three modern families survive 1880s Montana?

By Deborah A. Hudson

TV's Survivor pits people against each other in exotic locales and rewards those left standing with stunning sums of money. Now comes a new reality show that favors cooperation, takes place in America, and is an experiment in docu-anthropology that offers no prize other than the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity.

Frontier House was inspired by 1900 House, the British series that featured the Bowler family coping with a Victorian-era London home. In this new series, which starts shooting this spring, three families travel back in time to 1880s Montana to live like early homesteaders. During the next six months, they will build homes, dig wells, herd livestock, raise crops, make soap, wash clothes, bake bread, and churn butter, using only the tools and techniques available then.

"This kind of personal, historical experience will provide rare insight into just how much everyday life has been affected by technological advances," says Beth Hoppe, executive producer for WNET/Thirteen, the public station coproducing the experiment with Britain's Wall to Wall Television. "We thought that since the American West is our big myth, it would be great to get behind it."

In the popular imagination, the American West is largely the story of cowboys and gunfights. All but forgotten are the true settlers of the frontier: farm families. The U.S. Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres of land to anyone willing to farm it. In 40 years, the promise of a better life led 600,000 farmers and wanna-bes to claim some 80 million acres of public land.

Frontier House producer Simon Shaw and his team have painstakingly re-created that era for the new pioneers, whose identities will remain secret until the six-part series airs early next year. They've assembled the implements and household goods that settlers took west— everything from cast-iron Dutch ovens and feather mattresses to patent medicines and farm tools— and set up a local store where Frontier House families will purchase supplies. "The reality of how people lived is so far from Little House on the Prairie," says Shaw. "For instance, boots were made in only one size for adults. Women arrived at their homesteads in tightly tailored clothing over corsets," which they continued to wear.

To ease their transition to frontier life, the new settlers have had two weeks of training in such basic skills as horseback riding, milking a cow, and preserving milk without refrigeration. Homesteading "is a simple life, yes, but it's damn sure a hard one," says their instructor, Rawhide Johnson, an expert in historic wheeled vehicles. The hardest lesson he teaches: driving a team of horses. "People get a little lackadaisical hooking them up or unhooking them, and the team can take off," he says. "A 20-mile-an-hour wreck with a team can feel like sitting on the front bumper of your car when it hits a tree."

Also on the curriculum: wielding an ax, probably the most critical tool settlers will have. Families will have to use it to build log cabins and cut wood for fuel. "They'll rely on fire, and it's a huge investment of time just to keep up with supplying the fire with fuel," says instructor Bernie Weisgerber, author of An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual. "The families are going to be surprised by how long it takes to do things." Weisgerber has given the homesteaders vintage tool kits, containing crosscut saws, hand planes, augers, gouges, and chisels.

No matter how well trained and equipped the families are, the months ahead will be a struggle. Settlers' diaries are full of stories of hard work and privation. One woman said she felt "worse than a stewed witch" after laundry day. In return, the settlers laid claim to their own land. The Frontier House families will earn a less concrete reward if all goes well: viewers' rapt attention.


Books

The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and
Infidelity in Animals and People

David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton
W.H. Freeman and Company, $24.95.

If you're searching for a wedding gift, hold off on that pair of glass swans. The snowy birds traditionally held up as paragons of fidelity are anything but. Likewise gibbons, foxes, and a slew of other species. New DNA studies give the lie to the notion that couples who nest, copulate, and rear young together are naturally sexually exclusive as well. In fact, fidelity is rare and goes "against some of the deepest-seated evolutionary inclinations with which biology has endowed most creatures, Homo sapiens included," declare Barash, a zoologist and social psychologist, and Lipton, a psychiatrist.

The unfaithfulness of males comes as little surprise. With billions of sperm at their disposal daily, males are well advised, evolutionarily, to seek every opportunity to slip their genes into the next generation. Females appear to have more cause for sexual reticence; with precious few eggs, they can't afford to waste their chances of passing on their genes by aimless copulation. But studies show that large percentages of females, women included, are unfaithful.

Why? When females cheat, it's often with a higher-ranked male than their mate who has more resources. Another more biologically driven explanation: the "sexy son" hypothesis. Females are attracted to charismatic males because they subconsciously want their offspring to carry the father's sexy qualities. The reason is selfish: Sexy male offspring stand a better chance of sneaking their mother's genes into the eggs they later fertilize.
Tim Stoddard


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"African Roots of the Amistad Rebellion: Masks of the Sacred Bush" will appear at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, Connecticut, from now until December 31, 2001: www.peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/mende.

"Call and Response: Journeys of African Art" will appear at the Yale University Art Gallery from now until March 25, 2001: www.yale.edu/artgallery.

For more on Mark Tilden's robots, see "Biobots," by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, Discover, September 2000. http://www.discover.com/sept_00/featbiobot.html
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