Keyless Keyboards and the Secrets of the Universe Revealed

Book, tech and fashion reviews of what's hot.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

EXHIBITS

Lifestyles of the Lush and Lavish
The Nabataeans of Petra ruled a far-flung trading empire that was fueled by one simple liquid: water
By Eric Powell

Petra: Lost City of Stone
American Museum of Natural History, New York

Two panthers peer at each other with teeth bared and limbs taut, ready to pounce. Yet the muscular felines are fated to remain forever immobile, for they form the handles of a three-foot-tall marble vase unearthed near the mountainous desert of Wadi ‘Arabah in southern Jordan. The vase now sits, cracked but still imposing, in a corner of the American Museum of Natural History’s elegant exhibition Petra: Lost City of Stone. The urn most likely graced a luxuriant garden or opulent villa owned by one of Petra’s wealthy residents and later served as a ritual cleansing basin at a Byzantine church destroyed by fire in the sixth century A.D.

How the people of the ancient kingdom of Petra managed to grow verdant gardens amid a landscape of arid sandstone canyons can be summed up in one word: plumbing. Capital of the Nabataeans, a desert people whose name derives from the Arabic verb anbata, “to dig for water,” Petra flourished from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. on only six inches of rain a year. Life in the rose red city was made possible through a sophisticated water system that supplied 20,000 citizens with 12 million gallons of water a day—enough for an American city of 100,000. Cisterns and reservoirs captured rainwater and kept it separate from springwater, which was brought to the city via terra-cotta pipes. A seven-inch-wide pipe on display at the exhibit resembles modern-day conduits and probably carried about four gallons of water a minute. The gravity-powered system even incorporated filtration centers to purify the water. Hard water ran downward through seven tanks that churned passing water like cataracts in a river, shaking out minerals.

Petra’s water supply fueled more than simple subsistence. One residence even boasted a 140-foot-long, 75-foot-wide, near Olympic-size swimming pool in the backyard. That recently excavated pool—or a digital re-creation of it—is a sample of the conspicuous consumption on view at the exhibit, which brings together artifacts from collections in Jordan, Europe, and the United States and gives a unique look at the wealth and ingenuity of the Nabataeans. The previously nomadic people rose to prominence in the third century B.C., when important Near Eastern trade routes fell under their control. Camel caravans bearing silk from China and spices and gemstones from India all made their way through Petra, entering the city through a winding gorge that led to a spectacular cut-rock facade known as the treasury (which also starred as the home of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). With water fees, tolls, and customs, the Nabataeans could collect, in silver coins, as much as $4,000 in today’s dollars per camel.

More than 3,000 tombs, dwellings, and temples are etched into the sandstone cliffs surrounding Petra, and recent excavations have revealed a caravan of camels carved into the canyon walls. Artifacts at the exhibit include a spectacular column topped with the carved heads of Indian elephants and a huge 2,100-pound sandstone bust of the people’s chief deity, Dushara, the god of water and agriculture. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike shows her holding aloft a disk inscribed with the 12 symbols of the zodiac. Probably broken into two pieces during an earthquake in A.D. 363, the exhibit has reunited the two halves for the first time in more than 1,500 years.

Once the Roman Empire took control of the Nabataean kingdom in A.D. 106, Petra’s influence began to wane. The Romans shifted the caravan routes to the north, depriving the city of its major source of income. The A.D. 363 earthquake destroyed parts of the city and seriously disrupted the water supply. Still, the precious liquid continued to play a crucial role long after Petra ceased to be a major center. According to legend, the city was enduring a four-year drought when the Syrian monk Barsauma arrived in A.D. 423. When Barsauma beseeched God to end the drought, a downpour ensued and washed away the city walls. The people of Petra, always dedicated to dependable water supplies, promptly abandoned their old water god, Dushara, and converted to Christianity.

BOOKS

The Genome War
How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World
By James Shreeve

Not since Galileo was scorched by the Catholic Church has a scientist been demonized the way J. Craig Venter has. Venter—who likes being compared to Galileo—led one of the teams that sequenced the human genome in the late 1990s. His rivals at the government-sponsored Human Genome Project, which achieved roughly the same feat at the same time, called him Darth Venter and other, cruder names.

Such vitriol seems inevitable given the magnitude of Venter’s arrogance and ambition. He sampled his own DNA for the sequence and then lobbied Swedish officials for a Nobel Prize. He  dissed higher-ups who could have helped him, from President Clinton on down. More than one scientist had to restrain himself from punching Venter at meetings. In June 2000, just two weeks before the near completion of the two genome projects was announced at the White House, a New Yorker profile opened with an unequivocal judgment: “Craig Venter is an asshole.”

In his account of the bitter race to catalog human DNA, James Shreeve shows that at least part of the hostility toward Venter was bureaucratic, not personal. In 1998 Venter, a molecular biologist, left the Human Genome Project because he believed, with some justification, that the effort was progressing too slowly. He founded a new company, Celera, and gambled on a “whole-genome shotgun assembly” approach, in which the 3 billion “letters” of human DNA would be fragmented, identified, and then put together in the correct order by computer. By contrast, the government’s genome program chose a methodical “map first, sequence later” approach. Yet speed was hardly Venter’s sole motivation. He also aimed to profit from the medical information revealed within the DNA sequence. Celera charged a fee for sections of its sequence even as its scientists helped themselves to the data that the public consortium posted freely on the Internet.

Shreeve, who spent two years surveying Celera from the inside, lays out a sweeping narrative dotted with many memorable characters. He does not gloss over Venter’s faults, yet he sees him as a daredevil rather than a devil, a man whose motives were magnificently mixed. In triggering the competition, Venter “hoped to greatly accelerate the pace of biomedical research and thereby save the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise die of cancer and other diseases. He also hoped to become famous, well loved, and very rich.” Yet his vision of “open research,” whereby genetic insights would be made public while a private company made money, was doomed. Shreeve suggests that Venter was too financially naive to see that he could not turn a profit selling data offered openly by the government.

In the end, though, it was Venter’s goading that pushed the teams across the finish line together. Constantly gauging each other’s progress, the contestants agreed to a tie when each was short of the end. And when the race was won, what was the value of the prize? Shreeve admits that “it would take decades or even centuries to completely understand the language of the code—how the tens of thousands of genes and their proteins interacted to create the biological symphony of a human being.” If the total biological symphony is that far off, then relatively simple melodies, such as genetic treatments for heart disease, will not be heard anytime soon.

For his part, Craig Venter has no patience for the spats of “the genome war.” In his mind—and with characteristic bombast—he has leapfrogged over long-range cures for disease to a far more mystical ideal: the betterment of all mankind. “This isn’t about a race,” he tells Shreeve. “It isn’t about making money, either. It’s about looking for meaning in having existed. To call what I’m doing a success, we have to actually change society.”            

Jeff Wheelwright

Science Best Sellers

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson, Broadway Books

2. The Science Book
Edited by Peter Tallack, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach, W. W. Norton

4. The Illustrated History of Nearly Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe
By Stephen Hawking, New Millennium Press

5. David H. Levy’s Guide to the Stars
By David H. Levy et al., Ken Press

6. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
By Brian Greene, W. W. Norton

7. The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2003
Richard Dawkins (editor), Tim Folger (series editor), Houghton Mifflin

8. The Universe in a Nutshell
By Stephen Hawking, Bantam

9. The New Humanists: Science at the Edge
Edited by John Brockman, Barnes & Noble Books

10. How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers
By Sharon Rose and Neil Schlager, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers

FASHION

Gaelyn and Cianfarani: Spring 2004 Collection

www.gaelyn.com

“Springtime,” wrote Shakespeare, is “the only pretty ring time.” According to New York fashion designers Gaelyn and Cianfarani, it’s also a pretty good time to dismantle a bicycle and turn the tires into a dress. Their 2004 spring collection includes a range of chic shirts, skirts, and gowns created entirely from recycled bicycle inner tubes. The newfangled fabric is not only environmentally friendly and harmless to animals but is also described by wearers as “very soft, comfortable, flexible, stretchy, and durable.” Workers at New York’s nonprofit organization Recycle-A-Bicycle deliver 6,000 used inner tubes annually to the designers, who wash, cut, and seam the rubber fragments before shaping them into clothing. Gaelyn and Cianfarani are not alone in their embrace of ecologically sound materials: Corpo Nove, an Italian fashion house, has just designed a clothing line woven from fibers fished out of stinging nettles. Unlike cotton, which requires huge infusions of water, pesticides, and herbicides during cultivation, nettles need little irrigation or protection from pests and weeds. The prickly plants also absorb nitrates, which means they can be grown on waste ground or in garbage dumps. Worried about scratches or stings? Fear not: The yarn is spun not from the plant’s poison-filled hairs but from silky fibers extracted from inside the nettle stems.

Josie Glausiusz

BOOKS

A Woman’s Place: Outer Space
Macho ex-military test pilots led the way into space. Left on Earth were women with the same “right stuff”—but they had to struggle to prove it
By Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space
By Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles

“All astronauts should be women because they weigh less and have more sense,” said Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, in testimony to Congress shortly after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. Unfortunately, such an enlightened attitude was rare during the early days of the American space program. More typically, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun called the hypothetical female astronaut “110 pounds of … recreational equipment.” Later, astronaut Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 team, indulged in a daydream while waiting for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to return from the moon. His spacecraft of the future would be home to a thousand “ladies . . . with 2,000 breasts bobbing beautifully and quivering delightfully in response to their every weightless moment.”

In the Soviet Union, a radically different vision was unfolding. Dreaming of Socialist colonies in space, in 1963 the Russians sent their sixth manned spacecraft aloft with a female pilot, Valentina Tereshkova. Americans would have to wait another 20 years before astrophysicist Sally Ride flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger. In the meantime, aspiring female astronauts in search of a role model had to make do with “Astronaut Barbie” or scantily clad Jane Fonda in the 1968 movie Barbarella, who piloted her fur-lined spacecraft on a mission to eradicate evildoers on the planet Tau.

Almost Heaven illuminates the decades-long struggle by women to achieve equal status with men as fully qualified participants in the American space program. As Kevles points out, each woman faced a double challenge: first, the risks of space travel, and second, the struggle to succeed in what was then solely a man’s world. Such challenges seemed insurmountable at first. In the 1960s, for example, 13 women—“Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees,” or FLATs, as they called themselves—passed the same rigorous tests given to all male recruits. But physicians rejected them as unsuitable, in part because of the “common knowledge that in the days before menstruation women are often mentally ill and prone to suicide or crime.”

Yet change did come. In 1973 an administrator at NASA, Ruth Bates Harris, issued a damning report, noting that the agency had sent into space just three females: “Arabella and Anita, both spiders” and “Miss Baker, a monkey.” Faced with protests from the feminist movement, NASA began openly recruiting female astronauts, and by 1986 eight American women had flown in space. In 1999 a U.S. Air Force test pilot, Lieutenant Eileen Collins, became the first woman to command a space shuttle, and last year Sally Ride served on the board that investigated the Columbia disaster of February 1, 2003. One day, Kevles argues, there will be women on the crew of a mission to Mars. If so, they will no doubt acknowledge their debt to those whose fight cleared their way. As astronaut Susan Kilrain has said: “I was never one to be out there willing to risk myself and my career. I was fortunate that other women did that for me.”

GIZMOS

orbiTouch Keyless Keyboard
Keybowl, Inc., $595
www.keybowl.com

If Peter McAlindon has his way, people disabled by repetitive stress injuries will be able to dump the cumbersome QWERTY keyboard and type again without pain. The layout of that antiquated keyboard actually slowed users down. Christopher Sholes, who invented the first commercial typewriter in 1873, scattered the most commonly tapped letters in awkward, hard-to-reach spots so that adjacent keys would be less likely to jam. As a result, generations of typists have been forced to make unwieldy and repetitive wrist and finger motions, resulting in countless injuries—often chronic—to tendons, muscles, and nerves.

That’s where McAlindon found himself in the early 1990s when he began idly toying with a pair of overturned cereal bowls at breakfast. While typing his Ph.D. thesis on industrial engineering, he began developing pain in his fingers. But as he gently slid the bowls, he found the movements painless. Now his Florida-based Keybowl corporation has released the orbiTouch, a radical reinvention of the keyboard that dispenses with the keys and relies on subtle arm movements for data entry. In fact, a typist wearing boxing gloves can operate the keyless keyboard.

The orbiTouch consists of a pair of domes, each shaped like a large computer mouse and designed to fit comfortably into the palm of the hand. To enter alphanumeric characters, a typist nudges the domes into positions based on eight compass points, which the orbiTouch software transmits as conventional keystrokes. Shift keys, caps locks, and mouse movements require gentle pressing motions. The orbiTouch also comes with a template to be propped under the monitor, showing matching keyboard characters with their orb positions. No one is likely to set speed records with the innovative “bowlboard,” but for people whose injuries prevent them from working, the device could be a godsend. As a testament to its efficacy—and with no boxing gloves handy—this writer typed his review wearing a pair of mittens. No problem at all.            

Jon Luoma

WE ALSO LIKE . . .

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms
Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books, $23.95

Earthworms shift up to 20 tons of soil per acre every year, transforming barren soil into fertile manure. Stewart draws inspiration for this slithery homage  from Charles Darwin, who played the piano to pots of earthworms and devoted his last book to the slimy, spineless creatures.

Playback: From the Victrola to the MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money
Mark Coleman
Da Capo Press, $25

Coleman charts the history of recorded music from Edison’s phonograph—played by hand-cranking a needle through grooves on a cylinder—to the digital CDs and iPods of today.

—Maia Weinstock

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