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Unit 52 – To Build A Genome

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

The passage below has been adapted from an article by Clive Cookson and was originally published in the Financial Times, July 2012.

 

Craig Venter, king of the genome, has been uncharacteristically quiet for a couple of years since his laboratory created the world’s first synthetic life form, a microbe whose genes were made entirely from inanimate chemicals. Some critics downplayed Venter’s achievement in 2010 because he did not make a novel form of life. The project was a technical tour de force, a demonstration that scientists could move on from reading to writing genes, but it reproduced an existing microbe called Mycoplasma mycoides, with just a few “watermarking” additions to distinguish its DNA from the natural bacterium.

Now his teams are well on the way to making synthetic microbes distinctly different to anything in nature. “We have a design contest to come up with a genome designed completely in a computer,” Venter says. “Three different versions of the genome are being constructed now and we hope to know by the end of the summer whether any of these designs will work as a living cell.”

The designs are all attempts to find the “minimal genome”, the least DNA with the fewest genes capable of sustaining a free-living organism. The smallest microbial genome in nature belongs to Mycoplasma genitalium, with 525 genes encoded in 580,000 chemical “letters” of DNA. The question is how much DNA is truly essential for life and how much is unnecessary clutter resulting from undirected Darwinian evolution. More…

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Unit 51: Comparing Songs About The Elderly

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 6 minutes

Song 1: Help The Aged, by Pulp

Help the aged,
One time they were just like you,
Drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue.
Help the aged,
Don’t just put them in a home,
Can’t have much fun when they’re all on their own.
Give a hand, if you can,
Try and help them to unwind.
Give them hope and give them comfort
’cause they’re running out of time.

In the meantime we try.
Try to forget that nothing lasts forever.
No big deal so give us all a feel.
Funny how it all falls away.
When did you first realize?
It’s time you took an older lover baby.
Teach you stuff although he’s looking rough.
Funny how it all falls away.

Help the aged
’cause one day you’ll be older too –
You might need someone who can pull you through
And if you look very hard
Behind those lines upon their face
You may see where you are headed
And it’s such a lonely place.

More…

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Unit 50 – Hannibal Lecter’s Palace

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

The passage below is an extract from Hannibal by Thomas Harris. 

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.
Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.
We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.
He has decided to pick up Clarice Starling’s home address while he is in the palace, but he is in no hurry for it, so he stops at the foot of a great staircase where the Riace bronzes stand. These great bronze warriors attributed to Phidias, rased from the seafloor in our own time, are the centerpiece of a frescoed space that could unspool all of Homer and Sophocles.
Dr. Lecter could have the bronze faces speak Meleager if he wished, but today he only wants to look at them.
A thousand rooms, miles of corridors, hundreds of facts attached to each object furnishing each room, a pleasant respite awaiting Dr. Lecter whenever he chooses to retire there.
Fearfully and wonderfully made, we follow as he moves with a swift stride along the corridor of his own making, through a scent of gardenias, the presence of great sculpture pressing on us, and the light of pictures.
His way leads around to the right past a bust of Pliny and up the staircase to the Hall of Addresses, a room lined with statuary and paintings in a fixed order, spaced wide apart and well lit, as Cicero recommends.
Ah… The third alcove from the door on the right is dominated by a painting of St. Francis feeding a moth to a starling. On the floor before the painting is this tableau, life-sized in painted marble.
A parade in Arlington National Cemetery led by Jesus, thirty three, driving a ’27 Model-T Ford truck, a “tin lizzie,” with J. Edgar Hoover standing in the truck bed wearing a tutu and waving to an unseen crowd. Marching behind him is Clarice Starling carring a .308 Enfield rifle at shoulder arms.

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Unit 49 – Multilingualism in the EU

Difficulty: Hard

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

The passage below has been adapted from an article published on http://www.euractiv.com on 4th July 2012.

 

Jean Quatremer, a renowned French political journalist from the daily Libération, complained about the official press statements accompanying the Commission’s economic recommendations to member states, published on 30 May.
The statements, eagerly awaited by the press because of the euro debt crisis, were initially made available to journalists in English only, with translations in other languages following hours later in the day.
This, Quatremer said, gave the Anglo-Saxon press an “incredible competitive advantage” over others.“Can you govern a eurozone, which numbers 330 million citizens, in a language which is only spoken by less than five million Irish? … Well, that is what the European Commission claims to do,” Quatremer wrote in a strongly-worded blog post.
Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said he understood the frustration but urged Quatremer to “accept it” since English had become the most widely spoken language in the EU Executive.
The documents, Bailly argued, were translated within a few hours into the other EU working languages (French and German) and within two days for the remaining 20 official languages.
Quatremer is not isolated in his quest for more linguisitc balance within the EU institutions. Jean-Pierre de Launoit, President of the ‘Alliance Française’, a public association promoting the French language and culture worldwide, said he has long sought to promote linguistic diversity within the European institutions. “Our struggle lies in the defence of multilingualism and the use of French whenever possible” in the EU institutions, he said.
Dennis Abbott, Commission spokesman for education, culture and multilingualism, argued that the translation delays on May 30th were due to some last-minute changes to the documents, made during the meeting of the College of Commissioners that took place the same day. In total, 66 documents required translation, representing 10,500 pages or 450 pages per language for the Commission’s translation services. All were translated within the set deadline, Abbott told EurActiv in emailed comments.
Anticipating the Commission’s response, Quatremer wrote that he did not wish for all documents to be translated immediately into French, but at least the report concerning France.
The Commission estimates that translating its more than two million documents yearly costs the European taxpayer 60 cents per person, which is often referred to as “the cost of democracy”.

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Unit 48 – Geometric Analogies

Difficulty: Medium/hard

Time: 3 minutes

The passage below has been adapted from How To Solve It by George Polya.

 

Analogy is a sort of similarity. Similar objects agree with each other in some respect, analogous objects agree in certain relations of their respective parts.
A rectangular parallelogram is analogous to a rectangular parallelepiped. In fact, the relations between the sides of the parallelogram are similar to those between the faces of the parallelepiped:
Each side of the parallelogram is parallel to just one other side, and is perpendicular to the remaining sides. Each face of the parallelepiped is parallel to just one other face, and is perpendicular to the remaining faces. Let us agree to call a side a “bounding element” of the parallelogram and a face a “bounding element” of the parallelepiped. Then, we may contract the two foregoing statements into one that applies equally to both figures:
Each bounding element is parallel to just one other bounding element and is perpendicular to the remaining bounding elements.
Thus, we have expressed certain relations which are common to the two systems of objects we compared, sides of the rectangle and faces of the rectangular parallelepiped. The analogy of these systems consists in this community of relations.
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