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'Gus-tatory pleasures, now in film form

On Saturday I saw my favorite film of the year so far (excepting my beloved POTC), which was a full-length documentary about asparagus.

Stop laughing.

Really, Asparagus! (a Stalk-umentary), which just won the "best of" award at the Rural Route Film Festival, is a fascinating exploration of (a) what happens when U.S. drug policy goes wrong, (b) factory farming and globalization's effects on rural America, and (c) people who raise crops and the bizarre subcultures that sprout (see what I just did?) up around them. The movie follows a group of farmers in Oceana County, Michigan, as they stage their annual National Asparagus Festival (complete with a tiara-wearing queen) and struggle to compete with Peruvian growers, who are effectively subsidized by a War on Drugs law that lifted tariffs a few years ago. There are lots of good factlets in it too (did you know asparagus is a bush?). Google Video has some footage, but it really doesn't do the film justice. To get the full effect, you had to be at the screening, which featured free PBR and an ironic-cowboy-hat-wearing-hipster but was saved from itself by the presence of the aforementioned Mrs. Asparagus and one of the farmers who doubles as a policy wonk. (The filmmakers, one of whom grew up on an asparagus farm, were also there.) Asparagus! will be traveling to film festivals around the country in the next year or so -- don't miss it if it's near you. The filmmakers will also have a fully functioning website in about a week.

The image, by the way, is another example of asparagus meeting art: it's François Bonvin's "Still Life with Asparagus," 1857.

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Stradivarius Violins Get Their Distinctive Sound By Mimicking the Human Voice
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Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani once wrote that a violin's tone should "rival the most perfect human voice." Nearly three centuries later, scientists have confirmed that some of the world's oldest violins do in fact mimic aspects of the human singing voice, a finding which scientists believe proves "the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Using speech analysis software, scientists in Taiwan compared the sound produced by 15 antique instruments with recordings of 16 male and female vocalists singing English vowel sounds, The Guardian reports. They discovered that violins made by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, the pioneers of the instrument, produce similar "formant features" as the singers. The resonance frequencies were similar between Amati violins and bass and baritone singers, while the higher-frequency tones produced by Stradivari instruments were comparable to tenors and contraltos.

Andrea Amati, born in 1505, was the first known violin maker. His design was improved over 100 years later by Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments now sell for several million dollars. "Some Stradivari violins clearly possess female singing qualities, which may contribute to their perceived sweetness and brilliance," Hwan-Ching Tai, an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. A 2013 study by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, also pointed to a link between the sounds produced by 250-year-old violins and those of a female soprano singer.

According to Vox, a blind test revealed that professional violinists couldn't reliably tell the difference between old violins like "Strads" and modern ones, with most even expressing a preference for the newer instruments. However, the value of these antique instruments can be chalked up to their rarity and history, and many violinists still swear by their exceptional quality.

[h/t The Guardian]

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