Category Archives: writing

More about MUSE, a Canadian company and its brain sensing headband; women and startups; Canadianess

I first wrote about Ariel Garten and her Toronto-based (Canada) company, InteraXon, in a Dec. 5, 2012 posting where I featured a product, MUSE (Muse), then described as a brainwave controller. A March 5, 2015 article by Lydia Dishman for Fast Company provides an update on the product now described as a brainwave-sensing headband and on the company (Note: Links have been removed),

The technology that had captured the imagination of millions was then incorporated to develop a headband called Muse. It sells at retail stores like BestBuy for about $300 and works in conjunction with an app called Calm as a tool to increase focus and reduce stress.

If you always wanted to learn to meditate without those pesky distracting thoughts commandeering your mind, Muse can help by taking you through a brief exercise that translates brainwaves into the sound of wind. Losing focus or getting antsy brings on the gales. Achieving calm rewards you with a flock of birds across your screen.

The company has grown to 50 employees and has raised close to $10 million from investors including Ashton Kutcher. Garten [Ariel Garten, founder and Chief Executive Founder] says they’re about to close on a Series B round, “which will be significant.”

She says that listening plays an important role at InteraXon. Reflecting back on what you think you heard is an exercise she encourages, especially in meetings. When the development team is building a tool, for example, they use their Muses to meditate and focus, which then allows for listening more attentively and nonjudgmentally.

Women and startups

Dishman references gender and high tech financing in her article about Garten,

Garten doesn’t dwell on her status as a woman in a mostly male-dominated sector. That goes for securing funding for the startup too, despite the notorious bias venture-capital investors have against women startup founders.

“I am sure I lost deals because I am a woman, but also because the idea didn’t resonate,” she says, adding, “I’m sure I gained some because I am a woman, so it is unfair to put a blanket statement on it.”

Yet Garten is the only female member of her C-suite, something she says “is just the way it happened.” Casting the net recently to fill the role of chief operating officer [COO], Garten says there weren’t any women in the running, in part because the position required hardware experience as well as knowledge of working with the Chinese.

She did just hire a woman to be senior vice president of sales and marketing, and says, “When we are hiring younger staff, we are gender agnostic.”

I can understand wanting to introduce nuance into the ‘gender bias and tech startup discussion’ by noting that some rejections could have been due to issues with the idea or implementation. But the comment about being the only female in late stage funding as “just the way it happened” suggests she is extraordinarily naïve or willfully blind. Given her followup statement about her hiring practices, I’m inclined to go with willfully blind. It’s hard to believe she couldn’t find any woman with hardware experience and China experience. It seems more likely she needed a male COO to counterbalance a company with a female CEO. As for being gender agnostic where younger staff are concerned, that’s nice but it’s not reassuring as women have been able to get more junior positions. It’s the senior positions such as COO which remain out of reach and, troublingly, Garten seems to have blown off the question with a weak explanation and a glib assurance of equality at the lower levels of the company.

For more about gender, high tech companies, and hiring/promoting practices, you can read a March 5, 2015 article titled, Ellen Pao Trial Reveals the Subtle Sexism of Silicon Valley, by Amanda Marcotte for Slate.

Getting back to MUSE, you can find out more here. You can find out more about InterAxon here. Unusually, there doesn’t seem to be any information about the management team on the website.

Canadianness

I thought it was interesting that InterAxon’s status as a Canada-based company was mentioned nowhere in Dishman’s article. This is in stark contrast to Nancy Owano’s  Dec. 5, 2012 article for phys.org,

A Canadian company is talking about having a window, aka computer screen, into your mind. … InteraXon, a Canadian company, is focused on making a business out of mind-control technology via a headband device, and they are planning to launch this as a $199 brainwave computer controller called Muse. … [emphases mine]

This is not the only recent instance I’ve noticed. My Sept. 1, 2014 posting mentions what was then an upcoming Margaret Atwood event at Arizona State University,

… (from the center’s home page [Note: The center is ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination]),

Internationally renowned novelist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood will visit Arizona State University this November [2014] to discuss the relationship between art and science, and the importance of creative writing and imagination for addressing social and environmental challenges.

Atwood’s visit will mark the launch of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative … Atwood, author of the MaddAddam trilogy of novels that have become central to the emerging literary genre of climate fiction, or “CliFi,” will offer the inaugural lecture for the initiative on Nov. 5.

“We are proud to welcome Margaret Atwood, one of the world’s most celebrated living writers, to ASU and engage her in these discussions around climate, science and creative writing,” …  “A poet, novelist, literary critic and essayist, Ms. Atwood epitomizes the creative and professional excellence our students aspire to achieve.”

There’s not a single mention that she is Canadian there or in a recent posting by Martin Robbins about a word purge from the Oxford Junior Dictionary published by the Guardian science blog network (March 3, 2015 posting). In fact, Atwood was initially described by Robbins as one of Britain’s literary giants. I assume there were howls of anguish once Canadians woke up to read the article since the phrase was later amended to “a number of the Anglosphere’s literary giants.”

The omission of InterAxon’s Canadianness in Dishman’s article for an American online magazine and Atwood’s Canadianness on the Arizona State University website and Martin Robbins’ initial appropriation and later change to the vague-sounding “Anglospere” in his post for the British newspaper, The Guardian, means the bulk of their readers will likely assume InterAxon is American and that Margaret Atwood, depending on where you read about her, is either an American or a Brit.

It’s flattering that others want to grab a little bit of Canada for themselves.

Coda: The Oxford Junior Dictionary and its excision of ‘nature’ words

 

Robbins’ March 3, 2015 posting focused on a heated literary discussion about the excision of these words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (Note:  A link has been removed),

“The deletions,” according to Robert Macfarlane in another article on Friday, “included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.”

I’m surprised the ‘junior’ dictionary didn’t have “attachment,” “celebrity,” and “committee” prior to the 2007 purge. By the way, it seems no one noticed the purge till recently. Robbins has an interesting take on the issue, one with which I do not entirely agree. I understand needing to purge words but what happens a child reading a classic such as “The Wind in the Willows’ attempts to look up the word ‘willows’?  (Thanks to Susan Baxter who in a private communication pointed out the problems inherent with reading new and/or classic books and not being able to find basic vocabulary.)

India and a National Seminar on Literature in the Emerging Contexts of Technology and Culture

I recently got a notice about an intriguing national seminar being held at Punjabi University (India). From a Dec. 12, 2014 notice,

The Department of English is pleased to invite you to the National Seminar on Literature in the Emerging Contexts of Technology and Culture being held on February 25 and 26, 2015.

There is an old, almost primal, bond between writing and technology. From the earliest tools of writing—probably a sharp-edged stone—to the stylus pen, from the clay tablet to the capacitive touch screen, this bond has proclaimed itself with all the force of technology’s materiality. However, the relatively rapid emergence and acceptance of the digital writing environment has foregrounded with unprecedented clarity how command and control are always already embedded in communication. Moreover, in the specific sphere of literary production, the opaqueness of creativity stands further complicated with the entry of the programmer, often in the very person of the writer. At the other end, reading struggles to break free from the constraints of both the verbal and the linear as it goes multimedia and hypertextual, making fresh demands upon the human sensorium. The result is that the received narratives of literary history face radical interruptions.

While cultures enfold and shape literatures and technologies, it must be admitted that they are also articulated and shaped by the latter. Technology in particular has advanced and proliferated so much in the last three decades that it has come to be regarded as a culture in its own right. It has come to acquire, particularly since the early decades of the twentieth century, a presence and authority it never really possessed before. With prosthetics, simulation and remote-sensing, for instance, it has brought within the horizon of realization the human aspiration for self-overcoming. Yet in spite of its numerous enabling, even liberating, tools, technology has also often tended to close off several modes of cognition and perception. While most of us would like to believe that we use technology, it is no less true that technology also uses us. Heidegger correctly warned of the potential, inherent in modern technology, to reduce the human beings to its resources and reserves. He also alerted us to its elusive ways, particularly the way it resists being thought and pre-empts any attempts to think beyond itself, thereby instituting itself as the exclusive horizon of thinking. Paradoxically, like a literary text or like thought itself, technology may have some chinks, certain gaps or spaces, through which it may be glimpsed against its larger, imposing tendencies.

The ostensible self-sufficiency and plenitude of the technological, as of the cultural, can be questioned and their nature examined probably most productively from a space which is structured self-reflexively, that is from the space of the literary. At the same time, the implications of the technological turn, especially in its digital avatar, for literature, as also for culture, demand thinking.

The proposed seminar will be an opportunity to reflect on these and related issues, with which a whole galaxy of thinkers have engaged — from Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Raymond Williams and Jean Baudrillard to Donna Haraway, George Landow, Lev Manovich, Bernard Steigler, Katherine Hayles, Henry Jenkins, Hubert Dreyfus, Mari-Laure Ryan, the Krokers, Manuel Castells, Fredrich Kittler, David J Bolter, Manuel De Landa, Nick Montfort, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and others. Among the areas on which papers/presentations for the seminar are expected are:

  • The Work of Literature/Art in the Digital Age
  • Cultures of Technology and Technologies of Culture
  • Resistance and Appropriation Online: Strategies and Subterfuges
  • Global Capitalism and Cyberspace
  • Posthumanist Culture and Its Literatures
  • Digital Humanities and the Literary Text
  • Reconsidering Literature: Between Technology and Theory
  • Virtuality and/as Fiction
  • Plotting the Mutating Networks: The Logics of Contingency
  • Writing Technologies and Literature
  • Reading Literature in the Digital Age
  • Literature and Gaming
  • After the Death of the Author: The Posthuman Authority
  • Cyberpunk Writing
  • Teaching Literature in the Post-Gutenberg Classroom

Submission of abstracts: By 20 January 2015
Submission of papers: By 10 February 2015
Registration Fee: Rs. 1000/- (Rs. 500 for Research Scholars/Students)

All submissions must be made through email to sharajesh@gmail.com and/or pup.english@gmail.com.

Lodging and hospitality shall be provided by the University to all outstation resource persons and, subject to availability, to paper presenters. In view of financial constraints, it may not be possible to reimburse travel expenses to all paper presenters.

Rajesh Sharma
Seminar Director
Professor and Head
Department of English
783 796 0942
0175-304 6246

Jaspreet Mander
Associate Professor of English
Seminar Coordinator
941 792 3373

I couldn’t agree with the sentiments more, applaud the organizers’ ambitious scope, and wish them the best!

PS: There is a Canada/India/Southeast Asia project, Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature: Creating an East/West Partnership, that’s starting up soon as per my Dec. 12, 2014 post and this seminar would seem like an opportunity for those academics to reach out. Finally, you can get more information about Punjabi University here.

Live webcast about data journalism on July 30, 2014 and a webinar featuring the 2014 NNI (US National Nanotechnology Initiative) EHS (Environment, Health and Safety) Progress Review on July 31, 2014

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is hosting a live webcast on data journalism scheduled for July 30, 2014. For those us who are a little fuzzy as to what the term ‘data journalism’ means, this is probably a good opportunity to find out as per the description in the Wilson Center’s July 23, 2014 email announcement,

What is data journalism? Why does it matter? How has the maturing field of data science changed the direction of journalism and global investigative reporting? Our speakers will discuss the implications for policymakers and institutional accountability, and how the balance of power in information gathering is shifting worldwide, with implications for decision-making and open government.

This event will be live webcast and you may follow it on twitter @STIPcommonslab and #DataJournalism

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014
10am – 12pm EST
5th Floor Conference Room
[Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza – 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20004-3027
T 1-202-691-4000]

Speakers:

Alexander B. Howard
Writer and Editor, TechRepublic and founder of the blog “E Pluribus Unum.” Previously, he was a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, the Ash Center at Harvard University and the Washington Correspondent for O’Reilly Media.

Kalev H. Leetaru
Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University, a Council Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government, and a Foreign Policy Magazine Top 100 Global Thinker of 2013. For nearly 20 years he has been studying the web and building systems to interact with and understand the way it is reshaping our global society.

Louise Lief (Moderator)
Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center. Her project, “Science and the Media” explores innovative ways to make environmental science more accessible and useful to all journalists. She is investigating how new technologies and civic innovation tools can benefit both the media and science.

I believe you need to RSVP if you are attending in person but it’s not necessary for the livestream.

The other announcement comes via a July 23, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) will hold a public webinar on Thursday, July 31, 2014, to provide a forum to answer questions related to the “Progress Review on the Coordinated Implementation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) 2011 Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Strategy.”

The full notice can be found on the US nano.gov website,

When: The webinar will be live on Thursday, July 31, 2014 from 12:00 pm-1 pm.
Where: Click here to register for the online webcast

While it’s open to the public, I suspect this is an event designed largely for highly interested parties such as the agencies involved in EHS activities, nongovernmental organizations that act as watchdogs, and various government policy wonks. Here’s how they describe their proposed discussions (from the event notice page),

Discussion during the webinar will focus on the research activities undertaken by NNI agencies to advance the current state of the science as highlighted in the Progress Review. Representative research activities as provided in the Progress Review will be discussed in the context of the 2011 NNI EHS Research Strategy’s six core research areas: Nanomaterial Measurement Infrastructure, Human Exposure Assessment, Human Health, the Environment, Risk Assessment and Risk Management Methods, and Informatics and Modeling.

How: During the question-and-answer segment of the webinar, submitted questions will be considered in the order received. A moderator will identify relevant questions and pose them to the panel of NNI agency representatives. Due to time constraints, not all questions may be addressed.  The moderator reserves the right to group similar questions and to skip questions, as appropriate. The NNCO will begin accepting questions and comments via email (webinar@nnco.nano.gov) at 1 pm on Thursday, July 24th (EDT) until the close of the webinar at 1 pm (EDT) on July 31st.

The Panelists:  The panelists for the webinar are subject matter experts from the Federal Government.

Additional Information: A public copy of the “Progress Review on the Coordinated Implementation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative 2011 Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Strategy” can be accessed at www.nano.gov/2014EHSProgressReview. The 2011 NNI EHS Research Strategy can be accessed at www.nano.gov/node/681.
– See more at: http://www.nano.gov/node/1166#sthash.Ipr0bFeP.dpuf

Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?

In an interview almost 10 years ago for an article I was writing for a digital publishing magazine, I had a conversation with a very technically oriented individually that went roughly this way,

Him: (enthused and excited) We’re developing algorithms that will let us automatically create brochures, written reports, that will always have the right data and can be instantly updated.

Me: (pause)

Him: (no reaction)

Me: (breaking long pause) You realize you’re talking to a writer, eh? You’ve just told me that at some point in the future nobody will need writers.

Him: (pause) No. (then with more certainty) No. You don’t understand. We’re making things better for you. In the future, you won’t need to do the boring stuff.

It seems the future is now and in the hands of a company known as Automated Insights, You can find this at the base of one of the company’s news releases,

ABOUT AUTOMATED INSIGHTS, INC.

Automated Insights (Ai) transforms Big Data into written reports with the depth of analysis, personality and variability of a human writer. In 2014, Ai and its patented Wordsmith platform will produce over 1 billion personalized reports for clients like Yahoo!, The Associated Press, the NFL, and Edmunds.com. [emphasis mine] The Wordsmith platform uses artificial intelligence to dynamically spot patterns and trends in raw data and then describe those findings in plain English. Wordsmith authors insightful, personalized reports around individual user data at unprecedented scale and in real-time. Automated Insights also offers applications that run on its Wordsmith platform, including the recently launched Wordsmith for Marketing, which enables marketing agencies to automate reporting for clients. Learn more at http://automatedinsights.com.

In the wake of the June 30, 2014 deal with Associated Press, there has been a flurry of media interest especially from writers who seem to have largely concluded that the robots will do the boring stuff and free human writers to do creative, innovative work. A July 2, 2014 news item on FoxNews.com provides more details about the deal,

The Associated Press, the largest American-based news agency in the world, will now use story-writing software to produce U.S. corporate earnings stories.

In a recent blog post post AP Managing Editor Lou Ferarra explained that the software is capable of producing these stories, which are largely technical financial reports that range from 150 to 300 words, in “roughly the same time that it takes our reporters.” [emphasis mine]

AP staff members will initially edit the software-produced reports, but the agency hopes the process will soon be fully automated.

The Wordsmith software constructs narratives in plain English by using algorithms to analyze trends and patterns in a set of data and place them in an appropriate context depending on the nature of the story.

Representatives for the Associated Press have assured anyone who fears robots are making journalists obsolete that Wordsmith will not be taking the jobs of staffers. “We are going to use our brains and time in more enterprising ways during earnings season” Ferarra wrote, in the blog pos. “This is about using technology to free journalists to do more journalism and less data processing, not about eliminating jobs. [emphasis mine]

Russell Brandon’s July 11, 2014 article for The Verge provides more technical detail and context for this emerging field,

Last week, the Associated Press announced it would be automating its articles on quarterly earnings reports. Instead of 300 articles written by humans, the company’s new software will write 4,400 of them, each formatted for AP style, in mere seconds. It’s not the first time a company has tried out automatic writing: last year, a reporter at The LA Times wrote an automated earthquake-reporting program that combined prewritten sentences with automatic seismograph reports to report quakes just seconds after they happen. The natural language-generation company Narrative Science has been churning out automated sports reporting for years.

It appears that AP Managing Editor Lou Ferarra doesn’t know how long it takes to write 150 to 300 words (“roughly the same time that it takes our reporters”) or perhaps he or she wanted to ‘soften’ the news’s possible impact. Getting back to the technical aspects in Brandon’s article,

… So how do you make a robot that writes sentences?

In the case of AP style, a lot of the work has already been done. Every Associated Press article already comes with a clear, direct opening and a structure that spirals out from there. All the algorithm needs to do is code in the same reasoning a reporter might employ. Algorithms detect the most volatile or newsworthy shift in a given earnings report and slot that in as the lede. Circling outward, the program might sense that a certain topic has already been covered recently and decide it’s better to talk about something else. …

The staffers who keep the copy fresh are scribes and coders in equal measure. (Allen [Automated Insights CEO Robbie Allen] says he looks for “stats majors who worked on the school paper.”) They’re not writers in the traditional sense — most of the language work is done beforehand, long before the data is available — but each job requires close attention. For sports articles, the Automated Insights team does all its work during the off-season and then watches the articles write themselves from the sidelines, as soon as each game’s results are available. “I’m often quite surprised by the result,” says Joe Procopio, the company’s head of product engineering. “There might be four or five variables that determine what that lead sentence looks like.” …

A July 11, 2014 article by Catherine Taibi for Huffington Post offers a summary of the current ‘robot/writer’ situation (Automated Insights is not the only company offering this service) along with many links including one to this July 11, 2014 article by Kevin Roose for New York Magazine where he shares what appears to be a widely held opinion and which echoes my interviewee of 10 years ago (Note: A link has been removed),

By this point, we’re no longer surprised when machines replace human workers in auto factories or electronics-manufacturing plants. That’s the norm. But we hoity-toity journalists had long assumed that our jobs were safe from automation. (We’re knowledge workers, after all.) So when the AP announced its new automated workforce, you could hear the panic spread to old-line news desks across the nation. Unplug the printers, Bob! The robots are coming!

I’m not an alarmist, though. In fact, I welcome our new robot colleagues. Not only am I not scared of losing my job to a piece of software, I think the introduction of automated reporting is the best thing to happen to journalists in a long time.

For one thing, humans still have the talent edge. At the moment, the software created by Automated Insights is only capable of generating certain types of news stories — namely, short stories that use structured data as an input, and whose output follows a regular pattern. …

Robot-generated stories aren’t all fill-in-the-blank jobs; the more advanced algorithms use things like perspective, tone, and humor to tailor a story to its audience. …

But these robots, as sophisticated as they are, can’t approach the full creativity of a human writer. They can’t contextualize Emmy snubs like Matt Zoller Seitz, assail opponents of Obamacare like Jonathan Chait, or collect summer-camp sex stories like Maureen O’Connor. My colleagues’ jobs (and mine, knock wood) are too complex for today’s artificial intelligence to handle; they require human skills like picking up the phone, piecing together data points from multiple sources, and drawing original, evidence-based conclusions. [emphasis mine]

The stories that today’s robots can write are, frankly, the kinds of stories that humans hate writing anyway. … [emphasis mine]

Despite his blithe assurances, there is a little anxiety expressed in this piece “My colleagues’ jobs (and mine, knock wood) are too complex for today’s artificial intelligence … .”

I too am feeling a little uncertain. For example, there’s this April 29, 2014 posting by Adam Long on the Automated Insights blog and I can’t help wondering how much was actually written by Long and how much by the company’s robots. After all the company proudly proclaims the blog is powered by Wordsmith Marketing. For that matter, I’m not that sure about the FoxNews.com piece, which has no byline.

For anyone interested in still more links and information, Automated Insights offers a listing of their press coverage here. Although it’s a bit dated now, there is an exhaustive May 22, 2013 posting by Tony Hirst on the OUseful.info blog which, despite the title: ‘Notes on Narrative Science and Automated Insights’, provides additional context for the work being done to automate the writing process since 2009.

For the record, this blog is not written by a robot. As for getting rid of the boring stuff, I can’t help but remember that part of how one learns any craft is by doing the boring, repetitive work needed to build skills.

One final and unrelated note, Automated Insights has done a nice piece of marketing with its name which abbreviates to Ai. One can’t help but be reminded of AI, a term connoting the field of artificial intelligence.

Competition, collaboration, and a smaller budget: the US nano community responds

Before getting to the competition, collaboration, and budget mentioned in the head for this posting, I’m supplying some background information.

Within the context of a May 20, 2014 ‘National Nanotechnology Initiative’ hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Technology, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the US General Accountability Office (GAO) presented a 22 pp. précis (PDF; titled: NANOMANUFACTURING AND U.S. COMPETITIVENESS; Challenges and Opportunities) of its 125 pp. (PDF version report titled: Nanomanufacturing: Emergence and Implications for U.S. Competitiveness, the Environment, and Human Health).

Having already commented on the full report itself in a Feb. 10, 2014 posting, I’m pointing you to Dexter Johnson’s May 21, 2014 post on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) where he discusses the précis from the perspective of someone who was consulted by the US GAO when they were writing the full report (Note: Links have been removed),

I was interviewed extensively by two GAO economists for the accompanying [full] report “Nanomanufacturing: Emergence and Implications for U.S. Competitiveness, the Environment, and Human Health,” where I shared background information on research I helped compile and write on global government funding of nanotechnology.

While I acknowledge that the experts who were consulted for this report are more likely the source for its views than I am, I was pleased to see the report reflect many of my own opinions. Most notable among these is bridging the funding gap in the middle stages of the manufacturing-innovation process, which is placed at the top of the report’s list of challenges.

While I am in agreement with much of the report’s findings, it suffers from a fundamental misconception in seeing nanotechnology’s development as a kind of race between countries. [emphases mine]

(I encourage you to read the full text of Dexter’s comments as he offers more than a simple comment about competition.)

Carrying on from this notion of a ‘nanotechnology race’, at least one publication focused on that aspect. From the May 20, 2014 article by Ryan Abbott for CourthouseNews.com,

Nanotech Could Keep U.S. Ahead of China

WASHINGTON (CN) – Four of the nation’s leading nanotechnology scientists told a U.S. House of Representatives panel Tuesday that a little tweaking could go a long way in keeping the United States ahead of China and others in the industry.

The hearing focused on the status of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal program launched in 2001 for the advancement of nanotechnology.

As I noted earlier, the hearing was focused on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and all of its efforts. It’s quite intriguing to see what gets emphasized in media reports and, in this case, the dearth of media reports.

I have one more tidbit, the testimony from Lloyd Whitman, Interim Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and Deputy Director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, National Institute of Standards and Technology. The testimony is in a May 21, 2014 news item on insurancenewsnet.com,

Testimony by Lloyd Whitman, Interim Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and Deputy Director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, National Institute of Standards and Technology

Chairman Bucshon, Ranking Member Lipinski, and Members of the Committee, it is my distinct privilege to be here with you today to discuss nanotechnology and the role of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in promoting its development for the benefit of the United States.

Highlights of the National Nanotechnology Initiative

Our current Federal research and development program in nanotechnology is strong. The NNI agencies continue to further the NNI’s goals of (1) advancing nanotechnology R&D, (2) fostering nanotechnology commercialization, (3) developing and maintaining the U.S. workforce and infrastructure, and (4) supporting the responsible and safe development of nanotechnology. …

,,,

The sustained, strategic Federal investment in nanotechnology R&D combined with strong private sector investments in the commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled products has made the United States the global leader in nanotechnology. The most recent (2012) NNAP report analyzed a wide variety of sources and metrics and concluded that “… in large part as a result of the NNI the United States is today… the global leader in this exciting and economically promising field of research and technological development.” n10 A recent report on nanomanufacturing by Congress’s own Government Accountability Office (GAO) arrived at a similar conclusion, again drawing on a wide variety of sources and stakeholder inputs. n11 As discussed in the GAO report, nanomanufacturing and commercialization are key to capturing the value of Federal R&D investments for the benefit of the U.S. economy. The United States leads the world by one important measure of commercial activity in nanotechnology: According to one estimate, n12 U.S. companies invested $4.1 billion in nanotechnology R&D in 2012, far more than investments by companies in any other country.  …

There’s cognitive dissonance at work here as Dexter notes in his own way,

… somewhat ironically, the [GAO] report suggests that one of the ways forward is more international cooperation, at least in the development of international standards. And in fact, one of the report’s key sources of information, Mihail Roco, has made it clear that international cooperation in nanotechnology research is the way forward.

It seems to me that much of the testimony and at least some of the anxiety about being left behind can be traced to a decreased 2015 budget allotment for nanotechnology (mentioned here in a March 31, 2014 posting [US National Nanotechnology Initiative’s 2015 budget request shows a decrease of $200M]).

One can also infer a certain anxiety from a recent presentation by Barbara Herr Harthorn, head of UCSB’s [University of California at Santa Barbara) Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS). She was at a February 2014 meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (mentioned in parts one and two [the more substantive description of the meeting which also features a Canadian academic from the genomics community] of my recent series on “Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement”). II noted in part five of the series what seems to be a shift towards brain research as a likely beneficiary of the public engagement work accomplished under NNI auspices and, in the case of the Canadian academic, the genomics effort.

The Americans are not the only ones feeling competitive as this tweet from Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Sheffield University (UK), physicist, and author of Soft Machines, suggests,

May 18

The UK has fewer than 1% of world patents on graphene, despite it being discovered here, according to the FT –

I recall reading a report a few years back which noted that experts in China were concerned about falling behind internationally in their research efforts. These anxieties are not new, CP Snow’s book and lecture The Two Cultures (1959) also referenced concerns in the UK about scientific progress and being left behind.

Competition/collaboration is an age-old conundrum and about as ancient as anxieties of being left behind. The question now is how are we all going to resolve these issues this time?

ETA May 28, 2014: The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has produced a summary of the May 20, 2014 hearing as part of their FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News, May 27, 2014 (no. 93).

ETA Sept. 12, 2014: My first posting about the diminished budget allocation for the US NNI was this March 31, 2014 posting.

Apply for six month internship at Nature (journal) sponsored by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

The deadline is Feb. 26, 2014, Canadians and people resident in Canada are eligible, and this does involve some travel. Here are the details (from a Feb. 12, 2014 posting on the Nature blogs),

Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is offering a six-month, full-time science journalism award worth up to CAD$60,000 to an English-speaking Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada. The successful applicant will receive training and work as an intern in the London news room of the leading international science journal Nature before spending up to four months reporting science stories from developing countries. He or she will be at an early stage of his or her career, but with at least three years’ experience as a journalist.

Candidates must have a keen interest in science and technology, particularly relating to development, as well as outstanding reporting and writing skills, and strong ideas for news and features suitable for publication in Nature. The internship is expected to begin in April or May 2014.

To apply, please e-mail the following to david.reay@nature.com:

  • A covering letter explaining your suitability for the award
  • A resume
  • Three recent story clips, ideally a mix of news and feature pieces
  • Three brief pitches for stories you think would appeal to Nature’s audience.

Deadline: Wednesday 26 February 2014

About the IDRC

The IDRC is a Canadian Crown corporation that works closely with researchers from the developing world in their search to build healthier, more equitable and more prosperous societies (see www.idrc.ca).

About Nature

Nature is a weekly international journal publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology, and is the world’s most highly cited interdisciplinary science journal. It also has an international news team covering the latest science, policy and funding news in both online and print formats (see www.nature.com/nature).

About the award

Nature will manage the selection process and the IDRC will award up to CAD$60,000 to the successful applicant. This will cover travel costs, living expenses, research expenses, visa or other related costs, in London and in other countries visited during the six-month period. The award will also cover the cost of participating in a conference relevant to the award winner’s professional development as a journalist. For more information click here.

Good luck!

A wearable book (The Girl Who Was Plugged In) makes you feel the protagonists pain

A team of students taking an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) course called ‘Science Fiction to Science Fabrication‘ have created a new kind of category for books, sensory fiction.  John Brownlee in his Feb. 10, 2014 article for Fast Company describes it this way,

Have you ever felt your pulse quicken when you read a book, or your skin go clammy during a horror story? A new student project out of MIT wants to deepen those sensations. They have created a wearable book that uses inexpensive technology and neuroscientific hacking to create a sort of cyberpunk Neverending Story that blurs the line between the bodies of a reader and protagonist.

Called Sensory Fiction, the project was created by a team of four MIT students–Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, Julie Legault, and Sophia Brueckner …

Here’s the MIT video demonstrating the book in use (from the course’s sensory fiction page),

Here’s how the students have described their sensory book, from the project page,

Sensory fiction is about new ways of experiencing and creating stories.

Traditionally, fiction creates and induces emotions and empathy through words and images.  By using a combination of networked sensors and actuators, the Sensory Fiction author is provided with new means of conveying plot, mood, and emotion while still allowing space for the reader’s imagination. These tools can be wielded to create an immersive storytelling experience tailored to the reader.

To explore this idea, we created a connected book and wearable. The ‘augmented’ book portrays the scenery and sets the mood, and the wearable allows the reader to experience the protagonist’s physiological emotions.

The book cover animates to reflect the book’s changing atmosphere, while certain passages trigger vibration patterns.

Changes in the protagonist’s emotional or physical state triggers discrete feedback in the wearable, whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localized temperature fluctuations.

Our prototype story, ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ by James Tiptree showcases an incredible range of settings and emotions. The main protagonist experiences both deep love and ultimate despair, the freedom of Barcelona sunshine and the captivity of a dark damp cellar.

The book and wearable support the following outputs:

  • Light (the book cover has 150 programmable LEDs to create ambient light based on changing setting and mood)
  • Sound
  • Personal heating device to change skin temperature (through a Peltier junction secured at the collarbone)
  • Vibration to influence heart rate
  • Compression system (to convey tightness or loosening through pressurized airbags)

One of the earliest stories about this project was a Jan. 28,2014 piece written by Alison Flood for the Guardian where she explains how vibration, etc. are used to convey/stimulate the reader’s sensations and emotions,

MIT scientists have created a ‘wearable’ book using temperature and lighting to mimic the experiences of a book’s protagonist

The book, explain the researchers, senses the page a reader is on, and changes ambient lighting and vibrations to “match the mood”. A series of straps form a vest which contains a “heartbeat and shiver simulator”, a body compression system, temperature controls and sound.

“Changes in the protagonist’s emotional or physical state trigger discrete feedback in the wearable [vest], whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localised temperature fluctuations,” say the academics.

Flood goes on to illuminate how science fiction has explored the notion of ‘sensory books’ (Note: Links have been removed) and how at least one science fiction novelist is responding to this new type of book,,

The Arthur C Clarke award-winning science fiction novelist Chris Beckett wrote about a similar invention in his novel Marcher, although his “sensory” experience comes in the form of a video game:

Adam Roberts, another prize-winning science fiction writer, found the idea of “sensory” fiction “amazing”, but also “infantalising, like reverting to those sorts of books we buy for toddlers that have buttons in them to generate relevant sound-effects”.

Elise Hu in her Feb. 6, 2014 posting on the US National Public Radio (NPR) blog, All Tech Considered, takes a different approach to the topic,

The prototype does work, but it won’t be manufactured anytime soon. The creation was only “meant to provoke discussion,” Hope says. It was put together as part of a class in which designers read science fiction and make functional prototypes to explore the ideas in the books.

If it ever does become more widely available, sensory fiction could have an unintended consequence. When I shared this idea with NPR editor Ellen McDonnell, she quipped, “If these device things are helping ‘put you there,’ it just means the writing won’t have to be as good.”

I hope the students are successful at provoking discussion as so far they seem to have primarily provoked interest.

As for my two cents, I think that in a world where it seems making personal connections  is increasingly difficult (i.e., people becoming more isolated) that sensory fiction which stimulates people into feeling something as they read a book seems a logical progression.  It’s also interesting to me that all of the focus is on the reader with no mention as to what writers might produce (other than McDonnell’s cheeky comment) if they knew their books were going to be given the ‘sensory treatment’. One more musing, I wonder if there might a difference in how males and females, writers and readers, respond to sensory fiction.

Now for a bit of wordplay. Feeling can be emotional but, in English, it can also refer to touch and researchers at MIT have also been investigating new touch-oriented media.  You can read more about that project in my Reaching beyond the screen with the Tangible Media Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) posting dated Nov. 13, 2013. One final thought, I am intrigued by how interested scientists at MIT seem to be in feelings of all kinds.

Two bits about the brain: fiction affects your brain and the US’s BRAIN Initiative is soliciting grant submissions

As a writer I love to believe my words have a lasting impact and while this research is focused on fiction, something I write more rarely than nonfiction, hope springs eternal that one day nonfiction too will be proved as having an impact (in a good way) on the brain. From a Jan. 3, 2014 news release on EurekAlert (or you can read the Dec. 17, 2013 Emory University news release by Carol Clark),

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

His co-authors included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula from Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them while they are in the fMRI scanner.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were fed nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain by Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye. Brain Connectivity. 2013, 3(6): 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

This is an open access paper where you’ll notice the participants cover a narrow range of ages (from the Materials and Methods section of the paper,

A total of 21 participants were studied. Two were excluded from the fMRI analyses: one for insufficient attendance, and the other for image abnormalities. Before the experiment, participants were screened for the presence of medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and none were taking medications. There were 12 female and 9 male participants between the ages of 19 and 27 (mean 21.5). Emory University’s Institutional Review Board approved all procedures, and all participants gave written informed consent.

It’s always good to remember that university research often draws from student populations and the question one might want to ask is whether or not those results will remain the same, more or less, throughout someone’s life span.In any event, I find this research intriguing and hope they follow this up.

Currently known as the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), I first wrote about the project under its old name BAM (Brain Activity Map) in two postings, first in a March 4, 2013 posting featuring brain-to-brain communication and other brain-related tidbits, then again, in an April 2, 2013 posting featuring an announcement about its federal funding. Today (Jan. 6, 2014), I stumbled across some BRAIN funding opportunities for researchers, from the BRAIN Initiative funding opportunities webpage,

NIH released six funding opportunity announcements in support of the President’s BRAIN Initiative. Collectively, these opportunities focus on building a new arsenal of tools and technologies for helping scientists unlock the mysteries of the brain. NIH [US National Institutes of Health] plans to invest $40 million in Fiscal Year 2014 through these opportunities, contingent upon the submission of a sufficient number of scientifically meritorious applications.

The opportunities currently available are as follows:

  • Transformative Approaches for Cell-Type Classification in the Brain (U01) (RFA-MH-14-215) – aims to pilot classification strategies to generate a systematic inventory/cell census of cell types in the brain, integrating molecular identity of cell types with connectivity, morphology, and location. These pilot projects and methodologies should be designed to demonstrate their utility and scalability to ultimately complete a comprehensive cell census of the human brain.
    Contact Email: BRAIN-info-NIMH@mail.nih.gov
    Application Receipt: March 13, 2014
  • Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Cell-Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain (U01) (RFA-MH-14-216) – aims to develop and validate novel tools that possess a high degree of cell-type and/or circuit-level specificity to facilitate the detailed analysis of complex circuits and provide insights into cellular interactions that underlie brain function. A particular emphasis is the development of new genetic and non-genetic tools for delivering genes, proteins and chemicals to cells of interest; new approaches are also expected to target specific cell types and or circuits in the nervous system with greater precision and sensitivity than currently established methods.
    Contact Email: BRAIN-info-NIMH@mail.nih.gov
    Application Receipt: March 13, 2014
  • New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System (U01) (RFA-NS-14-007) – focuses on development and proof-of-concept testing of new technologies and novel approaches for large scale recording and manipulation of neural activity, with cellular resolution, at multiple spatial and/or temporal scales, in any region and throughout the entire depth of the brain. The proposed research may be high risk, but if successful could profoundly change the course of neuroscience research.
    Contact Email: NINDS-Brain-Initiative@nih.gov
    Application Receipt: March 24, 2014
  • Optimization of Transformative Technologies for Large Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System (U01) (RFA-NS-14-008) – aims to optimize existing and emerging technologies and approaches that have the potential to address major challenges associated with recording and manipulating neural activity. This FOA is intended for the iterative refinement of emergent technologies and approaches that have already demonstrated their transformative potential through initial proof-of-concept testing, and are appropriate for accelerated engineering development with an end-goal of broad dissemination and incorporation into regular neuroscience research.
    Contact Email: NINDS-Brain-Initiative@nih.gov
    Application Receipt: March 24, 2014
  • Integrated Approaches to Understanding Circuit Function in the Nervous System (U01) (RFA-NS-14-009) – focuses onexploratory studies that use new and emerging methods for large scale recording and manipulation to elucidate the contributions of dynamic circuit activity to a specific behavioral or neural system. Applications should propose teams of investigators that seek to cross boundaries of interdisciplinary collaboration, for integrated development of experimental, analytic and theoretical capabilities in preparation for a future competition for large-scale awards.
    Contact Email: NINDS-Brain-Initiative@nih.gov
    Application Receipt: March 24, 2014
  • Planning for Next Generation Human Brain Imaging (R24) (RFA-MH-14-217) – aims to create teams of imaging scientist together with other experts from a range of disciplines such as engineering, material sciences, nanotechnology and computer science, to plan for a new generation of non-invasive imaging techniques that would be used to understand human brain function. Incremental improvements to existing technologies will not be funded under this announcement.
    Contact Email: sgrant@nida.nih.gov
    Application Receipt: March 13, 2014

For the interested, in the near future there will be some informational conference calls regarding these opportunities,

Informational Conference Calls for Prospective Applicants

NIH will be hosting a series of informational conference calls to address technical questions regarding applications to each of the RFAs released under the BRAIN Initiative.   Information on dates and contacts for each of the conference calls is as follows:

January 10, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-215, Transformative Approaches for Cell-Type Classification in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Andrea Beckel-Mitchener at BRAIN-info-NIMH@mail.nih.gov.

January 13, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-216, Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Cell-Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Michelle Freund at BRAIN-info-NIMH@mail.nih.gov.

January 15, 2014, 1:00-2:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-217, Planning for Next Generation Human Brain Imaging

For call-in information, contact Greg Farber at BRAIN-info-NIMH@mail.nih.gov.

February 4, 2014, 1:00-2:30 PM EST
RFA-NS-14-007, New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-008, Optimization of Transformative Technologies for Large Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-009, Integrated Approaches to Understanding Circuit Function in the Nervous System

For call-in information, contact Karen David at NINDS-Brain-Initiative@nih.gov.
In addition to accessing the information provided in the upcoming conference calls, applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with the Scientific/Research Contacts listed in each of the RFAs to discuss the alignment of their proposed work with the goals of the RFA to which they intend to apply.

Good luck!

It’s kind of fascinating to see this much emphasis on brains what with the BRAIN Initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in Europe (my Jan. 28, 2013 posting announcing the European Union’s winning Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research projects, The prizes (1B Euros to be paid out over 10 years to each winner) had been won by the Human Brain FET project and the Graphene FET project, respectively

[The Picture of] Dorian Gray opera premiered as part of World New Music Days festival held in Slovakia & Austria: *Kate Pullinger interview

I’m delighted to be publishing an interview with Kate Pullinger a well known Canadian-born writer, resident for many years in the UK, about her opera project. (For her sins, she supervised my De Montfort University’s [UK] master’s project. There were times when I wasn’t sure either of us was going to survive largely [but not solely] due to my computer’s meltdown at the worst possible moment.)

Here’s a bit more about Kate from the About page on her eponymous website,

Kate Pullinger writes for both print and digital platforms.  In 2009 her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes.  Her prize-winning digital fiction projects Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel have reached audiences around the world.

Kate Pullinger gives talks and readings frequently (look at the Events page for future events); she also offers private 1-1 mentoring for emerging writers in both print and new media.  She is Professor of Creative Writing and New Media at Bath Spa University.

As well as The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger’s books include A Little StrangerWeird Sister, The Last Time I Saw Jane, Where Does Kissing End?, and When the Monster Dies, as well as the short story collections, My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison and Tiny Lies.  She co-wrote the novel of the film The Piano with director Jane Campion. In 2011, A Curious Dream: Collected Works, a selection of Pullinger’s short stories, was published in Canada.

Kate Pullinger is currently working on a new novel and an associated digital fiction that build on themes developed in her collaborative digital fiction project, Flight Paths:  A Networked Novel.

Other current projects include a libretto based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, commissioned by the Slovak National Theatre in collaboration with the composer Lubica Cekovska.  This work will be premiered in Bratislava in 2013.  Recent projects include working with digital artist James Coupe on Surveillance Suite, a project that generates stories using facial recognition software.

Kate Pullinger was born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, and went to high school on Vancouver Island. She dropped out of McGill University, Montreal, after a year and a half of not studying philosophy and literature, then spent a year working in a copper mine in the Yukon, northern Canada, where she crushed rocks and saved money. She spent that money travelling and ended up in London, England, where she has been ever since.  She is married and has two children.

You can read more about Kate and her academic work here on her faculty page on the Bath Spa University website.

As for Kate’s work as a librettist on the opera, Dorian Gray, based on the Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, she worked with composer, Ľubica Čekovská for the opera, which was debuted on Nov. 8, 2013 in Bratislava, Slovakia as part of the World New Music Days festival, founded in 1922 and *held in Slovakia and Austria in 2013..

Here’s Kate’s interview:

  •  I am assuming you went to the premiere? How was it? And, if you didn’t attend, what do you imagine (or what were you told) happened?

I saw the last two full rehearsals, and then the first two performances.  There are two casts in the Slovakian production – two of all the main roles – I’m not entirely sure why! It was so much fun, to hear the orchestra, and to see the production, and to hear the singers sing our work. Lubica had played me the opera many times using Sibelius, the software composers use, but that sounds like tinny computer music, so it was so pleasurable to hear her score played. And her score is really a wonderful work, very dense, clever, amusing, and tuneful.

  • Can you tell me a little bit about the story and which elements you chose to emphasize and which elements you chose to de-emphasize or eliminate altogether? How does your Dorian Gray differ from the other Dorian Gray opera by American composer Lowell Liebermann,?

I guess the main difference between my adaptation and most others is that I decided to make Dorian and his journey to hell central to the work and to not focus on his relationship with Lord Henry. Adaptations of the novel often make it a kind of two-hander between Dorian and Lord Henry, but we felt that there wasn’t room for that in what we were doing.

I don’t know the Liebermann adaptation at all.

  •  I looked up definitions for librettist and it seems the word means whatever the librettist and the composer decide. Could you describe your role as librettist for this opera?

I structured the story by creating three acts and the scenes therein, and then wrote the text for the singers. Lubica and I had a lot of discussion before I created the structure, and then on-going discussions as I worked on the libretto and she embarked on the score. I finished the libretto, but then continued to make changes as Lubica found issues with it, or we had new ideas. It was a lot of fun and we would like to work together again.

  • How did you two end up collaborating with each other? And what was the process like? e.g. It took about four years to bring this opera to life, yes? So, did the process change as the years moved on and as you got closer to the premiere? Did you learn any Slovak (language)?

The writing process, in total, took about 2.5 years really, the bulk of that Lubica’s time, as creating and scoring an entire opera for a full orchestra is an enormous task. After that, there is a lengthy publishing process, and then the production time. So for the last 1.5 years I did very little except wait for the occasional update.  Lubica was much more involved with the opera house in finding the director, conductor, and casting – and then once rehearsals started she was very involved in that process. Both the director, Nicola Raab, and the conductor, Christopher Ward, said how unusual it was to work with a living composer and librettist!

  • Did anything surprise you as you worked with the story or with the composer (Ľubica Čekovská)?

I learned a lot and there were many surprises.

At this point I’m interrupting the interview to excerpt part of a review in the New York Times, which I ask about in a question that follows the excerpt from A Music Festival Features Premiere of the Opera ‘Dorian Gray’ By GEORGE LOOMIS Published: November 13, 2013 in the New York Times,

The World New Music Days festival was first held in Salzburg in 1922 — around the time Arnold Schoenberg was perfecting his 12-note compositional system — and it remains a robust champion of new music. This year the 11-day program, sponsored by the International Society of Contemporary Music, was spread over three cities — Kosice and Bratislava in Slovakia, and Vienna — and included some 25 concerts, which were supplemented by many others thanks to partnerships with local organizations. A new opera was among the many works to receive their world premieres.

….

But the opera, as seen in Nicola Raab’s generally persuasive staging with sets by Anne Marie Legenstein and Alix Burgstaller that decadently depict Victorian drawing rooms, is marred by the decision to have the picture consist simply of an empty frame, an idea that perhaps seemed bold in concept but misfires in execution. [emphasis mine] Ms. Cekovska interestingly conveys the picture’s disfiguration musically through wordless boy-soprano melodies that recur increasingly distorted. [emphasis mine] But the melodies, to say nothing of the drama itself, need a visual analogue.

Now back to the interview,

  •  The one reviewer I’ve read, from the NY Times, expressed some disappointment with the choice to have an empty picture frame represent the ‘picture of Dorian Gray’ around which the entire story revolves. What was the thinking behind the decision and is there a chance that future productions (my understanding is that one isn’t permitted to make any substantive changes to a production once it has started its run) will feature a picture?

Well, that’s one critic’s opinion, and not one we agree with. Very early on in the process Lubica had the idea, which I think is genius, of representing the picture chorally – in early drafts there was a chorus on stage, and then this shifted to an electronic recorded chorus, where the music becomes gradually more and more distorted as the picture changes. With adaptations of Dorian Gray there is always a huge problem with how to represent the picture, which is so vivid and clear in our mind’s eye when we read Wilde’s original. Having an oil painting that gets older often just looks cheesy – it doesn’t look how you think it should look. So the empty picture frame, and the disintegrating chorus, in my opinion, is wonderful.

  • Given that I write mostly about science and technology, are there any opera technology tidbits about this production that you can offer?

Ha!  It was one of the most analogue experiences of my entire life!

  • How was your recent trip to China? Was it related to the opera project or an entirely new one and what might that be?

I went to China as part of a UK university exchange programme, looking at setting up collaborations with Chinese universities. It was a very interesting trip, though somewhat dominated by the appalling air quality in all three of the cities we visited.

  • Is there anything you’d like to add? (e.g. plans to bring the opera to Vancouver, Canada)

Opera productions don’t travel, so any future productions will have to be new productions, if you see what I mean – or co-productions. This is what the opera house hopes will happen. Ľubica Čekovská is a young composer with a steadily rising reputation, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are future productions of it. I think it is a wonderful piece of work, but I’m biased.

Thank you, Kate for your time and for illuminating a topic of some interest to me. I’ve wondered about opera and librettists especially since many well known writers like you and Margaret Atwood are now working in this media. (Margaret Atwood is librettist for the opera ‘Pauline’ [about poet Pauline Johnson] which will have its world première on May 23, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada.)

For the curious, there’s another interview with Kate (she discusses the then upcoming opera and other work)  written up by Jeremy Hight in a Feb. 2011 article for the Leonardo Almanac and Ľubica Čekovská’s website is here. One final note, World New Music Days festival will be held in Vancouver, Canada in 2017, according to New York Times writer, George Loomis.

* I posted a little sooner that I should have. As of 10:30 am PST, I have added Kate Pullinger’s name to the heading, and added Austria and Slovakia as the sites for the 2013 World New Music Days festival.

ETA Dec. 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm PST: The opera, Dorian Gray, will be performed again in Bratislava at the National Slovak Theatre on 20 February, 5 April and 5 June 2014. More here.

Little skates, mermaid purses, nature, and writers

GrrlScientist has written a fascinating ;piece about skates (fish), poetry, and Twitter for her Dec. 5, 2013 posting on the Guardian Science Blog network (Note: A link has been removed),

Twitter is a wonderful medium. For example, a couple days ago, I met University of Washington Biology Professor Adam Summers on twitter. It turns out that he is Associate Director of Friday Harbor Labs, where I spent a summer taking an intensive molecular neurobiology course during my graduate training in zoology. …

“Skates are fabulous animals”, Professor Summers writes in email.

“They make up a quarter of the diversity of cartilaginous fishes and every darn one of the 250 species looks pretty much exactly like every other one.”

Thus, studies into the anatomy and development of one species may provide insight into these processes for other, rarer, species.

“The little skate, also called the hedgehog skate, was one of my go-to organisms for many years”, writes Professor Summers in email.

These studies provide the basis for a physical or a mathematical model that may help understand function. This model is of course tested both against its inspiration and as a predictive tool. For example, the skate’s tail is very important, even for the developing embryo.

“I figured out that it can’t survive on the oxygen that diffuses through the capsule. Instead it has to pump water through by vibrating its tail.”

Perhaps this is the reason that the tail muscles differ from what’s considered normal.

“A wonderful muscle physiologist showed that the muscle in the tail is cardiac muscle rather than the striated muscle it should be”, Professor Summers writes.

While colleagues thought Summers’ specimens were good enough to be compared to visual art, his little skate specimens also inspired a poet (from the posting),

“I got chatting with a friend who teaches a poetry class up here [at Friday Harbor]. Sierra Nelson and I had several long conversations about the similarity of the lens that poets and scientists bring to the world.”

“I think the poem does a much better job of engaging the viewer than my dry prose on the critter.”

Little Skate
Leucoraja erinacea

Littlest of little skates, just barely hatched!
You can still see the remnants
of my yellow egg sac.

And my tail’s a little longer
than my whole body
(I’ll grow into it more eventually).

….

Adam Summers shared one of his images of his ‘stained’ little skate specimens on his twitter feed (pic.twitter.com/UWCKeVMmYB)

Here's an embryo of the little skate, Leucoraja erinacea. pic.twitter.com/UWCKeVMmYB

Here’s an embryo of the little skate, Leucoraja erinacea. pic.twitter.com/UWCKeVMmYB

I recommend reading GrrlScientist’s posting (Inside a mermaid’s purse; A poetic intersection between life and science, art and photography) for the whole story and, for that matter, the whole poem. As for the mermaid purse, this is the name for the little skate’s egg sack when found on the beach.

This all reminded me of Aileen Penner, a writer, poet, and science communications specialist located in Vancouver, Canada and her work in science and creative writing. She wrote a Nov. 19, 2013 posting about the intersection of nature and writing titled: US Forest Service Scientist Says Writers Help Gather “Cultural Data” on our Relationship With the Natural World (Note: Links have been removed),

Who is Fred Swanson you ask? Yes he is a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist and yes he is a Forest Ecology Professor at Oregon State University (OSU), but he is also a key figure in the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. This is a program I have been following since 2006 and greatly admire for their commitment to bring together “the practical wisdom of the environmental sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative, expressive power of the written word, to find new ways to understand and re-imagine our relation to the natural world.”

In April of 2012, I went to OSU to interview the Director of the Spring Creek Project, Charles Goodrich. I wanted to know how to fund such a long-term interdisciplinary project. Charles talked a lot about Fred Swanson and his enthusiasm for having writers as part of the inquiry process and about Swanson’s personal commitment to writing the arts into scientific funding proposals for his work at the H.J. Andrew Experimental Forest.

Penner was inspired by an Andrew C. Gottleib article (About Earth Scientist Fred Swanson) in Terrain’s Fall 2013 issue and quotes from it throughout her own posting. She also notes this (Note: Links have been removed),

Terrain interviewer Andrew Gottlieb will moderate a panel “Artists in the Old-Growth” with Alison Hawthorne Deming, Fred Swanson, Charles Goodrich and Spring Creek Project Founder, Kathleen Dean Moore at the upcoming AWP conference in Seattle on February 27, 2014. If you are in Seattle for this – go see it!

Before investigating the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) 2014 conference and the special session any further, here’s a bit more information about the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word, from the homepage,

Spring Creek Project engages the most daunting and urgent environmental issues of our times while remembering and sharing our perennial sources of joy, wonder, and gratitude. We are a convening organization that sponsors writers’ residencies, readings, lectures, conversations, and symposia on issues and themes of critical importance to the health of humans and nature. We believe sharing insights, inspiration, and methods from many perspectives increases our understanding of the place of humans in nature. Our goal is to include participants and audience members from every discipline and persuasion, from creative writing and the other arts, from the environmental and social sciences, from philosophy and other humanistic disciplines.

The AWP conference seems mainly focused on fiction and literary nonfiction (at least, that’s what the video highlights [on the 2014 conference homepage] of the 2013 conference would suggest). Here’s more from the 2014 AWP conference homepage,

Each year, AWP holds its Annual Conference & Bookfair in a different city to celebrate the authors, teachers, students, writing programs, literary centers, and publishers of that region. More than 12,000 writers and readers attended our 2013 conference, and over 650 exhibitors were represented at our bookfair. AWP’s is now the largest literary conference in North America. We hope you’ll join us in 2014.
2014 AWP Conference & Bookfair

Washington State Convention Center &
Sheraton Seattle Hotel
February 26 – March 1, 2014
Key Dates:

November 8, 2013: deadline for purchasing a conference program ad
November 15, 2013: offsite event schedule opens
January 22, 2014: preregistration rates end
January 23, 2014: will-call registration begins
February 26, 2014: onsite registration begins

Here are some details about the R231 Artists in the Old-Growth: OSU’s Spring Creek Project & the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest
AWP 2014 conference session,

Room 602/603, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
Thursday, February 27, 2014
3:00 pm to 4:15 pm
How can a residency program empower and generate inquiry and creative responses to our astonishing world? How can a long-term, place-based program affect the way we see our relation to the forest? The world? Join this discussion with the founders and participants of the Oregon State University-based Spring Creek Project that brings writers to a place of old-growth forest and ground-breaking forest science.

Andrew Gottlieb Moderator

Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Book Reviews Editor for Terrain.org, and his writing has appeared in journals like Ecotone, ISLE, Poets & Writers, and Salon.com. He’s the author of a chapbook of poems, Halflives, and he won the 2010 American Fiction Prize.
Fred Swanson

Fred Swanson co-directs the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program based at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascade Range, which has hosted more than forty writers in residence and a variety of humanities-science interactions. He is a retired US Forest Service scientist.
Kathleen Dean Moore

Kathleen Dean Moore is an essayist and environmental ethicist, author of Riverwalking, Holdfast, Pine Island Paradox, and Wild Comfort, and co-editor of the climate ethics book, Moral Ground. She is co-founder and now Senior Fellow of the Spring Creek Project at Oregon State University.
Alison Deming

Alison Hawthorne Deming is author of four poetry books, most recently Rope, and three nonfiction books with Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit forthcoming. She is Director and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona.
Charles Goodrich

Charles Goodrich is the author of three books of poetry, A Scripture of Crows; Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden; and Insects of South Corvallis; and a collection of essays, The Practice of Home. He serves as Director for the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word

One last note about nature and writing, I interviewed Sue Thomas, author of Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace, in a Sept. 20,,2013 posting about her book and other projects.