Category Archives: performing arts

BRAIN and ethics in the US with some Canucks (not the hockey team) participating (part two of five)

The Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (part one of five) May 19, 2014 post kicked off a series titled ‘Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement’ which brings together a number of developments in the worlds of neuroscience*, prosthetics, and, incidentally, nanotechnology in the field of interest called human enhancement. Parts one through four are an attempt to draw together a number of new developments, mostly in the US and in Europe. Due to my language skills which extend to English and, more tenuously, French, I can’t provide a more ‘global perspective’. Part five features a summary.

Before further discussing the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues ‘brain’ meetings mentioned in part one, I have some background information.

The US launched its self-explanatory BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative (originally called BAM; Brain Activity Map) in 2013. (You can find more about the history and details in this Wikipedia entry.)

From the beginning there has been discussion about how nanotechnology will be of fundamental use in the US BRAIN initiative and the European Union’s 10 year Human Brain Project (there’s more about that in my Jan. 28, 2013 posting). There’s also a 2013 book (Nanotechnology, the Brain, and the Future) from Springer, which, according to the table of contents, presents an exciting (to me) range of ideas about nanotechnology and brain research,

I. Introduction and key resources

1. Nanotechnology, the brain, and the future: Anticipatory governance via end-to-end real-time technology assessment by Jason Scott Robert, Ira Bennett, and Clark A. Miller
2. The complex cognitive systems manifesto by Richard P. W. Loosemore
3. Analysis of bibliometric data for research at the intersection of nanotechnology and neuroscience by Christina Nulle, Clark A. Miller, Harmeet Singh, and Alan Porter
4. Public attitudes toward nanotechnology-enabled human enhancement in the United States by Sean Hays, Michael Cobb, and Clark A. Miller
5. U.S. news coverage of neuroscience nanotechnology: How U.S. newspapers have covered neuroscience nanotechnology during the last decade by Doo-Hun Choi, Anthony Dudo, and Dietram Scheufele
6. Nanoethics and the brain by Valerye Milleson
7. Nanotechnology and religion: A dialogue by Tobie Milford

II. Brain repair

8. The age of neuroelectronics by Adam Keiper
9. Cochlear implants and Deaf culture by Derrick Anderson
10. Healing the blind: Attitudes of blind people toward technologies to cure blindness by Arielle Silverman
11. Ethical, legal and social aspects of brain-implants using nano-scale materials and techniques by Francois Berger et al.
12. Nanotechnology, the brain, and personal identity by Stephanie Naufel

III. Brain enhancement

13. Narratives of intelligence: the sociotechnical context of cognitive enhancement by Sean Hays
14. Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy by Henry T. Greeley et al.
15. The opposite of human enhancement: Nanotechnology and the blind chicken debate by Paul B. Thompson
16. Anticipatory governance of human enhancement: The National Citizens’ Technology Forum by Patrick Hamlett, Michael Cobb, and David Guston
a. Arizona site report
b. California site report
c. Colorado site reportd. Georgia site report
e. New Hampshire site report
f. Wisconsin site report

IV. Brain damage

17. A review of nanoparticle functionality and toxicity on the central nervous system by Yang et al.
18. Recommendations for a municipal health and safety policy for nanomaterials: A Report to the City of Cambridge City Manager by Sam Lipson
19. Museum of Science Nanotechnology Forum lets participants be the judge by Mark Griffin
20. Nanotechnology policy and citizen engagement in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Local reflexive governance by Shannon Conley

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s May 13, 2014 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog, I stumbled across both a future meeting notice and documentation of the  Feb. 2014 meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Note: Links have been removed),

Continuing from its last meeting (in February 2014), the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will continue working on the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative in its June 9-10 meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.  An agenda is still forthcoming, …

In other developments, Commission staff are apparently going to examine some efforts to engage bioethical issues through plays.  I’d be very excited to see some of this happen during a Commission meeting, but any little bit is interesting.  The authors of these plays, Karen H. Rothenburg and Lynn W. Bush, have published excerpts in their book The Drama of DNA: Narrative Genomics.  …

The Commission also has a YouTube channel …

Integrating a theatrical experience into the reams of public engagement exercises that technologies such as stem cell, GMO (genetically modified organisms), nanotechnology, etc. tend to spawn seems a delightful idea.

Interestingly, the meeting in June 2014 will coincide with the book’s release date. I dug further and found these snippets of information. The book is being published by Oxford University Press and is available in both paperback and e-book formats. The authors are not playwrights, as one might assume. From the Author Information page,

Lynn Bush, PhD, MS, MA is on the faculty of Pediatric Clinical Genetics at Columbia University Medical Center, a faculty associate at their Center for Bioethics, and serves as an ethicist on pediatric and genomic advisory committees for numerous academic medical centers and professional organizations. Dr. Bush has an interdisciplinary graduate background in clinical and developmental psychology, bioethics, genomics, public health, and neuroscience that informs her research, writing, and teaching on the ethical, psychological, and policy challenges of genomic medicine and clinical research with children, and prenatal-newborn screening and sequencing.

Karen H. Rothenberg, JD, MPA serves as Senior Advisor on Genomics and Society to the Director, National Human Genome Research Institute and Visiting Scholar, Department of Bioethics, Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health. She is the Marjorie Cook Professor of Law, Founding Director, Law & Health Care Program and former Dean at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and Visiting Professor, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Professor Rothenberg has served as Chair of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission, President of the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics, and has been on many NIH expert committees, including the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

It is possible to get a table of contents for the book but I notice not a single playwright is mentioned in any of the promotional material for the book. While I like the idea in principle, it seems a bit odd and suggests that these are purpose-written plays. I have not had good experiences with purpose-written plays which tend to be didactic and dull, especially when they’re not devised by a professional storyteller.

You can find out more about the upcoming ‘bioethics’ June 9 – 10, 2014 meeting here.  As for the Feb. 10 – 11, 2014 meeting, the Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (part one of five) May 19, 2014 post featured Barbara Herr Harthorn’s (director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara) participation only.

It turns out, there are some Canadian tidbits. From the Meeting Sixteen: Feb. 10-11, 2014 webcasts page, (each presenter is featured in their own webcast of approximately 11 mins.)

Timothy Caulfield, LL.M., F.R.S.C., F.C.A.H.S.

Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy
Professor in the Faculty of Law
and the School of Public Health
University of Alberta

Eric Racine, Ph.D.

Director, Neuroethics Research Unit
Associate Research Professor
Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal
Associate Research Professor,
Department of Medicine
Université de Montréal
Adjunct Professor, Department of Medicine and Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery,
McGill University

It was a surprise to see a couple of Canucks listed as presenters and I’m grateful that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is so generous with information. in addition to the webcasts, there is the Federal Register Notice of the meeting, an agenda, transcripts, and presentation materials. By the way, Caulfield discussed hype and Racine discussed public understanding of science with regard to neuroscience both fitting into the overall theme of communication. I’ll have to look more thoroughly but it seems to me there’s no mention of pop culture as a means of communicating about science and technology.

Links to other posts in the Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement five-part series:

Part one: Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (May 19, 2014 post)

Part three: Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society issued May 2014 by US Presidential Bioethics Commission (May 20, 2014)

Part four: Brazil, the 2014 World Cup kickoff, and a mind-controlled exoskeleton (May 20, 2014)

Part five: Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement: summary (May 20, 2014)

* ‘neursocience’ corrected to ‘neuroscience’ on May 20, 2014.

1st code poetry slam at Stanford University

It’s code as in computer code and slam as in performance competition which when added to the word poetry takes most of us into uncharted territory. Here’s a video clip featuring the winning entry, Say 23 by Leslie Wu, competing in Stanford University’s (located in California) 1st code poetry slam,


If you listen closely (this clip does not have the best sound quality), you can hear the words to Psalm 23 (from the bible).

Thanks to this Dec. 29, 2013 news item on phys.org for bringing this code poetry slam to my attention (Note: Links have been removed),

Leslie Wu, a doctoral student in computer science at Stanford, took an appropriately high-tech approach to presenting her poem “Say 23″ at the first Stanford Code Poetry Slam.

Wu wore Google Glass as she typed 16 lines of computer code that were projected onto a screen while she simultaneously recited the code aloud. She then stopped speaking and ran the script, which prompted the computer program to read a stream of words from Psalm 23 out loud three times, each one in a different pre-recorded-computer voice.

Wu, whose multimedia presentation earned her first place, was one of eight finalists to present at the Code Poetry Slam. Organized by Melissa Kagen, a graduate student in German studies, and Kurt James Werner, a graduate student in computer-based music theory and acoustics, the event was designed to explore the creative aspects of computer programming.

The Dec. 27, 2013 Stanford University news release by Mariana Lage, which originated the news item, goes on to describe the concept. the competition, and the organizers’ aims,

With presentations that ranged from poems written in a computer language format to those that incorporated digital media, the slam demonstrated the entrants’ broad interpretation of the definition of “code poetry.”

Kagen and Werner developed the code poetry slam as a means of investigating the poetic potentials of computer-programming languages.

“Code poetry has been around a while, at least in programming circles, but the conjunction of oral presentation and performance sounded really interesting to us,” said Werner. Added Kagen, “What we are interested is in the poetic aspect of code used as language to program a computer.”

Sponsored by the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, the slam drew online submissions from Stanford and beyond.

High school students and professors, graduate students and undergraduates from engineering, computer science, music, language and literature incorporated programming concepts into poem-like forms. Some of the works were written entirely in executable code, such as Ruby and C++ languages, while others were presented in multimedia formats. The works of all eight finalists can be viewed on the Code Poetry Slam website.

Kagen, Werner and Wu agree that code poetry requires some knowledge of programming from the spectators.

“I feel it’s like trying to read a poem in a language with which you are not comfortable. You get the basics, but to really get into the intricacies you really need to know that language,” said Kagen, who studies the traversal of musical space in Wagner and Schoenberg.

Wu noted that when she was typing the code most people didn’t know what she was doing. “They were probably confused and curious. But when I executed the poem, the program interpreted the code and they could hear words,” she said, adding that her presentation “gave voice to the code.”

“The code itself had its own synthesized voice, and its own poetics of computer code and singsong spoken word,” Wu said.

One of the contenders showed a poem that was “misread” by the computer.

“There was a bug in his poem, but more interestingly, there was the notion of a correct interpretation which is somewhat unique to computer code. Compared to human language, code generally has few interpretations or, in most cases, just one,” Wu said.

So what exactly is code poetry? According to Kagen, “Code poetry can mean a lot of different things depending on whom you ask.

“It can be a piece of text that can be read as code and run as program, but also read as poetry. It can mean a human language poetry that has mathematical elements and codes in it, or even code that aims for elegant expression within severe constraints, like a haiku or a sonnet, or code that generates automatic poetry. Poems that are readable to humans and readable to computers perform a kind of cyborg double coding.”

Werner noted that “Wu’s poem incorporated a lot of different concepts, languages and tools. It had Ruby language, Japanese and English, was short, compact and elegant. It did a lot for a little code.” Werner served as one of the four judges along with Kagen; Caroline Egan, a doctoral student in comparative literature; and Mayank Sanganeria, a master’s student at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

Kagen and Werner got some expert advice on judging from Michael Widner, the academic technology specialist for the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages.

Widner, who reviewed all of the submissions, noted that the slam allowed scholars and the public to “probe the connections between the act of writing poetry and the act of writing code, which as anyone who has done both can tell you are oddly similar enterprises.”

A scholar who specializes in the study of both medieval and machine languages, Widner said that “when we realize that coding is a creative act, we not only value that part of the coder’s labor, but we also realize that the technologies in which we swim have assumptions and ideologies behind them that, perhaps, we should challenge.”

I first encountered code poetry in 2006 and I don’t think it was new at that time but this is the first time I’ve encountered a code poetry slam. For the curious, here’s more about code poetry from the Digital poetry essay in Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

… There are many types of ‘digital poetry’ such as hypertext, kinetic poetry, computer generated animation, digital visual poetry, interactive poetry, code poetry, holographic poetry (holopoetry), experimental video poetry, and poetries that take advantage of the programmable nature of the computer to create works that are interactive, or use generative or combinatorial approach to create text (or one of its states), or involve sound poetry, or take advantage of things like listservs, blogs, and other forms of network communication to create communities of collaborative writing and publication (as in poetical wikis).

The Stanford organizers have been sufficiently delighted with the response to their 1st code poetry slam that they are organizing a 2nd slam (from the Code Poetry Slam 1.1. homepage),

Call for Works 1.1

Submissions for the second Slam are now open! Submit your code/poetry to the Stanford Code Poetry Slam, sponsored by the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages! Submissions due February 12th, finalists invited to present their work at a poetry slam (place and time TBA). Cash prizes and free pizza!

Stanford University’s Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL) sponsors a series of Code Poetry Slams. Code Poetry Slam 1.0 was held on November 20th, 2013, and Code Poetry Slam 1.1 will be held Winter quarter 2014.

According to Lage’s news release you don’t have to be associated with Stanford University to be a competitor but, given that you will be performing your poetry there, you will likely have to live in some proximity to the university.

[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.

Art and nanotechnology at Cornell University’s (US) 2014 Biennial/Biennale

The 2014 Cornell [University located in New York State, US] Council for the Arts (CCA) Biennial, “Intimate Cosmologies: The Aesthetics of Scale in an Age of Nanotechnology” was announced in a Dec. 5, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

A campuswide exhibition next fall will explore the cultural and human consequences of seeing the world at the micro and macro levels, through nanoscience and networked communications.

From Sept. 15 to Dec. 22, the 2014 Cornell Council for the Arts (CCA) Biennial, “Intimate Cosmologies: The Aesthetics of Scale in an Age of Nanotechnology”, will feature several events and principal projects by faculty and student investigators and guest artists – artist-in-residence kimsooja, Trevor Paglen and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer – working in collaboration with Cornell scientists and researchers.

The Dec.5, 2013 Cornell University news release written by Daniel Aloi, which originated the news item, describes the plans for and events leading to the biennale in Fall 2014,

The inaugural biennial theme was chosen to frame dynamic changes in 21st-century culture and art practice, and in nanoscale technology. The multidisciplinary initiative intends to engage students, faculty and the community in demonstrations of how radical shifts in scale have become commonplace, and how artists address realms of human experience lying beyond immediate sensory perception.

“Participating in the biennial is very exciting. We’re engaging the idea of nano and investigating scale as part of the value of art in performance,” said Beth Milles ’88, associate professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts, who is collaborating on a project with students and with artist Lynn Tomlinson ’88.

A series of events and curricula this fall and spring are preceding the main Biennial exhibition. Joe Davis and Nathaniel Stern ’99 presented talks this semester, and CCA will bring Paul Thomas, Stephanie Rothenberg, Ana Viseu and others to campus in the coming months.

kimsooja, an acclaimed multimedia artist in performance, video and installation, addresses issues of the displaced self and recently represented Korea in the 55th Venice Biennale. She visited the campus Nov. 22-23 to meet with Uli Weisner and students from his research group, who will work with her to realize her large-scale installation here next fall.

Lozano-Hemmer has worked on both ends of the scale spectrum, from laser-etched poetry on human hairs to an interactive light sculpture over Mexico City, Toronto and Yamaguchi, Japan. Paglen’s researched-based work blurs lines between science, contemporary art, journalism and other disciplines.

The Biennial focus brings together artists and scientists who share a common curiosity regarding the position of the individual within the larger world, CCA Director Stephanie Owens said.

“Scientists are suddenly designers creating new forms,” she said. “And artists are increasingly interested in how things are structured, down to the biological level. Both are designing and discovering new ways of synthesizing natural properties of the material world with the fabricated experiences that extend and express the impact of these properties on our lives.”

Here’s a sample of the work that will be featured at the Biennale,

A prototype image of architecture professor Jenny Sabin's "eSkin" CCA Biennial project, an interactive simulation of a building façade that behaves like a living organism. Credit: Jenny Sabin Courtesy: Cornell University

A prototype image of architecture professor Jenny Sabin’s “eSkin” CCA Biennial project, an interactive simulation of a building façade that behaves like a living organism. Credit: Jenny Sabin Courtesy: Cornell University

Aloi includes a description of some of the exhibits and shows to be featured,

 The principal projects to be presented are:

  • “eSkin” – Architecture professor Jenny Sabin addresses ecology and sustainability issues with buildings that behave like organisms. Her project is an interactive simulation of a façade material incorporating nano- and microscale substrates plated with human cells.
  • “Nano Performance: In 13 Boxes” – Performing and media arts professor Beth Milles ‘88, animator/visual artist Lynn Tomlinson ‘88 and students from different majors will collaborate on 13 media installations and live performances situated across campus. Computer mapping and clues linking the project’s components will assist in “synthesizing the 13 events as a whole experience – it has a lot to do with discovering the performance,” Mills said.
  • “Nano Where: Gas In, Light Out” – Juan Hinestroza, fiber science, and So-Yeon Yoon, design and environmental analysis, will demonstrate the potential of molecular-level metal-organic frameworks as wearable sensors to detect methane and poisonous gases, using a sealed gas chamber and 3-D visual art.
  • “Paperscapes” – Three architecture students – teaching associate Caio Barboza ’13; Joseph Kennedy ’15 and Sonny Xu ’13 – will render the microscopic textures of a sheet of paper as a 3-D inhabitable landscape.
  • “When Art Exceeds Perception” – Ph.D. student in applied physics Robert Hovden will explore replication and plagiarism in nanoscale reproductions, 1,000 times smaller than the naked eye can see, of famous works of art inscribed onto a silicon crystal.

The Cornell Council for the Arts (CCA) has more information about their 2014 ‘nano Biennale’ here. This looks very exciting and I wish I could be there.

One final note, I’ve used the Biennale rather than Biennial as I associate Biennial and the US with the dates of 1776 and 1976 when the country celebrated its 200th anniversary.

Interview with Baba Brinkman on the occasion of his Rap Guide to Evolution performance in Vancouver, November 2013 edition

Baba Brinkman is in the words of his eponymous website’s homepage,

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist, writer, actor, and tree planter. He is best known for his award-winning hip-hop theatre shows, including The Rap Guide to Evolution and The Canterbury Tales Remixed, which interpret the works of Darwin and Chaucer for a modern audience.

Originally from British Columbia and now living in New York City, he has brought his Rap Guide to Evolution which has been an off-Broadway show, a festival performance, and a DVD project to Vancouver. The last time he performed this show, which morphs as new information is received and as it is adapted for different media and performance types, to Vancouver was in 2011 (my Feb. 17, 2011 posting features a pre-show interview he gave),. This time he’s at Vancouver’s East Cultural Centre, (The Cultch) from Oct. 29, – November 10, 2013 (tickets here).

Baba has very kindly (especially since the show just opened a few days ago) given me a second interview. Without more ado, here’s the interview,

  • Could you describe the full theatrical version of the Rap Guide to Evolution that played in New York? And is this what you’ve brought to Vancouver or has it been adapted either due to cost and/or venue and/or geographic location?

The show running in Vancouver is the full off-Broadway production, which includes music and live turntablism by Jamie Simmonds, visual projections by Wendall Harrington and lighting design by Jason Boyd. All of these production elements were added in 2011 specifically for the New York run, and they create a full immersion experience with lights and sounds and visuals and words all weaving together to tell the story of Darwin’s intellectual impact on the modern world.

  • In Adrian Mack’s Oct. 23, 2013 piece in the Georgia Straight) newspaper, you talked about karma, Vancouverites’ belief in it, and the science of it. How did you come to a scientific understanding of karma and could you explain what you mean by ‘cheater detection’ and ‘evolved deterrents to free-riding behaviour’?

Karma is *often summarized as “what goes around comes around” and for most people it’s a belief that the universe is somehow keeping score, rewarding goodness and punishing badness. The dark side of the widespread belief in karma, in Vancouver and elsewhere, is that it could just as accurately be summarized as “whatever happens to you, good or bad, you deserve it” which doesn’t sit right with most people when they think it through. We constantly see people around us being unjustly rewarded for bad behaviour and punished for good behaviour, and we see a lot of randomness too. Not many of us would tell a pedestrian who was hit by a drunk driver: “that’s karma”, but if you give a homeless person a dollar and later find out that you’ve won a big prize in a raffle draw *you might think it’s karma. Hence, we usually only invoke the concept of karma when we encounter seemingly random events that appear to repay like with like.

The scientific view is that our minds misattribute causality to these kinds of random events, but we do it for a good reason. Humans are social primates, and social groups share the mutual benefits of cooperative efforts, but those benefits are constantly undermined by individuals who claim the rewards without paying the cooperative costs, ie cheaters and free-riders. Evolution will favour free-riding behaviour unless there are mechanisms to punish or suppress it, but punishment itself is costly, so there are a whole series of obstacles to evolving cooperation. One way to overcome these obstacles is with psychological mechanisms for “cheater detection” (seeking and identifying non-cooperators) and “altruistic punishment” (enforcing costs on them through reputation-damage, ostracism, loss of liberty, etc), both of which humans have been experimentally shown to have in spades. We care about who’s a fraud, a thief, and a cheater, and we want to see them pay for it. Denouncing and locking up Bernie Madoff feels good.

Hence, the concept of karma can be redeemed as a social as opposed to metaphysical phenomenon. The reason we feel like the universe adheres to the principle of “what goes around comes around” is because we are evolved to pursue that model through our social interactions, so we project it onto the physical world. The universe doesn’t enforce good behaviour, but your peers certainly do. If you doubt it, try ripping them off and see what happens.

  • I see you were an artist-in-residence at the US National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) which is located at the University of Tennessee. Could you describe the experience especially in light of the fact that Tennessee is the state where the Scopes trial took place? (The trial is famous for bringing two of the US’s best known lawyers of the 1920s [William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow] to argue whether or not evolution was scientific and should be taught in schools.)

I was expecting the Tennessee residency to be a lot more controversial, but in fact most of it was spent interacting with post-docs and grad students, learning about their research, going to lectures, and going to live music events at local bars. Major evolution vs creationism showdowns reminiscent of Scopes did not feature prominently in my time there, but in retrospect that isn’t surprising since I was a guest of a national scientific research centre and was situated on a university campus. The one exception to this general tranquility was my performance at Union County High School, which generated some controversy, summarized in my “Tennessee Monkey Trials” blog. I thought I was there to fight a culture war, but mostly I just drank local craft beer (and moonshine) and listened to live bluegrass music. *The end result was The Infomatic EP  produced by Jamie Simmonds, who was in Tennessee with me for most of the residency.”*

  • How have you and/or your work changed since you embarked on rapping science?

The biggest change is that I have come to identify as a skeptic, atheist, and philosophical naturalist, whereas before I would have called myself agnostic or spiritual. I was never religious before, but I was sympathetic to the idea of a nebulous spiritual “force” at work in the world. However, the more I read about evolution and psychology and the scientific method, the less seriously I was able to take supernatural or miraculous explanations for anything at all. Now I write rationalist anthems like “Naturalizm” and “Off That“, which are very different in tone than the music I was making six years ago.

  • Where are you off to after this?

My next tour is the Norway Hip-hop Festival in February, and then a big tour of Australia in May/June, including the Sydney Opera House. In the meantime, my wife is pregnant with our first baby, due in late November, so I’m going to spend the winter learning to be a father, which is pretty exciting. Darwin would be proud.

  • Is there anything you’d like to add?

I hope your readers will come to the show, if they are able. It runs until November 10th in Vancouver. Or, if they can’t make it, download the album and bump it in your headphones. Scientific literacy never sounded so good!

Baba, I very much appreciate the interview and the gift of your precious time writing this up just after you’ve opened your show here in Vancouver. As well, congratulations to you and your wife!

Also, thank you for that explanation of karma and science and, especially, for this bit, “The dark side of the widespread belief in karma, in Vancouver and elsewhere, is that it could just as accurately be summarized as “whatever happens to you, good or bad, you deserve it” which doesn’t sit right with most people when they think it through. We constantly see people around us being unjustly rewarded for bad behaviour and punished for good behaviour, and we see a lot of randomness too. …” Many times I’ve lovely well-meaning individuals do damage with advice that includes blame via ‘karma’. Thank you for being much more articulate about it than I’ve been.

As for anyone who likes to see reviews, the only one I could find is from Colin Thomas who in an Oct. 30, 2013 review for the Georgia Straight which was further elucidated in a Nov. 1, 2013 posting on his eponymous blog, had issues not with the performance (“Smart writer. Handsome production. But no. Just no. ” [from the Oct. 30, 2012 review]) but the content and the politics regarding rap and gender, in particular. I gather Thomas found the show thought-provoking.

* Two corrections made: ‘ofter’ to ‘often’ and ‘raffle and you might’ to ‘raffle you might’ in the response to the Karma question and one sentence added to the end of the Tennessee question on Nov.4, 2013.

Hip hop infused science rap theatrical experience travels from off Broadway (New York) to Vancouver (Canada)

Baba Brinkman is now back in town to perform the latest version of his Rap Guide to Evolution at Vancouver’s East Cultural Centre, (The Cultch) from Oct. 29, – November 10, 2013, There’s a special deal from now (Oct. 14, 2013 to midnight Oct. 18, 2013) where The Cultch is offering a 50% discount off tickets for the first five days of performances,

OFFER BEGINS: October 11 at 10 am
OFFER ENDS: October 18 at midnight

Canadian actor and rapper Baba Brinkman returns to his home town of Vancouver, BC to perform his unabridged production of The Rap Guide to Evolution from October 29 to November 10! A smash hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, in New York, and around the world, The Rap Guide is at once provocative, hilarious, intelligent, and scientifically accurate. Get a sneak-peek of the production and find out more here.

The Rap Guide to Evolution has earned Baba accolades from The New York Times and landed him spots on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show  and TEDxEast. Don’t miss out on the production everyone is talking about!

SAVE 50% with promo code EVO50 online or by phone through The Cultch Box Office at 604-251-1363. Valid for performances Oct 29-31 and Nov 1, 2. Valid for A+B seating only. Act now – offer expires Oct 18!

PLUS! Join us for Halloween fun! Come dressed up on Oct 29, 30, 31 and you’ll receive candy and the chance to win prizes for best costume!!

When purchasing online simply enter the code into the “Discount Coupon” field at the checkout page. Cannot be combined with any other offer. No cash value. Offer may not be applied on past purchases.

Tickets are priced at $17.14, $29.52 and $38.10, respectively.. As best I can tell, the prices don’t include tax, are the same for both evening and matinee shows, as for the cheap seats I can’t tell if they are available for all performances (I found the online ticketing function a little confusing).

The show does ‘evolve’ so I’m not positive (although I’m pretty sure) this particular piece will be performed. Here it is anyway, just because I find it provocative and because it gives you some idea of his approach and music,,

I’ve mentioned Baba and his Rap Guide to Evolution several times including this Feb. 17, 2011 posting which featured an interview with him prior to a Vancouver performance of his Rap Guide and I then offered a commentary on  that performance in a Feb. 21, 2011 posting. I hope to see what he’s done with the Rap Guide since adding a DJ and redeveloping the piece for theatrical purposes although I have to admit to a certain fondness for the ambience of that 2011 performance at Vancouver’s Railway Club.

ETA Oct. 14, 2013 4 pm PDT: You can find Baba Brinkman’s website here.

Baba Brinkman’s Don’t Sleep With Mean People’ crowdfunding campaign and first two videos from Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science available

I have two music and science-related items, the first concerning Baba Brinkiman, a Canadian rapper who’s been mentioned here many times, and the second concerns Tom McFadden who raps science and creates rapping programs where children rap science.

Brinkman is coming to the end of a crowdfunding campaign, which hasn’t been mentioned here before, Don’t Sleep With Mean People on the RocketHub platform. Baba is trying to raise $15,000 to do this,

The goal of this crowdfunding campaign is to make “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” a globally recognizable meme, a scientifically-informed peace movement driven by one of the most powerful forces nature has ever invented: sexual selection. The slogan already has a theme song, which is part of the off-Broadway theatre production The Rap Guide to Evolution. With the money from this campaign we will produce both a short documentary film and a professional-quality music video (complete with goofy, easily-imitated dance routine) and hire a publicity company to promote the work across multiple media platforms. In the end, we hope “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” will be bigger than Gangnam Style, and a hell of a lot more useful.

The beauty of “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” is that it works on multiple levels. At the deepest level, it has the potential to transform our species by reducing the frequency of “mean genes” in the human gene pool. But even in the short term, once people learn that bad behaviour is a one way ticket to celibacy, the world will very rapidly become a more peaceful and cooperative place.

Currently the slogan “Mean People Suck” bears the weight of the world’s anti-mean sentiments, but unfortunately it isn’t an actionable statement. We aim to replace it with something people can put into daily practice. At present, “Mean People Suck” is mentioned on 196,000 unique websites, while “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” is only mentioned on 5,670. By spreading the slogan on T-Shirts, billboards, bumper stickers, and viral YouTube videos (…), we aim to reverse this trend.

Previously successful applications of “Don’t Sleep With Mean People” include the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes (c. 411 BC), and the Liberian “sex strike activism” of Leymah Gbowee. In both cases the courageous actions of women were the key to punishing bad behaviour in men, and our campaign takes the same approach. Darwin’s theory of evolution predicts the lower-investing sex (usually males) will tend towards fiercer competition for mates, while the higher-investing sex (usually females) will be relatively choosier and will thus wield more “selective” power.

By encouraging everyone – and especially women – to choose less-mean sex partners, we hope to evolve the world into a better place.

As of today, Aug. 19, 2013, there are 11 more days left to the campaign. From the campaign FAQs,

What will you spend the money on?
Film production costs for the music video and short documentary, promotion, and fulfillment of our obligations to deliver the Goods you’ve earned.

What happens if you don’t hit your $15,000 target?
We’ll make a lower-budget short film and music video and promote them without professional help.

Now on to Tom McFadden and his successful crowdfunding campaign Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science (Brahe’s Battles); which was featured  in my Mar. 28, 2013 posting. Now, David Bruggeman provides an update in his Aug. 16, 2013 posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog,

Tom McFadden’s Brahe’s B.A.T.T.L.E.S. project has dropped two nuggets of video goodness of late, one of which is racing through the interwebs.  A conceptual cousin of the New York City-based Science Genius project, McFadden’s project centers around scientific matters of debate, if not controversy. First one out of the chute involves the matter of Rosalind Franklin and her under-credited role in developing the model of DNA.

Here’s the Rosalind Franklin rap (David has included both this rap and the project’s more recently released rap [Pluto] in his posting),

I love it. I’ve written about Franklin before, both in a Jan. 16, 2012 posting which mentions a proposed movie about her and in a Jan. 28, 2010 posting which features a ‘Rosalind’ scarf’ in the context of science knitting.

You can comment and participate in McFadden’s project on this YouTube channel or on McFadden’s Science with Tom blog.

Cyborgian dance at McGill University (Canada)

As noted in the Canadian Council of Academies report ((State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012), which was mentioned in my Dec. 28, 2012 posting, the field of visual and performing arts is an area of strength and that is due to one province, Québec. Mark Wilson’s Aug. 13, 2013 article for Fast Company and Paul Ridden’s Aug. 7, 2013 article for gizmag.com about McGill University’s Instrumented Bodies: Digital Prostheses for Music and Dance Performance seem to confirm Québec’s leadership.

From Wilson’s Aug. 13, 2013 article (Note: A link has been removed),

One is a glowing exoskeleton spine, while another looks like a pair of cyborg butterfly wings. But these aren’t just costumes; they’re wearable, functional art.

In fact, the team of researchers from the IDML (Input Devices and Music Interaction Laboratory [at McGill University]) who are responsible for the designs go so far as to call their creations “prosthetic instruments.”

Ridden’s Aug. 7, 2013 article offers more about the project’s history and technology,

For the last three years, a small research team at McGill University has been working with a choreographer, a composer, dancers and musicians on a project named Instrumented Bodies. Three groups of sensor-packed, internally-lit digital music controllers that attach to a dancer’s costume have been developed, each capable of wirelessly triggering synthesized music as the performer moves around the stage. Sounds are produced by tapping or stroking transparent Ribs or Visors, or by twisting, turning or moving Spines. Though work on the project continues, the instruments have already been used in a performance piece called Les Gestes which toured Canada and Europe during March and April.

Both articles are interesting but Wilson’s is the fast read and Ridden’s gives you information you can’t find by looking up the Instrumented Bodies: Digital Prostheses for Music and Dance Performance project webpage,

These instruments are the culmination of a three-year long project in which the designers worked closely with dancers, musicians, composers and a choreographer. The goal of the project was to develop instruments that are visually striking, utilize advanced sensing technologies, and are rugged enough for extensive use in performance.

The complex, transparent shapes are lit from within, and include articulated spines, curved visors and ribcages. Unlike most computer music control interfaces, they function both as hand-held, manipulable controllers and as wearable, movement-tracking extensions to the body. Further, since the performers can smoothly attach and detach the objects, these new instruments deliberately blur the line between the performers’ bodies and the instrument being played.

The prosthetic instruments were designed and developed by Ph.D. researchers Joseph Malloch and Ian Hattwick [and Marlon Schumacher] under the supervision of IDMIL director Marcelo Wanderley. Starting with sketches and rough foam prototypes for exploring shape and movement, they progressed through many iterations of the design before arriving at the current versions. The researchers made heavy use of digital fabrication technologies such as laser-cutters and 3D printers, which they accessed through the McGill University School of Architecture and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology, also hosted by McGill.

Each of the nearly thirty working instruments produced for the project has embedded sensors, power supplies and wireless data transceivers, allowing a performer to control the parameters of music synthesis and processing in real time through touch, movement, and orientation. The signals produced by the instruments are routed through an open-source peer-to-peer software system the IDMIL team has developed for designing the connections between sensor signals and sound synthesis parameters.

For those who prefer to listen and watch, the researchers have created a video documentary,

I usually don’t include videos that run past 5 mins. but I’ve made an exception for this almost 15 mins. documentary.

I was trying to find mention of a dancer and/or choreographer associated with this project and found a name along with another early stage participant, choreographer, Isabelle Van Grimde, and composer, Sean Ferguson, in Ridden’s article.

Energy Theater: a dramatic and participatory physics lesson

Instead of providing lectures, teachers in a special research project have been presenting Energy Theater, a ‘drama exercise’ where students are encouraged to become energy components and act out the various forces involved when energy is expended. From a July 15, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a study released last week, education researchers found that personifying energy allowed students to grapple with difficult ideas about how energy works. Contrasted with more traditional lectures and graphs, this innovative instructional technique may be useful for teaching about other ideas in physical science, which commonly deals with things that change form over time.

The undated American Association of Physics Teachers press release, which appears to have originated the news item, offers more details about the physics theater project,

“Existing representations [such as bar charts] don’t emphasize the thing that we care most about energy in physics, which is that it’s conserved,” said lead author Rachel Scherr, of Seattle Pacific University.   These other instructional methods also don’t show how energy moves among different objects in a system.

In the current study, the researchers report their ongoing examination of an activity that they have created, called “Energy Theater.”  Energy Theater is specifically designed to help learners visualize energy and how it dynamically changes form and location.  In Energy Theater, learners  (K-12 science teachers in this study) each play the role of one “chunk” of energy, and indicate with hand gestures what form that energy has (e.g., chemical, motion, gravitational, thermal).  Different objects are represented by loops of rope on the ground, and learners can move from object to object, demonstrating energy moving between those objects.  While energy is not actually a material substance, this metaphor can help learners think about how a fixed amount of energy can flow between different objects.

For example, the group may be given the problem of, “Show what happens when a hand pushes a box across a table.”  Participants would first stand in the area representing the hand, making the gesture for “chemical energy.”  One by one, they would move to the area representing the box, changing their gesture to “energy of motion.” Other scenarios might include how energy flows when an incandescent light bulb is turned on.   The group must work together to decide how the “theater” will play out for a particular situation, making complicated decisions about just where and when the energy will flow and take different forms.

“These elaborate stories about energy dynamics are not usually told,” said co-author Hunter Close of Texas State University.  “In order to tell [these stories], we have to act them out, because they are so complicated.”  The authors note that the specific attributes of Energy Theater help support this deeper learning:  “I think the important message is that diverse learners can figure out all kinds of sophisticated energy scenarios once they have a representation for doing so,” said Scherr.  Energy Theater automatically keeps track of how much energy is located in different places, emphasizing conservation.  It also serves as a visual “memory” for the group, helping them to keep track of the different moving parts.    “It’s also kind of fun and enticing,” said Scherr.  “It’s an opportunity to interact.  It’s easy to feel very involved in what the group is doing.”

Current evidence for the effectiveness of the activity is that learners are able to generate very detailed energy tracking diagrams after the activity.  Analysis of the groups’ conversations as they work to script out the “play” also demonstrates the complexity of the ideas that the group is working to understand.

The team suggests that Energy Theater is a useful addition to more traditional instruction, enriching the student’s development of ideas about energy.  This approach might also be fruitfully applied to other areas of science involving dynamic processes – for example, people might represent atoms in a substance, which can change state from solid to liquid to gas.   The authors report that teachers typically appreciate the tactile nature of the activity, its appropriateness for English language learners, and the fact that all students have to participate.

Energy Theater also gives students an authentic, broad repertoire of problem-solving strategies.  “Learning is done by people, not by brains in jars,” said Close.   Added Scherr, “In normal life, when we’re trying to figure out something together, we do it using our words and tone of voice and gestures or body and we might act something out. Energy Theater legitimizes all those things and uses them to solve sophisticated problems.”

I like this idea a lot as I think the physicality brings home the concepts in a way that’s appealing for most of us (well, it would have helped me immensely). For anyone else who’s interested, here’s a link to and a citation for the published paper,

Negotiating energy dynamics through embodied action in a materially structured environment by Rachel E. Scherr, Hunter G. Close, Eleanor W. Close, Virginia J. Flood, Sarah B. McKagan, Amy D. Robertson, Lane Seeley, Michael C. Wittmann, and Stamatis Vokos. Phys. Rev. ST Physics Ed. Research 9, 020105 (2013) [18 pages] DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.9.020105

The paper is open access. Also, here’s some information about the NSF-funded (US National Science Foundation) Energy Project which conducted this theater research and more, from the homepage,

The Energy Project is a research effort aimed at learning how to best teach energy in K-12 classrooms. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation through a Discovery Research K-12 grant and involves a partnership of Seattle Pacific University (SPU), FACET Innovations, and Washington state school districts.

The Energy Project works closely with elementary and secondary science teachers, offering many professional development opportunities both on and off the SPU campus. The Energy Project seeks to deepen energy-related, pedagogical, and curricular content knowledge while honing the diagnostic skills of all teachers.

The National Science Foundation’s $3.7 million grant to SPU’s Department of Physics will help educational researchers discover ever-more effective ways to transform physics teaching.

I wonder if they’ll ever do this with adults; I’d like to play.

Review of ‘You Are Very Star’ transmedia show (in Vancouver, Canada)

Blasting backwards (1968) and forwards (2048) in time, the You Are Very Star immersive, transmedia experience offered by Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre is an exciting experiment as I discovered on opening night, June 15, 2013.

Don’t expect to sit passively in a theatre seat. We trotted around the building to visit or remember 1968 in one theatre, then zipped out to a 20 minute 2013 intermission where we played a game (they gave us maps with our programmes, which you are invited to return at the end of the intermission), and, finally, were escorted to the planetarium theatre to encounter 2048.

I’m not sure about the artistic intention for the 1968 portion of the show. It was one of those situations where my tiny bit of knowledge and considerable fund of ignorance combined to create confusion. For example, one of the characters, Earle Birney, a poet, writer, and titan of Canadian literature, did found the creative writing programme at the University of British Columbia as they note in the show but by 1968 he’d left Vancouver for Toronto. One of the other characters in this segment is called Esther, a black feminist and more, with whom Birney’s character appears to establish a liaison. Birney was married to an Esther whom I met some years ago. She was a white Englishwoman and a feminist but of a somewhat different character than the Esther of the play.

In addition, the clothing wasn’t quite right. No tie dye, no macrame, no beads, no granny dresses, and not enough fringe. Plus, I can’t recall seeing any bell bottom pants, mini dresses and skirts, and/or go go boots.

There were some interesting tonal changes in this section ranging from humour, political angst and anger, and pathos. The depiction of the professor who’s decided to let people grade themselves and who takes an hallucinogenic drug in front of his class seemed pretty typical of a few of the crackpot professors of the time.

Unexpectedly, the professor decides to get high on ayahuasca. LSD, magic mushrooms, marijuana and hashish would have been more typical. I can understand clothing and some of the dialogue not being typical of the period but getting the preferred drugs wrong seems odd, which is why I questioned *whether the artists introduced these incongruencies intentionally.

The actors all shone at one time or another as they delivered some pretty snappy dialogue . I’m hoping they tighten this section up so there’s less waiting for the snappy stuff and perhaps they could find some device other than xx hours/days earlier to signify a change in the timeframe. I lost count of how often they flashed a slide onscreen notifying us that the next scene had taken place at an earlier time. Finally, I loved the shadow puppets but they were on for a brief time only, never to return.

Our intermission was pretty active. There were lots of places on the map, given with the programme, where one was meant to discover things. I never did figure out what was happening with the stuffed toys that were being given out but I’m ok with those kinds of mysteries.

The last stop was the planetarium theatre for 2048. Very interesting costuming, especially the head gear. Still, I have to ask why do people in the future, in the more ‘optimistic’ versions of it, tend to wear white?

I found 2048 the most interesting part but that may be due to the references to human enhancement (a topic I’ve covered here a number of times). The playwrights also seem to have spent some time studying Ray Kurzweil and the singularity he’s predicting. From the Technological singularity essay on Wikipedia (Note: Links and footnotes have been removed),

The technological singularity is the theoretical emergence of superintelligence through technological means. Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the technological singularity is seen as an occurrence beyond which events cannot be predicted.

The first use of the term “singularity” in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. Neumann in the mid-1950s spoke of “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”. The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. Futurist Ray Kurzweil cited von Neumann’s use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann’s classic The Computer and the Brain.

Proponents of the singularity typically postulate an “intelligence explosion”, where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, that might occur very quickly and might not stop until the agent’s cognitive abilities greatly surpass that of any human.

Kurzweil predicts the singularity to occur around 2045 whereas Vinge predicts some time before 2030. At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong did a study of artificial generalized intelligence (AGI) predictions by experts and found a wide range of predicted dates, with a median value of 2040. His own prediction on reviewing the data is that there’s an 80% probability that the singularity will occur in a range of 5 to 100 years. An alternative view, the “mitochondrial singularity,” proposed by microbiologist Joan Slonczewski, holds that the singularity is a gradual process that began centuries ago, as humans have outsourced our intelligence to machines, and that we may become reduced to vestigial power providers analogous to the mitochondria of living cells.

I thank the playwrights for introducing some of the more difficult aspects of the science and technology discussion that are taking place into this piece. For example, those who are enhanced and moving towards the singularity and those who are not enhanced are both represented here and so the playwrights have introduced some ideas about the social implications of employing new and emerging technologies.

You Are Very Star is not a perfect production but it is as I noted earlier very exciting both for the ways the company is trying to immerse audiences in an experience and for the ideas and dialogue they are attempting to stimulate.

The show goes on until June 29, 2013 and tickets are $30,

TO ORDER

youareverystar.brownpapertickets.com

1-800-838-3006

This production is being held at,

H.R. MacMillan Space Centre
1100 Chestnut Street, in Vanier Park
8:00pm Tues – Sun
2:00pm Sun
12:00pm Thurs June 20

Do enjoy!

* Correction June 19,2013: ‘where’ changed to ‘whether’

ETA June 24, 2013: I noticed that where I use the word ‘enhancement’ other reviewers such as Colin Thomas in his June 17, 2013 review for the Georgia Straight are using ‘augment’