Monthly Archives: April 2018

Ingenuity Lab (a nanotechnology initiative), the University of Alberta, and Carlo Montemagno—what is happening in Canadian universities? (2 of 2)

You can find Part 1 of the latest installment in this sad story here.

Who says Carlo Montemagno is a star nanotechnology researcher?

Unusually and despite his eminent stature, Dr. Montemagno does not rate a Wikipedia entry. Luckily, his CV (curriculum vitae) is online (placed there by SIU) so we can get to know a bit more (the CV is a 63 pp. document) about the man’s accomplishments (Note: There are some formatting differences), Note: Unusually, I will put my comments into the excerpted CV using [] i.e., square brackets to signify my input,

Carlo Montemagno, PhD
University of Alberta
Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering
and
NRC/CNRC National Institute for Nanotechnology
Edmonton, AB T6G 2V4
Canada

 

Educational Background

1995, Ph.D., Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences University of Notre Dame

1990, M.S., Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Pennsylvania State University

1980, B.S., Agricultural and Biological Engineering, College of Engineering, Cornell University

Supplemental Education

1986, Practical Environmental Law, Federal Publications, Washington, DC

1985, Effective Executive Training Program, Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvannia, Philadelphia, PA

1980, Civil Engineer Corp Officer Project, CECOS & General Management School, Port Hueneme, CA

[He doesn’t seem to have taken any courses in the last 30 years.]

Professional Experience

(Select Achievements)

Over three decades of experience in shepherding complex organizations both inside and outside academia. Working as a builder, I have led organizations in government, industry and higher education during periods of change and challenge to achieved goals that many perceived to be unattainable.

University of Alberta, Edmonton AB 9/12 to present

9/12 to present, Founding Director, Ingenuity Lab [largely defunct as of April 18, 2018], Province of Alberta

8/13 to present, Director Biomaterials Program, NRC/CNRC National Institute for Nanotechnology [It’s not clear if this position still exists.]

10/13 to present, Canada Research Chair, Government of Canada in Intelligent Nanosystems [Canadian universities receive up to $200,000 for an individual Canada research chair. The money can be used to fund the chair in its entirety or it can be added to other monies., e.g., faculty salary. There are two tiers, one for established researchers and one for new researchers. Montemagno would have been a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair. At McGill University {a major Canadian educational institution} for example, total compensation including salary, academic stipend, benefits, X-coded research funds would be a maximum of $200,000 at Montemagno’s Tier 1 level. See: here scroll down about 90% of the way).

3/13 to present, AITF iCORE Strategic Chair, Province of Alberta in BioNanotechnology and Biomimetic Systems [I cannot find this position in the current list of the University of Alberta Faculty of Science’s research chairs.]

9/12 to present, Professor, Faculty of Engineering, Chemical and Materials Engineering

Crafted and currently lead an Institute that bridges multiple organizations named Ingenuity Lab (www.ingenuitylab.ca). This Institute is a truly integrated multidisciplinary organization comprised of dedicated researchers from STEM, medicine, and the social sciences. Ingenuity Lab leverages Alberta’s strengths in medicine, engineering, science and, agriculture that are present in multiple academic enterprises across the province to solve grand challenges in the areas of energy, environment, and health and rapidly translate the solutions to the economy.

The exciting and relevant feature of Ingenuity Lab is that support comes from resources outside the normal academic funding streams. Core funding of approximately $8.6M/yr emerged by working and communicating a compelling vision directly with the Provincial Executive and Legislative branches of government. [In the material I’ve read, the money for the research was part of how Dr. Montemagno was wooed by the University of Alberta. My understanding is that he himself did not obtain the funding, which in CAD was $100M over 10 years. Perhaps the university was able to attract the funding based on Dr. Montemagno’s reputation and it was contingent on his acceptance?] I significantly augmented these base resources by developing Federal Government, and Industry partnership agreements with a suite of multinational corporations and SME’s across varied industry sectors.

Collectively, this effort is generating enhanced resource streams that support innovative academic programming, builds new research infrastructure, and enables high risk/high reward research. Just as important, it established new pathways to interact meaningfully with local and global communities.

Strategic Leadership

•Created the Ingenuity Lab organization including a governing board representing multiple academic institutions, government and industry sectors.

•Developed and executed a strategic plan to achieve near and long-term strategic objectives.

•Recruited~100 researchers representing a wide range disciplnes.[sic] [How hard can it be to attract researchers in this job climate?]

•Built out ~36,000 S.F. of laboratory and administrative space.

•Crafted operational policy and procedures.

•Developed and implemented a unique stakeholder inclusive management strategy focused on the rapid translation of solutions to the economy.

Innovation and Economic Engagement

•Member of the Expert Panel on innovation, commissioned by the Government of Alberta, to assess opportunities, challenges and design and implementation options for Alberta’s multi-billion dollar investment to drive long-term economic growth and diversification. The developed strategy is currently being implemented. [Details?]

•Served as a representive [sic] on multiple Canadian national trade missions to Asia, United States and the Middle East. [Sounds like he got to enjoy some nice trips.]

•Instituted formal development partnerships with several multi-national corporations including Johnson & Johnson, Cenovus and Sabuto Inc. [Details?]

•Launched multiple for-profit joint ventures founded on technologies collaboratively developed with industry with funding from both private and public sources. [Details?]

Branding

•Developed and implement a communication program focused on branding of Ingenuity Lab’s unique mission, both regionally and globally, to the lay public, academia, government, and industry. [Why didn’t the communication specialist do this? ]

This effort employs traditional paper, online, and social media outlets to effectively reach different demographics.

•Awarded “Best Nanotechnology Research Organization–2014” by The New Economy. [What is the New Economy? The Economist, yes. New Economy, no.]

Global Development

•Executed formal research and education partnerships with the Yonsei Institute of Convergence Technology and the Yonsei Bio-IT MicroFab Center in Korea, Mahatma Gandhi University in India. and the Italian Institute of Technology. [{1}The Yonsei Institute of Convergence Technology doesn’t have any news items prior to 2015 or after 2016. The Ingenuity Lab and/or Carlo Montemagno did not feature in them. {2} There are six Mahatma Ghandi Universities in India. {3} The Italian Institute of Technology does not have any news listings on the English language version of its site.]

•Opened Ingenuity Lab, India in May 2015. Focused on translating 21st-century technology to enable solutions appropriate for developing nations in the Energy, Agriculture, and Health economic sectors. [Found this May 9, 2016 notice on the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada website, noting this: “… opening of the Ingenuity Lab Research Hub at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, in the Indian state of Kerala.” There’s also this May 6, 2016 news release. I can’t find anything on the Mahatma Ghandi University Kerala website.]

•Established partnership research and development agreements with SME’s in both Israel and India.

•Developed active research collaborations with medical and educational institutions in Nepal, Qatar, India, Israel, India and the United States.

Community Outreach

•Created Young Innovators research experience program to educate, support and nurture tyro undergraduate researchers and entrepreneurs.

•Developed an educational game, “Scopey’s Nano Adventure” for iOS and Android platforms to educate 6yr to 10yr olds about Nanotechnology. [What did the children learn? Was this really part of the mandate?]

•Delivered educational science programs to the lay public at multiple, high profile events. [Which events? The ones on the trade junkets?]

University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati OH 7/06 to 8/12

7/10 to 8/12 Founding Dean, College of Engineering and Applied Science

7/09 to 6/10 Dean, College of Applied Science

7/06 to 6/10 Dean, College of Engineering

7/06 to 8/12 Geier Professor of College of Engineering Engineering Education

7/06 to 8/12, Professor of Bioengineering, College of Engineering & College of Medicine

University of California, Los Angeles 7/01 to 6/06

5/03 to 6/06, Associate Director California Nanosystems Institute

7/02 to 6/06, Co-Director NASA Center for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration

7/02 to 6/06, Founding Department Chair, Department of Bioengineering

7/02 to 6/06, Chair Biomedical Engineering IDP

7/01 to 6/02, Chair of Academic Biomedical Engineering IDP Affairs

7/01 to 6/06, Carol and Roy College of Engineering and Applied Doumani Professor of Sciences Biomedical Engineering

7/01 to 6/06, Professor Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Recommending Montemagno

Presumably the folks at Southern Illinois University asked for recommendations from Montemagno’s previous employers. So, how did he get a recommendation from the folks in Alberta when according to Spoerre’s April 10, 2018 article the Ingenuity Lab was undergoing a review as of June 2017 by the province of Alberta’s Alberta Innovates programme? I find it hard to believe that the folks at the University of Alberta were unaware of the review.

When you’re trying to get rid of someone, it’s pretty much standard practice that once they’ve gotten the message, you give a good recommendation to their prospective employer. The question begs to be asked, how many times have employers done this for Montemagno?

Stars in their eyes

Every one exaggerates a bit on their résumé or CV. One of my difficulties with this whole affair lies in how Montemagno can be described as a ‘nanotechnology star’. The accomplishments foregrounded on Montemagno’s CV are administrative and if memory serves, the University of Cincinnati too. Given the situation with the Ingenuity Lab, I’m wondering about these accomplishments.

Was due diligence performed by SIU, the University of the Alberta, or anywhere else that Montemagno worked? I realize that you’re not likely to get much information from calling up the universities where he worked previously, especially if there was a problem and they wanted to get rid of him. Still, did someone check out his degrees, his start-ups,  dig a little deeper into some of his claims?

His credentials and stated accomplishments are quite impressive and I, too,  would have been dazzled. (He also lists positions at the Argonne National Laboratory and at Cornell University.) I’ve picked at some bits but one thing that stands out to me is the move from UCLA to the University of Cincinnati. It’s all big names: UCLA, Cornell, NASA, Argonne and then, not: University of Cincinnati, University of Alberta, Southern Illinois University—what happened?

(If anyone better versed in the world of academe and career has answers, please do add them to the comments.)

It’s tempting to think the Peter Principle (one of them) was at work here. In brief, this principle states that as you keep getting better jobs on based on past performance you reach a point where you can’t manage the new challenges having risen to your level of incompetence.In accepting the offer from the University of Alberta had Dr. Montemagno risen to his level of incompetence? Or, perhaps it was just one big failure. Unfortunately, any excuses don’t hold up under the weight of a series of misjudgments and ethical failures. Still, I’m guessing that Dr. Montemagno was hoping for a big win on a project such as this (from an Oct. 19, 2016 news release on MarketWired),

Ingenuity Lab Carbon Solutions announced today that it has been named as one of the 27 teams advancing in the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The competition sees scientists develop technologies to convert carbon dioxide emissions into products with high net value.

The Ingenuity Lab Carbon Solutions team – headquartered in Edmonton of Alberta, Canada – has made it to the second round of competition. Its team of 14 has proposed to convert CO2 waste emitted from a natural gas power plant into usable chemical products.

Ingenuity Lab Carbon Solutions is comprised of a multidisciplinary group of scientists and engineers, and was formed in the winter of 2012 to develop new approaches for the chemical industry. Ingenuity Lab Carbon Solutions is sponsored by CCEMC, and has also partnered with Ensovi for access to intellectual property and know how.

I can’t identify CCEMC with any certainty but Ensovi is one of Montemagno’s six start-up companies, as listed in his CV,

Founder and Chief Technical Officer, Ensovi, LLC., Focused on the production of low-cost bioenergy and high-value added products from sunlight using bionanotechnology, Total Funding; ~$10M, November 2010-present.

Sadly the April 9,2018 NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE news release  announcing the finalists in round 3 of the competition includes an Alberta track of five teams from which the Ingenuity Lab is notably absent.

The Montemagno affair seems to be a story of hubris, greed, and good intentions. Finally, the issues associated with Dr. Montemagno give rise to another, broader question.

Is something rotten in Canada’s higher education establishment?

Starting with the University of Alberta:

it would seem pretty obvious that if you’re hiring family member(s) as part of the deal to secure a new member of faculty that you place and follow very stringent rules. No rewriting of the job descriptions, no direct role in hiring or supervising, no extra benefits, no inflated salaries in other words, no special treatment for your family as they know at the University of Alberta since they have policies for this very situation.

Yes, universities do hire spouses (although a daughter, a nephew, and a son-in-law seems truly excessive) and even when the university follows all of the rules, there’s resentment from staff (I know because I worked in a university). There is a caveat to the rule, there’s resentment unless that spouse is a ‘star’ in his or her own right or an exceptionally pleasant person. It’s also very helpful if the spouse is both.

I have to say I loved Fraser Forbes that crazy University of Alberta engineer who thought he’d make things better by telling us that the family’s salaries had been paid out of federal and provincial funds rather than university funds. (sigh) Forbes was the new dean of engineering at the time of his interview in the CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article but that no longer seems to be the case as of April 19, 2018.

Given Montemagno’s misjudgments, it seems cruel that Forbes was removed after one foolish interview. But, perhaps he didn’t want the job after all. Regardless, those people who were afraid to speak out about Dr. Montemagno cannot feel reassured by Forbes’ apparent removal.

Money, money, money

Anyone who has visited a university in Canada (and presumably the US too) has to have noticed the number of ‘sponsored’ buildings and rooms. The hunger for money seems insatiable and any sensible person knows it’s unsupportable over the long term.

The scramble for students

Mel Broitman in a Sept. 22, 2016 article for Higher Education lays out some harsh truths,

Make no mistake. It is a stunning condemnation and a “wakeup call to higher education worldwide”. The recent UNESCO report states that academic institutions are rife with corruption and turning a blind eye to malpractice right under their noses. When UNESCO, a United Nations organization created after the chaos of World War II to focus on moral and intellectual solidarity, makes such an alarming allegation, it’s sobering and not to be dismissed.

So although Canadians typically think of their society and themselves as among the more honest and transparent found anywhere, how many Canadian institutions are engaging in activities that border on dishonest and are not entirely transparent around the world?

It is overwhelmingly evident that in the last two decades we have witnessed first-hand a remarkable and callous disregard for academic ethics and standards in a scramble by Canadian universities and colleges to sign up foreign students, who represent tens of millions of dollars to their bottom lines.

We have been in a school auditorium in China and listened to the school owner tell prospective parents that the Grade 12 marks from the Canadian provincial school board program can be manipulated to secure admission for their children into Canadian universities. This, while the Canadian teachers sat oblivious to the presentation in Chinese.

In hundreds of our own interaction with students who completed the Canadian provincial school board’s curriculum in China and who achieved grades of 70% and higher in their English class have been unable to achieve even a basic level of English literacy in the written tests we have administered.   But when the largest country of origin for incoming international students and revenue is China – the Canadian universities admitting these students salivate over the dollars and focus less on due diligence.

We were once asked by a university on Canada’s west coast to review 200 applications from Saudi Arabia, in order to identify the two or three Saudi students who were actually eligible for conditional admission to that university’s undergraduate engineering program. But the proposal was scuttled by the university’s ESL department that wanted all 200 to enroll in its language courses. It insisted on and managed conditional admissions for all 200. It’s common at Canadian universities for the ESL program “tail” to wag the campus “dog” when it comes to admissions. In fact, recent Canadian government regulations have been proposed to crack down on this practice as it is an affront to academic integrity.

If you have time, do read the rest as it’s eye-opening. As for the report Broitman cites, I was not able to find it. Broitman gives a link to the report in response to one of the later comments and there’s a link in Tony Bates’s July 31, 2016 posting but you will get a “too bad, so sad” message should you follow either link.The closed I can get to it is this Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice; Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Credibility of Higher Education (PDF). The ‘note’ was jointly published by the (US) Council for Higher Education (CHEA) and UNESCO.

What about the professors?

As they scramble for students, the universities appear to be cutting their ‘teaching costs’, from an April 18, 2018 article by Charles Menzies (professor of anthropology and an elected member of the UBC [University of British Columbia] Board)  for THE UBYSSEY (UBC) student newspaper,

For the first time ever at UBC the contributions of student tuition fees exceeded provincial government contributions to UBC’s core budget. This startling fact was the backdrop to a strenuous grilling of UBC’s VP Finance and Provost Peter Smailes by governors at the Friday the 13 meeting of UBC’s Board of Governors’ standing committee for finance.

Given the fact students contribute more to UBC’s budget than the provincial government, governors asked why more wasn’t being done to enhance the student experience. By way of explanation the provost reiterated UBC’s commitment to the student experience. In a back-and-forth with a governor the provost outlined a range of programs that focus on enhancing the student experience. At several points the chair of the Board would intervene and press the provost for more explanations and elaboration. For his part the provost responded in a measured and deliberate tone outlining the programs in play, conceding more could be done, and affirming the importance of students in the overall process.

As a faculty member listening to this, I wondered about the background discourse undergirding the discussion. How is focussing on a student’s experience at UBC related to our core mission: education and research? What is actually being meant by experience? Why is no one questioning the inadequacy of the government’s core contribution? What about our contingent colleagues? Our part-time precarious colleagues pick up a great deal of the teaching responsibilities across our campuses. Is there not something we can do to improve their working conditions? Remember, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. From my perspective all these questions received short shrift.

I did take the opportunity to ask the provost, given how financially sound our university is, why more funds couldn’t be directed toward improving the living and working conditions of contingent faculty. However, this was never elaborated upon after the fact.

There is much about the university as a total institution that seems driven to cultivate experiences. A lot of Board discussion circles around ideas of reputation and brand. Who pays and how much they pay (be they governments, donors, or students) is also a big deal. Cultivating a good experience for students is central to many of these discussions.

What is this experience that everyone is talking about? I hear about classroom experience, residence experience, and student experience writ large. Very little of it seems to be specifically tied to learning (unless it’s about more engaging, entertaining, learning with technology). While I’m sure some Board colleagues will disagree with this conclusion, it does seem to me that the experience being touted is really the experience of a customer seeking fulfilment through the purchase of a service. What is seen as important is not what is learned, but the grade; not the productive struggle of learning but the validation of self in a great experience as a member of an imagined community. A good student experience very likely leads to a productive alumni relationship — one where the alumni feels good about giving money.

Inside UBC’s Board of Governors

Should anyone be under illusions as to what goes on at the highest levels of university governance, there is the telling description from Professor Jennifer Berdahl about her experience on a ‘search committee for a new university president’ of the shameful treatment of previous president, Arvind Gupta (from Berdahl’s April 25, 2018 posting on her eponymous blog),

If Prof. Chaudhry’s [Canada Research Chair and Professor Ayesha Chaudhry’s resignation was announced in an April 25, 2018 UBYSSEY article by Alex Nguyen and Zak Vescera] experience was anything like mine on the UBC Presidential Search Committee, she quickly realized how alienating it is to be one of only three faculty members on a 21-person corporate-controlled Board. It was likely even worse for Chaudhry as a woman of color. Combining this with the Board’s shenanigans that are designed to manipulate information and process to achieve desired decisions and minimize academic voices, a sense of helpless futility can set in. [emphasis mine]

These shenanigans include [emphasis mine] strategic seating arrangements, sudden breaks during meetings when conversation veers from the desired direction, hand-written notes from the secretary to speaking members, hundreds of pages of documents sent the night before a meeting, private tête-à-têtes arranged between a powerful board member and a junior or more vulnerable one, portals for community input vetted before sharing, and planning op-eds to promote preferred perspectives. These are a few of many tricks employed to sideline unpopular voices, mostly academic ones.

It’s impossible to believe that UBC’s BoG is the site for these shenanigans take place. The question I have is how many BoGs and how much damage are they inflicting?

Finally getting back to my point, simultaneous with cutting back on teaching and other associated costs and manipulative, childish behaviour at BoG meetings, large amounts of money are being spent to attract ‘stars’ such as Dr. Montemagno. The idea is to attract students (and their money) to the institution where they can network with the ‘stars’. What the student actually learns does not seem to be the primary interest.

So, what kind of deals are the universities making with the ‘stars’?

The Montemagno affair provides a few hints but, in the end,I don’t know and I don’t think anyone outside the ‘sacred circle’ does either. UBC, for example,is quite secretive and, seemingly, quite liberal in its use of nondisclosure agreements (NDA). There was the scandal a few years ago when president Arvind Gupta abruptly resigned after one year in his position. As far as I know, no one has ever gotten to the bottom of this mystery although there certainly seems to have been a fair degree skullduggery involved.

After a previous president, Martha Cook Piper took over the reigns in an interim arrangement, Dr. Santa J. Ono (his Wikipedia entry) was hired.  Interestingly, he was previously at the University of Cincinnati, one of Montemagno’s previous employers. That university’s apparent eagerness to treat Montemagno’s extras seems to have led to the University of Alberta’s excesses.  So, what deal did UBC make with Dr. Ono? I’m pretty sure both he and the university are covered by an NDA but there is this about his tenure as president at the University of Cincinnati (from a June 14, 2016 article by Jack Hauen for THE UBYSSEY),

… in exchange for UC not raising undergraduate tuition, he didn’t accept a salary increase or bonus for two years. And once those two years were up, he kept going: his $200,000 bonus in 2015 went to “14 different organizations and scholarships, including a campus LGBTQ centre, a local science and technology-focused high school and a program for first-generation college students,” according to the Vancouver Sun.

In 2013 he toured around the States promoting UC with a hashtag of his own creation — #HottestCollegeInAmerica — while answering anything and everything asked of him during fireside chats.

He describes himself as a “servant leader,” which is a follower of a philosophy of leadership focused primarily on “the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”

“I see my job as working on behalf of the entire UBC community. I am working to serve you, and not vice-versa,” he said in his announcement speech this morning.

Thank goodness it’s possible to end this piece on a more or less upbeat note. Ono seems to be what my father would have called ‘a decent human being’. It’s nice to be able to include a ‘happyish’ note.

Plea

There is huge money at stake where these ‘mega’ science and technology projects are concerned. The Ingenuity Lab was $100M investment to be paid out over 10 years and some basic questions don’t seem to have been asked. How does this person manage money? Leaving aside any issues with an individual’s ethics and moral compass, scientists don’t usually take any courses in business and yet they are expected to manage huge budgets. Had Montemagno handled a large budget or any budget? It’s certainly not foregrounded (and I’d like to see dollar amounts) in his CV.

As well, the Ingenuity Lab was funded as a 10 year project. Had Montemagno ever stayed in one job for 10 years? Not according to his CV. His longest stint was approximately eight years when he was in the US Navy in the 1980s. Otherwise, it was five to six years, including the Ingenuity Lab stint.

Meanwhile, our universities don’t appear to be applying the rules and protocols we have in place to ensure fairness. This unseemly rush for money seems to have infected how Canadian universities attract (local, interprovincial, and, especially, international) students to pay for their education. The infection also seems to have spread into the ways ‘star’ researchers and faculty members are recruited to Canadian universities while the bulk of the teaching staff are ‘starved’ under one pretext or another while a BoG may or may not be indulging in shenanigans designed to drive decision-making to a preordained outcome. And, for the most part, this is occurring under terms of secrecy that our intelligence agencies must envy.

In the end, I can’t be the only person wondering how all this affects our science.

Ingenuity Lab (a nanotechnology initiative), the University of Alberta, and Carlo Montemagno—what is happening in Canadian universities? (1 of 2)

I was not expecting to come back to the Carlo Montemagno ‘affair’ after my March 5, 2018 posting but it seems this story about a nanotechnology laboratory (Ingenuity Lab) in Alberta and the lab’s leader, Dr. Carlo Montemagno and his hurried departure for a position at Southern Illinois University (SIU) as Chancellor in summer 2017 has legs. It also hints at some issue within Canadian higher education.

Set up

I noted at the time of my posting, that no one in Illinois seemed to be aware that Montemagno had obtained employment for his daughter and son-in-law at the University of Alberta just as he did at SIU when he later moved there. I also noted the pay cut Montemagno took when he moved to Illinois. Both of these facts have since come to light in Illinois and are mentioned in an April 10, 2018 article by Anna Spoerre for SIU’s student paper, the Daily Egyptian.

Before moving onto the latest, I was hoping they’d be able to salvage something from the wreckage in Alberta (from my March 5, 2018 posting),

As for the Ingenuity Lab, perhaps we’ll hear more about their Carbon transformation programme later this year (2018). Unfortunately, the current webpage does not have substantive updates. There are some videos but they seem more like wistful thinking than real life projects.

If they are cleaning up a mess and this looks like it might be the case, I hope they’re successful and can move forward with their projects. [emphases mine] I would like to hear more about the Ingenuity Lab in the future.

Tragedy and comedy

Sadly, it seems the Ingenuity Lab is in the process of being mothballed (from Spoerre’s April 10, 2018 article),

Nine months after Carlo Montemagno left a position as director of Ingenuity Lab to assume the chancellorship at SIU’s Carbondale campus, some members of the Alberta community are still picking up the pieces of what they call a failed project brought to life and then abandoned by its director.

Ingenuity Lab was established in 2012 by the government of Alberta in partnership with the University of Alberta and Alberta Innovates to conduct nanotechnology research related to health, environment, energy and agriculture.

Though a reason was not explicitly given, funding for the lab will be cut this year [2018; emphasis mine] following a review of the lab’s operations.

In June 2017, a review of Ingenuity Lab was authorized. [emphasis mine] The process wrapped up in September [2017] as part of a review of all Alberta Innovates funded programs, said Robert Semeniul, the new media specialist at Alberta Innovates.

Montemagno announced his relocation to SIU shortly after the review got under way. [emphasis mine] Meanwhile, an interim director — Murray Gray — was appointed by the university to redirect the initiative, Semeniul said.

“I was looking for an institutional leadership position that presented new challenges and opportunities — where there was work to be done and I could make a difference,” Montemagno said of leaving Alberta for Illinois. “I also missed interacting and working directly with students.”

“This was supposed to generate incredible amounts of economic activity,” said a former researcher at the former National Institute for Nanotechnology who had experience in the lab. “After awhile — three or four years — people were astonished at the lack of anything coming out of this lab, out of this giant pile of money that was being spent.”

Montemagno said through ground-breaking research the lab attracted external grant funding, including $9 million the last year he ran the lab. [As far as I can tell, as per an Ingenuity Lab news release mentioned in my March 5, 2018 posting, there was a $1.7M from Natural Resources Canada. It was the only grant announced when I was looking in March 2018. Where did the $9M come from?]

The final review has not been made public. Gray did not respond to requests for comment.

Keeping family close

In early April [2018] in Edmonton the remnants of the Ingenuity Lab were gradually erased from the Nanotechnology Research Center on the University of Alberta’s campus.

A nametag pinned to a cubicle wall there displayed the name Kyle Minor, Montemagno’s nephew, and graduate student and project leader in his uncle’s lab.

Minor was one of three family members Montemagno employed at Ingenuity Lab. [emphasis mine] Montemagno’s daughter, Melissa Germain, and son-in-law, Jeffrey Germain, (both of whom are now employed at SIU) were also given jobs at the lab in Canada. The possibility of the Germains’ employment was mentioned in Montemagno’s hiring contract in Alberta.

“I can see why the people who hired [Montemagno] liked him, because he has a charismatic presence and he says the right things to the people he is speaking to,” a previous research associate at the lab said.

Montemagno was brought to the university of Alberta in 2012 with an annual salary of $500,000, almost $400,000 in U.S. currency at Tuesday’s exchange rate. He also received a $1,000,000 interest-free housing loan, according to his employment paperwork. [emphasis mine]

“Your intention to employ, through funding available under the NEBSL Accelerator initiative, your son-in-law and daughter in positions commensurate with their education and experience is acknowledged,” Montemagno’s contract read.

The contract, which purported to follow the University’s “Employment Policy” and “Managing Conflict of Interest in Employment Procedure” was signed by David Lynch, Alberta’s [sic] dean of engineering at the time of the hire. Lynch did not respond to requests for comment.

According to emails obtained through public information requests, there was a personal agreement between Lynch and Montemagno that the expenses for the immigration costs for him and his family would also be covered. [emphasis mine]

“On occasion, the recruitment of specialized faculty members includes a provision for the hiring of a family member into a position commensurate with their education and experience, and subject to our recruitment policy, [emphasis mine]” said Kiann McNeill, spokesman for the University of Alberta.

In addition to what seems to be an extraordinarily high salary ($500,000 + per year) and hiring his family (three of them per the Daily Egyptian’s Anna Spoerre as opposed to the two mentioned in my March 2018 post) to work in his lab, Montemagno got a $1M interest-free loan (this is not entirely correct, the CBC article, which follows, downgrades that number as you’ll see in the 2nd excerpt) and had his and his family’s immigration expenses covered. Is this standard hiring practice in the academic field? Given the failure to get a response from an individual (David Lynch, the University of Alberta’s then dean of engineering) who would have been involved, the answer would seem to be ‘no’.

Please do read the rest of Spoerre’s article and, if you have a little more time,  the comments. It should be noted that there seem to be a couple of problems with details. The one noted here is the issue around the loan and, in the article, she states that the National Institute of Nanotechnology has been renamed to Nanotechnology Research Center. After changing ‘center’ to ‘centre’ in my search term, I found this site, which bears yet another name, NRC-UAlberta Nanotechnology Initiative. Should I ever find out what is going with Canada’s national nanotechnology institution, it will be the subject of another posting.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) also covered the situation in an April 10, 2018 online article by Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell,

The University of Alberta recruited star American nanotechnology researcher [emphasis mine] Carlo Montemagno in 2012 by agreeing to his condition that it hire his daughter and son-in-law to work in his laboratory — in addition to his $500,000 a year salary.

Documents obtained through freedom of information by CBC News show the university offered jobs to Jeff and Melissa Germain, for which the couple were not required to formally apply.

In addition to leading the Ingenuity Lab at the U of A, he also served as director of the biomaterials program for the Canada Research Council’s National Institute for Nanotechnology and was its research chair in intelligent nanosystems.

The university recruited Montemagno from the University of Cincinnati, where he was the founding dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

An internal U of A document shows Montemagno sought the nepotism hires in Alberta because he wanted to continue the same arrangement he had at the University of Cincinnati.

It is the same deal he again negotiated when he left Alberta in 2017 to become chancellor of Southern Illinois University – Carbondale (SIU).

In January [2018], the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, revealed SIU hired the Germains into jobs which were not advertised. Those hirings are now the subject of a state investigation.

Here’s where it gets interesting (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),

The internal University of Alberta documents reveal:

  • The university appears to have allowed Montemagno to help write son-in-law Jeff Germain’s job description [emphasis mine] as laboratory manager. An early draft of the job description shows a master’s degree as a minimum educational requirement. It was later downgraded to a bachelor’s degree. Germain has a bachelor’s degree in biology but had significant experience as a lab manager.
  • The university agreed to pay Jeff Germain a “market supplement” of more than $25,000 [emphasis mine]. Added to his base salary of nearly $95,000, that raised his total yearly salary to $120,000 a year, not including benefits. Germain was later promoted to director of operations for the Ingenuity Lab.
  • The engineering faculty also hired Montemagno’s daughter, Melissa Germain, as a “laboratory technician” in chemical and materials engineering, the same area as her husband. For 24 hours a week, her starting salary was nearly $3,500 a month. [emphases mine]While officially employed as a lab tech, Melissa Germain’s LinkedIn profile states she worked as a copy editor. She was later promoted to a full-time position as communications director and paid nearly $6,000 a month. According to her LinkedIn account, she has a bachelor’s degree in geology. [emphases mine]
  • ​The university also initially offered Montemagno an interest-free $1.4-million loan to buy a house. That provision was later changed to an interest-free $100,000 loan [emphases mine] and the reimbursement of any mortgage or line of credit interest fees used for a downpayment, provided the cost of the house was not more than $1.4 million. The loan had to be repaid as soon as Montemagno sold his house in Ohio or by June 30, 2017, whichever came first.

(sigh of relief) At least, it wasn’t a $1M loan. One other thought, was the loan repaid? Also, I checked (see here [accessed April 18, 2018]) for the standard salary scale for communications specialists in Canada and Melissa Germain’s roughly $72,000/year is on the high end of the scale, $73,000 being at the top. Presumably, you’d need a lot of experience and, hopefully, some training for the top salary.

Ethics, anyone?

CBC soldiered on and found an ethics expert (perhaps the University of Alberta needs someone?), from (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),

Hiring spouses who are themselves academics is not uncommon in higher education, said Richard Leblanc, an expert in ethics and governance at York University in Toronto. But Leblanc said hiring a child and their spouse is “very, very strange. Very anomalous.”

“You want merit-based hiring and merit-based student applications, and not on the basis of favouritism or conflicts of interest,” he said.

“You want completely even-handed treatment of staff, of faculty, and of students. And something like this could reveal a culture of, in fact, inequitable treatment, which could be very damaging for a university.”

Leblanc also said the university should not be offering loans.

“Unless you are a financial institution — which the university is not, the university has public taxpayer money and the public trust — so offering an interest-free loan for anybody, any faculty member, is highly anomalous, for obvious reasons,” Leblanc said.

“I mean, that’s not what the university does and it is a conflict of interest because you don’t have the ability to let that person go. You are sort of beholden to that person and it is just not a proper use of scarce funding and taxpayer resources, to offer an interest-free loan. It is very strange.”

But the university’s new dean of engineering, Fraser Forbes, strongly defended the hirings, insisting there was no nepotism involved. [emphases mine]

Just in case some of us might not agree with Forbes, he notes this, (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),

Forbes said the Germains were not paid with university operating funds. Instead, Forbes said they were paid with funds provided to the university by the province and federal government for nanotechnology research. [emphases mine]

I feel ever so much better.

The Province of Alberta did have something to say about this, eventually (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),

The University of Alberta said Wednesday [April 11, 2018] it will review its conflict of interest policy in light of news that a former employee six years ago had requested family members be hired in a process that was not rigorously documented.

Last month [March 2018], Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt [emphasis mine] sharply criticized University of Alberta president David Turpin’s $824,000 total compensation in the context of a four-per-cent budget cut, and increases in tuition for international students and student-residence rates.

Schmidt refused an interview request from CBC News for this story. His press secretary said Schmidt had no time in his schedule over several days to accommodate a 10-minute interview.

But at a media availability Tuesday [April 10, 2018] on new rules to limit salaries of university and college presidents, Schmidt was asked about Montemagno’s deal to hire his daughter and son-in-law.

“No, nepotism has no place in any public agency,” Schmidt said.

It’s good to know Schmidt’s stance on this and perhaps there will be some action taken over what seems to be a blatant failure to curb nepotism at the now largely defunct (no website but they still have a Facebook and Twitter presence) Ingenuity Lab.

Since the April 10, 2018 online article, the University of Alberta has pleaded guilty in the court of public opinion and admitted to the conflicts of interest in the Montemagno affair, from an April 11, 2018 article by Juris Garvey for the Edmonton Journal,

While the university was in no way “contractually obligated” to hire family members, it may have done so against its own conflict of interest policy. [emphasis mine]

Deputy provost Wendy Rogers said Wednesday there is nothing unusual about post-secondary institutes hiring people from the same family. But their policies say family members are not allowed to be involved in the hiring of other family, develop job descriptions, supervise them or make recommendations for their pay.

Emails show university staff recommended Montemagno write the position description for the job intended for Jeffrey Germain, and an organizational chart shows Jeffrey Germain reported directly to Montemagno for the first two years.

Of greatest concern, however, is that the university acknowledged there was “no record of an advertisement for the position … nor records of the hiring process” for Jeffrey Germain.

“We cannot confirm whether or not the appropriate procedure governing conflict of interest was initially followed,” the university said in a statement posted to its website Tuesday [April 10,2018].

Had we received a complaint about this at any time while Dr. Montemagno was employed here, it would have been fully investigated.” [emphasis mine]

Yes, I can imagine the number of people stepping forward to make a complaint. They were certainly eager to be interviewed for Spoerre’s April 10, 2018 article,

The former research associate was one of 11 people interviewed in Edmonton for this story who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of harming their careers.

Part 2

AI fairytale and April 25, 2018 AI event at Canada Science and Technology Museum*** in Ottawa

These days it’s all about artificial intelligence (AI) or robots and often, it’s both. They’re everywhere and they will take everyone’s jobs, or not, depending on how you view them. Today, I’ve got two artificial intelligence items, the first of which may provoke writers’ anxieties.

Fairytales

The Princess and the Fox is a new fairytale by the Brothers Grimm or rather, their artificially intelligent surrogate according to an April 18, 2018 article on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s online news website,

It was recently reported that the meditation app Calm had published a “new” fairytale by the Brothers Grimm.

However, The Princess and the Fox was written not by the brothers, who died over 150 years ago, but by humans using an artificial intelligence (AI) tool.

It’s the first fairy tale written by an AI, claims Calm, and is the result of a collaboration with Botnik Studios – a community of writers, artists and developers. Calm says the technique could be referred to as “literary cloning”.

Botnik employees used a predictive-text program to generate words and phrases that might be found in the original Grimm fairytales. Human writers then pieced together sentences to form “the rough shape of a story”, according to Jamie Brew, chief executive of Botnik.

The full version is available to paying customers of Calm, but here’s a short extract:

“Once upon a time, there was a golden horse with a golden saddle and a beautiful purple flower in its hair. The horse would carry the flower to the village where the princess danced for joy at the thought of looking so beautiful and good.

Advertising for a meditation app?

Of course, it’s advertising and it’s ‘smart’ advertising (wordplay intended). Here’s a preview/trailer,

Blair Marnell’s April 18, 2018 article for SyFy Wire provides a bit more detail,

“You might call it a form of literary cloning,” said Calm co-founder Michael Acton Smith. Calm commissioned Botnik to use its predictive text program, Voicebox, to create a new Brothers Grimm story. But first, Voicebox was given the entire collected works of the Brothers Grimm to analyze, before it suggested phrases and sentences based upon those stories. Of course, human writers gave the program an assist when it came to laying out the plot. …

“The Brothers Grimm definitely have a reputation for darkness and many of their best-known tales are undoubtedly scary,” Peter Freedman told SYFY WIRE. Freedman is a spokesperson for Calm who was a part of the team behind the creation of this story. “In the process of machine-human collaboration that generated The Princess and The Fox, we did gently steer the story towards something with a more soothing, calm plot and vibe, that would make it work both as a new Grimm fairy tale and simultaneously as a Sleep Story on Calm.” [emphasis mine]

….

If Marnell’s article is to be believed, Peter Freedman doesn’t hold much hope for writers in the long-term future although we don’t need to start ‘battening down the hatches’ yet.

You can find Calm here.

You can find Botnik  here and Botnik Studios here.

 

AI at Ingenium [Canada Science and Technology Museum] on April 25, 2018

Formerly known (I believe) [*Read the comments for the clarification] as the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ingenium is hosting a ‘sold out but there will be a livestream’ Google event. From Ingenium’s ‘Curiosity on Stage Evening Edition with Google – The AI Revolution‘ event page,

Join Google, Inc. and the Canada Science and Technology Museum for an evening of thought-provoking discussions about artificial intelligence.

[April 25, 2018
7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. {ET}
Fees: Free]

Invited speakers from industry leaders Google, Facebook, Element AI and Deepmind will explore the intersection of artificial intelligence with robotics, arts, social impact and healthcare. The session will end with a panel discussion and question-and-answer period. Following the event, there will be a reception along with light refreshments and networking opportunities.

The event will be simultaneously translated into both official languages as well as available via livestream from the Museum’s YouTube channel.

Seating is limited

THIS EVENT IS NOW SOLD OUT. Please join us for the livestream from the Museum’s YouTube channel. https://www.youtube.com/cstmweb *** April 25, 2018: I received corrective information about the link for the livestream: https://youtu.be/jG84BIno5J4 from someone at Ingenium.***

Speakers

David Usher (Moderator)

David Usher is an artist, best-selling author, entrepreneur and keynote speaker. As a musician he has sold more than 1.4 million albums, won 4 Junos and has had #1 singles singing in English, French and Thai. When David is not making music, he is equally passionate about his other life, as a Geek. He is the founder of Reimagine AI, an artificial intelligence creative studio working at the intersection of art and artificial intelligence. David is also the founder and creative director of the non-profit, the Human Impact Lab at Concordia University [located in Montréal, Québec]. The Lab uses interactive storytelling to revisualize the story of climate change. David is the co-creator, with Dr. Damon Matthews, of the Climate Clock. Climate Clock has been presented all over the world including the United Nations COP 23 Climate Conference and is presently on a three-year tour with the Canada Museum of Science and Innovation’s Climate Change Exhibit.

Joelle Pineau (Facebook)

The AI Revolution:  From Ideas and Models to Building Smart Robots
Joelle Pineau is head of the Facebook AI Research Lab Montreal, and an Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar at McGill University. Dr. Pineau’s research focuses on developing new models and algorithms for automatic planning and learning in partially-observable domains. She also applies these algorithms to complex problems in robotics, health-care, games and conversational agents. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research and the Journal of Machine Learning Research and is currently President of the International Machine Learning Society. She is a AAAI Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and in 2016 was named a member of the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists by the Royal Society of Canada.

Pablo Samuel Castro (Google)

Building an Intelligent Assistant for Music Creators
Pablo was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Montreal after high school to study at McGill. He stayed in Montreal for the next 10 years, finished his bachelors, worked at a flight simulator company, and then eventually obtained his masters and PhD at McGill, focusing on Reinforcement Learning. After his PhD Pablo did a 10-month postdoc in Paris before moving to Pittsburgh to join Google. He has worked at Google for almost 6 years, and is currently a research Software Engineer in Google Brain in Montreal, focusing on fundamental Reinforcement Learning research, as well as Machine Learning and Music. Aside from his interest in coding/AI/math, Pablo is an active musician (https://www.psctrio.com), loves running (5 marathons so far, including Boston!), and discussing politics and activism.

Philippe Beaudoin (Element AI)

Concrete AI-for-Good initiatives at Element AI
Philippe cofounded Element AI in 2016 and currently leads its applied lab and AI-for-Good initiatives. His team has helped tackle some of the biggest and most interesting business challenges using machine learning. Philippe holds a Ph.D in Computer Science and taught virtual bipeds to walk by themselves during his postdoc at UBC. He spent five years at Google as a Senior Developer and Technical Lead Manager, partly with the Chrome Machine Learning team. Philippe also founded ArcBees, specializing in cloud-based development. Prior to that he worked in the videogame and graphics hardware industries. When he has some free time, Philippe likes to invent new boardgames — the kind of games where he can still beat the AI!

Doina Precup (Deepmind)

Challenges and opportunities for the AI revolution in health care
Doina Precup splits her time between McGill University, where she co-directs the Reasoning and Learning Lab in the School of Computer Science, and DeepMind Montreal, where she leads the newly formed research team since October 2017.  She got her BSc degree in computer science form the Technical University Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and her MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she was a Fulbright fellow. Her research interests are in the areas of reinforcement learning, deep learning, time series analysis, and diverse applications of machine learning in health care, automated control and other fields. She became a senior member of AAAI in 2015, a Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning in 2016 and a Senior Fellow of CIFAR in 2017.

Interesting, oui? Not a single expert from Ottawa or Toronto. Well, Element AI has an office in Toronto. Still, I wonder why this singular focus on AI in Montréal. After all, one of the current darlings of AI, machine learning, was developed at the University of Toronto which houses the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR),  the institution in charge of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and the Vector Institutes (more about that in my March 31,2017 posting).

Enough with my musing: For those of us on the West Coast, there’s an opportunity to attend via livestream from 4 pm to 7 pm on April 25, 2018 on xxxxxxxxx. *** April 25, 2018: I received corrective information about the link for the livestream: https://youtu.be/jG84BIno5J4 and clarification as the relationship between Ingenium and the Canada Science and Technology Museum from someone at Ingenium.***

For more about Element AI, go here; for more about DeepMind, go here for information about parent company in the UK and the most I dug up about their Montréal office was this job posting; and, finally , Reimagine.AI is here.

Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) talk on April 24th, 2018: Medical Myths You Need to Learn about Before It’s Too Late

From an April 6, 2018 Café Scientifique notice (received via email),

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY, APRIL 24TH at 7:30PM in the back
room at YAGGER’;S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the
evening will be DR. JAMES MCCORMACK, Professor from the Faculty of
Pharmaceutical Services at UBC [University of British Columbia].

James received his undergraduate pharmacy degree at the University of
British Columbia in 1982 and received his doctorate in pharmacy
(Pharm.D.) in 1986 from the Medical University of South Carolina in
Charleston, South Carolina. He has had extensive experience, both
locally and internationally, talking to health professionals and
consumers about the rational use of medication, and has presented over
500 seminars on drug therapy over the last 30 years. He focuses on
shared decision-making using evidence based information and rational
therapeutic principles. He is also the co-host of one of the world’s
top medical podcasts – the Best Science (BS) Medicine podcast.

MEDICAL MYTHS YOU NEED TO LEARN ABOUT BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

What if much of what you thought about medications was wrong? In this
talk you’ll learn that the following are myths:

1) You should finish the full course of an antibiotic prescription –
THE TRUTH – for most infections you should stop after you have had no
symptoms for 2-3 days

2) Most people benefit from blood pressure/diabetes treatment – THE
TRUTH – less then 30% benefit over a lifetime of treatment

3) The recommended doses of medications are what you should be on –
THE TRUTH – you should likely start with a 1/4 or an 1/8th of the
recommended dose for most medications

4) And much, much, more

You can find Dr. James McCormack’s University of British Columbia’s faculty page here but you might find the webpage listing the iTunes episodes for the Best Science Medicine Podcast – BS without the BS by Dr James McCormack and Dr Michael Allan (University of Alberta) of more interest.

Interstellar fullerenes

This work from Russia on fullerenes (also known as buckministerfullerenes, C60, and/or buckyballs) is quite interesting and dates back more than a year. I’m not sure why the work is being publicized now but nanotechnology and interstellar space is not covered here often enough so, here goes, (from a January 29, 2018 Kazan Federal University press release (also on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

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

C60+ – looking for the bucky-ball in interstellar space by G. A. Galazutdinov, V. V. Shimansky, A. Bondar, G. Valyavin, J. Krełowski. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 465, Issue 4, 11 March 2017, Pages 3956–3964, https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/stw2948 Published: 22 December 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

h/t January 29, 2018 news item on Nanowerk

Less is more—a superconducting synapse

It seems the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is more deeply invested into developing artificial brains than I had realized (See: April 17, 2018 posting). A January 26, 2018 NIST news release on EurekAlert describes the organization’s latest foray into the field,

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have built a superconducting switch that “learns” like a biological system and could connect processors and store memories in future computers operating like the human brain.

The NIST switch, described in Science Advances, is called a synapse, like its biological counterpart, and it supplies a missing piece for so-called neuromorphic computers. Envisioned as a new type of artificial intelligence, such computers could boost perception and decision-making for applications such as self-driving cars and cancer diagnosis.

A synapse is a connection or switch between two brain cells. NIST’s artificial synapse–a squat metallic cylinder 10 micrometers in diameter–is like the real thing because it can process incoming electrical spikes to customize spiking output signals. This processing is based on a flexible internal design that can be tuned by experience or its environment. The more firing between cells or processors, the stronger the connection. Both the real and artificial synapses can thus maintain old circuits and create new ones. Even better than the real thing, the NIST synapse can fire much faster than the human brain–1 billion times per second, compared to a brain cell’s 50 times per second–using just a whiff of energy, about one ten-thousandth as much as a human synapse. In technical terms, the spiking energy is less than 1 attojoule, lower than the background energy at room temperature and on a par with the chemical energy bonding two atoms in a molecule.

“The NIST synapse has lower energy needs than the human synapse, and we don’t know of any other artificial synapse that uses less energy,” NIST physicist Mike Schneider said.

The new synapse would be used in neuromorphic computers made of superconducting components, which can transmit electricity without resistance, and therefore, would be more efficient than other designs based on semiconductors or software. Data would be transmitted, processed and stored in units of magnetic flux. Superconducting devices mimicking brain cells and transmission lines have been developed, but until now, efficient synapses–a crucial piece–have been missing.

The brain is especially powerful for tasks like context recognition because it processes data both in sequence and simultaneously and stores memories in synapses all over the system. A conventional computer processes data only in sequence and stores memory in a separate unit.

The NIST synapse is a Josephson junction, long used in NIST voltage standards. These junctions are a sandwich of superconducting materials with an insulator as a filling. When an electrical current through the junction exceeds a level called the critical current, voltage spikes are produced. The synapse uses standard niobium electrodes but has a unique filling made of nanoscale clusters of manganese in a silicon matrix.

The nanoclusters–about 20,000 per square micrometer–act like tiny bar magnets with “spins” that can be oriented either randomly or in a coordinated manner.

“These are customized Josephson junctions,” Schneider said. “We can control the number of nanoclusters pointing in the same direction, which affects the superconducting properties of the junction.”

The synapse rests in a superconducting state, except when it’s activated by incoming current and starts producing voltage spikes. Researchers apply current pulses in a magnetic field to boost the magnetic ordering, that is, the number of nanoclusters pointing in the same direction. This magnetic effect progressively reduces the critical current level, making it easier to create a normal conductor and produce voltage spikes.

The critical current is the lowest when all the nanoclusters are aligned. The process is also reversible: Pulses are applied without a magnetic field to reduce the magnetic ordering and raise the critical current. This design, in which different inputs alter the spin alignment and resulting output signals, is similar to how the brain operates.

Synapse behavior can also be tuned by changing how the device is made and its operating temperature. By making the nanoclusters smaller, researchers can reduce the pulse energy needed to raise or lower the magnetic order of the device. Raising the operating temperature slightly from minus 271.15 degrees C (minus 456.07 degrees F) to minus 269.15 degrees C (minus 452.47 degrees F), for example, results in more and higher voltage spikes.

Crucially, the synapses can be stacked in three dimensions (3-D) to make large systems that could be used for computing. NIST researchers created a circuit model to simulate how such a system would operate.

The NIST synapse’s combination of small size, superfast spiking signals, low energy needs and 3-D stacking capability could provide the means for a far more complex neuromorphic system than has been demonstrated with other technologies, according to the paper.

NIST has prepared an animation illustrating the research,

Caption: This is an animation of how NIST’s artificial synapse works. Credit: Sean Kelley/NIST

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

Ultralow power artificial synapses using nanotextured magnetic Josephson junctions by Michael L. Schneider, Christine A. Donnelly, Stephen E. Russek, Burm Baek, Matthew R. Pufall, Peter F. Hopkins, Paul D. Dresselhaus, Samuel P. Benz, and William H. Rippard. Science Advances 26 Jan 2018: Vol. 4, no. 1, e1701329 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701329

This paper is open access.

Samuel K. Moore in a January 26, 2018 posting on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) describes the research and adds a few technical explanations such as this about the Josephson junction,

In a magnetic Josephson junction, that “weak link” is magnetic. The higher the magnetic field, the lower the critical current needed to produce voltage spikes. In the device Schneider and his colleagues designed, the magnetic field is caused by 20,000 or so nanometer-scale clusters of manganese embedded in silicon. …

Moore also provides some additional links including this one to his November 29, 2017 posting where he describes four new approaches to computing including quantum computing and neuromorphic (brain-like) computing.

New path to viable memristor/neuristor?

I first stumbled onto memristors and the possibility of brain-like computing sometime in 2008 (around the time that R. Stanley Williams and his team at HP Labs first published the results of their research linking Dr. Leon Chua’s memristor theory to their attempts to shrink computer chips). In the almost 10 years since, scientists have worked hard to utilize memristors in the field of neuromorphic (brain-like) engineering/computing.

A January 22, 2018 news item on phys.org describes the latest work,

When it comes to processing power, the human brain just can’t be beat.

Packed within the squishy, football-sized organ are somewhere around 100 billion neurons. At any given moment, a single neuron can relay instructions to thousands of other neurons via synapses—the spaces between neurons, across which neurotransmitters are exchanged. There are more than 100 trillion synapses that mediate neuron signaling in the brain, strengthening some connections while pruning others, in a process that enables the brain to recognize patterns, remember facts, and carry out other learning tasks, at lightning speeds.

Researchers in the emerging field of “neuromorphic computing” have attempted to design computer chips that work like the human brain. Instead of carrying out computations based on binary, on/off signaling, like digital chips do today, the elements of a “brain on a chip” would work in an analog fashion, exchanging a gradient of signals, or “weights,” much like neurons that activate in various ways depending on the type and number of ions that flow across a synapse.

In this way, small neuromorphic chips could, like the brain, efficiently process millions of streams of parallel computations that are currently only possible with large banks of supercomputers. But one significant hangup on the way to such portable artificial intelligence has been the neural synapse, which has been particularly tricky to reproduce in hardware.

Now engineers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] have designed an artificial synapse in such a way that they can precisely control the strength of an electric current flowing across it, similar to the way ions flow between neurons. The team has built a small chip with artificial synapses, made from silicon germanium. In simulations, the researchers found that the chip and its synapses could be used to recognize samples of handwriting, with 95 percent accuracy.

A January 22, 2018 MIT news release by Jennifer Chua (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

The design, published today [January 22, 2018] in the journal Nature Materials, is a major step toward building portable, low-power neuromorphic chips for use in pattern recognition and other learning tasks.

The research was led by Jeehwan Kim, the Class of 1947 Career Development Assistant Professor in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and a principal investigator in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and Microsystems Technology Laboratories. His co-authors are Shinhyun Choi (first author), Scott Tan (co-first author), Zefan Li, Yunjo Kim, Chanyeol Choi, and Hanwool Yeon of MIT, along with Pai-Yu Chen and Shimeng Yu of Arizona State University.

Too many paths

Most neuromorphic chip designs attempt to emulate the synaptic connection between neurons using two conductive layers separated by a “switching medium,” or synapse-like space. When a voltage is applied, ions should move in the switching medium to create conductive filaments, similarly to how the “weight” of a synapse changes.

But it’s been difficult to control the flow of ions in existing designs. Kim says that’s because most switching mediums, made of amorphous materials, have unlimited possible paths through which ions can travel — a bit like Pachinko, a mechanical arcade game that funnels small steel balls down through a series of pins and levers, which act to either divert or direct the balls out of the machine.

Like Pachinko, existing switching mediums contain multiple paths that make it difficult to predict where ions will make it through. Kim says that can create unwanted nonuniformity in a synapse’s performance.

“Once you apply some voltage to represent some data with your artificial neuron, you have to erase and be able to write it again in the exact same way,” Kim says. “But in an amorphous solid, when you write again, the ions go in different directions because there are lots of defects. This stream is changing, and it’s hard to control. That’s the biggest problem — nonuniformity of the artificial synapse.”

A perfect mismatch

Instead of using amorphous materials as an artificial synapse, Kim and his colleagues looked to single-crystalline silicon, a defect-free conducting material made from atoms arranged in a continuously ordered alignment. The team sought to create a precise, one-dimensional line defect, or dislocation, through the silicon, through which ions could predictably flow.

To do so, the researchers started with a wafer of silicon, resembling, at microscopic resolution, a chicken-wire pattern. They then grew a similar pattern of silicon germanium — a material also used commonly in transistors — on top of the silicon wafer. Silicon germanium’s lattice is slightly larger than that of silicon, and Kim found that together, the two perfectly mismatched materials can form a funnel-like dislocation, creating a single path through which ions can flow.

The researchers fabricated a neuromorphic chip consisting of artificial synapses made from silicon germanium, each synapse measuring about 25 nanometers across. They applied voltage to each synapse and found that all synapses exhibited more or less the same current, or flow of ions, with about a 4 percent variation between synapses — a much more uniform performance compared with synapses made from amorphous material.

They also tested a single synapse over multiple trials, applying the same voltage over 700 cycles, and found the synapse exhibited the same current, with just 1 percent variation from cycle to cycle.

“This is the most uniform device we could achieve, which is the key to demonstrating artificial neural networks,” Kim says.

Writing, recognized

As a final test, Kim’s team explored how its device would perform if it were to carry out actual learning tasks — specifically, recognizing samples of handwriting, which researchers consider to be a first practical test for neuromorphic chips. Such chips would consist of “input/hidden/output neurons,” each connected to other “neurons” via filament-based artificial synapses.

Scientists believe such stacks of neural nets can be made to “learn.” For instance, when fed an input that is a handwritten ‘1,’ with an output that labels it as ‘1,’ certain output neurons will be activated by input neurons and weights from an artificial synapse. When more examples of handwritten ‘1s’ are fed into the same chip, the same output neurons may be activated when they sense similar features between different samples of the same letter, thus “learning” in a fashion similar to what the brain does.

Kim and his colleagues ran a computer simulation of an artificial neural network consisting of three sheets of neural layers connected via two layers of artificial synapses, the properties of which they based on measurements from their actual neuromorphic chip. They fed into their simulation tens of thousands of samples from a handwritten recognition dataset commonly used by neuromorphic designers, and found that their neural network hardware recognized handwritten samples 95 percent of the time, compared to the 97 percent accuracy of existing software algorithms.

The team is in the process of fabricating a working neuromorphic chip that can carry out handwriting-recognition tasks, not in simulation but in reality. Looking beyond handwriting, Kim says the team’s artificial synapse design will enable much smaller, portable neural network devices that can perform complex computations that currently are only possible with large supercomputers.

“Ultimately we want a chip as big as a fingernail to replace one big supercomputer,” Kim says. “This opens a stepping stone to produce real artificial hardware.”

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

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

SiGe epitaxial memory for neuromorphic computing with reproducible high performance based on engineered dislocations by Shinhyun Choi, Scott H. Tan, Zefan Li, Yunjo Kim, Chanyeol Choi, Pai-Yu Chen, Hanwool Yeon, Shimeng Yu, & Jeehwan Kim. Nature Materials (2018) doi:10.1038/s41563-017-0001-5 Published online: 22 January 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the curious I have included a number of links to recent ‘memristor’ postings here,

January 22, 2018: Memristors at Masdar

January 3, 2018: Mott memristor

August 24, 2017: Neuristors and brainlike computing

June 28, 2017: Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips

May 2, 2017: Predicting how a memristor functions

December 30, 2016: Changing synaptic connectivity with a memristor

December 5, 2016: The memristor as computing device

November 1, 2016: The memristor as the ‘missing link’ in bioelectronic medicine?

You can find more by using ‘memristor’ as the search term in the blog search function or on the search engine of your choice.

Tractor beams for humans?

I got excited for a moment before realizing that, if tractor beams for humans result from this work, it will be many years in the future. Still, one can dream, eh? Here’s more about the current state of tractor beams (the acoustic kind) from a January 21, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Acoustic tractor beams use the power of sound to hold particles in mid-air, and unlike magnetic levitation, they can grab most solids or liquids. For the first time University of Bristol engineers have shown it is possible to stably trap objects larger than the wavelength of sound in an acoustic tractor beam. This discovery opens the door to the manipulation of drug capsules or micro-surgical implements within the body. Container-less transportation of delicate larger samples is now also a possibility and could lead to levitating humans.

A January 22, 2018 University of Bristol press release (also on EurekAlert but dated January 21, 2018), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Researchers previously thought that acoustic tractor beams were fundamentally limited to levitating small objects as all the previous attempts to trap particles larger than the wavelength had been unstable, with objects spinning uncontrollably. This is because rotating sound field transfers some of its spinning motion to the objects causing them to orbit faster and faster until they are ejected.

The new approach, published in Physical Review Letters today [Monday 22 January]{2018}], uses rapidly fluctuating acoustic vortices, which are similar to tornadoes of sound, made of a twister-like structure with loud sound surrounding a silent core.

The Bristol researchers discovered that the rate of rotation can be finely controlled by rapidly changing the twisting direction of the vortices, this stabilises the tractor beam. They were then able to increase the size of the silent core allowing it to hold larger objects. Working with ultrasonic waves at a pitch of 40kHz, a similar pitch to that which only bats can hear, the researchers held a two-centimetre polystyrene sphere in the tractor beam. This sphere measures over two acoustic wavelengths in size and is the largest yet trapped in a tractor beam. The research suggests that, in the future much larger objects could be levitated in this way.

Dr Asier Marzo, lead author on the paper from Bristol’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: “Acoustic researchers had been frustrated by the size limit for years, so its satisfying to find a way to overcome it. I think it opens the door to many new applications.”

Dr Mihai Caleap, Senior Research Associate, who developed the simulations, explained: “In the future, with more acoustic power it will be possible to hold even larger objects. This was only thought to be possible using lower pitches making the experiment audible and dangerous for humans.”

Bruce Drinkwater, Professor of Ultrasonics from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who supervised the work, added: “Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications. I’m particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them.”

The researchers have included a video representing their work,

I always liked the tractor beams on Star Trek as they seemed very useful. For those who can dream in more technical language, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Acoustic Virtual Vortices with Tunable Orbital Angular Momentum for Trapping of Mie Particles by Asier Marzo, Mihai Caleap, and Bruce W. Drinkwater. Phys. Rev. Lett. Vol. 120, Iss. 4 — 26 January 2018 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.120.044301 Published 22 January 2018

This paper is open access.

Thanks for the memory: the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and memristors

In January 2018 it seemed like I was tripping across a lot of memristor stories . This came from a January 19, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

In the race to build a computer that mimics the massive computational power of the human brain, researchers are increasingly turning to memristors, which can vary their electrical resistance based on the memory of past activity. Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have now unveiled the long-mysterious inner workings of these semiconductor elements, which can act like the short-term memory of nerve cells.

A January 18, 2018 NIST news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, fills in the details,

Just as the ability of one nerve cell to signal another depends on how often the cells have communicated in the recent past, the resistance of a memristor depends on the amount of current that recently flowed through it. Moreover, a memristor retains that memory even when electrical power is switched off.

But despite the keen interest in memristors, scientists have lacked a detailed understanding of how these devices work and have yet to develop a standard toolset to study them.

Now, NIST scientists have identified such a toolset and used it to more deeply probe how memristors operate. Their findings could lead to more efficient operation of the devices and suggest ways to minimize the leakage of current.

Brian Hoskins of NIST and the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with NIST scientists Nikolai Zhitenev, Andrei Kolmakov, Jabez McClelland and their colleagues from the University of Maryland’s NanoCenter (link is external) in College Park and the Institute for Research and Development in Microtechnologies in Bucharest, reported the findings (link is external) in a recent Nature Communications.

To explore the electrical function of memristors, the team aimed a tightly focused beam of electrons at different locations on a titanium dioxide memristor. The beam knocked free some of the device’s electrons, which formed ultrasharp images of those locations. The beam also induced four distinct currents to flow within the device. The team determined that the currents are associated with the multiple interfaces between materials in the memristor, which consists of two metal (conducting) layers separated by an insulator.

“We know exactly where each of the currents are coming from because we are controlling the location of the beam that is inducing those currents,” said Hoskins.

In imaging the device, the team found several dark spots—regions of enhanced conductivity—which indicated places where current might leak out of the memristor during its normal operation. These leakage pathways resided outside the memristor’s core—where it switches between the low and high resistance levels that are useful in an electronic device. The finding suggests that reducing the size of a memristor could minimize or even eliminate some of the unwanted current pathways. Although researchers had suspected that might be the case, they had lacked experimental guidance about just how much to reduce the size of the device.

Because the leakage pathways are tiny, involving distances of only 100 to 300 nanometers, “you’re probably not going to start seeing some really big improvements until you reduce dimensions of the memristor on that scale,” Hoskins said.

To their surprise, the team also found that the current that correlated with the memristor’s switch in resistance didn’t come from the active switching material at all, but the metal layer above it. The most important lesson of the memristor study, Hoskins noted, “is that you can’t just worry about the resistive switch, the switching spot itself, you have to worry about everything around it.” The team’s study, he added, “is a way of generating much stronger intuition about what might be a good way to engineer memristors.”

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

Stateful characterization of resistive switching TiO2 with electron beam induced currents by Brian D. Hoskins, Gina C. Adam, Evgheni Strelcov, Nikolai Zhitenev, Andrei Kolmakov, Dmitri B. Strukov, & Jabez J. McClelland. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1972 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02116-9 Published online: 07 December 2017

This is an open access paper.

It might be my imagination but it seemed like a lot of papers from 2017 were being publicized in early 2018.

Finally, I borrowed much of my headline from the NIST’s headline for its news release, specifically, “Thanks for the memory,” which is a rather old song,

Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in “The Big Broadcast of 1938.”

Putting science back into pop culture and selling books

Clifford V. Johnson is very good at promoting books. I tip my hat to him; that’s an excellent talent to have, especially when you’ve written a book, in his case, it’s a graphic novel titled ‘The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe‘.

I first stumbled across professor (University of Southern California) and physicist Johnson and his work in this January 18, 2018 news item on phys.org,

How often do you, outside the requirements of an assignment, ponder things like the workings of a distant star, the innards of your phone camera, or the number and layout of petals on a flower? Maybe a little bit, maybe never. Too often, people regard science as sitting outside the general culture: A specialized, difficult topic carried out by somewhat strange people with arcane talents. It’s somehow not for them.

But really science is part of the wonderful tapestry of human culture, intertwined with things like art, music, theater, film and even religion. These elements of our culture help us understand and celebrate our place in the universe, navigate it and be in dialogue with it and each other. Everyone should be able to engage freely in whichever parts of the general culture they choose, from going to a show or humming a tune to talking about a new movie over dinner.

Science, though, gets portrayed as opposite to art, intuition and mystery, as though knowing in detail how that flower works somehow undermines its beauty. As a practicing physicist, I disagree. Science can enhance our appreciation of the world around us. It should be part of our general culture, accessible to all. Those “special talents” required in order to engage with and even contribute to science are present in all of us.

Here’s more his January 18, 2018 essay on The Conversation (which was the origin for the news item), Note: Links have been removed,

… in addition to being a professor, I work as a science advisor for various forms of entertainment, from blockbuster movies like the recent “Thor: Ragnarok,” or last spring’s 10-hour TV dramatization of the life and work of Albert Einstein (“Genius,” on National Geographic), to the bestselling novel “Dark Matter,” by Blake Crouch. People spend a lot of time consuming entertainment simply because they love stories like these, so it makes sense to put some science in there.

Science can actually help make storytelling more entertaining, engaging and fun – as I explain to entertainment professionals every chance I get. From their perspective, they get potentially bigger audiences. But good stories, enhanced by science, also spark valuable conversations about the subject that continue beyond the movie theater.
Science can be one of the topics woven into the entertainment we consume – via stories, settings and characters. ABC Television

Nonprofit organizations have been working hard on this mission. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation helps fund and develop films with science content – “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (2015) and “Robot & Frank” (2012) are two examples. (The Sloan Foundation is also a funding partner of The Conversation US.)

The National Academy of Sciences set up the Science & Entertainment Exchange to help connect people from the entertainment industry to scientists. The idea is that such experts can provide Hollywood with engaging details and help with more accurate portrayals of scientists that can enhance the narratives they tell. Many of the popular Marvel movies – including “Thor” (2011), “Ant-Man” (2015) and the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War” – have had their content strengthened in this way.

Encouragingly, a recent Pew Research Center survey in the U.S. showed that entertainment with science or related content is watched by people across “all demographic, educational and political groups,” and that overall they report positive impressions of the science ideas and scenarios contained in them.

Many years ago I realized it is hard to find books on the nonfiction science shelf that let readers see themselves as part of the conversation about science. So I envisioned an entire book of conversations about science taking place between ordinary people. While “eavesdropping” on those conversations, readers learn some science ideas, and are implicitly invited to have conversations of their own. It’s a resurrection of the dialogue form, known to the ancient Greeks, and to Galileo, as a device for exchanging ideas, but with contemporary settings: cafes, restaurants, trains and so on.

Clifford Johnson at his drafting table. Clifford V. Johnson, CC BY-ND

So over six years I taught myself the requisite artistic and other production techniques, and studied the language and craft of graphic narratives. I wrote and drew “The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe” as proof of concept: A new kind of nonfiction science book that can inspire more people to engage in their own conversations about science, and celebrate a spirit of plurality in everyday science participation.

I so enjoyed Johnson’s writing and appreciated how he introduced his book into the piece that I searched for more and found a three-part interview with Henry Jenkins on his Confessions of an Aca-Fan (Academic-Fan) blog. Before moving onto the interview, here’s some information about the interviewer, Henry Jenkins, (Note: Links have been removed),

Henry Jenkins is the Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the University of Southern California. He arrived at USC in Fall 2009 after spending more than a decade as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of seventeen books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture,  From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, and By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. He is currently editing a handbook on the civic imagination and writing a book on “comics and stuff”. He has written for Technology Review, Computer Games, Salon, and The Huffington Post.

Jenkins is the principal investigator for The Civic Imagination Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, to explore ways to inspire creative collaborations within communities as they work together to identify shared values and visions for the future. This project grew out of the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research group, also funded by MacArthur, which did case studies of innovative organizations that have been effective at getting young people involved in the political process. He is also the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab. Jenkins also serves on the jury that selects the Peabody Awards, which recognizes “stories that matter” from radio, television, and the web.

He has previously worked as the principal investigator for  Project New Media Literacies (NML), a group which originated as part of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Jenkins wrote a white paper on learning in a participatory culture that has become the springboard for the group’s efforts to develop and test educational materials focused on preparing students for engagement with the new media landscape. He also was the founder for the Convergence Culture Consortium, a faculty network which seeks to build bridges between academic researchers and the media industry in order to help inform the rethinking of consumer relations in an age of participatory culture.  The Consortium lives on today via the Transforming Hollywood conference, run jointly between USC and UCLA, which recently hosted its 8th event.  

While at MIT, he was one of the principal investigators for The Education Arcade, a consortium of educators and business leaders working to promote the educational use of computer and video games. Jenkins also plays a significant role as a public advocate for fans, gamers and bloggers: testifying before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee investigation into “Marketing Violence to Youth” following the Columbine shootings; advocating for media literacy education before the Federal Communications Commission; calling for a more consumer-oriented approach to intellectual property at a closed door meeting of the governing body of the World Economic Forum; signing amicus briefs in opposition to games censorship;  regularly speaking to the press and other media about aspects of media change and popular culture; and most recently, serving as an expert witness in the legal struggle over the fan-made film, Prelude to Axanar.  He also has served as a consultant on the Amazon children’s series Lost in Oz, where he provided insights on world-building and transmedia strategies as well as new media literacy issues.

Jenkins has a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism from Georgia State University, a M.A. in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Well, that didn’t seem so simple after all. For a somewhat more personal account of who I am, read on.

About Me

The first thing you are going to discover about me, oh reader of this blog, is that I am prolific as hell. The second is that I am also long-winded as all get out. As someone famous once said, “I would have written it shorter, but I didn’t have enough time.”

My earliest work centered on television fans – particularly science fiction fans. Part of what drew me into graduate school in media studies was a fascination with popular culture. I grew up reading Mad magazine and Famous Monsters of Filmland – and, much as my parents feared, it warped me for life. Early on, I discovered the joys of comic books and science fiction, spent time playing around with monster makeup, started writing scripts for my own Super 8 movies (The big problem was that I didn’t have access to a camera until much later), and collecting television-themed toys. By the time I went to college, I was regularly attending science fiction conventions. Through the woman who would become my wife, I discovered fan fiction. And we spent a great deal of time debating our very different ways of reading our favorite television series.

When I got to graduate school, I was struck by how impoverished the academic framework for thinking about media spectatorship was – basically, though everyone framed it differently, consumers were assumed to be passive, brainless, inarticulate, and brainwashed. None of this jelled well with my own robust experience of being a fan of popular culture. I was lucky enough to get to study under John Fiske, first at Iowa and then at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who introduced me to the cultural studies perspective. Fiske was a key advocate of ethnographic audience research, arguing that media consumers had more tricks up their sleeves than most academic theory acknowledged.

Out of this tension between academic theory and fan experience emerged first an essay, “Star Trek Reread, Rerun, Rewritten” and then a book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Textual Poachers emerged at a moment when fans were still largely marginal to the way mass media was produced and consumed, and still hidden from the view of most “average consumers.” As such, the book represented a radically different way of thinking about how one might live in relation to media texts. In the book, I describe fans as “rogue readers.” What most people took from that book was my concept of “poaching,” the idea that fans construct their own culture – fan fiction, artwork, costumes, music and videos – from content appropriated from mass media, reshaping it to serve their own needs and interests. There are two other key concepts in this early work which takes on greater significance in my work today – the idea of participatory culture (which runs throughout Convergence Culture) and the idea of a moral economy (that is, the presumed ethical norms which govern the relations between media producers and consumers).

As for the interview, here’s Jenkins’ introduction to the series and a portion of part one (from Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part One) posted on November 15, 2017),

unnamed.jpg

Clifford V. Johnson is the first theoretical physicist who I have ever interviewed for my blog. Given the sharp divide that our society constructs between the sciences and the humanities, he may well be the last, but he would be the first to see this gap as tragic, a consequence of the current configuration of disciplines. Johnson, as I have discovered, is deeply committed to helping us recognize the role that science plays in everyday life, a project he pursues actively through his involvement as one of the leaders of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (of which I am also a member), as a consultant on various film and television projects, and now, as the author of a graphic novel, The Dialogues, which is being released this week. We were both on a panel about contemporary graphic storytelling Tara McPherson organized for the USC Sydney Harmon Institute for Polymathic Study and we’ve continued to bat around ideas about the pedagogical potential of comics ever since.

Here’s what I wrote when I was asked to provide a blurb for his new book:

“Two superheroes walk into a natural history museum — what happens after that will have you thinking and talking for a long time to come. Clifford V. Johnson’s The Dialogues joins a select few examples of recent texts, such as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening, Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland, or Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which use the affordances of graphic storytelling as pedagogical tools for changing the ways we think about the world around us. Johnson displays a solid grasp of the craft of comics, demonstrating how this medium can be used to represent different understandings of the relationship between time and space, questions central to his native field of physics. He takes advantage of the observational qualities of contemporary graphic novels to explore the place of scientific thinking in our everyday lives.”

To my many readers who care about sequential art, this is a book which should be added to your collection — Johnson makes good comics, smart comics, beautiful comics, and comics which are doing important work, all at the same time. What more do you want!

In the interviews that follows, we explore more fully what motivated this particular comics and how approaching comics as a theoretical physicist has helped him to discover some interesting formal aspects of this medium.

What do you want your readers to learn about science over the course of these exchanges? I am struck by the ways you seek to demystify aspects of the scientific process, including the role of theory, equations, and experimentation.

unnamed-2.jpg

 

That participatory aspect is core, for sure. Conversations about science by random people out there in the world really do happen – I hear them a lot on the subway, or in cafes, and so I wanted to highlight those and celebrate them. So the book becomes a bit of an invitation to everyone to join in. But then I can show so many other things that typically just get left out of books about science: The ordinariness of the settings in which such conversations can take place, the variety of types of people involved, and indeed the main tools, like equations and technical diagrams, that editors usually tell you to leave out for fear of scaring away the audience. …

I looked for book reviews and found two. This first one is from Starburst Magazine, which strangely does not have the date or author listed (from the review),

The Dialogues is a series of nine conversations about science told in graphic novel format; the conversationalists are men, women, children, and amateur science buffs who all have something to say about the nature of the universe. Their discussions range from multiverse and string theory to immortality, black holes, and how it’s possible to put just a cup of rice in the pan but end up with a ton more after Mom cooks it. Johnson (who also illustrated the book) believes the graphic form is especially suited for physics because “one drawing can show what it would take many words to explain” and it’s hard to argue with his noble intentions, but despite some undoubtedly thoughtful content The Dialogues doesn’t really work. Why not? Because, even with its plethora of brightly-coloured pictures, it’s still 200+ pages of talking heads. The individual conversations might give us plenty to think about, but the absence of any genuine action (or even a sense of humour) still makes The Dialogues read like very pretty homework.

Adelmar Bultheel’s December 8, 2017 review for the European Mathematical Society acknowledges issues with the book while noting its strong points,

So what is the point of producing such a graphic novel if the reader is not properly instructed about anything? In my opinion, the true message can be found in the one or two pages of notes that follow each of the eleven conversations. If you are not into the subject that you were eavesdropping, you probably have heard words, concepts, theories, etc. that you did not understand, or you might just be curious about what exactly the two were discussing. Then you should look that up on the web, or if you want to do it properly, you should consult some literature. This is what these notes are providing: they are pointing to the proper books to consult. …

This is a most unusual book for this subject and the way this is approached is most surprising. Not only the contents is heavy stuff, it is also physically heavy to read. Some 250 pages on thick glossy paper makes it a quite heavy book to hold. You probably do not want to read this in bed or take it on a train, unless you have a table in front of you to put it on. Many subjects are mentioned, but not all are explained in detail. The reader should definitely be prepared to do some extra reading to understand things better. Since most references concern other popularising books on the subject, it may require quite a lot of extra reading. But all this hard science is happening in conversations by young enthusiastic people in casual locations and it is all wrapped up in beautiful graphics showing marvellous realistic decors.

I am fascinated by this book which I have yet to read but I did find a trailer for it (from thedialoguesbook.com),

Enjoy!