Tag Archives: New York University

Kerry James Marshall: a ‘song’ of racism in multiple media

Racism and social justice are two themes often found in the works featured at the Rennie Museum (formerly Rennie Collection). Local real estate marketer, Bob Rennie has been showing works there from his collection since at least 2009 when I wrote my first commentary about it (December 4, 2009).

Kerry James Marshall, the latest artist to have his work featured (June 2 – November 3, 2018), carries on the tradition while making those artistic ‘themes’ his own n a breathtaking (in both its positive and negative meanings) range of styles and media.

Here’s a brief description of some of the works, from an undated Rennie Museum press release,

Rennie Museum presents a survey of works by Kerry James Marshall spanning thirty-two years of the artist’s career. Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works features pieces from the artist’s complex body of work, which interrogates the sparse historical presence of African-Americans through painting, sculpture, drawing and other media. …

The sculptural installation Untitled (Black Power Stamps) (1998) [emphasis mine], Marshall’s very first work acquired by Bob Rennie, aptly sets the tone of the exhibition. Five colossal stamps and their corresponding ink pads are dispersed over the floor of the museum’s four-story high gallery space. Inscribed on each stamp, and reiterated on the walls, are phrases of power dating back to the Civil Rights Movement: ‘Black is Beautiful’, ‘Black Power’, ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘By Any Means Necessary’, and ‘Burn Baby Burn’. The sentiment reverberates through the three 18 feet (5.5 metre) wide paintings installed in the same room, respectively titled Untitled (Red) (2011), Untitled (Black) and Untitled (Green) (2012). Exhibited together for the first time in North America, the imposing paintings with their colours saluting the Pan African flag echo the form of Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1967).

Commanding attention in the center of another room is Wake (2003-2005) [emphasis mine], a sculptural work that focuses on the collective trauma of slavery. Draped atop a blackened model sailboat is a web of medallions featuring portraits of descendants of the approximately twenty African slaves who first landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Atop a polished black base evoking the deep seas, the medallions cascade over and behind the mourning vessel in a gilded procession, cast out in the boat’s wake. The work commemorates an entire lineage of people whose lives have been irrevocably affected by the traumatic history of slavery in the United States, while simultaneously celebrating the resilience and vivacity of the culture that flourished from it.

Garden Party (2004-2013) [emphasis mine] is a long-coveted painting that Marshall re-worked over the course of almost ten years. Created in a style that harkens 19th century impressionist paintings, the work depicts a scene of leisure – an array of multi-ethnic friends and neighbours casually gathered in a backyard of a social housing project. Painted on a flat canvas tarp and hung barely off the floor, the image highlights an often-overlooked perspective of the vibrant everyday life in the projects and invites its viewers to join in the gathering.

In a dimmed room is Invisible Man (1986) [emphasis mine] – a historic work and one of the first to feature Marshall’s now iconic black on black tonal painting. Referencing Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel of the same title, Marshall’s work literalizes the premise of black invisibility. Only distinguishable by his bright-white eyes and teeth, and the subtle warmth that delineates black body from black background, Marshall’s figure, like Ellison’s protagonist, subverts his own invisibility, using colour as an emblem of power rather than of submission. The work’s presentation at Rennie Museum provides an opportunity for viewers to explore the full mastery with which Kerry James Marshall layers his various shades of black.

As always, you book a tour or claim a space on a tour (here) to see the latest exhibition and are guided through the gallery spaces. What follows is a series of pictures depicting the Marshall pieces in that first room (from the Rennie Museum’s photographic documentation for Marshall’s work), Note: There are five pages of documentation and I encourage you to look at all five,

Installation View. Courtesy:: Rennie Museum

Blot, 2014. acrylic on pvc panel 84 × 119 5/8 × 3 3/8 inches (213 × 304 × 9 cm). Courtesy: Rennie Museum

Sculpture (Ibeji), 2006. wood, fabric, beads 24 × 12 × 14 inches (61 × 30 × 36 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Museum

Heirlooms and Accessories, 2002. 3 inkjet prints on wove paper, rhinestone encrusted wooden artist’s frames each: 56 5/8 × 53 3/4 inches (144 × 137 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Museum

I’ve placed the pieces in the order in which I viewed them. Being at the opening event on June 2, 2018 meant that rather than having a tour, we were ‘invited’ to look at the pieces and ask questions of various ‘attendants’ standing nearby. The ‘Blot’, with all that colour, immediate drew my attention and not having read the title of the piece, I commented on its resemblance to a Rorschach Inkblot. It was my only successful guess of the visit and I continue to bask in it.

According to the attendant, in addition to resembling said inkblot, this piece also addresses abstract expressionism and the absence of African American visual artists from the movement. In this piece as with many others, Marshall finds a way to depict absence despite the paradox (a picture of absence) in terms.

‘Heirlooms and Accessories’ is an example of Marshall’s talent for depicting absence. At first glance the piece seems benign. There is a kind of double frame. The outermost frame is white and inside (abutting the artwork) a diamante braid has been added all around it to create a double frame. The braid is very pretty and accentuates the lockets depicted in the image. There are three white women pictured in their lockets and beneath those lockets and the white paint lay images of African Americans being lynched. The women, by the way, were complicit in the lynchings. It was deeply unsettling to learn this as my friend and I had just moments before been admiring the diamante braid.

Marshall’s work seems designed to force the viewer to look beneath the surface, which means stripping away layers, which with ‘Heirlooms’ means that you strip away the whitewashing.

As a white woman, the show is a profoundly disturbing  experience. Marshall’s range of materials and mastery are breathtaking (in the positive sense) and the way he seduces the (white) viewer into coming closer and experiencing the painting, metaphorically speaking, as a mirror rather than a picture. Marshall has flipped the viewer’s experience making it impossible (or very difficult) to blame racism on other people while failing to recognize your own sins.

The third piece in the room, the sculpture is a representation of a standard of beauty still not often seen in popular culture in North America. Weirdly, it reminded me of something from a December 21, 2017 posting on the LaineyGossip blog,

[downloaded from http://www.laineygossip.com/princess-michael-of-kent-racist-jewelry-greets-meghan/48728]

I don’t know well you can see this, but it’s an example of ‘Blackamoor jewellery’. The woman wearing it is Princess Michael of Kent and at the time the picture was taken she was on her to a Christmas 2017 lunch with the Queen of England. The lunch is where she was to meet Meghan Markle who describes herself as a woman of mixed race and is now the Duchess of Sussex and married to the Queen’s grandson, Harry. For anyone unfamiliar with ‘Blackmoor art’ here’s a July 31, 2015 essay by Anneke Rautenbach for New York University,

… Blackamoors—a trope in Italian decorative art especially common in pieces of furniture, but also appearing in paintings, jewelry, and textiles. The motif emerged as an artistic response to the European encounter with the Moors—dark-skinned Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East who came to occupy various parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Commonly fixed in positions of servitude—as footmen or waiters, for example—the figures personify fantasies of racial conquest.

I trust Princess Michael was made to remove her brooch before entering the palace.

The contrast between Marshall’s sculpture emphasizing the dignity and beauty of the figure and the ‘jewellery’ is striking. The past, as Marshall reminds us, is always with us. From Rautenback’s July 31, 2015 essay (Note: A link has been removed),

Gaudy by nature, and uncomfortably dated—a bit like the American lawn jockey, or Aunt Jemima doll— … Blackamoors are still a thriving industry, with the United States as their no. 1 importer. (In fact, the figurines are especially popular in Texas and Connecticut—search “Blackamoor” online and you’ll find countless listings on eBay, Etsy, and elsewhere.) Unlike their American counterparts, which focus mostly on romanticizing scenes from the era of slavery, these European ornaments often depict black bodies as exotic noblemen. And not everyone considers them passé: As recently as September 2012, the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana invited outrage when it included a caricatured black woman figurine on an earring as part of its spring/summer collection.

Encountering bias and (conscious or unconscious) racism in one’s self is both deeply  chastening and a priceless gift.  It’s one that comedienne Roseanne Barr seems determined to refuse (from a June 14, 2018 article by Marissa Martinelli for Slate.com (Note: Link have been removed),

Barr […] suggested on Thursday [June 14, 2018] that it is only “low IQ” people who would interpret describing a black woman as “Muslim Brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby” as racist. The real explanation is apparently much deeper:

Roseanne BarrVerified account @therealroseanne

Rod Serling wrote Planet of The Apes. It was about anti-semitism. That is what my tweet referred to-the anti semitism of the Iran deal. Low IQ ppl can think whatever they want.

Low IQ people and Rod Serling’s screenwriting join Ambien and Memorial Day on the growing list of entities that Barr has used to justify the racist tweet over the past two weeks. The one person whose name you will not find on that list of people responsible for what Roseanne Barr said is Roseanne Barr herself.

Even with such an obvious tweet, Barr can’t (consistently) admit to and (consistently) apologize for her comment. It may not seem like a gift to her but it is. Facing up to one’s sins and making reparation can help heal the extraordinary wounds that Marshall is making visible.

You may have noticed that I called this show ‘a song of racism’. It’s a reference to poetry which in ancient times was sometimes referred to as a song (Song of Solomon, anyone?). It was also a narrative instrument, i. e., used for storytelling for an active, participatory audience.

Marshall tells a story in allusive language (like poetry) and tricks/seduces you into participating.

On that note, I have one last story to tell and it’s about the placement of Marshall’s artworks in the first floor room. It’s my story, yours and Marshall’s might be different but he has inspired me and so …

The ‘Blot’ or Rorschach Inkblot is a test, which tells a psychologist something about you and how you apprehend the world. It’s the first piece you see when you enter the Rennie Museum space and it sets the tone for all that is to come.  What you see says much about you.

The women, in the sculpture and the lockets, provide contrast and, depending on your race, hold a mirror to you. What is ‘other’ and what is ‘you’?

There was religious imagery in much of Marshall’s work elsewhere and I was particularly struck with the hearts that appeared in some of his paintings. I was reminded of the ‘sacred heart’, a key piece of religious iconography usually associated with Roman Catholicism although other religions also use the imagery.

It is a symbol of love and compassion although I’ve always associated it more with guilt. (My mother favoured the version featuring the heart pierced with a crown of thorns.)

Getting back to “What is ‘other’ and what is ‘you’?” Marshall seems to be hinting that after guilt and suffering, forgiveness is possible.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

As for Marshall, he is a thoughtful artist asking some difficult questions. I hope you’ll get a chance to see his work at the Rennie Museum. As I write this, every tour through June is completely booked and first set of July tours is getting booked fast. You’d best keep an eagle eye on the Visit page.

ETA June18, 2018: Kerry James Marshall was in Vancouver and gave this talk about his work just prior to the show’s opening: https://vimeo.com/274179397 (It runs for roughly 1 hr. and 49 minutes.)

Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the butterflies of the soul

The Cajal exhibit of drawings was here in Vancouver (Canada) this last fall (2017) and I still carry the memory of that glorious experience (see my Sept. 11, 2017 posting for more about the show and associated events). It seems Cajal’s drawings had a similar response in New York city, from a January 18, 2018 article by Roberta Smith for the New York Times,

It’s not often that you look at an exhibition with the help of the very apparatus that is its subject. But so it is with “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, one of the most unusual, ravishing exhibitions of the season.

The show finished its run on March 31, 2018 and is now on its way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Massachusetts for its opening on May 3, 2018. It looks like they have an exciting lineup of events to go along with the exhibit (from MIT’s The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal exhibit and event page),

SUMMER PROGRAMS

ONGOING

Spotlight Tours
Explorations led by local and Spanish scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs who will share their unique perspectives on particular aspects of the exhibition. (2:00 pm on select Tuesdays and Saturdays)

Tue, May 8 – Mark Harnett, Fred and Carole Middleton Career Development Professor at MIT and McGovern Institute Investigator Sat, May 26 – Marion Boulicault, MIT Graduate Student and Neuroethics Fellow in the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering Tue, June 5 – Kelsey Allen, Graduate researcher, MIT Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines Sat, Jun 23 – Francisco Martin-Martinez, Research Scientist in MIT’s Laboratory for Atomistic & Molecular Mechanics and President of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology Jul 21 – Alex Gomez-Marin, Principal Investigator of the Behavior of Organisms Laboratory in the Instituto de Neurociencias, Spain Tue, Jul 31– Julie Pryor, Director of Communications at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT Tue, Aug 28 – Satrajit Ghosh, Principal Research Scientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, Assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, and faculty member in the Speech and Hearing Biosciences and Technology program in the Harvard Division of Medical Sciences

Idea Hub
Drop in and explore expansion microscopy in our maker-space.

Visualizing Science Workshop
Experiential learning with micro-scale biological images. (pre-registration required)

Gallery Demonstrations
Researchers share the latest on neural anatomy, signal transmission, and modern imaging techniques.

EVENTS

Teen Science Café: Mindful Matters
MIT researchers studying the brain share their mind-blowing findings.

Neuron Paint Night
Create a painting of cerebral cortex neurons and learn about the EyeWire citizen science game.

Cerebral Cinema Series
Hear from researchers and then compare real science to depictions on the big screen.

Brainy Trivia
Test your brain power in a night of science trivia and short, snappy research talks.

Come back to see our exciting lineup for the fall!

If you don’t have a chance to see the show or if you’d like a preview, I encourage you to read Smith’s article as it has embedded several Cajal drawings and rendered them exceptionally well.

For those who like a little contemporary (and related) science with their art, there’s a March 30, 2018 Harvard Medical Schoo (HMS)l news release by Kevin Jang (also on EurekAlert), Note: All links save one have been removed,

Drawing of the cells of the chick cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, from “Estructura de los centros nerviosos de las aves,” Madrid, circa 1905

 

Modern neuroscience, for all its complexity, can trace its roots directly to a series of pen-and-paper sketches rendered by Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His observations and drawings exposed the previously hidden composition of the brain, revealing neuronal cell bodies and delicate projections that connect individual neurons together into intricate networks.

As he explored the nervous systems of various organisms under his microscope, a natural question arose: What makes a human brain different from the brain of any other species?

At least part of the answer, Ramón y Cajal hypothesized, lay in a specific class of neuron—one found in a dazzling variety of shapes and patterns of connectivity, and present in higher proportions in the human brain than in the brains of other species. He dubbed them the “butterflies of the soul.”

Known as interneurons, these cells play critical roles in transmitting information between sensory and motor neurons, and, when defective, have been linked to diseases such as schizophrenia, autism and intellectual disability.

Despite more than a century of study, however, it remains unclear why interneurons are so diverse and what specific functions the different subtypes carry out.

Now, in a study published in the March 22 [2018] issue of Nature, researchers from Harvard Medical School, New York Genome Center, New York University and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have detailed for the first time how interneurons emerge and diversify in the brain.

Using single-cell analysis—a technology that allows scientists to track cellular behavior one cell at a time—the team traced the lineage of interneurons from their earliest precursor states to their mature forms in mice. The researchers identified key genetic programs that determine the fate of developing interneurons, as well as when these programs are switched on or off.

The findings serve as a guide for efforts to shed light on interneuron function and may help inform new treatment strategies for disorders involving their dysfunction, the authors said.

“We knew more than 100 years ago that this huge diversity of morphologically interesting cells existed in the brain, but their specific individual roles in brain function are still largely unclear,” said co-senior author Gordon Fishell, HMS professor of neurobiology and a faculty member at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad.

“Our study provides a road map for understanding how and when distinct interneuron subtypes develop, giving us unprecedented insight into the biology of these cells,” he said. “We can now investigate interneuron properties as they emerge, unlock how these important cells function and perhaps even intervene when they fail to develop correctly in neuropsychiatric disease.”

A hippocampal interneuron. Image: Biosciences Imaging Gp, Soton, Wellcome Trust via Creative CommonsA hippocampal interneuron. Image: Biosciences Imaging Gp, Soton, Wellcome Trust via Creative Commons

Origins and Fates

In collaboration with co-senior author Rahul Satija, core faculty member of the New York Genome Center, Fishell and colleagues analyzed brain regions in developing mice known to contain precursor cells that give rise to interneurons.

Using Drop-seq, a single-cell sequencing technique created by researchers at HMS and the Broad, the team profiled gene expression in thousands of individual cells at multiple time points.

This approach overcomes a major limitation in past research, which could analyze only the average activity of mixtures of many different cells.

In the current study, the team found that the precursor state of all interneurons had similar gene expression patterns despite originating in three separate brain regions and giving rise to 14 or more interneuron subtypes alone—a number still under debate as researchers learn more about these cells.

“Mature interneuron subtypes exhibit incredible diversity. Their morphology and patterns of connectivity and activity are so different from each other, but our results show that the first steps in their maturation are remarkably similar,” said Satija, who is also an assistant professor of biology at New York University.

“They share a common developmental trajectory at the earliest stages, but the seeds of what will cause them to diverge later—a handful of genes—are present from the beginning,” Satija said.

As they profiled cells at later stages in development, the team observed the initial emergence of four interneuron “cardinal” classes, which give rise to distinct fates. Cells were committed to these fates even in the early embryo. By developing a novel computational strategy to link precursors with adult subtypes, the researchers identified individual genes that were switched on and off when cells began to diversify.

For example, they found that the gene Mef2c—mutations of which are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and neurodevelopmental disorders in humans—is an early embryonic marker for a specific interneuron subtype known as Pvalb neurons. When they deleted Mef2c in animal models, Pvalb neurons failed to develop.

These early genes likely orchestrate the execution of subsequent genetic subroutines, such as ones that guide interneuron subtypes as they migrate to different locations in the brain and ones that help form unique connection patterns with other neural cell types, the authors said.

The identification of these genes and their temporal activity now provide researchers with specific targets to investigate the precise functions of interneurons, as well as how neurons diversify in general, according to the authors.

“One of the goals of this project was to address an incredibly fascinating developmental biology question, which is how individual progenitor cells decide between different neuronal fates,” Satija said. “In addition to these early markers of interneuron divergence, we found numerous additional genes that increase in expression, many dramatically, at later time points.”

The association of some of these genes with neuropsychiatric diseases promises to provide a better understanding of these disorders and the development of therapeutic strategies to treat them, a particularly important notion given the paucity of new treatments, the authors said.

Over the past 50 years, there have been no fundamentally new classes of neuropsychiatric drugs, only newer versions of old drugs, the researchers pointed out.

“Our repertoire is no better than it was in the 1970s,” Fishell said.

“Neuropsychiatric diseases likely reflect the dysfunction of very specific cell types. Our study puts forward a clear picture of what cells to look at as we work to shed light on the mechanisms that underlie these disorders,” Fishell said. “What we will find remains to be seen, but we have new, strong hypotheses that we can now test.”

As a resource for the research community, the study data and software are open-source and freely accessible online.

A gallery of the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal is currently on display in New York City, and will open at the MIT Museum in Boston in May 2018.

Christian Mayer, Christoph Hafemeister and Rachel Bandler served as co-lead authors on the study.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01 NS074972, R01 NS081297, MH071679-12, DP2-HG-009623, F30MH114462, T32GM007308, F31NS103398), the European Molecular Biology Organization, the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

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

Developmental diversification of cortical inhibitory interneurons by Christian Mayer, Christoph Hafemeister, Rachel C. Bandler, Robert Machold, Renata Batista Brito, Xavier Jaglin, Kathryn Allaway, Andrew Butler, Gord Fishell, & Rahul Satija. Nature volume 555, pages 457–462 (22 March 2018) doi:10.1038/nature25999 Published: 05 March 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

A customized cruise experience with wearable technology (and decreased personal agency?)

The days when you went cruising to ‘get away from it all’ seem to have passed (if they ever really existed) with the introduction of wearable technology that will register your every preference and make life easier according to Cliff Kuang’s Oct. 19, 2017 article for Fast Company,

This month [October 2017], the 141,000-ton Regal Princess will push out to sea after a nine-figure revamp of mind-boggling scale. Passengers won’t be greeted by new restaurants, swimming pools, or onboard activities, but will instead step into a future augured by the likes of Netflix and Uber, where nearly everything is on demand and personally tailored. An ambitious new customization platform has been woven into the ship’s 19 passenger decks: some 7,000 onboard sensors and 4,000 “guest portals” (door-access panels and touch-screen TVs), all of them connected by 75 miles of internal cabling. As the Carnival-owned ship cruises to Nassau, Bahamas, and Grand Turk, its 3,500 passengers will have the option of carrying a quarter-size device, called the Ocean Medallion, which can be slipped into a pocket or worn on the wrist and is synced with a companion app.

The platform will provide a new level of service for passengers; the onboard sensors record their tastes and respond to their movements, and the app guides them around the ship and toward activities aligned with their preferences. Carnival plans to roll out the platform to another seven ships by January 2019. Eventually, the Ocean Medallion could be opening doors, ordering drinks, and scheduling activities for passengers on all 102 of Carnival’s vessels across 10 cruise lines, from the mass-market Princess ships to the legendary ocean liners of Cunard.

Kuang goes on to explain the reasoning behind this innovation,

The Ocean Medallion is Carnival’s attempt to address a problem that’s become increasingly vexing to the $35.5 billion cruise industry. Driven by economics, ships have exploded in size: In 1996, Carnival Destiny was the world’s largest cruise ship, carrying 2,600 passengers. Today, Royal Caribbean’s MS Harmony of the Seas carries up to 6,780 passengers and 2,300 crew. Larger ships expend less fuel per passenger; the money saved can then go to adding more amenities—which, in turn, are geared to attracting as many types of people as possible. Today on a typical ship you can do practically anything—from attending violin concertos to bungee jumping. And that’s just onboard. Most of a cruise is spent in port, where each day there are dozens of experiences available. This avalanche of choice can bury a passenger. It has also made personalized service harder to deliver. …

Kuang also wrote this brief description of how the technology works from the passenger’s perspective in an Oct. 19, 2017 item for Fast Company,

1. Pre-trip

On the web or on the app, you can book experiences, log your tastes and interests, and line up your days. That data powers the recommendations you’ll see. The Ocean Medallion arrives by mail and becomes the key to ship access.

2. Stateroom

When you draw near, your cabin-room door unlocks without swiping. The room’s unique 43-inch TV, which doubles as a touch screen, offers a range of Carnival’s bespoke travel shows. Whatever you watch is fed into your excursion suggestions.

3. Food

When you order something, sensors detect where you are, allowing your server to find you. Your allergies and preferences are also tracked, and shape the choices you’re offered. In all, the back-end data has 45,000 allergens tagged and manages 250,000 drink combinations.

4. Activities

The right algorithms can go beyond suggesting wines based on previous orders. Carnival is creating a massive semantic database, so if you like pricey reds, you’re more apt to be guided to a violin concerto than a limbo competition. Your onboard choices—the casino, the gym, the pool—inform your excursion recommendations.

In Kuang’s Oct. 19, 2017 article he notes that the cruise ship line is putting a lot of effort into retraining their staff and emphasizing the ‘soft’ skills that aren’t going to be found in this iteration of the technology. No mention is made of whether or not there will be reductions in the number of staff members on this cruise ship nor is the possibility that ‘soft’ skills may in the future be incorporated into this technological marvel.

Personalization/customization is increasingly everywhere

How do you feel about customized news feeds? As it turns out, this is not a rhetorical question as Adrienne LaFrance notes in her Oct. 19, 2017 article for The Atlantic (Note: Links have been removed),

Today, a Google search for news runs through the same algorithmic filtration system as any other Google search: A person’s individual search history, geographic location, and other demographic information affects what Google shows you. Exactly how your search results differ from any other person’s is a mystery, however. Not even the computer scientists who developed the algorithm could precisely reverse engineer it, given the fact that the same result can be achieved through numerous paths, and that ranking factors—deciding which results show up first—are constantly changing, as are the algorithms themselves.

We now get our news in real time, on demand, tailored to our interests, across multiple platforms, without knowing just how much is actually personalized. It was technology companies like Google and Facebook, not traditional newsrooms, that made it so. But news organizations are increasingly betting that offering personalized content can help them draw audiences to their sites—and keep them coming back.

Personalization extends beyond how and where news organizations meet their readers. Already, smartphone users can subscribe to push notifications for the specific coverage areas that interest them. On Facebook, users can decide—to some extent—which organizations’ stories they would like to appear in their news feeds. At the same time, devices and platforms that use machine learning to get to know their users will increasingly play a role in shaping ultra-personalized news products. Meanwhile, voice-activated artificially intelligent devices, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, are poised to redefine the relationship between news consumers and the news [emphasis mine].

While news personalization can help people manage information overload by making individuals’ news diets unique, it also threatens to incite filter bubbles and, in turn, bias [emphasis mine]. This “creates a bit of an echo chamber,” says Judith Donath, author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online and a researcher affiliated with Harvard University ’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. “You get news that is designed to be palatable to you. It feeds into people’s appetite of expecting the news to be entertaining … [and] the desire to have news that’s reinforcing your beliefs, as opposed to teaching you about what’s happening in the world and helping you predict the future better.”

Still, algorithms have a place in responsible journalism. “An algorithm actually is the modern editorial tool,” says Tamar Charney, the managing editor of NPR One, the organization’s customizable mobile-listening app. A handcrafted hub for audio content from both local and national programs as well as podcasts from sources other than NPR, NPR One employs an algorithm to help populate users’ streams with content that is likely to interest them. But Charney assures there’s still a human hand involved: “The whole editorial vision of NPR One was to take the best of what humans do and take the best of what algorithms do and marry them together.” [emphasis mine]

The skimming and diving Charney describes sounds almost exactly like how Apple and Google approach their distributed-content platforms. With Apple News, users can decide which outlets and topics they are most interested in seeing, with Siri offering suggestions as the algorithm gets better at understanding your preferences. Siri now has have help from Safari. The personal assistant can now detect browser history and suggest news items based on what someone’s been looking at—for example, if someone is searching Safari for Reykjavík-related travel information, they will then see Iceland-related news on Apple News. But the For You view of Apple News isn’t 100 percent customizable, as it still spotlights top stories of the day, and trending stories that are popular with other users, alongside those curated just for you.

Similarly, with Google’s latest update to Google News, readers can scan fixed headlines, customize sidebars on the page to their core interests and location—and, of course, search. The latest redesign of Google News makes it look newsier than ever, and adds to many of the personalization features Google first introduced in 2010. There’s also a place where you can preprogram your own interests into the algorithm.

Google says this isn’t an attempt to supplant news organizations, nor is it inspired by them. The design is rather an embodiment of Google’s original ethos, the product manager for Google News Anand Paka says: “Just due to the deluge of information, users do want ways to control information overload. In other words, why should I read the news that I don’t care about?” [emphasis mine]

Meanwhile, in May [2017?], Google briefly tested a personalized search filter that would dip into its trove of data about users with personal Google and Gmail accounts and include results exclusively from their emails, photos, calendar items, and other personal data related to their query. [emphasis mine] The “personal” tab was supposedly “just an experiment,” a Google spokesperson said, and the option was temporarily removed, but seems to have rolled back out for many users as of August [2017?].

Now, Google, in seeking to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that scanning emails to offer targeted ads amounts to illegal wiretapping, is promising that for the next three years it won’t use the content of its users’ emails to serve up targeted ads in Gmail. The move, which will go into effect at an unspecified date, doesn’t mean users won’t see ads, however. Google will continue to collect data from users’ search histories, YouTube, and Chrome browsing habits, and other activity.

The fear that personalization will encourage filter bubbles by narrowing the selection of stories is a valid one, especially considering that the average internet user or news consumer might not even be aware of such efforts. Elia Powers, an assistant professor of journalism and news media at Towson University in Maryland, studied the awareness of news personalization among students after he noticed those in his own classes didn’t seem to realize the extent to which Facebook and Google customized users’ results. “My sense is that they didn’t really understand … the role that people that were curating the algorithms [had], how influential that was. And they also didn’t understand that they could play a pretty active role on Facebook in telling Facebook what kinds of news they want them to show and how to prioritize [content] on Google,” he says.

The results of Powers’s study, which was published in Digital Journalism in February [2017], showed that the majority of students had no idea that algorithms were filtering the news content they saw on Facebook and Google. When asked if Facebook shows every news item, posted by organizations or people, in a users’ newsfeed, only 24 percent of those surveyed were aware that Facebook prioritizes certain posts and hides others. Similarly, only a quarter of respondents said Google search results would be different for two different people entering the same search terms at the same time. [emphasis mine; Note: Respondents in this study were students.]

This, of course, has implications beyond the classroom, says Powers: “People as news consumers need to be aware of what decisions are being made [for them], before they even open their news sites, by algorithms and the people behind them, and also be able to understand how they can counter the effects or maybe even turn off personalization or make tweaks to their feeds or their news sites so they take a more active role in actually seeing what they want to see in their feeds.”

On Google and Facebook, the algorithm that determines what you see is invisible. With voice-activated assistants, the algorithm suddenly has a persona. “We are being trained to have a relationship with the AI,” says Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and an adjunct professor at New York University Stern School of Business. “This is so much more catastrophically horrible for news organizations than the internet. At least with the internet, I have options. The voice ecosystem is not built that way. It’s being built so I just get the information I need in a pleasing way.”

LaFrance’s article is thoughtful and well worth reading in its entirety. Now, onto some commentary.

Loss of personal agency

I have been concerned for some time about the increasingly dull results I get from a Google search and while I realize the company has been gathering information about me via my searches , supposedly in service of giving me better searches, I had no idea how deeply the company can mine for personal data. It makes me wonder what would happen if Google and Facebook attempted a merger.

More cogently, I rather resent the search engines and artificial intelligence agents (e.g. Facebook bots) which have usurped my role as the arbiter of what interests me, in short, my increasing loss of personal agency.

I’m also deeply suspicious of what these companies are going to do with my data. Will it be used to manipulate me in some way? Presumably, the data will be sold and used for some purpose. In the US, they have married electoral data with consumer data as Brent Bambury notes in an Oct. 13, 2017 article for his CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio show,

How much of your personal information circulates in the free-market ether of metadata? It could be more than you imagine, and it might be enough to let others change the way you vote.

A data firm that specializes in creating psychological profiles of voters claims to have up to 5,000 data points on 220 million Americans. Cambridge Analytica has deep ties to the American right and was hired by the campaigns of Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

During the U.S. election, CNN called them “Donald Trump’s mind readers” and his secret weapon.

David Carroll is a Professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. He is one of the millions of Americans profiled by Cambridge Analytica and he’s taking legal action to find out where the company gets its masses of data and how they use it to create their vaunted psychographic profiles of voters.

On Day 6 [Banbury’s CBC radio programme], he explained why that’s important.

“They claim to have figured out how to project our voting behavior based on our consumer behavior. So it’s important for citizens to be able to understand this because it would affect our ability to understand how we’re being targeted by campaigns and how the messages that we’re seeing on Facebook and television are being directed at us to manipulate us.” [emphasis mine]

The parent company of Cambridge Analytica, SCL Group, is a U.K.-based data operation with global ties to military and political activities. David Carroll says the potential for sharing personal data internationally is a cause for concern.

“It’s the first time that this kind of data is being collected and transferred across geographic boundaries,” he says.

But that also gives Carroll an opening for legal action. An individual has more rights to access their personal information in the U.K., so that’s where he’s launching his lawsuit.

Reports link Michael Flynn, briefly Trump’s National Security Adviser, to SCL Group and indicate that former White House strategist Steve Bannon is a board member of Cambridge Analytica. Billionaire Robert Mercer, who has underwritten Bannon’s Breitbart operations and is a major Trump donor, also has a significant stake in Cambridge Analytica.

In the world of data, Mercer’s credentials are impeccable.

“He is an important contributor to the field of artificial intelligence,” says David Carroll.

“His work at IBM is seminal and really important in terms of the foundational ideas that go into big data analytics, so the relationship between AI and big data analytics. …

Banbury’s piece offers a lot more, including embedded videos, than I’ve not included in that excerpt but I also wanted to include some material from Carole Cadwalladr’s Oct. 1, 2017 Guardian article about Carroll and his legal fight in the UK,

“There are so many disturbing aspects to this. One of the things that really troubles me is how the company can buy anonymous data completely legally from all these different sources, but as soon as it attaches it to voter files, you are re-identified. It means that every privacy policy we have ignored in our use of technology is a broken promise. It would be one thing if this information stayed in the US, if it was an American company and it only did voter data stuff.”

But, he [Carroll] argues, “it’s not just a US company and it’s not just a civilian company”. Instead, he says, it has ties with the military through SCL – “and it doesn’t just do voter targeting”. Carroll has provided information to the Senate intelligence committee and believes that the disclosures mandated by a British court could provide evidence helpful to investigators.

Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland, author of The Black Box Society and a leading expert on big data and the law, called the case a “watershed moment”.

“It really is a David and Goliath fight and I think it will be the model for other citizens’ actions against other big corporations. I think we will look back and see it as a really significant case in terms of the future of algorithmic accountability and data protection. …

Nobody is discussing personal agency directly but if you’re only being exposed to certain kinds of messages then your personal agency has been taken from you. Admittedly we don’t have complete personal agency in our lives but AI along with the data gathering done online and increasingly with wearable and smart technology means that another layer of control has been added to your life and it is largely invisible. After all, the students in Elia Powers’ study didn’t realize their news feeds were being pre-curated.

Do your physical therapy and act as a citizen scientist at the same time

I gather that recovering from a serious injury and/or surgery can require exercise regimens which help strengthen you but can be mind-numbingly boring. According to a Feb. 23, 30217 New York University Tandon School of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), scientists have found a way to make the physical rehabilitation process more meaningful,

Researchers at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering have devised a method by which patients requiring repetitive rehabilitative exercises, such as those prescribed by physical therapists, can voluntarily contribute to scientific projects in which massive data collection and analysis is needed.

Citizen science empowers people with little to no scientific training to participate in research led by professional scientists in different ways. The benefit of such an activity is often bidirectional, whereby professional scientists leverage the effort of a large number of volunteers in data collection or analysis, while the volunteers increase their knowledge on the topic of the scientific endeavor. Tandon researchers added the benefit of performing what can sometimes be boring or painful exercise regimes in a more appealing yet still therapeutic manner.

The citizen science activity they employed entailed the environmental mapping of a polluted body of water (in this case Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal) with a miniature instrumented boat, which was remotely controlled by the participants through their physical gestures, as tracked by a low-cost motion capture system that does not require the subject to don special equipment. The researchers demonstrated that the natural user interface offers an engaging and effective means for performing environmental monitoring tasks. At the same time, the citizen science activity increased the commitment of the participants, leading to a better motion performance, quantified through an array of objective indices.

Visiting Researcher Eduardo Palermo (of Sapienza University of Rome), Post-doctoral Researcher Jeffrey Laut, Professor of Technology Management and Innovation Oded Nov, late Research Professor Paolo Cappa, and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Maurizio Porfiri provided subjects with a Microsoft Kinect sensor, a markerless human motion tracker capable of estimating three-dimensional coordinates of human joints that was initially designed for gaming but has since been widely repurposed as an input device for natural user interfaces. They asked participants to pilot the boat, controlling thruster speed and steering angle, by lifting one arm away from the trunk and using wrist motions, in effect, mimicking one widely adopted type of rehabilitative exercises based on repetitively performing simple movements with the affected arm. Their results suggest that an inexpensive, off-the-shelf device can offer an engaging means to contribute to important scientific tasks while delivering relevant and efficient physical exercises.

“The study constitutes a first and necessary step toward rehabilitative treatments of the upper limb through citizen science and low-cost markerless optical systems,” Porfiri explains. “Our methodology expands behavioral rehabilitation by providing an engaging and fun natural user interface, a tangible scientific contribution, and an attractive low-cost markerless technology for human motion capture.”

Caption: NYU Tandon researchers reported that volunteers who performed repetitive exercises while contributing as citizen scientists were more effective in their physical therapy motions. In the experiment, the volunteers controlled a small boat monitoring the polluted Gowanus Canal by performing hand and arm motions using the Microsoft Kinect motion capture system. Credit: NYU Tandon, PLoS ONE

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

A Natural User Interface to Integrate Citizen Science and Physical Exercise by Eduardo Palermo, Jeffrey Laut, Oded Nov, Paolo Cappa, Maurizio Porfiri. Public Library of Science (PLoS) http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172587 Published: February 23, 2017

This paper is open access.

Scientific evidence and certainty: a controversy in the US Justice system

It seems that forensic evidence does not deliver the certainty that television and US prosecutors (I wonder if Canadian Crown Attorneys or Crown Counsels concur with their US colleagues?) would have us believe. The US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report (‘Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods‘ 174 pp PDF) on Sept. 20, 2016 that amongst other findings, notes that more scientific rigour needs to be applied to the field of forensic science.

Here’s more from the Sept. 20, 2016 posting by Eric Lander, William Press, S. James Gates, Jr., Susan L. Graham, J. Michael McQuade, and Daniel Schrag, on the White House blog,

The study that led to the report was a response to the President’s question to his PCAST in 2015, as to whether there are additional steps on the scientific side, beyond those already taken by the Administration in the aftermath of a highly critical 2009 National Research Council report on the state of the forensic sciences, that could help ensure the validity of forensic evidence used in the Nation’s legal system.

PCAST concluded that two important gaps warranted the group’s attention: (1) the need for clarity about the scientific standards for the validity and reliability of forensic methods and (2) the need to evaluate specific forensic methods to determine whether they have been scientifically established to be valid and reliable. The study aimed to help close these gaps for a number of forensic “feature-comparison” methods—specifically, methods for comparing DNA samples, bitemarks, latent fingerprints, firearm marks, footwear, and hair.

In the course of its year-long study, PCAST compiled and reviewed a set of more than 2,000 papers from various sources, educated itself on factual matters relating to the interaction between science and the law, and obtained input from forensic scientists and practitioners, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, academic researchers, criminal-justice-reform advocates, and representatives of Federal agencies.

A Sept. 23, 2016 article by Daniel Denvir for Salon.com sums up the responses from some of the institutions affected by this report,

Under fire yet again, law enforcement is fighting back. Facing heavy criticism for misconduct and abuse, prosecutors are protesting a new report from President Obama’s top scientific advisors that documents what has long been clear: much of the forensic evidence used to win convictions, including complex DNA samples and bite mark analysis, is not backed up by credible scientific research.

Although the evidence of this is clear, many in law enforcement seem terrified that keeping pseudoscience out of prosecutions will make them unwinnable. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declined to accept the report’s recommendations on the admissibility of evidence and the FBI accused the advisors of making “broad, unsupported assertions.” But the National District Attorneys Association, which represents roughly 2,5000 top prosecutors nationwide, went the furthest, taking it upon itself to, in its own words, “slam” the report.

Prosecutors’ actual problem with the report, produced by some of the nation’s leading scientists on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, seems to be unrelated to science. Reached by phone NDAA president-elect Michael O. Freeman could not point to any specific problem with the research and accused the scientists of having an agenda against law enforcement.

“I’m a prosecutor and not a scientist,” Freeman, the County Attorney in Hennepin County, Minnesota, which encompasses Minneapolis, told Salon. “We think that there’s particular bias that exists in the folks who worked on this, and they were being highly critical of the forensic disciplines that we use in investigating and prosecuting cases.”

That response, devoid of any reference to hard science, has prompted some mockery, including from Robert Smith, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School, who accused the NDAA of “fighting to turn America’s prosecutors into the Anti-Vaxxers, the Phrenologists, the Earth-Is-Flat Evangelists of the criminal justice world.”

It has also, however, also lent credence to a longstanding criticism that American prosecutors are more concerned with winning than in establishing a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Prosecutors should not be concerned principally with convictions; they should be concerned with justice,” said Daniel S. Medwed, author of “Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent” and a professor at Northern University School of Law, told Salon. “Using dodgy science to obtain convictions does not advance justice.”

Denvir’s article is lengthier and worth reading in its entirety.

Assuming there’s an association of forensic scientists, I find it interesting they don’t appear to have responded.

Finally, if there’s one thing you learn while writing about science it’s that there is no real certainty. For example, if you read about the Higgs boson discovery, you’ll note that the scientists involved the research never stated with absolute certainty that it exists but rather they ‘were pretty darn sure’ it does (I believe the scientific term is 5-sigma). There’s more about the Higgs boson and 5-sigma in this July 17, 2012 article by Evelyn Lamb for Scientific American,

In short, five-sigma corresponds to a p-value, or probability, of 3×10-7, or about 1 in 3.5 million. This is not the probability that the Higgs boson does or doesn’t exist; rather, it is the probability that if the particle does not exist, the data that CERN [European Particle Physics Laboratory] scientists collected in Geneva, Switzerland, would be at least as extreme as what they observed. “The reason that it’s so annoying is that people want to hear declarative statements, like ‘The probability that there’s a Higgs is 99.9 percent,’ but the real statement has an ‘if’ in there. There’s a conditional. There’s no way to remove the conditional,” says Kyle Cranmer, a physicist at New York University and member of the ATLAS team, one of the two groups that announced the new particle results in Geneva on July 4 [2012].

For the interested, there’s a lot more to Lamb’s article.

Getting back to forensic science, this PCAST report looks like an attempt to bring forensics back into line with the rest of the science world.

Minimalist DNA nanodevices perform bio-analytical chemistry inside live cells

A comparison of minimalist versus baroque architecture is one of the more startling elements in this March 24, 2016 news item on Nanowerk about a scientist working with DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) nanodevices,

Some biochemistry laboratories fashion proteins into complex shapes, constructing the DNA nanotechnological equivalent of Baroque or Rococo architecture. Yamuna Krishnan, however, prefers structurally minimalist devices.

“Our lab’s philosophy is one of minimalist design,” said Krishnan, a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago. “It borders on brutalist. Functional with zero bells and whistles. There are several labs that design DNA into wonderful shapes, but inside a living system, you need as little DNA as possible to get the job done.”

That job is to act as drug-delivery capsules or as biomedical diagnostic tools.

A March 24, 2016 University of Chicago news release by Steve Koppes, which originated the news item, provides some background information before launching into the latest news,

In 2011, Krishnan and her group, then at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, became the first to demonstrate the functioning of a DNA nanomachine inside a living organism. This nanomachine, called I-switch, measured subcellular pH with a high degree of accuracy. Since 2011, Krishnan and her team have developed a palette of pH sensors, each keyed to the pH of the target organelle.

Last summer, the team reported another achievement: the development of a DNA nanosensor that can measure the physiological concentration of chloride with a high degree of accuracy.

“Yamuna Krishnan is one of the leading practitioners of biologically oriented DNA nanotechnology,” said Nadrian Seeman, the father of the field and the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor of Chemistry at New York University. “These types of intracellular sensors are unique to my knowledge, and represent a major advance for the field of DNA nanotechnology.”

Chloride sensor

Chloride is the single most abundant, soluble, negatively charged molecule in the body. And yet until the Krishnan group introduced its chloride sensor—called Clensor—there was no effective and practical way to measure intracellular stores of chloride.

“What is especially interesting about this sensor is that it is completely pH independent,” Seeman said, a significant departure from Krishnan’s previous scheme. “She spent a number of years developing pH sensors that work intra-cellularly and provide a fluorescent signal as a consequence of a shift in pH.”

The ability to record chloride concentrations is important for many reasons. Chloride plays an important role in neurobiology, for example. But calcium and sodium—both positively charged ions—tend to grab most of the neurobiological glory because of their role in neuron excitation.

“But if you want your neuron to fire again, you have to bring it back to its normal state. You have to stop it firing,” Krishnan said. This is called “neuronal inhibition,” which chloride does.

“It’s important in order to reset your neuron for a second round of firing, otherwise we would all be able to use our brains only once,” she said.

Under normal circumstances, the transport of chloride ions helps the body produce thin, freely flowing mucus. But a genetic defect results in a life-threatening disease: cystic fibrosis. Clensor’s capacity to measure and visualize protein activity of molecules like the one related to cystic fibrosis transmembrane could lead to high-throughput assays to screen for chemicals that would restore normal functioning of the chloride channel.

Nine diseases

“One could use this to look at chloride ion channel activity in a variety of diseases,” Krishnan said. “Humans have nine chloride ion channels, and the mutation of each of these channels results in nine different diseases.” Among them are osteopetrosis, deafness, muscular dystrophy and Best’s macular dystrophy.

The pH-sensing capabilities of the I-switch, meanwhile, are important because cells contain multiple organelles that maintain specific values of acidity. Cells need these different microenvironments to carry out specialized chemical reactions.

“Each subcellular organelle has a specific resting value of acidity, and that acidity is crucial to its function,” Krishnan said. “When the pH is not the value that it’s meant to be, it results in a range of different diseases.”

There are 70 rare diseases called lysosomal storage disorders, which are progressive and often fatal. Each one—including Batten disease, Niemann-Pick disease, Pompe disease and Tay-Sachs disease—represents a different way a lysosome can go bad. She likened a defective lysosome to a garbage bin that never gets emptied.

“The lysosome is basically responsible for chewing up all the garbage and making sure it’s either reused or got rid of. It’s the most acidic organelle in the cell.” And that acidity is crucial for the degradation process.

Although there are 70 lysosomal storage diseases, small molecule drugs are available for only a few of them. These existing treatments—enzyme-replacement therapies—are expensive and are only palliative treatments. One goal of Krishnan’s group is to demonstrate the utility of their pH sensors to discover new biological insights into these diseases. Developing small molecule drugs—which are structurally simpler and easier to manufacture than traditional biological drugs—could help significantly.

“If we can do this for one or two lysosomal diseases, there’ll be hope for the other 68,” Krishnan said.

Here are links to and citations for the 2015 and 2011 papers,

A pH-independent DNA nanodevice for quantifying chloride transport in organelles of living cells by Sonali Saha, Ved Prakash, Saheli Halder, Kasturi Chakraborty, & Yamuna Krishnan. Nature Nanotechnology 10, 645–651 (2015)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.130 Published online 22 June 2015

An autonomous DNA nanomachine maps spatiotemporal pH changes in a multicellular living organism by Sunaina Surana, Jaffar M. Bhat, Sandhya P. Koushika, & Yamuna Krishnan. Nature Communications 2, Article number: 340  doi:10.1038/ncomms1340 Published 07 June 2011

The 2015 paper is behind a paywall but the 2011 paper is open access.

Mathematicians, political scientists, and cake cutting

If you have a sibling, you’ve likely fought at least once over who got the biggest or ‘best’ piece of cake.  (I do and I did.) In any event, it seems that mathematicians and political scientists have been working on a scheme to avoid disputes over cake.

[downloaded from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00283-013-9442-0#page-1]

A July 16, 2014 Springer news release (also on EurekAlert) describes the quest for fairly sized cake slices and how that might apply to real life issues such as sharing property,

The next time your children quibble about who gets to eat which part of a cake, call in some experts on the art of sharing. Mathematician Julius Barbanel of Union College, and political scientist Steven Brams of New York University, both in the US, published an algorithm in Springer’s The Mathematical Intelligencer by which they show how to optimally share cake between two people efficiently, in equal pieces and in such a way that no one feels robbed.

The cut-and-choose method to share divisible goods has been regarded as fair and envy-free since Biblical times, when Abraham divided land equally, and Lot could choose the part he wanted. But being free of envy is not the only consideration when sharing something. What happens when more than two cuts can be made, or when people prefer different, specific sections of whatever is to be divided? Barbanel and Brams believe that with a giveback procedure it is possible to make a perfect division between two people that is efficient, equitable and void of jealousy.

An objective referee (such as a Mom or a computer) is essential to the plan. The potential cake eaters first tell the referee which parts of the delicacy they value most. In mathematical terms these are called someone’s probability density functions, or pdfs. The referee then marks out the cake at all points were the pdfs of the disgruntled would-be cake eaters cross, and assigns portions. If at this point the two parties receive the same size of cake, the task is over. If not, the giveback process starts.

The party who received the larger part of the cake during the first round must give a part of it back to the other person, starting with those parts in which the ratio of their pdfs is the smallest. This goes on until the parties value their portions equally, and have the same volume of cake to eat. This method only works with a finite number of cuts if the players’ pdfs are straight-lined, or are so-called piecewise linear sections.

The researchers believe the method can be used to share cake and other divisible goods such as land. In the case of beachfront property being co-owned by two developers, for example, it can help to determine who gets what strips of land to build on based on the pieces of land they value most.

“This allocation is not only equitable but also envy-free and efficient – that is, perfect,” says Barbanel.

“This approach focuses on proving the existence of efficient and envy-free divisions, not on providing algorithms to finding them,” emphasizes Brams.

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

Two-Person Cake Cutting: The Optimal Number of Cuts by Julius B. Barbanel and Steven J. Brams. The Mathematical Intelligencer March 2014 DOI 10.1007/s00283-013-9442.

This paper is behind a paywall although there is a free preview available and a special summer discount (30%) on the purchase price until July 31, 2014.

Dental implants with a surface that affects genetic cellular expression

Intra-Lock International is trumpeting in triumph in the wake  of a study noting their OSSEAN-surfaced dental implants promote better bone-healing than an alternative used for comparison. From the June 10, 2014 news item on Azonano,

As reported in the internationally renowned scientific journal, Bone [in press for Aug. 2014], a research team from New York University [NYU] has confirmed what scientific developers at Intra-Lock® International, Inc. have known for several years: the fractal, nano-rough OSSEAN® surface developed for their dental implants actually changes the cellular genetic expression – or the fate of stem cells – at the nano-level, which in turn induces faster healing of implants.

A June 9, 2014 Intra-Lock news release, which originated the new item, describes what usually occurs when an implant is first situated in the tissue (cellular confusion) and how the OSSEAN surface affects the ‘confusion’,

Typically, when an implant is surgically placed, there is a period of cellular “confusion” and chaos around the implant, and usually a little bone resorbs before being formed again. The implant is then at risk from the moment it is inserted through the time when the bone is healed around it – a time period Giorno [Thierry M. Giorno, DDS, director of research and development, and CEO of Intra-Lock®, International] refers to as “the window of negative opportunity.”

However, the NYU researchers found that bone cells immediately start clustering around the OSSEAN implants and begin accelerated healing, with little confusion whatsoever.

This occurs primarily due to the biomimetic structure of the OSSEAN surface, designed and classified as nanorough and fractalii. Mimicking nature at the nano-level, the OSSEAN surface repeats a similar structural pattern to that of natural bone over and over, essentially “tricking” the body into accepting the implant as a natural substance and igniting the healing process far sooner than would occur with an artificial substance, which is smooth at the nano-level and without natural-seeming pattern repetition.

Typically, with an implant of any sort, whether it’s a dental implant in your jaw or a titanium rod in your leg, several weeks will pass before the bone begins to grow around it. During this time lapse, known as the “catabolic phase,” there can be great risk and instability with the implant.

Naturally, compressing the healing time and accelerating the degree of osseointegration – the merging of implant and bone – are highly desirable outcomes, and implants with an OSSEAN can provide a faster healing process, which thereby reduces patient discomfort and provides a higher potential for successful long-term results with the implant.

“If you’ve ever had dental implants, you can appreciate the outcomes the OSSEAN surface provides,” said Giorno. “The healing process has changed forever, and future patients with an OSSEAN surface implant can look forward to reduced complications, overall.”

Looking further into the future, Giorno said, “I believe the effects of OSSEAN can potentially revolutionize the implant industry beyond dentistry and into all types of orthopedics where patients must wait for their bodies to accept a foreign substance. With OSSEAN, the wait is over.”

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

Nanometer-scale features on micrometer-scale surface texturing: A bone histological, gene expression, and nanomechanical study by Paulo G. Coelho, Tadahiro Takayama, Daniel Yoo, Ryo Jimboemail, Sanjay Karunagaran, Nick Tovar, Malvin N. Janal, and Seiichi Yamano. Bone, Issue 65, Aug. 2014. Bone (2014) DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bone.2014.05.004 Published Online: May 07, 2014

This article is behind a paywall. You can find out more about Intra-Lock and OSSEAN here.

New York University/Caltech grant is part of the NSF’s Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (ODISSEI) program

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has an origami program,  Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (ODISSEI), which recently announced a $2M grant to New York University (NYU) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to create new nanomaterials according to an Aug. 6, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded New York University researchers and their colleagues at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) a $2 million grant to develop cutting-edge nanomaterials that hold promise for improving the manufacturing of advanced materials, biofuels, and other industrial products.

Under the grant, the scientists will develop biomimetic materials with revolutionary properties—these molecules will self-replicate, evolve, and adopt three-dimensional structures a billionth of a meter in size by combining DNA-guided self-assembly with the centuries-old art of origami folding.

The Aug. 5, 2013 NYU press release, which originated the news item,  provides details about the researchers and the project,

The four-year grant is part of the NSF’s Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (ODISSEI) program and includes NYU Chemistry Professors Nadrian Seeman and James Canary and NYU Physics Professor Paul Chaikin. They will team up with Caltech’s William A. Goddard, III and Si-ping Han.

Others involved in the project are molecular biologists John Rossi and Lisa Scherer of City of Hope Medical Center and mathematicians Joanna Ellis-Monaghan and Greta Pangborn of Saint Michael’s College in Vermont.

The work will build upon recent breakthroughs in the field of structural DNA nanotechnology, which Seeman founded more than three decades ago and is now pursued by laboratories across the globe. His creations allow him to arrange pieces and form specific molecules with precision—similar to the way a robotic automobile factory can be told what kind of car to make.

Previously, Seeman has created three-dimensional DNA structures, a scientific advance bridging the molecular world to the world where we live. To do this, he and his colleagues created DNA crystals by making synthetic sequences of DNA that have the ability to self-assemble into a series of 3D triangle-like motifs. The creation of the crystals was dependent on putting “sticky ends”—small cohesive sequences on each end of the motif—that attach to other molecules and place them in a set order and orientation. The make-up of these sticky ends allows the motifs to attach to each other in a programmed fashion.

Recently, the Seeman and Chaikin labs teamed up to develop artificial structures that can self-replicate, a process that has the potential to yield new types of materials. In the natural world, self-replication is ubiquitous in all living entities, but artificial self-replication had previously been elusive. Their work marked the first steps toward a general process for self-replication of a wide variety of arbitrarily designed “seeds”. The seeds are made from DNA tile motifs that serve as letters arranged to spell out a particular word. The replication process preserves the letter sequence and the shape of the seed and hence the information required to produce further generations. Self-replication enables the evolution of molecules to optimize particular properties via selection processes.

Under the NSF grant, the researchers will aim to take these innovations to the next level: the creation of self-replicating 3D arrays. To do so, the collaborators will aim to fold replicating 1D and 2D arrays into 3D shapes in a manner similar to paper origami—a complex and delicate process.

In meeting this challenge, they will adopt tools from graph theory and origami mathematics to develop algorithms to direct self-assembling DNA nanostructures and their origami folds. The mathematical component of the endeavor will be supplemented by the artistic expertise of Portland, Ore.-based sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae, who will advise the team on issues related to design and will use his skills to develop life-size physical models of the nanoscopic structures the scientists are seeking to build. [emphasis mine]

I wasn’t expecting to see a sculptor included in the team and I wonder if there might be plans to use his sculptures not only as models but also in exhibitions and art shows to fulfill any science outreach requirements that the NSF might have for its grantees.

I did a little further digging into the NSF’s ‘origami’ program and found this webpage explaining that ‘origami’ is part of a still larger program,

The Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) office awarded 15 grants in FY 2012, including the following 8 on the topic of Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (ODISSEI): …

As there wasn’t any information about grants for FY 2013, I gather they haven’t had time to update the page or add any recent news releases to the website.