Category Archives: writing

Beer and wine reviews, the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) AI editors, and the Turing Test

The Turing test first known as the ‘Imitation Game’, was designed by scientist Alan Turing in 1950 to see if a machine’s behaviour (in this case, a ‘conversation’) could fool someone into believing it was human. It’s a basic test to help determine true artificial intelligence.

These days ‘artificial intelligence’ seems to be everywhere, although I’m not sure that all these algorithms would pass the Turing test. Some of the latest material I’ve seen suggests that writers and editors may have to rethink their roles in future. Let’s start with the beer and wine reviews.

Writing

An April 25, 2022 Dartmouth College news release by David Hirsch announces the AI reviewer, Note: Links have been removed,

In mid-2020, the computer science team of Keith Carlson, Allen Riddell and Dan Rockmore was stuck on a problem. It wasn’t a technical challenge. The computer code they had developed to write product reviews was working beautifully. But they were struggling with a practical question.

“Getting the code to write reviews was only the first part of the challenge,” says Carlson, Guarini ’21, a doctoral research fellow at the Tuck School of Business, “The remaining challenge was figuring out how and where it could be used.”

The original study took on two challenges: to design code that could write original, human-quality product reviews using a small set of product features and to see if the algorithm could be adapted to write “synthesis reviews” for products from a large number of existing reviews.

Review writing can be challenging because of the overwhelming number of products available. The team wanted to see if artificial intelligence was up to the task of writing opinionated text about vast product classes.

They focused on wine and beer reviews because of the extensive availability of material to train the algorithm. The relatively narrow vocabularies used to describe the products also makes it open to the techniques of AI systems and natural language processing tools.

The project was kickstarted by Riddell, a former fellow at the Neukom Institute for Computational Science, and developed with Carlson under the guidance of Rockmore, the William H. Neukom 1964 Distinguished Professor of Computational Science.

The code couldn’t taste the products, but it did ingest reams of written material. After training the algorithm on hundreds of thousands of published wine and beer reviews, the team found that the code could complete both tasks.

One result read: “This is a sound Cabernet. It’s very dry and a little thin in blackberry fruit, which accentuates the acidity and tannins. Drink up.”

Another read: “Pretty dark for a rosé, and full-bodied, with cherry, raspberry, vanilla and spice flavors. It’s dry with good acidity.”

“But now what?” Carlson explains as a question that often gnaws at scientists. The team wondered, “Who else would care?”

“I didn’t want to quit there,” says Rockmore. “I was sure that this work could be interesting to a wider audience.”

Sensing that the paper could have relevance in marketing, the team walked the study to Tuck Drive to see what others would think.

“Brilliant,” Praveen Kopalle, the Signal Companies’ Professor of Management at Tuck School of Business, recalls thinking when first reviewing the technical study.

Kopalle knew that the research was important. It could even “disrupt” the online review industry, a huge marketplace of goods and services.

“The paper has a lot of marketing applications, particularly in the context of online reviews where we can create reviews or descriptions of products when they may not already exist,” adds Kopalle. “In fact, we can even think about summarizing reviews for products and services as well.”

With the addition of Prasad Vana, assistant professor of business administration at Tuck, the team was complete. Vana reframed the technical feat of creating review-writing code into that of a market-friendly tool that can assist consumers, marketers, and professional reviewers.

“This is a sound Cabernet. It’s very dry and a little thin in blackberry fruit, which accentuates the acidity and tannins. Drink up.” Attribution: Artificial Intelligence review from Dartmouth project

The resulting research, published in International Journal of Research in Marketing, surveyed independent participants to confirm that the AI system wrote human-like reviews in both challenges.

“Using artificial intelligence to write and synthesize reviews can create efficiencies on both sides of the marketplace,” said Vana. “The hope is that AI can benefit reviewers facing larger writing workloads and consumers who have to sort through so much content about products.”

The paper also dwells on the ethical concerns raised by computer-generated content. It notes that marketers could get better acceptance by falsely attributing the reviews to humans. To address this, the team advocates for transparency when computer-generated text is used.

They also address the issue of computers taking human jobs. Code should not replace professional product reviewers, the team insists in the paper. The technology is meant to make the tasks of producing and reading the material more efficient. [emphasis mine]

“It’s interesting to imagine how this could benefit restaurants that cannot afford sommeliers or independent sellers on online platforms who may sell hundreds of products,” says Vana.

According to Carlson, the paper’s first author, the project demonstrates the potential of AI, the power of innovative thinking, and the promise of cross-campus collaboration.

“It was wonderful to work with colleagues with different expertise to take a theoretical idea and bring it closer to the marketplace,” says Carlson. “Together we showed how our work could change marketing and how people could use it. That could only happen with collaboration.”

A revised April 29, 2022 version was published on EurekAlert and some of the differences are interesting (to me, if no one else). As you see, there’s a less ‘friendly’ style and the ‘jobs’ issue has been approached differently. Note: Links have been removed,

Artificial intelligence systems can be trained to write human-like product reviews that assist consumers, marketers and professional reviewers, according to a study from Dartmouth College, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, and Indiana University.

The research, published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, also identifies ethical challenges raised by the use of the computer-generated content.

“Review writing is challenging for humans and computers, in part, because of the overwhelming number of distinct products,” said Keith Carlson, a doctoral research fellow at the Tuck School of Business. “We wanted to see how artificial intelligence can be used to help people that produce and use these reviews.”

For the research, the Dartmouth team set two challenges. The first was to determine whether a machine can be taught to write original, human-quality reviews using only a small number of product features after being trained on a set of existing content. Secondly, the team set out to see if machine learning algorithms can be used to write syntheses of reviews of products for which many reviews already exist.

“Using artificial intelligence to write and synthesize reviews can create efficiencies on both sides of the marketplace,” said Prasad Vana, assistant professor of business administration at Tuck School of Business. “The hope is that AI can benefit reviewers facing larger writing workloads and consumers that have to sort through so much content about products.”

The researchers focused on wine and beer reviews because of the extensive availability of material to train the computer algorithms. Write-ups of these products also feature relatively focused vocabularies, an advantage when working with AI systems.

To determine whether a machine could write useful reviews from scratch, the researchers trained an algorithm on about 180,000 existing wine reviews. Metadata tags for factors such as product origin, grape variety, rating, and price were also used to train the machine-learning system.

When comparing the machine-generated reviews against human reviews for the same wines, the research team found agreement between the two versions. The results remained consistent even as the team challenged the algorithms by changing the amount of input data that was available for reference.

The machine-written material was then assessed by non-expert study participants to test if they could determine whether the reviews were written by humans or a machine. According to the research paper, the participants were unable to distinguish between the human and AI-generated reviews with any statistical significance. Furthermore, their intent to purchase a wine was similar across human versus machine generated reviews of the wine. 

Having found that artificial intelligence can write credible wine reviews, the research team turned to beer reviews to determine the effectiveness of using AI to write “review syntheses.” Rather than being trained to write new reviews, the algorithm was tasked with aggregating elements from existing reviews of the same product. This tested AI’s ability to identify and provide limited but relevant information about products based on a large volume of varying opinions.

“Writing an original review tests the computer’s expressive ability based on a relatively narrow set of data. Writing a synthesis review is a related but distinct task where the system is expected to produce a review that captures some of the key ideas present in an existing set of reviews for a product,” said Carlson, who conducted the research while a PhD candidate in computer science at Dartmouth.

To test the algorithm’s ability to write review syntheses, researchers trained it on 143,000 existing reviews of over 14,000 beers. As with the wine dataset, the text of each review was paired with metadata including the product name, alcohol content, style, and scores given by the original reviewers.

As with the wine reviews, the research used independent study participants to judge whether the machine-written summaries captured and summarized the opinions of numerous reviews in a useful, human-like manner.

According to the paper, the model was successful at taking the reviews of a product as input and generating a synthesis review for that product as output.

“Our modeling framework could be useful in any situation where detailed attributes of a product are available and a written summary of the product is required,” said Vana. “It’s interesting to imagine how this could benefit restaurants that cannot afford sommeliers or independent sellers on online platforms who may sell hundreds of products.”

Both challenges used a deep learning neural net based on transformer architecture to ingest, process and output review language.

According to the research team, the computer systems are not intended to replace professional writers and marketers, but rather to assist them in their work. A machine-written review, for instance, could serve as a time-saving first draft of a review that a human reviewer could then revise. [emphasis mine]

The research can also help consumers. Syntheses reviews—like those on beer in the study—can be expanded to the constellation of products and services in online marketplaces to assist people who have limited time to read through many product reviews.

In addition to the benefits of machine-written reviews, the research team highlights some of the ethical challenges presented by using computer algorithms to influence human consumer behavior.

Noting that marketers could get better acceptance of machine-generated reviews by falsely attributing them to humans, the team advocates for transparency when computer-generated reviews are offered.

“As with other technology, we have to be cautious about how this advancement is used,” said Carlson. “If used responsibly, AI-generated reviews can be both a productivity tool and can support the availability of useful consumer information.”

Researchers contributing to the study include Praveen Kopalle, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business; Allen Riddell, Indiana University, and Daniel Rockmore, Dartmouth College.

I wonder if the second news release was written by an AI agent.

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

Complementing human effort in online reviews: A deep learning approach to automatic content generation and review synthesis by Keith Carlson, Praveen K.Kopal, Allen Ridd, Daniel Rockmore, Prasad Vana. International Journal of Research in Marketing DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijresmar.2022.02.004 Available online 12 February 2022 In Press, Corrected Proof

This paper is behind a paywall.

Daniel (Dan) Rockmore was mentioned here in a May 6, 2016 posting about a competition he’d set up through Dartmouth College,’s Neukom Institute. The competition, which doesn’t seem to have been run since 2018, was called Turing Tests in Creative Arts.

Editing

It seems the American Chemical Society (ACS) has decided to further automate some of its editing. From an April 28, 2022 Digital Science business announcement (also on EurekAlert) by David Ellis,

Writefull’s world-leading AI-based language services have been integrated into the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Publications workflow.

In a partnership that began almost two years ago, ACS has now progressed to a full integration of Writefull’s application programming interfaces (APIs) for three key uses.

One of the world’s largest scientific societies, ACS publishes more than 300,000 research manuscripts in more than 60 scholarly journals per year.

Writefull’s proprietary AI technology is trained on millions of scientific papers using Deep Learning. It identifies potential language issues with written texts, offers solutions to those issues, and automatically assesses texts’ language quality. Thanks to Writefull’s APIs, its tech can be applied at all key points in the editorial workflows.

Writefull’s Manuscript Categorization API is now used by ACS before copyediting to automatically classify all accepted manuscripts by their language quality. Using ACS’s own classification criteria, the API assigns a level-of-edit grade to manuscripts at scale without editors having to open documents and review the text. After thorough benchmarking alongside human editors, Writefull reached more than 95% alignment in grading texts, significantly reducing the time ACS spends on manuscript evaluation.

The same Manuscript Categorization API is now part of ACS’s quality control program, to evaluate the language in manuscripts after copyediting.

Writefull’s Metadata API is also being used to automate aspects of manuscript review, ensuring that all elements of an article are complete prior to publication. The same API is used by Open Access publisher Hindawi as a pre-submission structural checks tool for authors.

Juan Castro, co-founder and CEO of Writefull, says: “Our partnership with the American Chemical Society over the past two years has been aimed at thoroughly vetting and shaping our services to meet ACS’s needs. Writefull’s AI-based language services empower publishers to increase their workflow efficiency and positively impact production costs, while also maintaining the quality and integrity of the manuscript.”

Digital Science is a technology company working to make research more efficient. We invest in, nurture and support innovative businesses and technologies that make all parts of the research process more open and effective. Our portfolio includes admired brands including Altmetric, Dimensions, Figshare, ReadCube, Symplectic, IFI CLAIMS, GRID, Overleaf, Ripeta and Writefull. We believe that together, we can help researchers make a difference. Visit www.digital-science.com and follow @digitalsci on Twitter.

Writefull is a technology startup that creates tools to help researchers improve their writing in English. The first version of the Writefull product allowed researchers to discover patterns in academic language, such as frequent word combinations and synonyms in context. The new version utilises Natural Language Processing and Deep Learning algorithms that will give researchers feedback on their full texts. Visit writefull.com and follow @writefullapp on Twitter.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS’ mission is to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and all its people. The Society is a global leader in promoting excellence in science education and providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple research solutions, peer-reviewed journals, scientific conferences, eBooks and weekly news periodical Chemical & Engineering News. ACS journals are among the most cited, most trusted and most read within the scientific literature; however, ACS itself does not conduct chemical research. As a leader in scientific information solutions, its CAS division partners with global innovators to accelerate breakthroughs by curating, connecting and analyzing the world’s scientific knowledge. ACS’ main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. Visit www.acs.org and follow @AmerChemSociety on Twitter.

So what?

An artificial intelligence (AI) agent being used for writing assignments is not new (see my July 16, 2014 posting titled, “Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?“). The argument that these agents will assist rather than replace (pick an occupation: e.g., writers, doctors, programmers, scientists, etc) is almost always used as scientists explain that AI agents will take over the boring work giving you (the human) more opportunities to do interesting work. The AI-written beer and wine reviews described here support at least part of the argument—for the time being.

It’s true that an AI agent can’t taste beer or wine but that can change as this August 8, 2019 article by Alice Johnston for CNN hints (Note: Links have been removed),

An artificial “tongue” that can taste minute differences between varieties of Scotch whisky could be the key to identifying counterfeit alcohol, scientists say.

Engineers from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde in Scotland created a device made of gold and aluminum and measured how it absorbed light when submerged in different kinds of whisky.

Analysis of the results allowed the scientists to identify the samples from Glenfiddich, Glen Marnoch and Laphroaig with more than 99% accuracy

BTW, my earliest piece on artificial tongues is a July 28, 2011 posting, “Bio-inspired electronic tongue replaces sommelier?,” about research in Spain.

For a contrast, this is the first time I can recall seeing anything about an artificial intelligence agent that edits and Writefall’s use at the ACS falls into the ‘doing all the boring work’ category and narrative quite neatly.

Having looked at a definition of the various forms of editing and core skills, I”m guessing that AI will take over every aspect (from the Editors’ Association of Canada, Definitions of Editorial Skills webpage),

CORE SKILLS

Structural Editing

Assessing and shaping draft material to improve its organization and content. Changes may be suggested to or drafted for the writer. Structural editing may include:

revising, reordering, cutting, or expanding material

writing original material

determining whether permissions are necessary for third-party material

recasting material that would be better presented in another form, or revising material for a different medium (such as revising print copy for web copy)

clarifying plot, characterization, or thematic elements

Also known as substantive editing, manuscript editing, content editing, or developmental editing.

Stylistic Editing

Editing to clarify meaning, ensure coherence and flow, and refine the language. It includes:

eliminating jargon, clichés, and euphemisms

establishing or maintaining the language level appropriate for the intended audience, medium, and purpose

adjusting the length and structure of sentences and paragraphs

establishing or maintaining tone, mood, style, and authorial voice or level of formality

Also known as line editing (which may also include copy editing).

Copy Editing

Editing to ensure correctness, accuracy, consistency, and completeness. It includes:

editing for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage

checking for consistency and continuity of mechanics and facts, including anachronisms, character names, and relationships

editing tables, figures, and lists

notifying designers of any unusual production requirements

developing a style sheet or following one that is provided

correcting or querying general information that should be checked for accuracy 

It may also include:

marking levels of headings and the approximate placement of art

Canadianizing or other localizing

converting measurements

providing or changing the system of citations

editing indexes

obtaining or listing permissions needed

checking front matter, back matter, and cover copy

checking web links

Note that “copy editing” is often loosely used to include stylistic editing, structural editing, fact checking, or proofreading. Editors Canada uses it only as defined above.

Proofreading

Examining material after layout or in its final format to correct errors in textual and visual elements. The material may be read in isolation or against a previous version. It includes checking for:

adherence to design

minor mechanical errors (such as spelling mistakes or deviations from style sheet)

consistency and accuracy of elements in the material (such as cross-references, running heads, captions, web page heading tags, hyperlinks, and metadata)

It may also include:

distinguishing between printer’s, designer’s, or programmer’s errors and writer’s or editor’s alterations

copyfitting

flagging or checking locations of art

inserting page numbers or checking them against content and page references

Note that proofreading is checking a work after editing; it is not a substitute for editing.

I’m just as happy to get rid of ‘boring’ parts of my work as anyone else but that’s how I learned in the first place and I haven’t seen any discussion about the importance of boring, repetitive tasks for learning.

East/West collaboration on scholarship and imagination about humanity’s long-term future— six new fellows at Berggruen Research Center at Peking University

According to a January 4, 2022 Berggruen Institute (also received via email), they have appointed a new crop of fellows for their research center at Peking University,

The Berggruen Institute has announced six scientists and philosophers to serve as Fellows at the Berggruen Research Center at Peking University in Beijing, China. These eminent scholars will work together across disciplines to explore how the great transformations of our time may shift human experience and self-understanding in the decades and centuries to come.

The new Fellows are Chenjian Li, University Chair Professor at Peking University; Xianglong Zhang, professor of philosophy at Peking University; Xiaoli Liu, professor of philosophy at Renmin University of China; Jianqiao Ge, lecturer at the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (AAIS) at Peking University; Xiaoping Chen, Director of the Robotics Laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China; and Haidan Chen, associate professor of medical ethics and law at the School of Health Humanities at Peking University.

“Amid the pandemic, climate change, and the rest of the severe challenges of today, our Fellows are surmounting linguistic and cultural barriers to imagine positive futures for all people,” said Bing Song, Director of the China Center and Vice President of the Berggruen Institute. “Dialogue and shared understanding are crucial if we are to understand what today’s breakthroughs in science and technology really mean for the human community and the planet we all share.”

The Fellows will investigate deep questions raised by new understandings and capabilities in science and technology, exploring their implications for philosophy and other areas of study.  Chenjian Li is considering the philosophical and ethical considerations of gene editing technology. Meanwhile, Haidan Chen is exploring the social implications of brain/computer interface technologies in China, while Xiaoli Liu is studying philosophical issues arising from the intersections among psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and art.

Jianqiao Ge’s project considers the impact of artificial intelligence on the human brain, given the relative recency of its evolution into current form. Xianglong Zhang’s work explores the interplay between literary culture and the development of technology. Finally, Xiaoping Chen is developing a new concept for describing innovation that draws from Daoist, Confucianist, and ancient Greek philosophical traditions.

Fellows at the China Center meet monthly with the Institute’s Los Angeles-based Fellows. These fora provide an opportunity for all Fellows to share and discuss their work. Through this cross-cultural dialogue, the Institute is helping to ensure continued high-level of ideas among China, the United States, and the rest of the world about some of the deepest and most fundamental questions humanity faces today.

“Changes in our capability and understanding of the physical world affect all of humanity, and questions about their implications must be pondered at a cross-cultural level,” said Bing. “Through multidisciplinary dialogue that crosses the gulf between East and West, our Fellows are pioneering new thought about what it means to be human.”

Haidan Chen is associate professor of medical ethics and law at the School of Health Humanities at Peking University. She was a visiting postgraduate researcher at the Institute for the Study of Science Technology and Innovation (ISSTI), the University of Edinburgh; a visiting scholar at the Brocher Foundation, Switzerland; and a Fulbright visiting scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University. Her research interests embrace the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of genetics and genomics, and the governance of emerging technologies, in particular stem cells, biobanks, precision medicine, and brain science. Her publications appear at Social Science & MedicineBioethics and other journals.

Xiaoping Chen is the director of the Robotics Laboratory at University of Science and Technology of China. He also currently serves as the director of the Robot Technical Standard Innovation Base, an executive member of the Global AI Council, Chair of the Chinese RoboCup Committee, and a member of the International RoboCup Federation’s Board of Trustees. He has received the USTC’s Distinguished Research Presidential Award and won Best Paper at IEEE ROBIO 2016. His projects have won the IJCAI’s Best Autonomous Robot and Best General-Purpose Robot awards as well as twelve world champions at RoboCup. He proposed an intelligent technology pathway for robots based on Open Knowledge and the Rong-Cha principle, which have been implemented and tested in the long-term research on KeJia and JiaJia intelligent robot systems.

Jianqiao Ge is a lecturer at the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (AAIS) at Peking University. Before, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and the Principal Investigator / Co-Investigator of more than 10 research grants supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and Beijing Municipal Science & Technology Commission. She has published more than 20 peer-reviewed articles on leading academic journals such as PNAS, the Journal of Neuroscience, and has been awarded two national patents. In 2008, by scanning the human brain with functional MRI, Ge and her collaborator were among the first to confirm that the human brain engages distinct neurocognitive strategies to comprehend human intelligence and artificial intelligence. Ge received her Ph.D. in psychology, B.S in physics, a double B.S in mathematics and applied mathematics, and a double B.S in economics from Peking University.

Chenjian Li is the University Chair Professor of Peking University. He also serves on the China Advisory Board of Eli Lilly and Company, the China Advisory Board of Cornell University, and the Rhodes Scholar Selection Committee. He is an alumnus of Peking University’s Biology Department, Peking Union Medical College, and Purdue University. He was the former Vice Provost of Peking University, Executive Dean of Yuanpei College, and Associate Dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University. Prior to his return to China, he was an associate professor at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and the Aidekman Endowed Chair of Neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Li’s academic research focuses on the molecular and cellular mechanisms of neurological diseases, cancer drug development, and gene-editing and its philosophical and ethical considerations. Li also writes as a public intellectual on science and humanity, and his Chinese translation of Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? received the 2001 National Publisher’s Book Award.

Xiaoli Liu is professor of philosophy at Renmin University. She is also Director of the Chinese Society of Philosophy of Science Leader. Her primary research interests are philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science and philosophy of cognitive science. Her main works are “Life of Reason: A Study of Gödel’s Thought,” “Challenges of Cognitive Science to Contemporary Philosophy,” “Philosophical Issues in the Frontiers of Cognitive Science.” She edited “Symphony of Mind and Machine” and series of books “Mind and Cognition.” In 2003, she co-founded the “Mind and Machine workshop” with interdisciplinary scholars, which has held 18 consecutive annual meetings. Liu received her Ph.D. from Peking University and was a senior visiting scholar in Harvard University.

Xianglong Zhang is a professor of philosophy at Peking University. His research areas include Confucian philosophy, phenomenology, Western and Eastern comparative philosophy. His major works (in Chinese except where noted) include: Heidegger’s Thought and Chinese Tao of HeavenBiography of HeideggerFrom Phenomenology to ConfuciusThe Exposition and Comments of Contemporary Western Philosophy; The Exposition and Comments of Classic Western PhilosophyThinking to Take Refuge: The Chinese Ancient Philosophies in the GlobalizationLectures on the History of Confucian Philosophy (four volumes); German Philosophy, German Culture and Chinese Philosophical ThinkingHome and Filial Piety: From the View between the Chinese and the Western.

About the Berggruen China Center
Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and life science have led to the fourth scientific and technological revolution. The Berggruen China Center is a hub for East-West research and dialogue dedicated to the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary study of the transformations affecting humanity. Intellectual themes for research programs are focused on frontier sciences, technologies, and philosophy, as well as issues involving digital governance and globalization.

About the Berggruen Institute:
The Berggruen Institute’s mission is to develop foundational ideas and shape political, economic, and social institutions for the 21st century. Providing critical analysis using an outwardly expansive and purposeful network, we bring together some of the best minds and most authoritative voices from across cultural and political boundaries to explore fundamental questions of our time. Our objective is enduring impact on the progress and direction of societies around the world. To date, projects inaugurated at the Berggruen Institute have helped develop a youth jobs plan for Europe, fostered a more open and constructive dialogue between Chinese leadership and the West, strengthened the ballot initiative process in California, and launched Noema, a new publication that brings thought leaders from around the world together to share ideas. In addition, the Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award, is conferred annually by an independent jury to a thinker whose ideas are shaping human self-understanding to advance humankind.

You can find out more about the Berggruen China Center here and you can access a list along with biographies of all the Berggruen Institute fellows here.

Getting ready

I look forward to hearing about the projects from these thinkers.

Gene editing and ethics

I may have to reread some books in anticipation of Chenjian Li’s philosophical work and ethical considerations of gene editing technology. I wonder if there’ll be any reference to the He Jiankui affair.

(Briefly for those who may not be familiar with the situation, He claimed to be the first to gene edit babies. In November 2018, news about the twins, Lulu and Nana, was a sensation and He was roundly criticized for his work. I have not seen any information about how many babies were gene edited for He’s research; there could be as many as six. My July 28, 2020 posting provided an update. I haven’t stumbled across anything substantive since then.)

There are two books I recommend should you be interested in gene editing, as told through the lens of the He Jiankui affair. If you can, read both as that will give you a more complete picture.

In no particular order: This book provides an extensive and accessible look at the science, the politics of scientific research, and some of the pressures on scientists of all countries. Kevin Davies’ 2020 book, “Editing Humanity; the CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing” provides an excellent introduction from an insider. Here’s more from Davies’ biographical sketch,

Kevin Davies is the executive editor of The CRISPR Journal and the founding editor of Nature Genetics . He holds an MA in biochemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD in molecular genetics from the University of London. He is the author of Cracking the Genome, The $1,000 Genome, and co-authored a new edition of DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution with Nobel Laureate James D. Watson and Andrew Berry. …

The other book is “The Mutant Project; Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans” (2020) by Eben Kirksey, an anthropologist who has an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences. He too provides scientific underpinning but his focus is on the cultural and personal underpinnings of the He Jiankui affair, on the culture of science research, irrespective of where it’s practiced, and the culture associated with the DIY (do-it-yourself) Biology community. Here’s more from Kirksey’s biographical sketch,

EBEN KIRKSEY is an American anthropologist and Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He has been published in Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The Sunday Times . He is sought out as an expert on science in society by the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Democracy Now, Time and the BBC, among other media outlets. He speaks widely at the world’s leading academic institutions including Oxford, Yale, Columbia, UCLA, and the International Summit of Human Genome Editing, plus music festivals, art exhibits, and community events. Professor Kirksey holds a long-term position at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Brain/computer interfaces (BCI)

I’m happy to see that Haidan Chen will be exploring the social implications of brain/computer interface technologies in China. I haven’t seen much being done here in Canada but my December 23, 2021 posting, Your cyborg future (brain-computer interface) is closer than you think, highlights work being done at the Imperial College London (ICL),

“For some of these patients, these devices become such an integrated part of themselves that they refuse to have them removed at the end of the clinical trial,” said Rylie Green, one of the authors. “It has become increasingly evident that neurotechnologies have the potential to profoundly shape our own human experience and sense of self.”

You might also find my September 17, 2020 posting has some useful information. Check under the “Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues” subhead for another story about attachment to one’s brain implant and also the “Finally” subhead for more reading suggestions.

Artificial intelligence (AI), art, and the brain

I’ve lumped together three of the thinkers, Xiaoli Liu, Jianqiao Ge and Xianglong Zhang, as there is some overlap (in my mind, if nowhere else),

  • Liu’s work on philosophical issues as seen in the intersections of psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and art
  • Ge’s work on the evolution of the brain and the impact that artificial intelligence may have on it
  • Zhang’s work on the relationship between literary culture and the development of technology

A December 3, 2021 posting, True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read), is both a review of a recent episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) science television series,The Nature of Things, and a dive into a number of issues as can be seen under subheads such as “AI and Creativity,” “Kazuo Ishiguro?” and “Evolution.”

You may also want to check out my December 27, 2021 posting, Ai-Da (robot artist) writes and performs poem honouring Dante’s 700th anniversary, for an eye opening experience. If nothing else, just watch the embedded video.

This suggestion relates most closely to Ge’s and Zhang’s work. If you haven’t already come across it, there’s Walter J. Ong’s 1982 book, “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.” From the introductory page of the 2002 edition (PDF),

This classic work explores the vast differences between oral and
literate cultures and offers a brilliantly lucid account of the
intellectual, literary and social effects of writing, print and
electronic technology. In the course of his study, Walter J.Ong
offers fascinating insights into oral genres across the globe and
through time and examines the rise of abstract philosophical and
scientific thinking. He considers the impact of orality-literacy
studies not only on literary criticism and theory but on our very
understanding of what it is to be a human being, conscious of self
and other.

In 2013, a 30th anniversary edition of the book was released and is still in print.

Philosophical traditions

I’m very excited to learn more about Xiaoping Chen’s work describing innovation that draws from Daoist, Confucianist, and ancient Greek philosophical traditions.

Should any of my readers have suggestions for introductory readings on these philosophical traditions, please do use the Comments option for this blog. In fact, if you have suggestions for other readings on these topics, I would be very happy to learn of them.

Congratulations to the six Fellows at the Berggruen Research Center at Peking University in Beijing, China. I look forward to reading articles about your work in the Berggruen Institute’s Noema magazine and, possibly, attending your online events.

Science and stories: an online talk January 5, 2022 and a course starting on January 10, 2022

So far this year all I’ve been posting about are events and contests. Continuing on that theme, I have an event and, something new, a course.

Massey Dialogues on January 5, 2022, 1 – 2 pm PST

“The Art of Science-Telling: How Science Education Can Shape Society” is scheduled for today (Wednesday, January 5, 5022 at 1 pm PST or 4 pm EST), You can find the livestream here on YouTube,

Massey College

Join us for the first Massey Dialogues of 2022 from 4:00-5:00pm ET on the Art of Science-Telling: How Science Education Can Shape Society.

Farah Qaiser (Evidence for Democracy), Dr. Bonnie Schmidt (Let’s Talk Science) and Carolyn Tuohy (Senior Fellow) will discuss what nonprofits can do for science education and policy, moderated by Junior Fellow Keshna Sood.

The Dialogues are open to the public – we invite everyone to join and take part in what will be a very informative online discussion. Participants are invited to submit questions to the speakers in real time via the Chat function to the right of the screen.

——-

To ensure you never miss a Massey Event, subscribe to our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/masseyco…

We also invite you to visit masseycollege.ca/calendar for upcoming events.

Follow us on social media:

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You can find out more about the Massey Dialogues here. As for the college, it’s affiliated with the University of Toronto as per the information on the College’s Governance webpage.

Simon Fraser University (SFU; Vancouver, Canada) and a science communication course

I stumbled across “Telling Science Stories” being offered for SFU’s Spring 2022 semester in my twitter feed. Apparently there’s still space for students in the course.

I was a little surprised by how hard it was to find basic information such as: when does the course start? Yes, I found that and more, here’s what I managed to dig up,

From the PUB 480/877 Telling Science Stories course description webpage,

In this hands-on course, students will learn the value of sharing research knowledge beyond the university walls, along with the skills necessary to become effective science storytellers.

Climate change, vaccines, artificial intelligence, genetic editing — these are just a few examples of the essential role scientific evidence can play in society. But connecting science and society is no simple task: it requires key publishing and communication skills, as well as an understanding of the values, goals, and needs of the publics who stand to benefit from this knowledge.

This course will provide students with core skills and knowledge needed to share compelling science stories with diverse audiences, in a variety of formats. Whether it’s through writing books, podcasting, or creating science art, students will learn why we communicate science, develop an understanding of the core principles of effective audience engagement, and gain skills in publishing professional science content for print, radio, and online formats. The instructor is herself a science writer and communicator; in addition, students will have the opportunity to learn from a wide range of guest lecturers, including authors, artists, podcasters, and more. While priority will be given to students enrolled in the Publishing Minor, this course is open to all students who are interested in the evolving relationship between science and society.

I’m not sure if an outsider (someone who’s not a member of the SFU student body) can attend but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

The course is being given by Alice Fleerackers, here’s more from her profile page on the ScholCommLab (Scholarly Communications Laboratory) website,

Alice Fleerackers is a researcher and lab manager at the ScholCommLab and a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University’s Interdisciplinary Studies program, where she works under the supervision of Dr. Juan Pablo Alperin to explore how health science is communicated online. Her doctoral research is supported by a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from SSHRC and a Michael Stevenson Graduate Scholarship from SFU.

In addition, Alice volunteers with a number of non-profit organizations in an effort to foster greater public understanding and engagement with science. She is a Research Officer at Art the Science, Academic Liaison of Science Borealis, Board Member of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC), and a member of the Scientific Committee for the Public Communication of Science and Technology Network (PCST). She is also a freelance health and science writer whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post, and Nautilus, among other outlets. Find her on Twitter at @FleerackersA.

Logistics such as when and where the course is being held (from the course outline webpage),

Telling Science Stories

Class Number: 4706

Delivery Method: In Person

Course Times + Location: Tu, Th 10:30 AM – 12:20 PM
HCC 2540, Vancouver

Instructor: Alice Fleerackers
afleerac@sfu.ca

According to the Spring 2022 Calendar Academic Dates webpage, the course starts on Monday, January 10, 2021 and I believe the room number (HCC2540) means the course will be held at SFU’s downtown Vancouver site at Harbour Centre, 515 West Hastings Street.

Given that SFU claims to be “Canada’s leading engaged university,” they do a remarkably poor job of actually engaging with anyone who’s not member of the community, i.e., an outsider.

FrogHeart casts an eye back to 2021 then looks forward to 2022 and contronyms

Casting an eye back isn’t one of my strong points. Thankfully I can’t be forced into making a top 10 list of some kind. Should someone be deeply disappointed (tongue in cheek) that I failed to mention one of the big 2021 stories featured here, please leave a note in the Comments for this blog and I’ll do my best to add it.

Note: I very rarely feature space exploration unless there’s a nanotechnology or other emerging technology angle to it. There are a lot of people who do a much better job of covering space exploration than I can. (If you’re interested in an overview from a Canadian on the international race to space, you can start with this December 29, 2021 posting “Looking back at a booming year in space” by Bob McDonald of CBC’s [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] Quirks & Quarks science radio programme.)

Now, onto FrogHeart’s latest year.

2021

One of the standout stories in 2020/21 here and many, many places was the rise of the biotechnology community in British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada. Lipid nanoparticles used in COVID-19 vaccines became far better known than they ever had before and AbCellera took the business world by storm as its founder became a COVID billionaire.

Here is a sampling of the BC biotechnology/COVID-19 stories featured here,

  • “Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist” December 30, 2020 posting
  • “Why is Precision Nanosystems Inc. in the local (Vancouver, Canada) newspaper?” January 22, 2021 posting Note: The company is best known for its work on lipid nanoparticles
  • “mRNA, COVID-19 vaccines, treating genetic diseases before birth, and the scientist who started it all” March 5, 2021 posting Note: This posting also notes a Canadian connection in relation mRNA in the subsection titled “Entrepreneurs rush in”
  • “Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story” August 20, 2021 posting Note: This features a fascinating story from Nathan Vardi (for Forbes) of professional jealousies, competitiveness, and a failure to recognize opportunity when she comes visiting.
  • “Who’s running the life science companies’ public relations campaign in British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada)?” August 23, 2021 posting Note: This explores the biotech companies, the network, and provincial and federal funding, as well as, municipal (City of Vancouver) support and more.

Sadly, I did not have time to feature this September 14, 2021 article (The tangled history of mRNA vaccines; Hundreds of scientists had worked on mRNA vaccines for decades before the coronavirus pandemic brought a breakthrough.) by Elie Dolgin for Nature magazine.

Dolgin starts the story in 1987 and covers many players that were new to me although I did recognize some of the more recent and Canadian players such as Pieter Cullis and Ian MacLachlan. *ETA January 3 ,2021: Cullis and MacLachlan are both mentioned in my ‘Getting erased ..” August 20, 2021 posting.* Fun fact: Pieter Cullis was just named an Officer to the Order of Canada (from the Governor General’s December 29, 2021 news release),

Pieter Cullis, O.C.
Vancouver, British Columbia

For his contributions to the advancement of biomedical research and drug development, and for his mentorship of the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs.

Back to this roundup, I got interested in greener lithium mining, given its importance for batteries in electric vehicles and elsewhere,

2021 seems to have been the year when the science community started podcasting in a big way. Either the podcast was started this year or I stumbled across it this year (meaning it’s likely a podcast that is getting publicized because they had a good first year and they want more listeners for their second year),

  • “New podcast—Mission: Interplanetary and Event Rap: a one-stop custom rap shop Kickstarter” April 30, 2021 posting
  • “Superstar engineers and fantastic fiction writers podcast series” June 28, 2021 posting
  • “Periodically Political: a Canadian podcast from Elect STEM” August 16, 2021 posting
  • “Unlocking Science: a new podcast series launches on November 16, 2021” November 16, 2021 posting
  • “Lost Women of Science” December 2, 2021 posting
  • “Nerdin’ About and Science Diction: a couple of science podcasts” Note: Not posted but maybe one day. Meanwhile, here they are:
    • Nerdin’ About describes itself as, “… a podcast where passionate nerds tell us about their research, their interests, and what they’ve been Nerdin’ About lately. A spin-off of Nerd Nite Vancouver, a community lecture series held in a bar, Nerdin’ About is here to explore these questions with you. Hosted by rat researcher Kaylee Byers (she/her) and astronomy educator Michael Unger (he/him). Elise Lane (she/her) is our Mixing Engineer. Music by Jay Arner. Artwork by Armin Mortazavi.”
    • Science Diction is a podcast offshoot of Science Friday (SciFri), a US National Public Radio (NPR) programme. “… Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. Did you know the origin of the word meme has more to do with evolutionary biology than lolcats? Or that the element cobalt takes its name from a very cheeky goblin from German folklore? …”
  • Podcast episode from the Imperial College London features women’s hearts, psychedelic worldviews, and nanotechnology for children” Note: Not posted but maybe one day.
  • Alberta-based podcast explores AI (Artificial Intelligence)” Note 1: You’ll find season one and two on the page I’ve linked to; just keep scrolling. Note 2: Not posted but maybe one day.
  • Own the Science Podcast/À vous la science balado” Note: Not posted but maybe one day.

Integrating the body with machines is an ongoing interest of mine, these particular 2021 postings stood out but there are other postings (click on the Human Enhancement category or search the tag ‘machine/flesh’),

I wrote a few major (long) pieces this year,

  • “Interior Infinite: carnival & chaos, a June 26 – September 5, 2021 show at Polygon Art Gallery (North Vancouver, Canada)” July 26, 2021 posting Note: While this isn’t an art/sci posting it does touch on a topic near and dear to my heart, writers. In particular, the literary theorist, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin.
  • “The metaverse or not” October 22, 2021 posting Note: What can I say? The marketing hype got to me.
  • “True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read)” December 3, 2021 posting

2022 and contronyms

I don’t make psychic predictions. As far as I’m concerned, 2022 will be a continuation of 2021, albeit with a few surprises.

My focus on nanotechnology and emerging technologies will remain. I expect artificial intelligence, CRISPR and gene editing (in general), quantum computing (technical work and commercialization), and neuromorphic computing will continue to make news. As for anything else, well, it wouldn’t be a surprise if you knew it was coming.

With regard to this blog, I keep thinking about cutting back so I can focus on other projects. Whether I finally follow through this year is a mystery to me.

Because words and writing are important to me, I’d like to end the year with this, which I found in early December 2021. From “25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites” on getpocket.com by Judith Herman originally written for “Mental Floss and … published June 15, 2018,”

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, “Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression,” or does it mean, “Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default”? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean “give official permission or approval for (an action)” or conversely, “impose a penalty on.”

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon (“look at from above”) means “supervise” (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, “over” plus videre, “to see.”) Overlook usually means the opposite: “to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.”

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). …

Herman made liberal use, which she acknowledged, of the Mark Nichol article/list, “75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings)” on Daily Writing Tips (Note: Based on the ‘comments’, Nichol’s list appears to be have been posted sometime in 2011),

3. Bill: A payment, or an invoice for payment

4. Bolt: To secure, or to flee

46. Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part

47. Quiddity: Essence, or a trifling point of contention

68. Trim: To decorate, or to remove excess from

69. Trip: A journey, or a stumble

Happy 2022!

Jean-Pierre Luminet awarded UNESCO’s Kalinga prize for Popularizing Science

Before getting to the news about Jean-Pierre Luminet, astrophysicist, poet, sculptor, and more, there’s the prize itself.

Established in 1951, a scant five years after UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) was founded in 1945, the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is the organization’s oldest prize. Here’s more from the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science webpage,

The UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is an international award to reward exceptional contributions made by individuals in communicating science to society and promoting the popularization of science. It is awarded to persons who have had a distinguished career as writer, editor, lecturer, radio, television, or web programme director, or film producer in helping interpret science, research and technology to the public. UNESCO Kalinga Prize winners know the potential power of science, technology, and research in improving public welfare, enriching the cultural heritage of nations and providing solutions to societal problems on the local, regional and global level.

The UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is UNESCO’s oldest prize, created in 1951 following a donation from Mr Bijoyanand Patnaik, Founder and President of the Kalinga Foundation(link is external) Trust in India. Today, the Prize is funded by the Kalinga Foundation Trust(link is external), the Government of the State of Orissa, India(link is external), and the Government of India (Department of Science and Technology(link is external)).

Jean-Pierre Luminet

From the November 4, 2021 UNESCO press release (also received via email),

French scientist and author Jean-Pierre Luminet will be awarded the 2021 UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science. The prize-giving ceremony will take place online on 5 November as part of the celebration of World Science Day for Peace and Development.

An independent international jury selected Jean-Pierre Luminet recognizing his longstanding commitment to the popularization of science. Mr Luminet is a distinguished astrophysicist and cosmologist who has been promoting the values of scientific research through a wide variety of media: he has created popular science books and novels, beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogues, poetry, audiovisual materials for children and documentaries, notably “Du Big Bang au vivant” with Hubert Reeves. He is also an artist, engraver and sculptor and has collaborated with composers on musicals inspired by the sounds of the Universe.

His publications are model examples for communicating science to the public. Their scientific content is precise, rigorous and always state-of-the-art. He has written seven “scientific novels”, including “Le Secret de Copernic”, published in 2006. His recent book “Le destin de l’univers : trous noirs et énergie sombre”, about black holes and dark energy, was written for the general public and was praised for its outstanding scientific, historical, and literary qualities. Jean-Pierre Luminet’s work has been translated into a many languages including Chinese and Korean.

There is a page for Luminet in both the French language and English language wikipedias. If you have the language skills, you might want to check out the French language essay as I found it to be more stylishly written.

Compare,

De par ses activités de poète, essayiste, romancier et scénariste, dans une œuvre voulant lier science, histoire, musique et art, il est également Officier des Arts et des Lettres.

With,

… Luminet has written fifteen science books,[4] seven historical novels,[4] TV documentaries,[5] and six poetry collections. He is an artist, an engraver, a sculptor, and a musician.

My rough translation of the French,

As a poet, essayaist, novelist, and a screenwriter in a body of work that brings together science, history, music and art, he is truly someone who has enriched the French cultural inheritance (which is what it means to be an Officer of Arts and Letters or Officier des Arts et des Lettres; see English language entry for Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).

In any event, congratulations to M. Luminet.

Speed up your reading with an interactive typeface

A May 12, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily brings news of a technology that makes reading easier,

AdaptiFont has recently been presented at CHI, the leading Conference on Human Factors in Computing.

Language is without doubt the most pervasive medium for exchanging knowledge between humans. However, spoken language or abstract text need to be made visible in order to be read, be it in print or on screen.

How does the way a text looks affect its readability, that is, how it is being read, processed, and understood? A team at TU Darmstadt’s Centre for Cognitive Science investigated this question at the intersection of perceptual science, cognitive science, and linguistics. Electronic text is even more complex. Texts are read on different devices under different external conditions. And although any digital text is formatted initially, users might resize it on screen, change brightness and contrast of the display, or even select a different font when reading text on the web.

A May 12, 2021 Technische Universitat Darmstadt (Technical University of Damstadt; Germany) press release (also on EurekAlert) provides more detail,

The team of researchers from TU Darmstadt now developed a system that leaves font design to the user’s visual system. First, they needed to come up with a way of synthesizing new fonts. This was achieved by using a machine learning algorithm, which learned the structure of fonts analysing 25 popular and classic typefaces. The system is capable of creating an infinite number of new fonts that are any intermediate form of others – for example, visually halfway between Helvetica and Times New Roman.

Since some fonts may make it more difficult to read the text, they may slow the reader down. Other fonts may help the user read more fluently. Measuring reading speed, a second algorithm can now generate more typefaces that increase the reading speed.

In a laboratory experiment, in which users read texts over one hour, the research team showed that their algorithm indeed generates new fonts that increase individual user’s reading speed. Interestingly all readers had their own personalized font that made reading especially easy for them. However: This individual favorite typeface does not necessarily fit in all situations. “AdaptiFont therefore can be understood as a system which creates fonts for an individual dynamically and continuously while reading, which maximizes the reading speed at the time of use. This may depend on the content of the text, whether you are tired, or perhaps are using different display devices,” explains Professor Constantin A. Rothkopf, Centre for Cognitive Science und head of the institute of Psychology of Information Processing at TU Darmstadt.

The AdaptiFont system was recently presented to the scientific community at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI). A patent application has been filed. Future possible applications are with all electronic devices on which text is read.

There’s a 5 minute video featuring the work and narration for a researcher who speaks very quickly,

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

AdaptiFont: Increasing Individuals’ Reading Sp0eed with a Generative Font Model and Bayesian Optimization by Florian Kadner, Yannik Keller, Constantin Rothkopf. CHI ’21: Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems May 2021 Article No.: 585 Pages 1-11 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3411764.3445140 Published: 06 May 2021

This paper is open access.

Artificial intelligence is not mentioned but it’s hard to believe that adaptive learning by the software is anything other than a form of AI.

Literature and your brain (the neuroscience of it)

This guy (Angus Fletcher) is a little too much the evangelist for my taste but the ideas supporting the book he has authored and is promoting in this video are in line with a lot of thinking about vision and memory both of which can be described acts of creativity. In this case, Fletcher is applying these ideas to literature, which he describes as an act of co-creation,

A May 3, 2021 news item on phys.org announces the publication of Fletcher’s book,

If you really want to understand literature, don’t start with the words on a page—start with how it affects your brain.

That’s the message from Angus Fletcher, an English professor with degrees in both literature and neuroscience, who outlines in a new book a different way to read and think about stories, from classic literature to pulp fiction to movies and TV shows.

Literature wasn’t invented just as entertainment or a way to deliver messages to readers, said Fletcher, who is a professor at The Ohio State University.

Stories are actually a form of technology. [emphasis mine] They are tools that were designed by our ancestors to alleviate depression, reduce anxiety, kindle creativity, spark courage and meet a variety of other psychological challenges of being human,” Fletcher said.

“And even though we aren’t taught this in literature classes today, we can still find and use these emotional tools in the stories we read today.”

Here’s more about the book and ideas supporting it in a May 3, 2021 Ohio State University (OSU) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Grabmeier and Aaron Nestor, which originated the news item,

Fletcher explains these concepts in his book Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.

For example, in a chapter about fighting loneliness, he discusses how reading The Godfather by Mario Puzo may help. A chapter on feeding creativity talks about the virtues of Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh. Looking for the best way to make your dreams come true? For that, Fletcher proposes the TV show 30 Rock.

Wonderworks doesn’t ignore the classics: The book discusses how reading Shakespeare can help us heal from grief, Virginia Woolf can assist readers in finding peace of mind, and Homer can support those needing courage.

Fletcher said his neuroscience background very much influences the approach to literature he takes in Wonderworks.

“When you read a favorite poem or story, you may feel joy, you feel a sense of empathy or connection. One of the things I do in the book is provide the scientific validation for the things we’ve long felt when we’ve read favorite books or watched movies or TV shows that we loved,” he said.

“From my neuroscience background and studies that I’ve done, I can see how literature’s inventions plug into different regions of our brain, to make us less lonely or help us build up our courage or do a variety of other things to help us. Every story is different and is, in effect, a different tool.”

Fletcher said to truly understand the power of literature requires a different way of approaching stories from what is offered by most traditional literature courses.

The usual method of teaching literature focuses on the words, asking students to look for themes, to consider what the author intended to say and mean.

But that’s not the focus at Project Narrative, an Ohio State program of which Fletcher is a member.

“At Project Narrative, we reverse the process. Instead of looking at the words first, we look first at what is going on in your mind. How does this story make you feel? We look at how people are responding to the characters, the plot, the world that the author created,” Fletcher said.

After examining how the story makes you feel, the second part of the process is to trace that feeling back to some invention of the story, whether it is the plot, a character, the narrator, or the world of the story.

The themes of the story, or what the author means to say, are less important in this approach to literature.

That means when you are looking for a book to stimulate your courage, you don’t have to look for a book that has “courage” in the title or even as one of its themes according to traditional literature analysis, Fletcher said.

“Courage comes from reading a work of literature that makes us feel like we’re participating in something bigger than ourselves. It doesn’t have to mention courage or have courage be one of its themes,” he said. “That’s not relevant.”

For example, you wouldn’t think of reading The Godfather to ward off loneliness. But Fletcher said it can have this effect, partly through its use of a specific operatic technique. In Wonderworks, Fletcher explains how some operas feature a period of dissonant and turbulent music that is eventually resolved by a sweet harmony.

“The clashing and discordant music is upsetting, but then the sweet relief of harmony comes and releases dopamine in our brain, bonding us to the music,” he said.

“Puzo does the same thing in The Godfather, by creating chaos and tension in a chapter and then just partly resolving it at the end, giving us this partial dopamine rush that bonds us to the characters and to the story and makes us feel like they are friends.”

And even though it may not be good to be friends with gangsters in real life, the dopamine rush that we get from befriending the Corleone family can help ward off loneliness, he said.

If you’re reading stories like The Godfather while isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may even help ease the transition back to normal life when the world opens back up.

Neuroscientists have discovered that a part of the brain, called the dorsal raphe nucleus, helps us make friends, Fletcher said. It contains a cluster of dopamine neurons that are primed for short periods of loneliness and stand ready to encourage us to be sociable when we again meet people.

But if our isolation lasts weeks or months, like during the pandemic, that priming fades and our brain hunkers down in isolation – making it harder to re-connect with people.

“So what The Godfather and other stories can do is wake up the dorsal raphe nucleus and make it easier to rejoin society when the pandemic is over,” he explained.

Fletcher said the use of operatic techniques in The Godfather is just one example of how literature can be a form of technology.

And he hopes more people will want to figure out how these technological tools in literature really work in our brains.

“The idea behind the book is to give you a different way of reading, one that unlocks the extraordinary power of literature to heal your brain, give you more joy, more courage, whatever you need in your life.”

You can order “Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature” from this Simon & Shuster (publisher) webpage,

A brilliant examination of literary inventions through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, that shows how writers have created technical breakthroughs—rivaling any scientific inventions—and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind.

Literature is a technology like any other. And the writers we revere—from Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and others—each made a unique technical breakthrough that can be viewed as both a narrative and neuroscientific advancement. Literature’s great invention was to address problems we could not solve: not how to start a fire or build a boat, but how to live and love; how to maintain courage in the face of death; how to account for the fact that we exist at all.

Wonderworks reviews the blueprints for twenty-five of the most powerful developments in the history of literature. These inventions can be scientifically shown to alleviate grief, trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui—all while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. They can be found all throughout literature—from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays, poetry to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and crime novels to slave narratives.

An easy-to-understand exploration of the new literary field of story science, Wonderworks teaches you everything you wish you learned in your English class. Based on author Angus Fletcher’s own research, it is an eye-opening and thought-provoking work that offers us a new understanding of the power of literature.

Should you be interested in Project Narrative, it can be found here.

Interior Infinite: carnival & chaos, a June 26 – September 5, 2021 show at Polygon Art Gallery (North Vancouver, Canada)

This is a long read and covers a lot of ground including: a couple of highlights from the ‘Interior Infinite’ show, a reference to how modern galleries came to be what they are, the tension of hosting the unruly (carnivalesque) in a ‘white cube’ (art gallery), a brief history of Mikhail Bakhtin, and more.

If you’re looking for a succinct article about ‘Interior Infinite’, I highly recommend Dorothy Woodend’s June 30, 2020 article (‘Interior Infinite’: The Rich, Heady and Contentious World of Identity) for The Tyee. There’s also a July 12, 2021 review (“Interior Infinite: Costume, carnival and a celebration of reversal”) by Yani Kong for Galleries West. *I almost forgot Sheri Radford’s July 13, 2021 (“Timely new art exhibit explores self-expression“) for the Daily Hive.*

Interior Infinite

I had expectations based on the exhibit description offered by the Polygon Gallery (from the Interior Infinite webpage on the Polygon Gallery website),

Interior Infinite brings together an international group of artists whose works span photography, video, performance, and sculpture. Predominantly featuring portraiture, with an emphasis on self-portraiture, the exhibition focuses on costume and masquerade [emphasis mine] as strategies for revealing, rather than concealing, identities. Across these works, disguise functions as an unmasking [emphasis mine], as artists construct their own images through adornment in order to visually represent embodied experience, memory, and understanding.

Interior Infinite draws on the spirit of Carnival, a celebration of both radical togetherness and unique self-expression [emphasis mine]. The title is drawn from Rabelais and His World [emphasis mine], an influential text by Mikhail Bakhtin [emphasis mine], which extolled the potential for carnivalesque practices to overcome the limits of repressive conformity and expand our social imagination. The vibrant, fluid, and myriad expressions of identities seen in the exhibition become an act of resistance to erasure, pushing narrow definitions of normativity to include a broader range of lived realities. As Bakhtin writes [emphasis mine]: “The interior infinite could not have been found in a closed and finished world”.

Featuring [artists only; emphasis mine]: Lacie Burning, Claude Cahun, Nick Cave, Charles Campbell, Dana Claxton, Martine Gutierrez, Kris Lemsalu, Ursula Mayer, Meryl McMaster, Zanele Muholi, Aïda Muluneh, Zak Ové, Skeena Reece, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Sin Wai Kin, Carrie Mae Weems, Zadie Xa

Expectations met or exceeded

This is an exciting and stimulating show (running from June 26 – September 5, 2021). It was put together within one year, which is supersonic speed in the art gallery world. (It seems to be one of the features of the COVID-19 pandemic that we are seeing institutions respond in a much more timely fashion than we have learned to expect.)

Here’s curator Justin Ramsey describing the show, which was, in part, a response to the George Floyd murder, in this video produced by Nuvo Magazine (from Nuvo’s June 25, 2021 news item by Ayesha Habib),

Videography by Everett Bumstead.

As you can see in the video, there are some beautiful pieces along with a bit of grotesquerie (Greek goddess Baubo) for a more fully realized carnivalesque experience. (More about the carnivalesque later.)

Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu contributed the Baubo Dance installation consisting of the lower body with jeans, cowboy boots, a representation of the vulva, and a detached head/headdress.

Baubo Dance 2021. Ceramics, textile, concrete, metal. Photo: Stanislav Stepaško [downloaded from https://www.krislemsalu.com/]

It looks like teeth on the vulva’s opening. I wonder if the artist meant to refer to the vagina dentata in some way (from its Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed,

Vagina dentata (Latin for toothed vagina) describes a folk tale in which a woman’s vagina is said to contain teeth, with the associated implication that sexual intercourse might result in injury, emasculation, or castration for the man involved.

This would make the Baubo figure a bit more edgy than might be expected from reading her Wikipedia entry,

Baubo (Ancient Greek: Βαυβώ) is an old woman in Greek mythology which appears particularly in the myths of the early Orphic religion. Known as the Goddess of Mirth, she was bawdy and sexually liberated, and is said to have jested with Demeter, when Demeter was mourning the loss of her daughter, Persephone. [emphases mine]

Figurines known as Baubos are found in a number of settings, usually with Greek connections. They were mass-produced in a number of styles, but the basic figure always exposes the vulva in some way: …

South African artist Zanele Muholi’s photographic work, also featured in the Ramsey video, is beautiful and subtly damning,

Olunye I, The Sails, Durban, 2019 Silver gelatin print 19 7/10 × 12 3/5 in 50 × 32 cm Edition of 8 + 2AP [downloaded from https://www.artsy.net/artwork/zanele-muholi-olunye-i-the-sails-durban]

(Not being a photographer or particularly conversant in the visual arts, the following description is in ‘plainish’ language.)

If you look closely, you’ll see the image is layered so you have a background and what looks like a traditional headcovering, tank top, and skin, all in tones of black. The ropes, particularly around the neck and down the chest, suggest (to me, if no one else) entrapment (being roped) and/or a noose. In any event, it’s a very rich image and it’s better seen in person.

If you can get there, know that Muholi has just had their first major survey (retrospective?) in the UK, which was at the Tate Modern (November 5, 2020 – May 31, 2021), Note: A link has been removed,

Zanele Muholi is one of the most acclaimed photographers working today, and their work has been exhibited all over the world. With over 260 photographs, this exhibition presents the full breadth of their career to date.

Muholi turns the camera on themself in the ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama – translated as ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ [emphasis mine]. These powerful and reflective images explore themes including labour [emphasis mine], racism, Eurocentrism and sexual politics.​

The four Muholi works in ‘Interior Infinite’ come from the Somnyama Ngonyama series (excerpted from the Tate Modern’s survey show Exhibition Guide; Room 8),

Somnyama Ngonyama (2012 – ongoing) is a series in which Muholi turns the camera on themself to explore the politics of race and representation. The portraits are photographed in different locations around the world. They are made using materials and objects that Muholi sources from their surroundings.The images refer to personal reflections, colonial and apartheid histories of exclusion and displacement, as well as ongoing racism. They question acts of violence and harmful representations of Black people. Muholi’s aim is to draw out these histories in order to educate people about them and to facilitate the processing of these traumas both personally and collectively.

Muholi considers how the gaze is constructed in their photographs. In some images they look away. In others they stare the camera down, asking what it means for ‘a Black person to look back’. When exhibited together the viewer is surrounded by a network of gazes. Muholi increases the contrast of the images in this series, which has the effect of darkening their skin tone.

I’m reclaiming my Blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. [emphasis mine]

The titles of the works in the series remain in is iZulu, Muholi’s first language. This is part of their activism, taking ownership of and pride in their language and identity. It encourages a Western audience to understand and pronounce the names. This critiques what happened during colonialism and apartheid. Then, Black people were often given English names by their employers or teachers who refused to remember or pronounce their real names.

‘Interior Infinite’ is rich with possibility and you can explore and question various identities both within and without.

There is both an audio guide and an exhibition guide available on Polygon’s Interior Infinite audio guide webpage. (There are also tours of the show much of which is replicated in Justin Ramsey’s July 7, 2021 Curator’s Talk. The video run for over 1 hour.)

The challenge of a theme

“… the genesis of it [Interior Infinite] really was the murder of George Floyd, I thought where is art? How does art respond to a crisis, a catastrophe like this?” says exhibit curator Justin Ramsey in his Nuvo Magazine video interview (embedded earlier in this post).

First challenge: the impetus for the show was a murder

Ramsey’s choice to situate the show as a response to George Floyd’s 2020 murder leads to some interesting tensions within the exhibition (internal) and without (external).

How did Ramsey pick? Ultimately, the question is unlikely to be answered. Incidents which reach beyond the headlines to strike the soul and heart are not easily justifiable or explained to others.

As for Ramsey’s question in the video interview: “How does art respond to a crisis, … ?” The question seems fundamental not only to ‘Interior Infinite’ but more generally to 20th and 21st century art.

The response, in this case, was to pull Bakhtin’s concept of ‘carnival’ , also known as, ‘carnivalesque’ from “Rabelais and His World” allowing Ramsey to use it as a kind of banner under which a number of disparate pieces related to each other and the theme both harmoniously and disharmoniously could be gathered.

What is carnival/carnivalesque?

For a sense of what ‘carnival’ or carnivalesque’ means here’s a description from the Carnivalesque Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Carnivalesque is a literary mode [emphasis mine] that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. It originated as “carnival” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics and was further developed in Rabelais and His World. For Bakhtin, “carnival” (the totality of popular festivities, rituals and other carnival forms) is deeply rooted in the human psyche on both the collective and individual level. Though historically complex and varied, it has over time worked out “an entire language of symbolic concretely sensuous forms” [emphasis mine] which express a unified “carnival sense of the world, permeating all its forms”. This language, Bakhtin argues, cannot be adequately verbalized or translated into abstract concepts, but it is amenable to a transposition into an artistic language that resonates with its essential qualities: it can, in other words, be “transposed into the language of literature”. Bakhtin calls this transposition the carnivalization of literature.[1] Although he considers a number of literary forms and individual writers [emphasis mine], it is Francois Rabelais, the French Renaissance author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, that he considers the primary exemplars of carnivalization in literature.

The carnival sense of the world “is opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change, which seeks to absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order [emphases mine].”[5] This is not to say that liberation from all authority and sacred symbols was desirable as an ideology. Because participation in Carnival extracts all individuals from non-carnival life, nihilistic and individualistic ideologies are just as impotent and just as subject to the radical humour of carnival [emphasis mine] as any form of official seriousness.[6] The spirit of carnival grows out of a “culture of laughter” [emphasis mine]. Because it is based in the physiological realities of the lower bodily stratum (birth, death, renewal, sexuality, ingestion, evacuation etc.) [emphasis mine], it is inherently anti-elitist: its objects and functions are necessarily common to all humans—”identical, involuntary and non-negotiable”.[7]

Bakhtin argues that we should not compare the “narrow theatrical pageantry” and “vulgar Bohemian understanding of carnival” characteristic of modern times [emphasis mine] with his Medieval Carnival.[8] Carnival was a powerful creative event, not merely a spectacle. Bakhtin suggests that the separation of participants and spectators has been detrimental [emphasis mine] to the potency of Carnival. Its power lay in there being no “outside”: everyone participated, and everyone was subject to its lived transcendence of social and individual norms [emphasis mine]: “carnival travesties: it crowns and uncrowns, inverts rank, exchanges roles, makes sense from nonsense and nonsense of sense.”[9]

So, the response to the murder of George Floyd is that art is opposition to the serious, to the dogmatic. and to resistance to change and evolution by means of the carnivalesque? I think that’s what this show is saying.

(For contrasting views, see Dorothy Woodend’s and Yani Kong’s pieces cited at the beginning of this post.)

2nd Challenge: The carnivalesque in the gallery

Bringing something that by its nature is rude, bawdy, chaotic, loud, smelly, high physical contact, participatory, etc. into an art gallery/museum, an institution not known for its tolerance of the unruly, has to be a fraught proposition.

A man, a cartoon penis, and his four year old daughter (unruliness)

Since 2017 when the Polygon Gallery opened (see a Nov. 18, 2017 article by Ben Bengtson for the North Shore News about the opening), it has had at least one incidence of unruliness (from a February 6, 2020 article by Brent Richter for the North Shore News),

Alex Goldkind was with his four-year-old daughter in Lower Lonsdale Feb. 1 [2020] when a gallery staffer invited them in for their monthly Kids First Saturday event on the upper floor.

On the main level, however, they were given a booklet that accompanies the current collage exhibition called I Spy, by Vancouver artist Elizabeth Zvonar, and were asked to circle images inside as they found them in the large collage on the wall. The first one Goldkind saw on the wall was an 18th century political cartoon depicting Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, with general Marquis de Lafayette, who is riding an ostrich shaped like male genitalia.

“Well, it’s a penis and balls. It’s pretty obvious, right? This is not rocket science here. I was just floored,” he said. “I just grabbed my daughter quickly before she saw it and I walked around the corner, just livid. I tore into all the staff there. I said ‘Are you guys insane? You’re inviting children into this?’”

Staff were so frightened by the outburst, they called the RCMP. [Royal Canadian Mounted Police; emphasis mine]

Here’s a photo of the angry parent,

A North Vancouver father says the Polygon Gallery has gone too far, hosting a children’s event when one of the exhibits inside features an illustrated penis. [downloaded from https://www.nsnews.com/local-news/art-and-morality-collide-at-the-north-vans-polygon-gallery-3116447]

Interestingly, there was an apology—for a lack of signage and clarity.

In addition to difficulty tolerating loud noises and angry people (or other unruliness?), there is at least one other aspect to the challenge of bringing the carnivalesque into an art gallery.

The ‘white cube’ aesthetic

White walls and an antiseptic environment are common in many art galleries built since the 1930s according to Dr. Elizabeth Rodini’s 2018(?) essay, A brief history of the art museum, for the Khan Academy,

… it was in the United States that some of the most influential trends in modern art museums also emerged. One of these is the “white cube” approach which, despite precedents in Europe, was most fully exploited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the 1930s under the direction of Alfred H. Barr. By minimizing visual distractions, Barr hoped to direct viewers toward a pure experience of the art work. The bare spaces, white walls, and minimalist frames he used are now so common that we hardly notice them.

The “white cube” was rooted in a philosophy that aimed to liberate art and artists from the conservative forces of history. Ironically, this model has taken over, and art museums from Rio to Abu Dhabi to Shanghai draw on similar exhibition tactics. This has led some museum critics to wonder if the “white cube” has itself become a vehicle of cultural control [emphasis mine].

Rodini goes on to explain further in the comments,

… Its not the whiteness of the walls nor the spare furnishing that are at issue in most critiques of the white cube. Instead, it is the practice of isolating the image and not giving the viewer information [emphasis mine] that would provide details about the object’s origin and its journey from the artist to the museum.This is often done to ensure a “pure” visual experience but it also withholds historical context that can substantially enhance the meaning of a given work of art.

Here’s an image from the slideshow embedded in Ben Bengtson’s Nov. 18, 2017 article about the Polygon Gallery opening,

[ downloaded from https://www.nsnews.com/local-news/polygon-gallery-in-north-vancouver-is-officially-open-3062312]

Kudos to Ramsey and the Polygon Gallery folks for assembling a show with a broad range and providing a little context (take a tour or consult the guides provided online) in an environment that is, if not actively hostile, certainly difficult.

(clunk) The other shoe drops

Largely unmentioned during the tour, Bakhtin’s work, specifically the concept of the carnival/canivalesque, was relegated to a couple of mentions in the second paragraph describing the show and a Bakhtin quote from “Rabelais and His World” on a wall somewhere in the show:

“The interior infinite could not have been found in a closed and finished world, with its distinct fixed boundaries dividing all phenomena and values.” [I believe this alludes to Bakhtin’s notions of finalization and unfinalizability]

As it should be, the focus was on the artists. Still, it was a bit disconcerting to walk into a show where a literary theorist (Bakhtin) has supplied the theme and to hear only a single mention in the tour, which described him simply as a philosopher. (Ramsey gave the tour I attended.)

As for the Bakhtin quote, which is used a frame for this show, the tension between a show based on the unfinalizable, chaotic, rude world of the carnivalesque and the closed, finished (finalization) world of an art gallery in ‘Infinite Interior’ is never discussed.

(Segue) Bakhtin: protean thinker and one-legged man in Stalin’s world**

As far as I can tell, no one yet has been able to adequately summarize Bakhtin’s thinking (I’m not going to try), here’s an attempt from his entry on Wikipedia,

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (/bʌxˈtiːn/bukh-TEEN; Russian: Михаи́л Миха́йлович Бахти́н, IPA: [mʲɪxɐˈil mʲɪˈxajləvʲɪdʑ bɐxˈtʲin]; 16 November [O.S. 4 November] 1895 – 7 March[2] 1975) was a Russian philosopher, literary critic and scholar who worked on literary theory, ethics, and the philosophy of language [emphases mine]. His writings, on a variety of subjects, inspired scholars working in a number of different traditions (Marxism, semiotics, structuralism, religious criticism) and in disciplines as diverse as literary criticism, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and psychology. Although Bakhtin was active in the debates on aesthetics and literature that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, his distinctive position did not become well known until he was rediscovered by Russian scholars in the 1960s.

With regard to his personal history, Bakhtin was born in 1895 into a family of nobility and then experienced the 1917 Russian revolution followed by a famine and civil war (1918-21). [As for how Russia fared in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic/epidemic, it was one of at least two others [cholera and typhus] suffered through. See history professor Joshua Sanborn’s March 19, 2020 posting on the Russian History blog for more.)

Bakhtin completed his studies (1918) and was diagnosed with a bone disease (osteomyelitis) in 1923. He was apprehended by Soviet secret police and eventually exiled for six years to Kazakhstan (starting in 1928). Four years after his exile ended, his health improved (1938) when part of his right leg was amputated.

World War II (1939 -45) intervened and despite completing his PhD dissertation (Rabelais and His World) he wasn’t able to defend it until after the war. He seems to have defended it twice, in 1946 and, again, in 1949. The work had proved divisive and he was not awarded a doctoral degree (Doctor of Sciences) but, instead, received a lesser degree, Candidate of Sciences (a research doctorate).

He worked in obscurity for the better part of his life, finally receiving some attention in the mid-1960s when he was about 70. He died in 1975.

For anyone who’s interested in more about Bakhtin, I suggest

And, for the truly dedicated,

His work, which largely centered on language, written and spoken, with implications that reach far beyond, seems remarkably à propos in this moment but, given his life circumstances, it’s perhaps not entirely a surprise. **Note: There’s more about the circumstances under which Bakhtin lived at the end of this posting.

Sadly, I didn’t learn much about Bakhtin’s work or life during my June 25, 2021 tour given by curator Justin Ramsey. Perhaps I missed it but I wasn’t able to find anything on the Polygon website either;I had to do a lot of subsequent digging to find out more.

Back to Interior Infinite and the dropped shoe

You go upstairs to see the show and at the beginning there’s a description on the wall with a list of all the artists whose work you will be viewing. Oddly, given that there are writers, activists, and philosophers whose work is quoted and can be seen on the walls throughout the show, they did not rate a list beside the artists, nor are they mentioned in any materials about the show. Moving on.

White Cube syndrome and Interior Infinite

I longed for more context, not just with regard to Bakhtin and the carnivalesque, but the artists and the writers too. The audio guide and exhibition guide available on Polygon’s Interior Infinite audio guide webpage are helpful (neither was posted until June 30, 2021 after my visit) and I recommend them as an entry point to the show. There are also tours.

However and this is a good problem to have, the show touches on so many issues of the moment that a general tour is going to be frustrating. I was surprised that there don’t seem to be any plans for themed tours that highlight particular aspects of the show.

During the tour and during his curator’s talk, Ramsey did mention that there will be a drag event later this summer but neither it nor any other future show-related events are listed on the website at this time.

For the curious, the drag event, which is still being organized (according to Ramsey during his curator’s talk), will hopefully feature Shay Dior and the House of Rice (for more about Dior and The House of Rice, there’s a Feb. 7, 2020 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) website, “Who run the world? Vancouver drag mother Shay Dior and her growing family of queer Asian kids” by Peter Knegt).

Bringing the ‘outside’ onto art tours

There’s a tendency to assume that people going on tours through an art exhibition are a ‘tabula rasa’, i.e., a blank slate. I’m guessing this is, at least in part, a legacy of education systems that still largely operate on that principle.

Note: I’ve taken more than one tour at various art gallery/museums in Vancouver and have found that the Rennie Museum is the best at including the tour members. Almost certainly the people guiding you through the exhibit will not only invite questions and comments but also allow time for you to respond. Even better, sometimes the guide will include something a tour member told them on a previous tour.

A complete list of the artists and the types of artwork featured

While I have found lists of the artists in the show, there’s only one place where I found a list of each of the types of artwork featured in the show along with the artist who produced them, from artdaily.com’s The Polygon Gallery presents Interior Infinite, a celebration of radical togetherness and unique self-expression webpage (Note: I have made a formatting change; it should be a bulleted list after “The exhibition features:”),

The exhibition features:

A new sculpture by 2020 Phillip B. Lind Emerging Artist Prize runner up Lacie Burning (b. 1992, Brampton, ON) in the Reflection Series, depicting a cloaked figure wearing a mask made of mosaicked mirror fragments

A series of self-portraits by French surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (b. 1894, Nantes, France), whose practice exploring gender and sexual identity was ahead of its time

An original sound piece consisting of birdsong cut into Morse code, as an expansion of Charles Campbell’s (b. 1970, Jamaica) Actor Boy performance series

A soundsuit and video from acclaimed sculptor, dancer, and performance artist Nick Cave (b. 1959, Fulton, Missouri)

A portrait by 2020 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts recipient Dana Claxton (b. 1959, Yorkton, SK), featuring the artist wearing her collection of handmade leather handbags created by Indigenous artisans

A selection of photographs from Martine Gutierrez’s (b. 1989, Berkeley, California) self-made satirical fashion magazine Indigenous Woman

The end

I both love and hate this show. It is rich with ideas and possibilities.

George Floyd

One of the reason this show is so difficult to embrace is that It’s hard to imagine someone like George Floyd (Wikipedia entry) who had a criminal record and was struggling at the time of his death would have felt welcome at Polygon’s ‘Interior Infinite’. BTW, my father would not have felt comfortable either. In his case, the issue would have been social class.

George Floyd mural Under the 496 Bridge in Lansing, Michigan.l Mural artist: Isiah Lattimore; Lettering by artist Erik Phelps [downloaded from https://lansingartgallery.org/artpath-2020-george-floyd/]

Given that his murder was the impetus for ‘Interior Infinite’, I expected to see some mention of him in the gallery or on the exhibition’s webpage.

Writers?

As a writer, I’m disappointed (but unsurprised) that the people who provided text for the quotes on the gallery walls were not listed on the wall beside the list of artists. It’s almost as if the quotes are wallpaper.

Identity confusion

As for the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival (Ramsey repeatedly refers to the Trinidad Carnival in his July 7, 2021 Curator’s Talk) that seems more egregious in a showcase for identity and given there’s a local version of the carnival, Caribbean Days Festival, held fairly close to the Polygon Gallery every July for over 30 years (the 2021 edition has been cancelled). And yes, it’s organized by the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Society of British Columbia.

More Bakhtin

Deeply thoughtful with regard to the artworks on display and social justice issues, It would have been helpful if Ramsey had shared more about how Bakhtin’s carnivalesque is invoked in this show. It’s as if the staff at the Polygon let me smell the baking but never offered me any cinnamon buns. How does the Bakhtin quote which alludes to his concepts of unfinalizability and finalization play a role in ‘Interior Infinite’?

Any Bakhtin scholars out there care to respond? Please do.

No mention of COVID-19 masks

In a show featuring masks, how do you not mention COVID-19 or any of the current discussion about masks? It’s one of the more curious omissions in the show.

A couple of thoughts

It seems to me that Ramsey let the show, the carnivalesque, and Bakhtin get away from him. The impulse towards finalization overcame him and so he presents the show, in his curator’s talk, as ‘art’s response’ to the murder of George Floyd and other instances of repression.

By contrast, Bakhtin’s carnivalesque in “Rabelais and His World” presents unfinalizability in the rude, bawdy, smelly, chaotic, loud, dangerous, grotesque place where identities are mocked, inverted, and made fun of.

Ultimately, Ramsey never grapples with (or even seems to acknowledge) the paradox at the heart of his project.

The failure doesn’t matter. Go see ‘Interior Infinite’ anyway. it’s worth the trip to the gallery. And, if you’re inclined, bring your carnivalesque spirit.

PS: If you see any mistakes or have any comments, please let me know via the commenting feature on this blog.

*Sheri Radford’s July 13, 2021 article for the Daily Hive added on July 26, 2021 at 13:40 PDT.

**July 28, 2021: The subhead “(Segue) Bakhtin: protean thinker and one-legged man in Stalin’s world” was corrected (‘and’ replaced ‘with’) and here’s more about the Bakhtin’s circumstances from Caryl Emerson’s “The First Hundred Years of Michail Bakhtin” 1997, Princeton University Press,

When Maxim Gorky laid down the Socialist Realist “rules” for creative literature in the Stalinist 1930s, and when Mikhail Bakhtin, then in political exile in Kazakhstan, wrote hundreds of pages that refuted those rules by invoking as exemplary ***different*** genres and different authors, both men were acting wholly within the tradition of Russian literary culture. For unlike America in much of its modern phase, literary accomplishment and criticism in Russia has mattered. You could get arrested and killed [emphasis mine] for it; thus educated society revered its poets and considered literary progress to be a bellwether of its own. (p. 10)

***July 29, 2021: ‘differed’ changed to ‘different

I am a book. I am a portal to …

Interactive data visualization for children who want to learn about the universe in the form of a book was published by Penguin Books as “I am a book. I am a portal to the universe.” was first published in 2020. As of April 2021, it has crossed the Atlantic Ocean occasioning an April 16, 2021 article by Mark Wilson for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

… A collaboration between data-centric designer Stefanie Posavec and data journalist Miriam Quick, …

“The pared-back aesthetic is due to the book’s core concept. The whole book, even the endnotes and acknowledgements, is written in the first person, in the book’s own voice. [emphasis mine] It developed its own rather theatrical character as we worked on it,” says Posavec. “The book speaks directly to the reader using whatever materials it has at its disposal to communicate the wonders of our universe. In the purest sense, that means the book’s paper and binding, its typeface and its CMYK [cyan, magenta, yellow, black] ink, or, as the book would call them, its ‘superpowers.’” [emphases mine]

It’s hard to explain without actually experiencing it. Which is exactly why it’s so much fun. For instance, at one moment, the book asks you to put it on your head [emphasis mine] and take it off. That difference in weight you feel? That’s how much lighter you are on the top of a mountain than at sea level, the book explains, because of the difference in gravity at different altitudes. …

I recommend reading Wilson’s April 16, 2021 article in its entirety if you have the time as it is peppered with images, GIFs, and illustrative stories.

The “I am a book. I am a portal to the universe.” website offers more details,

“Typography and design combine thrillingly to form something that is

eye-opening in

every sense”

— Financial Times

Hello. I am a book.
But I’m also a portal to the universe.

I have 112 pages, measuring 20cm high and wide. I weigh 450g. And I have the power to show you the wonders of the world.

I’m different to any other book around today. I am not a book of infographics. I’m an informative, interactive experience, in which the data can be touched, felt and understood, with every measurement represented on a 1:1 scale. How long is an anteater’s tongue? How tiny is the DNA in your cells? How fast is gold mined? How loud is the sun? And how many stars have been born and exploded in the time you’ve taken to read this sentence?

… 

There is a September 2020 Conversations with Data podcast: Episode 13 (hosted by Tara Kelly on Spotify) featuring Stefanie Posavec (data-centric designer) and Miriam Quick (data journalist) discussing their book.

You can find Miriam Quick’s website here and Stefanie Posavec’s website here.