Category Archives: Technology

Reading (1 of 2): an artificial intelligence story in British Columbia (Canada)

Every once in a while I decide to dive further into a story and highlight some of the ways in which we all get fooled into thinking that the technology industry is going to leave British Columbia with use of a survey (Reading [1 of 2]) or that we can somehow make ourselves healthier (Reading [2 of 2)) with the use ‘scientifically’ derived data.

Setting the scene

The last time I encountered Miro Cernetig was when he was a member of a panel of political pundits (he was a reporter for the Vancouver Sun at that time in 2009). It seems he’s moved on into the realm of ‘storymaking’ and public relations. He popped up in Nick Eagland’s October 5, 2019 article (Artificial intelligence firms in B.C. seek more support from federal government),

Handol Kim, vice-chair of Network [Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C (AInBC)] said federal funding and support don’t measure up to the size and pace of B.C.’s AI sector, and should be earmarked for research.

In 2017, the federal budget included $125 million in funding for AI research at institutes in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal. [emphasis mine] Kim said those centres boast AI “super star” and “rock star” researchers with international name recognition. B.C.’s sector hasn’t been able to market itself that way but has plenty to offer, Kim said.

“The tech industry doesn’t automatically assume the government is going to help,” he said. “But where government does have a role to play is in research and funding research, especially when we have a tenuous lead and a good position, and we’re getting outspent.”

CityAge is partnering with the Artificial Intelligence Network for CrossOver: AI, a conference in Vancouver on Dec. 9 [2019], which will help draw national attention to B.C.’s sector, said CityAge co-founder Miro Cernetig.[emphasis mine]

Cernetig, owner of branding agency Catalytico, said B.C.’s sector is strong at commercializing its technology — getting it to market for a profit. But he worries that Canada is too often recognized only for its natural resources, when it has plenty of “human capital” to give it an edge in the development of AI, particularly in B.C.

“It’s important that Vancouver and British Columbia be fully integrated into the national data strategy, which includes AI,” he said.

“Because the only way we’ll be able to compete globally is if we take all of the best pieces and nodes of excellent across the country and bring them together into a true Canadian approach.”

This seems like a standard ploy. “Our industry is not getting enough support, please give us more federal money or lower taxes, etc.” Looking backwards from our latest federal election on Oct. 22, 2019, the timing for this plea seems odd. Unless it’s a misdirect and the real audience is the provincial government (British Columbia). So, what is the story?

Storymaking, surveys, and the tech sector in BC

Cernetig bills himself as a ‘storymaker’ on his LinkedIn profile,

Miro Cernetig
Storymaker and seasoned strategist who is founder of Catalytico ~ ideas in motion & Co-Founder of CityAge.

As noted earlier, Cernetig was a journalist (which gives him credentials when placing a story with former colleagues in the media). He also seems to have been quite successful (from his Huffington Post biography),

Globe and Mail‘s bureau chief in Beijing, New York, Vancouver, Edmonton and the Arctic. He was also the Quebec bureau chief for the Toronto Star. During his 25-year career Miro has worked in film, print and digital mediums for the Globe and Mail, the CBC, the Toronto Star and most recently as a staff columnist at the Vancouver Sun.

Miro’s writing — on business, culture, politics and public policy — has also appeared in ROB Magazine [Report on Business; a Globe and Mail publication], the New York Times, the Economist, the International Herald Tribune and People Magazine.

..

Lies, damn lies and statistics

I can’t find anything that suggests Cernetig has a background in any type of science. Presumably his employees at CityAge have some skills in polling and/or social sciences (from Eagland’s October 5, 2019 article (Artificial intelligence firms in B.C. seek more support from federal government),

A new survey found that more than half of B.C’s. artificial intelligence companies believe the federal government is not doing enough to boost the sector, and half have considered leaving the province. [emphasis mine]

The non-profit industry association, Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C., [AInBC] says there are more than 150 AI-related firms in B.C. and more than 65 submitted responses to its survey, which was conducted by CityAge and released this week. [emphases mine]

More than 56 per cent of respondents said the federal government needs to do more to help the local AI sector grow, with 31 per cent saying its efforts were lacking and 24 per cent saying they needed major attention.

Half of respondents said they have considered moving their companies out of B.C. They main reasons they gave were a desire to connect to bigger markets (35 per cent) and to operate in a better taxation and regulatory environment (11 per cent).

The firms said their most significant impediments to growth were lack of capital (30 per cent) and an inability to access the right talent (27 per cent).

But they also showed hope for the future, with 47 per cent saying they are “very confident” they will grow over the next three to five years, and 33 per cent saying they are “solid” but could be doing better.

A survey, eh? I guarantee that I could devise one where a majority of the respondents agree that I should receive $1M or more from the government, tax free, and for no particular reason.

It’s funny. We know surveys are highly dependent on who is surveyed and how and in what order the questions are asked and yet we forget when we see ‘survey facts’ published somewhere.

Does anyone think that members of the Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C would say no to more financial support? What was the point of the survey? The whole thing reminds me of an old saying, “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” (Note: Links in the excerpt have been removed)

Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent’s point.

The phrase was popularized in the United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” However, the phrase is not found in any of Disraeli’s works and the earliest known appearances were years after his death. Several other people have been listed as originators of the quote, and it is often erroneously attributed to Twain himself.[1]

By the way, I haven’t been able to find the survey or a report about the survey available online, which means that the methodology can’t be examined.

What’s the story? Answer: confusing

Eagland’s article looks like part of a campaign to get the federal government to spread their AI largesse in BC’s direction. (Am I the only one who thinks that British Columbia’s AI companies and educational institutions are smarting because they weren’t included in the federal government’s 2017 Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy? They budgeted $125M for AI communities in Edmonton, Montréal, and Toronto.) Or, it’s possible AInBC is signaling the provincial government that there are problems which they (the provincial government) could solve with funding

In Eagland’s relatively short article there’s a second message; it’s about an upcoming AI conference, CrossOver: AI on December 9, 2019. At that point, the articles start to look like an advertisement for an event organized by CityAge’s (Miro Cernetig’s company). I found this on the conference website’s About page,

Artificial Intelligence, and the technologies around it, will determine the builders of our future economy.

British Columbia has — and is building — that crucial AI ecosystem. Through it, we will have the local and global reach to build the future.

Organized by CityAge and the Artificial Intelligence network of British Columbia, CrossOver: AI will connect and catalyze an essential network of leaders in British Columbia and Canada’s emerging AI ecosystem. To take BC’s strengths in this transformative technology to the national and global stage.

CrossOver AI will:

Establish British Columbia as a national and global leader in AI/ML.

Showcase BC’s AI/ML start-up ecosystem to global investors and corporations for investment and partnerships.

Attract global corporations to invest in establishing AI/ML R&D in BC.

Demonstrate to BC and Canada’s business, government and academic leadership that we have a strong, growing AI network.

Gather and connect all of the members of BC’s AI network to each other.

CrossOver AI’s program will be structured to provide an engaging combination of high-quality content and practical business information.

The morning of the event will be a mix of panel discussions and 20-minute TED-style presentations.

The afternoon will be organized as an interactive mix of pitch sessions that profile the opportunities in global AI and BC’s capabilities.

About AInBC

The Artificial Intelligence network of British Columbia (AInBC) was established by business and academic leaders to unify, organize and catalyze the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) communities in British Columbia (BC) to establish BC as a national and global leader in AI by 2022.

AInBC believes that AI/ML is of strategic importance to the economic and social well-being of everyone in BC, and is dedicated to ensuring that BC leads rather than follows.

We define the AI community in BC as:
Academic Institutions
AI/ML companies/start-ups
Corporations with AI/ML initiatives
Entrepreneurs
Investment Community
Students
Government (Provincial and Municipal)
Foreign/Non-BC based Corporations seeking AI/ML talent in BC

AInBC recognizes that all members of this community must be served in order to create a vigorous and high-growth ecosystem that benefits all members and the province overall. AInBC is a not-for-profit Society.

About CityAge
CityAge was founded on the idea that a neutral, focused set of high-powered conversations will help us develop and implement big ideas that build the future. 

CityAge has held over 50 conferences on a variety of topics in major urban markets across North America, Europe and Asia, ranging in size from 150 to 500 leaders. 

More than 7,000 leaders have attended CityAge and are part of the CityAge network.

I also found themes,

Which Businesses AI is Disrupting Now: How your organization can use this essential new tool for business, managing natural resources, and discovering innovations. AI isn’t just for Silicon Valley; it’s available to everyone.

Unicorn AI: BC’s AI companies have the potential to be global players. We’ll look at how we can help them get there.

Attracting Global AI Investment: What do BC and Canada need to do to attract human and financial capital to the emerging AI cluster? How do we get the news out to the world that we are taking a leading role in the AI revolution?

AI for a Better World:  AI will allow us new ways to look at social challenges we’ve been trying to solve. How will AI, with the human component and thoughtful policy, help us build a stronger economy and society?

AI and The Data Effect: BC and Canada can responsibly gather and use the data that AI needs. We will look at what competitors are doing, what our strategic advantages are, and how to use them to build our AI cluster.

Ethical AI: How to control the risks, enroll the public, and use AI to build the economy and improve lives.

It’s nice to see that they’ve tucked in ‘ethics’ and ‘making the world a better place’ along with the business-oriented themes.

As for what constitutes this story, it seems a little confused. First, we want money from the federal government 9we might leave if we don’t get it) and, second, we’ve got a conference where we want to attract business people and investors.

Analyzing the confusion

It would have been good to find out more about the artificial intelligence community in BC. Unfortunately, I don’t think Nick Eagland has enough experience to get that story. (BTW, A lot of reporters don’t have enough experience to ask the right questions, especially in science and technology. They don’t have the time to adequately research the topic and they can’t draw on past experience because they don’t spend enough time focused on one subject area long enough to learn about it.)

As for the branding or storymaking strategy on display, I don’t think it was a good idea to bundle the two messages together but then I’m not a member of any target audiences (e.g., business investor, venture capitalist, policy maker, etc.). As well, I’m not the client who may have been driving this message or, in this case, incompatible messages and there’s not a lot the PR flack can do in that case.

An example of ‘good’ storymaking

As for the standard tech community complaints, here’s one of the latest examples and it’s a good example of how to do this. From an Oct. 7, 2019 news item on Daily Hive,

Over 110 Canadian tech CEOs have signed an open letter urging political parties to take action to strengthen the country’s innovative economy, and avoid falling further behind international peers.

So far, major parties have put forward pledges in areas like affordability, first-time home buyers, and climate change, but the campaigns have offered few promises designed to drive economic growth in the digital age.

The letter was drafted by the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group representing some of the country’s fastest-growing companies. Combined, its signatories run domestic firms that employed more than 35,000 people last year and generated more than $6 billion for the Canadian economy.

Ian Rae, CEO of Montreal big-data firm CloudOps, said his engineers receive unsolicited job offers, usually with big salaries and mostly from US tech firms.

“We need to be thinking in Canada about the future economy and the fact that the globe seems to be in this enormous shift towards the globalized digital economy,” said Rae.

He said deep-pocketed foreign investors have also had their eyes on Canadian firms with potential. The risk, he said, is that these companies are bought out before they can grow and generate wealth and employment returns in Canada.

“A lot of these US companies are cherry-picking Canadian scale-ups before they scale up, so that the ultimate net benefit tends to flow outside of the Canadian economy,” Rae said.

Tech CEOs have said the Liberal government’s efforts in recent years to support high growth firms have offered little for emerging scale-up companies that have already outgrown the start-up phase.

David Ross, CEO of Ross Video, said a recent study by the University of Toronto found that Canada was an international laggard when it came to scaling up private firms to the billion dollar mark, companies also known as unicorns. [emphasis mine]

“The situation is so bad that even if we were to create four times as many unicorns, we would still be in last place,” said the study from the university’s Impact Centre.

Ross, whose Ottawa information and communications technology company has 650 employees, said the performance “should be a bit of a crisis for our politicians.”

“Canada should be more than rocks, trees, and oil,” Ross said.


This story was tightly focused on science and technology innovation and party platforms prior to the October 21, 2019 election. It was timely and it was an appeal to make Canada “… more than rocks, …” tying in very nicely with an iconic slam poetry presentation (We Are More) at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver by Shane Koyczan.

Should you be interested in more information about Mr. Cenetig’s companies, you can find out more about Catalytico here and CityAge here.

Smartphone as augmented reality system with software from Brown University

You need to see this,

Amazing, eh? The researchers are scheduled to present this work sometime this week at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) being held in New Orleans, US, from October 20-23, 2019.

Here’s more about ‘Portal-ble’ in an October 16, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new software system developed by Brown University [US] researchers turns cell phones into augmented reality portals, enabling users to place virtual building blocks, furniture and other objects into real-world backdrops, and use their hands to manipulate those objects as if they were really there.

The developers hope the new system, called Portal-ble, could be a tool for artists, designers, game developers and others to experiment with augmented reality (AR). The team will present the work later this month at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST 2019) in New Orleans. The source code for Andriod is freely available for download on the researchers’ website, and iPhone code will follow soon.

“AR is going to be a great new mode of interaction,” said Jeff Huang, an assistant professor of computer science at Brown who developed the system with his students. “We wanted to make something that made AR portable so that people could use anywhere without any bulky headsets. We also wanted people to be able to interact with the virtual world in a natural way using their hands.”

An October 16, 2019 Brown University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Huang said the idea for Portal-ble’s “hands-on” interaction grew out of some frustration with AR apps like Pokemon GO. AR apps use smartphones to place virtual objects (like Pokemon characters) into real-world scenes, but interacting with those objects requires users to swipe on the screen.

“Swiping just wasn’t a satisfying way of interacting,” Huang said. “In the real world, we interact with objects with our hands. We turn doorknobs, pick things up and throw things. So we thought manipulating virtual objects by hand would be much more powerful than swiping. That’s what’s different about Portal-ble.”

The platform makes use of a small infrared sensor mounted on the back of a phone. The sensor tracks the position of people’s hands in relation to virtual objects, enabling users to pick objects up, turn them, stack them or drop them. It also lets people use their hands to virtually “paint” onto real-world backdrops. As a demonstration, Huang and his students used the system to paint a virtual garden into a green space on Brown’s College Hill campus.

Huang says the main technical contribution of the work was developing the right accommodations and feedback tools to enable people to interact intuitively with virtual objects.

“It turns out that picking up a virtual object is really hard if you try to apply real-world physics,” Huang said. “People try to grab in the wrong place, or they put their fingers through the objects. So we had to observe how people tried to interact with these objects and then make our system able accommodate those tendencies.”

To do that, Huang enlisted students in a class he was teaching to come up with tasks they might want to do in the AR world — stacking a set of blocks, for example. The students then asked other people to try performing those tasks using Portal-ble, while recording what people were able to do and what they couldn’t. They could then adjust the system’s physics and user interface to make interactions more successful.

“It’s a little like what happens when people draw lines in Photoshop,” Huang said. “The lines people draw are never perfect, but the program can smooth them out and make them perfectly straight. Those were the kinds of accommodations we were trying to make with these virtual objects.”

The team also added sensory feedback — visual highlights on objects and phone vibrations — to make interactions easier. Huang said he was somewhat surprised that phone vibrations helped users to interact. Users feel the vibrations in the hand they’re using to hold the phone, not in the hand that’s actually grabbing for the virtual object. Still, Huang said, vibration feedback still helped users to more successfully interact with objects.

In follow-up studies, users reported that the accommodations and feedback used by the system made tasks significantly easier, less time-consuming and more satisfying.

Huang and his students plan to continue working with Portal-ble — expanding its object library, refining interactions and developing new activities. They also hope to streamline the system to make it run entirely on a phone. Currently the infrared sensor requires an infrared sensor and external compute stick for extra processing power.

Huang hopes people will download the freely available source code and try it for themselves. 
“We really just want to put this out there and see what people do with it,” he said. “The code is on our website for people to download, edit and build off of. It will be interesting to see what people do with it.

Co-authors on the research paper were Jing Qian, Jiaju Ma, Xiangyu Li, Benjamin Attal, Haoming Lai, James Tompkin and John Hughes. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation (IIS-1552663) and by a gift from Pixar.

You can find the conference paper here on jeffhuang.com,

Portal-ble: Intuitive Free-hand Manipulationin Unbounded Smartphone-based Augmented Reality by Jing Qian, Jiaju Ma, Xiangyu Li∗, Benjamin Attal, Haoming Lai,James Tompkin, John F. Hughes, Jeff Huang. Brown University, Providence RI, USA; Southeast University, Nanjing, China. Presented at ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) being held in New Orleans, US

This is the first time I’ve seen an augmented reality system that seems accessible, i.e., affordable. You can find out more on the Portal-ble ‘resource’ page where you’ll also find a link to the source code repository. The researchers, as noted in the news release, have an Android version available now with an iPhone version to be released in the future.

Toronto, Sidewalk Labs, smart cities, and timber

The ‘smart city’ initiatives continue to fascinate. During the summer, Toronto’s efforts were described in a June 24, 2019 article by Katharine Schwab for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Today, Google sister company Sidewalk Labs released a draft of its master plan to transform 12 acres on the Toronto waterfront into a smart city. The document details the neighborhood’s buildings, street design, transportation, and digital infrastructure—as well as how the company plans to construct it.

When a leaked copy of the plan popped up online earlier this year, we learned that Sidewalk Labs plans to build the entire development, called Quayside, out of mass timber. But today’s release of the official plan reveals the key to doing so: Sidewalk proposes investing $80 million to build a timber factory and supply chain that would support its fully timber neighborhood. The company says the factory, which would be focused on manufacturing prefabricated building pieces that could then be assembled into fully modular buildings on site, could reduce building time by 35% compared to more traditional building methods.

“We would fund the creation of [a factory] somewhere in the greater Toronto area that we think could play a role in catalyzing a new industry around mass timber,” says Sidewalk Labs CEO and chairman Dan Doctoroff.

However, the funding of the factory is dependent on Sidewalk Labs being able to expand its development plan to the entire riverfront district. .. [emphasis mine].

Here’s where I think it gets very interesting,

Sidewalk proposes sourcing spruce and fir trees from the forests in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. While Canada has 40% of the world’s sustainable forests, Sidewalk claims, the country has few factories that can turn these trees into the building material. That’s why the company proposes starting a factory to process two kinds of mass timber: Cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glulam beams. The latter is meant specifically to bear the weight of the 30-story buildings Sidewalk hopes to build. While Sidewalk says that 84% of the larger district would be handed over for development by local companies, the plan requires that these companies uphold the same sustainability standards when it comes to performance

Sidewalk says companies wouldn’t be required to build with CLT and glulam, but since the company’s reason for building the mass timber factory is that there aren’t many existing manufacturers to meet the needs for a full-scale development, the company’s plan might ultimately push any third-party developers toward using its [Google] factory to source materials. … [emphasis mine]

If I understand this rightly, Google wants to expand its plan to Toronto’s entire waterfront to make building a factory to produce the type of wood products Google wants to use in its Quayside development financially feasible (profitable). And somehow, local developers will not be forced to build the sames kinds of structures although Google will be managing the entire waterfront development. Hmmm.

Let’s take a look at one of Google’s other ‘city ventures’.

Louisville, Kentucky

First, Alphabet is the name of Google’s parent company and it was Alphabet that offered the city of Louisville an opportunity for cheap, abundant internet service known as Google Fiber. From a May 6, 2019 article by Alex Correa for the The Edge (Note: Links have been removed),

In 2015, Alphabet chose several cities in Kentucky to host its Google Fiber project. Google Fiber is a service providing broadband internet and IPTV directly to a number of locations, and the initiative in Kentucky … . The tech giant dug up city streets to bury fibre optic cables of their own, touting a new technique that would only require the cables to be a few inches beneath the surface. However, after two years of delays and negotiations after the announcement, Google abandoned the project in Louisville, Kentucky.

Like an unwanted pest in a garden, sign of Google’s presence can be seen and felt in the city streets. Metro Councilman Brandon Coan criticized the state of the city’s infrastructure, pointing out that strands of errant, tar-like sealant, used to cover up the cables, are “everywhere.” Speaking outside of a Louisville coffee shop that ran Google Fiber lines before the departure, he said, “I’m confident that Google and the city are going to negotiate a deal… to restore the roads to as good a condition as they were when they got here. Frankly, I think they owe us more than that.”

Google’s disappearance did more than just damage roads [emphasis mine] in Louisville. Plans for promising projects were abandoned, including transformative economic development that could have provided the population with new jobs and vastly different career opportunities than what was available. Add to that the fact that media coverage of the aborted initiative cast Louisville as the site of a failed experiment, creating an impression of the city as an embarrassment. (Google has since announced plans to reimburse the city $3.84 million over 20 months to help repair the damage to the city’s streets and infrastructure.)

A February 22, 2019 article on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio news online offers images of the damaged roadways and a particle transcript of a Day 6 radio show hosted by Brent Bambury,

Shortly after it was installed, the sealant on the trenches Google Fiber cut into Louisville roads popped out. (WDRB Louisville) Courtesy: CBC Radio Day 6

Google’s Sidewalk Labs is facing increased pushback to its proposal to build a futuristic neighbourhood in Toronto, after leaked documents revealed the company’s plans are more ambitious than the public had realized.

One particular proposal — which would see Sidewalk Labs taking a cut of property taxes in exchange for building a light rail transit line along Toronto’s waterfront — is especially controversial.

The company has developed an impressive list of promises for its proposed neighbourhood, including mobile pre-built buildings and office towers that tailor themselves to occupants’ behaviour.

But Louisville, Kentucky-based business reporter Chris Otts says that when Google companies come to town, it doesn’t always end well.

What was the promise Google Fiber made to Louisville back in 2015?

Well, it was just to be included as one of their Fiber cities, which was a pretty serious deal for Louisville at the time. A big coup for the mayor, and his administration had been working for years to get Google to consider adding Louisville to that list.

So if the city was eager, what sorts of accommodations were made for Google to entice them to come to Louisville?

Basically, the city did everything it could from a streamlining red tape perspective to get Google here … in terms of, you know, awarding them a franchise, and allowing them to be in the rights of way with this innovative technique they had for burying their cables here.
And then also, they [the city] passed a policy, which, to be sure, they say is just good policy regardless of Google’s support for it. But it had to do with how new Internet companies like Google can access utility poles to install their networks.

And Louisville ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend that new policy in court in lawsuits by AT&T and by the traditional cable company here.

When Google Fiber starts doing business, they’re offering cheaper high speed Internet access, and they start burying these cables in the ground.

When did things start to go sideways for this project?

I don’t know if I would say ‘almost immediately,’ but certainly the problems were evident fairly quickly.

So they started their work in 2017. If you picture it, [in] the streets you can see on either side there are these seams. They look like little strings … near the end of the streets on both sides. And there are cuts in the street where they buried the cable and they topped it off with this sealant

And fairly early on — within months, I would say, of them doing that — you could see the sealant popping out. The conduit in there [was] visible or exposed. And so it was fairly evident that there were problems with it pretty quickly

Was this the first time that they had used this system and the sealant that you’re describing?

It was the first time, according to them, that they had used such shallow trenches in the streets.

So these are as shallow as two inches below the pavement surface that they’d bury these cables. It’s the ultra-shallow version of this technique.

And what explanation did Google Fiber offer for their decision to leave Louisville?

That it was basically a business decision; that they were trying this construction method to see if it was sustainable and they just had too many problems with it.

And as they said directly in their … written statement about this, they decided that instead of doing things right and starting over, which they would have to do essentially to keep providing service in Louisville, that it was the better business decision for them to just pick up and leave.

Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs isn’t Google Fiber — but they’re both owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

If Louisville could give Toronto a piece of advice about welcoming a Google infrastructure project to town, what do you think that advice would be?

The biggest lesson from this is that one day they can be next to you at the press conference saying what a great city you are and how happy they are to … provide new service in your market, and then the next day, with almost no notice, they can say, “You know what? This doesn’t make sense for us anymore. And by the way, see ya. Thanks for having us. Sorry it didn’t work out.”

Google’s promises to Toronto

Getting back to Katharine Schwab’s June 24, 2019 fast Company article,

The factory is also key to another of Sidewalk’s promises: Jobs. According to Sidewalk, the factory itself would create 2,500 jobs [emphasis mine] along the entire supply chain over a 20-year period. But even if the Canadian government approves Sidewalk’s plan and commits to building out the entire waterfront district to take advantage of the mass timber factory’s economies of scale, there are other regulatory hurdles to overcome. Right now, the building code in Toronto doesn’t allow for timber buildings over six stories tall. All of Sidewalk’s proposed buildings are over six stories, and many of them go up to 30 stories. Doctoroff said he was optimistic that the company will be able to get regulations changed if the city decides to adopt the plan. There are several examples of timber buildings that are already under construction, with a planned skyscraper in Japan that will be 70 stories.

Sidewalk’s proposal is the result of 18 months of planning, which involved getting feedback from community members and prototyping elements like a building raincoat that the company hopes to include in the final development. It has come under fire from privacy advocates in particular, and the Canadian government is currently facing a lawsuit from a civil liberties group over its decision to allow a corporation to propose public privacy governance standards.

Now that the company has released the plan, it will be up to the Canadian government to decide whether to move forward. And the mass timber factory, in particular, will be dependent on the government adopting Sidewalk’s plan wholesale, far beyond the Quayside development—a reminder that Sidewalk is a corporation that’s here to make money, dangling investment dollars in front of the government to incentivize it to embrace Sidewalk as the developer for the entire area.

A few thoughts

Those folks in Louisville made a lot of accommodations for Google only to have the company abandon them. They will get some money in compensation, finally, but it doesn’t make up for the lost jobs and the national, if not international, loss of face.

I would think that should things go wrong, Google would do exactly the same thing to Toronto. As for the $80M promise, here’s exactly how it’s phrased in the June 24, 2019 Sidewalk Labs news release,

… Together with local partners, Sidewalk proposes to invest up to $80 million in a mass timber factory in Ontario to jumpstart this emerging industry.

So, Alphabet/Google/Sidewalk has proposed up to an $80M investment—with local partners. I wonder how much this factory is supposed to cost and what kinds of accommodations Alphabet/Google/Sidewalk will demand. Possibilities include policy changes, changes in municipal bylaws, and government money. In other words, Canadian taxpayers could end up footing part of the bill and/or local developers could be required to cover and outsize percentage of the costs for the factory as they jockey for the opportunity to develop part of Toronto’s waterfront.

Other than Louisville, what’s the company’s track record with regard to its partnerships with cities and municipalities? I Haven’t found any success stories in my admittedly brief search. Unusually, the company doesn’t seem to be promoting any of its successful city partnerships.

Smart city

While my focus has been on the company’s failure with Louisville and the possible dangers inherent to Toronto in a partnership with this company, it shouldn’t be forgotten that all of this development is in the name of a ‘smart’ city and that means data-driven. My March 28, 2018 posting features some of the issues with the technology, 5G, that will be needed to make cities ‘smart’. There’s also my March 20, 2018 posting (scroll down about 30% of the way) which looks at ‘smart’ cities in Canada with a special emphasis on Vancouver.

You may want to check out David Skok’s February 15, 2019 Maclean’s article (Cracks in the Sidewalk) for a Torontonian’s perspective.

Should you wish to do some delving yourself, there’s Sidewalk Labs website here and a June 24, 2019 article by Matt McFarland for CNN detailing some of the latest news about the backlash in Toronto concerning Sidewalk Labs.

A September 2019 update

Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) submitted a report to Google in August 2019 which was subsequently published as of September 10, 2019. To sum it up, the panel was not impressed with Google’s June 2019 draft master plan. From a September 11, 2019 news item on the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),

A controversial smart city development in Canada has hit another roadblock after an oversight panel called key aspects of the proposal “irrelevant”, “unnecessary” and “frustratingly abstract” in a new report.

The project on Toronto’s waterfront, dubbed Quayside, is a partnership between the city and Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs. It promises “raincoats” for buildings, autonomous vehicles and cutting-edge wood-frame towers, but has faced numerous criticisms in recent months.

A September 11, 2019 article by Ian Bick of Canadian Press published on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website offers more detail,

Preliminary commentary from Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory panel (DSAP) released Tuesday said the plan from Google’s sister company Sidewalk is “frustratingly abstract” and that some of the innovations proposed were “irrelevant or unnecessary.”

“The document is somewhat unwieldy and repetitive, spreads discussions of topics across multiple volumes, and is overly focused on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how,’ ” said the report on the panel’s comments.

Some on the 15-member panel, an arm’s-length body that gives expert advice to Waterfront Toronto, have also found the scope of the proposal to be unclear or “concerning.”

The report says that some members also felt the official Sidewalk plan did not appear to put the citizen at the centre of the design process for digital innovations, and raised issues with the way Sidewalk has proposed to manage data that is generated from the neighbourhood.

The panel’s early report is not official commentary from Waterfront Toronto, the multi-government body that is overseeing the Quayside development, but is meant to indicate areas that needs improvement.

The panel, chaired by University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, includes executives, professors, and other experts on technology, privacy, and innovation.

Sidewalk Labs spokeswoman Keerthana Rang said the company appreciates the feedback and already intends to release more details in October on the digital innovations it hopes to implement at Quayside.

I haven’t been able to find the response to DSAP’s September 2019 critique but I did find this Toronto Sidewalk Labs report, Responsible Data Use Assessment Summary :Overview of Collab dated October 16, 2019. Of course, there’s still another 10 days before October 2019 is past.

Computers made of gold embroidery and an Organic Bioelectronics conference (ORBITALY) in Naples, Italy

Spend enough time reading about emerging technologies and, at some point, you will find yourself questioning some of your dearly held beliefs. It gives a whole new meaning to term, mind altering (also, mind blowing or mind expanding), which in the 1960s was used to refer to the effects of LSD and other hallucinogens. Today <September 1, 2019 (Labour Day in Canada and elsewhere), I have two news bits that could be considered mind expanding, sans hallucinogens.

Gold-embroidered computers

The Embroidered Computer. Artists: Irene Posch and Ebru Kurbak .[downloaded from http://www.ireneposch.net/the-embroidered-computer/]

If you look closely, you’ll see the beads shift position and that’s how the ones and zeroes make themselves known on this embroidered computer. An August 23, 2019 article (updated from a March 8, 2019 article) on the CBC’s (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio, Spark programme web space, provides insight into the work,

A beautiful ’embroidered computer’ may explode our categories of what computers are supposed to look like.

After all, we may think the design of a computer is permanent, but what a computer ‘looks like’ depends a lot on what era it’s from.

“We use gold-coloured copper wire to form a coil, in a donut shape” Posch told Spark host Nora Young. “Then we have a magnetic bead that sits in the middle of this coil, and when this coil is [connected to] power, the magnetic bead is either attracted or pushed away….

Depending on how we power… the embroidered coil, we can direct the magnetic bead in different positions.”

More gold embroidery on top of the bead will flip one way or another, based on the bead [above].

The process is analogous to the zeros and ones of computation.

As well as being an artist, Posch is a professor at the University for Art and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria. Much of her work and research uses textile art to explore digital technology.

In this case, it’s not like Irene expects people to start doing today’s heavy-duty computing on a two-metre-long, eight-bit golden embroidered fabric computer. But The Embroidered Computer project opens up space to question the design of computers in particular, but also our technologies in general

“I understand The Embroidered Computer as an alternative, as an example, but also a critique of what we assume a computer to be today, and how it technically could be different,” Posch said. “If this is actually what we want is a whole different question, but I think it’s interesting to propose an alternative.”

Bringing together textiles and electronics, which are normally seen as worlds apart, can bring new insights. “Going into the history of computing we very soon become aware that they’re not that apart as we sometimes think they are, if you think of the Jacquard weaving loom as one of the predecessors of computing today.”

You can find our more about the artists (Ebru Kurkak here) and (Irene Posch here). Finally, you can hear the Spark radio interview with Irene Posch here.

ORBITALY 2019

I don’t have a lot of information about this event but what I do have looks intriguing. From the ORBITALY 2019 conference home page,

OrBItaly (Organic BIoelectronics Italy) is an international conference, organized by the Italian Scientific Community and attended by scientists of the highest reputation, dedicated to the most recent results in the field of bioelectronics, with a particular focus on the employment of organic materials.

OrBItaly has attracted in the years a growing interest by scientists coming from all over the world. The 2019 edition is the fifth one of this cross-disciplinary conference, and will be held in Naples, on October 21st-23rd, 2019, at the Congress Center of the University Federico II

This year the conference will be preceded by the first edition of the Graduate School in Organic Bioelectronics, that will be held at the Congress Center of the University of Naples Federico II in Naples (Italy), on October 20th, 2019. The school is mainly targeted to PhD students, post-docs and young researchers as well as to senior scientists and industry-oriented researchers, giving them the opportunity to attend an overview of the latest advances in the fields of organic bioelectronics presented by leading scientists of the highest international repute. Invited lecturers will provide highly stimulating lessons at advanced levels in their own field of research, and closely interact with the attendees during platform discussions, outreach events and informal meetings.

Organizing Committee

Mario Barra, CNR – SPIN, mario.barra@spin.cnr.it
Irene Bonadies, CNR – IPCB, irene.bonadies@ipcb.cnr.it
Antonio Cassinese, Univ. Napoli Federico II, cassinese@na.infn.it
Valeria Criscuolo, IIT, valeria.criscuolo@iit.it
Claudia Lubrano, IIT, claudia.lubrano@iit.it
Maria Grazia Maglione, ENEA, mariagrazia.maglione@enea.it
Paola Manini, Univ. Napoli Federico II, paola.manini@unina.it
Alessandro Pezzella, Univ. Napoli Federico II, alessandro.pezzella@unina.it
Maria Grazia Raucci, CNR – IPCB, mariagrazia.raucci@cnr.it
Francesca Santoro, IIT, francesca.santoro@iit.it
Paolo Tassini, ENEA, paolo.tassini@enea.it

So, the conference runs from the 21st to the 23rd of October 2019 and there’s a one-day graduate school programme being held one day prior to the conference on the 20th of October 2019.

Regular readers may notice that some of the ORBITALY 2019 organizers have recently been mentioned here in an August 25, 2019 posting titled, Cyborgs based on melanin circuits.

Science events and an exhibition concerning wind in the Vancouver (Canada) area for July 2019 and beyond

it’s not quite the bumper crop of science events that took place in May 2019, which may be a good thing if you’re eager to attend everything. First, here are the events and then, the exhibition.

Nerd Nite at the Movies

On July 10, 2019, a new series is being launched at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) Centre. Here’s the description from the Nerd Nite Vancouver SciFact vs SciFi: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies event page,

SciFact vs SciFiction: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies v1. Animal

This summer we’re trying something a little different. Our new summer series of talks – a collaboration between Nerd Nite and VIFF – examines the pseudo-science propagated by Hollywood, and seeks to sift real insights from fake facts, in a fun, playful but peer-approved format. Each show will feature clips from a variety of movies on a science theme with a featured scientist on hand all done Nerd Nite style with drinks! We begin with biology, and our first presenter is Dr Carin Bondar.

Dr Bondar has been the host of Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science, and she’s the author of several books including “Wild Moms: The Science Behind Mating in the Animal Kingdom”. Tonight she’ll join Kaylee [Byers] and Michael [Unger] from Nerd Nite to discuss the sci-facts in a variety of clips from cinema. We’ll be discussing the science in Planet of the ApesThe BirdsArachnophobiaSnakes on a Plane, and more!

When: July 10 [2019]
Where: Vancouver International Film Centre
When: 7:30 – 8:30 – This talk will be followed by a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds (9pm). Double bill price: $20
Tickets: Here!

The VIFF Centre’s SciFact vs SciFi: Animals According to Hollywood event page has much the same information plus this,

SciFact vs SciFi: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies continues:

July 31 [2019] – Dr. Douglas Scott: The Universe According to Hollywood
Aug 14 [2019] – Mika McKinnon: Disaster According to Hollywood
Aug 28 [2019] – Greg Bole: Evolution According to Hollywood

This series put me in mind what was then the New York-based, ‘Science Goes to the Movies’. I first mentioned this series in a March 10, 2016 posting and it seems that since then, the series has lost a host and been embraced by public television (in the US). You can find the latest incarnation of Science Goes To The Movies here.

Getting back to Vancouver, no word as to which movies will accompany these future talks. If I had a vote, I’d love to see Gattaca accompany any talk on genetics.

That last sentence is both true and provides a neat segue to the next event.

Genetics at the Vancouver Public Library (VPL)

Coming up on July 23, 2019, a couple of graduate students at the University of British Columbia will be sharing some of the latest information on genetics. From the VPL events page,

Curiosities of the Natural World: Genetics – the Future of Medicine

Tuesday, July 23, 2019 (7:00 pm – 8:30 pm)
Central Library
Description

Since their discovery over a century ago, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s have seemed like diseases without a cure. The advent of genetic treatments and biomarkers are changing the outcomes and treatments of these once impossible-to-treat conditions.

UBC researchers, Adam Ramzy and Maria-Elizabeth Baeva discuss the potential of genetic therapies for diabetes, and new biomarkers and therapeutics for Alzheimer ’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

This program is part of the Curiosities of the Natural World series in partnership with UBC Let’s Talk Science, the UBC Faculty of Science, and the UBC Public Scholars Initiative

Suitable for: Adults
Seniors

Additional Details:
Alma VanDusen and Peter Kaye Rooms, Lower Level

It’s hard to know how to respond to this as I loathe anything that has ‘future of medicine’ in it. Isn’t there always going to ‘a’ future with medicine in it?

Also, there is at least one cautionary tale about this new era of ‘genetic medicine’: Glybera is a gene therapy that worked for people with a rare genetic disease. It is a **treatment**, the only one, and it is no longer available.

Kelly Crowe in a November 17, 2018 article for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news writes about Glybera,

It is one of this country’s great scientific achievements.

The first drug ever approved that can fix a faulty gene.

It’s called Glybera, and it can treat a painful and potentially deadly genetic disorder with a single dose — a genuine made-in-Canada medical breakthrough.

But most Canadians have never heard of it.

A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia spent decades developing the treatment for people born with a genetic mutation that causes lipoprotein lipase disorder (LPLD).

LPLD affects communities in the Saguenay region of northeastern Quebec at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world.

Glybera was never sold in North America and was available in Europe for just two years, beginning in 2015. During that time, only one patient received the drug. Then it was abandoned by the company that held its European licensing rights.

The problem was the price.

The world’s first gene therapy, a remarkable discovery by a dedicated team of scientists who came together in a Vancouver lab, had earned a second, more dubious distinction:

The world’s most expensive drug.

It cost $1M for a single treatment and that single treatment is good for at least 10 years.

Pharmaceutical companies make their money from repeated use of their medicaments and Glybera required only one treatment so the company priced it according to how much they would have gotten for repeated use, $100,000 per year over a 10 year period. The company was not able to persuade governments and/or individuals to pay the cost.

In the end, 31 people got the treatment, most of them received it for free through clinical trials.

Crowe has written an exceptionally good story (November 17, 2018 article) about Glybera and I encourage you to read in its entirety. I warn you it’s heartbreaking.

I wrote about money and genetics in an April 26, 2019 posting (Gene editing and personalized medicine: Canada). Scroll down to the subsection titled ‘Cost/benefit analysis’ for a mention of Goldman Sachs, an American global investment banking, securities and investment management firm, and its conclusion that personalized medicine is not a viable business model. I wonder if part of their analysis included the Glybera experience.

Getting back to the July 23, 2019 talk at the VPL’s central branch, I have no doubt the researchers will be discussing some exciting work but the future might not be as rosy as one might hope.

I wasn’t able to find much information about either Adan Ramzy or Maria-Elizabeth Baeva. There’s this for Ramzy (scroll down to Class of 2021) and this for Baeva (scroll down to Scholarships).

WINDS from June 22 to September 29, 2019

This show or exhibition is taking place in New Westminster (part of the Metro Vancouver area) at the Anvil Centre’s New Media Gallery. From the Anvil Centre’s WINDS event page,

WINDS
New Media Gallery Exhibition
June 22  – September 29
Opening Reception + Artist Talk  is on June 21st at 6:30pm
 
Chris Welsby (UK)
Spencer Finch (UK)
David Bowen (USA)
Nathalie Miebach (Germany/USA)
 
Our summer exhibition features four exciting, multi-media installations by four international artists from UK and USA.  Each artist connects with the representation, recreation and manifestation of wind through physical space and time.  Each suggests how our perception and understanding of wind can be created through pressure, sound, data, pattern, music and motion and then further appreciated in poetic or metaphoric ways that might connect us with how the wind influences language, imagination or our understanding of historic events.
 
All the artists use sound as a key element ; to emphasize or recreate the sonic experience of different winds and their effects, to trigger memory or emotion, or to heighten certain effects that might prompt the viewer to consider significant philosophical questions. Common objects are used in all the works; discarded objects, household or readymade objects and everyday materials; organic, synthetic, natural and manmade. The viewer will find connections with past winds and events both recent and distant.  There is an attempt to capture or allude to a moment in time which brings with it suggestions of mortality,  thereby transforming the works into poignant memento-mori.

Dates
June 22 – September 29, 2019

Price
Complimentary

Location
777 Columbia Street. New Media Gallery.

The New Media Gallery’s home page features ‘winds’ (yes, it’s all in lower case),

Landscape and weather have long shared an intimate connection with the arts.  Each of the works here is a landscape: captured, interpreted and presented through a range of technologies. The four artists in this exhibition have taken, as their material process, the movement of wind through physical space & time. They explore how our perception and understanding of landscape can be interpreted through technology. 

These works have been created by what might be understood as a sort of scientific method or process that involves collecting data, acute observation, controlled experiments and the incorporation of measurements and technologies that control or collect motion, pressure, sound, pattern and the like. The artists then take us in other directions; allowing technology or situations to render visible that which is invisible, creating and focussing on peculiar or resonant qualities of sound, light or movement in ways that seem to influence emotion or memory, dwelling on iconic places and events, or revealing in subtle ways, the subjective nature of time.  Each of these works suggest questions related to the nature of illusive experience and how or if it can be captured, bringing inevitable connections to authorship, loss, memory and memento mori

David Bowen
tele-present wind
Image
Biography
Credits

Spencer Finch (USA)
2 hours, 2 minutes, 2 seconds (Wind at Walden Pond, March 12, 2007)
Image
Biography
Credits

Nathalie Miebach (USA)
Hurricane Noel III
Image
Biography
Credits

Chris Welsby (UK)
Wind Vane
Image
Biography
Credits

Hours
10:00am – 5:00pm Tuesday – Sunday
10:00am – 8:00pm Thursdays
Closed Monday

Address
New Media Gallery
3rd Floor Anvil Centre
777 Columbia Street
New Westminster, BC V3M 1B6

If you want to see the images and biographies for the artists participating in ‘winds’, please go here..

So there you have it, science events and an exhibition in the Vancouver* area for July 2019.

*July 23, 2019 Correction: The word ‘and’ was removed from the final sentence for grammatical correctness.

**July 23, 2018 Correction: I changed the word ‘cure’ to ‘treatment’ so as to be more accurate. The word ‘cure’ suggests permanence and Glybera is supposed to be effective for 10 years or longer but no one really knows.

May 2019: Canada and science, science, science—events

It seems May 2019 is destined to be a big month where science events in Canada are concerned. I have three national science science promotion programmes, Science Odyssey, Science Rendezvous, and Pint of Science Festival Canada (part of an international effort); two local (Vancouver, Canada) events, an art/sci café from Curiosity Collider and a SciCats science communication workshop; a national/local event at Ingenium’s Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, and an international social media (Twitter) event called #Museum Week.

Science Odyssey 2019 (formerly Science and Technology Week)

In 2016 the federal Liberal government rebranded a longstanding science promotion/education programme known as Science and Technology Week to Science Odyseey and moved it from the autumn to the spring. (Should you be curious about this change, there’s a video on YouTube with Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Parliamentary Secretary for Science Terry Beech launching “Science Odyssey, 10 days of innovation and science discovery.” My May 10, 2016 posting provides more details about the change.)

Moving forward to the present day, the 2019 edition of Science Odyseey will run from May 4 – May 19, 2019 for a whopping16 days. The Science Odyssey website can be found here.

Once you get to the website and choose your language, on the page where you land, you’ll find if you scroll down, there’s an option to choose a location (ignore the map until after you’ve successfully chosen a location and clicked on the filter button (it took me at least twice before achieving success; this seems to be a hit and miss affair).

Once you have applied the filter, the map will change and make more sense but I liked using the text list which appears after the filer has been applied better. Should you click on the map, you will lose the filtered text list and have to start over.

Science Rendezvous 2019

I’m not sure I’d call Science Rendezvous the largest science festival in Canada (it seems to me Beakerhead might have a chance at that title) but it did start in 2008 as its Wikipedia entry mentions (Note: Links have been removed),

Science Rendezvous is the largest [emphasis mine] science festival in Canada; its inaugural event happened across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) on Saturday, May 10, 2008. By 2011 the event had gone national, with participation from research institutes, universities, science groups and the public from all across Canada – from Vancouver to St. John’s to Inuvik. Science Rendezvous is a registered not-for-profit organization dedicated to making great science accessible to the public. The 2017 event took place on Saturday May 13 at more than 40 simultaneous venues.

This free all-day event aims to highlight and promote great science in Canada. The target audience is the general public, parents, children and youth, with an ultimate aim of improving enrollment and investment in sciences and technology in the future.

Science Rendezvous is being held on May 11, 2019 and its website can be found here.You can find events listed by province here. There are no entries for Alberta, Nunavut, or Prince Edward Island this year.

Science Rendezvous seems to have a relationship to Science Odyssey, my guess is that they are receiving funds. In any case , you may find that an event on the Science Rendezvous site is also on the Science Odyssey site or vice versa, depending on where you start.

Pint of Science Festival (Canada)

The 2019 Pint of Science Festival will be in 25 cities across Canada from May 20 – 22, 2019. Reminiscent of the Café Scientifique events (Vancouver, Canada) where science and beer are closely interlinked, so it is with the Pint of Science Festival, which has its roots in the UK. (Later, I have something about Guelph, Ontario and its ‘beery’ 2019 Pint event.)

Here’s some history about the Canadian inception and its UK progenitor. From he Pint of Science of Festival Canada website, the About Us page,

About Us
Pint of Science is a non-profit organisation that brings some of the most brilliant scientists to your local pub to discuss their latest research and findings with you. You don’t need any prior knowledge, and this is your chance to meet the people responsible for the future of science (and have a pint with them). Our festival runs over a few days in May every year,but we occasionally run events during other months. 
 
A propos de nous 
Pinte de Science est une organisation à but non lucratif qui amène quelques brillants scientifiques dans un bar près de chez vous pour discuter de leurs dernières recherches et découvertes avec le public. Vous n’avez besoin d’aucune connaissance préalable, et c’est l’occasion de rencontrer les responsables de l’avenir de la science (et de prendre une pinte avec eux). Notre festival se déroule sur quelques jours au mois de mai chaque année, mais nous organisons parfois quelques événements exceptionnels en dehors des dates officielles du festival.
 
History 
In 2012 Dr Michael Motskin and Dr Praveen Paul were two research scientists at Imperial College London in the UK. They started and organised an event called ‘Meet the Researchers’. It brought people affected by Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, motor neurone disease and multiple sclerosis into their labs to show them the kind of research they do. It was inspirational for both visitors and researchers. They thought if people want to come into labs to meet scientists, why not bring the scientists out to the people? And so Pint of Science was born. In May 2013 they held the first Pint of Science festival in just three UK cities. It quickly took off around the world and is now in nearly 300 cities. Read more here. Pint of Science Canada held its first events in 2016, a full list of locations can be found here.
 
L’Histoire
 En 2012, Dr Michael Motskin et Dr Praveen Paul étaient deux chercheurs à l’Imperial College London, au Royaume-Uni. Ils ont organisé un événement intitulé «Rencontrez les chercheurs» et ont amené les personnes atteintes de la maladie de Parkinson, d’Alzheimer, de neuropathie motrice et de sclérose en plaques dans leurs laboratoires pour leur montrer le type de recherche qu’ils menaient. C’était une source d’inspiration pour les visiteurs et les chercheurs. Ils ont pensé que si les gens voulaient se rendre dans les laboratoires pour rencontrer des scientifiques, pourquoi ne pas les faire venir dans des bars? Et ainsi est née une Pinte de Science. En mai 2013, ils ont organisé le premier festival Pinte de Science dans trois villes britanniques. Le festival a rapidement décollé dans le monde entier et se trouve maintenant dans près de 300 villes. Lire la suite ici . Pinte de Science Canada a organisé ses premiers événements en 2016. Vous trouverez une liste complète des lieux ici.

Tickets and programme are available as of today, May 1, 2019. Just go here: https://pintofscience.ca/locations/

I clicked on ‘Vancouver’ and found a range of bars, dates, and topics. It’s worth checking out every topic because the title doesn’t necessarily get the whole story across. Kudos to the team putting this together. Where these things are concderned, I don’t get surprised often. Here’s how it happened, I was expecting another space travel story when I saw this title: ‘Above and beyond: planetary science’. After clicking on the arrow,

Geology isn’t just about the Earth beneath our feet. Join us for an evening out of this world to discover what we know about the lumps of rock above our heads too!

Thank you for the geology surprise. As for the international part of this festival, you can find at least one bar in Europe, Asia and Australasia, the Americas, and Africa.

Beer and Guelph (Ontario)

I also have to tip my hat to Science Borealis (Canada’s science blog aggregator) for the tweet which led me to Pint of Science Guelph and a very special beer/science ffestival announcement,


Pint of Science Guelph will be held over three nights (May 20, 21, and 22) at six different venues, and will feature twelve different speakers. Each venue will host two speakers with talks ranging from bridging the digital divide to food fraud to the science of bubbles and beer. There will also be trivia and lots of opportunity to chat with the various researchers to learn more about what they do, and why they do it.

But wait! There’s more! Pint of Science Guelph is (as far as I’m aware) the first Pint of Science (2019) in Canada to have its own beer. Thanks to the awesome folks at Wellington Brewery, a small team of Pint of Science Guelph volunteers and speakers spent last Friday at the brewery learning about the brewing process by making a Brut IPA. This tasty beverage will be available as part of the Pint of Science celebration. Just order it by name – Brain Storm IPA.

Curiosity Collider (Vancouver, Canada)

The (Curiosity) Collider Café being held on May 8, 2019 is affiliated with Science Odyssey. From the Collider Café event webpage,

Credit: Michael Markowsky

Details,

Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Journeys.

Date/Time
Date(s) – 08/05/2019
8:00 pm – 9:30 pm
Location
Pizzeria Barbarella [links to address information]
654 E Broadway , Vancouver, BC

#ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science. Meet. Discover. Connect. Create. Are you curious?

Join us at “Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Journeys.” to explore how art and science intersect in the exploration of curiosity

//New location! Special thanks to Pizzeria Barbarella for hosting this upcoming Collider Cafe!//
 
* Michael Markowsky (visual art): The Dawn of the Artist-Astronaut
* Jacqueline Firkins (costume design): Fashioning Cancer: The Correlation between Destruction and Beauty
* Garvin Chinnia (visual art): Triops Journey
* Bob Pritchard (music technology): A Moving Experience: Gesture Tracking for Performance
 
The event starts promptly at 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm). $5.00-10.00 (sliding scale) cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events. Curiosity Collider is a registered BC non-profit organization.

Visit our Facebook page to let us know you are coming, and see event updates and speaker profiles.

You can find a map and menu information for Pizzeria Barbarella here. If memory serves, the pizzeria was named after the owner’s mother. I can’t recall if Barbarella was a nickname or a proper name.

I thought I recognized Jacqueline Firkins’ name and it turns out that I profiled her work on cancer fashion in a March 21, 2014 posting.

SciCats and a science communication workshop (in Vancouver)

I found the workshop announcement in a May 1, 2019 Curiosity Collider newsletter received via email,


May 5 [2019] Join the Fundamentals of Science Communication Workshop by SciCATs, and network with other scicomm enthusiasts. Free for grad students!

I found more information about the workshop on the SciCATs’ Fundamentals of Science Communication registration page (I’ve highlighted the portions that tell you the time commitement, the audience, and the contents),

SciCATs (Science Communication Action Team, uh, something) is a collective of science communicators (and cat fans) providing free, open source, online, skills-based science communication training, resources, and in-person workshops.

We believe that anyone, anywhere should be able to learn the why and the how of science communication!

For the past two years, SciCATs has been developing online resources and delivering science communication workshops to diverse groups of those interested in science communication. We are now hosting an open, public event to help a broader audience of those passionate about science to mix, mingle, and build their science communication skills – all while having fun.

SciCATs’ Fundamentals of Science Communication is a three-hour interactive workshop [emphasis mine] followed by one hour of networking.

For this event, our experienced SciCATs facilitators will lead the audience through our most-requested science communication modules:
Why communicate science
Finding your message
Telling your science as a story
Understanding your audience
[emphasis mine]

This workshop is ideal for people who are new to science communication [empahsis mine] or those who are more experienced. You might be an undergraduate or graduate student, researcher, technician, or other roles that have an interest in talking to the public about what you do. Perhaps you just want to hang out and meet some local science communicators. This is a great place to do it!

After the workshop we have a reservation at Chaqui Grill (1955 Cornwall), it will be a great opportunity to continue to network with all of the Sci-Cats and science communicators that attend over a beverage! They do have a full dinner menu as well.

Date and Time
Sun, May 5, 2019
2:00 PM – 5:00 PM PDT

Location
H.R. MacMillan Space Centre
1100 Chestnut Street
Vancouver, BC V6J 3J9

Refund Policy
Refunds up to 1 day before event

You can find out more about SciCats and its online resources here.

da Vinci in Canada from May 2 to September 2, 2019

This show is a big deal and it’s about to open in Ottawa in our national Science and Technology Museum (one of the Ingenium museums of science), which makes it national in name and local in practice since most of us will not make it to Ottawa during the show’s run.

Here’s more from the Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius exhibition webpage, (Note: A transcript is included)

Canada Science and Technology Museum from May 2 to September 2, 2019.

For the first time in Canada, the Canada Science and Technology Museum presents Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius, the most comprehensive exhibition experience on Leonardo da Vinci to tour the world. Created by Grande Exhibitions in collaboration with the Museo Leonardo da Vinci in Rome and a number of experts and historians from Italy and France, this interactive experience commemorates 500 years of Leonardo’s legacy, immersing visitors in his extraordinary life like never before.

Transcript

Demonstrating the full scope of Leonardo da Vinci’s achievements, Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius celebrates one of the most revered and dynamic intellects of all time. Revolutionary SENSORY4™ technology allows visitors to take a journey into the mind of the ultimate Renaissance man for the very first time.

Discover for yourself the true genius of Leonardo as an inventor, artist, scientist, anatomist, engineer, architect, sculptor and philosopher. See and interact with over 200 unique displays, including machine inventions, life-size reproductions of Leonardo’s Renaissance art, entertaining animations giving insight into his most notable works, and touchscreen versions of his actual codices.

Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius also includes the world’s exclusive Secrets of Mona Lisa exhibition – an analysis of the world’s most famous painting, conducted at the Louvre Museum by renowned scientific engineer, examiner and photographer of fine art Pascal Cotte.

Whether you are a history aficionado or discovering Leonardo for the first time, Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius is an entertaining, educational and enlightening experience the whole family will love.

For a change I’ve placed the video after its transcript,

The April 30, 2019 Ingenium announcement (received via email) hints at something a little more exciting than walking around and looking at cases,

Discover the true genius of Leonardo as an inventor, artist, scientist, anatomist, engineer, architect, sculptor, and philosopher. See and interact with more than 200 unique displays, including machine inventions, life-size reproductions of Leonardo’s Renaissance art, touchscreen versions of his life’s work, and an immersive, walkthrough cinematic experience. Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius [includes information about entry fees] the exclusive Secrets of Mona Lisa exhibition – an analysis of the world’s most famous painting.

I imagine there will be other events associated with this exhbition but for now there’s an opening night event, which is part of the museum’s Curiosity on Stage series (ticket purchase here),

Curiosity on Stage: Evening Edition – Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius

Join the Italian Embassy and the Canada Science and Technology Museum for an evening of discussion and discovery on the quintessential Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.
Invited speakers from the Galileo Museum in Italy, Carleton University, and the University of Ottawa will explore the historical importance of da Vinci’s diverse body of work, as well as the lasting impact of his legacy on science, technology, and art in our age.

Be among the first to visit the all-new exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius”! Your Curiosity on Stage ticket will grant you access to the exhibit in its entirety, which includes life-size reproductions of Leonardo’s art, touchscreen versions of his codices, and so much more!

Speakers:
Andrea Bernardoni (Galileo Museum) – Senior Researcher
Angelo Mingarelli (Carleton University) – Mathematician
Hanan Anis (University of Ottawa) – Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering
Lisa Leblanc (Canada Science and Technology Museum) – Director General; Panel Moderator

Read about their careers here.

Join the conversation and share your thoughts using the hashtag #CuriosityOnStage.

Agenda:
5:00 – 6:30 pm: Explore the “Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius” exhibit. Light refreshments and networking opportunities.
6:30 – 8:30 pm: Presentations and Panel discussion
Cost:
Members: $7
Students: $7 with discount code “SALAI” (valid student ID required on night of event)
Non-members: $10
*Parking fees are included with admission.

Tickets are not yet sold out.

#Museum Week 2019

#Museum Week (website) is being billed as “The first worldwide cultural event on social networks. The latest edition is being held from May 13 – 19, 2019. As far as I’m aware, it’s held on Twitter exclusively. You can check out the hash tag feed (#Museum Week) as it’s getting quite active even now.

They don’t have a list of participants for this year which leaves me feeling a little sad. It’s kind of fun to check out how many and which institutions in your country are planning to participate. I would have liked to have seen whether or not the Canada Science and Technology Museum and Science World Vancouver will be there. (I think both participated last year.) Given how busy the hash tag feed becomes during the event, I’m not likely to see them on it even if they’re tweeting madly.

May 2019 looks to be a very busy month for Canadian science enthusiasts! No matter where you are there is something for you.

The wonder of movement in 3D

Shades of Eadweard Muybridge (English photographer who pioneered photographic motion studies)! A September 19, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily describes the latest efforts to ‘capture motion’,

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has often credited his success to spending countless hours studying his opponent’s movements on film. This understanding of movement is necessary for all living species, whether it’s figuring out what angle to throw a ball at, or perceiving the motion of predators and prey. But simple videos can’t actually give us the full picture.

That’s because traditional videos and photos for studying motion are two-dimensional, and don’t show us the underlying 3-D structure of the person or subject of interest. Without the full geometry, we can’t inspect the small and subtle movements that help us move faster, or make sense of the precision needed to perfect our athletic form.

Recently, though, researchers from MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have come up with a way to get a better handle on this understanding of complex motion.

There isn’t a single reference to Muybridge, still, this September 18, 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology news release (also on EurekAlert but published September 19, 2018), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

The new system uses an algorithm that can take 2-D videos and turn them into 3-D printed “motion sculptures” that show how a human body moves through space. In addition to being an intriguing aesthetic visualization of shape and time, the team envisions that their “MoSculp” system could enable a much more detailed study of motion for professional athletes, dancers, or anyone who wants to improve their physical skills.

“Imagine you have a video of Roger Federer serving a ball in a tennis match, and a video of yourself learning tennis,” says PhD student Xiuming Zhang, lead author of a new paper about the system. “You could then build motion sculptures of both scenarios to compare them and more comprehensively study where you need to improve.”

Because motion sculptures are 3-D, users can use a computer interface to navigate around the structures and see them from different viewpoints, revealing motion-related information inaccessible from the original viewpoint.

Zhang wrote the paper alongside MIT professors William Freeman and Stefanie Mueller, PhD student Jiajun Wu, Google researchers Qiurui He and Tali Dekel, as well as U.C. Berkeley postdoc and former CSAIL PhD Andrew Owens.

How it works

Artists and scientists have long struggled to gain better insight into movement, limited by their own camera lens and what it could provide.

Previous work has mostly used so-called “stroboscopic” photography techniques, which look a lot like the images in a flip book stitched together. But since these photos only show snapshots of movement, you wouldn’t be able to see as much of the trajectory of a person’s arm when they’re hitting a golf ball, for example.

What’s more, these photographs also require laborious pre-shoot setup, such as using a clean background and specialized depth cameras and lighting equipment. All MoSculp needs is a video sequence.

Given an input video, the system first automatically detects 2-D key points on the subject’s body, such as the hip, knee, and ankle of a ballerina while she’s doing a complex dance sequence. Then, it takes the best possible poses from those points to be turned into 3-D “skeletons.”

After stitching these skeletons together, the system generates a motion sculpture that can be 3-D printed, showing the smooth, continuous path of movement traced out by the subject. Users can customize their figures to focus on different body parts, assign different materials to distinguish among parts, and even customize lighting.

In user studies, the researchers found that over 75 percent of subjects felt that MoSculp provided a more detailed visualization for studying motion than the standard photography techniques.

“Dance and highly-skilled athletic motions often seem like ‘moving sculptures’ but they only create fleeting and ephemeral shapes,” says Courtney Brigham, communications lead at Adobe. “This work shows how to take motions and turn them into real sculptures with objective visualizations of movement, providing a way for athletes to analyze their movements for training, requiring no more equipment than a mobile camera and some computing time.”

The system works best for larger movements, like throwing a ball or taking a sweeping leap during a dance sequence. It also works for situations that might obstruct or complicate movement, such as people wearing loose clothing or carrying objects.

Currently, the system only uses single-person scenarios, but the team soon hopes to expand to multiple people. This could open up the potential to study things like social disorders, interpersonal interactions, and team dynamics.

This work will be presented at the User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) symposium in Berlin, Germany in October 2018 and the team’s paper published as part of the proceedings.

As for anyone wondering about the Muybridge comment, here’s an image the MIT researchers have made available,

A new system uses an algorithm that can take 2-D videos and turn them into 3-D-printed “motion sculptures” that show how a human body moves through space. Image courtesy of MIT CSAIL

Contrast that MIT image with some of the images in this video capturing parts of a theatre production, Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge,

Getting back to MIT, here’s their MoSculp video,

There are some startling similarities, eh? I suppose there are only so many ways one can capture movement be it in studies of Eadweard Muybridge, a theatre production about his work, or an MIT video the latest in motion capture technology.

STEMMinist Book Club: Vancouver chapter opens in April 2019

[dpwnloaded from: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/stemminist-bookclub-vancouver-reading-broad-band-by-claire-l-evans-tickets-58158054306]

The image of the book cover for Vancouver’s first ever STEMMinist (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, an d medicine) book club meeting on April 23, 2019 at Vancouver’s Hycroft Manor is seemingly ensconced in a garden located at the University of British Columbia (nowhere near the manor). I could be wrong (it wouldn’t be my first time) but I’m pretty sure I have an old photograph of myself in that garden.

Moving on, here’s a little more about the event in Vancouver,from the EventBrite page for the STEMMinist Bookclub Vancouver – Reading Broad Band by Claire L. Evans,


During our inaugural meeting of the STEMMinist Bookclub Vancouver, we will be reading “Broad Band” by Claire Evans. Join us for a lightly guided discussion on the topics covered in this book and we will see where the conversation goes from there! All are welcome!

The plan is to mirror the STEMminist Bookclub that was started in Australia by Dr. Caroline Ford (@DrCFord). We will aim to read one book every two months followed by an in-person meeting here in Vancouver, BC. You can also contribute to the discussion online on twitter @stemminist / #stemministbc.

If you are interested in the contributions of women to science, learning more about the history of science, and want to talk about some of the issues and stories brought up in the books this is the book club for you

Broad Band is available online and in select book stores, and or may be ordered in by your favourite bookstore.

Date and Time
Tue, April 23, 2019
6:00 PM – 7:30 PM PDT

Location
Hycroft Manor
1489 McRae Avenue
Vancouver, BC V6H 1T7


FAQs

What are my transportation/parking options for getting to and from the event?
Free street parking in the surrounding area.
Busing:
99 bus, walk or bus up Granville St from Broadway to 16th Ave
33 bus, walk up McRae Ave.

What can I bring into the event?
We welcome you to bring your children.

Tea and Coffee will be available for purchase from the venue. Bringing your own is also welcome.

How can I contact the organizer with any questions?
VancityStemminists@gmail.com

As to how the STEMMinist book club was founded, there’s a March 15, 2018 article by Caroline Ford for positive.news than call fill in some of those blanks,


Dr. Caroline Ford, co-founder of the Stemminist movement, shares her thoughts on how a supportive and empowering space for women and minorities in Stemm has been found in an unexpected place

Even your grandfather has heard of Stemm these days.

There has been a huge focus on Stemm (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) education in recent years, and a myriad of initiatives launched to encourage more girls and young women to pursue careers in these areas.

… what about the women already working in Stemm, dealing daily with a system that historically did not value them or even want them there? Remarkable women who encounter unconscious and outright bias in their workplaces, and systems that are built to benefit and promote a model of a scientist that doesn’t look or act anything like them. Responding to these numerous challenges, an online community of women in Stemm has been brought together through an unexpected medium – a very modern book club. [emphasis mine]

The STEMMinist Book Club was founded online in January 2018 and has already amassed more than 1,700 members from 25 countries. The online discussion takes place on Twitter, allowing members worldwide the flexibility and opportunity to join the conversation. Twitter has become an important medium for scientists in recent years, with scientists the third most regular users, following journalists and politicians. It can be a supportive and empowering space for women and minorities in Stemm, particularly for those working in more isolated environments.

As well as online discussions of key books about women in Stemm and feminism, group members meet up physically in cities around the world including Sydney, Dublin, Istanbul, Montreal and Oxford. …

I’m familiar with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (add in the arts), so STEMM (with medicine added) is new to me. I wonder if there’s be a STEAMM one day? As well, I wonder about the humanities, Are they going to insist on being added so we can have SHTEM, SHTEAM, and SHTEMM/SHTEAMM?

One final note, there are four copies of Broad Band available through the Vancouver Public Library.

Ooblek (non-Newtonian goo) and bras from Reebok

I have taken a liberty in the title for this piece, strictly speaking the non-Newtonian goo in the bra isn’t the stuff (ooblek) made of cornstarch and water from your childhood science experiments but it has many of the same qualities. The material in the Reebok bra, PureMove, is called Shear Thickening Fluid and was developed at the University of Delaware in 2005 and subsequently employed by NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) for use in the suits used by astronauts as noted in an August 6, 2018 article by Elizabeth Secgran for Fast Company who explains how it came be used for the latest sports bra,

While the activewear industry floods the market with hundreds of different sports bras every season, research shows that most female consumers are unsatisfied with their sports bra options, and 1 in 5 women avoid exercise altogether because they don’t have a sports bra that fits them properly.

Reebok wants to make that experience a thing of the past. Today, it launches a new bra, the PureMove, that adapts to your movements, tightening up when you’re moving fast and relaxing when you’re not. …

When I visited Reebok’s Boston headquarters, Witek [Danielle Witek, Reebok designer who spearheaded the R&D making the bra possible] handed me a jar of the fluid with a stick in it. When I moved the stick quickly, it seemed to turn into a solid, and when I moved it slowly, it had the texture of honey. Witek and the scientists have incorporated this fluid into a fabric that Reebok dubs “Motion Sense Technology.” The fluid is woven into the textile, so that on the surface, it looks and feels like the synthetic material you might find in any sports bra. But what you can’t see is that the fabric adapts to the body’s shape, the velocity of the breast tissue in motion, and the type and force of movement. It stretches less with high-impact movements and then stretches more during rest and lower intensity activities.

I tested an early version of the PureMove bra a few months ago, before it had even gone into production. I did a high-intensity workout that involved doing jumping jacks and sprints, followed by a cool-down session. The best thing about the bra was that I didn’t notice it at all. I didn’t feel stifled when I was just strolling around the gym, and I didn’t feel like I was unsupported when I was running around. Ultimately, the best bras are the ones that you don’t have to think about so you can focus on getting on with your life.

Since this technology is so new, Reebok had to do a lot of testing to make sure the bra would actually do what it advertised. The company set up a breast biomechanics testing center with the help of the University of Delaware, with 54 separate motion sensors tracking and measuring various parts of a tester’s chest area. This is a far more rigorous approach than most testing facilities in the industry that typically only use between two to four sensors. Over the course of a year, the facility gathered the data required for the scientists and Reebok product designers to develop the PureMove bra.

… If it’s well-received, the logical next step would be to incorporate the Motion Sense Technology into other products, like running tights or swimsuits, since transitioning between compression and looseness is something that we want in all of our sportswear. ..

According to the Reebok PureMove bra webpage, it was available from August 16, 2018,

Credit: Reebok

It’s $60 (I imagine those are US dollars).

For anyone interested in the science of non-Newtonian goo, shear thickening fluid, and NASA, there’s a November 24, 2015 article by Lydia Chain for Popular Science (Note: Links have been removed),

There’s an experiment you may have done in high school: When you mix cornstarch with water—a concoction colloquially called oobleck—and give it a stir, it acts like a liquid. But scrape it quickly or hit it hard, and it stiffens up into a solid. If you set the right pace, you can even run on top of a pool of the stuff. This phenomenon is called shear force thickening, and scientists have been trying to understand how it happens for decades.

There are two main theories, and figuring out which is right could affect the way we make things like cement, body armor, concussion preventing helmets, and even spacesuits.

The prevailing theory is that it’s all about the fluid dynamics (the nature of how fluids move) of the liquid and the particles in a solution. As the particles are pushed closer and closer together, it becomes harder to squeeze the liquid out from between them. Eventually, it’s too hard to squeeze out any more fluid and the particles lock up into hydrodynamic clusters, still separated by a thin film of fluid. They then move together, thickening the mixture and forming a solid.

The other idea is that contact forces like friction keep the particles locked together. Under this theory, when force is applied, the particles actually touch. The shearing force and friction keep them pressed together, which makes the solution more solid.

“The debate has been raging, and we’ve been wracking our brains to think of a method to conclusively go one way or the other,” says Itai Cohen, a physicist at Cornell University. He and his team recently ran a new experiment that seems to point to friction as the driving cause of shear thickening.

Norman Wagner, a chemical engineer at the University of Delaware, says that research into frictional interactions like this is important, but notes that he isn’t completely convinced as Cohen’s team didn’t measure friction directly (they inferred it was friction from their modeling however they didn’t find the exact measurement of the friction between the particles). He also says that there’s a lot of data in the field already that strongly indicates hydrodynamic clusters as the cause for shear thickening.

Wagner and his team are working on a NASA funded project to improve space suits so that micrometeorites or other debris can’t puncture them. They have also bent their technology to make padding for helmets and shin guards that would do a better job protecting athletes from harmful impacts. They are even making puncture resistant gloves that would give healthcare workers the same dexterity as current ones but with extra protection against accidental needle sticks.

“It’s a very exciting area,” says Wagner. He’s very interested in designing materials that automatically protect someone, without robotics or power. …

I guess that in 2015 Wagner didn’t realize his work would also end up in a 2018 sports bra.

How the technology of writing shaped Roman thought

I have two bits about the Romans: the first is noted in the head for this posting and the second is about a chance to experience a Roman style classroom.

Empire of Letters

This January 8, 2019 news item on phys.org announces a book about how the technology of writing influenced how ancient Romans saw the world and provides a counterpoint to the notion that the ancient world (in Europe) was relentlessly oral in nature,

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest surviving scientific treatise written in Latin. Composed around 55 B.C.E., the text is a lengthy piece of contrarianism. Lucreutius was in the Epicurean school of philosophy: He wanted an account of the world rooted in earthly matter, rather than explanations based on the Gods and religion

Among other things, Lucretius believed in atomism, the idea that the world and cosmos consisted of minute pieces of matter, rather than four essential elements. To explain this point, Lucretius asked readers to think of bits of matter as being like letters of the alphabet. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin—probably derived from the grouping of L,M, and N in the alphabet

To learn these elements of writing, students would copy out tables of letters and syllables, which Lucretius thought also served as a model for understanding the world, since matter and letters could be rearranged in parallel ways. For instance, Lucretius wrote, wood could be turned into fire by adding a little heat, while the word for wood, “lingum,” could be turned into the world for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters.

Students taking this analogy to heart would thus learn “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” says Stephanie Frampton, an associate professor of literature at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in a new book on writing in the Roman world.

Moreover, Frampton emphasizes, the fact that students were learning all this specifically through writing exercises is a significant and underappreciated point in our understanding of ancient Rome: Writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world.

A January 3, 2019 MIT news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Everyone says the ancients are really into spoken and performed poetry, and don’t care about the written word,” Frampton says. “But look at Lucretius, who’s the first person writing a scientific text in Latin — the way that he explains his scientific insight is through this metaphor founded upon the written word.”

Frampton explores this and other connections between writing and Roman society in her new work, “Empire of Letters,” published last week by Oxford University Press [according to their webpage, the paper version will be published on February 4, 2019; the e-book is now available for purchase].

The book is a history of technology itself, as Frampton examines the particulars of Roman books — which often existed as scrolls back then — and their evolution over time. But a central focus of the work is how those technologies influenced how the Romans “thought about thought,” as she says.

Moreover, as Frampton notes, she is studying the history of Romans as “literate creatures,” which means studying the tools of writing used not just in completed works, but in education, too. The letter tables detailed by Lucretius are just one example of this. Romans also learned to read and write using wax tablets that they could wipe clean after exercises.

The need to wipe such tablets clean drove the Roman emphasis on learning the art of memory — including the “memory palace” method, which uses visualized locations for items to remember them, and which is still around today. For this reason Cicero, among other Roman writers, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.”
As Frampton writes in the book, such tablets also produced “an intimate and complex relationship with memory” in the Roman world, and meant that “memory was a fundamental part of literary composition.”  

Tablets also became a common Roman metaphor for how our brains work: They thought “the mind is like a wax tablet where you can write and erase and rewrite,” Frampton says. Understanding this kind of relationship between technology and the intellect, she thinks, helps us get that much closer to life as the Romans lived it

“I think it’s analagous to early computing,” Frampton says. “The way we talk about the mind now is that it’s a computer. … We think about the computer in the same way that [intellectuals] in Rome were thinking about writing on wax tablets.”

As Frampton discusses in the book, she believes the Romans did produce a number of physical innovations to the typical scroll-based back of the classic world, including changes in layout, format, coloring pigments, and possibly even book covers and the materials used as scroll handles, including ivory.

“The Romans were engineers, that’s [one thing] they were famous for,” Frampton says. “They are quite interesting and innovative in material culture.”

Looking beyond “Empire of Letters” itself, Frampton will co-teach an MIT undergraduate course in 2019, “Making Books,” that looks at the history of the book and gets students to use old technologies to produce books as they were once made. While that course has previously focused on printing-press technology, Frampton will help students go back even further in time, to the days of the scroll and codex, if they wish. All these reading devices, after all, were important innovations in their day.

“I’m working on old media,” Frampton says, “But those old media were once new.” [emphasis mine]

While the technologies Carolyn Marvin was writing about were not quite as old Frampton’s, she too noted the point about old and new technology in her 1990 book “When Old Technologies Were New” published by the Oxford University Press in 1990.

Getting back to Frampton, she has founded an organization known as the Materia Network, which is focused on (from @materianetwork’s Twitter description) “New Approaches to Material Text in the Roman World is a conference series and network for scholars of books and writing in Classical antiquity.”

You can find Materia here. They do have a Call for Proposals but I believe the deadline should read: December 20, 2018 (not 2019) since the conference will be held in April 2019).

Also, you can purchase the ebook or print version of Frampton’s Empire of Letters from the Oxford University Press here.

I have a couple of final comments. (1) The grand daddy of oral and literate culture discussion is Walter J. Ong and I’m referring specifically to his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy. BTW, in addition to being a English Literature professor, the man was a Jesuit priest.

Reading Ancient Schoolroom

(2) The University of Reading (UK) has organized over the last few years, although they skipped in 2018, a series of events known as Reading Ancient Schoolroom (my August 9, 2018 posting features the ‘schoolroom’). The 2019 event is taking place January 23 – 25, 2019. You can find out more about the 2019 opportunity here. For anyone who can’t get to the UK easily, here’s a video of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom,

According to the description on YouTube,

UniofReading

Published on Feb 22, 2018

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom is a historically accurate reconstruction of an ancient schoolroom. It gives modern children an immersive experience of antiquity, acting the part of ancient children, wearing their clothes and using their writing equipment. It was developed by Eleanor Dickey at the University of Reading. Find out more at: www.readingancientschoolroom.com

There you have it.