Category Archives: pop culture

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI (artificial intelligence) at the de Young museum (San Francisco, US) February 22 – October 25, 2020

So we’re still stuck in 20th century concepts about artificial intelligence (AI), eh? Sean Captain’s February 21, 2020 article (for Fast Company) about the new AI exhibit in San Francisco suggests that artists can help us revise our ideas (Note: Links have been removed),

Though we’re well into the age of machine learning, popular culture is stuck with a 20th century notion of artificial intelligence. While algorithms are shaping our lives in real ways—playing on our desires, insecurities, and suspicions in social media, for instance—Hollywood is still feeding us clichéd images of sexy, deadly robots in shows like Westworld and Star Trek Picard.

The old-school humanlike sentient robot “is an important trope that has defined the visual vocabulary around this human-machine relationship for a very long period of time,” says Claudia Schmuckli, curator of contemporary art and programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It’s also a naïve and outdated metaphor, one she is challenging with a new exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, called Uncanny Valley, that opens on February 22 [2020].

The show’s name [Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI] is a kind of double entendre referencing both the dated and emerging conceptions of AI. Coined in the 1970s, the term “uncanny valley” describes the rise and then sudden drop off of empathy we feel toward a machine as its resemblance to a human increases. Putting a set of cartoony eyes on a robot may make it endearing. But fitting it with anatomically accurate eyes, lips, and facial gestures gets creepy. As the gap between the synthetic and organic narrows, the inability to completely close that gap becomes all the more unsettling.

But the artists in this exhibit are also looking to another valley—Silicon Valley, and the uncanny nature of the real AI the region is building. “One of the positions of this exhibition is that it may be time to rethink the coordinates of the Uncanny Valley and propose a different visual vocabulary,” says Schmuckli.

Artist Stephanie Dinkins faces off with robot Bina48, a bot on display at the de Young Museum’s Uncanny Valley show. [Photo: courtesy of the artist; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

From Captain’s February 21, 2020 article,

… the resemblance to humans is only synthetic-skin deep. Bina48 can string together a long series of sentences in response to provocative questions from Dinkins, such as, “Do you know racism?” But the answers are sometimes barely intelligible, or at least lack the depth and nuance of a conversation with a real human. The robot’s jerky attempts at humanlike motion also stand in stark contrast to Dinkins’s calm bearing and fluid movement. Advanced as she is by today’s standards, Bina48 is tragically far from the sci-fi concept of artificial life. Her glaring shortcomings hammer home why the humanoid metaphor is not the right framework for understanding at least today’s level of artificial intelligence.

For anybody who has more curiosity about the ‘uncanny valley’, there’s this Wikipedia entry.

For more details about the’ Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI’ exhibition there’s this September 26, 2019 de Young museum news release,

What are the invisible mechanisms of current forms of artificial intelligence (AI)? How is AI impacting our personal lives and socioeconomic spheres? How do we define intelligence? How do we envision the future of humanity?

SAN FRANCISCO (September 26, 2019) — As technological innovation continues to shape our identities and societies, the question of what it means to be, or remain human has become the subject of fervent debate. Taking advantage of the de Young museum’s proximity to Silicon Valley, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI arrives as the first major exhibition in the US to explore the relationship between humans and intelligent machines through an artistic lens. Organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with San Francisco as its sole venue, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI will be on view from February 22 to October 25, 2020.

“Technology is changing our world, with artificial intelligence both a new frontier of possibility but also a development fraught with anxiety,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI brings artistic exploration of this tension to the ground zero of emerging technology, raising challenging questions about the future interface of human and machine.”

The exhibition, which extends through the first floor of the de Young and into the museum’s sculpture garden, explores the current juncture through philosophical, political, and poetic questions and problems raised by AI. New and recent works by an intergenerational, international group of artists and activist collectives—including Zach Blas, Ian Cheng, Simon Denny, Stephanie Dinkins, Forensic Architecture, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Pierre Huyghe, Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, Agnieszka Kurant, Lawrence Lek, Trevor Paglen, Hito Steyerl, Martine Syms, and the Zairja Collective—will be presented.

The Uncanny Valley

In 1970 Japanese engineer Masahiro Mori introduced the concept of the “uncanny valley” as a terrain of existential uncertainty that humans experience when confronted with autonomous machines that mimic their physical and mental properties. An enduring metaphor for the uneasy relationship between human beings and lifelike robots or thinking machines, the uncanny valley and its edges have captured the popular imagination ever since. Over time, the rapid growth and affordability of computers, cloud infrastructure, online search engines, and data sets have fueled developments in machine learning that fundamentally alter our modes of existence, giving rise to a newly expanded uncanny valley.

“As our lives are increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, evaluate, and monetize our data, the uncanny valley has grown to encompass the invisible mechanisms of behavioral engineering and automation,” says Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “By paying close attention to the imminent and nuanced realities of AI’s possibilities and pitfalls, the artists in the exhibition seek to thicken the discourse around AI. Although fables like HBO’s sci-fi drama Westworld, or Spike Jonze’s feature film Her still populate the collective imagination with dystopian visions of a mechanized future, the artists in this exhibition treat such fictions as relics of a humanist tradition that has little relevance today.”

In Detail

Ian Cheng’s digitally simulated AI creature BOB (Bag of Beliefs) reflects on the interdependency of carbon and silicon forms of intelligence. An algorithmic Tamagotchi, it is capable of evolution, but its growth, behavior, and personality are molded by online interaction with visitors who assume collective responsibility for its wellbeing.

In A.A.I. (artificial artificial intelligence), an installation of multiple termite mounds of colored sand, gold, glitter and crystals, Agnieszka Kurant offers a vibrant critique of new AI economies, with their online crowdsourcing marketplace platforms employing invisible armies of human labor at sub-minimum wages.

Simon Denny ‘s Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage (US 9,280,157 B2: “System and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace”, 2016) (2019) also examines the intersection of labor, resources, and automation. He presents 3-D prints and a cage-like sculpture based on an unrealized machine patent filed by Amazon to contain human workers. Inside the cage an augmented reality application triggers the appearance of a King Island Brown Thornbill — a bird on the verge of extinction; casting human labor as the proverbial canary in the mine. The humanitarian and ecological costs of today’s data economy also informs a group of works by the Zairja Collective that reflect on the extractive dynamics of algorithmic data mining. 

Hito Steyerl addresses the political risks of introducing machine learning into the social sphere. Her installation The City of Broken Windows presents a collision between commercial applications of AI in urban planning along with communal and artistic acts of resistance against neighborhood tipping: one of its short films depicts a group of technicians purposefully smashing windows to teach an algorithm how to recognize the sound of breaking glass, and another follows a group of activists through a Camden, NJ neighborhood as they work to keep decay at bay by replacing broken windows in abandoned homes with paintings. 

Addressing the perpetuation of societal biases and discrimination within AI, Trevor Paglen’s They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead…(SD18), presents a large gridded installation of more than three thousand mugshots from the archives of the American National Standards Institute. The institute’s collections of such images were used to train ealry facial-recognition technologies — without the consent of those pictured. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new installation Shadow Stalker critiques the problematic reliance on algorithmic systems, such as the military forecasting tool Predpol now widely used for policing, that categorize individuals into preexisting and often false “embodied metrics.”

Stephanie Dinkins extends the inquiry into how value systems are built into AI and the construction of identity in Conversations with Bina48, examining the social robot’s (and by extension our society’s) coding of technology, race, gender and social equity. In the same territory, Martine Syms posits AI as a “shamespace” for misrepresentation. For Mythiccbeing she has created an avatar of herself that viewers can interact with through text messaging. But unlike service agents such as Siri and Alexa, who readily respond to questions and demands, Syms’s Teeny is a contrarious interlocutor, turning each interaction into an opportunity to voice personal observations and frustrations about racial inequality and social injustice.

Countering the abusive potential of machine learning, Forensic Architecture pioneers an application to the pursuit of social justice. Their proposition of a Model Zoo marks the beginnings of a new research tool for civil society built of military vehicles, missile fragments, and bomb clouds—evidence of human-rights violations by states and militaries around the world. Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s video Being Human, created in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, poses the philosophical question of what it means to be human when machines are able to synthesize human understanding ever more convincingly. Set  in Sri Lanka, it employs AI-generated characters of singer Taylor Swift and artist Oscar Murillo to reflect on issues of individual authenticity, collective sovereignty, and the future of human rights.

Lawrence Lek’s sci-fi-inflected film Aidol, which explores the relationship between algorithmic automation and human creativity, projects this question into the future. It transports the viewer into the computer-generated “sinofuturist” world of the 2065 eSports Olympics: when the popular singer Diva enlists the super-intelligent Geomancer to help her stage her artistic comeback during the game’s halftime show, she unleashes an existential and philosophical battle that explodes the divide between humans and machines.

The Doors, a newly commissioned installation by Zach Blas, by contrast shines the spotlight back onto the present and on the culture and ethos of Silicon Valley — the ground zero for the development of AI. Inspired by the ubiquity of enclosed gardens on tech campuses, he has created an artificial garden framed by a six-channel video projected on glass panes that convey a sense of algorithmic psychedelia aiming to open new “doors of perception.” While luring visitors into AI’s promises, it also asks what might become possible when such glass doors begin to crack. 

Unveiled in late spring Pierre Huyghe‘s Exomind (Deep Water), a sculpture of a crouched female nude with a live beehive as its head will be nestled within the museum’s garden. With its buzzing colony pollinating the surrounding flora, it offers a poignant metaphor for the modeling of neural networks on the biological brain and an understanding of intelligence as grounded in natural forms and processes.

The Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI event page features a link to something unexpected 9scroll down about 40% of the way), a Statement on Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture,

On Thursday, February 13 [2020], Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture had his travel authorization to the United States revoked due to an “algorithm” that identified him as a security threat.

He was meant to be in the United States promoting multiple exhibitions including Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, opening on February 22 [2020] at the de Young museum in San Francisco.

Since 2018, Forensic Architecture has used machine learning / AI to aid in humanitarian work, using synthetic images—photorealistic digital renderings based around 3-D models—to train algorithmic classifiers to identify tear gas munitions and chemical bombs deployed against protesters worldwide, including in Hong Kong, Chile, the US, Venezuela, and Sudan.

Their project, Model Zoo, on view in Uncanny Valley represents a growing collection of munitions and weapons used in conflict today and the algorithmic models developed to identify them. It shows a collection of models being used to track and hold accountable human rights violators around the world. The piece joins work by 14 contemporary artists reflecting on the philosophical and political consequences of the application of AI into the social sphere.

We are deeply saddened that Weizman will not be allowed to travel to celebrate the opening of the exhibition. We stand with him and Forensic Architecture’s partner communities who continue to resist violent states and corporate practices, and who are increasingly exposed to the regime of “security algorithms.”

—Claudia Schmuckli, Curator-in-Charge, Contemporary Art & Programming, & Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

There is a February 20, 2020 article (for Fast Company) by Eyal Weizman chronicling his experience with being denied entry by an algorithm. Do read it in its entirety (the Fast Company is itself an excerpt from Weizman’s essay) if you have the time, if not, here’s the description of how he tried to gain entry after being denied the first time,

The following day I went to the U.S. Embassy in London to apply for a visa. In my interview, the officer informed me that my authorization to travel had been revoked because the “algorithm” had identified a security threat. He said he did not know what had triggered the algorithm but suggested that it could be something I was involved in, people I am or was in contact with, places to which I had traveled (had I recently been in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia or met their nationals?), hotels at which I stayed, or a certain pattern of relations among these things. I was asked to supply the Embassy with additional information, including 15 years of travel history, in particular where I had gone and who had paid for it. The officer said that Homeland Security’s investigators could assess my case more promptly if I supplied the names of anyone in my network whom I believed might have triggered the algorithm. I declined to provide this information.

I hope the exhibition is successful; it has certainly experienced a thought-provoking start.

Finally, I have often featured postings that discuss the ‘uncanny valley’. To find those postings, just use that phrase in the blog search engine. You might also went to search ‘Hiroshi Ishiguro’, a Japanese scientist and robotocist who specializes in humanoid robots.

Humans with built-in night vision thanks to nanoparticles

In the world of video games such as the Deus Ex series eye augmentations are standard,now it seems that fantasy could become reality according to the latest American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting held in Fall 2019. From an August 27, 2019 news item on Nanowerk,

Movies featuring heroes with superpowers, such as flight, X-ray vision or extraordinary strength, are all the rage. But while these popular characters are mere flights of fancy, scientists have used nanoparticles to confer a real superpower on ordinary mice: the ability to see near-infrared light. Today, scientists report progress in making versions of these nanoparticles that could someday give built-in night vision to humans.

The researchers will present their results at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2019 National Meeting & Exposition.

“When we look at the universe, we see only visible light,” says Gang Han, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator, who is presenting the work at the meeting. “But if we had near-infrared vision, we could see the universe in a whole new way. We might be able to do infrared astronomy with the naked eye, or have night vision without bulky equipment.”

An August 27, 2019 ACS news release, which originated the news item, explores the research about mammalian eyes (specifically mice) being presented in more depth,

The eyes of humans and other mammals can detect light between the wavelengths of 400 and 700 nanometers (nm). Near-infrared (NIR) light, on the other hand, has longer wavelengths — 750 nm to 1.4 micrometers. Thermal imaging cameras can help people see in the dark by detecting NIR radiation given off by organisms or objects, but these devices are typically bulky and inconvenient. Han and his colleagues wondered whether they could give mice NIR vision by injecting a special type of nanomaterial, called upconversion nanoparticles (UCNPs), into their eyes. These nanoparticles, which contain the rare-earth elements erbium and ytterbium, can convert low-energy photons from NIR light into higher-energy green light that mammalian eyes can see.

In work published earlier this year [2019], the researchers, who are at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, targeted UCNPs to photoreceptors in mouse eyes by attaching a protein that binds to a sugar molecule on the photoreceptor surface. Then, they injected the photoreceptor-binding UCNPs behind the retinas of the mice. To determine whether the injected mice could see and mentally process NIR light, the team conducted several physiological and behavioral tests. For example, in one test, the researchers placed the mice into a Y-shaped tank of water. One branch of the tank had a platform that the mice could climb on to escape the water. The researchers trained the mice to swim toward visible light in the shape of a triangle, which marked the escape route. A similarly lit circle marked the branch without a platform. Then, the researchers replaced the visible light with NIR light. “The mice with the particle injection could see the triangle clearly and swim to it each time, but the mice without the injection could not see or tell the difference between the two shapes,” says Han. A video of this work, posted by Han’s institution, can be viewed here.

Although the UCNPs persisted in the mice’s eyes for at least 10 weeks and did not cause any noticeable side effects, Han wants to improve the safety and sensitivity of the nanomaterials before he contemplates trying them out in humans. “The UCNPs in our published paper are inorganic, and there are some drawbacks there,” Han says. “The biocompatibility is not completely clear, and we need to improve the brightness of the nanoparticles for human use.” Now, the team is experimenting with UCNPs made up of two organic dyes, instead of rare-earth elements. “We’ve shown that we can make organic UCNPs with much improved brightness compared with the inorganic ones,” he says. These organic nanoparticles can emit either green or blue light. In addition to having improved properties, the organic dyes could also have fewer regulatory hurdles.

One of the next steps for the project might be translating the technology to man’s best friend. “If we had a super dog that could see NIR light, we could project a pattern onto a lawbreaker’s’ body from a distance, and the dog could catch them without disturbing other people,” Han says. Superhero powers aside, the technology could also have important medical applications, such as treating diseases of the eye. “We’re actually looking at how to use NIR light to release a drug from the UNCPs specifically at the photoreceptors,” Han says.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper mentioned in the ACS news release,

Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision through Injectable and Self-Powered Retinal Nanoantennae by Yuqian Ma, Jin Bao, Yuanwei Zhang, Zhanjun Li, Xiangyu Zhou. Changlin Wan, Ling Huang, Yang Zhao, Gang Han, Tian Xue. Cell Volume 177, ISSUE 2, P243-255.e15, April 04, 2019 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2019.01.038 First published online: February 28, 2019

This paper appears to be open access.

It’s going to be a while before this research makes it to human clinical trials, assuming it does. In the meantime, it seems that the plan is to continue research using dogs.

As you wait to find out how the researchers progress, you can check out my most recent mention of the Deus Ex video game series in a Sept. 1, 2016 posting about the latest entry to the series: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

Science inspired by superheroes, Ant-Man and the Wasp

It’s interesting to see scientists take science fiction and use it as inspiration; something which I think happens more often than we know. After all, when someone asks where you got an idea, it can be difficult to track down the thought process that started it all.

Scientists at Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) are looking for a new source of inspiration after offering a close examination of how insect-size superheroes, Ant-Man and the Wasp might breathe. From a December 11, 2018 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

Max Mikel-Stites and Anne Staples were searching for a sequel.

This summer, Staples, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering, and graduate student Mikel-Stites published a paper in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Superhero Science titled, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Microscale Respiration and Microfluidic Technology.”

Now, they needed a new hero.

The two were working with a team of graduate students, brainstorming who could be the superhero subject for their next scientific inquiry. Superman? Batgirl? Aquaman?

Mikel-Stites lobbied for an investigation of Dazzler’s sonoluminescent powers. Staples was curious how Mera, The Princes sof Atlantis, used her hydrokinetic powers.

It turns out, comic books are a great inspiration for scientific discovery.

This month, Mikel-Stites is presenting the findings of their paper at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting.

The wonder team’s paper looked at how Ant-Man and the Wasp breathe when they shrink down to insect-size and Staples’ lab studied how fluids flow in nature. Insects naturally move fluids and gases efficiently at tiny scales. If engineers can learn how insects breathe, they can use the knowledge to invent new microfluidic technologies.

A November 2018 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert but published on December 11, 2018) by Nancy Dudek describes the ‘Ant-Man and Wasp respiratory project’ before revealing the inspiration for the team’s new project,

“Before the 2018 ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ movie, my lab was already wondering about insect-scale respiration,” said Staples. “I wanted to get people to appreciate different breathing mechanisms.”

For most of Mikel-Stites’ life, he had been nit-picking at the “science” in science-fiction movies.

“I couldn’t watch ‘Armageddon’ once they got up to space station Mir and there was artificial gravity. Things like that have always bothered me. But for ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ it was worse,” he said.

Staples and Mikel-Stites decided to join forces to research Ant-Man’s microscale respiration.

Mikel-Stites was stung by what he dubbed “the altitude problem or death-zone dilemma.” For Ant-Man and the Wasp to shrink down to insect size and still breathe, they would have to overcome an atmospheric density similar to the top of Mt. Everest. Their tiny bodies would also require higher metabolisms. For their survival, the Marvel comic universe had to give Ant-Man and the Wasp superhero technologies.

“I thought it would be fun to find a solution for how this small-scale respiration would work,”said Mikel-Stites.”I started digging through Ant-Man’s history. I looped through scenes in the 2015 movie where we could address the physics. Then I did the same thing with trailers from the 2018 movie. I used that to make a list of problems and a list of solutions.”

Ant-Man and the Wasp solve the altitude problem with their superhero suits. In their publication, Mikel-Stites and Staples write that the masks in Ant-Man and the Wasp’s suits contain “a combination of an air pump, a compressor, and a molecular filter including Pym particle technology,” that allows them to breathe while they are insect-sized.

“This publication showed how different physics phenomena can dominate at different size scales, how well-suited organisms are for their particular size, and what happens when you start altering that,” said Mikel-Stites. “It also shows that Hollywood doesn’t always get it right when it comes to science!”

Their manuscript was accepted by the Journal of Superhero Science before the release of the sequel, “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Mikel-Stites was concerned the blockbuster might include new technologies or change Ant-Man’s canon. If the Marvel comic universe changed between the 2015 ‘Ant-Man’ movie and the sequel, their hypotheses would be debunked and they would be forced to retract their paper.

“I went to the 2018 movie before the manuscript came out in preprint so that if the movie contradicted us we could catch it. But the 2018 movie actually supported everything we had said, which was really nice,” said Mikel-Stites. Most moviegoers simply watched the special effects and left the theater entertained. But Mikel-Stitesleft the movie with confirmation of the paper’s hypotheses.

The Staples lab members are not the only ones interested in tiny technologies. From lab-on-a-chip microfluidic devices to nanoparticles that deliver drugs directly to cells, consumers will ultimately benefit from this small scientific field that delivers big results.

“In both the movies and science, shrinking is a common theme and has been for the last 50-60 years. This idea is something that we all like to think about. Given enough time, we can reach the point where science can take it from the realms of magic into something that we actually have an explanation for,” Mikel-Stites said.

In fact, the Staples lab group has already done just that.

While Mikel-Stites is presenting his superhero science at the APS meeting, his colleague Krishnashis Chatterjee, who recently completed his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics will be presenting his research on fabricating and testing four different insect-inspired micro-fluidic devices.

From fiction to function, the Staples lab likes to have fun along the way.

“I think that it is really important to connect with people and be engaged in science with topics they already know about. With this superhero science paper I wanted to support this mission,” Staples said.

And who did the lab mates choose for their next superhero science subject? The Princess of Atlantis, Mera. They hope they can publish another superhero science paper that really makes waves.

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

Ant-Man and The Wasp: Microscale Respiration and Microfluidic Technology by Anne Staples and Maxwell Mikel-Stites. Superhero Science and Technology (SST) Vol 1 No 1 (2018): https://doi.org/10.24413/sst.2018.1.2474 July 2018 ISSN 2588-7637

This paper is open access.

And, just because the idea of a superhero science journal tickles my fancy, here’s a little more from the journal’s About webpage,

Serial title
Superhero Science and Technolog

Focus and Scope
Superhero Science and Technology (SST) is multi-disciplinary journal that considers new research in the fields of science, technology, engineering and ethics motivated and presented using the superhero genre.

The superhero genre has become one of the most popular in modern cinema. Since the 2000 film X-Men, numerous superhero-themed films based on characters from Marvel Comics and DC Comics have been released. Films such as The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War have all earned in excess of $1 billion dollars at the box office, thus demonstrating their relevance in modern society and popular culture.

Of particular interest for Superhero Science and Technology are articles that motivate new research by using the platform of superheroes, supervillains, their superpowers, superhero/supervillain exploits in Hollywood blockbuster films or superhero/supervillain adventures from comic books. Articles should be written in a manner so that they are accessible to both the academic community and the interested non-scientist i.e. general public, given the popularity of the superhero genre.

Dissemination of content using this approach provides a potential for the researcher to communicate their work to a larger audience, thus increasing their visibility and outreach within and outside of the academic domain.

The scope of the journal includes but is not limited to:
Genetic editing approaches;
Innovations in the field of robotics;
New and advanced materials;
Additive Manufacturing i.e. 3D printing, for both bio and non-bio applications;
Advancements in bio-chemical processing;
Biomimicry technologies;
Space physics, astrophysical and cosmological research;
Developments in propulsion systems;
Responsible innovation;
Ethical issues pertaining to technologies and their use for human enhancement or augmentation.

Open Access Policy
SST is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence. You are free to use the work, but you have to attribute (refer to) the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). The easiest way to refer to an article is to use the HOWTO CITE tool that you’ll find alongside each article in the right sidebar.

I also looked up the editorial team, from the journal’s Editorial Team webpage,

Editor-in-Chief
Dr. Barry W. Fitzgerald, TU Delft, the Netherlands
Editorial Board
Prof. Wim Briels, University of Twente, the Netherlands
Dr. Ian Clancy, University of Limerick, Ireland
Dr. Neil Clancy, University College London, UK
Dr. Tom Hunt, University of Kent, UK
Ass. Prof. Johan Padding, TU Delft, the Netherlands
Ass. Prof. Aimee van Wynsberghe, TU Delft, the Netherlands
Prof. Ilja Voets, TU Eindhoven, the Netherlands


For anyone unfamiliar with the abbreviation, TU stands for University of Technology or Technische Universiteit in Dutch.

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.

Chen Qiufan, garbage, and Chinese science fiction stories

Garbage has been dominating Canadian news headlines for a few weeks now. First, it was Canadian garbage in the Philippines and now it’s Canadian garbage in Malaysia. Interestingly, we’re also having problems with China, since December 2018, when we detained a top executive from Huawe, a China-based international telecommunicatons company, in accordance with an official request from the US government and, in accordance, with what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the ‘rule of law’. All of this provides an interesting backdrop (for Canadians anyway) on the topic of China, garbage, and science fiction.

A May 16, 2019 article by Anjie Zheng for Fast Company explores some of the latest and greatest from China’s science fiction writing community,

Like any good millennial, I think about my smartphone, to the extent that I do at all, in terms of what it does for me. It lets me message friends, buy stuff quickly, and amass likes. I hardly ever think about what it actually is—a mass of copper wires, aluminum alloys, and lithium battery encased in glass—or where it goes when I upgrade.

Chen Qiufan wants us to think about that. His debut novel, Waste Tide, is set in a lightly fictionalized version of Guiyu, the world’s largest electronic waste disposal. First published in Chinese in 2013, the book was recently released in the U.S. with a very readable translation into English by Ken Liu.

Chen, who has been called “China’s William Gibson,” is part of a younger generation of sci-fi writers who have achieved international acclaim in recent years. Liu Cixin became the first Chinese to win the prestigious Hugo Award for his Three Body Problem in 2015. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Liu, became China’s first science-fiction blockbuster when it was released in 2018. It was the highest-grossing film in the fastest-growing film market in the world last year and was recently scooped up by Netflix.

Aynne Kokas in a March 13, 2019 article for the Washington Post describes how the hit film, The Wandering Earth, fits into an overall Chinese-led movie industry focused on the future and Hollywood-like, i. e. like US movie industry, domination,

“The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo, takes place in a future where the people of Earth must flee their sun as it swells into a red giant. Thousands of engines — the first of them constructed in Hangzhou, one of China’s tech hubs — propel the entire planet toward a new solar system, while everyone takes refuge from the cold in massive underground cities. On the surface, the only visible reminders of the past are markers of China’s might. The Shanghai Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower and a stadium for the Shanghai 2044 Olympics all thrust out of the ice, having apparently survived the journey’s tsunamis, deep freeze and cliff-collapsing earthquakes.

The movie is China’s first big-budget sci-fi epic, and its production was ambitious, involving some 7,000 workers and 10,000 specially-built props. Audience excitement was correspondingly huge: Nearly half a million people wrote reviews of the film on Chinese social network site Douban. Having earned over $600 million in domestic sales, “The Wandering Earth” marks a major achievement for the country’s film industry.

It is also a major achievement for the Chinese government.

Since opening up the country’s film market in 2001, the Chinese government has aspired to learn from Hollywood how to make commercially appealing films, as I detail in my book “Hollywood Made in China.” From initial private offerings for state media companies, to foreign investment in films, studios and theme parks, the government allowed outside capital and expertise to grow the domestic commercial film industry — but not at the expense of government oversight. This policy’s underlying aim was to expand China’s cultural clout and political influence.

Until recently, Hollywood films dominated the country’s growing box office. That finally changed in 2015, with the release of major local blockbusters “Monster Hunt” and “Lost in Hong Kong.” The proliferation of homegrown hits signaled that the Chinese box office profits no longer depend on Hollywood studio films — sending an important message to foreign trade negotiators and studios.

Kokas provides some insight into how the Chinese movie industry is designed to further the Chinese government’s vision of the future. As a Canadian, I don’t see that much difference between the US and China industry’s vision. Both tout themselves as the answer to everything, both target various geographic regions for the ‘bad guys’, and both tout their national moral superiority in their films. I suppose the same can be said for most countries’ film industries but both China and the US can back themselves with economic might.

Zheng’s article delves deeper into garbage, and Chen Qiufan’s science fiction while illuminating the process of changing a ‘good guy’ into a ‘bad guy’,

Chen, 37, grew up a few miles from the real Guiyu. Mountains of scrap electronics are shipped there every year from around the world. Thousands of human workers sort through the junk for whatever can be reduced to reusable precious metals. They strip wires and disassemble circuit boards, soaking them in acid baths for bits of copper, tin, platinum, and gold. Whatever can’t be processed is burned. The water in Guiyu has been so contaminated it is undrinkable; the air is toxic. The workers, migrants from poor rural areas in China, have an abnormally high rate of respiratory diseases and cancer.

For the decades China was revving its economic engine, authorities were content to turn a blind eye to the human costs of the recycling business. It was an economic win-win. For developed countries like the U.S., it’s cheaper to ship waste to places like China than trying to recycle it themselves. And these shipments create jobs and profits for the Chinese.

In recent years, however, steps have been taken to protect workers and the environment in China. …

Waste Tide highlights the danger of “throw-away culture,” says Chen, also known in English as Stanley Chan. When our personal electronics stop serving us, whether because they break or our lust for the newest specs get the better of us, we toss them. Hopefully we’re conscientious enough to bring them to local recyclers that claim they’ll dispose of them properly. But that’s likely the end of our engagement with the trash. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fiction, and science fiction in particular, is an apt medium for Chen to probe the consequences of this arrangement. “It’s not journalism,” he says. Instead, the story is an imaginative, action-packed tale of power imbalances, and the individual characters that think they’re doing good. Waste Tide culminates, expectedly, in an insurgency of the workers against their exploitative overlords.

Guiyu has been fictionalized in Waste Tide as “Silicon Isle.” (A homophone of the Chinese character “gui” translates to “Silicon,” and “yu” is an island). The waste hell is ruled by three ruthless family clans, dominated by the Luo clan. They treat workers as slaves and derisively call them “waste people.”

Technology in the near-future has literally become extensions of selves and only exacerbates class inequality. Prosthetic inner ears improve balance; prosthetic limbs respond to mental directives; helmets heighten natural senses. The rich “switch body parts as easily as people used to switch phones.” Those with fewer means hack discarded prosthetics to get the same kick. When they’re no longer needed, synthetic body parts contaminated with blood and bodily fluids are added to the detritus.

At the center of the story is Mimi, a migrant worker who dreams of earning enough money to return home and live a quiet life. She strikes up a relationship with Kaizong, a Chinese-American college graduate trying to rediscover his roots. But the good times are short-lived. The boss of the Luo clan becomes convinced that Mimi holds the key to rousing his son from his coma and soon kidnaps the hapless girl.

For all the advanced science, there is a backwards superstition that animates Silicon Isle. [emphasis mine] The clan bosses subscribe to “a simple form of animism.” They pray to the wind and sea for ample supplies of waste. They sacrifice animals (and some humans) to bring them luck, and use local witches to exorcise evil spirits. Boss Luo has Mimi kidnapped and tortured in an effort to appease the gods in the hopes of waking up his comatose son. The torture of Mimi infects her with a mysterious disease that splits her consciousness. The waste people are enraged by her violation, which eventually sparks a war against the ruling clans. [emphasis mine]

A parallel narrative involves an American, Scott Brandle, who works for an environmental company. While in town trying to set up a recycling facility, he stumbles onto the truth about the virus that may have infected Mimi: a chemical weapon developed and used by the U.S. [emphasis mine] years earlier. Invented by a Japanese researcher [emphasis mine] working in the U.S., the drug is capable of causing mass hallucinations and terror. When Brandle learns that Mimi may have been infected with this virus, he wants a piece of her [emphasis mine] too, so that scientists back home can study its effects.

Despite portraying the future of China in a less-than-positive light, [emphasis mine] Waste Tide has not been banned–a common result for works that displease Beijing; instead, the book won China’s prestigious Nebula award for science fiction, and is about to be reprinted on the mainland. …

An interview with Chen (it’s worthwhile to read his take on what he’s doing) follows the plot description in this intriguing and what seems to be a sometimes disingenuous article.

The animism and the war against the ruling class? It reminds me a little of the tales told about old Chine and Mao’s campaign to overthrow the ruling classes who had kept control of the proletariat, in part, by encouraging ‘superstitious religious belief’.

As far as I’m concerned the interpretation can go either or both ways: a critique of the current government’s policies and where they might lead in the future and/or a reference back to the glorious rising of China’s communist government. Good fiction always contains ambiguity; it’s what fuels courses in literature.

Also, the bad guys are from the US and Japan, countries which have long been allied with each other and with which China has some serious conflicts.

Interesting, non? And, it’s not that different from what you’ll see in US (or any other country’s for that matter) science fiction wiring and movies, except that the heroes are Chinese.

Getting back to the garbage in the Philippines, there are 69 containers on their way back to Canada as of May 30, 2019. As for why all this furor about Canadian garbage in the Philippines and Malaysia, it’s hard to believe that Canada is the only sinner. Of course, we are in China’s bad books due to the Huawei executive’s detention here (she is living in her home in Vancouver and goes out and about as she wishes, albeit under surveillance).

Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if indirect pressure is being exerted by China or if the Philippines and Malaysia have been incentivized in some way by China. The timing has certainly been interesting.

Political speculation aside, it’s probably a good thing that countries are refusing to take our garbage. As I’m sure more than one environmentalist would be happy to point out, it’s about time we took care of our own mess.

Stephen Hawking comic updates ‘Stephen Hawking: Riddles of Time & Space’ and adds life story for a tribute issue

Artist: Robert Aragon. Courtesy: TidalWave Productions

It would seem I wasn’t having one of my brighter days today (Feb. 7, 2019) and it took me a while to to decode the messaging about this Stephen Hawking comic book. Briefly, they’ve (TidalWave Productions; Note: The company seems to have more than one name) repackaged an old title (Stephen Hawking: Riddles of Time & Space) and included new material in the form of his life story. After some searching, as best as I can tell, the ‘Tribute’ was originally released sometime in 2018 in a digital version. This latest push for publicity was likely occasioned by the release of a print version.

Here’s more from a February 7, 2019 TidalWave Entertainment/Bluewater Productions news release (received via email),

TidalWave Comics, applauded for illustrated biographies featuring the
famous and infamous who influence our politics, entertainment, and
social justice, is proud to present its newest comic book release this
week. Telling the life story of a world-renowned physicist, cosmologist,
and author Stephen Hawking, “Tribute: Stephen Hawking,” is written
by Michael Lent, Brian McCarthy and Michael Frizell with art by Zach
Bassett. The comic book features a cover by famed artist Robert Aragon.

“Tribute: Stephen Hawking” is out this week in print and digital.
With the passing of English cosmologist, theoretical physicist, and
author, the world has lost one of the greatest scientific minds of the
20th and 21st Centuries. Hawking united the general theory of relativity
with quantum mechanics but may be more known for his rare, early-onset
and slow-progressing battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hawking believed
in the concept of an infinite multiverse. Perhaps he’s watching us
mourn his loss.

Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant minds of this century. The
comic explores his brilliance while revealing some surprises.

Hawking’s life has been the subject of several movies, including the
2014 hit, “The Theory of Everything” starring Eddy Redmayne, who
received an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his performance as the
scientist dealing with an early-onset slow-progressing form of Lou
Gehrig’s disease. The comic seeks to add to Hawking’s story.

“I learned a lot from reading the script and doing the research for the
issue.  The very concept of making an engaging comic book where the
protagonist is essentially immobile is a pretty tall order, but I think
the key to us keeping it exciting was being able to get inside his mind
(one of the greatest of our time) and show some of his most abstract
concepts in a visual and dynamic way,” said artist Bassett.

Darren G. Davis, publisher and creative force behind TidalWave, believes
as Bassett does that the visual storytelling model is a good way to tell
the stories of real people. “I was a reluctant reader when I was a
kid. The colorful pages and interesting narrative I found in comic books
drew me in and made me want to read.” In a market crowded with
superheroes, the publisher’s work is embraced by major media outlets,
libraries, and schools.

Michael Frizell, one of TidalWave’s writers and the author of the
Bettie Page comic, enjoys writing for TidalWave’s biography lines
Political Power, Orbit, Female Force, Tribute, and Fame because of the
publisher’s approach to the books. “Darren asks us to focus on the
positive and to dig deep to explore the things that make the subject
tick – the things that drive them,” Frizell said.

In print on Amazon and are available on your e-reader from iTunes,
Kindle, Nook, ComiXology, DriveThru Comics, Google Play, Overdrive,
IVerse, Biblioboard, Madefire, Axis360, Blio, Entitle, EPIC!,
Trajectory, SpinWhiz, Smash Words, Kobo and wherever eBooks are sold.

TidalWave’s recent partnership with Ingram allows them to produce
high-quality books on demand – a boon for the independent publisher. The
comic book will feature a heavy-stock cover and bright, clean colors in
the interior. Ingram works across the full publishing spectrum, aiding
some of the largest names in the business to local indie authors.

Comic book and book stores can order these titles in print at INGRAM.

TidalWave’s biography comic book series has been embraced by the media
and featured on television news outlets including The Today Show and on
CNN. The series has also been featured in many publications such as The
Los Angeles Times, MTV, Time Magazine, and People Magazine.


For more information about the company, visit www.tidalwavecomics.com
 
About TidalWave Comics
TidalWave delivers a multimedia experience unparalleled in the burgeoning graphic fiction and nonfiction marketplace. Dynamic storytelling coupled with groundbreaking art delivers an experience like no other. Stories are told through multiple platforms and genres, gracing the pages of graphic novels, novelizations, engaging audio dramas, cutting-edge film projects, and more. Diversity defines Storm’s offerings in the burgeoning pop culture marketplace, offering fresh voices and innovative storytellers.

As one of the top independent publishers of comic book and graphic novels, TidalWave unites cutting-edge art and engaging stories produced by the publishing industry’s most exciting artists and writers. Its extensive catalog of comic book titles includes the bestsellers “10th Muse” and “The Legend of Isis,” complemented by a line of young adult books and audiobooks. TidalWave’s publishing partnerships include legendary filmmaker Ray Harryhausen (“Wrath of the Titans,” “Sinbad: Rogue of Mars,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” and more), novelists S.E. Hinton (“The Puppy Sister”) and William F. Nolan (“Logan’s Run”), and celebrated actors Vincent Price (“Vincent Price Presents”), and Adam West of 1966’s “Batman” fame (“The Mis-Adventures of Adam West”). TidalWave also publishes a highly-successful line of biographical comics under the titles “Orbit,” “Fame,” “Beyond,” “Tribute,” “Female Force,” and “Political Power.”

Should you happen to operate a comic and/or book store, I have found the Ingram (Content Group) website. Happy ordering!

The Backstreet Boys sing genetics (not really) but their latest album is called “DNA”

Other that the promotional artwork, cover art and the title, the Backstreet Boys pop band does not seem to have taken science or DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)/genetics to heart in their latest oeuvre. As for what chickens have to do with it, I I gather this is some sort of humorous nod to a past hit song. Still, I am weirdly fascinated by this January 25, 2019 video news item on Billboard,

Having looked at the list of songs on the DNA album (they’re listed in the Billboard news item where they’ve embedded audio samples), I can’t find anything that suggests an interest in genetics but perhaps you can: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart? Nobody Else? Breathe? New Love? Passionate? Is It Just Me? Chances? No Place? Chateau? The Way It Was? Just Like You Like it? OK? Anyone who can figure out how the songs relate to DNA, please let me know in the Comments.

Frankly, that’s as much analysis as I can offer on the topic. Thankfully, Karen James (an independent educator, researcher, and consultant in molecular biology) has written a February 5, 2019 article (I Want DNA That Way; The Backstreet Boys’ new album and tour features a very old-school depiction of DNA) for slate.com where she unpacks the imagery in the promotional material and on the cover (Note: Links have been removed),

The Backstreet Boys are back. Credit: Dennis Leupold [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

The Backstreet Boys released a new album. I never thought I’d start a science article—or any article—with that sentence, but here we are.

We are here because the promotional artwork for the album (above) is a photograph of the boy band (man band?) lit by a projection of DNA bands. The image, and the album’s title, DNA, jumped out of my Twitter timeline because I’m a geneticist, I work with DNA, and I’ve seen countless images just like it in textbooks and research articles. I’ve even made them myself in the lab.

What struck me as funny (both funny-ha-ha and funny-odd) is that the lab methods that could have produced this image are old—older even than the Backstreet Boys’ first album. One of the methods—called Sanger sequencing—was published in 1977, making it even older than two of the Backstreet Boys themselves, scientist Kristy Lamb pointed out. Genetics is a particularly fast-moving science. New technologies are constantly emerging and eclipsing prior ones. Yet this 40-year-old imagery persists, and not just in the promotional artwork for DNA. Just do a Google image search for “DNA sequencing” and you’ll see plenty of images like this mixed in with the double helices and long GATTACA readouts.

After her description of Sanger sequencing James offers another ‘sequencing’ possibility, almost as old as the Sanger technique,

Careful readers might have noticed that I suggested there was more than one method that produces images like this. At first glance, I thought the projection in the Backstreet Boys’ publicity photo was modified from an image made with Sanger sequencing. But when I looked again in preparation for writing this article, I had second thoughts. Why aren’t the lanes clustered in groups of four? Why are some of the bands in adjacent lanes the same size? (They shouldn’t be if you’re doing Sanger sequencing.) It could be that the photo was heavily modified with individual lanes copied and pasted. Indeed, some of the lanes are even identical to each other (*suppresses fake ivory tower scoff*).

Or it could be that this image was made with another old method: DNA fingerprinting. Made famous in so many crime TV shows, DNA fingerprinting was invented in 1984 by Alec Jeffreys, who, though he did not win a Nobel Prize, was made a knight of the British Empire for his contribution to science, among many other prestigious awards, which is nice.

I suspect the Backstreet Boys weren’t going for a tongue-in-cheek reference to their own advancing age. While today’s DNA sequencing methods produce images that scarcely resemble those produced by Sanger sequencing and DNA fingerprinting, the old-school imagery is still everywhere. The Backstreet Boys’ promotional team probably just went with a stock image that looked compelling and worked well as a projection.

James returns to her theme, why use imagery associated with outdated techniques? (Note: Links have been removed),

But that doesn’t answer the real question: Why is 40-year-old imagery still so ubiquitous? As science writer and editor Stephanie Keep tweeted, one reason may be that, despite its age, the Sanger method is still taught in high school classrooms: “It’s so visual and intuitive.” It’s true. When I teach students about DNA sequencing, I always start with Sanger sequencing and use that as the basis for explaining newer technologies, adding more complexity as I go, following the historical timeline.

Another reason the old imagery is still in use may be that the images produced by newer, so-called next-generation sequencing methods aren’t visually scored by a scientist sitting at a lab bench, but by computers. As such, the images themselves often go unseen by human eyes [emphasis mine], despite their colorful beauty.

Interesting, eh? The latest imagery is not seen by human eyes. So the newest imagery is intended for machines. James presents an example of the ‘new’ imagery,

An image generated using a next-generation DNA sequencing method.. Credit: Illumina [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

According to James, this image was not easily obtained according to one of her tweets. [https://twitter.com/kejames/status/1092888034322845696] So, big thanks to Illumina (there’s also a Wikipedia entry about the company). Getting back to James’ and her article, she asks why the band titled their latest album, DNA,

But why did the Backstreet Boys call their album DNA in the first place? The official RCA Records press release announcing the album says, “BSB analyzed their individual DNA profiles to see what crucial element each member represents in the groups DNA.” It links to a YouTube video that supposedly explains “how their individual strains, when brought together, create the unstoppable and legendary Backstreet Boys.”

The video is a futuristic, spy movie–esque montage, complete with a computerized female voice describing the various characteristics of each Backstreet Boy. Reader, I confess: I cringed. There were so many tropes and misconceptions about DNA packed into the 83-second video, I would have to write a follow-up to this just to explore them. The cringeworthiness doesn’t end there, though. The cover of DNA has each Backstreet Boy on his own spiral staircase.

The staircases are surely meant to evoke the structure of DNA: the famous double helix. But there’s a problem, as the social media account for the journal Genome Biology tweeted: The staircases are spiraling in the wrong direction. DNA is usually right-handed. If you stick out your right thumb, your fingers will naturally curl in a right-handed spiral as you move your hand in the direction your thumb is pointing. The Backstreet Boys’ staircases are left-handed.

Here’s the promotional trailer for DNA,

It’s everything James says it is. As for those wrongly spiraling DNA staircases,

RCA Records [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

Thank you to Karen James for this illuminating article. If you have time, I encourage you to read her piece in its entirety:
I Want DNA That Way; The Backstreet Boys’ new album and tour features a very old-school depiction of DNA.

As for why the Backstreet Boys called their album DNA and you likely guessed. it would seem to be a promotional gimmick meant to leverage the perceived interest in commercial DNA testing by companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry, amongst others.

3-D underwater acoustic carpet cloak

Who can resist a ‘Black Panther’ reference (Wikipedia Black Panther film entry)? Certainly not me. Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences made this June 4, 2018 announcement (also on EurekAlert),

Cloaking is one of the most eye-catching technologies in sci-fi movies. In two 2018 Marvel films, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther conceals his country Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation, from the outside world using the metal vibranium.

However, in the real world, if you want to hide something, you need to deceive not only the eyes, but also the ears, especially in the underwater environment.

Recently, a research team led by Prof. YANG Jun from the Institute of Acoustics (IOA) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences designed and fabricated a 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak (UACC) using transformation acoustics.

The research was published online in Applied Physics Letters on June 1 [2018].

Like a shield, the carpet cloak is a material shell that can reflect waves as if the waves were reflecting off a planar surface. Hence, the cloaked target becomes undetectable to underwater detection instruments like sonar.

Using transformation acoustics, the research team first finished the 2D underwater acoustic carpet cloak with metamaterial last year (Scientific Reports, April 6, 2017). However, this structure works only in two dimensions, and becomes immediately detectable when a third dimension is introduced.

To solve this problem, YANG Jun and his IOA team combined transformation acoustics with a reasonable scaling factor, worked out the parameters, and redesigned the unit cell of the 2D cloak. They designed the 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak and then proposed a fabrication and assembly method to manufacture it. The 3D cloak can hide an object from top to bottom and deal with complex situations, such as acoustic detection in all directions.

The 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak is a pyramid comprising eight triangular pyramids; each triangular pyramid is composed of 92 steel strips using a rectangle lattice, similar to a wafer biscuit. More vividly, if we remove the core from a big solid pyramid, we can hide something safely in the hollow space left.

“To make a 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak, researchers needed to construct the structure with 2D period, survey the influence of the unit cell’s resonance, examine the camouflage effect at the ridge of the sample, and other problems. In addition, the fabrication and assembly of the 3D device required more elaborate design. The extension of the UACC from 2D to 3D represents important progress in applied physics,” said YANG.

In experimental tests, a short Gaussian pulse propagated towards the target covered with the carpet cloak, and the waves backscattered toward their origin. The cloaked object successfully mimicked the reflecting surface and was undetectable by sound detection. Meanwhile, the measured acoustic pressure fields from the vertical view demonstrated the effectiveness of the designed 3D structure in every direction.

“As the next step, we will try to make the 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak smaller and lighter,” said YANG.

Funding for this research came from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No.11304351, 1177021304), the Youth Innovation Promotion Association of CAS (Grant No. 2017029), and the IACAS Young Elite Researcher Project (Grant No. QNYC201719).

Prof. YANG Jun and Dr. JIA Han led the research team from the Institute of Acoustics (IOA) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Prof. YANG Jun engages in research on sound, vibration and signal processing, and especially sound field control and array signal processing. They also work on other devices based on metamaterial in order to manipulate the propagation of sound waves.

A model of the device,

Caption: This is a model and photograph of the 3D underwater acoustic carpet cloak composed of over 700 steel strips. Credit: IOA

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

Experimental demonstration of three-dimensional broadband underwater acoustic carpet cloak by Yafeng Bi, Han Jia, Zhaoyong Sun, Yuzhen Yang, Han Zhao, and Jun Yang.
Appl. Phys. Lett. 112, 223502 (2018); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5026199 Published Online: June 2018

This paper is open access.

Xenotransplantation—organs for transplantation in human patients—it’s a business and a science

The last time (June 18, 2018 post) I mentioned xenotransplantation (transplanting organs from one species into another species; see more here), it was in the context of an art/sci (or sciart) event coming to Vancouver (Canada).,

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

(The show opens on Sept. 14, 2018.)

At the time, I had yet to stumble across Ingfei Chen’s thoughtful dive into the topic in her May 9, 2018 article for Slate.com,

In the United States, the clock is ticking for more than 114,700 adults and children waiting for a donated kidney or other lifesaving organ, and each day, nearly 20 of them die. Researchers are devising a new way to grow human organs inside other animals, but the method raises potentially thorny ethical issues. Other conceivable futuristic techniques sound like dystopian science fiction. As we envision an era of regenerative medicine decades from now, how far is society willing to go to solve the organ shortage crisis?

I found myself pondering this question after a discussion about the promises of stem cell technologies veered from the intriguing into the bizarre. I was interviewing bioengineer Zev Gartner, co-director and research coordinator of the Center for Cellular Construction at the University of California, San Francisco, about so-called organoids, tiny clumps of organlike tissue that can self-assemble from human stem cells in a Petri dish. These tissue bits are lending new insights into how our organs form and diseases take root. Some researchers even hope they can nurture organoids into full-size human kidneys, pancreases, and other organs for transplantation.

Certain organoid experiments have recently set off alarm bells, but when I asked Gartner about it, his radar for moral concerns was focused elsewhere. For him, the “really, really thought-provoking” scenarios involve other emerging stem cell–based techniques for engineering replacement organs for people, he told me. “Like blastocyst complementation,” he said.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Turns out it’s a powerful new genetic engineering trick that researchers hope to use for growing human organs inside pigs or sheep—organs that could be genetically personalized for transplant patients, in theory avoiding immune-system rejection problems. The science still has many years to go, but if it pans out, it could be one solution to the organ shortage crisis. However, the prospect of creating hybrid animals with human parts and killing them to harvest organs has already raised a slew of ethical questions. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on federal funding of this nascent research area while it evaluated and discussed the issues.

As Gartner sees it, the debate over blastocyst complementation research—work that he finds promising—is just one of many conversations that society needs to have about the ethical and social costs and benefits of future technologies for making lifesaving transplant organs. “There’s all these weird ways that we could go about doing this,” he said, with a spectrum of imaginable approaches that includes organoids, interspecies organ farming, and building organs from scratch using 3D bioprinters. But even if it turns out we can produce human organs in these novel ways, the bigger issue, in each technological instance, may be whether we should.

Gartner crystallized things with a downright creepy example: “We know that the best bioreactor for tissues and organs for humans are human beings,” he said. Hypothetically, “the best way to get you a new heart would be to clone you, grow up a copy of yourself, and take the heart out.” [emphasis mine] Scientists could probably produce a cloned person with the technologies we already have, if money and ethics were of no concern. “But we don’t want to go there, right?” he added in the next breath. “The ethics involved in doing it are not compatible with who we want to be as a society.”

This sounds like Gartner may have been reading some science fiction, specifically, Lois McMaster Bujold and her Barrayar series where she often explored the ethics and possibilities of bioengineering. At this point, some of her work seems eerily prescient.

As for Chen’s article, I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety if you have the time.

Medicine, healing, and big money

At about the same time, there was a May 31, 2018 news item on phys.org offering a perspective from some of the leaders in the science and the business (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past few years, researchers led by George Church have made important strides toward engineering the genomes of pigs to make their cells compatible with the human body. So many think that it’s possible that, with the help of CRISPR technology, a healthy heart for a patient in desperate need might one day come from a pig.

“It’s relatively feasible to change one gene in a pig, but to change many dozens—which is quite clear is the minimum here—benefits from CRISPR,” an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, said Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a core faculty member of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Xenotransplantation is “one of few” big challenges (along with gene drives and de-extinction, he said) “that really requires the ‘oomph’ of CRISPR.”

To facilitate the development of safe and effective cells, tissues, and organs for future medical transplantation into human patients, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has granted a technology license to the Cambridge biotech startup eGenesis.

Co-founded by Church and former HMS doctoral student Luhan Yang in 2015, eGenesis announced last year that it had raised $38 million to advance its research and development work. At least eight former members of the Church lab—interns, doctoral students, postdocs, and visiting researchers—have continued their scientific careers as employees there.

“The Church Lab is well known for its relentless pursuit of scientific achievements so ambitious they seem improbable—and, indeed, [for] its track record of success,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer and senior associate provost. “George deserves recognition too for his ability to inspire passion and cultivate a strong entrepreneurial drive among his talented research team.”

The license from Harvard OTD covers a powerful set of genome-engineering technologies developed at HMS and the Wyss Institute, including access to foundational intellectual property relating to the Church Lab’s 2012 breakthrough use of CRISPR, led by Yang and Prashant Mali, to edit the genome of human cells. Subsequent innovations that enabled efficient and accurate editing of numerous genes simultaneously are also included. The license is exclusive to eGenesis but limited to the field of xenotransplantation.

A May 30, 2018 Harvard University news release by Caroline Petty, which originated the news item, explores some of the issues associated with incubating humans organs in other species,

The prospect of using living, nonhuman organs, and concerns over the infectiousness of pathogens either present in the tissues or possibly formed in combination with human genetic material, have prompted the Food and Drug Administration to issue detailed guidance on xenotransplantation research and development since the mid-1990s. In pigs, a primary concern has been that porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs), strands of potentially pathogenic DNA in the animals’ genomes, might infect human patients and eventually cause disease. [emphases mine]

That’s where the Church lab’s CRISPR expertise has enabled significant advances. In 2015, the lab published important results in the journal Science, successfully demonstrating the use of genome engineering to eliminate all 62 PERVs in porcine cells. Science later called it “the most widespread CRISPR editing feat to date.”

In 2017, with collaborators at Harvard, other universities, and eGenesis, Church and Yang went further. Publishing again in Science, they first confirmed earlier researchers’ fears: Porcine cells can, in fact, transmit PERVs into human cells, and those human cells can pass them on to other, unexposed human cells. (It is still unknown under what circumstances those PERVs might cause disease.) In the same paper, they corrected the problem, announcing the embryogenesis and birth of 37 PERV-free pigs. [Note: My July 17, 2018 post features research which suggests CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing may cause greater genetic damage than had been thought.]

“Taken together, those innovations were stunning,” said Vivian Berlin, director of business development in OTD, who manages the commercialization strategy for much of Harvard’s intellectual property in the life sciences. “That was the foundation they needed, to convince both the scientific community and the investment community that xenotransplantation might become a reality.”

“After hundreds of tests, this was a critical milestone for eGenesis — and the entire field — and represented a key step toward safe organ transplantation from pigs,” said Julie Sunderland, interim CEO of eGenesis. “Building on this study, we hope to continue to advance the science and potential of making xenotransplantation a safe and routine medical procedure.”

Genetic engineering may undercut human diseases, but also could help restore extinct species, researcher says. [Shades of the Jurassic Park movies!]

It’s not, however, the end of the story: An immunological challenge remains, which eGenesis will need to address. The potential for a patient’s body to outright reject transplanted tissue has stymied many previous attempts at xenotransplantation. Church said numerous genetic changes must be achieved to make porcine organs fully compatible with human patients. Among these are edits to several immune functions, coagulation functions, complements, and sugars, as well as the PERVs.

“Trying the straight transplant failed almost immediately, within hours, because there’s a huge mismatch in the carbohydrates on the surface of the cells, in particular alpha-1-3-galactose, and so that was a showstopper,” Church explained. “When you delete that gene, which you can do with conventional methods, you still get pretty fast rejection, because there are a lot of other aspects that are incompatible. You have to take care of each of them, and not all of them are just about removing things — some of them you have to humanize. There’s a great deal of subtlety involved so that you get normal pig embryogenesis but not rejection.

“Putting it all together into one package is challenging,” he concluded.

In short, it’s the next big challenge for CRISPR.

Not unexpectedly, there is no mention of the CRISPR patent fight between Harvard/MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Broad Institute and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). My March 15, 2017 posting featured an outcome where the Broad Institute won the first round of the fight. As I recall, it was a decision based on the principles associated with King Solomon, i.e., the US Patent Office, divided the baby and UCBerkeley got the less important part of the baby. As you might expect the decision has been appealed. In an April 30, 2018 piece, Scientific American reprinted an article about the latest round in the fight written by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

All You Need to Know for Round 2 of the CRISPR Patent Fight

It’s baaaaack, that reputation-shredding, stock-moving fight to the death over key CRISPR patents. On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will hear oral arguments in University of California v. Broad Institute. Questions?

How did we get here? The patent office ruled in February 2017 that the Broad’s 2014 CRISPR patent on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes, based on discoveries by Feng Zhang, did not “interfere” with a patent application by UC based on the work of UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna. In plain English, that meant the Broad’s patent, on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes in eukaryotic cells (all animals and plants, but not bacteria), was different from UC’s, which described Doudna’s experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit DNA in a test tube—and it was therefore valid. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board concluded that when Zhang got CRISPR-Cas9 to work in human and mouse cells in 2012, it was not an obvious extension of Doudna’s earlier research, and that he had no “reasonable expectation of success.” UC appealed, and here we are.

For anyone who may not realize what the stakes are for these institutions, Linda Williams in a March 16, 1999 article for the LA Times had this to say about universities, patents, and money,

The University of Florida made about $2 million last year in royalties on a patent for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, a sports drink that generates some $500 million to $600 million a year in revenue for Quaker Oats Co.

The payments place the university among the top five in the nation in income from patent royalties.

Oh, but if some people on the Gainesville, Fla., campus could just turn back the clock. “If we had done Gatorade right, we would be getting $5 or $6 million (a year),” laments Donald Price, director of the university’s office of corporate programs. “It is a classic example of how not to handle a patent idea,” he added.

Gatorade was developed in 1965 when many universities were ill equipped to judge the commercial potential of ideas emerging from their research labs. Officials blew the university’s chance to control the Gatorade royalties when they declined to develop a professor’s idea.

The Gatorade story does not stop there and, even though it’s almost 20 years old, this article stands the test of time. I strongly encourage you to read it if the business end of patents and academia interest you or if you would like to develop more insight into the Broad Institute/UC Berkeley situation.

Getting back to the science, there is that pesky matter of diseases crossing over from one species to another. While, Harvard and eGenesis claim a victory in this area, it seems more work needs to be done.

Infections from pigs

An August 29, 2018 University of Alabama at Birmingham news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Hansen, describes the latest chapter in the quest to provide more organs for transplantion,

A shortage of organs for transplantation — including kidneys and hearts — means that many patients die while still on waiting lists. So, research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and other sites has turned to pig organs as an alternative. [emphasis mine]

Using gene-editing, researchers have modified such organs to prevent rejection, and research with primates shows the modified pig organs are well-tolerated.

An added step is needed to ensure the safety of these inter-species transplants — sensitive, quantitative assays for viruses and other infectious microorganisms in donor pigs that potentially could gain access to humans during transplantation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires such testing, prior to implantation, of tissues used for xenotransplantation from animals to humans. It is possible — though very unlikely — that an infectious agent in transplanted tissues could become an emerging infectious disease in humans.

In a paper published in Xenotransplantation, Mark Prichard, Ph.D., and colleagues at UAB have described the development and testing of 30 quantitative assays for pig infectious agents. These assays had sensitivities similar to clinical lab assays for viral loads in human patients. After validation, the UAB team also used the assays on nine sows and 22 piglets delivered from the sows through caesarian section.

“Going forward, ensuring the safety of these organs is of paramount importance,” Prichard said. “The use of highly sensitive techniques to detect potential pathogens will help to minimize adverse events in xenotransplantation.”

“The assays hold promise as part of the screening program to identify suitable donor animals, validate and release transplantable organs for research purposes, and monitor transplant recipients,” said Prichard, a professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and director of the Department of Pediatrics Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory.

The UAB researchers developed quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, assays for 28 viruses sometimes found in pigs and two groups of mycoplasmas. They established reproducibility, sensitivity, specificity and lower limit of detection for each assay. All but three showed features of good quantitative assays, and the lower limit of detection values ranged between one and 16 copies of the viral or bacterial genetic material.

Also, the pig virus assays did not give false positives for some closely related human viruses.

As a start to understanding the infectious disease load in normal healthy animals and ensuring the safety of pig tissues used in xenotransplantation research, the researchers then screened blood, nasal swab and stool specimens from nine adult sows and 22 of their piglets delivered by caesarian section.

Mycoplasma species and two distinct herpesviruses were the most commonly detected microorganisms. Yet 14 piglets that were delivered from three sows infected with either or both herpesviruses were not infected with the herpesviruses, showing that transmission of these viruses from sow to the caesarian-delivery piglet was inefficient.

Prichard says the assays promise to enhance the safety of pig tissues for xenotransplantation, and they will also aid evaluation of human specimens after xenotransplantation.

The UAB researchers say they subsequently have evaluated more than 300 additional specimens, and that resulted in the detection of most of the targets. “The detection of these targets in pig specimens provides reassurance that the analytical methods are functioning as designed,” said Prichard, “and there is no a priori reason some targets might be more difficult to detect than others with the methods described here.”

As is my custom, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Xenotransplantation panel for the detection of infectious agents in pigs by Caroll B. Hartline, Ra’Shun L. Conner, Scott H. James, Jennifer Potter, Edward Gray, Jose Estrada, Mathew Tector, A. Joseph Tector, Mark N. Prichard. Xenotransplantaion Volume 25, Issue 4 July/August 2018 e12427 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/xen.12427 First published: 18 August 2018

This paper is open access.

All this leads to questions about chimeras. If a pig is incubating organs with human cells it’s a chimera but then means the human receiving the organ becomes a chimera too. (For an example, see my Dec. 22, 2013 posting where there’s mention of a woman who received a trachea from a pig. Scroll down about 30% of the way.)

What is it to be human?

A question much beloved of philosophers and others, the question seems particularly timely with xenotransplantion and other developments such neuroprosthetics (cyborgs) and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing).

As I’ve noted before, although not recently, popular culture offers a discourse on these issues. Take a look at the superhero movies and the way in which enhanced humans and aliens are presented. For example, X-Men comics and movies present mutants (humans with enhanced abilities) as despised and rejected. Video games (not really my thing but there is the Deus Ex series which has as its hero, a cyborg also offer insight into these issues.

Other than popular culture and in the ‘bleeding edge’ arts community, I can’t recall any public discussion on these matters arising from the extraordinary set of technologies which are being deployed or prepared for deployment in the foreseeable future.

(If you’re in Vancouver (Canada) from September 14 – December 15, 2018, you may want to check out Piccinini’s work. Also, there’s ” NCSU [North Carolina State University] Libraries, NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design have issued a public call for art for the upcoming exhibition Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures.” from my Sept. 6, 2018 posting. Deadline: Oct. 1, 2018.)

At a guess, there will be pushback from people who have no interest in debating what it is to be human as they already know, and will find these developments, when they learn about them, to be horrifying and unnatural.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Installation View. Courtesy:: Rennie Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roseanne BarrVerified account @therealroseanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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