Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (4 of 5)

I was hoping this would be the concluding part of this series but there was much more than I dreamed. (I know that’s repetitive but I’m truly gobsmacked.)

Citizen science

Astronomy and bird watching (ornithology) are probably the only two scientific endeavours that have consistently engaged nonexperts/amateurs/citizen scientists right from the earliest days through the 21st century. Medical research, physics, chemistry, and others have, until recently and despite their origins in ‘amateur’ (or citizen) science, become the exclusive domain of professional experts.

This situation seems to be changing both here in Canada and elsewhere. One of the earliest postings about citizen science on this blog was in 2010 and, one of the most amusing to me personally, was this March 21, 2013 posting titled: Comparing techniques, citizen science to expert science. It’s about a study by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UK) comparing data collection by citizen scientists with experts. In this particular project where undersea data was being collected and people with diving skills needed, the citizen scientists did a better job than the expert scientists of collecting data. (I’m not trying to suggest that experts can be replaced by amateurs but do suggest that there are advantages to working together.)

*As for the Canadian science (from a June 15, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release),*

Take a look at your car. The bus you take to work. The smart phone you tap on during your commute. They all have one thing in common: science. Science is all around us. It shapes the way we live, the meals we grab on the go and the commute that takes us to school and work.

That is why the Government of Canada is encouraging young Canadians’ interest in science. Research and innovation lead to breakthroughs in agriculture, transit, medicine, green technology and service delivery, improving the quality of life for all Canadians. The outcomes of research also create jobs, strengthen the economy and support a growing middle class.

The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, carried that message to an audience of young students during her first citizen science Google Hangout today. The Hangout, run by Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, a not-for-profit organization, featured frog exhibits from the Toronto Zoo and a demonstration of the FrogWatch citizen science project by Dr. Nancy Kingsbury of Environment and Climate Change Canada. Toronto Zoo frog expert Katherine Wright joined Minister Duncan at the zoo to share information about frogs that are local to Ontario.

Minister Duncan, Dr. Kingsbury and Ms. Wright then engaged with elementary school children across Canada in a live Q&A session about the frogs in their own backyards. The Minister highlighted the importance of getting young Canadians interested in science fields and talked about ways they can take part in citizen science projects in their communities. Citizen scientists can share their observations on social media using the hashtag #ScienceAroundMe.

Quotes

“Science is for everyone, and it is important that we encourage today’s youth to be curious. Young Canadians who engage in citizen science today will become the highly skilled workers—engineers, scientists, mathematicians, technology experts and entrepreneurs—of tomorrow. Through citizen science, children can nurture an interest in the natural world. These young people will then go on to discover, to innovate and to find solutions that will help us build a better Canada.”
– The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities

“The Toronto Zoo is proud to participate in and encourage citizen science programs, such as FrogWatch, within the community. The Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-A-Pond Wetland Conservation Programme works to engage citizen scientists and deliver impactful conservation-focused research, restoration and outreach that highlight the importance of saving Canada’s sensitive wetland species and their habitats.”
– Robin Hale, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Toronto Zoo

Quick facts

NatureWatch, of which FrogWatch is a component, is a community program that engages all Canadians in collecting scientific information on nature to understand our changing environment.

Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants aims to inspire the next generation of scientists, explorers and conservationists by bringing science, exploration, adventure and conservation into classrooms through virtual field trips run by programs like Google Hangout.

The Government of Canada’s Citizen Science Portal is a one-stop shop for science in the community. It showcases science programs, including NatureWatch programs, across the country.

Associated links

The portal is not nearly as Ontario-centric as the projects mentioned in the news release (in case you were wondering).

Aside: In part 2 of this series, Jesse Hildebrand, founder of Science Literacy Week was mentioned as also being the founder of Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.

Going to the birds

While bird watching and ornithological studies are not new to the Canadian science culture scene, there were some interesting developments in the 2010-19 period.

Canadian Geographic (magazine) sponsored a contest in 2015, the National Bird Project, where almost 50,000 people submitted suggestions for a national bird. Voting online ensued and on August 31, 2016 popular voting was closed. Five birds attracted the top votes and in September 2016, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society put together an expert panel to debate and decide which would be Canada’s national bird. The choice was announced in November 2016 (Canadian Geographic National Bird Project).

The gray jay. Also known as the whiskey jack or Canada jay. Photo: Steve Phillips [downloaded from http://nationalbird.canadiangeographic.ca/]

From the National Bird Project webpage,

The gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis in Latin, Mésangeai du Canada in French) lives in all 13 provinces and territories — the friendly spirit in Canada’s wild northern boreal and mountain forests. It remains in Canada year-round, is neither hunted nor endangered, and from the Atlantic provinces to the West is an indicator of the health of the boreal and mountain forests and climate change, inspiring a conservation philosophy for all kinds of northern land uses. The gray jay has long been important to Indigenous Peoples, and will draw all Canadians to their national and provincial/territorial parks, yet unlike the loon and snowy owl, it is not already a provincial or territorial bird.

I found a more fulsome description on the What is the National Bird of Canada? webpage on the World Atlas website,

Gray jay is a passerine bird belonging to the family Corvidae. It is mostly found in the boreal forest of North America. The bird is fairly large and has pale gray underparts and dark grey upperpart. Gray jay is a friendly bird and often approach human for food. It is also popularly known as the camp robber, whisky jack, and venison-hawk. Gray jay is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature]. However, the anthropogenic climate change in the southern range may adversely affect its population. In some Fist Nation cultures, the bird is associated with mythological figures including Wisakedjak who was anglicized to Whiskyjack.

For approximately 200 years, the gray jay was known as “Canadian Jay” to the English speakers. The bird was renamed the “gray jay” in 1957 by the American Ornithologists’ Union. However, scientifically the bird is referred to as Perisoreus Canadensis. The bird is found in almost all the provinces of territories of Canada. the preferred habitat for the species is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests. Gray jay is also one of the smartest birds in the world and has almost the same body-to-brain ratio as human beings.

Canadian Georgraphic offers more depth (and a map) in a November 16, 2016 article, by Nick Walker, titled, Canada, meet your national bird (Note: Links have been removed),

With 450 species in the country to choose from, Canadian Geographic’s decision was made neither lightly nor quickly.

This national debate has been running since January 2015, in fact. But after weighing the opinions and preferences of tens of thousands of Canadians, as well as the expertise of our National Conservation Partners at Bird Studies Canada and other ornithologists and conservationists, as well as cultural experts and Indigenous Peoples, that list was narrowed to five birds. And one finalist best met all reasonable criteria.
    
We give you the gray jay. …

Not only has the gray jay never been recorded outside of North America, the vast majority of its range is in Canada, with only a small percentage crossing into Alaska and the western mountains of the United States. The species’ preferred habitat is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests — ecozones that stretch from coast to coast and into the North, blanketing nearly two-thirds of the country.

Like the Canadian flag when it was selected in 1965, the gray jay is fresh and new and fitting. To quote David Bird, ornithologist and professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal’s McGill University, we cannot think of a more Canadian bird.

Three sets of bird stamps were issued by Canada Post from 2016-2018 saluting “Canada’s avian citizens.” Here’s more from a July 12, 2016 Birds of Canada blog post on the Canada Post website announcing the first series of bird stamps,

Hatched by designer Kosta Tsetsekas and illustrator Keith Martin, these stamps are the first in a three-year series celebrating Canada’s avian citizens. Our first flock includes five official birds: the Atlantic puffin (Newfoundland and Labrador), the great horned owl (Alberta), the common raven (Yukon), the rock ptarmigan (Nunavut) and the sharp-tailed grouse (Saskatchewan).

An August 1, 2017 Canada Post blog post announced that year’s bird stamps and, finally, an August 20, 2018 Canada Post blog post announced the finale release. The 2018 series was released in time to celebrate the 27th International Ornithological Congress held in Vancouver (from the Vancouver Convention Centre congress webpage),

On behalf of the International Ornithologists’ Union, Vancouver is delighted to welcome ornithologists from around the world to the 27th International Ornithological Congress (IOCongress2018)! Considered the oldest and most prestigious of meetings for bird scientists, the Congress occurs every four years since first being held in Vienna, Austria, in 1884.

Canada has hosted only once previously, Ottawa in 1986, and Vancouver will be the first time the Congress has been on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The Congress has broad national endorsement, including from the City of Vancouver, the province of British Columbia, Environment Canada, Simon Fraser University, Artists for Conservation, Tourism Vancouver plus an array of scientific societies and conservation organizations.

The convention centre’s webpage features an impressive list of events which were open to the public,

  • Stars of the Bird World Presentation (August 19): Dr. Rob Butler, chair of the Vancouver International Bird Festival, presents Flyways to Culture: How birds give rise to a cultural awakening, at look at how the growing interest in birds in particular and nature in general, is a foundation for a new Nature Culture in which nature becomes embedded into a west coast culture. 8:30-10 a.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Admission by donation ($10 suggested).
  • Festival Opening Ceremony – Parade of Birds and a fanfare by Vancouver Symphony Brass Quintet (August 20): The festival begins with a Parade of Birds and a fanfare by the Vancouver Symphony Brass Quintet. The fanfare “Gathering Flock” was composed by Frederick Schipizky. 3:20 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Artists for Conservation Show (August 22): Artists for Conservation is the official visual arts partner for the festival and congress, showcasing some of the world’s best nature art through its annual juried exhibit, a collaborative mural, artist demo and lecture series and an artist booth expo. Official opening 6-10 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Nature & Bird Expo (until August 25): The three-day Bird Expo is the showcase of birds and nature in Canada, including exhibitors, speakers, yoga, poetry, art and more. Runs until Aug. 25 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Check out a full event listing at www.vanbirdfest.com/calendar/nature-bird-expo.
  • Migration Songs – Poetry and Ornithology (August 23): Migration Songs brings together 11 contemporary poets to consider an array of bird species. Each poet was put in conversation with a particular ornithologist or scientist to consider their chosen species collaboratively. The poets involved include well-known west-coast authors, amongst them Governor General’s Award and Griffin Poetry Prize winners. A short book of these collaborations, Migration Songs, with cover art by poet, painter, and weaver Annie Ross, will be available. 6 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Unveiling of the Silent Skies Mural (August 23): A signature event of the week-long Artists for Conservation show is the unveiling of the Silent Skies mural made up of illustrations of the endangered birds of the world — 678 pieces, each depicting a different endangered bird, will make up the 100-foot-long installation that will form the artistic centrepiece for the 8th annual Artists for Conservation Festival, the 27th International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. The unveiling takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Stewardship Roundtable 2018 (August 24): A forum and showcase of innovative practices championed in B.C. province and beyond, presented by the Stewardship Centre for BC and Bird Studies Canada, in collaboration with the 27th International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. 8:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre. For more information or to register, visit stewardshipcentrebc.ca/programs/wildife-species-risk/stewardship-roundtable.
  • Closing Ceremony (August 26): The closing ceremony will include remarks from officials and First Nations representatives, and a Heron Dance by the New Dance Centre from Saskatchewan. 5-6:30 p.m. at Vancouver Convention Centre.

I attended the opening ceremony where they announced the final set of stamps in the Birds of Canada series by introducing people who’d dressed for the parade as the birds in question.

The Canadian birding community has continued to create interesting new projects for science outreach. A December 19, 2019 posting by Natasha Barlow for Birds Canada (also known as Bird Studies Canada) announces a new interactive story map,

The Boreal Region is a massive expanse of forests, wetlands, and waterways covering much of the Northern Hemisphere. In Canada, this vast region stretches for 5000 kilometres from Newfoundland and Labrador through the country’s central regions and northwest to the Yukon.

Over 300 bird species regularly breed here, from tiny songbirds like kinglets and warblers to comparatively giant swans and cranes. The Boreal is home to literally billions of birds, and serves as the continent’s bird “nursery” since it is such an important breeding ground.

While extensive tracts of Canada’s northern Boreal still remain largely undisturbed from major industrial development, the human footprint is expanding and much of the southern Boreal is already being exploited for its resources.

Birds Canada, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, has created an interactive story map that details the importance of the Boreal region for birds.

Click here to explore and share this colourful online resource, which celebrates the Boreal Region and its rich bird life.

H/t Nature Conservancy Canada January 29, 2020 blog posting.

Climate change, ecology, and Indigenous knowledge (science)

There is more focus on climate change everywhere in the world and much of the latest energy and focus internationally can be traced to Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg who turned 17 in January 2020. Her influence has galvanized a number of youth climate strikes in Canada and around the world.

There is a category of science fiction or speculative fiction known as Climate Fiction (cli-fi or clifi). Margaret Atwood (of course) has produced a trilogy in that subgenre of speculative fiction, from the Climate Fiction Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

Margaret Atwood explored the subject in her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013).[13] In Oryx and Crake Atwood presents a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event”.[14] The novel’s protagonist, Jimmy, lives in a “world split between corporate compounds”, gated communities that have grown into city-states and pleeblands, which are “unsafe, populous and polluted” urban areas where the working classes live.[15]

There is some other cli-fi literature by Canadians, notably an anthology of Canadian short stories edited by Bruce Meyer, from a March 9, 2018 review by Emilie Moorhouse published in Canada’s National Observer (review originally published in Prism magazine on March 8, 2018), Note: A link has been removed,

A woman waits in line to get her water ration. She hasn’t had a sip of water in nearly three days. Her mouth is parched; she stumbles as she waits her turn for over an hour in the hot sun. When she he finally gets to the iTap and inserts her card into the machine that controls the water flow, the light turns red and her card is rejected. Her water credits have run out.

This scenario from “The Way of Water” by Nina Munteanu is one of many contained in the recently published anthology of short stories, Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change. The seventeen stories in this book edited by Bruce Meyer examine how humankind might struggle with the potential devastation of climate change in the near or distant future. Soon after I finished reading the book, Cape Town—known in precolonial times as “the place where clouds gather”—announced that it was only a few months away from what it called “Day Zero,” the day the city would officially run out of water, making the similarities between fiction and reality more than unsettling. Munteanu’s story is set in a futuristic Canada that has been mined of all its water by thirsty corporations who have taken over control of the resource. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation preventing rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border.

Indigenous knowledge (science)

The majority of Canada’s coastline is in the Arctic and climate change in that region is progressing at a disturbing pace. Weather, Climate Change, and Inuit Communities in the Western Canadian Arctic, a September 30, 2017 blog posting, by Dr. Laura Eerkes-Medrano at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) for Historical Climatology describes it this way (Note: A link has been removed),

Global climate change brings with it local weather that communities and cultures have difficulty anticipating. Unpredictable and socially impactful weather is having negative effects on the subsistence, cultural activities, and safety of indigenous peoples in Arctic communities. Since 2013, Professor David Atkinson and his team at the University of Victoria have been working with Inuvialuit communities in Tuktoyaktuk, Ulukhaktok, and Sachs Harbour. The main goal is to understand how impactful weather is affecting residents’ subsistence activities, particularly when they are on the water. The project involves site visits, interviews, and regular phone calls with residents.

Inuvialuit residents regularly observe the waves, winds, snow, and ice conditions that interfere with their hunting, fishing, camping, and other subsistence and cultural activities. In this project, communities identify specific weather events that impact their activities. These events are then linked to the broader atmospheric patterns that cause them. Summaries of the events will be provided to Environment Canada to hopefully assist with the forecasting process.

By taking this approach, the project links Western scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge to generate insights [emphasis mine] into how climate change is affecting Inuvialuit activities in the Canadian Arctic. An oversight committee has been established in each community to give direction to the project. This oversight committee includes representatives from each of the main community organizations, which ensures that the respective organizations provide direction to the project and advise on how to engage residents and communities.

Western science learning from and taking from traditional knowledge is not new. For example, many modern medicines are still derived from traditional remedies. Unfortunately, traditional practitioners have not benefited from sharing their knowledge.

It is to be hoped things are changing with projects like Atkinson’s and another one I mentioned in a December 2, 2019 posting featuring a discovery about ochre (a red dye used for rock art). The dye being examined was produced (in a manner that appears to be unique) in the Babine Lake region of British Columbia and the research may have applications for industrial use leading to economic benefits for the indigenous folks of that region. As important as the benefits, the science team worked closely with the indigenous communities in that area.

University in the Arctic

I was told several years ago that Canada is the only ‘arctic country’ that does not have a university in the high north. As of 2019 it seems the situation is changing, from a December 1, 2019 Global television news online item,

Canada will finally have its first Arctic university.

This past week [of December 1, 2019], the Yukon legislature passed a bill to make Yukon College a university. It will be an institution with an Indigenous flavour that will make it as unique as the region it is to serve.

“Everybody knows we’re moving toward something big and something special,” said Tom Ullyett, chairman of the board of governors.

The idea of a northern university has been kicked around since at least 2007 when a survey in all three territories found residents wanted more influence over Arctic research. Northern First Nations have been asking for one for 50 years.

Research is to centre on issues around environmental conservation and sustainable resource development. It will be conducted in a new, $26-million science building funded by Ottawa and currently being designed.

Indigenous content will be baked in.

“It’s about teaching with northern examples,” said Tosh Southwick, in charge of Indigenous engagement. “Every program will have a northern component.”

Science programs will have traditional knowledge embedded in them and talk about ravens and moose instead of, say, flamingos and giraffes. Anthropology classes will teach creation stories alongside archeological evidence.

The institution will report to Yukon’s 14 First Nations as well as to the territorial legislature. More than one-quarter of its current students are Indigenous.

“Our vision is to be that first northern university that focuses on Indigenous governance, that focuses on sustainable natural resources, that focuses on northern climate, and everything that flows from that.”

Climate adaptation and/or choices

While we have participated in a number of initiatives and projects concerned with climate change, I believe there is general agreement we should have done more. That said I would prefer to remain hopeful.

A January 23, 2020 Yukon College news release announces the appointment of a staff member to an Canadian federal government institute’s advisory committee,

A newly launched institute for climate policy research will have a Yukon connection. Brian Horton, Manager of Northern Climate ExChange at the Yukon Research Centre, has been named to the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices expert advisory panel for Climate Adaptation.   

The Institute, launched Tuesday morning, aims to bring clarity to Canada’s climate policy choices. The Institute’s initial report, Charting our Course, describes the current climate landscape in Canada and provides recommendations for policy makers and governments seeking to implement more effective policy.  

In order to remain grounded in issues of importance to Canadians, the Institute has appointed three Expert Advisory Panels (Adaptation, Mitigation and Clean Growth) to provide evidence-based research, analysis and engagement advice to support integrative policy decisions. 

“It is exciting to have a role to play in this dynamic new network,” said Horton. “The climate is rapidly changing in the North and affecting our landscapes and lives daily. I look forward to contributing a Northern voice to this impactful pan-Canadian expert collaboration.” 

At Yukon College, Horton’s research team focusses on applied research of climate impacts and adaptation in Yukon and Northwest Territories.  Northern Climate ExChange works with communities, governments, and the private sector to answer questions about permafrost, hydrology, and social factors to facilitate adaptation to climate change.

By the way, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices was launched on January 21, 2020 (news release),

January 21, 2020 | OTTAWA — Dozens of academics and policy experts today launched the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, a new independent national research body. The Institute aims to bring clarity to the transformative challenges, opportunities and choices ahead for Canada as governments at all levels work to address climate change.

Experimental Lakes Area

This is a very special research effort originally funded and managed by the Canadian federal government. Rather controversially, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government defunded the research but that may not have been the tragedy many believed (from the Experimental Lakes Area Wikipedia entry),

IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA, known as ELA before 2014)[1] is an internationally unique research station encompassing 58 formerly pristine freshwater lakes in Kenora District Ontario, Canada.[2][3] Previously run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, after being de-funded by the Canadian Federal Government, the facility is now managed and operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and has a mandate to investigate the aquatic effects of a wide variety of stresses on lakes and their catchments. IISD-ELA uses the whole ecosystem approach and makes long-term, whole-lake investigations of freshwater focusing on eutrophication.[4][5]

In an article[2] published in AAAS’s well-known scientific journal Science, Eric Stokstad described ELA’s “extreme science”[2] as the manipulation of whole lake ecosystem with ELA researchers collecting long-term records for climatology, hydrology, and limnology that address key issues in water management.[4] The site has influenced public policy in water management in Canada, the USA, and around the world.[2]

Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, argued that “our government has been working hard to ensure that the Experimental Lakes Area facility is transferred to a non-governmental operator better suited to conducting the type of world-class research that can be undertaken at this facility” and that “[t]he federal government has been leading negotiations in order to secure an operator with an international track record.” On April 1, 2014, the International Institute for Sustainable Development announced that it had signed three agreements to ensure that it will be the long-term operator of the research facility and that the facility would henceforth be called IISD Experimental Lakes Area.[6] Since taking over the facility, IISD has expanded the function of the site to include educational and outreach opportunities[7] and a broader research portfolio.[8]

You can find the IISD Experimental Lakes Area website here.

Part 5 is to a large extent a grab bag for everything I didn’t fit into parts 1 -4. As for what you can expect to find in Part 5: some science podcasting, eco art, a Saskatchewan lab with an artist-in-residence, and more.

For anyone who missed them:

Part 1 covers science communication, science media (mainstream and others such as blogging) and arts as exemplified by music and dance: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (1 of 5).

Part 2 covers art/science (or art/sci or sciart) efforts, science festivals both national and local, international art and technology conferences held in Canada, and various bar/pub/café events: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (2 of 5).

Part 3 covers comedy, do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, chief science advisor, science policy, mathematicians, and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (3 of 5)

* ETA April 24, 2020 at 1515 PT Added the line and link *As for the Canadian science (from a June 15, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release),*

Canadian science petition and a science diplomacy event in Ottawa on June 21, 2016*

The Canadian science policy and science funding scene is hopping these days. Canada’s Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, announced a new review of federal funding for fundamental science on Monday, June 13, 2016 (see my June 15, 2016 post for more details and a brief critique of the panel) and now, there’s a new Parliamentary campaign for a science advisor and a Canadian Science Policy Centre event on science diplomacy.

Petition for a science advisor

Kennedy Stewart, Canadian Member of Parliament (Burnaby South) and NDP (New Democratic Party) Science Critic, has launched a campaign for independent science advice for the government. Here’s more from a June 15, 2016 announcement (received via email),

After years of muzzling and misuse of science by the Conservatives, our scientists need lasting protections in order to finally turn the page on the lost Harper decade.

I am writing to ask your support for a new campaign calling for an independent science advisor.

While I applaud the new Liberal government for their recent promises to support science, we have a long way to go to rebuild Canada’s reputation as a global knowledge leader. As NDP Science Critic, I continue to push for renewed research funding and measures to restore scientific integrity.

Canada badly needs a new science advisor to act as a public champion for research and evidence in Ottawa. Although the Trudeau government has committed to creating a Chief Science Officer, the Minister of Science – Dr. Kirsty Duncan – has yet to state whether or not the new officer will be given real independence and a mandate protected by law.

Today, we’re launching a new parliamentary petition calling for just that: https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Sign/e-415

Can you add your name right now?

Canada’s last national science advisor lacked independence from the government and was easily eliminated in 2008 after the anti-science Harper Conservatives took power.

That’s why the Minister needs to build the new CSO to last and entrench the position in legislation. Rhetoric and half-measures aren’t good enough.

Please add your voice for public science by signing our petition to the Minister of Science.

Thank you for your support,

Breakfast session on science diplomacy

One June 21, 2016 the Canadian Science Policy Centre is presenting a breakfast session on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, (from an announcement received via email),

“Science Diplomacy in the 21st Century: The Potential for Tomorrow”
Remarks by Dr. Vaughan Turekian,
Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry

Event Information
Tuesday, June 21, 2016, Room 238-S, Parliament Hill
7:30am – 8:00am – Continental Breakfast
8:00am – 8:10am – Opening Remarks, MP Terry Beech
8:10am – 8:45am – Dr. Vaughan Turekian Remarks and Q&A

Dr. Turekian’s visit comes during a pivotal time as Canada is undergoing fundamental changes in numerous policy directions surrounding international affairs. With Canada’s comeback on the world stage, there is great potential for science to play an integral role in the conduct of our foreign affairs.  The United States is currently one of the leaders in science diplomacy, and as such, listening to Dr.Turekian will provide a unique perspective from the best practices of science diplomacy in the US.

Actually, Dr. Turekian’s visit comes before a North American Summit being held in Ottawa on June 29, 2016 and which has already taken a scientific turn. From a June 16, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Some 200 intellectuals, scientists and artists from around the world urged the leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada on Wednesday to save North America’s endangered migratory Monarch butterfly.

US novelist Paul Auster, environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Canadian poet [Canadian media usually describe her as a writer] Margaret Atwood, British writer Ali Smith and India’s women’s and children’s minister Maneka Sanjay Gandhi were among the signatories of an open letter to the three leaders.

US President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will hold a North American summit in Ottawa on June 29 [2016].

The letter by the so-called Group of 100 calls on the three leaders to “take swift and energetic actions to preserve the Monarch’s migratory phenomenon” when they meet this month.

In 1996-1997, the butterflies covered 18.2 hectares (45 acres) of land in Mexico’s central mountains.

It fell to 0.67 hectares in 2013-2014 but rose to 4 hectares this year. Their population is measured by the territory they cover.

They usually arrive in Mexico between late October and early November and head back north in March.

Given this turn of events, I wonder how Turekian, given that he’s held his current position for less than a year, might (or might not) approach the question of Monarch butterflies and diplomacy.

I did a little research about Turekian and found this Sept. 10, 2016 news release announcing his appointment as the Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State,

On September 8, Dr. Vaughan Turekian, formerly the Chief International Officer at The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), was named the 5th Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State. In this capacity, Dr. Turekian will advise the Secretary of State and the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment on international environment, science, technology, and health matters affecting the foreign policy of the United States. Dr. Turekian will draw upon his background in atmospheric chemistry and extensive policy experience to promote science, technology, and engineering as integral components of U.S. diplomacy.

Dr. Turekian brings both technical expertise and 14 years of policy experience to the position. As former Chief International Officer for The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Director of AAAS’s Center for Science Diplomacy, Dr. Turekian worked to build bridges between nations based on shared scientific goals, placing special emphasis on regions where traditional political relationships are strained or do not exist. As Editor-in-Chief of Science & Diplomacy, an online quarterly publication, Dr. Turekian published original policy pieces that have served to inform international science policy recommendations. Prior to his work at AAAS, Turekian worked at the State Department as Special Assistant and Adviser to the Under Secretary for Global Affairs on issues related to sustainable development, climate change, environment, energy, science, technology, and health and as a Program Director for the Committee on Global Change Research at the National Academy of Sciences where he was study director for a White House report on climate change science.

Turekian’s last editorial for Science & Diplomacy dated June 30, 2015 features a title (Evolving Institutions for Twenty-First Century [Science] Diplomacy) bearing a resemblance to the title for his talk in Ottawa and perhaps it provides a preview (spoilers),

Over the recent decade, its treatment of science and technology issues has increased substantially, with a number of cover stories focused on topics that bridge science, technology, and foreign affairs. This thought leadership reflects a broader shift in thinking within institutions throughout the world about the importance of better integrating the communities of science and diplomacy in novel ways.

In May, a high-level committee convened by Japan’s minister of foreign affairs released fifteen recommendations for how Japan could better incorporate its scientific and technological expertise into its foreign policy. While many of the recommendations were to be predicted, including the establishment of the position of science adviser to the foreign minister, the breadth of the recommendations highlighted numerous new ways Japan could leverage science to meet its foreign policy objectives. The report itself marks a turning point for an institution looking to upgrade its ability to meet and shape the challenges of this still young century.

On the other side of the Pacific, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its own assessment of science in the U.S. Department of State. Their report, “Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Embedding a Culture of Science and Technology Throughout the Department of State,” builds on its landmark 1999 report, which, among other things, established the position of science and technology adviser to the secretary of state. The twenty-seven recommendations in the new report are wide ranging, but as a whole speak to the fact that while one of the oldest U.S. institutions of government has made much progress toward becoming more scientifically and technologically literate, there are many more steps that could be taken to leverage science and technology as a key element of U.S. foreign policy.

These two recent reports highlight the importance of foreign ministries as vital instruments of science diplomacy. These agencies of foreign affairs, like their counterparts around the world, are often viewed as conservative and somewhat inflexible institutions focused on stability rather than transformation. However, they are adjusting to a world in which developments in science and technology move rapidly and affect relationships and interactions at bilateral, regional, and global scales.

At the same time that some traditional national instruments of diplomacy are evolving to better incorporate science, international science institutions are also evolving to meet the diplomatic and foreign policy drivers of this more technical century. …

It’s an interesting read and I’m glad to see the mention of Japan in his article. I’d like to see Canadian science advice and policy initiatives take more notice of the rest of the world rather than focusing almost solely on what’s happening in the US and Great Britain (see my June 15, 2016 post for an example of what I mean). On another note, it was disconcerting to find out that Turekian believes that we are only now moving past the Cold War politics of the past.

Unfortunately for anyone wanting to attend the talk, ticket sales have ended even though they were supposed to be open until June 17, 2016. And, there doesn’t seem to be a wait list.

You may want to try arriving at the door and hoping that people have cancelled or fail to arrive therefore acquiring a ticket. Should you be an MP (Member of Parliament), Senator, or guest of the Canadian Science Policy Conference, you get a free ticket. Should you be anyone else, expect to pay $15, assuming no one is attempting to scalp (sell one for more than it cost) these tickets.

*’ … on June’ in headline changed to ‘ … on June 21, 2016’ on June 17, 2016.

Margaret Atwood talks about technology and creativity

Joe Berkowitz has written an Oct. 29, 2015 article for Fast Company about Margaret Atwood, creativity, technology, and dystopias (I gather Ms. Atwood is doing publicity in aid of her new book, ‘The Heart Goes Last’; Note: Links have been removed),

In the latest thought-provoking, dystopian parable from noted words-genius, Margaret Atwood, society is experimenting with becoming a prison. The entire population of the unsettling community of Positron, as depicted in The Heart Goes Last, spends half the time as prisoners and half the time as guards. It does not go great. Considering that the story also involves sex-robots and other misfit gadgetry, the central premise serves as an apt metaphor for our occasionally adversarial relationship with technology. …

… One element of this symbiotic relationship Margaret Atwood is especially interested in, though, is the impact new technology has on creativity. The paradigm-shifting author doesn’t merely write about the future, she has also helped bring about changes to how we write in the future. As the creator of the LongPen, she’s made it so that authors can sign books from great distances; and as the first contributor to the Future Library project, she’s become a pioneer of writing novels intended strictly for later generations to read. A master at building future worlds in fiction, Atwood is also doing so in reality.

She has some things to say about the cloud and how the medium shapes the message (thank you, Marshall McLuhan),

… Being a selective early adopter means communicating with the tools one feels comfortable with, and avoiding others.

“I don’t trust the cloud,” she says. “Everybody knows that Moscow has gone back over to typewriters. Anything on the internet potentially leaks like a sieve. So we are currently exchanging scripts by FedEx because we don’t want them to be leaked. Anything you absolutely do not want to be leaked, unless you were a master of hackery and disguise, you should transfer and store some other way, especially since Mr. Snowden and what we know. …

… Being a selective early adopter [Atwood] means communicating with the tools one feels comfortable with, and avoiding others.

“I don’t trust the cloud,” she says. “Everybody knows that Moscow has gone back over to typewriters. Anything on the internet potentially leaks like a sieve. So we are currently exchanging scripts by FedEx because we don’t want them to be leaked. Anything you absolutely do not want to be leaked, unless you were a master of hackery and disguise, you should transfer and store some other way, especially since Mr. Snowden and what we know. …

“Any new technology or platform or medium is going to influence to a certain extent the shape of what gets put out there,” Atwood says. “On the other hand, human storytelling is very, very old. To a certain extent, technology shapes the bite-size of how you’re sending it into the world. For instance, people put writing on their phone in short chapters. So Proust would not have done well with that. We develop short forms because we’re limited in characters but we did that with the telegram. ‘6:15 Paddington, bring gun, Sherlock Holmes.’ Or better, ‘Holmes,’ actually.”

The last time I mentioned Margaret Atwood here was in regard to ‘Canadianness’ in my March 6, 2015 posting where I noted that Atwood is sometimes taken as an American or British author as her status as a Canadian is often omitted from articles about her.

Finally, Marshall McLuhan was a noted Canadian communications theorist who achieved awareness in pop culture during the 1960’s and 70’s with this phrase amongst others, The medium is the message.

More about MUSE, a Canadian company and its brain sensing headband; women and startups; Canadianess

I first wrote about Ariel Garten and her Toronto-based (Canada) company, InteraXon, in a Dec. 5, 2012 posting where I featured a product, MUSE (Muse), then described as a brainwave controller. A March 5, 2015 article by Lydia Dishman for Fast Company provides an update on the product now described as a brainwave-sensing headband and on the company (Note: Links have been removed),

The technology that had captured the imagination of millions was then incorporated to develop a headband called Muse. It sells at retail stores like BestBuy for about $300 and works in conjunction with an app called Calm as a tool to increase focus and reduce stress.

If you always wanted to learn to meditate without those pesky distracting thoughts commandeering your mind, Muse can help by taking you through a brief exercise that translates brainwaves into the sound of wind. Losing focus or getting antsy brings on the gales. Achieving calm rewards you with a flock of birds across your screen.

The company has grown to 50 employees and has raised close to $10 million from investors including Ashton Kutcher. Garten [Ariel Garten, founder and Chief Executive Founder] says they’re about to close on a Series B round, “which will be significant.”

She says that listening plays an important role at InteraXon. Reflecting back on what you think you heard is an exercise she encourages, especially in meetings. When the development team is building a tool, for example, they use their Muses to meditate and focus, which then allows for listening more attentively and nonjudgmentally.

Women and startups

Dishman references gender and high tech financing in her article about Garten,

Garten doesn’t dwell on her status as a woman in a mostly male-dominated sector. That goes for securing funding for the startup too, despite the notorious bias venture-capital investors have against women startup founders.

“I am sure I lost deals because I am a woman, but also because the idea didn’t resonate,” she says, adding, “I’m sure I gained some because I am a woman, so it is unfair to put a blanket statement on it.”

Yet Garten is the only female member of her C-suite, something she says “is just the way it happened.” Casting the net recently to fill the role of chief operating officer [COO], Garten says there weren’t any women in the running, in part because the position required hardware experience as well as knowledge of working with the Chinese.

She did just hire a woman to be senior vice president of sales and marketing, and says, “When we are hiring younger staff, we are gender agnostic.”

I can understand wanting to introduce nuance into the ‘gender bias and tech startup discussion’ by noting that some rejections could have been due to issues with the idea or implementation. But the comment about being the only female in late stage funding as “just the way it happened” suggests she is extraordinarily naïve or willfully blind. Given her followup statement about her hiring practices, I’m inclined to go with willfully blind. It’s hard to believe she couldn’t find any woman with hardware experience and China experience. It seems more likely she needed a male COO to counterbalance a company with a female CEO. As for being gender agnostic where younger staff are concerned, that’s nice but it’s not reassuring as women have been able to get more junior positions. It’s the senior positions such as COO which remain out of reach and, troublingly, Garten seems to have blown off the question with a weak explanation and a glib assurance of equality at the lower levels of the company.

For more about gender, high tech companies, and hiring/promoting practices, you can read a March 5, 2015 article titled, Ellen Pao Trial Reveals the Subtle Sexism of Silicon Valley, by Amanda Marcotte for Slate.

Getting back to MUSE, you can find out more here. You can find out more about InterAxon here. Unusually, there doesn’t seem to be any information about the management team on the website.

Canadianness

I thought it was interesting that InterAxon’s status as a Canada-based company was mentioned nowhere in Dishman’s article. This is in stark contrast to Nancy Owano’s  Dec. 5, 2012 article for phys.org,

A Canadian company is talking about having a window, aka computer screen, into your mind. … InteraXon, a Canadian company, is focused on making a business out of mind-control technology via a headband device, and they are planning to launch this as a $199 brainwave computer controller called Muse. … [emphases mine]

This is not the only recent instance I’ve noticed. My Sept. 1, 2014 posting mentions what was then an upcoming Margaret Atwood event at Arizona State University,

… (from the center’s home page [Note: The center is ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination]),

Internationally renowned novelist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood will visit Arizona State University this November [2014] to discuss the relationship between art and science, and the importance of creative writing and imagination for addressing social and environmental challenges.

Atwood’s visit will mark the launch of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative … Atwood, author of the MaddAddam trilogy of novels that have become central to the emerging literary genre of climate fiction, or “CliFi,” will offer the inaugural lecture for the initiative on Nov. 5.

“We are proud to welcome Margaret Atwood, one of the world’s most celebrated living writers, to ASU and engage her in these discussions around climate, science and creative writing,” …  “A poet, novelist, literary critic and essayist, Ms. Atwood epitomizes the creative and professional excellence our students aspire to achieve.”

There’s not a single mention that she is Canadian there or in a recent posting by Martin Robbins about a word purge from the Oxford Junior Dictionary published by the Guardian science blog network (March 3, 2015 posting). In fact, Atwood was initially described by Robbins as one of Britain’s literary giants. I assume there were howls of anguish once Canadians woke up to read the article since the phrase was later amended to “a number of the Anglosphere’s literary giants.”

The omission of InterAxon’s Canadianness in Dishman’s article for an American online magazine and Atwood’s Canadianness on the Arizona State University website and Martin Robbins’ initial appropriation and later change to the vague-sounding “Anglospere” in his post for the British newspaper, The Guardian, means the bulk of their readers will likely assume InterAxon is American and that Margaret Atwood, depending on where you read about her, is either an American or a Brit.

It’s flattering that others want to grab a little bit of Canada for themselves.

Coda: The Oxford Junior Dictionary and its excision of ‘nature’ words

 

Robbins’ March 3, 2015 posting focused on a heated literary discussion about the excision of these words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (Note:  A link has been removed),

“The deletions,” according to Robert Macfarlane in another article on Friday, “included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.”

I’m surprised the ‘junior’ dictionary didn’t have “attachment,” “celebrity,” and “committee” prior to the 2007 purge. By the way, it seems no one noticed the purge till recently. Robbins has an interesting take on the issue, one with which I do not entirely agree. I understand needing to purge words but what happens a child reading a classic such as “The Wind in the Willows’ attempts to look up the word ‘willows’?  (Thanks to Susan Baxter who in a private communication pointed out the problems inherent with reading new and/or classic books and not being able to find basic vocabulary.)

Science for your imagination

David Bruggeman over on his Pasco Phronesis has two postings which highlight different approaches to communicating about science. His Aug. 31, 2014 posting features audio plays (Note: Links have been removed),

L.A. Theatre Works makes a large number of their works available via audio. Its Relativity series (H/T Scirens) is a collection of (at this writing) 25 plays with science and technology either as themes and/or as forces driving the action of the play. You’re certainly familiar with War of the Worlds, and you may have heard of the plays Arcadia and Copenhagen. The science covered in these plays is from a number of different fields, and some works will try to engage the audience on the social implications of how science is conducted. The casts have many familiar faces as well. …

You can find the Relativity Series website here where the home page features these (amongst others),

COMPLETENESS

Jason Ritter and Mandy Siegfried star in a new play about love between gun-shy young scientists.

BREAKING THE CODE

The story of Alan Turing, an early pioneer in computer science, and his struggle to live authentically while serving his country.

THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA

A respected physician must choose between the lives of two terminally ill men in George Bernard Shaw’s sharp-tongued satire of the medical profession.

THE EXPLORERS CLUB

It’s London, 1879, and the members of the Explorers Club must confront their most lethal threat yet: the admission of a woman into their scientific ranks.

THE GREAT TENNESSEE MONKEY TRIAL

The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 comes to life as William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow square off over human evolution and the divide between faith and science.

PHOTOGRAPH 51

Miriam Margolyes stars as Rosalind Franklin, whose work led directly to the discovery of the DNA “double helix.”

DOCTOR CERBERUS

A teenage misfit is coming of age in the comforting glow of late-night horror movies. But when reality begins to intrude on his fantasy world, he realizes that hiding in the closet is no longer an option.

David’s Aug. 26, 2014 posting features Hieroglyph, a project from Arizona State University’s (ASU) Center for Science and the Imagination (Note: A link has been removed),

Next month [Sept. 2014] William Morrow will release Hieroglyph, a collection of science fiction short stories edited by the Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.  The name of the collection is taken from a theory advanced by science fiction writer Neil [Neal] Stephenson, and a larger writing project of which this book is a part.  The Hieroglyph Theory describes the kind of science fiction that can motivate scientists and engineers to create a future.  A Hieroglyph story provides a complete picture of the future, with a compelling innovation as part of that future.  An example would be the Asimov model of robotics.

Heiroglyph was first mentioned here in a May 7, 2013 posting,

The item which moved me to publish today (May 7, 2013), Can Science Fiction Writers Inspire The World To Save Itself?, by Ariel Schwartz concerns the Hieroglyph project at Arizona State University,

Humanity’s lack of a positive vision for the future can be blamed in part on an engineering culture that’s more focused on incrementalism (and VC funding) than big ideas. But maybe science fiction writers should share some of the blame. That’s the idea that came out of a conversation in 2011 between science fiction author Neal Stephenson and Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University.

If science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to create new things–Stephenson believes it can–then more visionary, realistic sci-fi stories can help create a better future. Hence the Hieroglyph experiment, launched this month as a collaborative website for researchers and writers. Many of the stories created on the platform will go into a HarperCollins anthology of fiction and non-fiction, set to be published in 2014.

As it turns out, William Morrow Books is a a HarperCollins imprint. You can read a bit more about the book and preview some of the contents from the Scribd.com Hieroglyph webpage which includes this table of contents (much better looking in the Scribd version),

CONTENTS
FOREWORD—
LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS vii
PREFACE: INNOVATION STARVATION—NEAL STEPHENSON xiii
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS xxi
INTRODUCTION: A BLUEPRINT FOR BETTER DREAMS—ED FINN AND KATHRYN CRAMER xxiii
ATMOSPHÆRA INCOGNITA—NEAL STEPHENSON 1
GIRL IN WAVE : WAVE IN GIRL—KATHLEEN ANN GOONAN 38
BY THE TIME WE GET TO ARIZONA—MADELINE ASHBY 74
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE MOON—CORY DOCTOROW 98
JOHNNY APPLEDRONE VS. THE FAA—LEE KONSTANTINOU 182
DEGREES OF FREEDOM—KARL SCHROEDER 206
TWO SCENARIOS FOR THE FUTURE OF SOLAR ENERGY—ANNALEE NEWITZ 243
A HOTEL IN ANTARCTICA—GEOFFREY A. LANDIS 254
PERIAPSIS—JAMES L. CAMBIAS 283
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE STARS—GREGORY BENFORD 307
ENTANGLEMENT—VANDANA SINGH 352
ELEPHANT ANGELS—BRENDA COOPER 398
COVENANT—ELIZABETH BEAR 421
QUANTUM TELEPATHY—RUDY RUCKER 436
TRANSITION GENERATION—DAVID BRIN 466
THE DAY IT ALL ENDED—CHARLIE JANE ANDERS 477
TALL TOWER—BRUCE STERLING 489
SCIENCE AND SCIENCE FICTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL DAVIES 515
ABOUT THE EDITORS 526
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS 527

Good on the organizers for being able to follow through on their promise to have something published by HarperCollins in 2014.

This book is not ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination’s only activity. In November 2014, Margaret Atwood, an internationally known Canadian novelist, will visit the center (from the center’s home page),

Internationally renowned novelist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood will visit Arizona State University this November to discuss the relationship between art and science, and the importance of creative writing and imagination for addressing social and environmental challenges.

Atwood’s visit will mark the launch of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative, a new collaborative venture at ASU among the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, the Center for Science and the Imagination and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Atwood, author of the MaddAddam trilogy of novels that have become central to the emerging literary genre of climate fiction, or “CliFi,” will offer the inaugural lecture for the initiative on Nov. 5.

“We are proud to welcome Margaret Atwood, one of the world’s most celebrated living writers, to ASU and engage her in these discussions around climate, science and creative writing,” said Jewell Parker Rhodes, founding artistic director for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and the Piper Endowed Chair at Arizona State University. “A poet, novelist, literary critic and essayist, Ms. Atwood epitomizes the creative and professional excellence our students aspire to achieve.”

Focusing in particular on CliFi, the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative will explore how imaginative skills can be harnessed to create solutions to climate challenges, and question whether and how creative writing can affect political decisions and behavior by influencing our social, political and scientific imagination.

“ASU is a leader in exploring how creativity and the imagination drive the arts, sciences, engineering and humanities,” said Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination. “The Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative will use the thriving CliFi genre to ask the hard questions about our cultural relationship to climate change and offer compelling visions for sustainable futures.”

The multidisciplinary Initiative will bring together researchers, artists, writers, decision-makers and the public to engage in research projects, teaching activities and events at ASU and beyond. The three ASU programs behind the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative have a track record for academic and public engagement around innovative programs, including the Sustainability Solutions Festival; Emerge; and the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference.

“Imagining how the future could unfold in a climatically changing world is key to making good policy and governance decisions today,” said Manjana Milkoreit, a postdoctoral fellow with the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives. “We need to know more about the nature of imagination, its relationship to scientific knowledge and the effect of cultural phenomena such as CliFi on our imaginative capabilities and, ultimately, our collective ability to create a safe and prosperous future.”

Kind of odd they don’t mention Atwood’s Canadian, eh?

There’s lots more on the page which features news bits and articles, as well as, event information. Coincidentally, another Canuck (assuming he retains his citizenship after several years in the US) visited the center on June 7, 2014 to participate in an event billed as ‘An evening with Nathan Fillion and friends;; serenity [Joss Whedon’s tv series and movie], softwire, and science of science fiction’. A June 21, 2014 piece (on the center home page) by Joey Eschrich describes the night in some detail,

Nathan Fillion may very well be the friendliest, most unpretentious spaceship captain, mystery-solving author and science fiction heartthrob in the known universe. The “ruggedly handsome” star of TV’s “Castle” was the delight of fans as he headlined a fundraiser on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe, June 7 [2014].

The “Serenity, Softwire, and the Science of Science Fiction” event, benefiting the ASU Department of English and advertised as an “intimate evening for a small group of 50 people,” included considerable face-time with Fillion, who in-person proved surprisingly similar to the witty, charming and compassionate characters he plays on television and in film.

Starring with Fillion in the ASU evening’s festivities were science fiction author PJ Haarsma (a close friend of Fillion’s) along with ASU professors Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination; Peter Goggin, a literacy expert in the Department of English and senior scholar with the Global Institute of Sustainability; and School of Earth and Space Exploration faculty Jim Bell, an astronomer, and Sara Imari Walker, an astrobiologist. In addition to the Department of English, sponsors included ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Center for Science and the Imagination.

The event began with each panelist explaining how he or she arrived at his or her respective careers, and whether science or science fiction played a role in that journey. All panelists pointed to reading and imagining as formational to their senses of themselves and their places in life.

A number of big questions were posed to the panelists: “What is the likelihood of life on other planets?” and “What is the physical practicality of traveling to other planets?” ASU scientists Bell and Walker deftly fielded these complex planetary inquiries, while Goggin and Finn explained how the intersection of science and humanities – embodied in science fiction books and film – encouraged children and scholars alike to think creatively about the future. Attendees reported that they found the conversation “intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking as well as fun and entertaining.”

During the ensuing discussion, Haarsma and Fillion bantered back and forth comically, as we are told they often do in real life, at one point raising the group’s awareness of the mission they have shared for many years: promoting reading in the lives of young people. The two founded the Kids Need to Read Foundation, which provides books to underserved schools and libraries. Fillion, the son of retired English teachers, attended Concordia University of Alberta*, where he was a member of the Kappa Alpha Society, an organization that emphasizes literature and debate. His brother, Jeff, is a highly respected school principal. Fillion’s story about the importance of books and reading in his childhood home was a rare moment of seriousness for the actor.

The most delightful aspect of the evening, according to guests, was the good nature of Fillion himself, who arrived with Haarsma earlier than expected and stayed later than scheduled. Fillion spent several minutes with each individual or group of friends, laughing with them, using their phone cameras to snap group “selfies” and showing a genuine interest in getting to know them.

Audience members each received copies of science fiction books: Haarsma’s teen novel, “Softwire: Virus on Orbis I,” and the Tomorrow Project science fiction anthology “Cautions, Dreams & Curiosities,” which was co-produced by the Center for Science and the Imagination with Intel and the Society for Science & the Public. Guests presented their new books and assorted other items to Fillion and Haarsma for autographing and a bit more conversation before the evening came to a close. It was then time for Fillion to head back downtown to his hotel, but not before one cadre of friends “asked him to take one last group shot of us at the end of the night, to which he replied with a smile, ‘I thought you’d never ask.’”

*Corrected on February 4, 2020: I originally stated that “Concordia University is in the province of Québec not Alberta which is home to the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.” That is not entirely correct. There is a Concordia University in Alberta as well as in Québec. However, the Concordia in Alberta is properly referred to as Concordia University of Edmonton (its Wikipedia entry proudly lists Nathan Filion as one of its notable alumni).*

The evening with Nathan Fillion and friends was a fundraiser, participants were charged $250 each for one of 50 seats at the event, which means they raised $12,500 minus any expenses incurred. Good for them!

For anyone unfamiliar with P.J. Haarsma’s oeuvre, there’s this Wikipedia entry for The Softwire.

[The Picture of] Dorian Gray opera premiered as part of World New Music Days festival held in Slovakia & Austria: *Kate Pullinger interview

I’m delighted to be publishing an interview with Kate Pullinger a well known Canadian-born writer, resident for many years in the UK, about her opera project. (For her sins, she supervised my De Montfort University’s [UK] master’s project. There were times when I wasn’t sure either of us was going to survive largely [but not solely] due to my computer’s meltdown at the worst possible moment.)

Here’s a bit more about Kate from the About page on her eponymous website,

Kate Pullinger writes for both print and digital platforms.  In 2009 her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes.  Her prize-winning digital fiction projects Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel have reached audiences around the world.

Kate Pullinger gives talks and readings frequently (look at the Events page for future events); she also offers private 1-1 mentoring for emerging writers in both print and new media.  She is Professor of Creative Writing and New Media at Bath Spa University.

As well as The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger’s books include A Little StrangerWeird Sister, The Last Time I Saw Jane, Where Does Kissing End?, and When the Monster Dies, as well as the short story collections, My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison and Tiny Lies.  She co-wrote the novel of the film The Piano with director Jane Campion. In 2011, A Curious Dream: Collected Works, a selection of Pullinger’s short stories, was published in Canada.

Kate Pullinger is currently working on a new novel and an associated digital fiction that build on themes developed in her collaborative digital fiction project, Flight Paths:  A Networked Novel.

Other current projects include a libretto based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, commissioned by the Slovak National Theatre in collaboration with the composer Lubica Cekovska.  This work will be premiered in Bratislava in 2013.  Recent projects include working with digital artist James Coupe on Surveillance Suite, a project that generates stories using facial recognition software.

Kate Pullinger was born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, and went to high school on Vancouver Island. She dropped out of McGill University, Montreal, after a year and a half of not studying philosophy and literature, then spent a year working in a copper mine in the Yukon, northern Canada, where she crushed rocks and saved money. She spent that money travelling and ended up in London, England, where she has been ever since.  She is married and has two children.

You can read more about Kate and her academic work here on her faculty page on the Bath Spa University website.

As for Kate’s work as a librettist on the opera, Dorian Gray, based on the Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, she worked with composer, Ľubica Čekovská for the opera, which was debuted on Nov. 8, 2013 in Bratislava, Slovakia as part of the World New Music Days festival, founded in 1922 and *held in Slovakia and Austria in 2013..

Here’s Kate’s interview:

  •  I am assuming you went to the premiere? How was it? And, if you didn’t attend, what do you imagine (or what were you told) happened?

I saw the last two full rehearsals, and then the first two performances.  There are two casts in the Slovakian production – two of all the main roles – I’m not entirely sure why! It was so much fun, to hear the orchestra, and to see the production, and to hear the singers sing our work. Lubica had played me the opera many times using Sibelius, the software composers use, but that sounds like tinny computer music, so it was so pleasurable to hear her score played. And her score is really a wonderful work, very dense, clever, amusing, and tuneful.

  • Can you tell me a little bit about the story and which elements you chose to emphasize and which elements you chose to de-emphasize or eliminate altogether? How does your Dorian Gray differ from the other Dorian Gray opera by American composer Lowell Liebermann,?

I guess the main difference between my adaptation and most others is that I decided to make Dorian and his journey to hell central to the work and to not focus on his relationship with Lord Henry. Adaptations of the novel often make it a kind of two-hander between Dorian and Lord Henry, but we felt that there wasn’t room for that in what we were doing.

I don’t know the Liebermann adaptation at all.

  •  I looked up definitions for librettist and it seems the word means whatever the librettist and the composer decide. Could you describe your role as librettist for this opera?

I structured the story by creating three acts and the scenes therein, and then wrote the text for the singers. Lubica and I had a lot of discussion before I created the structure, and then on-going discussions as I worked on the libretto and she embarked on the score. I finished the libretto, but then continued to make changes as Lubica found issues with it, or we had new ideas. It was a lot of fun and we would like to work together again.

  • How did you two end up collaborating with each other? And what was the process like? e.g. It took about four years to bring this opera to life, yes? So, did the process change as the years moved on and as you got closer to the premiere? Did you learn any Slovak (language)?

The writing process, in total, took about 2.5 years really, the bulk of that Lubica’s time, as creating and scoring an entire opera for a full orchestra is an enormous task. After that, there is a lengthy publishing process, and then the production time. So for the last 1.5 years I did very little except wait for the occasional update.  Lubica was much more involved with the opera house in finding the director, conductor, and casting – and then once rehearsals started she was very involved in that process. Both the director, Nicola Raab, and the conductor, Christopher Ward, said how unusual it was to work with a living composer and librettist!

  • Did anything surprise you as you worked with the story or with the composer (Ľubica Čekovská)?

I learned a lot and there were many surprises.

At this point I’m interrupting the interview to excerpt part of a review in the New York Times, which I ask about in a question that follows the excerpt from A Music Festival Features Premiere of the Opera ‘Dorian Gray’ By GEORGE LOOMIS Published: November 13, 2013 in the New York Times,

The World New Music Days festival was first held in Salzburg in 1922 — around the time Arnold Schoenberg was perfecting his 12-note compositional system — and it remains a robust champion of new music. This year the 11-day program, sponsored by the International Society of Contemporary Music, was spread over three cities — Kosice and Bratislava in Slovakia, and Vienna — and included some 25 concerts, which were supplemented by many others thanks to partnerships with local organizations. A new opera was among the many works to receive their world premieres.

….

But the opera, as seen in Nicola Raab’s generally persuasive staging with sets by Anne Marie Legenstein and Alix Burgstaller that decadently depict Victorian drawing rooms, is marred by the decision to have the picture consist simply of an empty frame, an idea that perhaps seemed bold in concept but misfires in execution. [emphasis mine] Ms. Cekovska interestingly conveys the picture’s disfiguration musically through wordless boy-soprano melodies that recur increasingly distorted. [emphasis mine] But the melodies, to say nothing of the drama itself, need a visual analogue.

Now back to the interview,

  •  The one reviewer I’ve read, from the NY Times, expressed some disappointment with the choice to have an empty picture frame represent the ‘picture of Dorian Gray’ around which the entire story revolves. What was the thinking behind the decision and is there a chance that future productions (my understanding is that one isn’t permitted to make any substantive changes to a production once it has started its run) will feature a picture?

Well, that’s one critic’s opinion, and not one we agree with. Very early on in the process Lubica had the idea, which I think is genius, of representing the picture chorally – in early drafts there was a chorus on stage, and then this shifted to an electronic recorded chorus, where the music becomes gradually more and more distorted as the picture changes. With adaptations of Dorian Gray there is always a huge problem with how to represent the picture, which is so vivid and clear in our mind’s eye when we read Wilde’s original. Having an oil painting that gets older often just looks cheesy – it doesn’t look how you think it should look. So the empty picture frame, and the disintegrating chorus, in my opinion, is wonderful.

  • Given that I write mostly about science and technology, are there any opera technology tidbits about this production that you can offer?

Ha!  It was one of the most analogue experiences of my entire life!

  • How was your recent trip to China? Was it related to the opera project or an entirely new one and what might that be?

I went to China as part of a UK university exchange programme, looking at setting up collaborations with Chinese universities. It was a very interesting trip, though somewhat dominated by the appalling air quality in all three of the cities we visited.

  • Is there anything you’d like to add? (e.g. plans to bring the opera to Vancouver, Canada)

Opera productions don’t travel, so any future productions will have to be new productions, if you see what I mean – or co-productions. This is what the opera house hopes will happen. Ľubica Čekovská is a young composer with a steadily rising reputation, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are future productions of it. I think it is a wonderful piece of work, but I’m biased.

Thank you, Kate for your time and for illuminating a topic of some interest to me. I’ve wondered about opera and librettists especially since many well known writers like you and Margaret Atwood are now working in this media. (Margaret Atwood is librettist for the opera ‘Pauline’ [about poet Pauline Johnson] which will have its world première on May 23, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada.)

For the curious, there’s another interview with Kate (she discusses the then upcoming opera and other work)  written up by Jeremy Hight in a Feb. 2011 article for the Leonardo Almanac and Ľubica Čekovská’s website is here. One final note, World New Music Days festival will be held in Vancouver, Canada in 2017, according to New York Times writer, George Loomis.

* I posted a little sooner that I should have. As of 10:30 am PST, I have added Kate Pullinger’s name to the heading, and added Austria and Slovakia as the sites for the 2013 World New Music Days festival.

ETA Dec. 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm PST: The opera, Dorian Gray, will be performed again in Bratislava at the National Slovak Theatre on 20 February, 5 April and 5 June 2014. More here.