Monday, March 12, 2012

Waste Land

Tonight, I attended the first movie to be shown in the newly renovated Bloor Cinema here in Toronto.  The Bloor is one of the few old-time movie theatres left in Toronto.  It was originally called the Madison Picture Palace when it was opened in 1913.  Somehow, despite the disappearance of all such theatres in Toronto, the Bloor survived as a theatre until this year, when it was bought by Hot Docs, the wonderful people who put on the Hot Docs Festival in the spring, largest documentary film festival in North America.  The renovation is great - wonderful comfortable new seats, while preserving the atmosphere of the original theatre.

And tonight's movie Waste Land was great.  It is the story of US-based Brazilian visual artist Vik Muniz and his art project in the world's largest landfill outside Rio de Janiero.  In this dump work 2,500 catadores who 'recycle' 200 tons of garbage a day.  The charismatic leader of the Catador Association, Tiao, is quick to point out that the garbage pickers are not really picking garbage, but removing recyclable materials from the land fill.  This picture shows Muniz standing beside the mountain of waste that has just arrived at the land fill, with the catadors swarming over it.  The catadors sell the recycled material to wholesalers, and respond to demand from those wholesalers in determining priorities for picking.  They also salvage books for their own use, and other materials.

Muniz gains the trust of the workers at the dump, and takes photos of them which he then enlarges many times.  Muniz then involves the workers in artfully arranging garbage - oops make that recycled materials - over the photographs to create a work of art.  Muniz then photographs the result.

To see the transformation, here's the original photograph of one of the women and the resulting piece of art that she herself helped to create. 

At the left you can see the original picture of Tiao being taken at the garbage dump posed as Marat in the bath tub from a famous painting by Jean Louis David.  The next picture shows Tiao looking at the art from a catwalk with the garbage spread on it.  That picture gives you a sense of the scale of the art work before the final photograph is taken. 

The movie shows Tiao's triumphant trip to London with Muniz where his photograph is auctioned for $56,000.  In all, the art work sold for $250,000, all the proceeds of which was donated to the Catador Association.  The dump is to be closed in 2013, so the money will be put to education and retraining.

This was a very uplifting movie.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

TED Book Club Selection: Radioactive

This book was in the latest mailing of the TED Book Club.  It was a quick, enjoyable and informative read.

Radioactive, by Laura Redniss, is two stories entwined.  One story is a tale of scientific discovery.   The other is the personal story of the lives of Pierre and Marie, especially the lusty Marie.

Pierre Curie was an established scientist before Marie arrived in Paris from Poland to study under him.  He had published breakthroughs work in the field of magnetism and with a student was the first person to discover nuclear energy.  

Pierre and Marie were a magical scientific partnership, winning a Nobel Prize for Physics, along with Becquerel, for their research on the phenomena of radiation.  Marie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.  After Pierre died in a carriage accident at the age of 46, Marie continued her scientific career and became the first woman to be appointed a professor at the Sorbonne.  She was awarded a second Nobel prize for Chemistry for the discovery of the elements polonium (named after her native Poland) and radium.  Marie was begged not to go to Stockholm to receive her second Nobel prize, because her affair with Paul Langevin, Pierre Curie's former student, and a married man, had become public.  However, she went anyway and was suitably feted.  She was a gutsy as well as a lusty woman.

The character that dominates this book, ostensibly about both Curies is definitely Marie.  Marie came from a Polish family that had lost much because of belonging to Polish resistance and scraped together money as a governess to get to Paris to study, where she earned both a Physics and a Mathematics degree from the Sorbonne.  She had participated in the secret Floating University in Poland before leaving for France.  She achieved so many firsts as a woman scientist, and ultimately died from the effects of radiation she had suffered over her long career.  She is the only woman to be buried in the Pantheon in Paris on her own merits. 

Both Curie daughters also dedicated their lives to science.  Her daughter Irene won the Nobel Prize jointly with her husband, continuing the family tradition of partnership at home and in the lab.  Her other daughter became a biochemist.

Interwoven with the story of the Curies are many flash forwards to the ultimate uses of nuclear energy, which ultimately evolved from their work.  I couldn't decide if these added to the impact of the story, or whether they were just distractions.  However, I found the story of the Curies, and especially Marie, fascinating.  Certainly I knew roughly of her accomplishments, but they were certainly more monumental than I had realized.

The pages of the book consist of print against a backdrop of art work by Lauren Redniss, as shown in this sample page.  Different pages are different colours, and therefore have different coloured fonts.  Redniss designed a new font for the book.  For me, all these efforts did not enhance the book at all.  I wasn't particularly fond of the art, the font was not particularly graceful to read, and the reversed out print is not easy to read pages at a time.

Friday, March 9, 2012

TED 2012: Be Nice to Nerds

Regina Dugan, Director of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, combines quiet geekiness with great leadership skills.  She asked us all to “be kind to nerds, because they change the world”. 

The theme of Dugan's talk was the need to get out there and do impossible things and eliminate the fear of failure.  That doesn't mean eliminating failure itself, just the fear of failure:  eight Atlas missions failed before one succeeded.
The history of aviation demonstrates the need to believe in the impossible.  Before the Wrights achieved the first flight, people were convinced such flight was impossible.  But the Wrights proved them wrong.    Before Yeager broke the sound barrier, people had believed you couldn’t fly faster than the speed of sound.

Now DARPA is on the brink of achieving Mach 20.  At Mach 20, you could reach anywhere in the world in an hour.  Recently they achieved three minutes of controlled flight at Mach 20, and learned more in that three minutes than in decades of study.  There's no way to learn to fly at Mach 20 except by flying at Mach 20.  It's not the first time that major aspirations of the military end up breaking through barriers.

At the other end of the scale, Dugan demonstrated a hummingbird aircraft flying on stage.  The hummingbird is an interesting model for flight, because it is the only bird that can fly backwards.  This aircraft is very manoeuvrable, weighs less than an AA battery, and cost a mere $4M to develop.  Easy to think of military purposes for this!

I loved Dugan's theme of removing the fear of failure.  That's such a theme in my Managing Innovation course.  Some of my students just may see this video!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Books You Might Not Like

Usually I write about books I loved reading.  This time, I thought I'd mention a few that I haven't much enjoyed.

I loved the book Longitude by Dava Sobel.  So when a friend recommended A More Perfect Heaven by the same author, I quickly checked it out of the library.  The premise  was so intriguing: a biography of Copernicus, with a play about the meeting between Copernicus and the young German mathematician Rheticus embedded in the middle.  Alas, I couldn't bring myself to read far enough to get to the play.  Copernicus held many senior roles in the church hierarchy, and the book painstakingly described the minutiae of collecting rents from farmers and the like.  It was just too much for me.

Potsdam Station, by David Downing, is a totally unconvincing tale of a journalist entering Germany from Russia as World War II winds down.  John Russell, an Anglo-American journalist, had spied for the Russians in his pro-Communist past.  He convinces the Russians to allow him to accompany a Russian scientist trying to steal any nuclear secrets left in German labs.  His intent is to get to Berlin before the Russians arrive, to try to protect his girlfriend from before the war.  Only my aversion to abandoning a book before the end kept me slogging through this one.

The End of the Wasp Season wasn't too bad.  Now there's faint praise for you.

The main character is Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow, a Scottish police officer.  She's working hard to do her job, while fending off unwanted solicitousness about her pregnancy.  It's a complex mystery.  We start with two seemingly unrelated murders which, naturally, intertwine into a single story.  There aren't a lot of happy people in the story.

What really bugged me about this book was the author's overuse of the word smirk.  It seemed that virtually everyone was smirking.  It wasn't clear the author really knew the meaning of the word.  It's a somewhat silly thing to turn you off a book, but, really, she seemed to use the word every second page.  I'm sure it was less than that, but that's what it felt like.  Don't books have editors any more?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

TED 2012: Secrets

Frank Warren runs  He had a quirky idea.  Get people to send him their most intimate secrets secrets they've never shared before and he'd publish them anonymously on his web site.  Since launch, people have sent over half a million postcards. They've been making their own clever postcards in tune with the message.  Secrets range from humorous, to quixotic, to shocking, to touching to absolutely heart-wrenching.
Many cards were quite humourous.  The card you can see above was written on a flattened-out Starbucks cup:  “I give decaf to customers who are rude to me”.    Some descend to bathroom humour, like this one from the site:

Some were quite poignant: “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 thinks I’m dead", or "Dear Birthmother.  I have great parents.  I found love. I'm happy." 

As I sit writing this post, I notice several on the site that discuss relationships:

  Or this one, that led to a long-overdue reunion:

 Some even make a political statement:

 I think I'll visit this site from time to time when I have a few minutes to spare.  Warren claims it's the most-visited non-advertising-supported site.  I can see why.

TED 2012: Mystery of Multiverses

When I run into people who suggest that TED’s patented 18-minute talk is just too short a time to get across a big idea, I point them to Brian Greene’s  2004 talk on string theory.  A highlight of my first ever TED conference, Greene’s talk made string theory seem simple.  It was extraordinary.
This year, Greene once again brought the mystery of the cosmos to us earthlings, in particular the mind-blowing idea of multiverses, explained completely lucidly, supported by awesome visuals projected on the full wall behind him.  This was the first time TED has used a full video wall for projection and Greene's incredibly rich visuals did it proud; it gave one the feeling of hurtling through space as Greene described it. 

The theory of multiverses seems almost otherwordly, but we should pay attention to it, says Greene, because it just might be right.
When Hubble first realized that galaxies are rushing away from us, it was an idea that upset previous views of physics.  Hubble, and everyone else, believed that those galaxies must be hurtling away at an ever decreasing rate.  After all, gravity would be exerting a drag that would slow the universe down.  

However, the trouble is that once we got around to measuring the speed in the early 1990's, to the astonishment of the scientists, ethe measurements showed that the expansion of the universe is actually speeding up.   The theory of dark energy, a repulsive force pushing those galaxies apart, arose to explain that unexpected result.  Calculations showed that the amount of dark energy required to explain the expansion of our universe is astonishingly small, namely 1.28. (I don't actually know the unit of that answer, so I feel a bit as if I've fallen into the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where I know the answer, but not its exact meaning).

Now take a hike back to Greene's original talk about string theory, which goes like this.  Inside particles, there are vibrating strings of energy.  Different sub-atomic particles  have different vibrations, giving rise to the 'cosmic symphony' that we are now familiar with.  But the mathematics of those strings does not work unless there are extra dimensions which determine how the strings vibrate.  That of course leads to the question – what shape would this extra dimension have?  Different amounts of dark energy would result in different shapes for those dimensions.

Soon physicists had generated many possible shapes for those dimensions – 10 to the 500th power  – far too many to tested and determine which was the right one.  Greene then proposed: What if all of these universes exist, each with a different shape for extra dimensions, each with a different amount of dark energy.  Maybe seeking the explanation of that one particular number was the wrong question.
Greene reflected back to Kepler who focussed on why the earth was 93 million miles from the sun.  But the right question was why were we on a planet 93 million miles from our sun.  The answer was because was the 'Goldilocks' effect – 93 million miles was just the right distance.  There were lots of other planets at different distances from the sun, but this was the distance where life could be sustained.

So Greene believes that we should be asking this new question about dark energy the same way.  Are there multiple universes out there,  each with a different amount of dark energy.  We find oursevles in this one because this amount of dark energy is the 'Goldilocks' zone for the formation of galaxies.  With less energy, the galaxies are blown away before they can form; with more energy, the universe implodes, precluding galaxies.   And without galaxies, we don't exist.

It's hard to test this theory, but there are certain phenomena we would see if the theory is correct.  There might have been evidence in the past that we missed (near the time of the big bang) that is lost to us now.  Greene mused philosophically that future astronomers could be in the same position in the future.  If galaxies speed up to spin away from us faster than the speed of light, then their light can never reach us.  Future astronomers could be looking out at a black inky sky.  

Greene's talk is already up on  I hope you'll find it as fascinating as I did.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rules of Civility

When I finished Rules of Civility, I had the urge to immediately go back to the beginning and read it again.  This book was like a scarf that floated lightly around my neck.   Silky smooth prose studded with sparkling turns of phrase, it was soaked in the rich colours of interesting characters.  And it twists delicately with subtle plot shifts.  I could wear this scarf any time.

It's not that the book will make it onto the hundred best books of the 21st century or anything.  It's basically a romantic period piece set in 1938 in New York City.  The heroine, Brooklyn-born Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable) is smart and sassy.  She's that irritating person who finds the perfect riposte right in the middle of the conversation, not the next day.  Despite living on the paltry salary of a secretary, she finds herself in many of New York's most noted nightspots, and she falls into romantic relationships with rich men at the drop of a hat.  It's light, frothy stuff, like that scarf I described, and I recommend it heartily.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

TED 2012: Lower Those Anti-Poetry Deflection Shields

Billy Collins, twice poet laureate of the US, announced that he was at TED to give us our recommended daily allowancae of poetry.  Never having been one to read a lot of poetry, I braced myself to listen to some beautiful language while struggling to absorb a deep and subtle meaning.

However, after lowering my 'anti-poetry deflection shield', I sat back and loved Collins' readings of clever, witty poetry.  It was totally accessible.  The audience seemed to agree as Collins received close to a full standing ovation.
For at least this one member of the audience, it inspired me to read some poetry, at least that of Billy Collins.   I recommend you do the same.

Bryan Stevenson: People are Better Than the Worst Thing They've Done

When Bryan Stevenson finished his talk here at TED 2012, I didn't think people were ever going to sit down.  The thunderous applause rolled on and on.  Powerful just doesn't begin to describe the response he evoked.

Stevenson is a public interest lawyer.  He spends most of his time in jails.  And he says that if you have a brush with the America justice system, it's better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. 

There were lots of disturbing statistics in his talk, including facts that the Americans in this highly educated audience didn't know. 
  • In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jail in the US.  Today, there are 2.3M, with a further 7M on probation and parole.
  • One third of the the black men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail, on probation, or on parole.  That percentage rises to 60% in big cities.
  • America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world; with 5% of world population, they account for 25% of the world's incarcerated.
  • Three-strike laws mean that people can face life imprisonment for a minor crime like stealing a bicycle.
  • If you're been to jail in the US, you lose the right to vote for the rest of your life.  
  • The US is one of the few countries that still have the death penalty.  [I looked up on Wikipedia the number of people executed in 2010, broken out by country and it went like this: China: 2000+, Iran: 252+, North Korea: 60+, Yemen: 53+, USA: 46] 
 But it wasn't all statistics.  Stevenson lamented how many young people were tried as adults, and subject to life incarceration.  One night his frustration that a poor black 14-year-old boy was slated to be tried as an adult led him to write a brief arguing that if the boy was to be tried as an adult, he should be tried as a wealthy, privileged, 70-year-old white male. 

Stevenson said that people in America had to talk about the relationships between race and justice.  South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid, but the US has never such a discussion since the end of slavery.   He lamented the death penalty that fell disproportionately on black people; a German likened it to a situation where Germans had a death penalty which fell disproportionately on Jews.  Germans could never tolerate this; why could Americans?

Stevenson's talk was the one most frequently discussed at all the breaks.  On the final day, Chris Anderson told the audience that Stevenson needed $1.5M to continue the next phase of the Equal Justice Initiative.  Given that the TED community had been so moved by Stevenson's talk, Chris exhorted TEDsters to contribute the $1.5M needed.  Five people started by contributing $100,000 each and Chris went on to get others to donate $10,000 and $1,000 each.  Within ten minutes, $1.12M had been raised.   Chris has been working for years to build TEDsters into a commmunity which will work to change the world.  There are some very generous pocketbooks in the room, and a lot of power where someone is able to move them.

The talk has just been posted here

Friday, March 2, 2012

TED 2012: Books and Their Covers

I love books.  One of the best days of my life was wandering through the many books stores - new, used and antiquarian - along a few blocks of Queen Street in Toronto, with my dear friend Mark Seltzer, just browsing.  Mark knew all the booksellers in all those stores, and we had just a wonderful day.

Lately, I've been seduced by the incredible convenience of digital books.  Many books in a small package, electronic look-up and note taking - ah, it's just hard to resist.  But I do love the tactile sense of a good old-fashioned book. 

Today, the nostalgia grew deeper during the impassioned talk by Chip Kidd about his 25-year career designing book covers.    Kidd's talk was larded with witticisms and raunchy humour.  It had all the colour, energy and feistiness of his suit and I loved it!  But underlying the humour was his obvious love affair with books - their appearance, their touch, their smell.

What book covers he showed us! I'll share a few with you.

Kidd designed the cover of the Jurassic Park novel, and that design went on to form the basis of the imagery for the movie.

He designed the cheeky cover for the David Sedaris book Naked.  Those shorts are actually a wrap around the book, and can be slid off.  But you might be surprised at what's underneath!

My favourite was Kidd's design for the covers of a series of books about Buddha by Osama Tezuka.  Each cover individually was good; but lining all eight up on a shelf was truly magical.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

TED 2012: Batteries - Think Big and Think Cheap

Computers follow Moore's Law - the power of computing will approximately double every 18 months.  A variety of other fields which are primarily information-based are jumping on that same curve.  That's what happened in genetics, for instance.  It's basically an information-based science, so it's now careening along that curve.  Most sciences have gone that way.  Except for batteries. Batteries haven't improved much at all.

Yet, batteries are critical to the exploitation of intermittent energy from renewable sources.  And until we can integrate giant battery storage sinks into our electrical grid, we will be trapped into building transmission systems for peak capacity.

Donald Sadoway thinks he has a breakthrough that will solve these issues.  It involves a low cost battery which is operated at high levels of heat, using magnesium and antimony separated by molten salt.  It's a dirt cheap design.  The energy generated by the battery is enough to maintain heat for its operation.  A couple of his students have formed a company which has attracted investment from Bill Gates and expects to bring a product to market in a couple of years.

This could be a huge breakthrough in the energy field - exciting stuff.  And it goes completely against the traditional wisdom in batteries that you can't let a battery get hot; on the contrary, this battery depends on being hot to operate.

There were some interesting aspects of this talk, from a presentation point of view, some good and some bad.
  • TED is known for its whizz-bang presentations (and it's getting to be ever more produced, but more about that later).  Sadoway was refreshing in his highly effective use of that old-fashioned device, the blackboard.  Bravo!
  • Although the majority of TED attendees are American, the conference attracts people from many countries and strives for a world view.  Sadoway was notable for presenting this as an American problem (hmm, does the rest of the world not need to solve energy issues?) that would be solved by American ingenuity (are there no scientists outside America?). 
  • It was also one of the most arrogant talks I've heard at TED, chock full of first person pronouns.
 Having said that, if Sadoway and Gates are right in believing in this invention, it is very good news indeed.