Marvellous, Electrical: The Body Artist

June’s Marvellous, Electrical takes us from Salford to the Brisbane suburbs via wrestling, a burglary at LS Lowry’s house, body bequests, and other wayward adventures.

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Read Marvellous, Electrical: The Body Artist here.

Marvellous, Electrical feat. @drjessc – Couldn’t Escape If I Wanted To

“The world comes together every four years to compete in the soccer World Cup and the Olympics, but there are very few global events that celebrate the cultural as spectacle. We could argue for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but their budget for wind machines and holograms is notably lacklustre.”

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Eurovision scholar Jess Carniel talks wind machines, geopolitics, and European identity while we get to the bottom of Brisbane’s moonshine industry in the latest instalment of Marvellous, Electrical.

New Marvels, New Lenses: A Podcast

What can relatively young disciplines like information science and the allied health professions tell us about society and pop culture?

This weekend I hosted a podcast featuring scientist-turned-literary-editor Yen-Rong Wong, librarian Rachel Merrick, and occupational therapist Amelia DiTommaso, all based in Brisbane, Australia.

On the eve of a new exhibition at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, these three creative professionals got together to explore Marvel’s superhero movies through new lenses informed by their expertise and experience.

Focusing on Doctor Strange (2016), the discussion embraced magic, mystery, science, history, identity, culture, politics, heroism, and lots of laughter.

From the history of Australian censorship to the dark side of healthcare, challenges in identity and representation, plus the arcane mysteries of  “readers’ advisory”, listen now for a mind-expanding journey.

Cheese, Drugs, and Moonshots: A Science March special for @kylastephan

Kyla Stephan who writes the marvellous Library Ghost blog knitted me a hat for today’s Science March in Brisbane.

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There are rightly some questions to be asked about the march organisers’ approach to diversity and inclusion, but I also thought it was important to show up and be counted in the name of all people who are curious about the world and revise their beliefs in the face of evidence.

In return for my hat, I had to find Kyla an interesting science story.

So here are a few words about drug dosage and cheesy moonshots.

What are the physics of highly compressed cheese and why does it matter?

My favourite science show-off moment was at a conference on Science and Storytelling at the University of Cardiff some years ago.

I was interested in how medics and health workers used storytelling in science, and one of my favourite projects was by an information scientist called Harold Thimbleby (PDF download).

He pointed out that in Europe, about 120,000 hospital deaths per year are caused by drug calculation errors – that’s more people than die in car accidents.

Not all of those errors can be blamed on the staff, however. The automatic pumps which dispense drugs through IVs etc are often difficult to program, and although they look like calculators, they are not.

An example:

A “simple” drug calculation is: how many mL/hr should an infusion pump be set to in order to give a patient 5250mg of fluorouracil over 4 days at a concentration of 45.57 mg/mL?

The simplest correct calculation using a basic calculator is: [AC][MRC][MRC]4 × 24 [MPLUS][AC]5250 ÷ 45.57 ÷[MRC] =

After getting all those key presses right, you then have to go through another round of button presses on the pump, without making any mistakes. All as just one task in your busy day at the hospital.

Professor Thimbleby developed a prototype smartphone app which asked you what the drug calculation was, and the type of pump you were using, and then guided you through the key presses step by step.

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This reduced human error and created opportunities for the user to check and double check throughout the process.

What has all that got to do with a moon made of cheese?

Almost offhandedly, during his talk, Professor Thimbleby spoke of the certainty with which we know the moon isn’t made of cheese. He compared this scientific certainty to the world of storytelling, where we can still indulge that fantasy.

Even without visiting the moon, we can tell it isn’t made of cheese because of its albedo – the fraction of solar energy which it reflects back into space.

Different materials have different reflectivity: for example, ice and snow have a high albedo and cause most of the sunlight hitting them to reflect back into space.

We can work out the albedo of cheese and observe the brightness of the moon to confirm that it is, sadly, not made from dairy products.

But – but but but – what if the moon were made of cheese? How could we indulge that fantasy while maintaining the rigour of critical and scientific thinking?

Do we need to imagine a cheese-moon which is the same size or the same mass?

If the latter, the moon would have to be a lot larger. Nocturnal animals and the science of astronomy would be affected by the larger moon in our sky, with its much higher albedo.

What’s more, a moon sized piece of cheese would be denser and hotter at its centre owing to gravitational compression.

Would there be volcanos of molten cheese? At extreme high pressures, does cheese maintain its integrity, or break down into its component parts? Would the massive internal pressure cause it to explode?

I love that scientists can begin to explore these hypothetical situations without even having to leave the comfort of their armchair – or in our case, the post-march pub.

I love that there is a happy borderland where science and science fiction meet, and valuably so – because they are, ultimately, both spaces of wonder.

Professor Thimbleby made his cheesy digression and showed the value of thinking carefully and critically, reasoning from available evidence – but his work also demonstrates that you could save lives just by paying close attention to technology and human interaction.

He didn’t need to be in the ward to come up with a way to avoid deaths from drug miscalculation, and he didn’t need to land on the moon to work out what it was made of.

How cool is that? Read more

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Supplemental

This is an addendum to my recent week exploring science fiction and fantasy that might help your community or organisation think about the future.

Sometimes these wayward dreams take the form of a caveat.

Blindsight, by Peter Watts, is a creepy and troubling space opera which follows a team of explorers dispatched to investigate an alien craft in the year 2082.

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Watts shows us a post-scarcity Earth which is suddenly threatened by vastly superior technology; he sends us out into space with a group of weird souls who have been granted talents which estrange them from humanity; and then, far from home, he forces them into a confrontation with creatures that are smarter and more adaptable than we.

Watts is known for dark explorations of the posthuman future, and for giving his stories endings which offer little reassurance, but Blindsight merits special mention for the way in which it leaves you doubting the value of all we hold dear in the human condition.

I came across Watts’ book after reading Steven Shaviro’s Discognition, a book which aims to conduct philosophy through the exploration of science fiction. At one point, Shaviro writes:

…the nonhuman entities with which we share the world – including, but not limited to, our tools – are active in their own right. They have their own powers, interests, and points of view. And if we engineer them, in various ways, they “engineer” us as well, nudging us to adapt to their demands. Automobiles, computers, and kidney dialysis machines were made to serve particular human needs; but in turn, they also induce human habits and behaviours to change. Nonhuman things must therefore be seen as…active agents with their own intentions and goals, and which affect one another, as well as affecting us…

Shaviro’s argument that we must begin to understand our behaviours and attitudes through the viewpoint of nonhuman actors – not just everyday tools but the robot, the alien, the artificial intelligence, the monster – is something I’ve also seen explored in the art education practice of Sean Justice and even the way farmers relate to their self-driving machines in the 21st century. We tried to capture some of these relationships in the State Library of Queensland’s Ozofarm Initiative, which invited local communities to devise their own sci-fi farming scenarios using small robots.

That’s a worthy goal with clear benefits for our digital future, but I don’t want to stray too far from Watts’ bleak vision. His book isn’t a Luddite take on our future, it’s a cool-headed refusal to bet on humanity’s own heroism.

Not only does Watts neatly sketch the potential for human conflict even in a world where our material and energy needs have been met, but Blindsight does a great job of challenging our faith in precisely the capacities for imagination and awareness which allow him to write such a compelling novel.

So anytime you need your hope for the future tempered with a healthy dose of scepticism, this thoughtful reality check is the book for you.

Perpetual Stage: The Value of Pretend Play

I just binge-watched a TV show; rare for me, these days. I love TV but it’s so time-consuming. Your evenings and weekends just seep away in front of the screen.

But I felt I had to watch FX’s Legion, the show about a troubled young man who may be mentally ill and may have psychic powers. It’s a gorgeously shot and well acted eight-part show from Noah Hawley, who was also responsible for Fargo.

I saw people online complain about the show being too whimsical and indulgent; I’ve seen it called pretentious and precious.

I’m not convinced. Yes, a lot of goofy stuff happens in the series – but I found it easy to forgive, because it felt like the adult version of kids playing with action figures.

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Did you do that as a kid? I couldn’t get enough of it. Transformers. Action Force. Manta Force, even. I played Star Wars, too – I didn’t even like Star Wars films much, but I loved the toys. When I went to hospital when I was about 10 years old, I found He-Man figures in the children’s ward. I’d never played He-Man before, but it didn’t stop me.

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You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 6

We’re at the final instalment of this week-long exploration of how science fiction and fantasy can help your community, company, or institution think about the world to come.

Get Curious, Get Weird
 
A lot of well-meaning institutions, programmes, and forces trying to prepare us for social and technological change are currently trying to push a “coding and robotics” agenda.

That’s great, and indeed, familiarity with digital technology will be vital in the future – but I wonder if skills and strict curricula are all we need right now. Maybe this isn’t a skills gap to be solved by education, but a community engagement issue: we should be helping our citizens to gird themselves for weird social change.

It already looks like scientific curiosity could be more valuable than scientific knowledge in making decisions which respect evidence. Maybe reading sci-fi to provoke our curiosity is as useful to our understanding of the changing world as any specific technical or organisational know-how.

You can see how this might be applied in practical terms through the work of Sean Justice which treats digital technology as an art material to be explored like paint or clay; or in the work of Mal Booth at University of Technology Sydney, supporting artists and designers to usefully augment serendipity in the digital library experience.

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Sean Justice showed me how to play with code as if it were clay,
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Getting curious might involve the simple pen-and-paper futurism of the workshops we ran in Bundaberg on behalf of Queensland University of Technology. There, we helped regional writers – all women, as it happened, and not all sci-fi fans – to express their anxieties, hopes, and visions of the future on a thousand-year timeline.

So there’s a patchy old reading list for you – but maybe being patchy and messy is good, when you’re striking out in open water, looking for new fantasies, new visions, new speculations.

Dip your toe in the waters of this genre – then wade in, swim in whatever direction takes your fancy…and bring back some new stories for us to consider.

You’ll have a grand old time, but don’t forget – future dreaming is serious business.

You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi, Pt. 5

Each day this week I’m looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities who are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

Yesterday we looked at stories of spies and mongrels; today we turn our attention to insolent, emotional things.

Reading speculative fiction for inspiration in your work means picking up not just new science fiction but the old stuff too. The kind of Sixties paperbacks which line the second-hand bookstores and which smell of smoke and history, their pages a deep tan, as if the pulp was slowly returning to its origins as a tree.

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In one of these stores, I found Robert Sheckley’s picaresque Options, about an interstellar deliveryman whose attempts to repair a broken down spaceship lead to increasingly surreal situations.

The hero’s interactions with a series of emotive and unreliable artificial intelligences – who are at once constrained by programming and yet just as flaky as any human you’d meet – made me think of the Internet of Things, of the notion that we might not code our next generation of machines but train them like pets, and of the way that offhand genre fiction jokes from fifty years ago might become real social issues in time to come.

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Sheckley’s robots remind me of the technology in novels by his contemporary Philip K. Dick, who is most famed for the work which was adapted into the movie Blade Runner.

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Something you lose in that fabulous noirish movie is the petty and ridiculous side to Dick’s vision. The source novel for Blade Runner includes a pet shop for android animals; the doors of hotel rooms in Dick’s book The Ganymede Takeover badger you to give them a tip, and robot taxis hassle you when the meter is running.

Dingy, with scaling enamel, once bright green but now the color of mold, the tattered ionocraft taxi settled into the locking frame at the window of Joan Hiashi’s elderly hotel room. “Make it snappy,” it said officiously, as if it had urgent business in this collapsing environment, this meager plantation of a state once a portion of a great national union. “My meter,” it added, “is already on.” The thing, in its inadequate way, was making a routine attempt to intimidate her. And she did not precisely enjoy that.
“Help me load my gear,” Joan answered it.

Swiftly—astonishingly so—the ionocraft shot a manual extensor through the open window, grappled the recording gear, transferred the units to its storage compartment. Joan Hiashi then boarded it.

I remember reading these books as a teen and thinking, “Those Sixties writers are fun, but they got it so wrong!”

Now we have Google voice assistants for your home which will also throw in a quick commercial to help you start your day, we see IBM’s Watson picking up profanity a couple of years back, and the prospect of domestic intelligences which are trying to put the soft sell on you – and might even have code to mimic human personality traits – seems eerily close.

Even the simple robots at the State Library of Queensland are pretty emotive. Our NAO robot Sandy lost a leg recently, and rather than stating “error” or refusing to function, she says ouch and expresses pain.

More than that, NAO roboticist Angelica Lim was specifically thinking about emotional gesture while working on the device and has written on the possibility of using emotionally aware robots in settings such as care homes. The glorified toys which we currently showcase in our communities are forerunners to a potential future which may look more like those 60s novels than we expect.

That doesn’t just mean we should worry about how robots will treat us; it also matters that we think about how we treat machines. As Michael Schrage writes in Harvard Business Review

…because humans don’t (yet) attach agency or intelligence to their devices, they’re remarkably uninhibited about abusing them.

[…] If adaptive bots learn from every meaningful human interaction they have, then mistreatment and abuse become technological toxins.

[…] Just as one wouldn’t kick the office cat or ridicule a subordinate, the very idea of mistreating ever-more-intelligent devices becomes unacceptable. While not (biologically) alive, these inanimate objects are explicitly trained to anticipate and respond to workplace needs. Verbally or textually abusing them in the course of one’s job seems gratuitously unprofessional and counterproductive.

How do you think the crabby taxis and neurotic robots in those 60s novels got to be that way? Maybe through the kind of interactions Schrage describes.

When we start imagining life in such a world, it turns out those sci-fi paperbacks from fifty years ago might be more useful than we thought.

Stay tuned for Friday’s edition of You’re Still Not Reading Enough Sci Fi.