The nanotechnological lunch

Maria deRosa’s TEDx talk on how nanotechnology can help feed the world. DeRosa speaks at the What Matters Now event in Thunder Bay on March 4.

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The magic of metaphors

Adela Talbot | May 19, 2015

Love is a battlefield, according to a 1983 hit by Pat Benatar. But there’s much more to it than that. The metaphor at the heart of this song – or any metaphor, for that matter – has the power to elicit empathy. According to a new study by Western Psychology professor Albert Katz and colleague Andrea Bowes, reading metaphors significantly increases one’s ability to interpret the emotional state of another individual simply by looking at the person’s eyes. In other words, reading, using and interpreting metaphors has the potential to bring us closer to someone else. The paper, Metaphor creates intimacy and temporarily enhances theory of mind, appeared in the March issue of Memory & Cognition. “To understand metaphor, you have to understand the intent of another person, partly because there’s an ambiguity there, and (the person) could mean to say multiple things,” said Katz, who is a cognitive psychologist. “There might be something in the comprehension of the sentence itself which orients you to try and figure out why would someone say that, or what do they mean when they say that, and that might be what is still active (in the mind) when doing the eye test.” Measuring emotional insight The ‘eye test’ Katz refers to is the measure he used with undergraduate students as part of the study. Katz and Bowes conducted three different experiments, asking students to read sentences and paragraph-long short stories, some of which contained a metaphor, and some of which were expressed entirely in plain language. Immediately after, students were asked to look at an image of a person’s eyes and pick one of four adjectives to indicate the emotion expressed in the eyes. “What we tend to find is, when people read the metaphor, they actually did better on (the eye test), which is ostensibly an unrelated task,” Katz said. Experts refer to one’s ability to understand what another person might be feeling or thinking as ‘Theory of Mind.’ The test used by Katz and Bowes to measure Theory of Mind is called the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test (RMET), in which participants have to correctly identify the emotions or mental state displayed in black-and-white photographs of 36 pairs of eyes. The general public, barring certain cognitive conditions or diagnoses, including forms of autism, can be expected to perform reasonably well on the RMET. But metaphor appears to boost the results, according to Katz and Bowes’ study. “What we found is, students who read the metaphor did better on this task,” Katz said. While reading literature is often cited for higher levels of empathy, reading metaphors, specifically, is responsible for this boost, Katz explained. A longer version of this story was originally published by Western University. It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 

Dissecting Disney

Jenny Hall | May 14, 2015

Disney struck box office gold in 2013 with the animated feature Frozen, which has the distinction of being the highest-grossing animated feature and the fifth highest-grossing film of all time. Its Academy Award-winning song “Let it Go” struck a chord with kids, and is the subject of online tributes and parodies. We spoke to University of Toronto Professor Nic Sammond of the Cinema Studies Institute at Innis College about the movie’s incredible success. The author of Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960, Sammond studies the cultural history and political economy of popular film and media. Why is Frozen such a popular movie? It’s designed to create strong emotional relationships between parents and children. This is what’s genius about what Disney does — some would say evil genius, others might say good. Its plots often revolve around the separation of the parent figure from the child. The child has to go through a transformation where it learns what its shortcomings are, what its strengths are, and rely on friends to help it and bring it back together with the parent. The parent has to suffer though letting the child go so the child can stand or fall on its own two feet. This is a constant struggle between parents and children in life, and Disney sneaks right in there, knowing this is an emotional hook for both parents and children. In the case of Frozen, it’s particularly about the relationship between mothers and children. This is one of Disney’s attempts at feminism. It does still have beautiful princesses. It still ends with the ideal marriage. It doesn’t completely break the mould, but it does allow at least the illusion of choice for the protagonist. A lot has been made of the fact that the act of true love at the end is between sisters—there is no man involved. Yes, and that has been repeated in Maleficent, which is also a Disney movie. It’s not about Prince Charming; it’s about family love. This is a big emotional hook for both children and parents. The formula has to undergo change. If it stays the same, it becomes brittle and doesn’t match the sensibilities of the people watching the movie. In Frozen, the parents die and then you have, as often you do, evil surrogates that have to be dealt with. But you also have her sister and the sense that family will endure after the parents are gone. This is something that resonates with parents, to know that siblings will look after each other. You've written a book about Disney’s marketing to children. Can you give us your findings in a nutshell? I wrote about Disney’s beginnings in the late 1920s and early 1930s. At that time, the Production Code was just starting. The Production Code, which existed roughly from 1930 to 1968, was a set of rules for what you could and couldn’t do on the screen, and it was premised on the notion that children are susceptible to the messages in films. It was buttressed by a group of scientific studies published between 1933 and 1935 that were popularized in women’s magazines, speaking in alarmist terms about the effect of movies on children. Disney took advantage of this concern, suggesting that it was good for children. It latched onto the fear that movies are damaging. There was an underlying anti-Semitism to some of those messages — as in, the Jewish Hollywood cabal was going to corrupt your good Protestant children. Disney was not Jewish and was often praised for being solidly middle American, from Missouri and Chicago. The rest could be inferred. The company built a reputation around an emerging science of child development, and it weathered a significant change in those theories. Before World War II, most of the theories were predicated on behaviourism, which is the notion of input in, behaviour out. Pavlov’s dog is the classic example. That fell out of favour after the war because of the Nazis and the Russians. They were seen as behaviourists who raised generations of evil children. So there was a shift to a Freudian model, popularized by Dr. Spock, that was all about letting the child develop on its own. Disney very adroitly shifted from one discourse to the other and still was seen as good for children. And what about Disney’s marketing today? They have had to keep up with an increasingly sophisticated market of both parents and children. There are a lot more jokes written for parents and for sophisticated children and a lot of attention paid to issues around identity formation — race, gender, sexuality. Disney has become one of the most gay-friendly companies in the United States. It still has a hard time having out characters, but in the way it markets itself more generally, it does a good job. It’s tried to take on race, for example, in The Princess and the Frog and in Mulan. A lot of people have critiqued the company for this — it doesn’t necessarily get it right—but there is such a reserve of good will for Disney that even when it doesn’t quite get it right, it’s still seen as doing good. A longer version of this story was originally published by the University of Toronto. It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 

Storytime 2.0

Caitlin Fisher | May 8, 2015

A co-founder of York University's Future Cinema Lab, Caitlin Fisher's research investigates the future of narrative through explorations of interactive storytelling and interactive cinema in Augmented Reality environments. In this guest blog, Fisher offers us a glimpse into her work's significance for Canada's culture and entertainment sector. I like to tell stories. My research involves working with emerging technologies to explore and contribute to future storytelling forms and new tools for writers and artists. My students and I create future cinema, future novels, develop custom software, work in game engines and build prototypes of things that do not yet have names. My current funded research involves developing techniques, narrative strategies and tools for use in Augmented Reality (AR) environments, research increasingly important for Canada's culture and entertainment sectors, as augmented reality is poised to become a $200 billion global industry. Unlike a virtual reality environment that strives for a totally immersive visual world (like Oculus Rift), augmented reality augments the physical world with digital artefacts while insisting that the user maintain a sense of presence in the real. In AR, virtual images are registered to the physical and overlaid in real time to create the augmented experience, typically via head-mounted displays (like Meta Glass) or mobile phones. Augmented reality storytelling departs from earlier practices in a critically significant and complicating way: the physical world can matter in these pieces.  Augmented reality will break through this decade not because it makes us catch our breath the way some virtual reality environments do  (even today’s cutting edge AR tools are only just beginning to capture the promise of this technology) but, rather, because of the ways in which the real world is present in these works and the way the physical and the digital work together to tell the story. In AR, a location or object can carry so much of the weight of the narrative, making AR mobile fiction, for example, more like film or immersive theatre than like a book. This is part of the new toolkit for writers. And my film students love the idea that one future form for the moving image might involve a rich, moving dreamscape dropped like a palimpsest over an entire neighbourhood. Transforming our relationship to objects Indeed, it’s thrilling, as artists and researchers and inventors, to live in a moment with the unprecedented capacity to bring together the physical and the virtual, to transform our relationships to objects and landscapes through the addition of computer-generated information, and to work in a context in which conventions have yet to be established.  Industrial applications and advertising are key economic drivers of AR technology, but the canvas AR offers poets and screenwriters and filmmakers and directors is vast and emergent. In the Augmented Reality Lab at York University, a STEAM (STEM +art) lab I founded over a decade ago, my students and I create spatialized mobile storyworlds and fairy houses and haunted object tabletop theatres in part because of the pleasure of working with new expressive tools —  but also because it is important to make and think alongside new digital texts in order to better understand what constitutes a successful, compelling and emotionally rich experience in these spaces. This research helps us to articulate what kind of future we want even as we are actively creating it. My research and experiments to make some of the first, full scale augmented reality long-form storyworlds is part of a larger collaborative research project with University of Toronto computer engineer Steve Mann, entitled “Augmented reality glass: sousveillance, wearable computing and new literary forms.”  Steve Mann is widely understood to be ‘the father’ of both augmented reality and wearable computing and a computer science pioneer who has developed the next generation of ARGlass head-mounted-display technology,  Meta, a made-in-Canada technology that surpasses the more widely known Google Glass. Like so much work in this field, our project crosses institutional and disciplinary boundaries, the public sector/private sector divide, brings together making and thinking and explores both expressive tools and receptive viewing situations.  And it is as much about people and beauty and play and creativity and digital awareness as it is about technology. The concept videos promoting AR so often suggest a world filled only with opportunities for increased marketing, task efficiency, networking and work days without end. But my research and creative practice seeks to broaden what might be possible and desirable here: to explore AR as a future storytelling machine that carries inside it some of the foundational dreams of experimental creative practice. In so doing it challenges students with a diversity of skills and critically-engaged perspectives, from both the arts and the sciences, to come together in an utterly necessary way to create and play and fail and iterate and, in so doing, invent both future forms and contribute to a future for AR that is not only useful, but also beautiful.

Counter-culture warriors

Araina Bond | May 4, 2015

Gary Genosko wants you to see your big toe as a powerful tool in the counter-culture movement. This underappreciated appendage, he tells us, can even hack a casino. In fact, in the late 1970s, a group of creative graduate students used data sent by tapping their big toes on a micro-switch hidden in their shoes to beat the odds at roulette. Genosko, a professor in and director of the Communication and Digital Media Studies program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, also insists that a hospital-gowned patient sneaking into forbidden rooms, trailing his IV pole behind him, can be a counter-culture warrior. Canadian Jeff Chapman (known as Ninjalicious), was an "urban explorer" who developed his interest in off-limit areas while a cancer patient. Genosko says Chapman, and others like him, are "unofficial cartographers of the city.” Chapman published stories of his explorations in his zine Infiltration (small, self-published magazines - another strong counter-culture movement) to showcase the forbidden side of our cities' buildings and monuments. Chapman and the enteprising graduate students are exactly the type of radicals that Genosko studies. He is fascinated by the way technoculture both elevates and subverts established powers by taking the road less travelled and challenging cultural norms. “It’s a form of culture-jamming,” he explains. “It’s the act of converting a commercial and institutional message to be subversive of its original intent. The magazine Adbusters would be an example of this in print.” Genosko’s 2013 book, When Technocultures Collide: Innovation from Below and the Struggle for Autonomy, uses surprising and entertaining examples of the ways technically-inspired subcultures undermine and challenge corporations and governments. His research demonstrates how technoculture stimulates forgotten technologies and ideas, repurposing and re-imagining them in ways that both subvert and improve technology. The vignettes he shares exemplify an underlying theme: by subverting technology, outsiders such as phone phreaks not only subvert corporations or governments, but also, ironically, often help them improve technology. Hacking phone lines can be a resume-builder Phone phreaks, for example, not only hack in and access free long distance, they also expose the extent to which phone calls can be traced without a warrant. One phreak Genosko discusses in detail is a young man with the pseudonym “Captain Crunch” (He figured out that the free whistle in the box of Captain Crunch cereal was the exact tone needed to hack into long distance lines). Once Captain Crunch finished his jail time for hacking, he worked for several phone companies, helping them upgrade their security and services. Even Steve Jobs, Genosko tells us, was once a phone phreak. And in an ironic twist, he says, Apple has hired jailbreakers—hackers who fix their iPhones so they’re able to accept non-approved apps—to work with the company to improve apps and security. “In this way,” he explains. “A quasi-legal activity becomes a highly valued technical skill.” Whether it’s urban explorers, hackers, phreaks or zine publishers, Genosko demonstrates the important, if counter-intuitive, ways in which those on the margins have a significant – often unrecognized – effect on both our technology and our culture.

Sowing seeds of learning

Sharon Oosthoek | April 27, 2015

In the mid-1990s, Maurice DiGiuseppe found himself wandering around a school garden in Hamilton, marvelling at how teachers had incorporated it into a novel lesson plan. The student-run garden at Saint Mary Catholic Secondary School was entirely taken up with plants mentioned in the Bible. Each plant was labelled with its history and use. Strategically-placed benches encouraged students to sit and read. This was thinking outside the plant box, he said to himself, and decided to make a research project out of leveraging school gardens to teach parts of the curriculum — including math and social science — not normally connected with gardens. "Environmental deficit disorder is a big theory in education right now: students are not connecting with nature," says DiGiuseppe, a professor of education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. "I think there is truth in it. But gardens can help with more than that." Since that day in Hamilton, DiGiuseppe has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about what works and what doesn't when connecting gardens and learning. His current project ­— case studies of four Ontario schools — is meant to guide teachers to make the most of their school garden. His research subjects include a high school in Peterborough where the teacher in charge of the student-run garden is using it to teach math, economics and social science, in addition to more obvious classes in science and geography. Students not only take care of the vegetable garden, they pickle and can produce for sale and use the proceeds to make micro loans of $200 to $300 in the developing world. The students then follow their borrowers' progress in implementing their business plans and write up posters and multimedia documentaries describing their findings. Each class is a focus group DiGiuseppe and one of his graduate students sit in on planning sessions for each school garden, observe students as they plant and weed, and even accompany them on field trips to buy materials and learn how to manage pests. "We are treating each class as a focus group. At the end of this, we'll have a multi-media case study to present," says DiGiuseppe. But it's not all sunshine and roses. He will also chronicle the challenges involved in making school gardens work. For example, getting school boards to provide a suitable parcel of land usually involves a lot of red tape, he says. And plans to have students build their own raised planting boxes can run into road blocks connected to building and safety standards. With about a year's worth of data under his belt, DiGiuseppe is ready to begin disseminating his findings this summer at international educational conferences. He also has plans to publish his research in educational journals. "This is fabulous stuff," says DiGiuseppe, and the word "really needs to be spread."
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