Pineapple Displays “Plodding Banality” of Conceptual Art

(p. A4) LONDON — How did a pineapple become a postmodern masterpiece?
The aesthetic merits of tropical fruit inadvertently entered Britain’s national cultural conversation after two students jokingly placed a store-bought pineapple on an empty table at an art exhibition this month at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, a port city in northeastern Scotland.
When they returned a few days later to the exhibition — part of the Look Again festival, which aims to highlight Aberdeen’s cultural heritage — they were shocked to discover their pineapple protected by a glass display case, instantly and mysteriously transformed into a work of art.
After one of the students, Lloyd Jack, 22, who studies business, put a photograph of the pineapple on Twitter, along with the words, “I made art,” the image was shared widely on social media, turning the fruit, fairly or not, into a cultural sensation. To some, though, the stunt was a self-promoting social media prank befitting the digital age.
Mr. Jack’s post received nearly 5,000 likes on Twitter. Before long, the work, which the two students titled “Pineapple,” had been deconstructed on art blogs and social media worldwide; parsed in Paris, Texas and Tokyo; and even featured on Canadian television. Some on Twitter lauded its “genius,” while others ridiculed it as the latest example of conceptual art’s plodding banality.
. . .
Others saw hidden meaning in the pineapple, including an art professor at the university who, Mr. Gray said, enthusiastically lauded the “purposeful way” in which the display case had pressed down on the fruit’s leaves.
“It just goes to show the ludicrousness of conceptual art and how anything can become art,” Mr. Jack said.
. . .
Peter York, an author and cultural commentator, noted that the pineapple display, consciously or not, wittily reflected Duchamp’s notion that if you declare something art, it becomes art.
“I rank pineapples quite highly as they are quite decorative objects, sort of colonial superfruits, with leaves that look like green fountains at the top,” he said. “But you wouldn’t really want a pineapple exhibited in your home.”

For the full story, see:
DAN BILEFSKY. “Scots Plumb a Pineapple’s Hidden Meaning After it Becomes Accidental Art.” The New York Times (Fri., MAY 12, 2017): A4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 11, 2017, and has the title “How a Humble Pineapple Became Art.”)

Level 3 Failed, In Spite of a Well-Executed, Plausible Business Plan

Level3StockPricesGraph2017-06-09.jpgSource of graph: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1D) Thomas Dowd and hundreds of other Omahans soon will be digging out their Level 3 Communications Inc. stock records. • The reason: This week, Level 3 shareholders are voting to sell the company to Century Link Communications. • The sale marks the end of an investment saga that began 20 years ago with hopes of riches but ended with big losses for most shareholders, despite the efforts of some of Omaha’s biggest names in business. • “It was a very bad experience,” said Dowd, a retired attorney and former director of the Metropolitan Utilities District. “It’s just one purchase at a time, and you think everything’s going good and then, bam! Anyway, lesson learned.” • Although his loss was “substantial,” he said, it didn’t disrupt his lifestyle, and he figures he’s better off than shareholders who lost their retirement savings or other vital funds. He’s still a Level 3 shareholder and will get some cash and Century Link shares in the sale, which is scheduled for September [2017].

(p. 4D) But it works out to about $4.43 for shares he bought years ago, some of them costing more than $100.
. . .
On March 20, 2000, someone sold and someone bought Level 3 shares for $132.25, a price that made the company’s publicly traded stock worth nearly $20 billion. By 2002, the price had nearly collapsed, putting most shareholders into the red.
Level 3 might have an information highway, but its toll system wasn’t collecting enough to earn a profit. It was clear that the nation had a “bandwidth glut,” a huge overcapacity of fiber networks.
Level 3 had installed its network, at an eventual cost of $14 billion, and could cheaply add more lines by stringing extra cable through its conduits.
But others had built networks, too, and the demand for bandwidth wasn’t growing as Crowe had hoped. Researchers also found ways to send more data along existing fibers, meaning greater capacity along existing lines.
Most of the new fiber networks were unused, or “dark.” Only a fraction of fibers in the buried bundles were “lit” by the light waves that carried digital communications and brought in revenue for companies like Level 3.
The supply of fiber far outran the demand, and Level 3’s losses mounted, along with its stock price. Investors lost confidence that the company would begin making profits anytime soon. In fact, that didn’t happen until 2014.
. . .
Dowd, the retired attorney, said he held onto the shares because it didn’t seem worthwhile to sell at the lower prices and he figured someone would buy the company and he would get some of his money back.
“I always thought Walter Scott was going to pull a rabbit out of the hat,” he said. “He never did.”

For the full story, see:
STEVE JORDON. “END OF THE LINE FOR LEVEL 3; Omaha-born company, which laid fiber-optic cable, will cease to exist.” Omaha World-Herald (Sun., March 12, 2017): 1D & 4D.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Geoengineering for the Timid

(p. A15) In 2012, a man named Russ George, working with the Haida people of British Columbia, tried an experiment. From the back of a rusty fishing vessel he spread 120 tons of iron-rich dust on the surface of the North Pacific Ocean. The result was a bloom of plankton, visible by satellite–and a quadrupling of the salmon catch along the coast of the Northeast Pacific. This may or may not have been a coincidence, but it was the intended result.
. . .
Far from being thanked, Mr. George was pilloried for failing to get permission for this rogue “geoengineering” gesture. A second experiment by German scientists in the Antarctic Ocean was stopped by the German government under pressure from environmentalists. A United Nations treaty–the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution–was changed to forbid “any activity undertaken by humans with the principal intention of stimulating primary productivity in the oceans.” This seems a strangely defeatist prohibition, given that a more productive ocean would not only feed more people (and whales) but also sequester more carbon dioxide from the air, through photosynthesis by plankton, potentially providing a self-financing way to prevent possible future climate change.
. . .
. . . Mr. Biello is a writer from Scientific American and is impeccably sympathetic to the environmental movement. The result is a book that explores an intriguing topic but lacks a hard edge or even a clear message.
. . .
Just in the choice of stories to tell, though, the book leans toward the notion that the solution to our environmental challenges will come from technology, and in that sense it is most welcome. Technical fixes are anathema to many environmentalists, but it has been obvious for some time now that innovation and adaptation are the way we will reverse or cope with pollution, habitat loss and climate change. By contrast, a retreat to some golden age of simpler lives more dependent on organic and natural resources is neither possible nor likely to be good for nature: Seven billion people going back to nature would leave nature in a parlous state. The way we will save the planet is by high-tech invention and prosperity, not low-tech simplification and asceticism.

For the full review, see:
Matt Ridley. “BOOKSHELF; Ruling Over Our Dominion; We are living in the Anthropocene: an era when human beings have changed the planet in ways that will be obvious in the geological record.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Nov. 17, 2016): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 16, 2016.)

The book under review, is:
Biello, David. The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age. New York: Scribner, 2016.

Equal Opportunity Gene Innovation

(p. R4) Kian Sadeghi has postponed homework assignments, sports practice and all the other demands of being a 17-year-old high-school junior for today. On a Saturday afternoon, he is in a lab learning how to use Crispr-Cas9, a gene-editing technique that has electrified scientists around the world–. . .
. . .
Crispr-Cas9 is easier, faster and cheaper than previous gene-editing techniques.
. . .
A do-it-yourself Crispr kit with enough material to perform five experiments gene-editing the bacteria included in the package is available online for $150. Genspace, the Brooklyn, N.Y., community lab where Mr. Sadeghi is learning how to use Crispr to edit a gene in brewer’s yeast, charges $400 for four intensive sessions. More than 80 people have taken the classes since the lab started offering them last year.
. . .
In the workshop, if the participants correctly edit the gene in brewer’s yeast, the cells will turn red. In between the prep work, the classmates swap stories on why they are there. Many have personal Crispr projects in mind and want to learn the technique.
Kevin Wallenstein, a chemical engineer, takes a two-hour train ride to the lab from his home in Princeton, N.J. Crispr is a hobby for him, he says. He wants to eventually use it to edit a gene in an edible fruit that he prefers not to name, to restore it to its historical color. “I always wondered what it would look like,” he says.
At the workshop, Mr. Wallenstein shares his Crispr goal with Will Shindel, Genspace’s lab director. Mr. Shindel is enthusiastic; he has started his own Crispr project, a longtime dream to make a spicy tomato. Both men say they aren’t looking to commercialize their ideas–but they would like to eat what they create someday, if they get permission from the lab. “I’m doing it for fun,” Mr. Shindel says.
When Mr. Sadeghi first wanted to try Crispr, the teenager emailed 20 scientists asking if they would be willing to let him learn Crispr in their labs. Most didn’t respond; those that did turned him down. So he did a Google search and stumbled upon Genspace. When he shared the lead with his science teacher at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, Essy Levy Sefchovich, she agreed to take the course with him.
When Mr. Shindel describes the steps of the experiment, Ms. Sefchovich takes notes. She is hoping to create a modified version of the yeast experiment so all her students can try Crispr in class.
Later, Mr. Sadeghi recounts that the hardest part of the day was handling the micropipette, the lab tool he used to mix small amounts of liquid. He says he still feels clumsy. Ms. Sefchovich reassures him he’ll get the hang of it; he just needs to practice.
“It’s like driving,” she tells him. “You learn the right feel.” Mr. Sadeghi doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. He figures he’ll do Crispr first.

For the full story, see:
Marcus, Amy Dockser. “JOURNAL REPORTS: HEALTH CARE; DIY Gene Editing: Fast, Cheap–and Worrisome; The Crispr technique lets amateurs enter a world that has been the exclusive domain of scientists.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Feb. 27, 2017): R4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 26, 2017.)

Australian Government’s Centrally Planned “Costly Internet Bungle”

(p. A6) BRISBANE, Australia — Fed up with Australian internet speeds that trail those in most of the developed world, Morgan Jaffit turned to a more reliable method of data transfer: the postal system.
Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have downloaded Hand of Fate, an action video game made by his studio in Brisbane, Defiant Development. But when Defiant worked with an audio designer in Melbourne, more than 1,000 miles away, Mr. Jaffit knew it would be quicker to send a hard drive by road than to upload the files, which could take several days.
“It’s really the big file sizes that kill us,” said Mr. Jaffit, the company’s co-founder and creative director. “When we release an update and there’s a small bug, that can kill us by three or four days.”
Australia, a wealthy nation with a widely envied quality of life, lags in one essential area of modern life: its internet speed. Eight years after the country began an unprecedented broadband modernization effort that will cost at least 49 billion Australian dollars, or $36 billion, its average internet speed lags that of the United States, most of Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. In the most recent ranking of internet speeds by Akamai, a networking company, Australia came in at an embarrassing No. 51, trailing developing economies like Thailand and Kenya.
. . .
The story of Australia’s costly internet bungle illustrates the hazards of mingling telecommunication infrastructure with the impatience of modern politics. The internet modernization plan has been hobbled by cost overruns, partisan maneuvering and a major technical compromise that put 19th-century technology between the country’s 21st-century digital backbone and many of its homes and businesses.
The government-led push to modernize its telecommunications system was unprecedented, experts say — and provides a cautionary tale for others who might like to try something similar.
“Australia was the first country where a totally national plan to cover every house or business was considered,” said Rod Tucker, a University of Melbourne professor and a member of the expert panel that advised on the effort.

For the full story, see:
ANDREW McMILLEN. “How Australia Bungled Internet Modernization.” The New York Times (Fri., MAY 12, 2017): A6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 11, 2017, and has the title “How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout.”)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Cannot Automate All Legal Tasks

(p. B1) “There is this popular view that if you can automate one piece of the work, the rest of the job is toast,” said Frank Levy, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “That’s just not true, or only rarely the case.”
An artificial intelligence technique called natural language processing has proved useful in scanning and predicting what documents will be relevant to a case, for example. Yet other lawyers’ tasks, like advising clients, writing legal briefs, negotiating and appearing in court, seem beyond the reach of computerization, for a while.
. . .
(p. B3) Dana Remus, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and Mr. Levy studied the automation threat to the work of lawyers at large law firms. Their paper concluded that putting all new legal technology in place immediately would result in an estimated 13 percent decline in lawyers’ hours.
A more realistic adoption rate would cut hours worked by lawyers by 2.5 percent annually over five years, the paper said. The research also suggests that basic document review has already been outsourced or automated at large law firms, with only 4 percent of lawyers’ time now spent on that task.
Their gradualist conclusion is echoed in broader research on jobs and technology. In January, the McKinsey Global Institute found that while nearly half of all tasks could be automated with current technology, only 5 percent of jobs could be entirely automated. Applying its definition of current technology — widely available or at least being tested in a lab — McKinsey estimates that 23 percent of a lawyer’s job can be automated.

For the full story, see:
STEVE LOHR. “A.I. Is Doing Legal Work. But It Won’t Replace Lawyers, Yet..” The New York Times (Mon., MARCH 20, 2017): B1 & B3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 19, 2017, and has the title “A.I. Is Doing Legal Work. But It Won’t Replace Lawyers, Yet.”)

The Remus and Levy article, mentioned above, is:
Remus, Dana, and Frank S. Levy. “Can Robots Be Lawyers? Computers, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law.” Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics (forthcoming).

“Unfettered Science, If We Have the Courage to Let It Unfold”

(p. 26) “How to Tame a Fox” sets out to answer a simple-seeming question: What makes a dog a dog? Put another way, how did an animal that started out as a bloodthirsty predator become one that now wants nothing more than a nice belly rub and the chance to gaze adoringly at a member of another species? In the late 1950s, a Russian scientist named Dmitri Belyaev decided to address this puzzle by taking the unheard-of tack of replicating the domestication process in real time. He and his colleagues took silver foxes, widely bred in vast Siberian farms for their luxurious pelts, and made them into friendly house pets. It was a deceptively simple process: Take the puppies from only the friendliest foxes, breed them and repeat. Lyudmila Trut, the current lead researcher of the silver fox experiment, who began work as Belyaev’s intern, along with Lee Alan Dugatkin, an American scientist and writer at the University of Louisville, documents their monumental effort in this sparkling new book.
Belyaev died in 1985, but the experiment is still ongoing, with 56 generations of foxes bred to date — a far cry from the snarling creatures that used to snap at the hands of their caretakers when the research began. The new foxes run toward people, jump on the bed and nuzzle one another as well as their human caretakers. Such a behavioral transformation was to some degree expected, since they were bred from the tamest members of their groups. Perhaps more intriguing, they also look more doglike, with floppy ears, wagging tails and piebald fur.
. . .
The book, . . . , is not only about dogs, or foxes, or even science under siege from political interests. . . . It may serve — particularly now — as a parable of the lessons that can emerge from unfettered science, if we have the courage to let it unfold.

For the full review, see:
MARLENE ZUK. “Fox and Friends.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 7, 2017): 26.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 5, 2017, and has the title “How Do You Make a Fox Your Friend? Fast-Forward Evolution.”)

The book under review, is:
Dugatkin, Lee Alan, and Lyudmila Trut. How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.