Friday, July 31, 2015

Futurist Friday: 10 Bite-sized Stories of the Future

Popular Science has released their annual collection of  "Dispatches from the Future," a collection of microscenarios solicited from sci-fi writers. At a few hundred words each, these provide  a nice short pop of futurist fiction. For this week's FF assignment, I'm suggesting you read them with a critic's eye. Sure, notice the futures the authors envision, but  I'm more interested in your reaction to their writing. Which of these essays are the most compelling, and why? Which imply the world in which they exist, and which hit you over the head with the details? What do they teach you about effective writing?

The stories encompass: 

Transportation--Ian Tregillis presents a steampunkish vision of biomimetic airships buoyed aloft by...nothing. Karle Schroeder points out our impatience will always exceed the speed of the newest technology. 

Aging--both Ann Leckie and Scott Lynch take a chilling look the downside of extreme longevity. (I think Lynch's essay is particularly compelling and well-written. If you only read one of these essays, scroll down to his.)

Entertainment: Melinda Snodgrass riffs on the historic impact of sci-fi, while John Scalzi points out that when it comes to the foibles of tech and tech support, plus ca change...

Food: Elizabeth Bear takes a sly dig at the paleo diet and the high prices at WF ("Wild Food," in her story) and Mary Robinette Kowal dramatizes the value of fresh veggies on a space station. 

War: Seanan McGuire envisions a neurotoxic War of the Roses; Daniel Abraham speculates that the high stakes of interplanetary conflict might tone down the violence. 

It took me a 1/2 hour to read the whole collection, and that included breaks to write the summaries above, so this is maybe a 15-20 break for you. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Bodacious Commitment to Diversity

Yesterday the Mellon Foundation released a report based on the first comprehensive survey of the demographics of art museum staff. For the most part, it documents what we already knew: “professional” staff in museums (e.g., directors, curators, registrars) are much less diverse than the US population as a whole. But it also surfaces some troubling issues that were less obvious (e.g., the younger cohort off staff is not budging the needle on diversity when it comes to curatorial, education or conservation positions). Most significantly, this report gives us a baseline against which to document our progress in coming decades.

Or lack thereof. The absence of a “youth bulge” (as the report puts it) of staff from historically underrepresented minorities shows time will not magically bring museum staff into alignment with demographics of the US as a whole.

In her introduction, Mariët Westermann, Vice President of the Mellon Foundation summarizes the conclusions of the study, many of which, she observes “are perhaps best addressed on the local level, as local and regional demographics tend to differ considerable across the continent.” Given that I work for museums en mass, I’m thinking about what our field needs to do collectively to change sector-wide assumptions and conventions that are barriers to diversifying staff.

And while many appropriate actions are local or regional, to make real progress on this front we, as a sector, have to identify and examine deeply embedded assumptions about what we do, who is qualified to do it, and what constitutes appropriate training and experience to start doing it.

For example, the report observes that “the nation will need more programs that encourage students of color to pursue graduate education in preparation for museum positions,” citing the AAMD/UNCF diversity initiative and the undergraduate curatorial fellowship program supported by the Mellon Foundation as examples of good work. These are excellent programs, but I’m not convinced we can make real or rapid progress by trying to route more minority students into traditional degree programs.

So go read the report. And while you do, think about the following points:

·        The barriers to graduate degrees are not just economic: they are deeply social and cultural as well. From helping diverse students to see graduate degrees as possible or desirable to begin with, to rarity of a cohort of supportive(diverse) peers, to bias on the part of major professors and thesis committees, the current system of higher ed can seem like an endless system of obstructions. Besides,
·        Once a degree is in hand, women and minorities often face bias (conscious or unconscious) in hiring, and once hired, in compensation and promotion (which will affect retention).
·        As long as museums require traditional graduate degrees for certain position (whether an MA in museum studies or a PhD in art history) we are hostage to the graduate pipeline, over which museums have little if any influence.
·        The work of museums, and role of even the most traditional staff, are rapidly evolving. Will a curator of 2030 need the same academic training as the curator of 1980?

For all these reasons, I’m most interested in the approach Mariët hints at when she observes that developing “diverse educational pipelines into curatorial, conservation, and other art museum careers are going to be critical if art museums wish to have truly diverse staff and inclusive cultures.”  

We need to take a long hard look at the ways the role of our professional staff are evolving, the skills and knowledge they will need to fill those rolls, and consider a broad and creative range of ways to help prospective staff gain those credentials before, or after, we hire them. We need to support for on-the-job training and to create a robust national system of alternative education related to museum work. We need to subject our hiring practices, from how we write position descriptions and job ads, to how we assess and rank applicants, to excruciating examination of how traditional practices stack the deck.

And perhaps most importantly, we have to not let ourselves off the hook if what ever we try first, or second, or third doesn’t work. As Dr. Johnnetta Cole said in her keynote at the AAM annual meeting this spring,

“…all of our museums must boldly, indeed bodaciously commit to rethinking about what takes place in our museums, to whom our museums belong, and who the colleagues are who have the privilege of telling important stories through the power of science, history, culture, and art. The responsibility for bringing far greater diversity into each and every one of our museums is in your hands, and in mine.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Climb Every Mountain

#Mountain #Museum #ZahaHadid #Italy

Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

So this museum geek walks into an academic research meeting...

Earlier this month I was in London, participating in the Diversity, (In)equality and Differences workshop organized by the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Sciences and Humanities. As I shared in an earlier post, I was one of about twenty researchers, scholars, and funders from Europe and the Americas who spent two days identifying priorities for collaborative research. I don’t want to pre-empt my hosts (who still have a ton of work to do compiling and disseminating our feedback) by blogging the substance of our discussions, but I do want to share some self-discoveries I made during the workshop.

First: I was embarrassed to find I harbored a double standard when it comes to scientific research versus research in the social sciences and humanities. I believe in the fundamental importance of basic research in the sciences. Studying ant behavior? Fascinating. Documenting the myriad permutations of trilobites? Great stuff. It drives me nuts when politicians or policy makers mock work like this and tag it as wasteful spending. (Nigel wrote that song on Applied research is great, but it builds on a vast pyramidal base of work that expands our understanding of how the world works. And I think that understanding the natural world is a valid end in and of itself.

Dr. Nigel Hughes performing “Lament for the Passing of the Trilobites.” No grant monies were used in the production of this video.

So I was surprised to find myself mentally devaluing basic research in the fields represented at the workshop. Maybe it’s because the acute problems identified by participants—violence against marginalized people, the death of political refugees and the surge in climate refugees, modern slavery and human trafficking—are so important I want to see research that helps craft solutions NOW. But one issue participants raised repeatedly in our time together was the need for funders to support “slow science”—long term, large scale studies that help us understand patterns and causality. They longed for the social science equivalent of the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed the health and lifestyle of over 5000 participants since 1948. Or the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, which has supported continuous ecological monitoring since 1955. This kind of research has no immediate application, but in the long term may be the only way to tease out how to create sustainable systems and address inequalities in health, education and employment.

Second, I caught myself thinking about inequality as something that could be measured in purely economic terms—perhaps because of the immense attention being given here in the U.S. to wealth inequity. So I was surprised and heartened to hear participants wrestling with how to measure equality in terms of people’s capacity to conceive of, pursue and achieve well-being. What do people need to have, do or be in order to live well? There are groups and individuals tackling this challenge—for example the Gross National Happiness Index of Bhutan, the Life Satisfaction Approach to valuing the environment, or the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being, but we are far from having metrics that are universally valued and applied. While I worry that measures such as these may be misused to let governments off the hook when it comes to economic fairness, I whole heartedly approve of approaches that look at something more fundamentally important than wealth per se. (Also, I suspect that museums and other cultural organizations contribute more, and more meaningfully, to well-being than to economic parity.

Trailer for HAPPY, a feature documentary that ranges from the swamps of Louisiana to the slums of Calcutta in search of what makes people happy.

I admit to feeling a bit out of place in an academic research gathering, but the workshop gave me a renewed appreciation for the role museums play in bridging the gap between research and action—communicating research findings to the public and to policy makers, and driving the debate on how to turn knowledge into wisdom, and ensure wisdom informs our actions.  Maybe all gatherings of funders and researchers should have a museum practitioner or two in the room, to offer this practical perspective on the ultimate payoff for basic research.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Monday Musing: Thinking the Unthinkable

 The other week I included a sobering story from the New Yorker in Dispatches from the Future of Museums*.  The Really Big One, by Kathryn Shulz, looks at the Cascadia fault line that runs for 700 miles down the coast of the Pacific Northwest, From Cape Mendocino California up to Vancouver.

At some point geologic slippage in this fault zone will result in an earthquake somewhere
Image from National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center
between magnitude 8.0 and 9.2 on the Richter scale. For reference: the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and resulting Tsunami killed more than eighteen thousand people and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It did somewhere around two hundred and twenty billion in damage, including impact to least 353 cultural landmarks, and destroyed a number of museums.

In forecasting terminology, Earthquakes are “disruptive events,” in this case, events for which we know more or less what will happen, but can’t pinpoint when. As Shulz reports, scientists estimate the chance of a Cascadian earthquake in the vicinity of 8.0 in the next 50 years at roughly one in three, and of a “very big one” in the 9.2 range as one in ten.

Those are pretty bad odds, if you ask me, particularly for museums dedicated to preserving their collections for future generations.

What will the country (and museums) be dealing with when this quake occurs? Quoting Shulz,

“In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.”

Or putting it more succinctly, the director of the FEMA division responsible for this region said “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

In the face of these projections, what are we to do? As individuals, family members, community members—and museum professionals—what real choices do we make (other than ignoring the forecast)?

The barriers—psychological, cultural, logistic and economic—to doing anything are huge, but I would argue that to fulfill their public trust, museums in the Northwest have to prepare for “the very big one.” Hard choices might include:
·        Identifying artifacts and specimens of such overwhelming importance that they ought to be reposited in other museums
·        Jointly or individually creating inland storage facilities for collections of high value (monetary, historic, artistic, cultural or scientific)
·        Relocating to the most stable location in their existing community, into buildings with state-of-the art earthquake resilience

We all face a range of risk every day—from bicycling to work to living in tornado corridor. But sometimes these risk rise to a level that demands a different kind of attention. In addition to raising awareness of the need for museums to grapple with extreme risk (whether in the Northwest Coast or elsewhere in the country or the world), I’m writing this post in the hope that you will tell me how you face these hard choices—personally or professionally.  Please do share how you, or your museum, is grappling with the prospect of “the very big one.”

*Dispatches from the Future of Museums is CFM’s free weekly e-newsletter. You can access past issues and subscribe here.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Futurist Friday: Rise of the (Cute, Self-aware) Robots

Have you seen Ex Machina yet? I watched it on a flight back from London. Its depiction of artificial intelligence is way, way ahead of the actual state of the field, but this week we saw a hint, just a tiny bit of evidence, that we may be on the path to creating robots that can shape their own destinies.

Meet Nao, a robot as cute an unthreatening as Ex Machina's Ava is seductive and...oh, sorry, no plot spoilers. 

Nao is in the news because it just became the first robot to pass a test of self-awareness. (Not as rigorous as the Turing Test administered to Ava, but an early pre-requisite.)

This video shows what happened when Professor Selmer Bringsjord of New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute asked three Naos which one of them had not received a "dumbing pill" (actually a push of a button) that would render them mute. Watch what happens:

So, first steps on a long road. In the past century we have progressively extended the concept of personhood, and "human" rights to an ever wider circle. In the US women were granted voting rights in 1920. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation and banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion,  gender or national origin. The Supreme Court of the United States just ruled that gays have the right to marry. Globally, we are beginning to recognize the rights of non-humans as well: In January a court in Argentina granted an Orangutan named Sandra the right to "life, liberty and freedom from harm." In 2012, New Zealand granted a river "rights of personhood"  and appointed legal (human) custodians to represent its interests. 

So, my futurist Friday question for you: can you imagine granting personhood, and legal rights, to robots? And if so, what would a robot need to demonstrate (such as self-awareness) to demonstrate it deserved those rights? 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015