Originally published in The Vancouver Sun
Wed Mar 23 2011
b y Brad Frenette
Last year, Dr. Henrik Scharfe, of Denmark’s Aalborg University, e-mailed an order for a new gadget to a Japanese manufacturer. It was a gadget with a considerable price tag, the kind of cost associated with luxury: an Italian sports car, a precious stone, a flight to space on Virgin Galactic.
Dr. Scharfe’s order was a rare thing. In his e-mail, sent last May, he asked for an android, one designed as a physical replica of the professor himself.
The order went to a Japanese company called ATR, and specifically to Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a leader in robotics, and the inventor of robots he calls geminoids.
Starting in 2005, and working with the Tokyo-based company Kokoro, Ishiguro had already built two previous geminoids — androids designed to be lifelike replicas of their owners, and operated via a sophisticated motion capture system.
The Geminoid DK would be Ishiguro’s third project, and the first using a Caucasian model.
Despite being one of the few humans able to boast about having an android simulacrum, Dr. Scharfe, who serves as director of Aalborg University’s Center for Computer-mediated Epistemology, assures his motives are scientific.
As he awaits the delivery of his tailor-made android, the professor tells The Vancouver Sun in an eimail exchange how he got involved in the project, and how he hopes his geminoid will help open up new discussions about the emotional connections possible between man and machine.
Q: How did this project begin?
A: We have been following Professor Ishiguro’s work with the geminoids for years. What really fascinates me it is how easy it is to open really deep and interesting conversations with people about it. Regardless of background. It is very hard not to react to this kind of technology. But honestly, I thought about the implications for a long time before I decided to go ahead with it.
Q: Aside from the research, you now have an animated version of you. Any plans to send it anywhere in your stead?
A: We plan to send it to different places. For instance, we will feature the Geminoid on some national TV programs here in Denmark. We have two confirmed agreements with the Danish Broadcasting Cooperation at the moment — one in the vein of (popular BBC news show) HardTalk, with the Geminoid in the chair, and one more family-oriented program that I visited before (this time we’ll both be in the chair).
We are also taking it to a combined scholarly conference and art exhibition called IRL: In Real Life 2011 in Dublin this summer. I’ll give a keynote there, and guests and delegates will have the ability to interact with the Geminoid personally.
Also, we have an agreement with a shop owner here in Aalborg (a men’s fashion shop). The Geminoid will be in the shop window, and customers can interact with it inside the shop as well. Previous research on interactive technology in shopping windows mainly focused on screens facing the street. In this case, there is also an incentive to enter the shop.
Q: Did you have to pitch yourself as a model for this Geminoid? Was it a bidding process?
A: The robot is manufactured by Kokoro, the same company who built Geminoid HI-1 and Geminoid-F. Essentially, I sent them an email placing an order for a geminoid.
Because the geminoid is custom-built we had many conversations about the details, especially the face, during my visits at the factory, and also via email. This geminoid is the first with a Caucasian face, and that calls for several different design solutions, compared to the previous geminoids. Regarding the exterior, this has to do, of course, with details from the moulding of the head such as shape and size of the eyes, and density of the beard. Regarding interior, we considered especially the range of movement in the face and in the torso. Western people tend to use the upper half of the face significantly more than people of Asian origin, and we needed to make sure that this geminoid was equipped to perform the communicative tasks we wanted it to in a Western setting.
Including the equipment needed to control the geminoid in the lab, the price tag is in the area of $200,000 US.
Q: That’s a hefty price tag. Who paid the bill?
A: The Geminoid project is funded by a local foundation, who supports many different research activities, and by Aalborg University.
Q: How long did it take to finish?
A: It takes about six months to build such a geminoid. My first visit at the factory in Japan took place in September 2010. That’s when we did the moulds of my hands and face. Creating the face is an extremely complicated process with many steps, beginning with a complete mould of the entire head. I have come to greatly admire the artisans at Kokoro.
Q: Does the robot function with artificial intelligence (AI), or only via motion capture?
A: Not really AI, but there is some simulation going on here. What people will experience when they go into the geminoid lab is a mix of two things. First, some movements are pre-programmed, such as the breathing system and blinking at random intervals. Secondly, some movements are read directly from the face of the operator, and transferred onto the robot.
Q: You posted a video of the android on YouTube, and have been updating people throughout the process. Much of the public discussion about the Geminoid DK seems to tend toward the sarcastic, the fearful and the humourous; but there is serious research to be done with this robot.
A: Correct. We have used social media to show parts of the process, and this nearly finished result. To me, this is an important part of the project, and I enjoy taking this kind of research to a broader audience.
Originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun, Jun 5, 2011
A career shift from supermodel to super-advocate is unusual, and for Christy Turlington Burns, it is also deeply personal.
In 2005, after suffering complications after the birth of her daughter, she embarked on a mission to understand the global epidemic of maternal mortality.
She went back to school to study public health at Columbia University, and began working with organizations such as CARE as Advocate for Maternal Health, and in 2008 began work on her first directorial effort -a documentary called No Woman, No Cry. In it, Turlington Burns travels around the world to share the stories of pregnant woman at risk.
Turlington Burns spoke to Postmedia News Service from her home in New York about how she got involved and how the film came to be.
Q: How does one transform from a supermodel to an expert on maternal health?
A: When I evolved and became a mom and learned that the (medical) complication I had was linked to the leading cause of maternal mortality in the world, that made me want to dig deeper. I had the opportunity to travel with the aid organization CARE a couple of years after I had my first child, and was pregnant with my second.
We travelled to El Salvador, where my mother was from, and being in that country with poor women living in rural areas while pregnant, that was the ‘a-ha’ moment.
Had I had the experience I had with my daughter Grace in that community, I would have died. I thought I could help other women make that connection, to bring it closer to them.
Q: You travelled to Bangladesh, Guatemala and Tanzania. Why these locations?
A: In Bangladesh, we wanted to show an urban story.
It was in the slums of Dhaka, and through a community health worker we met Monica, our main mom.
Her story turned out in a way that helped us communicate the cultural limitations in her area, which are the biggest mysteries of all working on these issues.
I chose Tanzania because it’s (among the countries) with the highest maternal mortality rates.
Its president has been incredibly vocal and taken a leadership position.
It’s a sub-Saharan African country where there are high rates, but political will, and (we wanted to) find out what is the big gap. And that is the human resource gap -that women live in rural areas and are way too far from the care that they should have access to in an emergency.
In Guatemala, the physician we focused on is an obstetrician who worked for Planned Parenthood.
She was eight months pregnant herself when we filmed with her.
I wanted to pick a country that had a large indigenous population, and that has grappled with some of the ideology that is so present in Latin America that is a barrier to care for so many women.
Sat Apr 30 2011
by Brad Frenette
One of the first writers to document Vancouver also gave the city his name. “To describe the beauties of this region will, on some future occasion, be a very grateful task to the pen of a skilled panegyrist,” wrote George Vancouver in 1792. Of course, Captain Vancouver would have little notion of the city that would swell in the centuries beyond him -a place of glass and grit, of social woes and woeful real estate prices, a city encased in natural beauty and consistently named the most liveable place in the world.
George didn’t stay in Vancouver, though, so the task indeed had to fall to the pens of other panegyrists. And there has been no shortage of talented writers to help describe the place in recent years. Home to Canada’s greatest creative writing school (UBC), Vancouver-based writers have shone brightly in the past decade’s CanLit year-end lists and shortlists. Read more…
Originally appeared in National Post
Tue Mar 8 2011
by Brad Frenette
The story of DeVotchKa is as unlikely as the music they make. The band – whose songs nod to a variety of musical traditions, including traditional Romani, mariachi, klezmer, Arabic and Cuban, as well as Western indie, punk and folk -formed more than a decade ago in Denver’s insular music scene, led by a New Yorker named Nick Urata. After moving to the mountain town, Urata experimented with a variety of players and conscripted the band’s current, and permanent, lineup after a series of chance encounters.
“I’d been trying to get the band going for years,” says the 42-year-old Urata, on the line from his home in Denver to chat about DeVotchKa’s new album, 100 Lovers. “I had a rotating cast, but one by one I met them. I met Shawn [King] at a Green Party benefit. He was playing in an all-girl punk band, dressed in drag. I was looking for a drummer and thought, ‘I have to go talk to that guy.’ Jeanie [Schroder] was playing the Oompa Loompa song at a fashion show. What are the chances you’re going to meet a female tuba player?”
The band coalesced after Urata found his violin player Tom Hagerman, who stumbled up to him in a bar and invited himself into the band. “Denver is sort of that kind of town where a lot of people move to. A lot of open minds. The scene wasn’t that hip. Some people thought we were crazy to have a band with an accordion and a tuba and a bouzki and trying to play rock clubs. But it wasn’t frowned upon. It was supportive.”
The band got their footing in the late 1990s, playing parties and burlesque shows (often providing music for the now-famous burlesque model Dita Von Teese), and released their first album, SuperMelodrama, in 2000. After a few years of establishing themselves as a hard-touring act, their caravan made a stop in Quebec, and Urata and his bandmates were soon comparing notes with a Canadian act that shared some common musical aesthetic.
“We were playing in Montreal, and Arcade Fire stopped by, back in the earlier days. We were doing this covers album and Win [Butler] recommended that we record The Last Beat of My Heart, and my violin player was a big Siouxsie and the Banshees fan. So we ended up recording it and we’re really glad we did.”
The song would be the centrepiece of the Curse Your Little Heart EP in 2006, which gained the band early acclaim, and eventually, a gig scoring the 2006 Oscar-nominated indie film Little Miss Sunshine. The attention helped the four-piece spring from cult status and into the national consciousness. Their follow-up, 2008′s A Mad and Faithful Telling, was supported with the band’s largest tour, culminating with a show in France to a crowd of 80,000 last summer.
Urata credits the sense of humour found in DeVotchKa’s work as a factor that helped catch the ear of Little Miss Sunshine filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris: “I think a lot of [our music] is funny. That’s one of the reasons we’ve gotten opportunities to be in films -there’s darkness, but there’s joy in the sadness.”
Of their eight albums, that shadowy mix of sadness and joy is best captured on 100 Lovers, which begins with the rolling, rhythmic The Alley. Here, Urata’s warbly, groaning tenor aches, “who among you can resist?”, like an invitation, or a dare. Guest percussionist Mauro Refosco (known from his work with David Byrne and Thom Yorke) helps deliver intricate new rhythm work across the album, and stands out on the North African-inspired The Common Good. Things bend sinister on the track The Man from San Sebastian, with its coy taunts of double-crosses and espionage, wrapped in the exuberance of klezmer accordion. And those moments of levity, of joy, are here, too -typified by the jangly, whistle-driven Exhaustible, which features Hagerman’s young daughter and her school choir.
Combining trumpet blasts and theremin, tuba and bouzouki, DeVotchKa may be from Denver, but the music is borderless -a soundtrack for a shrinking world. Urata, who comes from a family of “mostly Siclians,” chalks it up to his longing to find his roots: “I didn’t get to travel growing up. In New York, I had a lot of family from the old country that died out when I was young. I’ve been trying to find a way back to that.”
The band will always be followed by labels -”gypsy rock” seems to be the prevailing one. However, defining a band as sonically ambitious as DeVotchKa is best left to those most familiar with the work. When asked, Urata pauses, considering it as though it was the first time he’d been asked.
“Romantic. Hopefully exotic,” he says. Another pause, and then a laugh. “And good.”
Two Thousand and Penned. Here, I add my picks to the National Post’s best books of 2010…
Originally appeared in Vancouver Sun and Montreal Gazette, December 23, 2010:
by Brad Frenette
When asked for her advice, Anna Pavlova – considered one of ballet’s greatest dancers – once said: “Master technique and then forget about it and be natural.”
The late Russian ballerina was renowned for her mastery of classical technique, and gained fame for pioneering the lead role in The Dying Swan during the turn of the 20th century. A hundred years later another young performer, actress Natalie Portman, is gaining accolades for her role as the lead in another famous swan ballet, Swan Lake. However, with Portman, her fouettés and plies are made for the big screen, for the recently released film, Black Swan. Read more…
Originally published in National Post’s “Post Toronto” section on December 19, 2009
by Brad Frenette
There is a tale in my family that starts with my great-grandfather, then a hunter and trailblazer, who, when leaving the bush for the city, would visit a barber for a straight-razor hot shave.
On this particular day, however, a customer at the shop insulted his French-Canadian heritage. Having none of it, the small but strong bushman stood up from the red chair and, without wiping away the shaving cream from his half-shaven face, knocked the scoundrel through the shop’s front window.
It’s a story that fuels the testosterone of the men in my family. And it also set the tone for us follicularly. No fancy salons, then, we’ll take the red chair. Read more…