How technology is changing opera

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Technology has played a role in opera from its inception: Baroque-era stagings dazzled with live water features and gods riding chariots across the sky. The Metropolitan Opera’s infamously expensive and inconsistent machine for their recent Ring cycle and the current popularity of projected animations as scenic backdrops are simply a continuation of this trend. Opera’s elevated place among the arts is due, in part, to its incorporation of many media: music, acting, dance, architecture, painting, woodworking, costume design and more. To include modern feats of engineering, computer animation and cinematography fits this model.

But technology is also changing opera more fundamentally by enabling new rehearsal and performance methods and by itself becoming a topic for new operas. In the former category, we have the advent of singers’ lessons and coaching via Skype, online-only concerts and even an attempt at an online opera. Also worth considering is the way modern transportation has allowed top singers to undertake more global engagements and the influence live streaming (online or in cinemas) is having on performances. Video streaming shapes costuming, sets, make-up, the importance of singers’ appearances and even whether top singers will accept a role.

When I consider new operas that wrestle with questions of technology, two come to mind. Tod Machover’s futuristic Death and the Powers, often dubbed the ‘robot opera’, was created by the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. It questions billionaire Simon Powers decision to achieve immortality by merging his consciousness with ‘the System’. He becomes a disembodied presence in his home (importantly, one who can ‘still sign cheques’ and has ‘billions of bucks’), but his family members must come to terms with his confusing presence and decide whether to merge with ‘the System’ as well. The technological demands of presenting the opera are high: it includes autonomous ‘operabot’ characters and a complicated sensor array through which aspects of Simon Powers’ offstage performance (such as movements and body temperature) control set elements.

In contrast to this ‘opera of the future’, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys deals with the recent past. Loosely based on an English murder case from 2003, it dramatises the stabbing of one teenage boy by another, precipitated by a complicated web of chatroom provocation and deceit. The reception of Two Boys points to the challenges of recent technology as a theme:  some critics mentioned that the focus on chatrooms already felt passé by the opera’s 2011 premiere. It is harder for audiences to see the universality of stories in near-modern settings than of those in the distant past or future. (Is the letter scene in Eugene Onegin also passé because written letters are no longer the fashion? Is Death and the Powers inaccessible because it deals with technologies that don’t yet exist?) Regardless, the internet is hardly superannuated, and Two Boys pioneered the musical and visual representation of the internet on the operatic stage. Its ‘digital space’ appears in the form of towering white walls of text and projections and the choristers’ faces are lit by the glow of their ever-present laptops. Characters sing full sentences while chatspeak abbreviations appear behind them; choruses routinely intrude with short, layered phrases –  bits common to internet chatrooms or even arbitrary pieces of data from the singers’ memories.

As both a tool and a topic, technology wields great influence on the arts, and opera is no exception. Operas that engage with technology- as an innovative performance method, a subject to explore, or both – have the potential to attract young, wired audiences. Operatic newcomers who attend the internet-fuelled drama of Two Boys or the futuristic dilemmas of Death and the Powers may find they like the experience of sung drama in general. Similarly, long-time subscribers who are familiar with the classic repertoire may find enjoyment in both new operas and technologically innovative stagings of old favourites.

*Ilana Walder Biesanz [2013] is doing an MPhil in European Literature and Culture. She was involved in the first online opera and is on the panel of Opera21 Magazine’s ‘Technology and Opera’ discussion. Picture credit: Stuart Miles and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

The urgent need for affordable treatment for sleeping sickness

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Last week, Bill Gates called for the world to step up the fight against ‘neglected tropical diseases’such as sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, trachoma and several others that collectively cause as much damage as HIV, malaria or  tuberculosis.

The current R&D and intellectual property systems provide no incentives to pharmaceutical companies to develop and deliver drugs to those affected by these diseases. Little-known and poorly understood internationally, they are ancient diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries and still affect nearly one billion people today – people who largely lack political voice, live in remote areas and are extremely poor.

I was initially attracted to studying trypanosomes, the single-celled parasites that cause sleeping sickness, due to the sheer audacity that they seem to show in the human host. Trypanosomes remain in the bloodstream where they are exposed to the full force of our immune response, but manage to evade it by changing their surface composition using a rapid and efficient transport system.

They then manage to enter the central nervous system and start to cause the neurological symptoms that give sleeping sickness its name: sleep cycles are disrupted, there is lack of muscle coordination etc, eventually resulting in death unless treated. Drugs to treat this second stage of the disease have been very hard to develop and treatment regimens are complicated and require hospital infrastructure, which is scarce.

So it’s been great to see progress in the last few years with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation leading the drive to increase investment into drug delivery and Research & Development. And it’s particularly heartening to see that the new oral treatment Fexinidazole,which is much easier to deliver, has progressed to phase II trials.

More research needed

On the flip side – this is only the second treatment that has been developed in the past 25 years – the other one being NECT, a combination treatment of drugs already in use: intravenous eflornithine and oral nifurtimox. And considering that only about 48% of drugs progress from phase II to phase III and there are increasing incidents of drug resistance in trypanosomes, we need to develop more candidates.

Fexinidazole was developed and tested in the 1970s and 80s and then abandoned – its success now indicates that  investigation of a family of known pharmacologically active compounds with newly available technologies may be a good low-cost approach to take.

However, these technologies must also be used to study fundamental aspects of parasite biology to identify new therapeutic targets, which is the approach my lab has taken.

The focus of my PhD project is the trypanosome transport system, which is one of the main factors that enable it to survive in the host. This system maintains the surface of the trypanosome, which is entirely covered by a dense coat of a molecule called “variant surface glycoprotein” – VSG – which forms an  impenetrable barrier against the host immune system. Additionally, the swift and streamlined nature of the system enables trypanosomes to internalise and neutralise any antibodies that our immune system produces against this VSG. It also enables them to replace the existing coat with newly produced modified VSGs which our immune system can no longer recognise and act against.

Recent advances in genome sequencing have given us complete DNA sequences of several disease-causing parasites. I am using these resources to study the evolutionary history of the proteins that make up the transport system in trypanosomes. I have also started to use proteomics to find novel interacting partners of key players in the transport system in order to build up our understanding of the structure of the system in trypanosomes compared to, say, our own cells.

Evolutionary analysis combined with proteomics enables us to pick up proteins that are present in trypanosomes and are essential for their survival, but are not present in mammals. They can therefore be a powerful way of uncovering and elucidating potential parasite-specific drug targets.

Of course, this is only the first step – and things get more expensive as a drug candidate goes through the clinical trials system. In recognition of the acute suffering these diseases cause, increased investment from foundations, governments and pharmaceutical companies are an important part of the solution. But in the long term, it is also important to have R&D and intellectual property systems that don’t depend on donations to function.

*Divya Venkatesh [2011] is doing a PhD in Pathology. Picture credit: Wiki Commons and Adrian Custer.

Conservation is necessary for food security

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The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that the world will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to realise global food security, due to a growing world population, shifting dietary preferences, and the expanding use of crops for biofuel and other industrial purposes. This reality threatens the world’s forests, as agricultural expansion is currently the leading cause of deforestation worldwide. Half of the native forests that once covered the planet are gone, and about 13 million additional hectares disappear each year. At current rates of deforestation, nearly all unmanaged forests may be gone by 2100.

But just as humanity needs food security, humanity also needs the world’s remaining forests. One billion of the world’s poorest depend on forests for their daily needs for food, water and materials for shelter. Forests and the food derived from them also act as important safety nets when the poor and vulnerable face additional hardships, whether from natural disasters, war, drought or crop failures.

Forests are critically important to the world’s poor yet we all depend on forests for the ‘ecosystem services’ they provide. Native forests underpin and support agricultural production by providing habitat for pollinators and predators of agricultural pests, improving soil fertility, providing erosion and flood control and protecting water supplies. Forests also support agricultural production by providing climate regulatory services. Agricultural production is extremely vulnerable to climactic changes, and forests help mitigate anthropogenic climate change by capturing and storing carbon.

Deforestation

On the other hand, forests become potent carbon emissions sources when they are burned or destroyed. Deforestation currently accounts for more annual emissions than the entire global transportation sector. Without keeping the world’s remaining forests intact, we have no chance of limiting climate change to a 2 °C average increase (relative to pre-industrial levels), the threshold thought by scientists to be the maximum warming allowable to avoid catastrophic global consequences, including detrimental impacts on crop yields.

Given that humanity needs both food security and forests, how do we address these two seemingly conflicting needs? A first step is to recognise that the dichotomy between conserving forests and achieving food security is a false one. Achieving food security is not just a matter of producing more food via agricultural expansion. Instead, achieving food security largely depends on addressing both poverty and the poor’s ability to access and utilise the right types of food.

To achieve global food security in 2050 and beyond, we need integrated policies that recognise that poverty, food security, climate change and forest conservation are all inextricably linkedBy acknowledging the contributions of forests to agriculture development and food security, we can better conserve forests while creating more effective agricultural policies. In so doing, we can also better meet global development and climate change mitigation needs. At stake is the possibility for a more humane and hospitable world.

 *Libby Blanchard [2012] is doing a PhD in Geography focusing on climate change. Picture credit: pupunkkop and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Breast cancer business challenge

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On February 10, 2013, my mother passed away after a 3 year battle with breast cancer. Walking beside her on her journey was a life-changing experience for everyone in my family and it is an unfortunately all-too-common experience to have. Approximately one in eight women is diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in her lifetime and though advances in treatment have facilitated great strides in increasing survival after diagnosis, 40,000 women still die from breast cancer in the US every year.

Diseases like breast cancer, which wage total war against patients, are not easily resolved by currently available technologies, and new solutions are essential to solve the challenges they present. To that end, the Avon Foundation, The National Cancer Institute and The Center for Advancing Innovation have partnered to organize a “first of a kind” international, university student-based startup competition: the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge. Launched in October, 2013, this Challenge provides an opportunity for students to develop a business plan for an innovative technology and launch a startup with the goal of bringing to market novel and high-impact technologies to tilt the scales in the fight against breast cancer.

My team is one of the winners of the business plan phase of the Challenge, and we are excited to be able to take our startup, Radial Genomics Ltd., forward. Early diagnosis is considered by many the foundation of recent successes in breast cancer survival rates, but increased screening efforts are a double edged sword: more and more cancers are being caught at a curable stage, but some early stage cancers are also being caught that may never progress or pose a danger to the patient. This ambiguity poses a difficult challenge for doctors. No current tool in medicine specifically addresses the distinction between early stage cancer and invasive subtypes, which require more careful and aggressive treatment planning to resolve, potentially leading to unnecessary surgery and/or chemotherapy. These early stage cancers account for 20% of all breast cancer diagnoses, and 25-50% of these cases become invasive within 10 years. Moreover, many patients do not want to risk their lives on a bet that a cancer may not develop. This makes treatment planning all the more challenging since over-diagnosis and overtreatment are chronic problems in our healthcare system today, harming patients and costing our economy billions.

Radial Genomics Ltd. is working hard to provide the solution to this ambiguity in early stage cancer diagnosis. We are a cancer diagnostics company using proprietary technology to diagnose and guide treatment in breast cancer patients through a novel, quantitative method of assessing changes in a patient’s genetic material in response to cancer. It is our hope that with our technology, we can improve patients’ quality of life and outcomes by giving doctors and patients the most comprehensive understanding of a patients’ cancer going forward.

My team is happy to be developing Radial Genomics Ltd.. As a biochemist, I have never stopped learning and growing since this team, which includes finance, law, engineering, and medical specialties, came together. A startup is a team effort and we and our mentors are confident we have the skills and passion to make Radial Genomics Ltd. and the promise of our game-changing technology a reality.

My own experience with breast cancer was a study in guessing and hoping. My team and I want to make sure that future patients never have to guess again.

*Grecia Gonzalez [2012] is doing a PhD in Biochemistry.

A golden age of satire

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In 2012, The People’s Daily reported that Kim Jong Un had been voted the sexiest man alive. Quoting their source, The Onion, a little too extensively, the press organ of the Chinese Communist Party accounted for the newly-minted dictator’s triumph of beauty in a strange mix of terms: “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heart-throb is every woman’s dream come true.”  This praise is redolent, at once, of a Mills and Boon hero and what could be experienced at the cheesier end of match.com profiles.

When a man who, at best, has the chubby good looks of a young Rosie O’Donnell beats Depp, Pitt and Clooney to such an august title, most readers, you hope, would assume satire. Being generous, we could chalk up the assumption of fact to a cross-cultural crossing of wires. Or perhaps, in the wake of Gangnam style, to a vogue for haircuts that combine military precision with a party-boy attitude. More seriously and more significantly, though, The Onion can be seen as part of a flourishing satirical culture that finds spin-offs in The Daily Currant and a television equivalent in Stephen Colbert’s Bill O’Reilly-inspired persona. All draw on a tradition of satire that, in coming so close to its target, has the potential to be misinterpreted, at least by some, as fact.

The Kim Jong Un incident is only the most public instance of a much more widespread phenomenon, seen in the constant posting and sharing of Onion and Daily Currant articles on Facebook and the litany of outraged comments that follow headings like ‘Man Responsible For Olympic Ring Mishap Found Dead In Sochi’ (Daily Currant 8/2/14), which is likely to incur more rage than its playful counterpart, ‘Winter Olympics Inspire Nation’s Youth To Try Sports Their Parents Can’t Afford’ (The Onion 20/2/14) and more likely to be seen as factual, I think, than a headline from last week’s Onion: ‘German Leaders Quietly Confident They Could Pull Off Another Holocaust If They Ever Really Wanted’ (21/2/14).

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One of the earliest instances of this type of satire was Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, first published in 1702. As Colbert does with Fox News, Defoe did with High Church  clergymen and their Tory sympathisers. He impersonated their rhetoric, blaming Dissenters (members of Protestant sects outside the Church of England) for every upheaval, rebellion and revolution of the previous century. Defoe, one of the early exponents of the English novel, was himself a Dissenter, but The Shortest Way was published anonymously and so was taken by many to be a genuine contribution to contemporary debates on religious toleration. When Defoe was revealed to be the author, the backlash was so stark that he was arrested for seditious libel. Looking back on this episode, scholars are preoccupied by questions of genre that have interesting implications for Defoe’s modern-day inheritors.

There is an argument that Defoe’s pamphlet was intended as a hoax. This supposes a wide-scale inability to appreciate irony. And, indeed, in Defoe’s time there was a marked reluctance by many to read the pamphlet as completely ironic. Yet the term ‘hoax’ also suggests an intention to dupe, and so denies that the effectiveness of such arguments lies in the moment they are revealed as satirical.  A recent sociological study on Colbert’s viewers found that Conservatives are more likely to think that he is only pretending to be joking, using humour to couch positions he actually endorses. And so in our own time, when it comes to political humour we too have difficulty processing what I will call – for lack of a widely-accepted categorical term – deadpan ironic impersonation. There isn’t the implication that Colbert is trying to commit a hoax but there is, in some, an unwillingness to see him as purely ironic.

Unlike John Stewart’s The Daily Show or the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live, which poke fun at the news events, The Onion and Colbert, following Defoe, take to task the form of delivery. Defoe was writing in the first age of the press where a fear of the spread of information was metaphorically realised as a plague-like contagion. With modern epidemics, the metaphor has shifted to a viral spread as a means of quantifying the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of information on the internet. But in both eras, new media are met with a breed of satire, which in its propensity to be taken as fact, exposes the excesses of said media. And so, at the very least, we can thank Rupert Murdoch for another golden age of satire.

*Marc Mierowsky [2011] is doing a PhD in English.

A global battlefield

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Lest we forget, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the war that shaped the 20th century. The first of three world wars (two hot and one cold), this conflict is remembered once a year as a lesson in human suffering, as a reminder that the war to end all wars was only the beginning of the human cost of the past century.

But do we really remember? Or do we merely pay lip service to memory, an absent-minded nod to the past while we continue to relive and rescript its greatest tragedies?

Wars make good stories, and the First World War in particular lends itself to a certain kind of narrative; the wastage of a generation, the death of optimism, Europe’s loss of innocence. But this war also marked the beginning of something, a spectre that would haunt the margins of the 20th century and dominate the narrative of the 21st. The First World War was also the first global war on terror.

‘Terror’ as a tactic has a long history, as all forms of war can also be seen as forms of terrorism. The breaking of an enemy’s morale through aggressive and violent offensives remains an integral aspect of military strategy to this day. It is not so much the tactic of terror, but rather the concept of it, which can trace its roots to the early 20th century.

Total war

Political assassinations and public bombing campaigns by small networks of non-state actors matured as tactics of anti-governmental resistance in the second half of the 19th century. It is during this period that English-language sources really began to use the word ‘terrorism’, but there is a flexibility to its usage at this point, an uncertainty in its exact meaning and application. By the 1920s, however, this uncertainty had been replaced by the iron-clad conviction of administrators like Lord Lytton, the Governor General and Viceroy of India, that terrorism was “a thing entirely apart by itself, a danger that must be faced and got rid of because of its own intrinsic evil”.

How did these revolutionary networks, previously described in the language of sedition or anarchism, come to be redefined as existential threats to civilised society? It was partly a consequence of the global frame within which the First World War was fought. In the context of a global war, regional resistance movements took on a global significance. Financing and promoting unrest in the far-flung imperial possessions of Britain, France, and Russia became an important part of German strategy, with agents being despatched to places like Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, and North America.

At the same time, previously existing revolutionary movements took on new life as Irish and Indian radicals attempted to use the distraction of the war to overthrow their imperial governments. These movements were countered by the creation of transnational intelligence services and strict wartime legislation, as the magnitude of the war provided the opportunity for states (even those that prided themselves on civil liberties) to arm themselves against the threat of internal unrest.

The postwar settlement allowed sovereign states to (temporarily) suspend hostilities against each other, but no settlement was reached with the anti-colonial ‘terrorists’, whose regional grievances continued to be bolstered by transnational networks of arms, money and ideas. While sedition had previously been understood as a breach of the established law, terrorism came to be considered a thing apart from the law entirely, which could consequently be met only with extralegal powers of surveillance and detention, previously reserved for times of overt war.

The First World War was thus a total war, not only in its scope, but in its pervasiveness as well. Not because it was the war to end all wars, but because of the way that it extended war beyond geographical or temporal limitations, introducing a global battlefield on which everybody was a suspect and everybody was a target.

A battlefield that no one wants to commemorate.

 *Joseph McQuade [2013] is doing a PhD in History on the use of political violence in the early 20th century. Picture credit: dan and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Architects need to address long-term climate change challenge

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Flooding in the UK has caused huge problems this winter, damaging homes and possessions. In developing countries, from the Philippines to Haiti, extreme weather events are growing. Such events come on top of unpredictable changes in the world economy, the rapid and constant pace of technology and political and social upheaval, with developing countries being on the frontline of such global shifts.

Such changing times have raised huge questions for architects. How do you create long-lasting buildings in a developing country? What is the future for our urban environments, our cities, our buildings amid all these changes? The dual challenge architects face today is how to create buildings with a low carbon footprint while at the same time ensuring that they are future-proofed to reduce their vulnerability to the effects of climate change and other unforeseen potential surprises.

Developing countries are experiencing rapid economic growth with most undergoing a construction boom. Alongside a demand for meeting the needs of an increasing human population amid ever dwindling resources, architects and design teams in these emerging economies are being asked to respond to pressure:

- to build low-carbon buildings which conserve energy and mitigate climate change;

- to design buildings that can adjust not only to ever-changing climate conditions, but to the effects of such conditions, including escalating flooding risks, overheating risks, strains on water resources and less stable ground conditions among other environmental hazards;

- to meet the aspirations of a fast-developing society, without compromising on energy consumption and attempts to cut emissions during the urbanisation process.

Future-proofing our buildings

The question of how we can guarantee a building can meet all these demands over decades is not just about designing for our current climate conditions. We need to design buildings which will meet the demands of tomorrow, given that a building could be in use for 50 to 100 years or more. Making rational design decisions for such an extended timescale in an uncertain future is daunting.

It is a future where factors that drive change such as the economy, politics, society, technology and the environment are characterised by randomness. Most of today’s buildings are not built with such change in mind. Architects need to take into account the various uncertainties that might occur in a building’s lifetime and manage the risks involved. These risks may not be clear during the design and construction of the building. They need to adopt a risk approach that aids in understanding, assessing and managing unforeseen and potential surprises.

A risk management approach involves mapping out and quantifying the physical, technological, environmental and socio-economic consequences of dealing with a whole range of uncertainties and how they might affect building performance both now and in the future.

Simulating change

My current research investigates how computer-aided building simulation can be used to model these complex and dynamic interactions over different timescales to produce accurate and reliable results. This could give us a chance to test different design interventions whose success in achieving building performance robustness would remain unaffected both in the short and long term. Moreover, it would be possible to assess and ultimately rank these strategies’ effectiveness and urgency along a time axis.

Ultimately, this would help architects to identify and assess whole life building performance in specific locations. The results of such risk management work will undoubtedly help policymakers to target resources and help them identify areas of possible technological advancements. They would also help with the setting of building regulations, policy strategies and updated building codes which improve buildings’ effectiveness and ensure that they are future proofed against runaway climate change.

*Linda Gichuyia [2011] is doing a PhD in Architecture at the University of Cambridge. Picture credit jiggoja and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.