Archive | April, 2012

American Master

27 Apr

A mid-afternoon crowd packed Foster auditorium in the Paterno Library last Friday for the world premiere of a film honoring one of America’s lesser known great artists.

Lynd Ward was a name I recognized from The Biggest Bear, a book I’d read as a boy and more than once in recent years to my son. The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge is another Ward-illustrated children’s classic. But “O Brother Man,” a 90-minute documentary by Michael Maglaras and 217 Films, revealed  dimensions of Ward that I had never suspected.

An artist of prodigious output and acute social conscience, Ward quietly produced a gigantic body of work over a 60-year career ending with his death in 1985.  His wood engravings, in particular, combine mastery of craft with imaginative depth and feeling to mesmerizing effect, especially in the magnificent series of six  “novels without words” he created between 1929 and 1937, limning the causes and effects of the Great Depression. The books, which have been called “a multigenerational saga worthy of Faulkner,” were recently reissued by The Library of America, and Ward is now regarded as the father of the American graphic novel.

Writer/director Maglaras introduced his documentary. Also in attendance was Ward’s daughter, Robin Ward Savage, whose voice is prominent in the film. Savage lives in nearby Philipsburg, and it was she who, with sister Nanda Weedon Ward, donated to the Penn State University Libraries the extensive collection of Ward’s wood engravings, original book illustrations, and other graphic art that now forms the Lynd Ward Collection. A subsequent gift from 217 Films has helped to digitize Ward’s work, expanding research opportunities for interested scholars.

In 2011 the Libraries and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, in celebration of the Ward family’s gift and in recognition of this American master, established the Lynd Ward Prize for Graphic Novel of the Year.

The film will be available in June on DVD. A ten-minute trailer can be viewed here.  


Can any science really be soft?

25 Apr

When I worked as a reporter there were two types of news: hard news and soft news.

The hard news reporters covered things that not only had immediate impact, but had numbers to back up the importance. These stories — crimes, disasters, accidents, fires, etc. — zoomed to the front page. The soft news reporters, who covered features and human interest beats, typically had their stories inserted into the inner reaches of the feature sections, or they waited patiently for the Sunday edition to get more exposure.

I won’t lie. Hard news reporters had a little more swagger in the newsroom.

However, that doesn’t mean that feature writers didn’t work just as hard and it doesn’t mean that feature stories had less of an impact than those front page pieces. In some cases, it’s often the contrary. Human interest stories motivate and influence people in ways that hard news stories can’t.

Part of my “beat” as a science writer at Penn State leads me to cover what some folks refer to as “soft science,” as opposed to the hard physical and biological sciences. Social science seems to be a more welcome term by those researchers in the field, I should point out.

Granted, the hard scientists, like those hard news beat reporters, have lots of numbers and statistics to back up their empirical research.

But, social scientists, I’m finding, are just as committed to their work and just as exacting in their pursuit of their research.

Recently I chatted with Shaheed Nick Mohammed, associate professor of communications, Penn State Altoona, about his book, “The (Dis)information Age: The Persistence of Ignorance” (Peter Lang Publishing, 2012).

The researcher wanted to investigate claims that more information and more tools to access information naturally leads to smarter, more tolerant citizens–that’s a theme of the Information Age.

According to Mohammed, that’s not necessarily the case. He found numerous examples of too much information and too many news-acquiring tools leading to misinformation or disinformation.

He was quick to point out that his book was not based on empirical evidence. But, with a quick look at the reference section of the book and listening to Mohammed explain his research, the study sounded just as grueling as any “hard” science study. He reviewed hundreds of books and journals, read and documented articles, and watched hours of footage and newscasts.

We’re talking hours and hours.

And this type of commitment and tenacity isn’t uncommon for researchers in the social sciences, based on my work at Penn State.

So, I think it’s good to clarify that when we talk about science and research, “soft” has nothing to do with amount or the complexity of work when we investigate cultures, people and societies.

Fascinatin’ Rhythm

24 Apr

Mickey Hart of Grateful Dead fame is known for pushing boundaries. A prime force behind the ethnically diverse genre known as world music, Hart won a Grammy for 2007’s “Global Drum Project.” His brand-new album, “Mysterium Tremendum,” goes way beyond globetrotting to encompass the rhythms of the entire universe. And some of the most far-out sounds on the record, literally, were created by Penn State’s Mark Ballora.

 Ballora, who teaches music technology at Penn State, creates “sonifications,” aural patterns in which data sets are represented as sound. As he explains, they’re “just like visualizations, except they’re aimed at the ear instead of the eye.” His compositions are incorporated as backing tracks on Hart’s new album.

In this fascinating TED talk given in December, Ballora shares examples of his oeuvre, taking rapt listeners on a sonic tour from the surface of the sun through the solar system and beyond, arriving at last at sounds that represent the echoes of the Big Bang. Though we can’t see them, he says, these are “the rhythms of space time that underlie the pulsations of our existence.”

Unlike composers of the late-night “Hearts of Space” genre, Ballora says, he strives to be true to the actual data, to create sonifications that are “both musically compelling and scientifically informative.”

Is it music? Is it science? Does it matter?

Pythagoras and Galileo, Ballora points out to his TED listeners, never saw the two as separate.

“The distinction is a recent imposition.”

The mall is on fire!

18 Apr

We need a better way to help the banking industry and its regulators make decisions based on sound information and avert another near-collapse of global financial system, says John Lietchy, marketing professor in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, in the April 12 issue of Nature.

To make his point more understandable to the non-specialist, Liechty compares the global financial system to a shopping mall that requires customers to buy tickets in order to enter and exit the mall. A statistical model can be built to track and predict door traffic – when and where and how many shoppers enter and exit the mall. But what happens if a store in the mall catches fire and shoppers rush for the exits and the ticket-takers are overwhelmed? A fire in the mall, Liechty says, is analogous to a credit-confidence crisis, when banks are unwilling to make loans or accept collateral in exchange for securing debts.

The models now in use, he says, are fine for measuring risk when financial markets act conventionally, i.e., when the mall is operating normally. But current models lack crucial data — about the interconnectivity between financial houses, for example, and the capacity of markets to execute trades — that undermines their reliability in times of crisis, i.e., when the mall catches fire.

The question is, can new scientific models be constructed that predict shopper behavior (how banks and other financiers will act) when a fire (a credit-confidence crisis) breaks out? Liechty offers some interesting thoughts.

Liechty knows his way around banks and their regulators. The Office of Financial Research, a new federal oversight agency established by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, grew from an idea that he outlined at a February 2009 conference on financial risk.

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