4HR Story: Ansel Adams in the 21st Century

Does Ansel Adams need another retrospective? As perhaps our country’s most well-known landscape photographer, his expansive, cathedral-like depictions of the American West are as culturally ubiquitous as today as they have been in the thirty-five years since this passing. From the default desktop images on our computer operating systems to the stock photos on new picture frames, Ansel Adams, much like the mountains in his work, cast a long shadow.

Ansel Adams in Our Time, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, takes on this implicit challenge by orienting the artist to be seen ‘through a contemporary lens.’ The show creates a visual bibliography of the artists work and situates it in the legacy of the government surveyors-photographers who came before him, and a range of contemporary photographers who have come after. At nearly 200-pieces, over 100 of which are his own, the exhibition has room to show the artist at his most iconic, “Clearing Winter Storm” and “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome”, while also including his lesser-known works from San Francisco.

The exhibition starts in a dim, verdant green gallery with prints arranged in no-frill rows. The orderly queue which forms as soon as one turns into the room, coupled with the low hum of bodies shuffling forward, create an atmosphere, not unlike a popular hike on a busy day. The most well-known prints are shown early and serve as cairns — they affirm the popular conception of Adams’ work and, when they peter out, signify that what lies beyond is outside the well-worn path. On the wall opposite the celebrity prints, contemporary artist Sharon Harper’s series of full-colour lichen-covered boulders serve as a counterbalance to the otherwise severe tone of the gallery. While the didactic texts adjoining Harper’s series explains that the style and inclusion of the lichen boulders are due to their treatment as “specimens in a 19th-century natural history museum”  the linkage feels tenuous and otherwise incongruous with the rest of gallery. This mismatch is an example of where the ambitious prospect of making Ansel Adams feel fresh, falls short.

To pick a guiding narrative for the show, the pieces exhibited underscore that ‘nature’ and its cousin ‘wilderness’ exist as concepts of our design; our politics and our aesthetics slant how we depict of them. This works best when different artists photograph the same site. This is done, by my count, twice, once with a juxtaposition of Adams with Carleton Watkins and once with Adams and English photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge. In both instances, Adams is shooting after the elder photographer and, in both instances, Adams’ version carefully removes signs of logging roads. To what end is Adams hoping to achieve with his edits? As a vocal political supporter of the parks, is his decision to show them as they could be instead of as they are to be read as a wishful thinking or a way to inspire others to value them? Or does he just think they look better without the signs of human influence?

Furthermore, What does this all say about the American West today? While we have more parks (there are now 61 national parks in the United States) we are still negotiating land rights, regularly deal with drought, and continue to exploit natural resources. From the lens of the collection of contemporary artists saved for the final room, the time for aesthetic retouchings of the West is over. The political, economic, and environmental stakes are too are simply too high to be ignored. Stephen Tourlentes captures the eerie light from a remote Colorado Super Max prison at night, a reminder that mass incarceration is perhaps an even more insidious issue when it is intentionally placed out-of-sight. The harsh fiscal and environmental realities of the desert are  portrayed by Bryan Schumaat using a modern ghost town-turned-dump and Victoria Sambunaris’ rich birds-eye view of Wendover, Utah, a city on the edge of the desert and mountain range. Mitch Epstein’s ‘Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California’ points out the absurdity of the underlying motivations in our society that cause us to develop and maintain a golf course in the desert, next to a wind farm. These photographs are deeply emotional, their resonance to our day and age should have warranted greater emphasis in the exhibit. Ansel Adams captured the zeitgeist of the West during his time. While he doesn’t map cleanly to ours, the broad themes run current today.

Oscars, The Millennial Way

Millions of Americans basked in the beauty of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing “Shallow,” appreciated the banter of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph and celebrated a night of historic wins during Sunday’s Academy Awards. Viewership of the hostless show rose 12 percent from last year, the first gain in five years. But it was also the second-lowest watched show in history. The decline in live viewing is in part due to cord cutting, driven by the heavily courted millennial demographic.

While the percentage of homes with cable fell 10 percentage points between 2013 and 2018, according to a recent Magid survey, the dive is sharper among millennials. She same survey found 14 percent of those between the ages of 21 and 40 prefered consuming media away from a cable provider. That choice has decreased the amount of money spent on traditional TV, led to continued rise of streaming and subscription services and fundamentally changed the way news, events and information is processed.

Cost savings was cited as the top reason for not having cable among the millennials we questioned the morning after Hollywood’s big night. Ruth Zheng, 28, who didn’t watch the broadcast because she doesn’t pay for cable, said she opted for Netflix, HBO and Hulu subscriptions instead because it’s “more cost effective” and means “you are paying for programs you actually watch.”

“Millennials prefer to have things on demand and are now accustomed to not having to wait to see an entire series vs wait every week for a new episode,” said Olivia Buck, 30.

Not being able to watch live sporting events, award shows and news was cited as the only downside of cord cutting, which has created an expected opportunity for other platforms that thrive in images (i.e. Instagram) and opinion (i.e. Twitter). Many of the millennials we spoke to turned to those platforms, all of which are free, to follow news from the Oscars and tease out highlights, whether during the show or during the commercial breaks.

The connection experienced through social platforms, and texting, creates a double screen experience that is a draw, especially for a younger demographic. Emma Golborne, 27, texted with her friends during the red carpet and shared her feelings when “Free Solo” won, despite her usual quietness on social channels.

The millennials we spoke to were all weighing the finances of their viewing choices—and with reason. Cord cutters save an average of $85 a month, according to a survey from research firm cg42. While they are saving money in the near term, some expect to pay more in the future.

“I imagine these companies will continue to raise prices and by that point, I’ll be so hooked that I’ll simply agree,” said Patricia Lee, 29.

Emma Golborne, 27, said she expects to pay less “just because everyone shares passwords.”

AI Can’t Fix This: Discourse on Campus

by Edward Burnell & Maggie Hughes

Photo by Husayn Karimi

“Our discussion tonight is really about power and the way it operates through technology in the modern world. A question of who decides what tech looks like in modern society. The answer is not ‘we the people’” said Kade Crockford in her introductory remarks at the AI Can’t Fix It teach-in organized by MIT students to protest MIT’s new Stephen Schwarzman College of Computation.

Striving to be “an educational event aimed towards a broader political purpose” (in the words of undergraduate and opening speaker Fiona Chen), the teach-in looked to both critique the college’s stated goals of being a center for ethical AI research and to “provide a vision for what the College of Computation should look like”. The catalyst for the teach-in was Henry Kissinger’s invitation to speak at the February 28th conference being held to celebrate the College. His invitation to talk about AI ethics was held up by teach-in organizers as clear indication that MIT administrator’s claims of addressing ethical and social concerns with the college of computation were “vacuous”.

Panelists also raised other concerns: Elena Sobrino, a graduate student, brought up the MIT endowment investment in the prison industry; Sally Haslanger, a philosophy professor, the concern that “the choice of how to pursue science is being controlled by money … [it] distorts our knowledge search”; Alex Acuñas talked about his indirect encounter with Stephen Schwarzman’s company Blackstone, who provided the majority of funding opposing a California ballot proposition for rent control Alex was organizing in support of; Rodrigo Ochigame discussed MIT’s involvement with a Brazilian coup as part of the same American foreign policy culture as Kissinger.

Students, activists, fellows, and professors alike had dissent they craved to voice. In a field so new, students don’t trust any of the institutions telling them what path to walk. They navigate for themselves, for there is no trail paved, and the traditional trail guides, the leaders in the field, are suspect, engulfed by “a neoliberal tyranny that pits us against one another for profit.”

Of course, universities can be a space for finding one’s own way. But much more is at stake than an undergraduate’s summer internship or a job offer. Crockford put it well: “It is rarefied air that people here breath. People working on these technologies, they are very complex, and most people have no idea what youre talking about which creates a very dangerous situation for democracy and freedom.”

This information asymmetry creates a funnel, wherein lawmakers defer all decision making and power to universities and corporations who then dictate how technology should be developed and how information should be shared.

The panel discussion ended promptly at 7:30, having only had time for a few questions from the audience. Many students lingered, and a feeling of excitement or maybe confusion lingered with them. Some were looking to dive more deeply into the issues raised, and many wanted a more in-depth discussion of AI research and development.

Many attendees of AI Can’t Fix IT had come feeling that these conversations needed to be had. “As soon as MIT made the announcement [of the College] I was distraught, confused”, said an undergraduate studying cognitive science. “This was going to be just another conversation [university administrators] had amongst themselves.” But while a number of perspectives were brought up during the event, she noted that “no people who currently study AI” spoke, and felt that the people who didn’t already know any of the panelists’ perspectives weren’t in the room. Similar sentiments were expressed by an undergraduate in the Comparative Media Studies program, who wasn’t opposed to the discussion of American imperialism (“I know who Kissinger is, but I didn’t know he was part of this [College of Computation conference].”) but had anticipated “getting to dig more deeply” into AI technologies.

When asked, some students felt unfulfilled. A graduate student from the Media Lab said “They kept speaking as if they were going to tell us what steps to take next. But I still don’t know what to do”, and others expressed a panic, or a need to take action without an avenue in which to do so, though there had been some discussion about how to consider working or organizing within tech companies.

Another Media Lab student explained it was unclear whether he should go to the tech company he planned to after graduation, if he should dismantle it from the inside, or if he should reject the offer as an act of protest. Yet, students shared that even if they knew the strategy, it would be easy to act only “if we didn’t feel so powerless” and incapable of solidarity against companies like Facebook and Google.

And what happens if the protest works, another student wondered. “So what if Kissinger doesn’t speak? They just get another puppet?”

Although critiques were plentiful, the energy in the air was riveting. With every radical claim, each hot take, the crowd cheered. Every seat was full, the floor overflowing with students packed shoulder to shoulder, many taking notes, eyes locked on the panelists, leaning into every word.

It was truly empowering to witness organizing on MIT’s campus. One international student, coming from a liberal arts college, expressed surprise and glee at knowing that groups like this were actually forming and organizing. “I never looked for them, I didn’t think it was possible at MIT for people to organize. I didn’t know people cared.”

Yet, like many movements today that are treading in these deeply consequential waters and navigating through unmarked paths, there is mass outrage, but it is unclear how to next act.

As Crockford noted, the information disparities in this digital age are stark, and this information asymmetry is a direct threat to democracy. Yet, it is clear that students of MIT are in a unique position of power. Now is the time to redistribute the wealth of knowledge we hoard, understand the impact of the technology we produce, question the justice of our productions, recognize the harm the institution directly causes, and build off of the momentum of activists growing on campus.

A feed which was broadcast live from the teach-in can be found on the Facebook event.

Environmental Activists as Free Marketers

Robert F.Kennedy Jr. during his opening remarks

Start: 6:00pm 2/25/2019; End: 9:20pm 2/24/2019

CAMBRIDGE, MA— The Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School hosted Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for a lecture titled “The Environmental Activism, American Economy, and Democracy.” Kennedy, the President of the Waterkeeper Alliance and one of the most prominent environmental attorneys in the US gave an impassioned lecture on the importance of protecting the environment as a means to achieve economic prosperity and protect ideals of democracy.

Kennedy started with the story of how he began his career as an environmental attorney by working with the fishermen communities living along the Hudson River. After many members of the community grew tired of the government indifference regarding the pollution caused by corporates along the river during the 1980s, Kennedy worked with other lawyers to galvanize these communities to protect their fishing resources by pursuing a legal solution. Kennedy and his team brought several lawsuits against New York City and several corporates including Consolidated Edison, and General Electric. According to Kennedy, the success of his team in winning several major lawsuits, and their ability to close all the major factories contaminating the Hudson River had a significant impact on saving the Hudson River and in helping them establish the Riverkeeper non- profit environmental group.

As stories about their success started to gain traction, several communities facing similar water contamination challenges started reaching out to Kennedy and his team to find solutions to their contaminated water sources. As a result, Kennedy founded the Waterkeeper Alliance, a non-profit environmental group that aims to protect rivers all over the US and around the world. According to Kennedy, the Waterkeeper Alliance is now the fastest growing water protection agency in the world, with three hundred- and five-member organizations.

Economic prosperity vs. Environmental policy

Kennedy argued that it is wrong to think that environmental policy prohibits economic prosperity. “An investment in our environment is an investment in our infrastructure, in our assets. These assets such as water can help us achieve sustainable economic prosperity” Kennedy added.  Kennedy believes that “The free market can be used as a tool to solve all of our environmental problems if used in the right way.” Kennedy believes that a free market system functioning in the right way should punish pollution and promote efficiency. “If the cost of pollution is added to the bills of the companies, they would find ways to pursue more environment-friendly strategies. The problem is that those companies do not pay the cost of their pollution, and at the end, poor communities disproportionately shoulder the cost.”

Free marketers, not environmental lawyers

The perception of the community towards environmental lawyers is another aspect that Kennedy believes needs to change. Kennedy sees his role as a “free marketer who helps improve the efficiency of the free market capitalism and protects democracy.” According to Kennedy, because democracy, the environment, and the economy are so intertwined, he believes his role encompasses working on solutions that address all these fields together in a way that supports the prospects of future generations.

Robert F.Kennedy Jr. during his lecture

The media’s role in supporting our environment

In his opinion about the role of the media in promoting environment-friendly policies and highlighting the atrocities of polluting companies, Kennedy added “Unfortunately, most of our legal cases and environmental campaigns do not get covered by the media except if they have a direct impact on Wallstreet” Kennedy added. Kennedy believes that this is because of the huge amount of money being poured by many polluting corporations to control media coverage. Kennedy asserted his belief that of these corporations, pharmaceutical companies currently “own the press.” “Currently news shows air around 24 ads per show, 17 of these ads are for pharmaceutical companies. These companies control the content, and they are doing so unapologetically. Just look at Anderson Cooper’s show, it proudly mentions that it is brought to you by Pfizer.”

The legacy for future generations

Kennedy believes that the fight for protecting our environment is “a fight for leaving a legacy for our children and future generations. They should not have to live in a miserable environment because we were selfish and were only thinking about making short term gain.” According to Kennedy, “We are facing a critical moment in time. The current president is anti-environment policy and is currently working on a bill that would kill the Clean Water Act. Not only that, but we also have the most anti-environment Supreme court in history. Kavanaugh’s mother clearly showed her position during her time as a prosecutor, and Neil Gorsuch’s mother reign as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator was filled with scandals.”

Kennedy concluded his speech with a call to action. “All these challenges should drive us to organize and act to protect our environment. We need more grass-roots organizations to work together to support our environment and the future of our planet.”


My video dispatch of Joe Lunardi, a statistician famous in sports circles for his ability to pick who will make the NCAA March Madness tournament. He gave a talk in Cambridge about how billions in revenues from TV contracts has changed who gets in and who gets out, and what selection officials are doing to fend off concerns of favoring larger conferences who are more coveted by broadcasters.

The Making of the Bracket: Joe Lunardi Dives Deep

Start: 1:55pm 2/24/2019; End: 5:14pm 2/24/2019

CAMBRIDGE, MA – On a rainy Sunday afternoon in the basement of the Cambridge Public Library, Joe “Joey Brackets” Lunardi provided an overview of bracketology to the Cambridge community.

Lunardi, who works for ESPN as an analyst and commentator, is largely known as the creator of bracketology, the “art and science” of predicting the 68 teams who will be chosen to compete in the March Madness, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Lunardi started the lecture by providing background on himself and the origin of bracketology. A lifelong sports fan, Lunardi began his sports analytics career as a stat-keeper for his high school basketball and football teams. Later, as a student at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Lunardi continued keeping stats for the basketball team. After graduating, he worked as a sports reporter covering college basketball. Later, he became the publisher of “The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook,” and was eventually invited to publish his rankings and predictions for the March Madness field on ESPN.com for the first time in 2002. The rest is history.

Lunardi educated the audience on the technical and operational requirements of filling the 68 team field for the tournament. Outlining a “multiple overlapping votes” system, Lunardi explained how representatives from the major NCAA conferences convene in New York City over 6 days in early March to iteratively vote on the teams to be invited and subsequently on the seeding of those teams.

Perhaps most interestingly, Lunardi took time to explain some of the underlying revenue mechanics of the tournament. Helping to illuminate the many economic incentives that explain individual school and conference behavior, Lunardi argued that the economic environment is increasingly hostile to “mid-major” universities. As the tournament is increasingly commercialized, Lunardi argued that we will see fewer lesser-known programs compete, replaced by major universities with historically successful basketball programs.

Lunardi fills out a hypothetical bracket with the help of the audience.

The event closed with an interactive session in which members of the audience helped Lunardi to fill out an abbreviated bracket, given the current state of college basketball (the real bracket will not be officially created for another few weeks).

If one thing is clear, the affable and charismatic Lunardi is a true lover of college basketball, happy to share his passion and knowledge with anyone who will listen.

BetterMIT Innovation Challenge (4 Hour Challenge)

By: Seiji Engelkemier

Start: 12:10 pm
End: 4:07 pm

On Sunday February 24th, MIT community members consisting of undergraduates, graduates, and employees presented their ideas to improve MIT to a panel of three judges. The participants’ ideas included websites to help students develop intuition for p-set problems, creating a hands-on volunteering room, and expanding capabilities of online learning platforms. These ideas were pitched for the semi-final stage of the weeklong BetterMIT Innovation Design Challenge.

Continue reading

Four hour challenge / Oscars and Politics

Only a few weeks after a Golden Globes’ Ceremony, where actors praised diversity, and openly criticized the policy of the newly elected President, the Oscars were expected on Sunday night to be a real political night, and another demonstration of the non-alignment of the world of arts with the ongoing US politics. President Trump, who had shared angry reactions on Twitter after the Golden Globes announced a few days before that he would not watch the Oscars Ceremony.

Here is a 4-hour review of the political statements that were heard during the Oscars nights.

20:41: Jimmy Kimmel, Master of Ceremony jokes that the ceremony is being watched by “220 countries that now hate us”. He adds: “I want to say thank you to President Trump, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”, and “If every person took a minute to reach out to one person you disagree with and have a positive conversation we can make America great again – it starts with us”.

20:43: Jimmy Kimmel spots Meryl Streep in the audience and pays tribute to her “many uninspiring and overrated performances” (which had been Trump’s comments on Twitter, after the actress made a anti-Trump speech at the Golden Globes). He adds “nice dress, by the way”,“Is that an Ivanka?”

21:11: Alessandro Bertolazzi, who receives the Oscar of the best make-up and hairstyling, reminds the audience that he is an Italian immigrant.

22:05: Anousheh Ansari reads out a statement on behalf of the winner of the Oscar for the Foreign movie, Asghar Farhadi. The statement to Trump’s recent ban of immigrants traveling to the US from seven countries, including Iran: “It is a great honor to be receiving this valuable award for the second time. I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight, my absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of the other six countries who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans immigrants from seven countries to the US”

22:11: Gael Garcia Bernal gets political on stage, and states: “As a Mexican and a human being, I’m against any kind of wall that wants to separate us.”

22:42: Advertising for Hyatt: “What the World Needs Now Is Love” which shows people of different races eyeing each other suspiciously before finding a connection. The ad concludes with “For a world of understanding.”

02:08 Actor Winner Casy Affleck (after criticizing President Trump’s measures the day before) says “Man, I wish I had something bigger and more meaningful to say”.


Get Out: The Beast Racism Built

If James Baldwin’s words in “I Am Not Your Negro” set the cinematic world on fire with it’s striking relevance to today’s Divided States of America, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” is a horror film rooted in what racism feels like.

It didn’t scare me because it was a scary movie. It was terrifying because it revealed the tragedy of what it is like for black people to live with what W.E.B Du Bois called the veil and a double-consciousness:

“…the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world, –– a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Du Bois penned that over 100 years ago. But today, even black pre-schoolers recognize their otherness. They are suspended at a rate nearly four times higher than their white counterparts. A jury watched the life choked out of Eric Garner as he gasped “I can’t breathe” and still found no probable cause to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. Very few people accept The Washington Post’s findings that unarmed black Americans are five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer. Instead they deflect with comments about about black on black crime without acknowledging that white on white crime is about the same or the systemic injustices that nurture the state of the black communities Trump is threatening to fix via militarization.

And when you grow up constantly facing the fact that your very humanity is scrutinized and people see your existence as a threat, you live with a certain fear.

“Get Out” is a brilliant exaggeration of what that looks like as it follows Chris, a young, gifted and black photographer, on a weekend trip to meet his white girlfriend Rose’s rich family. She hasn’t told her family he’s black. She assures him they are liberal and couldn’t possibly be racist because, you know, her daddy voted for Obama. But as soon as they start their journey to her neighborhood they run into an overzealous cop, meet her family’s black servants and by the time they sit down for dinner, microaggressions (“with your build and genetic make-up”) begin to feed the beast that is racism and tries to eat the flesh of young Chris the way it dines on the soul of black folk.

I’ve heard people say they won’t see “Get Out” because they are too scared. Well being black in America is scary. And it doesn’t come with the added perks of being fiction. See the movie. Take comfort in it’s make-believe and be motivated to check the very real biases and systemic oppression that inspired the tragedy of the double-consciousness on and off screen.


Jamelle Bouie on race and racism in American politics

Slate’s chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, sat down with MIT’s Seth Mnookin this evening for a conversation about race and racism in the 2016 presidential election. The wide-ranging discussion approached the issue of race and racism from several angles — including both Bouie’s personal experience as an African-American journalist to a broader focus on the shifting ideological coalitions in the American political landscape.

Every political discussion since November 9th has probably started with the same question: how did this happen? Bouie deserves credit for pointing to the possibility of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination earlier than other observers, citing the intensity of support at his early rallies, and how easily Trump survived the criticism leveled at John McCain shortly after announcing his candidacy. Trump also benefited, Bouie argued, from a crowded Republican field and the “zombie candidacy” of cash-rich but vote-poor Jeb Bush.

But Bouie, along with so many others, gave Trump scant chance of winning the general election against Hillary Clinton, pointing to the seemingly durable ‘Obama coalition’ of voters. Bouie admitted that he wished he’d more taken seriously Trump’s chances. The media in general, Bouie argued, were confident enough in a Clinton win to subject her to severe scrutiny and merely focus on the “spectacle” of Trump — it was “Trump saying crazy things, versus emails.”

Another reason Trump succeeded — and one which might have serious implications going forward — is that so-called ‘Never Trumpers’ stayed reasonably quiet. Bouie pointed to the several crises that the US two-party system has suffered through yet survived, and suggested that the Republican party is more likely to morph than collapse, with ethno-nationalism emerging at its core.

Bouie and Mnookin also discussed the challenges discussing race and dealing with racial inequality — even between those who might agree. Bouie highlighted the differing forms of interaction that take place between people of different races in the south as compared to the north — the liberal northeast of the country experiences its own perhaps more subtle form of segregation and separation which can color attempts at crossing racial divides.

Bouie, at a mere 29 years old, has already emerged as one of the leading observers of American politics in our current volatile era. Both Bouie’s firm sense of American history and his own experience undergird both his articulate prose and the important, impactful perspective on display this evening.