KentPresents report: Day 3

August 24, 2018 • 9:30 am

The last day of KentPresents Ideas Festival 2018—a meeting I went to in Connecticut last week—was a great sendoff. (See earlier reports of Day 1 and Day 2). The schedule is here, and I learned earlier in the meeting that the presenter at the first talk, Robert Lang, was a reader of this website (we had a long talk at the speaker’s dinner the first night). What I didn’t know was that he’s also one of the world’s great origami artists, and his talk, a Q&A with biologist Harold Varmus, was called “Origami: The Art and Science from a Master.”  (Lang will take commissions; his website, with many fantastic creations, is here.)

Lang (left) and Varmus in conversation.

Robert showed slides of many of his creations, nearly all made with a single sheet of paper. These days origami artists often use math and computers to design the folding pattern (Robert was a physicist before he realized he could make a living from his beloved hobby), but there’s always an element that can’t be preplanned. Here are some of his works.

A turtle:

Stag beetle:

Praying mantises (in copulo, I think):

Another beetle:

A lovely owl (look at those feet!). Robert goes to Japan to teach people origami; he says that the art was slow to gain acceptance because it started as a pastime for children.

A really hard one: an organist. I’m not sure if this is one piece of paper or more.

This cactus is from a single sheet of paper, and Robert said it was the hardest origami he ever folded. He had it sitting around for eight years as he couldn’t be arsed to keep folding all the spines:

Lang told me that one of the hardest animals to fold is a cat, as it’s hard to capture the essence of the beast in paper. D*gs, in contrast, are dead easy. (See a Lang cat here.)

Here’s a short video from Lang’s website:

As for the science, Lang has used his skills in unexpected ways, for example helping experts design space telescopes that could fold and unfold properly:

. . . and to design a portable kayak that fits in a backpack:

He even showed how one could fold DNA itself (using a method I can’t remember, but the reference is here) into funny shapes:

I missed some of the “North Korea versus the US” talk as I got caught up in a conversation when it had already started, but the discussion featured Nicholas Burns (former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Greece, now a professor at Harvard), Christopher Hill (former Ambassador to South Korea, Iraq, Poland and Macedonia), and David Sanger (chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner). Hill doesn’t appear to be in the photo, but was apparently replaced, and I can’t recall who replaced him. Nor can I give many details of the talk, but it will be online. In the meantime, the slide behind the discussants paints a grim picture.

One of the best discussions I heard was “Wrongful convictions in the post-DNA era”, featuring Nina Morrison, Ekow Yankah, and Robert Jones. Yankah is a law professor at Cardozo and on the Board of the Innocence Project, an initiative that aims (with great success) at exonerating criminals who have been wrongly convicted. Morrison is the Project’s senior attorney, who has helped exonerate many innocent people, some on death row.  Yankah and Morrison talked for about twenty minutes, and their indictment of the criminal justice system, where prosecutors often ignore exculpatory evidence and defendants, even if innocent, are urged to take plea bargains, was scathing. Many men have had 20 or 30 years cut out of their lives by such bargains, and a disproportionate number are black and can’t afford a lawyer. Overworked public defenders simply can’t give these cases proper attention. The result: imprisonment of the innocent, and racial injustice caused by poverty. 

Morrison (right below, with Yankah on the left) had some gruesome tales about miscreant prosecutors, and it was a fascinating if sobering lesson about the flaws in our justice system:

They then introduced Robert Jones, one of their success stories. Jones was wrongfully convicted at age 19 (the prosecutor willfully withheld exonerating evidence), and was sentenced to life plus 121 years in Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, one of America’s most horrible prisons. He served over 23 years—in the meantime getting his degree and acting as a jailhouse lawyer—before he was completely exonerated. There’s a civil suit filed in which Jones hopes to collect substantial remuneration for the lost years of his life, and perhaps establish a precedent (not yet existing) in which prosecutors can be made to ante up for engaging in habitual misconduct like withholding evidence on purpose.

As someone who once worked as an expert witness for the lawyers who founded the Innocence Project (I testified against government misuse of the statistics associated with DNA evidence), I was once again reminded at how tilted our justice system is. While there are honest prosecutors, many merely want to get a conviction, for district attorneys are judged on their ability to convict people for horrible crimes. Public defenders, on the other hand, simply need to show that there is reasonable doubt in a prosecutor’s case, and they almost never withhold evidence. I remember how often I had to go up against a prosecution who knew better but was determined to discredit me. They were interested not in justice but a conviction.

At any rate, Jones is on the right below, and gave heartbreaking testimony, sometimes in tears, at how he fought for exculpation and release (somebody else did the crimes of which he was accused). He’s now a judicial activist and speaker. And he got a standing ovation—the only one I witnessed during the whole three-day meeting:

Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York Magazine and a new Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, spoke about “The contemporary art world; the good, the bad and the very bad; tips, lessons, and warnings.” (Saltz had agreed with me at Thursday dinner that the Isenheim Altarpiece was one of the world’s best pieces of art.) Since most of the attendees were either gallery owners, collectors, or somehow connected with the art world, Saltz’s talk was directed at them, and he dropped many names that I didn’t know. His talk was akin to a comedy routine—as if Woody Allen was delivering art criticism—and was hilarious in places, but I was unable to discern how Saltz winnowed bad from good art. To be fair, he said that his talks usually last longer than two hours, and he had only 35 minutes.


The last talk I went to, before I delivered my own, was a discussion of “Sexual Harassment and Assault in the #MeToo Era”, featuring Lisa Bloom (civil rights attorney and television presenter), Marjory Fisher (The Title IX Coordinator at Columbia University), and moderator Faye Wattleton (former CEO and President of Planned Parenthood, and a well known feminist activist and speaker).  It was a good discussion, and I don’t think anybody here would disagree with the panel’s conclusion that we need to fight harder against the misuse of power to leverage sexual harassment and assault.

I did have two quibbles with Fisher’s statements (she’s on the left below, with Bloom in the middle and Wattleton at the right): she seemed to favor the current standards for adjudicating harassment/assault cases in colleges, which simply calls for a greater likelihood of guilt than of innocence, whereas I’d favor a stronger standard, more akin to the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard used by the courts. Further, she mentioned Emma Sulkowicz (“Mattress Girl”), a highly publicized case that took place at her university (though not, I think, under Fisher’s watch), implying that Sulkowicz was a victim without mentioning that Sulkowicz’s accused “assailant” was found not culpable by Columbia and the school has given him an undisclosed settlement.  On the other hand, Fisher gave an excellent response to a questioner who asked, “Why does the University have to adjudicate these cases? Why can’t those claiming assault go to the police?” (A: The police can’t do stuff like remove an accused assailant from campus to prevent him meeting the alleged victim).

As I said, I think my own talk went fairly well, and was almost entirely about the evidence for evolution. But several people pushed back on my statement that religion was responsible for creationism, including an angry (and to my mind, misguided) Jesuit priest. I answered with my take on why evolution (and science in general) was incompatible with religion, and recommended that people read Faith versus Fact to learn more.

The wrap-up talk was wonderful: the great jazz musician and composer Wynton Marsalis (founder of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Program) had a conversation with Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. Marsalis would illustrate some of his points by playing the trumpet, accompanied by pianist Sullivan Fortner. Despite his prodigious talent, Marsalis seemed like a really lovely down-home guy, and, drawn out by Walker, told some fascinating tales. He played not only New Orleans style early jazz, but finished by performing one of his own compositions, called “Goodbye”. I made a small video of a snippet, but the whole thing will be on the KentPresents website, and that piece is worth the price of admission. Here’s Marsalis with Walker and a portion of the music.

And goodbye it was—to a great meeting. Thanks to Ben and Donna Rosen, Julia Benedict, and Sam Cournoyer for their invitations and assistance.

17 thoughts on “KentPresents report: Day 3

  1. You travel in some pretty amazing circles. It’s a life I can’t even imagine. It looks like an absolute blast and I’m quite envious!

    I can’t wrap (should I say fold?) my mind around the origami. The way some people’s minds work! I can manage a couple of decent paper airplanes but the turtle, the piano player, that cactus, and then telescope mirrors for NASA, and a functional kayak?! If human cultural evolution were up to people like me, we’d all still be standing around scratching our furry butts on the African savanna, trying to bash rocks together hoping to avoid getting eaten by lions.

    1. Robert J. Lang is one of my heroes (together with Tomoko Fuse). I met Lang at origami conventions in the USA and in the UK; and Fuse-san at the UK convention. (Yes, there are such things as origami conventions!)
      His work is astounding, and if you are interested in either the maths or the folding his book Origami Design Secrets is a must. I do not attempt to design models, and cannot even complete the likes of his using diagrams but it is still a fascinating topic.

  2. … was sentenced to life plus 121 years in Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, one of America’s most horrible prisons.

    Anyone with an interest in such things would do well to read Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars. Angola prison had a reform-minded warden a while back who let the prisoners publish their own uncensored newspaper, The Angolite. The book is drawn from the articles written for the paper by two former Angola prisoners, Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg.

  3. While there are honest prosecutors, many merely want to get a conviction, for district attorneys are judged on their ability to convict people for horrible crimes.

    My own experience has been that I’ve never come across a prosecutor, state or federal, or a cop or a federal agent who tried to frame an innocent person (although I’ve certainly heard stories of such people from colleagues). What I have come across, however, are plenty of prosecutors and cops who were willing to frame a person they were convinced was guilty.

    Some of them are paranoid (and I have to concede, not completely without cause, since it’s what we do) that a clever defense lawyer will poke a hole in the prosecution’s case where none actually exists, and a guilty man will then go free. So they cut corners (“frame” was probably too strong a word to use above) — such as by endeavoring unfairly to discredit a defense DNA expert — to keep that from happening. And every time they do, they undermine a safeguard in our system of justice and thereby increase the odds that an innocent defendant will be wrongly convicted.

    It’s true, as you say, that some prosecutors are quite protective of their win-and-loss records. This seems especially so with young lawyers who want to spend a few years getting trial experience in the state-attorney or US attorney’s office before swaggering over to a downtown silk-stocking law firm, there to impress the interviewing litigation partners (some of whom have spent decades without yet getting to the first chair at a jury trial) with their 57-1 or 89-2 or unbeaten records in cases tried to a jury.

    1. Not confined to the USA. Every few years in New Zealand, there’s some high-profile murder case and the police are under pressure to ‘solve’ the crime and (a cynic would say) you can put money on it that a suspect will be found.

      While the law implies that it is better to have no result than an unsafe conviction, it appears that in many police circles it is unacceptable to leave a case open without prosecuting somebody so they pick the most likely suspect and concentrate on putting him/her away. After which they lose all interest in the case.

      And all too often, after a conviction, further evidence emerges and after repeated public demands for an enquiry, it is found that contrary evidence was ignored or suppressed and the verdict is finally overturned, though all too often only after the subject has spent many years in jail.

      I don’t know about plea bargains but there is strong pressure on inmates who persist in maintaining their innocence, to admit their guilt in order to obtain parole. This is quite wrong.


    2. Thanks for the insider’s POV.

      The law sometimes seems to have something in common with democracy–the worst form of justice, except for all the others…

  4. I might elevate Jerry’s minor quibble with Fisher’s statement to a major objection. Of all the possible on-campus sexual assault cases she could have used, why would Fischer dare to even invoke the “mattress girl” incident knowing the girl was a liar and the boy exonerated to make the case for WEAKER standards of evidence? (I may be repeating Jerry’s point). She just discredited her own argument by using that example which she surely knows the details of since it’s her university.

  5. It is with great temerity that I suggest that PCC(E) might perhaps have misunderstood Wynton Marsalis at KentPresents.

    RE: “Marsalis…finished by performing one of his own compositions, called ‘Goodbye’.” Marsalis indeed performed “Goodbye,” but it was written by Gordon Jenkins, and published in 1935. In the Dizzy’s Club video linked below, Marsalis explains that “Goodbye” was Benny Goodman’s theme song.

  6. “… including an angry (and to my mind, misguided) Jesuit priest”

    How dare you show that biological evolution is incompatible with religious fantasies!!

    The Jesuits and other church apologists have spent enormous time and efforts showing that the Catholic church’s distorted view of evolution is fully compatible with the church’s view of evolution, so there is absolutely *no* conflict! Take that you atheists!

    “There is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.” -Isaac Asimov

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