Rosy Conversation with Andrea di Robilant

Andrea di Robilant is an Italian journalist and writer who has written five well-received books of non-fiction.  During his forty-year career in journalism, Andrea has worked in Europe, Latin America and the United States, where he was U.S. correspondent for the daily La Repubblica (1980-84) and U.S. Bureau Chief for La Stampa in Washington D.C. during the Clinton years.  He attended Le Rosey in Switzerland and received a B.A. and a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University in New York City.

In 2003 Andrea published A Venetian Affair, his best-selling account of two star-crossed lovers in Eighteenth century Venice based on a cache of letters his father, Alvise di Robilant, found in the attic of the family’s palazzo. His next book was a biography of Lucia Memmo, his great-great-great-great grandmother, who was a close friend of Josephine Bonaparte, the wife of Napoleon. In 2011 he published Irresistible North, a book about a controversial Fourteenth century journey of two Venetian navigators Nicolo and Antonio Zen in the North Atlantic in the Fourteenth Century. Three years later he published Chasing the Rose, which tells the story of his own journey in search of a mysterious rose. His most recent book, Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse, published in 2018, is about Ernest Hemingway’s relationship with a young woman named Adriana Ivancich in Venice in the 1950s. Andrea is now in the midst of writing a book about maps and travels in the Renaissance.  You can find his website for more information here. 

Our Conversation

Bianca: I think you spent quite a while decoding your family’s letters with A Venetian Affair.  How long did decoding the love letters take? 

Andrea: My father found these letters in a shoebox in the palazzo in Venice where he had grown up and he brought the box home one day and none of us knew what they were.  It didn’t really make sense to us who was writing, what they were about… most of them were written in a secret code.  It was very pretty.  It looked like there were a lot of hieroglyphics on the page… it was a very quick hand, not a labored job.  It was rather intriguing and very beautiful to look at.  We started trying to crack the code and my father took on the job, it was he who had found the letters and eventually it was he who cracked the code and then he transcribed all of the letters.  

Out of that labor came this fascinating love story between my ancestor Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne, the illegitimate daughter of an English baronet. It was really thanks to my father that we were able to understand who was writing and what the story was about.  It became my father’s favorite conversation piece. After my father died I thought I should pull all the strings together and write the book that he should have written.  That said, the book is more than the transcription of the letters.  I use the letters as a starting point of a historical research that enabled me to recreate the background – social, political, artistic – of the period. So the book is not limited to their story, it is really about a period of history, the last decades of the declining Venetian Republic.  

The story of this impossible love is emblematic of the inability of this ancient Republic to reform, to modernize itself, to make it possible for two young people who loved each other to marry – despite the fact that Andrea was the scion of one of the Venetian Republic’s oldest families. Of course there were masked balls and all of that, but the reality was that the Venetian Republic was slowly dying because it simply could not marshall the energies necessary to reform itself.  There is something very poignant in that. Andrea’s struggles must be seen against that backdrop.  

Bianca: Your book after A Venetian Affair, was about Andrea Memmo’s daughter, Lucia Memmo, entitled, Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon.  What inspired you to write this book? 

Andrea: After I had written A Venetian Affair, I found another shoebox of letters – this is not a joke – and I realized that these had belonged to Lucia.  She makes a brief appearance in A Venetian Affair towards the end.  Andrea visits Giustiniana in Padua on her deathbed.  She is dying of a tumor and Andrea traveled all night long to be with her in her last moments, the woman of his life.  Lucia, his daughter, was also present.  She writes about this in a letter and describes her father’s tortured face as he holds Giustiniana’s hand. It’s a very moving scene.

From there, I went on to write Lucia’s story and it was very fascinating for other reasons.  The story of Lucia was the story of an intelligent, highly educated, attractive woman living in a time in Europe when great events are happening and the scene is constantly changing – you have the death of the Venetian Republic, Napoleon bursts onto the scene and Lucia adapts to her new life.  It was fascinating for me to find such an eloquent witness of those times and to be able to see those rapid changes happening in Europe through the eyes of an intelligent woman and a wonderful writer!  She was always in the thick of things and wrote diaries and letters that are illuminating. Thanks to her I was able to write a book that has the sweep of a novel, though it’s all true and documented.  It started out with a batch of letters.  The batch of letters were fascinating. They told the story of the arranged marriage between Lucia and Alvise Mocenigo.  This is very ironic because her father, Andrea, arranged her marriage – a man who fought so hard to try to marry the love of his life and failed.  The letters I found were between Lucia and Alvise before they actually met.  It’s a fascinating correspondence that gradually turns into love… you know how today, people can fall in love just by communicating online?  This is very similar. You can see their relationship burgeoning and growing into something substantial through words. That really sparked my interest and I went looking for more material on Lucia in the archives in Venice.

Bianca: Your next book, Chasing the Rose, is set during the time of Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon’s first wife. Can you give an overview of that wonderful book? 

Andrea: While Lucia was in Paris, she was a good friend of Josephine’s, she became a botanist of sorts – she became very knowledgeable about roses in particular.  Josephine was an important figure in the world of roses.  She was able to import roses from China and the arrival of these roses to France and to Europe in general at the end of the 18th century was a great moment in the history of rose breeding.  It was the arrival of these roses from China that really transformed the landscape of roses in France and across Europe.  Josephine made it very fashionable for the other grandes dames of Parisian society to have their own rose gardens.  It was truly a Golden Age for roses.  As I said, Lucia was at the center of all of this, observing everything and absorbing all of this.  She returned to Venice to her house in the country and she brought back hundreds of roses. And she created her own rose garden and a park that became a model of its kind. Alas, nothing has remained of that garden, except this one rose.

It grows wild in what used to be the park and is now just woodlands. I had no idea about the existence of this rose until one day, I was called up by people who lived near the woods. They had found this mysterious rose growing wild there and they couldn’t figure out what it was, nor where it came from.  Since I had written a book about Lucia, they thought I might know something about it.  I wondered if there was some connection between that wild rose and the roses that Lucia had brought back from Paris.  

People in the area had named it Rosa Moceniga, because that was Lucia’s married name – the Mocenigos are my ancestors. So I went to see the rose in the woods, and the people there gave me a small plant and I took it back home and planted it in my garden in Venice.  It grew very well on its own, despite the bitter cold in the winter and the salty air and it took over the garden and it forced me to focus on this rose and I became more and more intrigued about this rose’s history.  It looked to be a Chinese rose of some kind.  Chasing the Rose is really the story of my journey into the world of old roses searching for the identity of this particular rose… I gave myself a late education in roses…Along the way I met fascinating people who knew a lot about roses and I went to Paris and finally I solved the mystery.  And now the rose is officially recognized as the Moceniga Rose. 

Readers wrote to me suggesting I should make a perfume from this rose. It was a cool idea but I knew nothing about perfumes so I let it go.  Then, one day, I went to see the Perfume Museum in Venice, which is a new museum in an old Palazzo Mocenigo which had long ago belonged to my family.  I found the museum fascinating, it was really well done and I thought to myself – if I ever do a perfume, I want to do it with the people who set up this museum.  I asked mutual friends to arrange a meeting between me and the head of the company, The Merchant of Venice, which makes wonderful perfumes.  They go back four generations in Venice.  I told the head of the company that I’d written a book about a rose and they  happened to have a perfume museum in a Palazzo that had the same name as my rose – Moceniga. They thought it over and then they called me a few weeks later and said it was a great idea. Within a year, they had produced the fragrance in a beautiful Murano glass.  In fact, it’s been so successful that Rosa Moceniga is their best selling perfume today. During the Pandemic we produced a Rosa Moceniga hand sanitizing gel that became very popular…!

Bianca: Is there a favorite time in history you enjoy researching the most? 

Andrea: My father studied history, I studied history at university and so did both my sons.  I guess it runs in the family. But I am not a historian. I am a reporter interested in history – and I use journalistic techniques in my research.  I like to relive moments of history through other people and to find keys to understand the past.  For example, in writing another book, Irresistible North, I was fascinated by the idea of these two brothers, two Venetian merchants who were trying to expand the bounds of their world to broaden their market…  they were  shipwrecked in the North Sea and ended up in the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and this was back in the 1300s.  They published their letters and a map about their voyages – nobody in Europe had yet made a map about that part of the world. Three hundred years later the map was denounced as a fake for what I thought were spurious reasons and I wanted to get to the bottom of the story. So there was a journalistic angle to that.

The book about Hemingway and his love story with Adriana Ivancich started by chance. One day I was taking a walk on the Venetian mainland and I ended up in someone’s property.  I was actually trespassing and didn’t realize it. I kept going further until the owner drove up to me.  He was an old man who had just had a stroke.  I apologized and explained to him that I had wandered onto his property without knowing… he invited me in and I learned that he was the older brother of Adriana, the eighteen year-old girl Hemingway fell in love with when he came to Venice in 1948.  He mentioned that he had just sold the last batch of letters between Hemingway and Adriana to the JFK archives in Boston.  I happened to be going to Boston a few weeks later on a book tour and I went and checked on the letters in the library.  And the letters were there, sure enough, and there were many others! I immersed myself in them.  I must have spent two or three days locked in the library reading letters.  I realized this story was not simply an anecdotal story, this was a major love story that had a great impact on Hemingway’s career as  a writer. Most Hemingway biographies don’t give this story the importance it’s due. So I thought it would be a good idea to write a whole book about it.  

It was also a matter of recreating life in those years not just in Venice but also in Cuba, because Adriana eventually went to Cuba to stay with the Hemingways. She went with her mother! The whole set up at the Hemingway estate turned into a sort of Tennessee Williams drama in the Tropics.…In any case the appearance of  Adriana in Hemingway’s life really galvanized him and got him writing again — he had not published a book in ten years. But Adriana was also deeply affected by their relationship – perhaps more so than she realized at the time. Years later she took her life after suffering from depression. Like Hemingway. I thought it was a very compelling story that needed to be written.

Bianca: Your family heritage plays such a significant role in your writing.  Your most recent book though, Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse, is not entirely about your family, but it does take place in Venice.

Andrea: The Hemingway book does not have much to do with my family, even though my great uncle Carlo makes several appearances and so does my aunt Olghina. But that’s because the setting is Venice. Carlo was Hemingway’s favorite drinking buddy. He was a happy drunk, Hemingway used to say, and he liked to hang out with him at Harry’s Bar. They wrote children’s stories together, believe it or not.  That was really the extent of it; although, drinking was a big part of his life in Venice.  

Bianca: There is a Ken Burns documentary about Ernest Hemingway’s life coming out on April 5th on PBS. Do you think he will mention the relationship between Hemingway and Adriana? 

Andrea: I don’t know, I am very curious myself.  It’s a three-part documentary and there’s a possibility that he may not be able to cover everything!  He started work on the documentary before my book came out in 2018.  But I am very curious to find out. An international production has also just finished shooting the movie version of  Across the River and Into the Trees, the book he wrote after meeting Adriana. It’s a strange novel, but it’s the novel that got Hemingway back to writing.  So this novel was very important to him personally even though a lot of critics panned it. In the movie the Hemingway-inspired protagonist is played by Liev Schreiber, who starred in Ray Donovan, the popular American series. Fancy that! His young lover is played by a young Italian actress, Matilda de Angelis. 

Thank you, Andrea, you are truly a rosy addition to Rosy BVM!

Hedy Lamarr: Austrian-American Inventor and Actress

“I know when I’m working I seldom get into trouble. My educated guess is that boredom has caused most of the problems with Hollywood celebrities.” -Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, born in Vienna, Austria in 1914 and was a renowned actress and inventor for her time, considered to be “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman,” and rather infamously known because of her acting role at age 18 in the 1933 Czech film, Ecstasy, the first film scene portraying female pleasure. Her first husband, who she was married to at the time, Friedrich Mandl, strongly objected to the scene and Lamarr described him as keeping her ‘prisoner’ in their home and preventing her from more actively pursuing her acting career. This may have been true, but Hedy still managed to act in 30 films over a 28 year career. She divorced Mandl in 1937.

The film Ecstasy gained world recognition after winning an award in Rome. The film was banned in the U.S. for being considered overly sexual. Beyond her acting career, Hedy was a trailblazer in every facet of her life. She co-invented an early version of frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication for torpedo guidance. Today, the concept is used in various Bluetooth technology and the technology is a similar version to methods used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi. The concept she invented was an early stage idea for Wi-Fi.

Hedy was likely a genius. She had no formal training and was self-taught. In her spare time, she worked on inventions including an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet that would dissolve in water for a carbonated drink (same concept as Alka-Seltzer). We don’t know everything that Hedy invented. Howard Hughes was aware of her inventiveness and she suggested to him to change the shape of his airplanes to a streamlined shaped (instead of being somewhat square). Hughes provided her with teams of scientists to assist her in her ideas coming to fruition.

The patent document for Hedy’s torpedo invention. While denied for use by the US Navy at the time, they did adapt the design during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which were installed on Navy ships.

Hedy married six times and had three children. She remained unmarried for the last 35 years of her life. Her autobiography was published in 1965. She sued the publishers in 1966 for allegedly fabricating facts about her life in the book, but she lost the lawsuit. By the 1970s, Hedy was living in seclusion and she settled in Miami Beach, Florida in 1981. She died of heart disease in Florida in 2000 at age 85. She was cremated and her ashes were spread in the Vienna Woods. Hedy was a prolific woman.

Source: Wikipedia

Rosa Parks: The First Lady of Civil Rights

“We hope to achieve equal rights as any human being deserves.” – Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (1913—2005) helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Her actions inspired the leaders of the local Black community to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the boycott lasted more than a year—during which Parks not coincidentally lost her job—and ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Over the next half-century, Rosa Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I am highlighting women who have had historical influence and also remind us of how inner strength, beliefs, and a sense of purpose can set us on a path in life that can also change the course of other people’s lives. Rosa Parks is a particularly profound example of this. Rosa Parks is a legend for the Civil Rights Movement. Her quiet eloquence coupled with her dignity and strength are part of what makes her legendary work as a Civil Rights Leader so extraordinary. Rosa Parks endured racial segregation in the Deep South as a child and was prepared to sacrifice everything for justice as she emerged as the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man at the age of 42 years old. Such an incredibly simple thing was an act of great courage and strength. In the face of systematized segregation, Rosa Parks refused to continue accepting what was her daily reality in Alabama.

Rosa Park was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Under Jim Crow laws, racial violence was a pervasive reality for Black Southerners. She grew up on a farm with her mother, younger brother and maternal grandparents. They were active members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Rosa’s faith helped ground her sense of purpose when pursuing civil rights. She married NAACP member, Raymond Parks, in 1932 and she too joined the NAACP. A particularly important note about the driving factors for the courage that Rosa Parks had in not giving up her seat was that she was recently informed of the acquittal of the two men who had murdered Emmett Till in Mississippi. Emmett Till was wrongly accused of rape and was subsequently lynched. This was utterly horrifying.

Parks and her husband had been supporting efforts to defend the Scottsboro Boys, a group of Black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Given that the Emmett Till trial was more widely known about than the Scottsboro Boys, Parks was particularly saddened (and rightfully angry) that the two men were acquitted of the crime given that Till’s case had more status. Rosa Parks was informed of this only four days before she would refuse to give up her seat on the bus. This outrage was likely the largest driving factor for her in her protest on the bus.

Rosa Parks spent the entirety of her career fighting for racial justice, including for the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa as well. Her work in the Civil Rights movement has a continuity to this day and her impact as a social rights leader reminds all of us that we can engage in the fight for justice if we step up to it.

Civil rights leader Rosa Parks waits to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building, Washington, DC, June 14, 1999. (Photo by William Philpott/Getty Images)

Celebrating Ella Fitzgerald

In honor of Black History Month, I would like to celebrate the talented legend and the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald.  In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammys and sold over 40 million records worldwide.  Born in Virginia in 1917, Ella made her professional debut at the age of 17 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.  Despite the horrible shock and loss of losing her mother to injuries from a car accident at age 15, Ella was able to maneuver herself through the trying times and made her musical debut at only 17.  She would reflect in her later years that it was looking back on her struggle could be grateful for her success.

Before she began her singing career, she worked as a runner for gamblers, picking up their bets and dropping off money.  Ella worked tirelessly to establish herself and she was known for having a wide-ranging flexible voice.  In 1955, a pivotal career breakthrough occurred for her when Marilyn Monroe was able to secure Ella an engagement at the Mocambo Nightclub in Hollywood.  Marilyn personally lobbied that the owner book Ella.  Speaking of Marilyn, Ella said according to her website, “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt. It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”  Marilyn used her privilege for good and it was delightful.

Off stage, Ella was known for being shy and reserved, and yet, she knew that her true calling was performing in front of an audience.  Ella was a remarkable woman.  Moreover, she unfortunately experienced discrimination.  Her manager, however, spoke clearly that Ella refused to accept any discrimination and was clear that Ella deserved equal treatment wherever she went.  Ella’s star was on the rise despite all of the tremendous hurdles she faced.  Outside of her musical career, she cared for child welfare and donated generously to organizations for youth.  There is now a foundation in her name. Following in her footsteps, Ella’s son, Ray Brown Jr., is also a jazz musician.

Ella and Ray Brown Jr.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded Ella the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award, while Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed Ella with honorary doctorates. Ella passed away in her home from a stroke in 1996. Ella’s legacy will always remain, the First Lady of Song.

It’s stated on her website that by the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she performed there.

The Grossman Collection at Winterthur Museum

Mr. Grossman was the founder of The John Collection of Antique Images assembled 1974-2012 as one of the foremost collections of graphic ephemera in the United States and maybe the world. Over 250,000 printed and handwritten paper artifacts representing the finest commercially printed images produced approximately between 1820-1920 form a comprehensive portrait of Victorian everyday life.

John Grossman, born in Iowa in 1932, had a fascinating career – one that included a passion for art starting in high school and into his adult life. He served in the Army between 1952-1954, but returned to his blossoming art career in San Francisco, where he worked as a lettering artist. A few years later, he spent time at the Sorbonne in Paris and then returned back to San Francisco. In 1967, he was appointed Vice Chairman, and later appointed Chairman, by Ronald Reagan to the California Arts Commission. His painting, “California Golden Hills” was presented to the Emperor and Empress of Japan by Ronald Reagan. In 1984, with his wife, Carolyn, he founded a stationary company, The Gifted Line, which had a strong interest in Victoriana. The Grossmans have been prolific emissaries of Victorian culture and have also had an impact on the history of California arts. Mr. Grossman passed away in 2016 and his collection is now available to view at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. The collection of 250,000 images documents life in America between 1820 to 1920. Among the collection’s pieces is the first commercially released Christmas card, commissioned by an English artist in 1843.

A member of The Ephemera Society of America since 1981, and a past member of the Board, Grossman was the recipient of the 1990 Maurice Rickards Award presented by the Society for his promotion of the public awareness of ephemera. His research paper, “Chromolithography and the Cigar Label,” was presented at the Society’s fifth symposium in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1995. It was published in The Ephemera Journal, Volume 9, 2001. His presentation “Labeling America'” on the George Schlegel Lithographic Company, was given at the Ephemera 25 Conference, 2005.

I have personally always adored Victorian related ephemera. My mother has passed down her love of greeting cards to me, and I found a particular passion for learning about Victorian calling cards. Cards during the Victorian era, in particular, are not only aesthetically pleasing, they also embody a hospitality and care, and overt loving nature, for those around you. I was first introduced to the images of the Grossman Collection by seeing the stamp of it on a Punch Studio branded card collection I had. I later learned of how prolific this collection is and also how Mr. Grossman made an extensive impact on the arts in California in particular. Mr. Grossman’s collection is unrivaled in its nature and its comprehensive imagery is especially unique in telling the story of how Victorian life and arts presented itself to people of that era, between 1820-1920. Beyond a far gone era, the charm and artistic value of the Grossman Collection will remain timeless.

Rosy Conversation with Daniel Ari Friedman

About Daniel Ari Friedman

Daniel Ari Friedman received his PhD in Ecology & Evolution in 2019 from Stanford University, where he studied the genetics and neuroscience of collective behavior in ants. He received his Bachelors in Genetics from the University of California, Davis in 2014. Daniel is currently a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis where he works with Professors Brian Johnson (UC Davis) and Tim Linksvayer (Texas Tech) researching the evolution of insect genomes and gene expression. 

Daniel is a Partner in Remotor Consulting, a consultancy focused on education for remote teams, and at FM Analytics, a group exploring predictive models and financial assets. At the end of a tumultuous 2020 he co-authored a book with Richard J. Cordes entitled The Great Preset: Remote Teams and Operational Art. This book is a compilation of research from 2020 related to online communities, maps, narratives, memes, games, high-reliability organizations, and more. Daniel is also a talented artist and draws in his spare time. You can find his Flickr art portfolio here.

Daniel is actively involved in science participation efforts such as the Active Inference Lab and Complexity community of practice. During graduate school he co-organized the Stanford Complexity Group, presenting a range of educational and interactive events related to Complexity Science in academia and beyond. Since 2019 he has been a co-founder and co-organizer of Complexity Weekend which focuses its mission on creating lasting impact by forming diverse global teams that use Complexity as an approach to address the pressing problems of our time.

Our conversation spanned from his research in academia, to broader discussions related to art and science participation. Complexity served as a lens to understand how online communities are like ant colonies and like other kinds of networks. Daniel generously shared his thoughts for this interview. You can find his website here to learn more and find updated information. 

Our Conversation

Daniel, you are currently a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Davis, and you graduated from Stanford University with a PhD in 2019. Congratulations! Can you provide a high level summary of your dissertation and research focus on the collective behavior in ants?

Thank you, Bianca, for all these great questions! It is inspiring to see all the excellent work and interviews you’ve done since we met each other while undergraduate students at UC Davis. 

Working with my PhD advisor Professor Deborah Gordon and many collaborators, my dissertation research from 2014-2019 was about the ecology of foraging behavior in red harvester ant colonies. Ant colonies regulate their foraging activity in a dynamic and adaptive fashion, even though individual nestmate ants do not know how much food the colony has, or how favorable the outside world is for foraging. In long-term observation studies on a population of harvester ants, Professor Gordon had found that colonies of the same ant species at the same field site display persistent behavioral differences in how they respond to environmental changes. To explore how molecular differences were associated with this variation among colonies in the regulation of foraging, we used methods such as gene expression analysis, measurement of brain chemicals, and pharmacology in the field.

We found that variation among ant colonies in collective behavior was associated with physiological differences related to water loss, neurotransmitter metabolism, and hormone signaling. Previous studies had considered the molecular biology of behavioral differences among ants within a colony (for example reproductive vs. non-reproductive nestmates), usually in lab settings. Our research was some of the first that looked at how epigenetic and neurophysiological variation among ant colonies was associated with collective behavioral differences in natural settings. The work was interesting to carry out, because many types of techniques were used inside the lab and outside in the field (literally a field in southeast Arizona). Also ants are awesome; we will return to this point later. 

What is your work as a postdoctoral researcher like now? Especially given the remote nature of everything or can you go into the lab?

As a postdoctoral researcher, I have some more freedom to set my own agenda with respect to research, teaching, and service projects. Heading into 2020, I had proposed research that was mostly computational, involving teams of remote collaborators. So during 2020 and into 2021, we have been able to continue this research safely. I was working from home for much of 2020, and these days work mostly from an office on UC Davis campus. The main things I am researching now are insect genetics and online communities.

Your studies have a fascinating emphasis on the overlapping nature of ant behavior and how they comprise a living network. This reminds me of other kinds of networks, such as social or neural networks, and Complex Systems Theory in general. Did your studies in ant behavior bring you to this passion that you have for Complexity?

This is awesome how you have phrased it, as an overlap between the general properties of nature and the specific cases of ant behavior (the “Minute particulars” as William Blake might have called them). Yes, I would say that studying ants has provided a space for cultivating an enthusiasm for Complexity. Ants themselves are like Complexity, because they are found almost everywhere, transcend mono-disciplinary approaches, and are enticing for curious investigators of all ages!

Here is how I got from ants to Complexity: ants have a long history of being studied by many different disciplines (biology, computer science, philosophy, etc.). At the same time, ants are very approachable; they are found on/under the ground in various ecosystems, on all continents except Antarctica. By pursuing the fascinating characteristics of the ant colony over the years, I got involved with a few dimensions of Complexity. The approach and community of Complexity helped me see patterns across different systems – for example how is the ant colony like a brain, an economy, or the internet? Once I was “learning by doing” by co-organizing events (with the Stanford Complexity Group, and later Complexity Weekend), it was like a positive feedback loop. 

You are a co-founder of Complexity Weekend, a community of practice where people come together to share ideas, form teams, and work towards problem solving together. Complexity is a lesser known term outside of the science world. Since you are deeply involved in this community, what do you think is its best definition? How can people get involved?

Complexity means many things to many people: part of the fun here is that we all have our own unique perspective and lifelong Complexity journey. Complexity for me is about finding patterns across systems and co-designing policies for an uncertain world. It is related to topics like systems thinking, design, innovation, cybernetics, synergetics, and more. Complexity is like a beginning point for a story or group discussion, not an endpoint or synonym for “intractable”. 

Complexity draws on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) as well as areas such as art, philosophy, history, and intercultural communication. There are theoretical aspects to Complexity, but also active practitioners across sectors such as social work, law, design, facilitation, and performance. In Complexity we are often interested in the developmental, contextual, and dynamic aspects of a system, as opposed to merely the superficial traits. That’s what makes it a deep yet accessible approach and community: in light of all of these big topics, we can always return to “beginner’s mind” and our roles in team projects! 

It is great if people want to get involved. All backgrounds, locations, and levels of expertise are welcome to check out to participate in Complexity Weekend. To learn more about Complexity in general, people could check out the excellent #ComplexityExplained resource or the online offerings from the Santa Fe Institute.

In addition to your scientific work, you are a talented artist! Your artworks show an incredible amount of precise detail. Your art feels unprecedented. How long does it usually take you to complete a piece? Do your artistic endeavors help you destress?

I have been practicing drawing since I was in high school. Between high school and graduate school, I only did abstract black & white drawings that took perhaps 10-20 hours each. Since starting graduate school (before/after this drawing), I have been experimenting with rapid production (less than 1 or 2 hours) as well as the use of words, symbols, and colors. Art helps me develop aesthetically, have quality analog time, connect with my values, and engage in nonlinear idea integration. 

If people have requests for a drawing of a specific word/idea, I am usually open to fulfilling those commissions. If I have no suggestions from the outside world, I tend to default back to drawing things like triangles, tetrahedra, eagles, flags, memes, waves, fire, ants, etc.

Also improvisational drawing can be a social activity. Along with my partner, Alexandra, we have published a paper in 2018 exploring how partner and group drawing are related to topics such as relationship health, narrative co-construction, and neural synchrony. 

Your art recently took on a more overtly political nature, with a reverence for the United States and humanism combined. Is the complex system of politics we exist within part of what has made you more reflective on patriotism and art? It’s a combination that has my interest piqued!

This is a great phrasing and a challenging question. In some ways, the drawings are the traces of my working through some of these ideas in your prompt. Art is an experiential process and I’d say that the drawings are their own sole representation – it’s out of my hands now. Elsewhere I have provided commentary on a USA-themed drawing and I hope to write and draw more on this topic in the future. 

The simple answer about the patriotic drawings is that sometimes I want to make a drawing that is templated off of a recognizable image, such as a famous photo, poster, or emblem. This “seed image” helps scaffold the intention for the session. At different times in my life, I have found inspiration from different images that resonate with me as a American citizen and as a human (invoking faith, honor, fidelity, vigilance, inclusion, participation, etc.). In this way drawing is an activity to explore themes that I cherish, while also remixing, evolving, and contrasting different motifs.

The song “Hail to the Chief” is the personal anthem or “theme song” of the President of the United States. I don’t think this song is explicitly or originally about drawing, though there are versions of this song containing these powerful words: “Flourish, the shelter and grace of our line!” I strive for the day when humans will come together across perceived dimensions of variation, and flourish within the shelter and grace of lines improvisationally drawn together.

I understand from reading your work, that ant colonies behave like a single connected entity, and can serve as unique research systems for network studies and collective behavioral purposes, correct? What do you think the future of applying research from ant behavior and networks can look like? It’s a multi-disciplinary topic indeed, but I think your work speaks volumes for how it has a wide ranging application. 

Cool questions! Starting with the first inquiry about colony-level behavior: Yes it is the case that the ant colony operates as a coherent entity, but this does mean that there is any magic or non-local mind control communication occurring among nestmates. Rather, each nestmate is sensitive to the type and rate of different kinds of local interactions they experience. These interactions are mostly chemosensory; they are like taste or smell (the antennae of the ant can detect many types of chemicals). Depending on the nature of these interactions, the nestmate becomes more or less likely to perform certain behaviors in the short term, and over longer time scales these interactions shape the physiology and gene expression of the nestmate. Also the ants are embedded within feedback loops of environmental modification, this is called stigmergy. 

Over the generations, colonies consisting of nestmates that implement successful decentralized algorithms for survival, architecture, and reproduction, will persist. Colonies that are composed of nestmates with maladaptive behavioral proclivities, will cease to exist. The ant colony is really an organism in the evolutionary sense (e.g. not a “superorganism” made up of smaller organisms). Thus nestmates are tissues within this organism (nestmates are tissues that move, like blood cells in a body). So in a sense, the way the colony operates is a lot like the way a cell, or organism, operates – Complexity!

As for “applied ant research,” I think we can work to make the future bright here (or maybe one should say, make the future smell good?). There are several domains I am excited about here. One area to watch would be in logistics, transportation, and robotics – could ant swarms help us understand how to design resilient supply chains, urban commutes, and emergency protocols? This will be important as aerial and terrestrial autonomous vehicles are increasingly interacting with swarms of humans. 

Another area of application for ant research would be based upon this analogy between ant nest architecture and online systems design (whether small remote teams, or large distributed communities). In this realm of “digital stigmergy” it is interesting to think about how automated or human actions online (like edits to a wiki, or activity on social media) reflect the modification of a socio-technical or informational niche. This modification then changes the probability that some other agent performs a modification, and/or that some kind of action occurs “in the real world”. By studying the evolution and ecology of ants in natural settings around the world, we could understand what kinds of algorithms for communication and resource distribution are effective in different ecological settings. Then perhaps some features of ant colony resilience, decision-making, and information propagation would be transferable to digital ecosystems. The only way to find out is to keep on digging and foraging…

Thank you, Daniel! You are a true addition to the roses on Earth and our global readers!

Marilyn Monroe by Earl Moran

Before Marilyn Monroe was wildly famous, she was paid just $10 an hour to pose for photographer Earl Moran between the years of 1946-1949. Marilyn was first contracted to work with Moran through her first agency, the Blue Book Agency in 1946. Then, Marilyn was still going by her birth name, Norma Jeane. Moran’s photographs were considered “cheesecake” photography and the images he took of Marilyn would serve as inspiration for him to create pin-up paintings from them. However, the pin-up art he created is almost unimportant; it’s the images he took of Marilyn which are important. Marilyn’s vivacious and happy demeanor is abound in these photos. Hugh Hefner purchased some of Moran’s photos for Playboy and he signed them. Those images weren’t published until 1987. A Hefner signed photograph from Earl Moran’s collection sold at auction for $11,000 in 2020 through Nate D. Sanders Auctions. People still love these images of Marilyn for good reason.

I would without a doubt say that these are the best photographs ever taken of her. There are seemingly countless photography sessions of Marilyn Monroe; the most notable are by Tom Kelley, Andres de Dienes, Richard C. Miller, and George Barris. While Marilyn is iconic for many reasons, I would argue that these images taken before she was famous are some of the most remarkable. And perhaps the key is in the fact that these were taken before she was famous. Marilyn was ambitious and excited to become an actress in Hollywood, and it’s her natural and playful demeanor which brings so much life to these photos alongside her raw talent for modeling. You can see the hopes she had in her eyes, too. Marilyn’s natural charm and eagerness to engage with the camera are the most notable aspects of Moran’s photography. He also clearly made her feel very at ease because you can see through the images that she was willing and happy to be playful. It’s wonderful that people are still appreciative of Moran’s photography of Marilyn, these images should be valued for many years to come.

2021: Choosing Joy As A Way of Life

Happy New Year! While 2020 was an incredibly hard year for the world, I am hopeful that 2021 will bring peace to those who seek it and a renewed sense of the value of joy. When the world has suffered so much, the value of joy and light in our lives is tremendous. Society tells us that with the dawn of a new year, we should create resolutions and make the changes we seek change for. However, this year, I have taken a different approach for myself and I hope others consider doing this as well. While I still have all of the goals that I have set out for myself (as I don’t need the passing of year to dictate the sequence of events for my goals… that is really where I think the problem lies for so many. People set out on these ambitious life changes and then fall short of them when the going gets challenging and decide to fall back on their usual habits etc. because January passed by etc.). Nobody’s life is easy. Be gentle to yourself and those around you. In fact, it’s disheartening to think about how much human suffering and death that occurred in 2020. People need serious help more than ever and hopefully that urgency galvanizes many people around the world to give more.

There is an incredible set of challenges the world is facing all at once and it’s often a challenge to maintain optimism in the face of what can look and feel like insurmountable challenge, especially when so many crises are layered on top of one another. However, I have started to believe that without finding hope for the future, holding onto an optimistic outlook, and experiencing a sense of joy for the simple things in life (the rose that you pass by on your daily walk), then you are not honoring the gift that life has offered to us: the beauty of nature and how we are one with it. Simply being alive is a gift. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that. My approach for 2021 includes actively seeking out joy each day, even more consciously than I usually do. I believe in the value that joy brings to our lives and improves the lives of those around us. I choose joy. Wishing you and yours a safe, healthy and peaceful new year.


Quotes about Joy

“When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”


“Find ecstasy in life: the mere sense of living is joy enough.”

Emily Dickinson

“Joy is a decision, a really brave one about how you are going to respond to life.”

Wes Stafford

“When joy is a habit, love is a reflex.”

Bob Goff

The Downfalls of the Eternal Youth Narrative: Reject Ageism for Good

“Live fast and die young” has generated a more toxic narrative in global culture than we consciously realize.  This narrative has placed a stain on the fabric of the collective global consciousness for gender equality – romanticizing a lack of reason and endowing power in the unwise behaviors of the “ever youthful.”  I am mortified by how many adults well into their middle age are pretending to live like they are 20 years old on social media.  It’s a real problem.  Granted, we are all “kids on the inside” and we may have been profoundly impacted by our childhoods, however, that does not give way to solely focus on an eternal youth narrative in society.  I think it’s a detriment to moving towards global gender equality.  We don’t have time anymore to debate if gender equality is a good for the world.  There is more than enough information at our disposal that shows why gender equality is necessary to ensuring we live in a sustainable world and this is a problem which is time bound.  Now, let’s also move past the eternal youth narrative and move towards a more equitable world by letting go of the fantasy that eternal youth supercedes all.

I watched the film adaptation of Madame Bovary recently.  The famous tale written by Gustave Flaubert is coined as “literary realism” and it stands the test of time on a number of fronts: the perils of greed, the perils of consumerism… Ultimately Madame Bovary decides to fill her unsatisfied soul with luxury purchases as a way to fill a psychological void, but this was a symptom of a larger problem she had.  This story is a truly contemporary tale when you think about it.  It’s perhaps a combination of two detriments which prompted her life’s end: Monsieur Boulanger’s reckless and indifferent behavior towards her coupled with the pain she already felt from her depression caused by the banality of provincial life.  I’d like to focus on how her consumerism was a symptom of the pain she felt – similarly in today’s society, we naturally work towards “fitting in” to some degree to ensure our success; you cannot be an outlaw and expect full social acceptance, right?  In the same way, we engage in consumerism on one front to willfully comply with the unspoken expectations of societal normalization – i.e. the paradigm which helps us achieve personal success. This is understandable to the extent that we maintain basic social values, at a minimum, but more importantly, as Robert Reich has spent the better part of his career espousing: you need a robust middle class to have a strong economy.  However, engaging in consumerism to an excess is obviously not healthy.

While Madame Bovary “lived beyond her means” in the 1850s French countryside, she’s a figure who illustrates a contemporary psychological issue: the fear of ageing and what comes with age when you inhabit an ageist society.  What is more existential than mortality? Consumerism can rid us of this concern, if only fleetingly, with the promise of eternal youth in the products we buy! Right? Wrong. Breaking down ageist stigmas is fundamental in ensuring gender equality. Hollywood and the beauty industry excels at elevating the “permanently youthful.”  Take celebrity women for example.  They are constantly in the news for “looking great in a bikini at 55!”  It’s wonderful they loves their bodies and are confident about it.  However, the narrative being shared with the public through these tabloids indirectly tells us, “You should try and look more like that, even well into your 50s or 60’s.  If you don’t, dieting and plastic surgery can be the solution.”  Because frankly, a perfect body well into your 50’s and 60’s is not the norm.  We are being told, indirectly, that this kind of body should be the norm – and that’s where the narrative goes wrong.  The beauty of time on your body is a process which does not need to be altered by plastic surgery, which words like “enhancements” have been used to neutralize the damaging impact of plastic surgery culture.  There is nothing more beautiful than the marks of life. Also, skincare is a regimen which is always a good idea. I believe in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and good skincare… but believing in having eternal youth through plastic surgery? No.

It’s always good to see women succeed in whichever avenue they seek success!   I can’t help but wonder, though, are we really existing in a post-feminist world that allows women to succeed however they would like to?  Or do barriers still exist through problems like ageism? Ageism sadly persists.  My mother experienced ageism when she was looking for work well into her 40s.  You know how this would look like?  You just don’t hear back from employers.  That’s part of the ageist narrative.  If we continue to not speak about what is at the core of the problem – when you don’t name the problem (ageism), society will never transcend it properly.  

I firmly believe we are at a precipice in our global society which is awoken to the fact that we can no longer ignore problems like ageism and push false narratives to live in a fantasy world which believes it “maintains order.”  The reality is this: let’s use our voice to say “no” to ageism and that begins with understanding why the idea to “live fast and die young” is so fundamentally flawed.  We will only improve our outcomes if we shed ageist ideology.

My 10 Minute Holiday Glam Look

The Holiday Season of 2020 is certainly like no other… while we may not have the same opportunities to celebrate as we might usually, there is still reason enough to get dolled up (for yourself at least!) and maintain some semblance of the holiday spirit. This makeup look took me less than ten minutes and I only used the products pictured in the image above. I think the ‘less is more’ approach with makeup can sometimes amplify and bring out your best features rather than being too dramatic and piling on all sorts of makeup. There is no need for eyeliner in my water line for example or a really intensely pigmented liquid eyeliner for a cat eye on the upper lash line since I have a dramatic red lip which I wanted to draw the eye to.

I opted for a softer smudged winged liner on my upper lash line, which created some depth and opened my eyes even more. Instead of focusing the apples of my cheeks with blush for this look, I decided to strategically place Benefit’s Watts Up highlighter on my cheekbones for a sparkling effect. The statement red lip was intended to be the focal point to draw the eye in and tie the look together, which I think worked well. The sparkly eyeshadow and highlighter did wonders, too. The following products are all that I used – keeping it simple but glamorous.

Voila, you have your under 10 minute glam holiday look!

xx Bianca