Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Vanishing Point


"Vanishing point" is a term applied to graphic images, which describes an imaginary point where all perspective lines converge. As a youngster I was intrigued with vanishing points, perhaps thinking that if I could follow, say, the highway in a picture, I'd gradually shrink smaller and smaller then finally disappear. Or possibly I'd pop through into another world where I was something or somebody else besides me. Who would I be on the other side of the vanishing point I wondered?

On the cover of a Whole Earth Catalog during the 1970s, the slogan appeared: "Wherever you go, there you are." * I thought this a very unromantic bit of wisdom, since it defused my fantasy of what lay beyond the vanishing point.

As an adult, I notice the vanishing point theme shows up in many of my photos, indicating the
persistence of my intrigue with associated ideas. I almost entitled this piece, "Beyond Infinity," because I felt an equivalence between infinity and vanishing points. Both expressions remind me of a way that I used to rattle my brain as a child when I was falling asleep at night: I'd try to imagine what lay outside the universe.

Possibly the best visualization of what lies beyond the vanishing point or outside the universe is the world Lewis Carroll envisioned existing on the far side of the looking glass. Speaking of a looking glass, If you want to rattle your own brain, and tweak (not tweet!) your imagination, hold a large mirror horizontally under your chin while looking down into it and walking around the house, then out the door. Be sure to take a guide with you so that you don't trip and do worse to your brain that rattle it.

With that, I'll leave you, probably with your imagination swirling and perhaps thinking of people or things you'd like to point at and see vanish. Visit Mindport for more Vanishing Point images.



*That's what I remember, but John Kabat-Zinn published a book by that title in 1994, which has been reprinted a number of times since. If you search for the expression on the Web, it's been attributed to a number of sources of wisdom throughout the ages. However, if it was a truly popular idea the "war on drugs" would probably be unnecessary.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Technostalgia


Not long ago I was perusing the shelves of a nearby antique shop and came across a Tektronix oscilloscope dating back to 1964 in almost perfect condition. The price was $75. (An oscilloscope, for the non tech reader, is an instrument used for inspecting the waveforms of varying electrical signals.) In 1964 this scope cost around $900, equivalent to $7500 in today's dollars.. As a techno-enthusiast young person of twenty, when this instrument was in its heyday, I would have given my eyeteeth to own one, but it would have cost me a year's worth of my wages at that time.. Fifty years later, despite the fact that I now own a computerized Tektronix oscilloscope that will do a zillion more things than its ancestor, I wanted that vintage scope. Three times in as many weeks I returned to test temptation, and temptation finally won.


Tektronix Oscilloscope vintage 1964
 When I got the scope home I plugged it in and was pleased to discover that for the most part it still worked. There was one important function that didn't seem to be performing as expected, however. I went on line and found a service manual for $30, not to speak of a complete enough schematic wiring diagram that I was able to repair the scope in about an hour using one component from my 50 year accumulation of salvage electronic parts.

I've done a good deal of thinking since I made this purchase about why I felt so powerfully motivated to buy an instrument that is really superfluous to my needs, especially since I own one of its descendants that features many more functions and whose current thousand-dollar price, incidentally, converted to the dollars of its ancestor's era, would be around $125. Obviously the older scope symbolized something for me that I wanted to be in touch with once more. Surprisingly, I've found myself using it, as much as a ritual act as anything else, in preference to the new scope with all its multitudes of (sometimes confusing) features. It has a functional immediacy that the high-tech scope lacks, partially because the latter is computerized and it's not intuitively obvious how to use its fancy features without consulting its fat manual.

It's worth noting here that in 50 years, if the contemporary scope still works at all, it will likely be impossible for someone to repair, even if blessed with a well-stocked junk box and a schematic diagram. Too many of its functions are mediated by firmware programs running on complex micro-sized microprocessors. If one of these processors fails, not only would it be physically difficult to replace, but it's doubtful that the company that manufactured it would be able to supply a component that complex as a replacement unit. I haven't looked inside it, but if it runs true to most other contemporary high-tech equipment, it's likely full of nearly microscopic components mounted on multi-layer circuit boards, which renders trouble-shooting impossible. By contrast, look at the beautiful hand-wired circuitry of the older oscilloscope. You can see why troubleshooting and repairing it is a piece of cake.

In mulling my motivation for acquiring an antique oscilloscope, I realized that the introduction of the microprocessor into our lives cost us whatever autonomy we ever had regarding the artifacts we use to support our daily activities. The old scope contains no microprocessors and, after 50 years, still operates and is easily repairable. The new one has many slick features, but if it dies, it's probably dead for good unless I send it back to Tektronix.. You can say the same thing about many home appliances, from toasters to washing machines that have been rendered almost impossible for the independent techno-savvy person to repair. Even my old 1988 Toyota Celica was bordering on inaccessibility. There's  hardly a point in opening the hood of my current 2012 computer-on-wheels. You need another computer to do any work on it, and only the dealer or an approved garage has access to the necessary equipment and software. The car starts with a push-button, enabled by an electronic key. If you push the button and nothing happens, you might as well call a tow truck. Unlike older cars, where starting was enabled by a physically accessible chain of easily visible components, this car is chock full of electronic sensors and actuators, triggered by the invisible thoughts of a microprocessor. If the start button is dead, even someone who knows something about cars is helpless to do anything about it.

Initially, I attributed my attraction to the old scope to nostalgia, That did contribute to my lust to own this instrument, but in contemplating the meaning of the word nostalgia, I realized that behind it hides complicated feelings and understandings about the course of technological "progress" over the last several decades. I put "progress" in quotes because I've begun to question what really constitutes progress and whether the electronic gadgetry upon which we now center our lives qualifies as such.

I'm in the process of reading Sherry Turkle's new book, Reclaiming Conversation - The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle is a psychologist who has written several  books about our relationship to technology as it has evolved over the last thirty years, the first being The Second Self. She started out with unabashed enthusiasm for computers and their contribution to our lives, but in succeeding books she's become increasingly critical, not so much about the technology itself, but of the way we're using it. Turkle's subject matter I would loosely characterize as focusing on relationship; our relationships with each-other, and as mediated by computers, cell phones, and the Internet. Her views are important, and interest me greatly, and to them I add my own concern with our actual relationship to physical and electronic tools and the useful artifacts we employ them to create, for example, toasters, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, automobiles, extending across a full spectrum to include the sort of electronic test equipment I've heretofore been discussing. Everything I've noted in my discussion of oscilloscopes and automobiles applies to all the other artifacts in our lives that have been microprocessorized beyond recognition.

Wendell Berry published a book of essays entitled, What Are People For? I haven't read it yet, but the title popped into my head because I was just about to ask the same question. If we automate every aspect of our lives, where do WE fit in, finally? I don't know yet what Berry has to say on the subject, but my answer is: We don't. The corporations would just as soon eliminate us altogether because we are not "efficient." To keep humans involved in the machinery that builds the electronic (and other) toys that decorate our lives eats severely into the profits that can be accumulated by the sociopathic machinery we call corporations and their parasitic stockholders.

To return to discussing the business of making things: Back in the 70s, 60s, 50s and all the time before, we were intimately involved in the physical process of manufacturing all the things we use in the course of our daily lives. We were also deeply involved in the creation of whatever machinery we used to make things. Computers had not yet usurped a large proportion of the relationships and skills that we humans had by that time developed with physical machinery. To put it differently, in those days we had an intuitive feel for the machinery that populated our lives, and it was an intuition that arose from long-term practical association. Teenagers in the fifties tinkered with and rebuilt cars in their garage. I built ham radio equipment from scratch, thereby cultivating a relationship with electronics that was highly intuitive. The automobile tinkerers frequently ended up as mechanics and machinists, just as I ended up as an electronics tech and eventually a designer. To be able to identify oneself as a machinist, mechanic, or technician was a step toward living a life of some solidity and with an income sufficient to support a family.

An intuitive relationship with physical machinery, born of physical experience, provides building blocks for mechanical/electronic creativity. This relationship is a form of love. The nostalgia that arises in response to vintage test equipment, tools, and machinery is an expression of that love. The fact that the traditional creative attachment in our culture to physical machinery has been subsumed by computers, software, and robots, is cause not only for sadness but concern. Ironically, it was our attachment to machinery that brought about automated machinery to which it's difficult to become attached. Machinery that operates in the physical realm is easy to identify with. Machinery that operates primarily in the cyber realm leaves us with nothing to grasp. It's of course possible to be creative with software code, but it's abstract, and only intellectually graspable. If you take for example an operating system like Windows, there are so many layers of code that comprehending it in all it's detail is beyond most of us.

I've written quite a bit of code myself, so don't accuse me of throwing rocks at something I don't understand.

Nobody could be convinced that we should voluntarily give up microprocessors, although there could easily become a time, not necessarily in the distant future, when it might become impossible to sustain the sort of infrastructure necessary to manufacture them. As more and more symptoms of the downside of microelectronics emerge, a radical Luddite gnome lurking in an unfrequented corner of my psyche wishes that microprocessors, computers, and even TV would just disappear from the face of the earth. This lurking Luddite is not a hateful fellow, but one who laments the loss of autonomy and freedom conferred by the ability to understand and repair machinery upon which our lives depend.

If there was more discussion about how new technologies should be put to use, and it was acted upon, would that be desirable? Indeed it would be, but unfortunately I find it difficult to imagine how that might happen. Kevin Kelly wrote a book entitled, What Technology Wants. It's been quite a while since I read it, but I recall him to be arguing that technology, in a sense, has a mind of it's own. It will have its way with us. Thus far, that seems to have been the case, as distasteful as I find the idea. The only thing I can practically suggest is that we cultivate mindfulness in our use of technology, which is what I understand Sherry Turkle to be advocating in her recent book.

One possible way to nurture mindfulness in areas such as mechanical and electrical design is to emphasize craft, that is, hand work and real physical involvement. I've been building things all my life, from ham radio equipment, to high-tech espresso machines, to instruments used in radio astronomy. Over the last twenty years my focus has been creating exhibits for Mindport. That effort has taught me more about the mindful practice of technology than any work I did previously. Two questions uppermost when creating an exhibit are, what will people do with this, and what will they take from it? A third, important one is, how can I make this thing easily repairable? I can't always anticipate answers to the first two questions, but asking them has taught me a great deal about exhibits and, by extension, the uses to which technology is put on a larger scale. Making exhibits easily repairable is an ongoing challenge. You might think that it makes more sense to turn this question around and ask how to make exhibits harder to break. Unfortunately, the more "bombproof" you make exhibits, the less interesting they tend to be. It's good if they're reasonably difficult to break and better if, once broken, they're easy to repair.

Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation, advocates a return to face-to-face talk as a means to ground ourselves and take back tasks which we've inappropriately assigned to our distracting electronic gadgetry. Taking a cue from that advice, I suggest a face-to-face "conversation" with our machinery in a quest to learn more about what machinery really is, why we use it and when we use it inappropriately. In my view, that conversation would consist of manual involvement, whether it's woodworking, bicycle maintenance, or any other sort of practice that demands careful attention. The current "maker" movement is a sign that more people are wanting to delve into mechanal/electronic creation, but it sometimes seems that this movement is excessively concerned with ego identity for its devotees as "makers," rather than really paying mindful attention to craft and the questions I raised earlier, such as, what's the point and purpose of this thing I'm making, and what's the point of US as humans? That purpose can legitimately be nothing more than practicing the art of mechanical/electronic creation. But if that's the case, it's important to avoid the temptation to turn the product into one more gadget with dubious utility, packed with unanticipated consequences. As it stands, there's too little thought devoted to the meaning of what's being made or the consequences of turning it loose on society.

Today I recalled a comment I read somewhere about our country being colonized in large proportion by misfits, borderline criminals and religious fanatics. That's perhaps excessively harsh, but It inspired the question; did the fabled native inventiveness of North Americans arise from the creative mentality of those colonists who fit badly with the British and European culture at the time this continent was invaded? Worth considering, because, like many socially  borderline personalities, we North Americans frequently don't devote enough thought to the long term consequences of our creations. We deploy them for short-term profit and consequences be damned. That sort of mentality I fear is starting to catch up us in unpleasant ways.

Kevin Jones

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New Blog Location

Since revamping Mindport's website, we've incorporated our blog into it. You can find it at this URL.

We'll keep this blog open for awhile, possibly for the purpose of devoting it to different or more technical subject matter.

Kevin Jones 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Doodling

Doodle with color
Lately I’ve run across several ads for doodle coloring books, not to speak of articles about the act of doodling like this one.

Being a veteran doodler myself, having the subject come wafting through the noosphere caught my attention. A long time ago I reassured my Mindport cohorts that my doodling during staff meetings was a sign that I was listening, and not that I was tuned out. I explained, if my hands are busy my brain retains more of what I hear. As a young student I invariably used to take some odd object to class to fiddle with during lectures. It could be as simple as a clothespin, paper clip, or a frame of 35mm camera film. The teachers who confiscated these “toys” didn’t understand that keeping my hands occupied helped me focus, rather than the other way around.

Doodling, as I eventually discovered, provided a better means to focus because it’s easier to do it surreptitiously (they think you’re taking notes), not to speak of the fact that you sometimes have interesting little drawings to show for you efforts when the meeting is over. At one point I filled a whole sketchbook with doodles made during a weekly reading group. We took turns reading short stories or chapters to each other. When I wasn’t reading, I entertained my restless hands with doodling in a bound notebook.

There’s a problem, however, with the term doodling. It doesn’t give the act enough dignity and respect, as the Atlantic article cited above implies. It’s true that the visual affect of many doodles is nothing to write home about, but putting your brain in graphic mode, so to speak, is one way of taming what meditators call “monkey mind;” that restless chatter the mind engages in when not busy with a focused task. That might explain why, for me, at least, it’s easier to absorb verbally-delivered material when my hands are occupied by doodling. Under those conditions, the chatter of my monkey mind isn’t running interference to verbally delivered information coming from outside. Why doodling or other manual activity interferes with internal chatter but not information coming from outside, I can’t explain, but that’s my experience.

Not too long ago I decided that what I’d heretofore referred to as doodling would be better dignified by the term “drawing,” even though it’s by no means what we normally consider formal drawing. I have done some of the latter. In fact, when I was in my late 20s I abandoned photography for several years and set about learning representational drawing. I never became very good at it, but could hack out a likeness to a landscape or a face if I put my mind to it. Interestingly it seemed to have magically enabled at least two abilities that I hadn’t possessed previous to my drawing stint: I found that I could visualize and build 3 dimensional objects in my head, and that I could suddenly appreciate photographic work whose merits had once mystified me. The former ability has been essential to creating exhibits for Mindport. And the latter has hugely enriched my appreciation of all visual artwork, not to speak of increasing my general visual sensitivity, which reflects in the photography I hang in Mindport’s gallery.

My conclusion is this: It’s a mistake to eliminate art and music education in the schools, or to consider them less important that training in math or science. We Americans have a tendency to assume that any aspect of life or creative work that doesn’t hit us over the head isn’t worth paying attention to. The fact is, the creative mind is a holistic affair. We may create arbitrary divisions between science, technology, art, language and music, but they’re all inextricably woven in our brains and we do ourselves and our culture a great disservice by ruling any of these disciplines trivial or non-essential to a healthy society and economy. We hope the richness of visitors’ experience at Mindport will lend confirmation to this idea. At least one popular exhibit, “Road Blocks,” is a direct product of my years of doodling experience. Come and check it out, along with the many other exhibits we have to offer.

Kevin Jones

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Terror vs Terroir

 I've read several articles lately about the rapid increase in consumption in this country of anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants.  Sometimes I’m afflicted myself with sufficient anxiety about the general state of  the world, environment, and economy that I find it necessary to cut way back on news consumption. A good proportion of other people I know feel similarly.

In reading through comments in my journal regarding French wine-making and agriculture, I came across the French word, terroir. This word is not etymologically related to our word, terror, but it suddenly struck me that there is a less-than-obvious relationship between these two words, as unrelated as they might normally seem, especially since they're vocabulary in two different languages.

In French terroir is vaguely related to our word “territory,” the closest single-word translation to English being “region.” But in French, the meaning is wider and more complicated than that: it's often applied to agricultural regions, especially in relation to vineyards. It refers to the "tang" of the soil, to rural-ness and to the countryside. There's connection to family history and to tradition. One apt definition I found in Wikipedia is "a sense of place."

It strikes me that in the population of the United States of America, one source of anxiety, fear, terror certainly has to do with loss of terroir, sense of place, contact with the soil and related work. In the early part of the 20th century 95% of the economy was directly or indirectly related to agriculture. (40 percent of the work force in 1940 were farmers.) Nowadays the figure is under five percent. This is not to romanticize the hard work of farming, but simply to point out that at one time in our history our major devotion was to a fundamental aspect of physical reality, namely feeding ourselves.

In bringing up the idea of terroir, most usefully translated as "a sense of place," I'm suggesting that much of our ennui (another French-derived word that means, variously, unhappiness, anxiety, angst, etc) has to do with literally losing touch with reality. After all, we float in what I like to think of as a thin tissue of lies. Our lives are saturated with advertising, which amounts mostly to lies and fantasies about what buying things will do for us. Our government and the corporations who structure our lives lie to us about their intentions. The “American dream,” which we’ve been sold as an ideal for decades is just that, a dream, a fabrication, which nowadays is increasingly impossible for most Americans to attain.

Furthermore, unlike in earlier decades, the hardware and software “tools” that dominate our work and recreation rapidly grow obsolete and must be replaced at relatively short intervals. Any skill we acquire in connection to using those tools needs to be endlessly relearned.

Old buildings, often beautifully built, are torn down and replaced with new ones, more in style with the times. Farmland and woodland morphs into housing developments. Basically, we have no firm ground to stand on. On top of that, whatever news or other information you read on the Internet is of questionable truth. Photos and even video are easily manipulated. We can no longer even count on the climate to remain constant.We live on screens, immersed for hours per day in this virtual world of questionable verity.

Is there any doubt that this constant flux afflicts us with anxiety, ennui, or whatever brand of unhappiness you care to mention? We truly no longer are blessed with a sense of place, since even the places we live change so rapidly that they’re unrecognizable in a few short years. When I first moved to this town of Bellingham thirty-eight years ago, you could drive from one end to the other during rush hour in about ten minutes. There’s not a chance of doing that now.

How do we cope with this groundlessness I’m describing? It affects us in all domains: physical place, work, climate, social custom. Some change is exciting and desirable, but with total absence of firm ground to stand on, how do we know where to go?

One way I've discovered to cope with this loss of a sense of place is to withdraw from such distractions as social networking, many of the internet news sources, and any situation that exposes me to advertising. Stay away from malls, in other words. Limit exposure to the news, especially that of the “mainstream” variety. Gardening is one good way to recover a sense of place. Being outside, preferably on a regular basis in some relatively wild place is another one. Lacking a patch of ground to cultivate a few tomatoes (I once grew them in an alley), I’ve found that there’s great satisfaction and a sense of groundedness that accrues in nurturing vegetables or flowers in pots, either indoors or out.

Oddly enough, I've found a certain reassuring sense of grounding in watching films made in the years before TV was widespread. Some of these films seem laughably quaint, but it's interesting and comforting to see portrayals of life as it was before we became completely lost in a world of electronic gadgetry. It helps that I was born in 1944, so actually lived during a pre micro-elecronic era.

Of course this piece is written from the point of view of someone who mostly grew up as a middle-class citizen of the USA. However, I’ve done enough international traveling, including 3 years of residence in Belgium as a high-school student, to understand that many people who can now read such material on the Internet live in unimaginably different circumstances, perhaps with more “grounded reality”in their lives than they welcome. Still, from my own reading, it’s apparent to me that conditions in most of the world have changed radically enough, often for the worse, that the challenge of coping with loss of firm ground and a sense of place is a challenge for a good proportion of citizens anywhere in the world.
Kevin Jones

Friday, April 3, 2015

Second Annual Summer Writing Workshop



 We are excited to announce the second year of our week-long summertime creative writing intensive with New York-based writer Whitney Wimbish. 

This workshop is a chance for six women, ages 17 and up, to practice and hone their craft in an encouraging and safe environment. Each writer will create and polish a work of original prose and help her fellow writers to do the same. The class will include workshop-style critiques in which students give and receive feedback – a component of virtually all creative writing MFA programs across the country – and will end with an evening reading at which the writers will present their work to the public.

The class will be held at Mindport July 13 – July 17, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The public reading will be held Saturday, July 18, at 7 p.m. in Mindport’s fine arts gallery and will be followed by a reception.

APPLICATION INFORMATION

To apply, please email Whitney at whitneyck@gmail.com with brief answers to the following:
* Why would you benefit from a writing workshop?
* What would you contribute to a writing workshop group?
* What do you plan to work on in the workshop? (Answers could include a first-person essay, a fictional short story, a chapter of a novel-in-progress, a critical essay, or an experimental work that combines many genres.)
* Please briefly include any additional thoughts you’d like to share.

The deadline for applications is Friday, May 1. Whitney will notify applicants of placement by Friday, May 15.

The cost of the class is $60. Following notification, a $30 deposit is required to hold a place in the class. The remainder is due the first day of the workshop.

Questions? Email Whitney at whitneyck@gmail.

Whitney Curry Wimbish is a journalist and creative writer in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has appeared in BOMB, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Financial Times, The Cambodia Daily, and elsewhere. She is winner of a Poynter fellowship for journalists and an honorable mention in two Glimmer Train fiction contests. She holds a BA from The Evergreen State College and an MFA in creative writing from The New School in New York.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?

On the island where I live, a number of young people have performed the decorations you will see represented in a collection of photos that will hang in Mindport’s gallery commencing the third week of January, 2015. The original work illuminates a long sea wall of grey concrete slabs that protects a shoreline road from the wave action of Northern Puget Sound. One of these creative doodlers referred to their graphic exhibition on a local computer forum as “art.” Since graphic work on walls has always interested me, I photographed a number of these marks, which, in a cranky mood, I would view simply as vandalism. With the help of a photo processing program on my computer I selectively enhanced them by choice of framing and great amplification of color and contrast.

I don’t believe the resulting photographs are much different in character than certain others of mine that were recorded with the camera pointed at randomly peeling paint, diverse materials etched by the elements, or weathered geological formations. Whatever the “canvas,” all the original marks and patterns are created and/or further enhanced by natural forces acting on surfaces; sun, wind, freezing, rain and sometimes wave action. In the case of the graphic work we’re currently discussing, the original paints were laid down by the semi-random forces of young minds and hands, apparently being spontaneous, with little discernable plan. The images I make of such subject matter, including these, are commonly  not about the actual objects pictured, but are about abstract patterns to which my imagination or emotions respond. Often I manipulate such images to make these patterns more obvious, as I’ve done in the case of this graphic work.

If the creators of this work call it art, is it? If I frame and enhance it in various ways, whose “art” is that? A collaboration? If we uncharitably consider the raw efforts to be simply vandalism, do the modifications I perform on it turn it into art? These are intriguing questions focusing on what art is, what it isn’t, and what might be good art, bad art or non-art.

Much work of innovative historical artists, including graffiti art, was initially unappreciated by the public. Work that sells for millions today barely kept the artists who created it eating during their own era. What happened? How is it that the public judgment about such creative endeavor can change so radically, sometimes in a relatively short time? To me one of the most alluring mysteries that make creativity such a fascinating field of study and contemplation is the way it interacts with taste and what is considered valuable or worthless or of little interest at all in a given era. I have no definitive answers and mostly negotiable opinions about this myself, and hence leave it for you to ponder as you view these photographs.

Kevin Jones
 
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