Friday, May 30, 2014

STEM, STEAM, STEAHM

Exhibit at the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, Bellingham,  WA
The idea of integrating art and science is one I re-examine periodically. Lately in the news I've noticed the frequent advocation of STEM teaching in the schools, the acronym standing for science, technology, engineering, and math. The importance of these subjects is invariably justified by an argument that we need people well-versed in these four subjects in order to compete effectively in the world market. The implication I take from this is that other possible areas of study are NOT important in the marketplace and hence can be ignored. However, as I've pointed out in other essays, you can have all the communications technology in the world, but without “content,” a large proportion of which is contributed by people who, by one means or another, are skilled in such areas as art, film-making, history, drama, music, writing, etc, your technology is moot. I’m reluctant to point it out, but the advertising that drives our economy (unfortunately) is wholly the product of people trained in other subjects besides science, technology, engineering, and math.

I have heard it suggested that the STEM acronym should be revised to STEAM, thereby throwing a bone to the arts advocates. What about taking one more step and making it STEAHM, since there are abundant indications that general education in the "Humanities" in our country is sadly neglected? I suggest that HISTORY would be an important component of humanities education, including the history of technology and the lives of those who were responsible for fundamental advances in scientific knowledge: people like Newton, Galileo, Faraday, Bell, Edison, Marie Curie, Cecilia Payne, Tesla, Marconi, and, of course, Einstein, to name only a few working in the physical sciences. (I included the first names of the women, to emphasize that there are a LOT of women in the sciences too, and for many of them recognition did not come easily.) Starting science instruction by telling the stories of the scientists and their lives first, instead of mentioning them only in passing, if not at all, is one good way to inspire eventual interest in the nuts and bolts of science and technology.

I also believe it’s important to study the historical uses and adoption of older technologies in order foster awareness of the possible ways in which new, untried technologies might affect us in the future. We Americans tend to accept any new technology enthusiastically, without critique. However there are cultures, such as the Amish, who carefully consider how to fit technology into their lives. It’s difficult to imagine many mainstream Americans would be sympathetic to such a stance, but at least we should be adopting new technologies with our eyes open so that we have a better chance of guiding their uses toward positive ends.

Beyond the foregoing, I wish to explore a more subtle point about science that concerns me.

During my contemplation of Art versus Science, partially inspired by reading Fritjof Capra's book, Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius, I realized that I can’t imagine science and art being practiced as isolated disciplines in Leonardo da Vinci’s time, as we experience them now. Da Vinci was an artist, also a sculptor, a designer of numerous machines, and was generally interested in all the phenomena apparent in the physical world around him. Bearing this in mind, it strikes me that currently, when it comes to educating young people, tacking the label "science," "math," engineering," and “technology” onto subject matter sets learners up by association to expect a painful experience. This may be so partly because scientific and technical studies are justified primarily as means to compete in the marketplace, not as interesting subjects in themselves. The marketplace, or the job market, is an abstraction to youngsters, because it’s outside of their experience. When that concept is also conflated with competition it’s not only abstract but potentially threatening. Subject matter framed this way is rendered alien and in no way related to the inherent joy of discovery that science is capable of inspiring.

For the purpose of encouraging young people (or even older ones) to an interest in science, math, and related subjects, I believe it would be wiser and more to the point to characterize them much differently by including them as part of humanities instead of as separate subjects. Hence “humanities" would include science rather than science being taught as something apart and alien. Indeed, no education is complete without a serious amount of instruction in the sciences, but they should be introduced as a natural and fascinating backdrop to ordinary life, not as a means to compete in the marketplace.

I believe that emphasizing science as an economic tool has led directly or indirectly to the distrust many people harbor toward scientists and the sciences. For example, when someone comes out with a new study that says I should eat this, not eat that or, particularly, take such-and-such a medicine, my first question has become, “Who funded the study.” By the same token, when scientist claim the climate is changing, the first question hard core skeptics ask is, who paid for the research? Personally I trust NOAA scientists more than I trust corporate ones, but climate skeptics can justifiably question who did the research and why. As a matter of fact, oil companies have funded a good deal of the research that questions climate change. Science in too many instances has become a tool used by corporations and politicians to manipulate the public. How do you know who to trust? Science once had a reputation for being impartial, but that was never completely so, and is less so now than ever.

The subject matter commonly put under the category "science," is fundamental to our life on earth, and when presented skillfully is inherently interesting. My grandson, now turning five, was asking questions about the stars, the sun, and the universe at age two, or earlier. Why does it get dark at night? What is the moon? What is the sun? Why am I able to think, see, feel, talk? (I haven't heard him ask that latter one yet, but no doubt he'll get there by the time he's 8.) In my case, early curiosity about the invisible force making magnets stick to things intrigued me and led to a voracious reading of science books from then on. I was instinctively curious from a very early age about everything around me, especially unseen forces manifesting as electrical storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, and turbulent phenomena such as water vortices and waves. I was naturally drawn to learn more, just out of curiosity. Every young child, if you carefully notice his or her exploratory style, is a born scientist. They act, observe, and hypothesize about everything around them. It’s rudimentary and instinctive scientific research. If nobody derails that instinctively conducted “science,” it can inform one’s whole life.

What I've just attempted to articulate is a style of interest in the world paralleling the sort of interest exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci’s life. It's a craving to engage with physical reality on a deeper than superficial level. That was an important and perhaps primary idea behind the formation of Mindport, to present exhibits that embody physical phenomena in such a way as to plant the question in the minds of visitors of any age: "What's that all about?"

Beyond the idea of making art and science partners under humanities, I suggest that we need new ways of characterizing both these panoramic subjects. Possibly a retreat to traditional ways of understanding them, at least for the purposes of teaching science to youngsters or lay beginners, would be desirable. For example, in Isaac Newton’s time what we now call “science” was referred to as “Natural Philosophy.” That’s in the vein of what I’m suggesting. In fact I believe that “natural philosophy” presented as a form of spiritual practice would be more effective in drawing people ultimately to a formal study of various scientific fields than attempting to whip up enthusiasm by presenting “science” as a competitive path to economic nirvana.



Kevin Jones


Monday, April 28, 2014

New Exhibit-"Road Blocks"

For a long time I’ve been contemplating how I might build a sort-of modular do-it-yourself art exhibit, involve a matrix of squares designed to fit together visually in such a way as to generate interesting compositions no matter how they were arranged.

Recently it came to me to start creating squares whose common design element would be a road or path running from the center of each side of a square, then connecting diagonally to the center of an adjacent side. That way the paths in each square would always connect in random configurations if the squares were arranged side-by-side and top to bottom to make larger square or rectangular arrays.


I made a first prototype, pictured to the left. The elemental squares were all different, but too uniformly alike in color and design to quite accomplish the end I’d envisioned. For a “beta” version, I increased the size of the squares to 2", widened, simplified the “paths” so it was easier to see them as a basic element of the design, and used more varied color and visual graphic elements in the areas outside the paths. I also scanned the 12 basic “tile” designs and printed copies in both forward and reversed directions, so they can be arranged in quads to make mandala type designs, as below, that can stand alone or be included as part of larger arrangements.


At this point my wife, an avid quilter, accused me of “quilter envy.” So be it, I said. It suggested a possible name for the exhibit: Quilt Blocks. However, upon further thought, I settled on a double entendre, “Road Blocks,” referring to the fact that the element common to all the squares is paths or roads.

This exhibit can be quite hypnotizing if you tinker with it for awhile. The figure/ground relationships that come up have a way of training your eyes to see whole patterns at once instead of only individual squares. I notice that my tendency is to start out by attempting to arrange similar corner colors adjacent to each other, while letting the yellow paths fall as they may. It can end up so that there’s the yellow paths serving as a foreground and other paths, formed from the different colored corner areas, serving as irregularly-formed background paths. The eye tends to flip back and forth between seeing the paths or seeing the background colors and symbols as other paths and designs. After a spell of practice with this, any need to indulge in newly legalized recreational substances is eliminated.

The square designs are drawn with India Ink pen, colored with aqua color pencil, scanned, printed on Canson water color ink jet paper, coated with a UV-filtered spray fixative, then glued to wood blocks with PVA glue.

I suspect that after I’ve taken more time to experiment with this set of squares that other design possibilities will suggest themselves. Stay tuned for updates.


Kevin Jones

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Summer Writing Workshop at Mindport!


We are excited to announce a new addition to our summertime educational offerings: a week-long writing intensive with New York-based journalist and writer Whitney Wimbish.

This workshop is a chance for six women to practice the kind of work done in creative writing MFA programs in an encouraging and safe environment. Each student will write and polish a work of original prose and help their fellow writers to do the same. The class will include writing-workshop-style critiques in which students give and receive feedback – a component of virtually all creative writing academic programs across the country.

The class will be held at Mindport July 7 – July 11, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. Writers will present their projects at a public reading on Saturday, July 12, which will be followed by a reception.  Cost is $15-$60, sliding scale.  

To apply, please respond briefly to the following by June 15.  E-mail responses to workshop leader Whitney Wimbish at whitneyck@gmail.com.  

-Why would you benefit from a writing workshop? 
-What would you contribute to a writing workshop group? 
-Please briefly describe the piece you plan to work on.  The piece could be a first-person essay, fictional short story, a chapter of a novel in progress, a critical essay, or an experimental work that combines many genres, to a name a few possibilities.  
-Please briefly include any additional thoughts you'd like to share. 
-Please state if you need financial assistance.

Applicants will be notified of placement by June 18th. 


Friday, April 4, 2014

"Interdependence"

One of Mindport’s least-noticed exhibits, but one with perhaps the strongest metaphoric message is the one pictured to the left, “Interdependence.”

It’s never surprised me that this exhibit doesn’t get much attention. For one thing its interactive aspects are subtle, and for another its metaphoric significance refers to a phenomenon which, in this country predominantly occurs below the level of awareness, namely interdependence. Simply put, this is the dependence of everything under the sun on everything else. This obliviousness might be expected in a culture that apparently reveres (its opposite) independence, and whose technology is based on a form of scientific study in which every object or phenomenon is typically studied independently of the context in which it occurs. It’s ironic to note, however, that truly independent non-conformists have a hard time in this country unless they invent new technology and make pots of money. Unfortunately such people end up with a lot of power and apparently little insight regarding the true effects of their innovations.

“Interdependence,” the exhibit, consists of a group of tiny magnets suspended on wires in such a way that they repel their neighbors, holding a separation from one-another of a little over an inch. A spotlight in the top of the pyramidal case casts shadows of the magnets on a sheet of ground glass, and a window in the bottom of the exhibits makes it possible to observe the magnets’ shadow movements when a visitor blows air against them by squeezing a rubber bulb. Even if the air strikes only one or two of the suspended magnets, their motion propagates through the whole group, setting them into an oscillatory jiggle that persists for several seconds.

A second feature of this exhibit, which a few people discover, is a means to move all the magnets at once by means of an external magnetic field. There’s a large coil of wire hidden in the base of the pyramid. A current flow can be directed through this coil by applying a finger to a small black sensor on the front of the Exhibit’s case. This causes the magnets to draw together just slightly, an effect that can be amplified by noting the natural frequency of their oscillation, then timing sensor touches to match it.

There’s a third feature that is sometimes difficult to bring into effect because it involves jogging the magnets with the exhibit’s rubber bulb until one of them hovers over a “Hall Effect” magnetic sensor near the back of the flock of magnets. If the switch marked “Feedback” is turned on, then it’s sometime possible to get the magnets to move continuously, triggered by the motion of one magnet over the Hall Effect sensor. The magnetic field of that magnet turns the sensor on and off, which flashes a red LED on the case, and simultaneously triggers the large coil whose fluctuating field in turn moves the magnets in a continuous rhythm.

The point of this exhibit is just what its name indicates, to demonstrate the principle of interdependence. This is to say, if you disturb one element of any system it disturbs all the rest. The implication is that everything around us effects everything else, and the effects are not always predictable.

A “system” can be almost any grouping of living things or dynamically related non-living things, such as machinery or electronic devices. Computers are a case in point. Anyone who has done troubleshooting on a car, a computer, or other mechanical system, if s/he’s at all successful, understands interdependence on that level. One malfunctioning component can undermine or affect the workings of the whole, often in unexpected ways.

Our most important blind spot regarding interdependence revolves around the ecology of the biological systems that support life on this planet, and around the social ecology of our human society. For example, past misguided wisdom has lead us to believe that when pests attack our crops, then spraying poison on the pest in question is an effective way of rectifying the problem. For a while, it works. Eventually, however, we discover that the pesticide is not only killing the pest in question, but is also wiping out organisms that live in the soil that may be beneficial to the crops we’re growing. It also might be wiping out the birds that prey on the problem pest and other pests that are, unbeknownst to us, controlled by the same birds. Sometimes the elimination of one organism that’s perceived to be a pest can lead to an infestation of other organisms kept in check by the one we’ve wiped out. All these organisms live in an interdependent web of associations, or an ecology.

It’s in the area of social systems that we most exhibit our obliviousness regarding the principle of interdependency. Having worked with various sorts of electronic technology most of my life, this is the area where, on a macro scale, I’m most conscious of that particular blind spot. It’s true that it can be nearly impossible to fully anticipate the social consequences of introducing a new technology, but the blind spot is demonstrated by the fact that there’s often very little serious discussion about it when such technology comes along. More often than not, promoters fill our ears with glowing promises regarding how the technology in question will cure all the world’s ills. Later it turns out that it brings a unique new set of ills with it, which cry for yet more technological solutions.

A new technology shakes up everything, just as a puff of air against one magnet in the Interdependence exhibit sets all the rest a-jiggling. Under some circumstances, when repairs on the Interdependence exhibit are being accomplished, the magnets can be stirred so much that they go nuts and start sticking to one-another willy-nilly. In the same way, new technologies can radically derange our whole social system. Consider how computers and automation have affected the job market and everything else in our lives, including enabling government and private corporations to spy on us to and extent and in ways we never dreamed possible.

While it can be difficult to fully anticipate how changes to systems will affect them, denying or not understanding the principle of interdependence vastly undermines our ability to cope with change. When new technologies come along, a rush to profit from them usually trumps any discussion about whether the technology might have undesirable side-effects, hence we’re woefully unprepared to deal with them in any rational manner when they occur. Ironically, one good place to look for thoughtful ideas about how new technologies might effect our future lives is in the field of science fiction writing.

When smaller-scale systems are considered, many people are only marginally conscious of interdependency effects. Where I’ve noticed this phenomenon most obviously is right here at Mindport. We’ve been in existence for nearly 19 years, and quite a number of employees have come and gone. Over that time those of us who have endured over long periods have become increasingly aware of how the problems of individual employees or the introduction of a new employee radically effects the culture of the whole group. After all this time, we’ve come to expect it. We can’t necessarily anticipate what effect the arrival or departure of a group member will have, but at least we’re prepared that there will be emotional consequences, often positive, but sometimes confusing, accruing from such changes of personnel. These fluctuation of emotional tides have taught all of us who work at Mindport a great deal about our own interdependence with our fellow workers and with our visitors as well.


Kevin Jones


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Riding the Rails

Railroad, Kenya, Africa, 1964
Even though coal trains and oil trains are currently giving trains a bad name, particularly for the young, my own emotional associations with them still attract my photographic eye. Trains, despite current and past sins, are still deeply embedded in American consciousness. During the era when I was growing up, the late 40s and the whole of the 50s, and before, trains were the way people got places. They ran fast, they ran on time, and one could count on comfort when taking a trip on one. Of course at some point in the 50s air travel and speed came to the fore, and the cachet of the passenger train began to fade. Freight started to take precedence over people, the trains became less reliable, less on time, and much slower.

Regardless of their fade into obscurity, some of us, at least those of us of more mature years, still harbor romantic memories of trains. In my case, even the rails without the trains attract my eye. . . something about the precision of shining, sometimes gracefully-curving steel, juxtaposed against dry grass sidings, converging into infinite distance, reminding us, even when surrounded by isolated and silent rural countryside, that civilization exists somewhere; but here, we’re alone.

Caboose, Bellingham, 2005
Our current exhibit in Mindport’s gallery features railroad photographs by Kevin Jones, and several examples of rare S-gauge model trains that have been collected by Mindport’s Exhibit Manager, Bill Lee. Please note that these trains are not currently operating.





Kevin Jones

Friday, January 31, 2014

Exhibit News

Our newest exhibit builder, Thor Myhre, has been busy in the shop working on a couple different exhibits. He originally set out to add another route to the Aerotrack, which uses air to blow ping-pong balls through transparent plastic tubing. (This excellent exhibit was originally developed by Jeremy Robinson, and has gone through a number of incarnations over its 16  year history at Mindport.)

Thor, in the process of working on Aerotrack, became intrigued with the basic theme of pneumatically driven ping-pong balls, and has embarked in a whole new direction. I won't spoil the anticipation by disclosing too much, but this exhibit involves using pressurized air to set balls dancing to adjustable rhythms. As you can see from the picture, it's grown into an octopus of tubing and dancing balls, which combo I've jokingly dubbed "ping-pong polka." A simpler version of this exhibit should be available for your delectation within the next few months as an experiment that will be added to and modified from time to time, according to our observations of its public interaction. Stay tuned for further news on this one.

We've had problems with the bicycle pumps that drive the air engine exhibit failing frequently, due to enthusiastic attention, mostly from young visitors. In fact we've gone through any number of these pumps, which cost over $100 each, so we're anxious to address this vulnerability. Bill Lee, our exhibit manager, has done extensive research on beefing them up, and may have a satisfactory solution in place soon. We have a couple other creative ideas for additions to the air engine. These will find their way onto the stage as we find time to implement them. As is always true with the creative work of exhibit building, ideas have a way of mutating as development proceeds, so that the idea we start with often ends up manifesting entirely differently than anticipated.  Hence my reluctance to inhibit exhibit builders by being too specific about their work in early stages of conception. It's much more interesting to leave the development process open ended until it settles on its own direction.

Kevin Jones

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MoreOn Tools or Are We Dirt on the Carpet?


Surfacing a copper block
Every Monday several friends and I meet for lunch. Toward the end of our session today we got to talking about tools after one of us described the hell he's been going through in order to set up an on-line store for the small business he runs. Another of us, a machinist by trade, and I responded with a dialog about the trustworthiness of tools, real physical ones.. Both these discussions followed on the heels of another about electronic publishing, electronic books, and the fact that the next big thing is the sale of used electronic books. Talk about corporations usurping every opportunity for the "little guy" to earn a living!

The underlying theme of this conversation is the fact that the physical world is being vacuumed up by software and spewed forth in the non-physcial realm of cyber-space, controlled not by us, but by large corporations. Amazon, word has it, can swoop down and repossess books that you've purchased, and you have no say about it. Furthermore, they know everything about what you're reading, hence have a bird's eye view of what you're thinking. Our computers, which supposedly are our own property, really belong to "the man." Every day there's a new "update" to some program or another. Sometimes, when an update installs itself, features of programs change or disappear. Companies increasingly attempt to seduce us into running our software ("applications") or storing data "in the cloud," i.e. on their turf, instead of our own computer, which is presumably our turf. . . but isn't. I liken the relationship we have with, say, Microsoft to the relationship of our eyes to our brain. If you consider the brain to be Microsoft, and the eyes to be "personal" computers, those organs are essentially part of the brain, just as "our" computers are more part of Microsoft (and other providers of software) that they are property belonging to us. By extension, it's obvious that Microsoft and other such corporations own and structure a large part of our lives. What do we think about that?

We often refer to our computers and other electronic devices as tools. They may be tools, but whose tools are they? Microsoft's or ours? As our machinist cohort pointed out, by contrast physical tools are our friends. They actually belong to us and if we possess the requisite skills they'll do our bidding, help us fabricate what we need to fabricate, and they won't crash in the middle of an operation and cause whatever we're working on to evaporate into thin air.

In whose service does your computer really operate? Indeed, it does a few things you think you want to do, but it does them according to how the writer of software code structures them. Frequently the operating system does not do its job well, and furthermore it attracts intruders who can steal your money, credit card numbers and even your identity. Look closely and it becomes apparent that your computer is really a tool of companies like Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, or Verizon, along with a few criminals, and its most important purpose is to Hoover* up your money, your job, not to speak of depriving you of an ability to use your hands and mechanical skills, if you still have any.

My friend who's attempting to set up his on-line store described a group of on-line applications that are supposed to work together to allow prospective customers to browse his stock, create orders, and collect money. He's spent months at this, and is plagued by complete frustration. None of these tools seem to work together flawlessly, and frequently they don't work at all. No window pops up and informs him why they don't work, but they just don't. It's like purchasing an electric drill and discovering that the batteries don't fit, and that the bits rattle in the chuck because they were designed for a different drill, and the trigger hurts your finger so much that you can't hold it down long enough to finish drilling a hole. (Maybe the battery powered electric drill is a bad example to use. I've had a few issues with them, namely that there are three lying around my shop that no longer work because the rechargeable batteries have died and getting them replaced costs more than a new drill. What waste!)

You can enjoy drawing your own conclusions from this piece. Suffice to say, this system, under which we now limp, is making dull tools of us all. Time to wake up and take back our lives from the corporate Hoovers.

*You knew that the Hoover was a vacuum cleaner? Or is that awareness a generational thing?

Kevin Jones
 
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