Friday, August 26, 2011


Last night I watched a thirty-minute travelog on Greece and the Cyclades. Beautiful photography and a tolerable soundtrack, but as always, the two impose a reality on the scene that tends to trivialize the true aura of the place. Instead of a place it becomes a tourist destination, a spectacle to be see in passing, which is what tourism too often is. It reminds me of the sort of disorientation and cognitive dissonance that sometimes makes travel an uneasy process for me. I can’t reconcile the passing-through, spectator mentality with my knowledge that those rooted in a spot perceive a much different reality, as I would as well if I stayed there for a week, a month, a year, or longer. A traveler who stays in a place for a day or two is always separate from it, alienated by an invisible bubble that prevents any authentic commingling of his spirit with that of the local culture. He leaves saying, well, I’ve been to such-and-such. But he hasn’t actually BEEN there, he’s just passed through.

Southeast Utah is one distant place where I’ve spent a great deal of time compared to any other temporary destination I’ve visited. Most of that time has been concentrated in the choice two or three weeks of the year, the last week of April and the first week of May. The place is usually a paradise then, budding out in vivid green, contrasting to the omnipresent pink sandstone cliffs and canyons.  Potholes brim with water, with the only down side being those biting bugs which swarm at this short-term spell of abundant moisture. When I’m there, I often remind myself that at other times of the year paradise becomes hell, or at least purgatory. I’ve driven through the area in winter, when it’s cheerless and bleak, and at the height of summer when the sandstone roasts under the solar glare. Even though I remind myself of the fuller reality of the place, I tend only to imagine it in its spring garb when I need somewhere for an imaginary retreat.
As I watch a Greek video travelog, shot under blue skies and in the warmth of summer, I imagine how it must be in the dead of winter. Having never traveled in Greece in either winter OR summer, imagination is all I can muster, embellished by the writings of those who have been there. Trouble is, most of those descriptions leave out the harsh parts. Similarly, I remember traveling to the South of France as a youth. At the time it was spring and the weather was beautiful, which is the way I still picture it. But I've also read much about winters in Provence, when the Mistral blows from the north, creating conditions similar to the dreaded Nor'easter that plague the area where I live. People who visit me here in the sunny midsummer say they can hardly imagine icy winds, rains, and the general damp chill of winter here.

I’ve at times considered the fact that so many of the beauties of Europe are actually the product of horror. Witness the architectural beauties commissioned by King Leopold of Belgium, all financed by the exploitation of the African Congo. The narrator of this Greek travelog mentioned that those lovely convoluted streets of some harbor hillside villages were constructed that way to confuse invading pirates. It’s another case where horror begets beauty, that is, once the horror has been buried in the past. To me, the virtual tourist reality created for us by the forces of commerce and the imagination of ad agencies becomes disturbing when I manage to penetrate the illusion of the glittering ads for tropical winter havens in the back pages of the New Yorker and the picturesque travel videos I find at the local library.

Despite that, I still like to watch the travelogs sometimes, taking the hype with a large granule of rock salt. Or maybe one of those cubic-foot salt blocks the ranchers in Utah set out at watering holes for their cattle.

Perhaps all manmade beauty is a product of or a reaction against grimness of one sort or another. Grimness or despair. So it’s best to appreciate whatever beauty unpleasant experience begets as an expression of that which is best within the human spirit and try to temporarily ignore the darker reflections of truth.

Kevin Jones

Friday, August 12, 2011

Exhibits: Rolling Marbles

A question I get frequently get from visitors, and to which I’m hard-pressed to formulate a quick answer is, “Where do you get your ideas for exhibits?”. . . or simply, “how do you THINK of these things?”

The answer to that is complicated, since I’ve built over thirty major exhibits since we opened in 1995, and the idea for each one came from a different source. Some exhibits are all my own idea, others are modified versions of something I saw elsewhere, or they incorporate elements of something I ran across in anywhere from a magazine article to another museum.

For the sake of relative brevity, I’ll pick examples of several exhibits which I find most interesting or satisfying, and, over time, write a blog entry to describe the origins of each.

Let’s start with the Marble Pump and “Marbellous Indeterminacy”:

When I was in my twenties I went through a stage where I had grown tired of doing electronics work at the University of Colorado and had decided that maybe I’d start a business making wooden toys.

As a kid I’d loved playing in water, and I knew most children are similarly attracted. The problem with water and kids is that when you combine them, they make a mess. Hence I thought, why not dream up a toy with elements equally alluring to children as those afforded by water play, but without the mess. If you can pump water, why not pump marbles? My first marble pump was born.
Marble Pump 1
As it happened, this “toy” took me so long to create that I quickly realized that if I spent that much time on all such efforts, I’d never earn a living. After building a few more “toys,” I concluded that I’d probably be happier doing  electronics work for much higher pay, while building gadgets like this in my spare time. Furthermore, rather than defining them as “toys,” I thought it would be better to think of them as kinetic sculpture, since I seemed to be at least as interested in their aesthetics, function, and the sort of indirect statements they made, as I was in entertaining children. In fact, having appreciated the fact that good children’s stories entertained me as much as they did my daughter, I was challenged by the idea of creating these “sculptures” as objects which anyone could enjoy, not just children.

When Mindport materialized in ‘95, I’d already spent a year exploring my own fascination with water through the process of creating the Wave Music exhibit. This was a device I’d designed partly with the idea of manufacturing it. As had been true with the first marble pump, building a version that was commercially viable seemed impractical, or, to be honest, much less fun than putting together the first units. However, the one I’d built did seem perfectly suited as a first exhibit for Mindport.

Not long after Wave Music was installed at the newly-opened Mindport, my old interest in marble pumping re-awakened. The version you find displayed today is one of our oldest exhibits, and, to my amazement (knock on wood), it’s still going strong.
Marble Pump 2
The marble pump theme cropped up again in Marbellous Indeterminacy. For that exhibit I dreamed up five other ways to get marbles from a lower level to a higher one. . . and I literally mean DREAMED. Much of that exhibit grew from 3 AM, half-waking imagination. It took about 15 months to build, and it cost me endless  anxiety. The “indeterminacy” part originated from an idea I have about consciousness originating from “quantum indeterminacy.” No, I’m not going to attempt to articulate what I mean by that, but the exhibit has definitely lived up to its name, which was the source of my anxiety during its construction, and continues to be today. We’ve come to refer to Marbellous as “she” (and ladies, don’t take that as a sexist pronouncement), but once you get to know her. . . I’ll just say she has certain traits that I’d characterize as loveably mischievous in a distinctly feminine style.
Marbellous Indeterminacy
The Marble Pump and Marbellous are likely not the last exhibits you’ll see at Mindport incorporating rolling balls or marbles. John Ito and I have been discussing yet another exhibit incorporating this theme. Don’t’ hold you breath, but one of these days it will turn up. Rolling marbles, if anything, are even more entertaining, than water. Stay tuned!

Kevin Jones

Friday, August 5, 2011

Curiosity Killed the Cat?

Fully alive. . . and enjoying the catnip!

Whose curiosity are we talking about? The cat’s? According to Wikipedia, one origin of this term was English villagers whose cats were being killed by the experiments of the local scientist. It was the scientist’s curiosity that killed the cat, not the cat’s. Interesting the way this phrase been turned around so as to imply that allowing your own curiosity free rein might bring you to a sorry end.

I wonder if this bit of mythology has accounted for what appears to be an astounding lack of curiosity in so many citizens of “developed” countries, especially including our own. It seems it’s become unfashionable for the average citizen to harbor curiosity about what goes on around us, where we all came from, what makes our universe tick, or even mundane matters, like how the shelves of our local food market get stocked. We might be curious about what’s going on behind a neighbor’s closed curtains, or about who was in the car wreck down the street. But beyond that, it’s almost as though there’s a fear that if we look too closely, something scary might emerge from the shadows and devour us.

Indeed, there’s merit to that fear. Donald Rumsfeld talked about “the things we don’t know we don’t know.” It’s true that once curiosity gets a grip on us we might learn a lot of things we didn’t want to know. On the other hand, if we knew about them, maybe that would render them harmless, or at least accessible to consideration.

Somehow, any fears that I might have associated with gratifying curiosity didn’t inhibit it, even though, at age eight, I used to get myself into a slightly spooky frame of mind by wondering what was outside the universe. The first phenomenon I observed, which sparked a passionate fascination with science, and especially electronics, was the mystery of magnetic attraction. When I was five or six years old, my uncle, whom I admired for his esoteric knowledge of electronics, gave me a little cylindrical magnet that came from a radio loudspeaker. It set my curiosity alight about the  invisible and unfathomable force emanating from this bit of metal. It's not surprising that I should wonder about it, because nobody knows really what magnetism is, even now, though we know a great deal about what it does. Sixty years later, it’s still an absorbing mystery to me.

A friend of mine, trained as a scientist, once told me he hated the word “mystery.” That surprised me because personally I love it. Our  neighbor, the American Museum of Radio and Electricity has adopted the slogan: “Where discovery sparks imagination.” I like to consider their slogan in reversed form, as in, “imagination sparks discovery.” Even better, try, “mystery sparks imagination and discovery.” The mystery of magnetic force stimulated my imagination and a passionate interest in science and, beyond that, a curiosity about how on earth did we and all this amazing world around us come to be. . . and how did we get to be in such a mess these days?

What bothers me most about today’s state of political, economic, and every other kind of unrest, is that it betrays not only a lack of curiosity, but a lack of general interest in just about everything, except the fact we can’t find a job. Sorry, I don’t mean to say that’s a trivial concern, but, if you delve deeply enough, you find out the reasons for that. . . and they ultimately have to do with the physical realities of energy, pollution, resource depletion, complexity, overpopulation, and various inadequacies of the industrial system that has held us in its sway for over 100 years. Oh yes, greed and politics play a big part as well.

We’ve become preoccupied with abstractions. . .unexamined assumptions taught by rote, like “the invisible hand of the free market.” (See this essay and its sequel, by John Michael Greer ) We’ve lost sight of crucial physical realities, like the source of our daily ration of food, about how natural ecosystems are essential to our continued well-being and very existence. Instead, too many of us are breathlessly awaiting the release of the latest iGadget, and distracting ourselves with other trivialities, like political sex scandals, in the face of climate change and economic catastrophe.

Curiosity can lead us to delve into physical reality, to look into what is actually going on. Once we overcome our anxieties, and get a grip on actuality, then we’re much less likely to be mislead by those to whose advantage it is to foster our ignorance by indoctrinating us with abstract slogans. Greer’s comments in his essay cited above address the part education plays in this “wising up” process. All too frequently, the sort of education we get in officially certified schools does not wise us up in ways that might actually bring about real change in the predominate beliefs that are now leading us, like lemmings, over a cliff.

Curiosity is a quality to be both fostered and followed. It can be an educational guide, and educational opportunities are everywhere once you commence looking for them. There’s the Internet, especially sites like TED, where you can watch all sorts of talks by thinkers and scientists that will open up a world of possible explorations. Besides Mindport, I suggest visiting our neighbor, right around the corner, The American Museum of Radio and Electricity. Just reading or exploring such web sites as TED is only a start. Hands-on  involvement with one’s fascinations is essential, whether done via manual artwork, or, say, by taking one of the Radio Museum’s courses in Amateur Radio or building crystal sets. Physical exploration leads us in unexpected directions that we’d never anticipate if we restricted ourselves to simply reading or watching video.

One of my greatest hopes for Mindport is that it will inspire curiosity in those for whom curiosity might have been numbed, regardless of age. If we succeed, we hope curiosity won’t stop here. Liberation from the tedium of ingrained and unexamined beliefs comes to those whose curiosity inspires them to take their education in their own hands, moving away from abstract theory and toward the sort of concrete knowledge that might serve in the long term to deliver us from the severe predicaments we now face.

Kevin Jones
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