Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gallery Show: The Language of Rock

A new selection of my photos will be hanging in Mindport's gallery for the next couple months. These images were collected on the Oregon Coast in the vicinity  of the towns of Gold Beach and Cannon Beach, where weathering clay and crumbling stone cliffs have deposited wide varieties and sizes of lithic artifacts on the beach. In other words, pebbles, rocks, stones, and boulders, many of them bearing markings betraying eons of geologic history.

Geology was one subject I studied for a full year during my time as a college freshman. For a period I thought I might care to take on geology  as a profession, but I realized eventually that my interest was not academic but aesthetic. Besides that, the oil industry is probably the greatest single employer of geologists, so I'm retrospectively grateful not to have made that choice, considering the recent depredations of that industry.

I find it difficult or impossible to articulate verbally what attracts me to geology, which is part of the point of these photographs. As you might be able to tell by looking at them, rocks speak to me metaphorically. Perhaps, having grown up as a military brat who moved every three years or less of my young life, I find reassuring the primordial permanence of geological structure, the knowledge that its character has been formed over millions of years of crushing, crumbling, melting, congealing, twisting, and folding through the actions of orogeny, wind, flood, and freezing. These forces all leave their marks on the face of mother earth which invite interpretation by my own imagination.

Kevin Jones

Saturday, September 27, 2014

New Exhibit: Combination Lock

As a kid I took a lot of things apart to see how they worked: clocks, radios, motors, various mechanized toys. Usually they didn't get put back together again, but most of the time they were castoffs anyway so that there was no loss and plenty of gain for me in the form of learning how things worked. One device I never did take apart was a combination lock, mostly because locks are designed to be difficult to disassemble, for obvious reasons. Hence, I've never educated myself as to exactly how a combination lock operates. Until now.

Recently I paid a visit to Matthias Wandel's woodworking site on the web. I discovered this site back when I was building Mindport's pipe organ, and found a number of  useful ideas that I incorporated into my instrument. It's a good place to look for exhibit ideas, not to speak of a large collection of esoteric woodworking wisdom. Upon looking through the various wooden gadgets that Wandel has designed, I ran across plans for an operating combination lock mechanism, all fabricated from wood. For $7 I downloaded these plans and built my own version, which you can now explore at Mindport.

Kevin Jones

Friday, September 19, 2014

Currently in our Gallery

Thao Thanh Le
Bellingham's Plein Air Artists will be showing their paintings in Mindport's gallery September 19 through October 5th.

They submitted the following statement:

We paint from life in order to learn how to see. If you can paint light, you can paint everything under the sun.
          --Frank LaLumia, PAPA Signature Member

Painting from life is a pursuit unlike any other painting technique. It challenges artists to concentrate every sensory nerve on the information in front them. They absorb it all, from sight to sound, from temperature to atmosphere, and then channel those feelings from head to hand, re-creating the vision in paints on paper or canvas.

The roots of painting from life are found in 19th-century Europe. Englishman John Constable believed the artist should forget about formulas and trust his own vision in finding truth in nature. To find that truth, he made sketches outdoors, then elaborated on them in the studio. Around the same time in France, in a small village outside Paris called Barbizon, a group of artists focused their attentions on peasant life and the natural world surrounding it. Like Constable, Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet challenged conventions of the day, choosing everyday subjects rather than the traditional cliches and presenting them in natural settings, the information for which came from sketches made in the field.

 These realists, as they came to be called, laid the groundwork for the mid-19th century revolution in France that took painting from life to its logical conclusion. Lead by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edouard Degas, Auguste Renoir, et. al. the impressionists espoused the belief that you should trust your eyes. Using newly developed theories of how the eye physically registers color, they maintained that what you saw in nature was not form, but rather light on form. And light could be conveyed by color. To prove their theories, they took their paint tubes and easels outdoors, where they re-created the world as colors which suggested light. Rebuffed at first for what appeared to be unfinished paintings, the impressionist vision soon became a standard for truthfully conveying the outdoor experience.

Painting en plein air (in the open air) would forever change how we see the world. Artists in the United States were attracted to the concept, and many, like Californian Guy Rose, traveled to France to study with Monet. Suddenly, places with remarkable light were of particular interest to painters, including the both the East and West Coasts, and the American Southwest, where painting colonies formed. The goal of teachers and students alike was to capture the light and colors peculiar to the place.

Today, painting from life is a pursuit that continues to challenge the finest artists in the world, as well as the group from Studio UFO here in Bellingham.  This August will be our 9thth Annual Downtown Bellingham Plein Air Paint Out & Exhibition (PAPO).  We have an average of 30 artists that participate.  The Bellingham PAPO is different in that it focuses on the downtown core and not a natural or wilderness setting.  It is our mission to raise awareness about plein air painting, to show the community how many artists are here in Bellingham and to show the artists' interpretation of downtown Bellingham.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Automation as Golem

Early Telegraph Device, Spark Museum, Bellingham, WA
I've been involved in electronics since an early age. I was accomplishing simple radio repairs at age 9, earned my first ham radio license at age 14, and built more than one transmitter by the time I'd graduated from high school. In those days (I  turned 14 in 1958), many people my age earned radio licenses, and many of us built our own gear simply because that was the only way we could afford it.

As  time passed, I built more and more equipment, mostly associated with ham radio. At age 19, after one year of college, I spent 15 months working on an oceanographic ship in the Indian Ocean. I was responsible for keeping the ship's electronic equipment in operation: echo sounders, radar, and a few pieces of laboratory gear. Upon returning home, I returned to school for couple years, vacillating between arts & sciences and engineering. A&S was too crazy, and engineering too linear. That was in the mid-60s.

Eventually I ended up working as an electronics technician, then as a research engineer in the radio astronomy branch of the Astrogeophysics Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I'd previously been a student. One of my jobs there was to automate the tracking mechanism that controlled two twenty-ton radio telescope antennas that ran on circular rails.  My system read punched cards in a modified IBM card reader that weighed about 600 pounds. One card with new solar coordinates coded into it fed through the reader every 15 minutes and the electronics moved the antennas in accordance to them. Solar radio emissions were recorded on a chart recorder identical to the ones used to record water depth during my shipboard duty in the Indian Ocean.

That was the first time I'd been involved in automating anything. Previous to that time, the antennas had been moved at quarter hourly intervals by a grad student reading solar pointing data from a table. Hence the device I built eliminated one job.

By that time I was 25 years old. The antenna pointing system whetted my appetite for automating things, one way or another. I built a porch light turner-onner to turn on the porch light of our house when I came home after dark. It included a timer to keep the light on for a couple minutes before turning it off. That was before commercially made motion detectors were on the market. My version used a photo transistor to detect the light of my headlights.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about automation. When I later became a potter, I fired my kiln just a few times before realizing that here was a function that could easily be automated. I built three different versions of kiln programmers, the last one being completely software mediated via the first notebook computer, the Tandy 100. I had it configured so I could call the computer from a remote phone and get data on the current firing stage and temperature read out to me via Morse code.

That was fun. A few more years went by, along with various other electronic projects, one involving a joint effort with a friend, to build an electronically controlled espresso machine. It was operated by a microprocessor, which by that time was common and widely available device. The project took us about 8 years to complete, during which time I learned a lot about microprocessors, programming, etc, enough that it eventually led to building the wave music machine now on display at Mindport. That was the product of an obsessive year of work, during which I actually injured myself by writing software code, ultimately 30 pages of it.

Those lengthy sessions of coding while sitting in a straight-backed chair and staring at a computer screen culminated in a seriously inflamed muscle in my pelvis, which kept me immobile for several weeks. It set me to thinking about the obsessive quality of the programming work I was doing, and was my first clue that there was an emotional component to my intense interest in programming and automating things. It led to questions about the role played by electronic equipment in the larger world, not just my own.

Wave music was the first exhibit I built for Mindport. . . except I didn't know it was for Mindport because it was 1994 and Mindport didn't exist yet. After Mindport opened in 1995, I installed "Wave Music" there, then built the "House of Mystery," which incorporated two microprocessors to control its lighting functions. I could have done that with simple toggle switches, but I wanted it to cycle its lighting automatically and detect when someone came near so it could prepare itself to interact with a visitor. This incorporation of electronics into what was basically an art piece really set me on the path on considering the meanings behind automation, not only personal meanings but meanings in society at large.

Jump ahead, nearly to the present. A year or so ago Mindport began subscribing to "Make" magazine, which is devoted to. . . what else but making things. As time has passed the magazine seems to have evolved from one devoted to making a large variety of things, such as wooden gadgets and toys, plus a few electronically related devices, to one much more focused on high tech gadgetry, and robots of various sorts, including drone aircraft. I wondered why our societal obsession with robots seemed to be escalating, and I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with the trend.

At the same time techno-triumphalists (a word I believe was coined by James Howard Kunstler) were beginning to talk about "The Singularity," which is a kind of techno-rapture that they believe will occur when humans have fully integrated themselves with machinery, to the point that we can upload ourselves to computers and live forever.

My candid opinion on this subject is this: HOGWASH!

After years of deep immersion in electronics, computers, programming, and then art, I've begun to understand something about the meaning of our societal obsession with electronic gadgetry, and especially robots. A clue came when it occurred to me that in my own process of automating things I was, in a sense, creating crude proxies of my own self.

There's an archetypal figure in Jewish mythology called a golem. I'll leave it to you to read the entry on the Golem found in Wikipedia. Basically it was a being formed from mud, then magically animated. If you remember the story of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, its theme runs parallel. In the latter story, the sorcerer goes away to attend outside business. His apprentice, an amateur in magical operations, animates a broom to carry water for him. The broom goes out control because the apprentice has not learned the spells necessary to de-animate the broom. He attempts to stop it by chopping it into bits, but all the fragments jump up and each begins carrying water until the apprentice is swimming for his life.

The story of the Golem or that of The Sorcerer's Apprentice are part of our cultural mythology. Many people think of myths as just stories we tell to amuse ourselves, with no relation to any rational truth. However myths are usually descriptions of deep patterns that run in our psyches, our "collective unconscious."

One significant part of the Golem mythology is that the Golem is made out of mud or clay. You might ask what that has to do with electronic technology. Everything. Look at the computer upon which you're reading this. Every component in it was dug out of the earth: the oil from which the plastic case and circuit boards are made, all the carbon, copper, silver, gold, and rarer elements that make up the electronic circuitry and screen. All were dug from the earth.

In many ways this machinery we've built constitutes a Golem that has or is rapidly taking on a life of its own. We've so thoroughly incorporated this electronic equipment, formed from earth, into our lives that it actually controls us, not the other way around. Consider what would happen if the Internet was put out of commission by hackers, a solar storm, or other disaster. The country, or the world, in fact, outside of the rare indigenous tribe still living sustainably off the land, would come to a screeching halt. It would be like suddenly destroying an animal's nervous system. Instant death. We are completely in the power of the machinery.

Certain  people, Google’s Ray Kurzweil, for example, enthusiastically predict a day when we're fully integrated with machines, possibly having "uploaded" ourselves into them.  But how many machines still are viable after being in operation for eighty or a hundred years? How many of them can climb a fourteen thousand foot peak running on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a couple quarts of water?

Whoa! What are we thinking, and why?

Kurzweil and other high-powered technologists, such as Marvin Minsky of M.I.T. , Bill Gates, and others, have indeed made many valuable contributions to the technosphere. However the tech cheering section seems oblivious to the fact that every technological innovation invariably creates a whole raft of new problems, which we then attempt to solve by introducing yet more technology. Kurzweil earned a B.S. in computer science and literature at M.I.T. One wonders what literature he actually read, or whether he took other courses that focus on the human condition. Wikipedia informs us that in high school:  “. . .he often held onto his class textbooks to seemingly participate, but instead, focused on his own projects which were hidden behind the book.”

The latter quote lends credence to my belief that technologists are the LEAST qualified people to be guiding the future of the world. So many of them apparently have very little grounding in subjects such as history, social studies, anthropology, psychology or other humanities. If they do, they act oblivious to any truths they might have garnered there. Do we want our lives determined by people obsessively interested in technology to the exclusion of everything else?  Should we do what they believe is good for us without question?  (Of course, we love the toys they invent, partially because we're a young culture, even adolescent, as Robert Bly argued in his book, The Sibling Society, but it doesn't necessarily mean all the toys are good for us.)

We're in a jobs crisis. That's because either the jobs have been sent overseas where labor is cheaper, or they've been taken over by machines. I eliminated at least one job myself by building a machine. Granted, it was a pretty tedious job, turning a couple antennas every fifteen minutes. But it did provide support for one grad student who could study or read while doing his or her job.

The computerized espresso machine I helped build eliminated the need for a barista to possess any particular skill in making espresso coffee, which means if a restaurant owned one of these machines, they wouldn't have to train anyone in the subtleties of making espresso with an old fashioned (beautiful) manually operated machine. One more job down the drain. It probably increased espresso "productivity" and the profits of machine owners, but was perhaps not the gift to the world that my engineering partner and I anticipated at the time. Incidentally, I never made any money off that enterprise. But that's a whole other story.

All I've written above leads to no answers but only to questions, and possibly a couple realizations. The biggest and most interesting question to me is, why this preoccupation with replacing our own functions with machinery? Which leads to this one: once we're replaced ourselves with machinery, what are we FOR, what do we DO, what's the purpose of our lives? A few of us who are artists and scientists can keep themselves happily amused creating art or exploring the universe. What about the rest? I've argued that there's an artist in everyone, but I've also known plenty of people with absolutely no interest in art OR science. What happens to those who like to build, maintain, and repair useful things; the people who are the human face and life of our businesses and daily transactions?

It seems to me that those who go to extremes in advocating or believing that machines can effectively replace the functions of human beings have a very limited concept of what it means to be human, and about what characteristics are desirable in a human-centered society. They possess a stunted view of their own essence. This was not an academic realization for me, but it was one that my own years-long immersion in machinery, to the point that it afflicted me with a physical ailment, woke me up to. We are not machines. We are not even LIKE machines. Machines are modeled after a very limited understanding of our own being, and that conception of our being has its own history, grown over time into a set of unconscious beliefs about ourselves that, should we penetrate them deeply, might allow us to expand our being in unexpected ways. Such understanding would also enable us to chart a course for ourselves and our society that could culminate in a much happier existence for everyone.

Post Script: You will notice that I've drawn little or no distinction between automating processes and creating robots. A robot is simply an ultimate form of automation, perhaps more autonomous than other forms. An automated machine or process is a limited form of robot. I’m not arguing that some, or even many, processes shouldn’t be automated, but that we need to widen our understanding of the function our lives serve and consider more deeply the meaning of whatever automation we eventually accomplish, not to speak of how much we really want machinery mediating our daily existence.

Kevin Jones

Friday, May 30, 2014


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  

-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


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 affects 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 affect 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 affects 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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