Crows are well known for their intelligence. In fact, the entire Corvidae family is renowned for being the smartest of all birds and some of the smartest of all animals. The secret to their superior intellect has been located in their brain for the first time, according to a new study from Lena Veit and Andreas Nieder from the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. – See more at: http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/crow-brains-reveal-secrets-their-intelligence#sthash.welnXqx2.dpuf
Yesterday NPR discussed President Obama’s proposal for universal early childhood education. A popular argument for universal early childhood education cited by Gene Sperling, an economist who I really admire–as much as one can admire an economist–is that spending on early childhood education save taxpayer dollars down the road. Sperling sites research suggesting that every dollar spent on high-qulaity pre-kindergarten education saves between $4 and $17 down the road in terms of things like higher wages and decreased juvenile delinquency. Nice, right?
This morning, continuing their look at the President’s proposal, the station showcased Georgia’s early adoption of universal early childhood education legislation. Critics of the policy point to the added cost and evidence that by third grade the gains seen due to early childhood education basically even out. In other words kids who went to pre-k are performing at the same levels as those who didn’t.
Aside from the point that the evidence is arguable on that last point, I think both commentaries point to a common but pretty disturbing perspective: That the value of the child can be measured–should be measured–in future achievement. Essentially we are saying, it doesn’t matter so much what high-quality early childhood experience means to a child, unless it translates into higher test scores, higher wages, or increased employability later. We value the child on for his or her future potential, not for the inherent value of that child as a person. I find that to be one of the saddest comments on our educational system and our society as a whole.
Last week, I had the pleasure of testing out Oru Kayak, the world’s first origami kayak. It was wonderful!
Anton Willis, the designer, and I met at the Berkeley Marina to put his latest iteration to the test. I had been watching Anton construct the kayak for months at TechShop and had always bugged him about taking me out for a test ride.
I recently began reading “Bicycle Diaries” by David Byrne. The book is basically a meditation on culture, politics, art and life in general, explored via Byrne’s travels through the world’s cities via bike. As I’m sure Byrne intended, his writing reminds me of the act of riding itself. Not the type of competitive riding, where you dress up in tight-fitting clothes and ride in a peloton. No, the type of cycling that frees you to explore, to spend hours riding inefficient routes through cities and towns. The kind of riding that gives you a whole new sense of place. Byrne hits upon truth that has been essential to me since I first grabbed a set of handle bars and put my feet to pedals. Bicycles are fantastic, beautiful and empowering machines–life would be less good without them.
Washington, DC, where I live, is in the midst of a bicycle renaissance. I hate to use the word, but it’s awesome to see. Chunky red and yellow City Bikes ply recently painted bike lanes from Arlington to Capital Hill to Georgetown. And everyone, or almost everyone, is riding. Old people, young people, businessmen in suits and women in heels are indulging in the pure joy and freedom of hopping on a bike and pedaling the streets and trails of the city and suburbs.
Bicycles and cyclists are causing a small revolution in the region. City and transportation planners are integrating bikes into their plans. Walk out of any Metro from Anacostia to Arlington and you’re likely to see a half full rack of red bikes. Who would have thought fifteen years ago that such a simple technology would hold so many answers to the regions transportation woes?
I know I’m a bit of an idealist when it comes to cycling. Even I don’t expect bicycles to solve the problems associated with suburban sprawl and traffic congestion. However, by getting butts on bikes we’re making strides. We’re sending a message about our priorities, and maybe we’re even doing a little something to stem the rising tide of obesity in the nation’s capital. Or maybe we’re just giving more people the means to engage life on their own terms and not to be tied down to bus schedules or the high price of gasoline.
Patterns exist all around us. Finding and interpreting them is most often a matter of close observation and creative, thoughtful documentation. In North Carolina’s Museum of Natural Sciences, Sosolimited and Plebian Design have found an interesting, engaging and quite beautiful way of using technology to demonstrate recurring patterns in nature.
Read the full post here. Excerpt below…
Some time ago Sosolimited and Plebian Design set out to create a large scale transparent LCD sculpture for a science museum atrium. Each pixel was designed as a piece of glass that could independently change the transparency of: from opaque black to transparent. The sculpture was designed to curve up through the atrium of the museum and display down-sampled patterns from nature, along with a high fidelity soundtrack. Almost two years later, its wonderful to see this project finally come to life.
“Patterned by Nature” was commissioned by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for the newly built Nature Research Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The exhibit celebrates our abstraction of nature’s infinite complexity into patterns through the scientific process, and through our perceptions. It brings to light the similarity of patterns in our universe, across all scales of space and time.
The 90’x10’ “ribbon” winds through the five story atrium of the museum and is made of 3600 tiles of LCD glass. It runs on roughly 75 watts, less power than a laptop computer. Animations are created by independently varying the transparency of each piece of glass. The content cycles through twenty programs, ranging from clouds to rain drops to colonies of bacteria to flocking birds to geese to cuttlefish skin to pulsating black holes. The animations were created through a combination of algorithmic software modeling of natural phenomena and compositing of actual footage.
An eight channel soundtrack accompanies the animations on the ribbon, giving visitors clues to the identity of the pixelated movements. In addition, two screens show high resolution imagery and text revealing the content on the ribbon at any moment.
Karen Rosenberg notes in Everyone Lives, In Pictures, her New York Times analysis of Instagram and similar photo applications, that a new cultural norm has arisen in photography. She quotes Susan Sontag’s collection of essays “On Photography.” In 1977 Sontag wrote:
“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”
“But”, as Rosenberg notes, “that was before smartphones and social media; before the imperative to share our photographs; before Instagram, purchased earlier this month by Facebook for $1 billion. The act of snapping a picture is no longer enough to confirm reality and enhance experience; only sharing can give us that validation.”
Rosenberg’s article reminds me of something that happened a while ago, when I took a group of students hiking on the Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls, Maryland just outside Washington, DC.
As we entered the trail from the northern side a student asked if she could listen to her Ipod while we hiked. I told the group that I’d really prefer that we not be hooked into technology during the hike. In other words, not cell phones, no texting, no music or apps. The one exception I was willing to make (and which I generally am willing to make) was the used of electronic devces for taking pictures.
So we began our hike. We scrambled over boulders, walked shaded paths and climbed a pretty steep wall, all before we stopped to eat lunch. As we came to an overlook where we could see the river below us and across to the Virginia side, I saw one of the students, thumbs working hard typing away on his smartphone.
I reminded him that we weren’t going to be e-mailing or texting while we hiked–or at all in the woods.
“No, no…” he said, “It’s alright, I’m not texting, I’m just posting my pictures to Facebook.”
In nature, form follows function… beauty and humor follow form. Some would argue that art is simply a comment (or multiple comments) on the form and function found in the natural world. And while I’m not qualified to make any definitive arguments on the nature of art, two projects that have that have recently come to my attention demonstrate pretty clearly how the artistic eye (and in the first case, also the scientific eye) uses close observation to create beautiful and even humorous images.
The form in nature that follows the specific function of individual proteins, inspires Maja Klevanski, a.k.a. May K, to create sparse black and white drawings that often humorously reflect the very function of the proteins she studies as a doctoral candidate at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Germany. In the “Drunk Girl” drawing below, Klevanski illustrates the job of the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) enzyme.
This time the drawing doesn’t have exactly the same look as the protein, but it is involved in the very same activity, in breaking down alcohol.
[Roman] asked me to draw an ethanol molecule. But as I can draw only proteins, I suggested him that I could draw the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), an enzyme which breaks down ethanol in our liver. How much alcohol we can stand, directly depends on the amount of ADH in our body. Thus, to all proud hard drinkers: It’s not you coping with all these alcohol amounts… always remember that there are these sweet little ADH girls in your body without whose help you would be lost.
Bryan Nash Gill’s relief prints of tree cross sections draw art from the very simplest and most common natural objects. Gill sees the beauty, as many of us have, in the concentric growth rings of trees. He has developed a process for transfer the life and history represented in the rings to a new media, creating in the truest sense wood cut prints, with a beauty attributable to, but separate from the natural object from which the pattern is derived.
Gill and Klevanski share the artist/scientist’s penchant for close observation, along with the the creative vision to produce something new and original that speaks directly to their works’ origins in the natural world.
I was going to write about this article from the New York Times Magazine this week. But I think the link below does just as good a job as I would have done, saying what I wanted to say.
Last summer I had the opportunity to organize ateliers for the NAREA Summer Conference at Asilomar. In my introduction (see below) I talked a little about a new field in science: soundscape ecology. The NY Times ran a story about current research this weekend: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html?pagewanted=all
read the rest: Soundscape Ecology / In Dialogue.
I’ve noticed that recently Corvidae Corvus has been dominated by posts about technology and do-it-yourself/maker topics. I guess that’s indicative of where my head has been at lately. But it is Spring (a little early, but nonetheless…), and it’s hard not to notice all the changes budding out–even here in urban DC.
We’re lucky enough to sit on the edge of Rock Creek Park. Across our back alley our neighbors are the fox family, who we occasionally hear and see late at night yapping to each other down the length of the alley. No doubt, out hunting rats and other vermin for their nightly meal. The wild goings on in our alley differ markedly from those in other parts of the District. Last night, I woke to the plaintive questioning of a barred owl, “Who-cooks-for-you? who-cooks-for-you?”
For an urban dweller, I have unusual access to forested tracts. But even in parts of the city without direct access, nature abounds. Recognizing it is a matter of looking with a different kind of gaze. And also, I would argue, recognizing nature when you don’t necessarily think you’re looking at it. The falcon waiting on the ledge of a building to pick off an unsuspecting pigeon, or even the tree sprouting out from the Metro overpass are examples of nature adapting to and reclaiming the urban landscape.
Stories of raccoons and coyotes rummaging through trash cans are not at all uncommon. But the common Norway rat that we city folk see running along a wall or run over by a bus represent a little bit of the wild in our cities. The lessons of nature don’t just occur in the forested rural lands, or even in suburban back yards. Survival, growth and beauty are sometimes all the more evident for the stark contrast of the city. It’s worth taking a walk along the river or through an alley to see some unexpected scenes.
Below, I quote from a piece by Rick Curtis, Director of Princeton University’s Outdoor Action program. Mr. Curtis is writing here specifically about observation in the forest–particularly about tracking. But his advice holds even in the most congested urban area:
The most important part of nature observation is relaxation. Observation and stalking require you to slow down and settle yourself. It is akin to a moving form of meditation. Animals can sense when you are agitated, anxious or fearful and will disappear. When you settle yourself, you can move among animals without them sensing your presence. You must press yourself to use all of your senses all of the time or they will become atrophied.
Vary your vision. Pay intermittent attention to your environment. Shift your focus. If you pay rapt attention to one thing, it will dull your senses (“highway hypnosis”). You will learn more if you are paying intermittent attention. Flash back and forth through your various senses, vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.
We tend to use focal vision about 95% of the time and wide-angle vision only 5%. Animals use the reverse (5% and 95%). To use wide-angle vision you want to take in all the information from your peripheral vision constantly then focus down when needed. Concentrate on the entire picture, mentally blocking out information to focus down.
The primary thing that gives you away (or an animal) is movement. Focused vision doesn’t pick up movement whereas wide-angle vision makes the eye reactive to movement. When you notice movement then focus down to that object. And once focused, keep tracking that animal visually very closely so that you don’t loose it. Keep this process in mind! This is how the animals look for you. Anything that is out of the natural order, movement, shadow, or noise attracts their attention and they focus on it.
At night using wide-angle vision utilizes all the peripheral areas of the eye which are more sensitive to low levels of light. This improves night travel and seeing animals. It will allow you to notice nighttime animal movement. Flashlights cause focal vision which restrict your sensitivity to movement. At night a wind will blow things in one rhythm. Anything moving contrary to that rhythm, check it out with focal vision.
When you are looking at something you scan “take a picture” then scan, “take a picture” etc. as you look across a landscape. When you look across that landscape again you tend to “take the same pictures” or focus on the same spots. The Blind Spots (dead air space) are the ones you miss. Over time the number of automatic snap shots decreases until you only see a few out of the whole scene. Eventually you really don’t see it at all. You must consciously fight dead air space all the time. Each time you look at a scene again look at it as something new. Also, don’t just look at solid objects (e.g. a tree); look through the spaces of the tree, between the branches. There may be a deer behind that tree that you will see if you look through it rather than looking at it.
We have tremendous peripheral hearing with our ears on the sides of our heads, but poor focused hearing. Since we can’t move our ears as many animals can, we don’t have directional hearing. But we can increase our hearing by 10x by cupping our hands, thumbs up, behind our ears, with the elbows out. This creates a parabolic reflector which gathers the sound in to our ears. This technique is paramount in locating animals and finding out what lies ahead of you.
Here’s a great quote from Saul Griffith in a past issue of MAKE magazine… “Kids can smell didactic like a giant adult skunk.”
I was thinking about this the other day as I was talking with my wife about how even “creative teaching” can become burdensome when it’s rote. I remember coming home from school in the third grade, excited about a brand new investigation we were about to start in class, only to have my older sister say that she could tell me everything I’d need to know (and do) because she’d done it just two years earlier with the same teacher.
Of course, teachers–like writers, accountants, doctors, cooks, and just about everyone else–recycle successful work from the past. And of course, we hope that the work grows and changes based on our own experience, the individual interests and learning styles of our students and the dynamics of the classroom. But like everyone else, teachers get overwhelmed and tired. We can easily be drawn to reach into that same bag of tricks over and over. Even the most creative lesson or project (the first time) becomes didactic when we think we know exactly how it’s supposed to go, and what the end result will be. In fact, I bet if you took a video of these types of projects from year to year, you’d see not only the teacher, but the students become less and less engaged.
As adults we know that we do have a responsibility to teach our children well. But it’s like the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song: our children will also teach us. We’re too often trapped by the triple threat of adulthood: 1- We have a responsibility to care for and protect our children; 2- We don’t want to look like we don’t know what we’re talking about; and 3- We think we’re too old to learn anything new.
So, how do we avoid this trifecta of stink? I think the solution is simple, yet somewhat uncomfortable and hard to do within the context of traditional (or even untraditional) learning environments. We have to tackle questions and experiments with our students to which we do not already know the answers. We have to be willing to be wrong and to understand that rather than making us look stupid in front of our charges, it provides us with an opportunity to model the type of learning we’re trying to encourage. We also have to be willing to listen to students’ ideas and thoughts, and to explore the implications even when we don’t think they’re going to take us where we want to go.
Now, this is not to say that our experience and wisdom shouldn’t determine how we structure investigations, or how we approach problems. Experience is the best teacher–whether it’s our own or someone else’s.
It all sounds easy. But no matter how hard one tries, there will always be a time that you’ll be standing at the front of the room looking at a bunch of people holding their noses.