City Fox and Urban Owl

View from the upstairs front windowview from the upstairs back windowI’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.

I. Varied Sensory Awareness

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.

II. Wide Angle (Splatter) Vision vs. Pinpoint Vision

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.

III. Automatic 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.

IV. Focused Hearing

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.


Green Meat?

Green cowIt takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef. That’s a lot of food going to feed a cow that will arguably become less food. People don’t eat grass, but it can still be argued that a lot more food could be grown on the land (or a lot of trees, or switchgrass…) that it takes to feed a single cow. But what if we could produce a pound of meat and leave the grain to feed people, or the trees to filter polluted air, or the switchgrass to create new clean-burning fuels? This afternoon on the Kojo Nnambi Show, on WAMU, Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and Michael Specter, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Livestalked about new developments that may eventually allow scientists to grow meat in sterile laboratories–no animals harmed.

The piece is interesting mostly because at the same time that it conjures slightly grotesque science gone awry images of cuts of beef hanging from wires and tubes in sterile, climate controlled laboratories, it also forces us to confront some deeply held misconceptions about genetic modification, organic foods and the nature of nature itself. It forces conversations–somewhat uncomfortable conversations in fact–about technology and nature, ecology and genetic manipulation, natural and processed foods, vegetarian/vegan ethics and making meat in a test tube that doesn’t harm animals, emotion and reason, as well as a host of other topics. It poses questions that increasingly a becoming a lot harder to answer.

I appreciated Michael Specter’s ability to be the guy I so badly wanted to hate, but who became the guy instead who forced me to confront some basic prejudices and to really assess my values at a core level. Am I more concerned about ecology or some idealized, pastoral sense of nature and purity? Does the ability to feed people, even if it’s by growing meat in a test-tube,  trump my desire for supporting locally-raised, sustainable, back to the land husbandry? Does my repulsion at the over-processed, candy-coated, hydrogenated foods I find in my supermarket cloud my vision when it comes to how we produce and deliver calories and nutrients to starving people?

In the end, being forced into an uncomfortable position, having to honestly confront values to which we may believed ourselves inextricably tied is an important exercise. We’re not often really asked to do that.



Printer Perfect: The future is here

This video from the Laboritori de Fabricacio in Barcelona’s Disseny HUB museum shows the present and future potential of on-demand 3D printing. In this future, everyone becomes a designer to suit their own specific needs, the means of production is at everyone’s fingertips, and every mug has the perfect handle…

Think this is a fantasy? Then check this out…

From the Make magazine blog:

Customize Replacement Parts with 3D Printing

German maker Thorsten Wilms wanted to add a nice headlight to his new bike, but a couple of cables got in the way of a clean installation. He ordered a new clamp to compensate for the cables, but it ended up positioning the business end in the opposite direction. So he did what everyone with access to FreeCAD and should do: he redesigned the part to position it in the proper direction and printed a copy using a similar material. [via bikehacks]


stemsteam valveIn order for America to remain competitive–or more accurately, to regain our competitive edge–we need to focus on education. Specifically, we are told we need to focus on STEM education–Sience, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Prophets (as well as charlatans) of growth, economic development, and good public policy from the White House to the school-house to the work-house tout the importance of STEM education to the nation’s future. These advocates of a new American exceptionalism see a future tied to the steady progress of science, the power of innovative new technologies, the efficiencies of enlightened engineering and an understanding gained through the judicious application of mathematical principles to an ever-increasing cauldron of useful data. In large part, they are correct. Our educational system is hopelessly out of date, we are not educating students for the present let alone for a successful, self-directed future. STEM education recognizes the need to keep up with new discoveries and changing technology, to build an understanding of the hardware Unfortunately, this vision of the future comes up wanting in some important ways, with STEM education reifying false partitions between the “serious” disciplines of science and mathematics, and the more “liberal” and “fine” arts–the very areas that are spurring new innovations that will shape our future.

A growing chorus of voices, however, is not so much eschewing the call for STEM education as it is questioning the completeness, and yes even the wisdom, of an educational paradigm that neglects the arts. This chorus calls for reconsidering the STEM movement, to develop a more complete STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Art) paradigm of education. The reasoning goes that without arts education, future workers will lack necessary creative and collaborative skills that are increasingly important. John Tarnoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post does a good job making the argument that many of the new jobs created by the technology boom are in fact in creative areas. “Companies want workers who can brainstorm, problem-solve, collaborate creatively and contribute/communicate new ideas,” Tarnoff notes. And those workers are not always easy to find.  There is, therefore, a basic economic argument for creating systems and policies that encourage STEAM education.

But is an economic argument the only way to justify STEAM focused education? I won’t get into a long discussion on the nature of education (publicly funded education in particular), or ask whether we shouldn’t be considering factors beyond worker training when developing goals and drafting policy– educating an informed and able citizenry for example, or promoting democratic ideals and ethics. No, what I’m talking about is a more basic principle, but one that continues to be demonstrated as we evolve socially, culturally, and technologically. I call it the principle of connections.

We too often divorce the “hard science” disciplines from the arts (and here I include the liberal arts), just as we often assume that “nature” and “technology” (or even industry) are mutually exclusive, perhaps even conflicting ideas. Throughout history, however, such dichotomies have been consistently discredited. It is equally as wrong to assume that the engineer or scientist lacks creative capacity as it is to write off the observational, technical and analytic skills of the artist or philosopher. From Leonardo da Vinci to E.O. Wilson our greatest scientific thinkers have also often displayed immense artistic talent, each grounded in their abilities to observe, analyze, document and most of all imagine. In fact scientists and engineers are among the most ardent advocates for STEAM over STEM thinking.

There is one more connection, I’d like to add to this discussion, though. That is making, or the manual arts (would that be STEAMM education?). Shop classes, home economics and all forms of manual learning (what we might call labor) continue to be stripped from our school curricula in order to make room for more reading, writing, science and math. From a purely economic standpoint this makes little sense, especially in light of the Obama administration’s focus on bringing manufacturing strength back to the American economy. From an educational standpoint, though, it’s nothing short of disastrous. Instead of stripping manual arts from the curriculum we would do better to more thoroughly integrate them into every aspect of learning. Math, science, art and all the rest would likely benefit from providing hands-on experiential opportunities for students to learn. Take students out of the classroom and away from the textbooks and computer screens for a significant part of each day and lets see if achievement (not to mention satisfaction) doesn’t increase.


On February 29th, The New America Foundation, Slate and Arizona State University hosted Tinkering with the Future:Will the DIY Movement Craft the Future?. I hate to be a spoiler, but the answer is pretty much YES, makers, tinkerers (tinkers?), crafters and the like will play a huge role in our future economy and culture creation–if we do it right.Tinkering

There is no point in my going into a protracted summary of the afternoon’s events. You can watch a webcast of the symposium here.

Some highlights to look for:

  • Tim Wu, Professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires explains how tinkerers created the twentieth century as we know it. He talks about how the technological innovations we all know, love and need (or at least wouldn’t know how to do without) were, for the most part, created by amateurs working away in their garages (both literally and figuratively).
  • Dale Dougherty, Founder and Publisher of Make magazine, and Tom Kalil, Associate Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy answer questions about the maker philosophy, who makers are, governments role in harnessing the innovations of makers and promoting the maker ethic and the economics of the maker movement. In this conversation, moderated by David Plotz, Editor at Slate, Dougherty and Kalil discuss the fundamental contributions makers will have on the economy and on society as a whole. They also get into some discussion about how our educational institutions need to learn from and emulate the maker ethic. It’s interesting to hear Dougherty, the maker and Kalil the wonk compare notes.
  • Annie Lowrey’s conversation with Mitzi Montoya, Dean of the College of Technology & Innovation at Arizona State University, and Jim Newton, Chairman and Founder of TechShop is incredibly interesting for it’s educational implications. My favorite part of this conversation is the answer each gives to my question about what kind’s of technologies we should have in our schools. Again, I hate to be a spoiler, but Newton responds that we should put all shop classes back into schools, while Montoya lists three things that she thinks every student should study: Art, Shop and Programming. Who would have thought someone named Mitzi would be so smart.
  • Journalist and Author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, Jeff Howe explains briefly how he coined the term “crowdsourcing”, and gives an enlightening talk about how opening up problems to a wide undefined audience can reap huge results. He sites as his example InnoCentive. The website set up to crowdsource answers to important (and profitable) scientific questions. Howe does a much better job than I can at explaining exactly how this works. But he sites three remarkable findings that I’ll mention here: 1) 1/3 of the problems posted on InnoCentive are solved. A remarkable ration when you consider that these are problems that the brightest minds in their respective fields have worked on, sometimes for years. 2) There is a pronounced positive correlation between the the researchers who solve a particular problem and how far outside their area of expertise the problem is. Basically (but not exactly), the less they know about a field, the more likely they are to solve a problem in that field. 3) For the problems that are solved most of the people solving them knew within twenty minutes that they could solve the problem–remember these are problems that the best minds in the field have often spent years on.
  • The final two discussions, Crafting the Do-It-Yourself Economy and Can Our Patent System Support (or Survive) the DIY Movement? are both fascinating conversations. The first focuses on the future of employment–the future nature of work, actually. A topic that is important to educators and policy types because it should be informing how we build our current systems and educate young people. The second looks at how a broken patent system (or at least a system that has not kept up with modern technology) could either stand in the way of the DIY ethic, stifling innovation and the economy as a whole; or could encourage open platforms, tinkering at the edges and real innovative potential. Both are definitely worth watching.

SUPERSENSORIAL: Experiments in Light Color and Space

About a year ago I was covering a Socratic seminar for a fellow teacher who was out for an extended period. He’d hurt his back and couldn’t comfortably sit or stand for any length of time. It was an unexpected new responsibility for which I hadn’t had time to adequately prepare…but all that’s really quite irrelevant to the subject of this post. By the time I took over his class the students had already come to the conclusion that neither black nor white are colors, and had moved on to discussing the nature of grey. I encouraged them move beyond their well-reasoned, circular arguments and to actually do a little research into color theory, the physics of light, the structure of the eye, and the neurological processes that influence our perception of color and light. In the end, I think we ended up at an impasse with certain students maintaining that grey was simply a shade and not a true color, some insisting that grey is most definitely a color since we also must consider the non-monochromatic hues, and a few claiming that they still weren’t convinced that any of us could say for certain that what we all called grey was in fact grey.
I wish that the new exhibit,“Supersensorial: Experiments in Light Color and Space”, had been at theHirshhorm Museum while my students and I were having this dialogue. We may not have gotten any closer to agreeing about the nature of grey, but we would certainly have had a much more interesting conversation about color,  light and how our experience of an environment or object can be totally transformed based on our perceptions. Some of the young philosophers would doubtless have asked the same questions I heard from exhibit-goers:

“Are the walls white?” or “Wasn’t that little room more pink the last time we walked through?” as they walked through Carlos Crus-Diez’sChromosaturation room, where the viewer is immersed in an environment lit by three sets of fluorescent lights (blue, magenta and green). As one moves through the space the distinct colors of the overhead lights begin to meld and morph. The walls, floor and ceiling change hue–pink becomes orange, blue fades to lavendar and then deepens to violet–and the viewer’s sense of the environment becomes less concrete even as it intensifies.

Moving from Cruz-Diez’s saturated interior space, the young sages would have encountered an entirely different sort of environment (object?) that would  almost certainly have elicited similarly profound, but very different discussions of vision, sensation, movement and perception.

Jesus Rafael Soto’s Blue Penetrable BBL sits, or rather hangs, like some beep blue decontamination unit in the antiseptic white white room. Resembling something out of Woody Allen’s 1973 comedy thriller Sleeper, Soto’s environment adds a tactility to the disorienting visual effect of light bouncing off hundreds of hanging blue tubes that dissect the participants field of vision. The piece creates a vibrating effect in the room, like silent static on a blue and white screen. Walking through, or watching others walk through the blue nylon baleen shadows and light play funny games.

Much less disorienting is Helio Oiticica‘s Cosmococas. The opium den inspired environment felt more like an attempt to recreate a scene from a late 60s animated Spider Man episode than an experiment in light and perception. Although it might have been interesting to talk with our philosophers about how placing this installation in a museum might have affected our experience differently than placing it, say, in the basement of their grandparents early 1970s ranch house. And whether we would have reacted differently if the images flashing on the wall were scenes from  World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.

Julio Le Parc‘s Light in Movement (shown above) also might have given us some interesting points of reflection–both literally and figuratively. Using only two spotlights, and some small silver mirrors in a darkened curving room, Le Parc makes some interesting points about reflection and perception. A grid of small silver mirrors hang from filament, catching the beams of light from the spotlights and reflecting them much larger on the curving wall behind the occupants of the room. A large mirror at the front of the room allows us to see a 360 degree view. Small movements in the hanging grid are reflected and translated as big arching, and spinning starlike lights on the back wall. Our thinkers might have found any number of metaphors to talk about the distorting effect of reflection. Any of which would likely have taken us beyond our simple discussion of grey.

As a teacher, I found Supersensorial… a befitting title for this exhibit. Science and art meet in this exhibit to create interesting environments that should  elicit discussions and explorations beyond the typical “what do you think the artist was trying to say” lessons that too often are the basis for a visit to the art museum. Forcing us to interact with art, and the environment, in different ways, Supersensorial opens a world of possibilities for interdisciplinary investigation.