Bicycle Revolution

I recently began reading “Bicycle Diaries” by David Byrne. Bicycle Diaries, by David ByrnThe 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.


I love what Thomas has to say in this piece. Giving children the appropriate materials, and the right tools (real tools) to work with those materials demonstrates a level of respect for their abilities–as does giving them the appropriate techniques and training to use those tools.
When we take away tools we inhibit learning and exploration. We take away a person’s ability to work effectively.
We do the same thing when we give children substandard materials, or encourage them to use “real” materials in naive ways. Our hands and minds want to use real tools and materials. Dumbing down the way we use materials, and making every blade, point and blunt object safer for little hands is not only unnecessary, it is disrespectful to our young people.
Again, I love what Thomas has to say in this piece.

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.