Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Make Magazine: Your Own Wunderkammer

Yay! I just got my copy of Make Magazine today, which has my three page article on Wunderkammer in it. Check it out at Make's website (the page 130 part), or better yet buy a copy to see all the juicy pictures. It looks like a great issue, with all kinds of steampunk how-to's and interesting "lost knowledge."

Woo hoo!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Killing Wonder: Life in the Disaster Zone

I'm angry, so I am climbing on my soap box. Here I go: one foot, the other... If you aren't interested in a rant, you can skip this particular post - I won't be offended. But I have to say these things, for the sake of all the people yet to come, all the wonders yet to be made or found or rescued. And for my own peace of mind.

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Today the State Senate here in California cut the education budget by 8.4 billion dollars. We are already 50th in the nation for both quality of schools and (surprise!) money spent on education.

Here is the outcome, for many of our school districts:
- No more art.
- No more music.
- No more sports.
- No more libraries.
- It ceases to be cost effective to pay more teachers to keep the class sizes for the younger children small. Therefore, teachers will be fired and large numbers of children crammed in with fewer teachers, because it's cheaper - even with the paltry fines imposed for going too high on class numbers.

The people who hold the Senate hostage every year, the 34% minority who keep wealthy constituents happy and block the other 66% from running the budget in a sane manner, are some of the highest-paid legislators in the country. They believe that their constituents are only going to be happy if their taxes stay at the present rate, which is set somewhere around 1982, by my (admittedly top-of-the-head) reckoning. How does one run a big state like this one if the income is circa 1982, but the expenses are circa 2009, you say? Well, by keeping professors' salaries at 2/3 what they should be, so that working for a university becomes a losing proposition. Or by giving out IOUs instead of paychecks to their employees at budget time - never mind those mortgage payments, or that insurance. Or, by making the children suffer.

What I really want to know is, how will our children grow up knowing the wonders available to the mind without art, music, or libraries? Sports are important: the body is where we live, and we need to explore its capabilities. But sports are valued by even the most unimaginative members of any community. Sports will not die. Art and music -- they could, and they will. And without libraries, the children in impoverished communities will never learn to escape, never learn what other worlds are out there. How can someone in a small farming community ever get the chance to think broadly about ideas if they have no access to books? How will we raise literate, intelligent voters on such a meagre intellectual diet?

No Child Left Behind has been a horrible mistake. Children are evaluated, according to this plan, solely on their test scores. The schools must improve their scores over time (regardless of the level of their initial tests) or be stripped of control over their curricula and forced to institute state-mandated, test-oriented teaching programs. With these budget cuts, the time once taken to overcome this pressure and teach critical thinking skills will now become nigh on unreachable.

It's difficult not to believe these people have a goal: that of keeping our youth uneducated. The more uneducated a populace is, the more easy it is to direct them, the more they can be made to believe in concepts like a Fatherland, or a nationalist party. They're more likely to vote from their emotions, from their prejudices, rather than from their considered reflection of what is best for everyone. Without the perspective of learning, the sense of height and breadth one gets looking through the eyes of multiple authors, it becomes much more difficult to experience selflessness. For most people there can only be the one opinion, the one truth.

And the wonder! Children are supposed to be the ones who come up with crazy ideas. How many parents have had their child ask about something he or she has heard or read and processed? How many children each day hear a story and come home to tell their parents about it? Children are sponges, absorbing everything they come into contact with, and for this reason they are specially at risk. I can't and won't imagine the painfully dry desert the children here in California are about to experience. I can't and won't allow it to happen.

In our school, each class has a weekly Library Visit, where the children are taken into the library to return last week's book and to find a new book for this week. Some of the children literally don't know what to do with their books. They find something at random, check it out, take it away, and bring it back next time, without actually reading it much. But this is the thing: they are learning they can do it: they are learning the library routine. They love the fact that they get to keep this book for a week - all to themselves, not to share with anyone if they don't want to. It doesn't always matter if they read it: they get to have it. They have access. When I was in the bookmobile the other day, there was a kid there who didn't speak English so well but was watching all the people bringing in and taking away books. And get this: he had been trained since Kindergarten to do the same thing at the school library; he knew he too could do it if he wanted, he just had to figure out how it worked. While he stood there, watching, the librarian said to him, "You want a library card? Here, fill out this and this, and have your parent sign it there." The kid was back in 5 minutes, the form all filled out and signed. And he walked out with a book and his own card, back to the place he lives with six other people in two rooms.

You see, school is where we learn our options. In a perfect world, it's where we get to escape the confines of our income, our class, and our home life. We get to be, or learn to be, a different person when we are at school, for good or for ill, and in a perfect school system, it would always be for the better. If we take the options out of the school - if school becomes solely a place to go learn how to take multiple choice tests on the 3 R's and some science - what have we gained? What, in fact, is the point? Teaching kids to sit still and do what they're told for 6 hours a day? Where, in all those R's and xeroxed worksheets, do they get to try on all the other hats, to see if they can sing? Where is the wonder of discovery? How can schools which run on test scores and grim curricula ever teach our children to reach out, to flex their intelligence, to become the new explorers and inventors and artists, without which our world is merely a dim and wintry regimen?

I would argue that the most important thing in the world are those options, because that's where we find the tools to become someone who wonders about things, who creates things, someone who can make a new and meaningful world for themselves and others. If Einstein's lesson, when he got an F in math, was to shut up and sit still, where would we be today? There has got to be a place we can learn to go beyond our parents' ideas, beyond our station in life, beyond the expectations of those who would make us sheep. And schools should be the best place for it. I mean, really - where else are your kids going to spend days with someone trained in exactly that: the fostering of wonder?

So to those men and women dragging their feet and holding our children accountable for the financial greed of small-minded people: leave it alone. You will not bend us to your will. You will not make my children into sheep, nor the children around them. We will not allow it.

* * * * * * * *

"Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts." Albert Einstein

Some links for raising children with wonder and critical thinking skills:

- The always-fabulous Media Awareness Network, from (where else?) Canada
- The sprightly and jocular (to the point of condescension) Free Range Kids blog does still have good information on increasing kids' freedom in a world of safety-obsession and alarmism.
- The National Center for Fair and Open Testing's site The Case Against High Stakes Testing has a lot of information about combatting the testing mentality in educational institutions.
- Students Against Testing, a similar, more youth-oriented site

Some links about changing California:

- Wikipedia on how California has tried to divide before
- Census deepens racial divide, November 2006
- Three Californias: a sometimes blog
- Splitting California: a bibliography

Lastly, a letter to the President, from me.

Lunokhod and the Art of Space

I recently wrote a short story in which the archeologist protagonist is on the Moon, years after the human race is dead, looking at the human leftovers there and wondering about our culture. While researching the items that were left there by our astronauts, I came across this image of Lunokhod 1, sent in November 1970 by the USSR to travel the Moon, probing and testing with its various tools and to send back images and analysis of the lunar surface.

"The vehicle was powered by batteries which were recharged during the lunar day by a solar cell array mounted on the underside of the lid. To be able to work in vacuum a special fluoride based lubricant was used for the mechanical parts and the electric motors (one in each wheel hub) were enclosed in pressurised containers.[1] [2] During the lunar nights, the lid was closed and a Polonium-210 radioisotope heater unit kept the internal components at operating temperature. Lunokhod was intended to operate through three lunar days (approximately 3 Earth months) but actually operated for eleven lunar days."

In other words, the thing was so well-made that it lasted almost four times longer than it was designed to. And no wonder! Look at that thing! Was ever something so beautifully and functionally designed, so compact and complete? It looks like a Steampunk idea of itself, which is oddly appropriate, given that it was the first roving remote-controlled robot to land on another world.

It's hard to put a finger on why the Lunokhod 1 is so attractive to my eyes, but I think it has to do with the fact that it's not all angles. The simple tub-like shape, like a soup tureen on eight wheels; the two wonderful stalk-like eyes with their hanging lids; the wonderful appendages with their enigmatic functions; and best of all, the lid which opens in the day to charge up and then closes (with a clang? Perhaps if there was atmosphere) at night - all these combine to give it a nearly-friendly anthropomorphic quality, like a wind-up toy or the walking bathtub from Nightmare Before Christmas. And am I the only one who wishes they could look inside sometime when the lid was open? What's inside it, other than the solar panels on the lid?

To add to the general mystique, I then came across this remarkable little piece of history while stumbling around Wikipedia:

"According to a French documentary TV film "Tank on the Moon" by Jean Afanassieff, the Lunokhod design returned to limelight 15 years later due to the Chernobyl nuclear powerplant disaster. The East German made remote controlled bulldozers available to Soviet Civil Defence troops weighed dozens of tons, too heavy to operate on the remaining parts of the partially collapsed reactor building roof. Human labourers could not be employed effectively to shovel debris, since workshifts were limited to tiny 90-second intervals due to intensive ionising radiation.

"Lunokhod designers were called back from retirement and in two weeks time they produced a field-usable, six wheeled, remote control vehicle prototype that was light enough to work on the weakened roof. Since the original Lunokhod moon rovers used nuclear decay heatsources for internal rack climate control, their electronic systems were already hardened to resist radiation. This benefit allowed the 1986 designers to quickly come up with a derived vehicle type for nuclear disaster recovery work. Eventually two such six-wheeled rovers were delivered to the Chernobyl accident zone and proved very useful for remotely operated debris clearing work, saving lives and earning decorations for the designers."

Somehow this little description of a moment in history feels like the perfect reward for the group of designers who created such a perfectly aesthetic object.

In my story, at least, it was the finding of this one artifact that convinced the Enlightenment-style aliens that we were not a complete loss, after all: we clearly had some inkling of aesthetic sensibility. I'd like to see more aesthetic influence on the stuff we send out into space, wouldn't you? Perhaps a few more rococo curls on our probes, or at the very least, decorative rivets. Perhaps they could escape the black-and-white sobriety of the paint jobs we've stuck to until now? Then at least our space-junk wouldn't be completely divorced from the important cultural life of our world. NASA could hire artists-in-residence to help design the "look and feel" of the space probes, so that they embody some message about the way we look at the universe, not just about the facts and functionality of science.

Instead of ugly plaques with our body outlines and a few lines in various languages, I would like to see us leave "postcards" with some of the world's great artworks shown on them. If you look at the images from the two Voyager's Golden Records (sent out in 1977), which appear by my researches to be the only extensive image selection to be sent out into space, they show all kinds of things about humans and Earth: various mathematical and physical concepts; how we are conceived, born, and grow; what the landscapes look like here; all of our engineering feats (cars, airplanes, bridges, etc). There are 116 of them. Two of them show, respectively, someone painting a picture (kind of in the background, no less) and a string quartet. This is the sum total of mention of art (there are at least three pictures of cars and five pictures of dwellings).

Okay, so it was 1977, and the big thing was science, and making sure the aliens who encountered this could see what our science looked like so they could grasp our world-view, so to speak. But what about how we view ourselves? It seems to me a great deal can be said about us by how we express ourselves, and the great variety of cultural artifacts we produce. What about Japanese woodcuts? The Mona Lisa? African Kente cloth? What about the wave organs, the Expressionists, or (God Forbid) Mount Rushmore? What would alien cultures learn about us from this dazzling array? It would be easy enough to show someone painting, and then show a series of paintings; to show someone weaving and then a selection of woven things. And so on.

It's true that various forms of music have been sent out into the spheres, probably because music is a fairly compactable (and mathematical, and therefore acceptable) art form. There has been some discussion of the efficacy (or not) of images as a way of communicating to extraterrestrial cultures; but it seems to me that even if they don't have eyes per se, they are likely to have some way of sensing the wavelengths of light, so they will "see" it somehow. And it most certainly seems that any culture that is advanced enough to be out in space, finding our stuff, is surely going to have some concept of aesthetics, and therefore find our artmaking the subject of much interest and discussion. Think about meeting someone for the first time. Are you more interested in how they built their house, or in how they see the world - what music they like, whether they read and go to museums or simply watch violent movies every night on TV? I suspect that meeting some other race would be like the dance we do when making a new friend, at least a little bit.

At least, one certainly hopes so. Otherwise, really, what's the point of it all?

Monday, February 9, 2009

I Love New Scientist (fan post)

Sliding on a frozen lagoon, Venice, 1709

I have to be careful not to visit the New Scientist website. It's one thing for my household to get literally stacks of a weekly magazine that is unfailingly fascinating, whether you're a scientist or not, but when the articles from that magazine are available in a nonlinear form... well, it's just easy to get lost in Fascination Soup.

Here are a few articles I came across tonight, by accident:

1709: The Year That Europe Froze - What happens when Europe experiences the coldest winter in 500 years: "The sea froze. Lakes and rivers froze, and the soil froze to a depth of a metre or more. Livestock died from cold in their barns, chicken's combs froze and fell off, trees exploded and travellers froze to death on the roads." Wow!

Nanoplumbing: More than Just a Pipe Dream - When a scientist tries to reproduce tiny pores that regulate the flow of water into a cell in order to understand them better, he finds himself with much bigger fish to fry: "Nanotubes have not only helped researchers like Hummer understand water flow in proteins, but they are also enabling scientists to devise a host of nanoscale plumbing parts - such as molecular pumps, gates and valves - capable of moving and filtering everything from salty water and hydrocarbon fuels to gases such as carbon dioxide. It seems that these humble tubes could hold the key to cheap desalinated water, better fuel cells and new strategies to tackle global warming."

Genetic Roots of Synaesthesia Unearthed - I've always been interested in synaesthesia (here's a past post on the subject). Now they think they've found the genetic area where it lives: "A region on chromosome 2, which has been associated with autism, exhibited the strongest link. This is particularly intriguing: the autistic savant Daniel Tammet, for example, possesses extraordinary abilities and also has a combination of the two conditions, as do some other autistic savants... The region is also thought to be involved in epilepsy - which Tammet also suffered from as a child - and this could indicate that the three conditions may share some underlying genetic or neurological mechanisms."

How the "Mouse Man" Changed Medical Research - "'The "Mouse Man', as he was known on campus, was trying to create the first inbred lab animal - a strain of mouse whose genes would be stable and identical. Such a mouse would allow biologists to reliably replicate their experiments for the first time. His professor said it couldn't be done, but the Mouse Man proved him wrong."

Ten Extinct Beasts That Could Walk The Earth Again: It's true that sequencing the DNA of extinct creatures is fraught with difficulty. But, says the author, not impossible. It may even be fun: "Assuming that we will develop the necessary technology, we have selected 10 extinct creatures that might one day be resurrected. Our choice is based not just on feasibility, but also on each animal's "megafaunal charisma" - just how exciting the prospect of resurrecting these animals is... Of course, bringing extinct creatures back to life raises a whole host of practical problems, such as where they will live, but let's not spoil the fun..." Then he goes on to list ten possibilities in a very interesting way. How fun is that?

This is just a random sampling from this week's website. It goes on and on! The thing I love about the way it's written is that, unlike many scientific magazines, it's lively, it has actual art, it only talks about interesting things, and (best of all), it has a sense of humor. They don't shy away from puns, for one thing (always endearing), and they have silly articles sometimes which are, despite their silliness, hooked into real science. At the back there is the Last Word, where people can ask questions that seem obvious but nobody's ever thought of (such as one child who wrote in wanting to know "When will Fluffy be bones?"), and the "histories" section is really quite amazing. I could do a blog post on nearly every one of them.

And, unlike many pay-to-view websites, they actually tell you something about the subject before they cut you off. So even if you're not a subscriber, it's pretty interesting.