Archive for February, 2011

Art? What’s that?

What is art?

I know art when I see it.  That’s what most people say, right?

Well, at least I think I know what art is when I see it.  I’m relatively trained in the arts.  As a kid, I doodled and played music.  Along with my various art classes through the years, I also went to Columbia College.  Now, when time permits, I take the old camera out and shoot anything and everything my heart desires.

Some of the photographs come out great, capturing my full intent of the moment.  It looks the way I wanted it to, where light and opportunity meet to create meaning.  In these moments, the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” fully applies.

Then there are the overwhelming numbers of photographs that I take that just don’t make the cut.  Maybe the perspective was bad, or I shot too close to the sun.  Is that a sneer on her face?  Do I really like the picture of my brother with a mouth full of food at Thanksgiving?  And in the end, whatever my intention, which one constitutes art?

If you check out Wikipedia’s definition, it basically tells you that art is an arrangement of things to affect our sensory, emotional, or intellectual centers.  Using many modes of expression from music to sculpture, art seems like it is getting us to think and feel a certain way about its message.

But what is it?  Is art a piece of music?  Is it a crumpled piece of orange paper near a red wastepaper basket seen from a dramatically lighten perspective?

From this, who says that this is art?  What if I don’t like the music?  What if all I think of the piece of paper is that some one missed the basket?  Is it still art?

To be succinct about these very philosophical questions, essentially, art is totally subjective.  Taking Wikipedia’s definition to heart, my conception of good art is that which would best arrange things in a way that is beautiful to me.  I don’t have any more right tell you that a work is more art-worthy than you have to say that vitamin water is better than regular H2O.  Individuals determine for themselves what art is and why it is important.

Art may adhere to cultural norms, clarify an idea, or evoke certain wanted emotions that couldn’t be shared with anyone else.  Whatever art is, it’s personal.

I gather that most people think they know what constitutes art, even if they don’t do anything particularly artsy.

Working as a cashier, you have a unique opportunity to hold hundreds, if not thousands of mini conversations with a random assortment of people about anything.  It doesn’t matter, you have two minutes, so what do you talk about?

I took the opportunity over a couple of days to ask people in line the question; why is art important?

I got a lot of blank stares and even a guy who said that he doesn’t think about art at all.  But the general consensus was that art was an essential part of self expression.  The idea being that, life can’t be all work, paying bills, raising family, doing home repairs, etc…

Though many couldn’t put their finger on particular reasons for the importance of art, most agreed that it is important. My favorite quote came from a nine year-old girl who said, “art is another way of expressing emotions,” far and away a better, more succinct, insight than her adult counterparts.

In these mini-conversations I heard what I’d always felt but couldn’t necessarily put into words.  That art is how we realize how dynamic life really is.

Through art, we are able to see the world as we like it, on our own terms.  It allows us to have conversations about the theme and come to an understanding about its’ meaning.  To escape from our present.

Me?  At this point, I’m not sure that I know what art is.  But regardless of this, I know that self-expression is essential.  And art is one of the most powerful tools of this expression.

You?  What is art to you?  Is it the crumpled up orange piece of paper?  Is it an installation at the art museum?  Better yet, why do you consider it art and what does it mean to you?

Justin Breaux

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We so far have seen how the technology that we created influences our daily life. Applied science has brought in revolution in electronic industry. The electronic appliances that we stumble upon everyday has seen significant reduction in physical size. We like everything to be small, compact and lightweight so that it is portable.  It is also interesting to learn how the technology impacts the life of scientists who invented and developed it.

Scientists use a variety of instruments in the laboratory for their experiments. The life of a scientist to a large extent is dependent on the working condition of the instruments in his laboratory. Oftentimes there are multiple users for the same instrument. As the components are delicate, the instruments must be well protected, should be long lasting and should be unaffected by mechanical force. So, the instruments started coming in smaller sizes to reduce lab space and in enclosed boxes to reduce damage caused by mishandlings or mishap.

Spectrometers are type of instruments that are widely used to analyze for example, amount of protein in meat, water in grain and iron in blood. What is all needed to learn about the sample is that the collected sample must be inserted into the enclosed instrument and the measurement is made without touching any its components while any control in parameters are achieved by the computer interface. This is all nice as long as the spectrometers work. But what if any of the components fail? The most affected are the research students who are supposed to be learning their instruments . But when the students have not seen the instruments inside out how are the problems going to be solved? Science is learnt through our senses by touching, feeling, smelling and seeing. Students fail to learn the analytical principles as they can’t understand the context or think critically if the components are hidden. My research life also is entirely dependent on the instruments. If any of the components in my instruments failed, my former supervisor used to say, this would the perfect opportunity to see how the component looks like inside.

Considering the shortcomings that the technology posed, Professor Scheeline at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign developed a spectrometer few months ago using cellphones reports Sciencedaily. In an optical spectrometer, white light shines on the sample solution. The sample absorbs certain wavelength and the remaining light is passed through a diffraction grating to spread out the light into different colors like a prism. The missing wavelengths are the ones absorbed by the sample and the sample properties can then be interpreted.

Prof. Scheeline used a LED operated by a 3V battery, the kind used by key fobes to remotely unlock a car as the light source. Diffraction gratings, cuvettes and sample repositories to hold the samples can be obtained from suppliers for a few cents each. The best part is that the cellphone camera that almost everystudent has, serves the purpose of detector to capture the image. The whole set up cost only about $3 if you already own a cellphone with a camera. He also wrote a program to transfer the images to a computer.

Now, the cellphones are not just meant for texting, talking and browsing but also to learn basic science. When the technology poses limitations we need to work back and use it to our advantage.



– Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman 

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Where is technology driving us? On the one hand it is helping us talk to each other. Or perhaps it is taking over the world.

With the advent of wireless technology and remote controllers, our everyday life has been transformed in an amazing way. You can operate almost all electronics, anything from your television to your thermostat, remotely.  Now, integration of Artificial Intelligence with electronics means that you can drive your car without even touching it.

A team of research scientists led by Prof. Raul Rojas at the AutoNOMOS innovations lab of Freie University Berlin have developed an autonomous driving system called the “braindriver”. The car is controlled by the brain signals of the driver. The Electroencephalogram (EEG) was used to collect brain waves corresponding to normal driving functions, such as acceleration, braking, and turning. This information was fed into the software. The software then matches the real-time signals from the driver, as they think about where they want to go, with those stored from the software. It then executes the commands accordingly, with a slight time delay. You can see a video of the test drive at the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

The car is equipped with cameras, lasers and sensors so that the software can work with a 360o view of its sorroundings.

While braindriver is far from ready for real life driving, advances are coming. With sufficient improvements, the braindriver will be a boon for those who aren’t physically capable of normal driving.

The real challenge is that the driver must have the utmost focus. Don’t be distracted by the attractive driver in the next car over, or by planning dinner! And texting while driving would be even more dangerous than it is already. If you get angry at a car that almost collided with yours, you may be the next dangerous driver.  I found this video very interesting that shows how the car can deal with you when you get angry while driving (sorry, you got ot listen to the commercial first, if you like to watch the video!). But then how big is the difference in signals between being angry and wanting to accelerate?

If the car gets into an accident, liability is a real issue. Who is responsible? Is it the software, the sensor, the driver or the car manufacturer? A lot of work will be needed to solve these puzzles. If nothing else, it will increase our understanding of the brain itself.

The same research group has previously tested I-phone as well as eye-gaze controlled driving. In a podcast recorded a few months ago, Professor Rojas and the Italian researcher Alberto Broggi, who is also working on autonomous driving, talk about their innovations and their future plans.

An autonomous taxi is another concept that the scientists have tested. With the touch of an I-phone, your car can pick you up, drive you home and park itself in its garage.  This could, theoretically, eliminate the need for personal cars. One technical barrier that still needs to be overcome is facilitating communication and coordination between the autonomous cars.

As a scientist, I am very excited by the technological breakthroughs that my fellow scientists have brought in through autonomous car and the braindriver . But I fear that the mankind will increasingly lead a solo life as the human interaction reduces.

– Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

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What do you think of when I say “new technology”?  If you’re like most people, you look to the cutting edge—genetics, nanotechnology, new medicines, or electric cars.  But all the technologies we take for granted were once new, too.  There are some we’ve taken for granted so long that we don’t even think of them as technology.

Writing is one of our oldest and most powerful technologies.  Even the internet hasn’t expanded our communication ability so dramatically.  Without writing, we learn only from face-to-face conversation, and remember only part of what we learn.  With writing, we can communicate across space and time—speaking to people in another part of the world, or who haven’t been born yet.  We can “remember” things we scribbled down once, or things we never knew: your newspaper and your book shelf are external hard drives for your brain.

Like any other tool, writing changes the way we think.  Worried about the effects of Twitter on face-to-face communication?  A letter is just as bad.  Concerned that students look up answers on Google rather than taking the time to study?  Psychologists have found that literacy is far worse for your memory.

In a culture without writing-based prosthetic memory, people put a great deal of time and effort into internal tools: mnemonics and other tricks for preserving recollection.  Epic poetry and oral storytelling traditions flourish.  Memory can become an art in itself: in medieval Europe, people created elaborate memory palaces to hold information both sacred and secular.

When writing first enters the picture, it’s used as a supplement to these techniques.  Crops can be more dependably tallied, while scribes record generations-old stories—and in the process, codified them in their current forms.  As literacy becomes more common, societies begin to explore art forms that depend on it.  The modern novel is very different from an epic poem.  The revision and editing processes open up of all manner of possible elaborations and experiments.  As an author of my acquaintance is fond of saying, writing is not a performance art.

Today’s new communication technologies only build on these original breakthroughs.  The web spawns both impressive hypertext epics and 140-character microfiction, but neither is quite the world-shaking breakthrough that led to Gilgamesh.

– Ruthanna Gordon

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As we continue our focus on new technologies this week, it’s hard to overlook IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that stepped into the spotlight last week when it (or he?) defeated two of Jeopardy’s all-time winners (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) in a three-day battle.

Not surprisingly, Watson’s feat has stirred up a storm of emotions and strong opinions – while many people seem to be excited about the possibilities, others are still unimpressed or skeptical, or even terrified by false implications that machines are taking over (a la Skynet).

While having Watson compete on Jeopardy did serve as a great way to demonstrate his ability to comprehend natural human speech and word play, quickly search for and retrieve information, and make correct decisions based on confidence levels, the participation of a machine on a traditionally very human game show does make the whole thing a little creepy.  By giving a supercomputer a name such as “Watson,” an almost-human voice, and an avatar that constantly changes in a way analogous to human body language, IBM has forced us to pit man vs. machine.  In reality, shouldn’t we be thinking man plus machine?

Maybe this was his way of coming to terms with competing with a computer, but Brad Rutter seems to have the right mentality.  According to ABC News, Rutter’s view was that “Ken and I are representing humanity in this thing but, at the same time, Watson was developed, built, programmed by human beings.  So I think humanity wins no matter what happens.”

Jennings takes a slightly different approach, according to the Washington Post:  “Even when machines are doing more of our thinking and remembering for us, it’ll be more useful to have the wealth of information,” he said.  “To make informed decisions about anything in life, you need to have knowledge.  If you need a Google search, you’re still at a disadvantage.”

Although I think that Jennings may just have been a little bitter (he also expressed concern at having his “one real talent” stolen away by a machine), his comment makes some good sense.  I remember reading an article a few months ago about the dangers of externalizing knowledge, and how it’s becoming easier and easier to acquire knowledge these days, but at the expense of insight.  Might be something to think about.

My hope for Watson is that his “skills” are kept in the correct context.  Arguments such as “he has an advantage because he can buzz in faster” are really absurd, considering that the point is not the fact that Watson won on Jeopardy – it’s the fact that he could compete at a human level at all.  (I definitely missed this point at first – thanks to Alan Maas for that insight, among others!)

Let’s just think of this as an exhibition match for Watson and move on – I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in real applications, such as medicine, for example.  Jeopardy’s fun and all, but I think I’d rather watch humans compete – the thought of three spinning avatars wagering $1,246 on daily doubles is just weird.

And speaking of trivia, did you know that Sherlock Holmes never actually says “Elementary, my dear Watson” in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books?

– Minna Krejci

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With the recent unrest in the Middle East, it’s important to recognize the role of social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Still in their relative infancy, these two networks allow you to catch up with old friends and create new ones.  They also allow people the world over a way to communicate in ways previously unimaginable.  Individuals and governments realize the importance of staying connected through these networks.  Having these networks open is tantamount to an open and free society.

Facebook and Twitter feeds, constantly updated, were the reason that so many were able to quickly organize and demonstrate in Tarir Square.

And this is just the beginning.  As we learn more about the media that connects us, we will be able to use them in ever more meaningful ways.

What are the most effective or impressive ways that you’ve seen social media used in recent years?  What have we done, politically, scientifically, or creatively, that we could not have done without these new technologies?

On the other hand, as many of you will be checking your facebook messages  and tweeting almost every 10 minutes, do you think that the social media websites are using up a lot of your precious time? How do they affect your daily routine and worklife?

– Justin H.S. Breaux

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Finding African American heroes was always relatively easy for me.

What types of heroes, you may ask?

Great authors and hard-hitting journalists that brought down institutions with pen and smarts?  Doctors or firemen saving lives on the front lines?  Not always.  As a kid, my heroes came to me on a regular schedule, after school and on Saturday mornings on a Zenith television (with an actual cathode ray tube!)

Like most every other kid that I knew in the 80’s (and part of the 90’s), I was glued to the television watching my favorite shows.  Whereas my older sister watched shows like Dance Party USA and listened to Menudo, I found myself lost in, and totally enthralled with, the world of science fiction.  To me, the absolute perfect blend of art and science.

Sure, there are the obvious list of greats including Lando Calrissian (Star Wars).  But everyone knows him.  He’s got an action figure.

What about those little known stars you may have forgotten about?  Let’s travel down a little stretch of memory lane at a time when VHS toploaders were the “hottest technology” and a new cell phone only weighed a few pounds.

5.  Dr. Elvin “El” Lincoln. Misfits of Science.  El is a very tall and socially awkward man, who is able to shrink from 7’4″ to 11″ with a press on the back of his neck.

4.  Winston Zeddmore.  The Ghostbusters.  The only member of the Ghostbusters team that wasn’t a founding member.  Zeddmore provided common sense and comedy relief.

3.  JazzThe Transformers. Self-possessed, calm, and utterly collected, Jazz is head of Special Operations, with his own dedicated roster of agents.

2. J. D. Bennet (aka I.Q.).  Bionic 6.  Super-strength (he is even stronger than the other, superhumanly-strong members of the team) and super-intelligence.

1. Geordi LaForge.  Star Trek: The Next Generation.  LaForge started out aboard the Enterprise as Helmsman, but was shortly promoted to Chief Engineer of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Justin H. S. Breaux

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I have a confession to make. In spite of working in one of America’s largest cities, full of amazing cultural and entertainment opportunities, I rarely end up taking advantage of Chicago’s slate of evening activities. This should provide some context for the fact that, when I heard Octavia Butler would be speaking at the Harold Washington Library, I rushed out of work early and stayed downtown late. It was a good choice. Butler was as brilliant in person as on the page. It also turned out to be one of her last public appearances before her death in early 2006.

Octavia Butler, along with Samuel R. Delany, is one of the earliest and best known African-American science fiction writers. She’s also one of the best science fiction writers the genre has ever boasted, and one of my favorites. Her stories use scientific ideas to explore issues that few writers can handle successfully: inequality, social justice, and the morality of power.

Dawn, the first novel in her Lilith’s Brood series, is a perfect example. Following a nuclear war, a small group of survivors are rescued by the alien Oankali. The Oankali, with their advanced genetic manipulation abilities, are willing to save the human race—in exchange for mixing with them biologically to form a new hybrid species. Butler uses this unusual premise to focus on issues that inspire deep passion in the real world. The bigotry and fear that can plague mixed-race children is only the most obvious. The Oankali also have a great deal of power over the humans, who depend on them for continued survival, and the moral obligations of both sides in such a relationship are a major theme.

Power in Butler’s work is never simple. A modern African-American woman uses time travel to save the life of a slave-holding ancestor, so that she can eventually be born. People who’ve been genetically engineered try to negotiate their rights with those who’ve engineered them. An entire society tries to maintain civilization, with no recourse to negotiation, after a plague robs them of the ability to use language. Throughout, the stories are sympathetic to the holders of power as well as the powerless, and to the costs that unequal relationships have on both.

Butler’s books depend both on the scientific speculation that supports their ideas, and on her perspective as an African-American woman. If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend Blood Child—her short story collection, recently re-released.

This post was originally planned as an overview of several African-American science fiction authors, but my appreciation of Butler got away from me. If you’re looking for further suggestions, the Carl Brandon Society posts yearly recommendation lists, generally full of excellent reads. I can personally recommend Samuel R. Delany and Steven Barnes, who would have easily taken up an enthusiastic post apiece. And my secret cadre of consultants (i.e., the friends I asked while putting this together) put in votes for Andrea Hairston, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nalo Hopkinson.

-Ruthanna Gordon

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Every one of us enjoys playing with water, right?

Is there a “no”? I didn’t think so.

Kids especially are fond of water. They love to splash or sprinkle water on themselves, as well as on others. But elders like to splash water too! During one of the religious festivals called “Holi”, celebrated in northern parts of India, people of all ages throw colored water and colored powder on each other. Celebrated in the beginning of spring, the end of February or early March, the festival is believed to bridge social gaps and bring new relationships. Tradionally, the colored water (blue, red, green, violet, yellow and purple) is prepared by soaking various flowers in the water that would have medicinal effects. Use of giant syringes and squirt guns (Pichkari in Hindi) are used to sprinkle water. In olden days, Pichkaris were made from bamboo.

If it is “Holi” for India, it is Songkran for Thailand. Songkran is the New Year festival of Thai and is celebrated by splashing water and applying white chalk powder on others. In conventional celebration, the water captured after cleansing Buddha images was sprinkled on the elders and family and was meant to bring good fortune. Songkran is the biggest water fight to be enjoyed in April, the hottest time of the year in Thai, thus bringing down the severity of the weather.

Water splashing festivals are celebrated in many other Asian countries under different names. In other countries you will see kids enjoying the water gun based games mainly in water parks.

It must be a lot of fun splashing water on everyone! Ask any kid – they would know what a water gun is. But who invented this amazing water gun that has been an attractive toy for all the ages?  (If you are whispering the name, I can hear you!) It is Lonnie Johnson – a rocket scientist and a nuclear engineer who invented the pressurized water gun called the Super Soaker in 1989.

Lonnie was born in 1949 in Mobile, Alabama and is an African American. He was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, CA when the idea for the Super Soaker struck his mind. The Super Soaker made a revolution in the history of water warfare, beating its battery powered motorized predecessors, which were costly toys in the 1980s that also looked more like real guns. Lonnie’s model was highly dependent on the air pressure and the arm pumping for pressurizing the firing chamber that contained water. It was capable of blasting more water farther and faster than any other guns in the market.

Lonnie wanted to mass produce his water gun. As he had only limited resources, he sought licensing agreements with existing toy companies and had to move through several hurdles.  He then found Larami Corporation to contract with – the president of Larami uttered a suprised “wow” as Lonnie shot the gun across the meeting room. Larami manufactured Lonnie’s prototype and patented his invention as well. The gun was called “Power Drencher” and then renamed as “Super Soaker 50”. The Super Soaker was a top selling toy in America in the 1990s and generated over $200 million sales. In total, $40 million toys were sold. Later models of the Super Soaker have either a single chamber or separate chambers to contain water and pressured air; several other improvements and modifications were brought in for later versions.

At a young age Lonnie and his brothers, due to curiosity in science, used to try experiments at home with household items. Though one of his experiments exploded and burnt part of the kitchen at home, it is this curiosity that led him to invent the Super Soaker.

Lonnie owned about 80 patents with 20 more pending, and he is also an author of several publications in spacecraft systems. Lonnie founded Johnson Research and Development Co., as well as its spin-off companies Excellatron Solid State, Johnson Electro Mechanical Systems and Johnson Real Estate Investments, all operating in Atlanta, GA. He served on the board of directors of Georgia Alliance for Children, an organization that protects the rights of Georgia’s less fortunate children, and on the board of directors of Commonwealth National Bank. He is also a board member of the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation. In his hometown of Marietta, GA, Februrary 25, 1994 was declared “Lonnie G. Johnson’s Day” in his honor.

Got a Super Soaker with you? Save it for the upcoming “Holi” and “Songkran” celebrations!

Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

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The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois is going one step farther this year in celebrating Black History Month.

They’re celebrating all year.

This year marks the 40th year of the Black Creativity program at the Museum, which recognizes the achievements of African Americans in various fields, such as medicine, music, engineering, film, justice, architecture and science.  In light of this milestone birthday, MSI is presenting a retrospective exhibition: 40 Years of Black Creativity. Featuring hands-on activities, photographs, memorabilia and video, this exhibit runs from January 26 to February 28, 2011.  The accompanying annual Juried Art Show, featuring works of original art by professional artists of African descent, runs during the same time period, and both exhibits are included in general admission.

This year, the Museum saw no need to stop on February 28, and Black Creativity programming continues throughout the year.  This year’s theme, “Powerful: African Americans in Energy”, will feature events and activities that focus on how we use power in our daily lives, energy awareness and conservation, as well as alternative energy research breakthroughs and the African Americans that work in this field.  This theme will carry on all year, and an interactive Black Creativity exhibit focused on the theme of energy will open in January 2012.

This energy theme was inspired by the Museum’s newest exhibit, “Science Storms”, which explores questions about our world such as:

Why does a tornado spin?
Why does a wave break?
Why does a flame burn?
Why does lightning strike?

Bravo, MSI, for expertly tying together science, art, culture, history, nature, and society!  (Did I miss any?)  I haven’t been there to check out any of these exhibits yet – have you?  If you have, please share your thoughts!

For you non-Chicagoans, the Museum offers some great online resources related to their exhibits, so be sure to check out some of the links above.

And while you’re at it, check out this preview of MSI’s Black Creativity from NBC Chicago: http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/black-creativity-at-the-museum-of-science-and-industry/1d2ml21zm

– Minna Krejci

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