Archive for August, 2010

Hey! Lose the ear buds!

August 27, 2010


  Furthermore, in an interview with Terri Gross on her NPR Fresh Air program Matt Richtel (the NYT reporter quoted in the previous post) drew an analogy between food and technology.  Too little of either can impair effectiveness and vitality.  Too much can lead to obesity, distraction, and actual neurological damage.

  Incredible as it may sound, the evolutionary precursor to this problem is the fight or flight syndrome.  Primitive man hears rustle in the bush, synapses fire, cortisol released, he runs or throws a spear.  Repeatedly induced by some signal to check your device or screen, same chain of events ensues all be they separately more diminutive.  Ill effects though are cumulative.

  Research on rats show that it is during downtime that memories form and creativity is enhanced.  “People need to take breaks.” Relatedly: multitaskers have more, not less, trouble filtering out irrelevance and staying focused.  The more often you switch from one screen or device to another the greater the negative impact upon your effectiveness.

  The reason you feel compelled to check is because of what’s called ‘intermittent reinforcement’.  Rats again.  If one in a cage knows that there will occasionally be a food pellet in its food dispenser, it will feel compelled to frequently check.  Similarly, while most of the stuff in your inbox is such junk it might as well be empty, sometimes there are gems.

  As mentioned in the previous post the researchers all felt a shift, if subtle, in their consciousness after the third day of their trip.  Ms. Gross commented that she noticed a difference in hers when a weekend extends from two to three days.

  I wonder if a similarly salubrious effect might be made possible in a shorter period by different conditions.  Extenuating, say… Wife and I were under sail last night in our twenty foot/216 sq ft sailcloth C Scow.  Breeze was way up and swells were big.  Barge and other boat traffic.  Last time we went over I broke ribs and wife’s eye was blackened. 

  Attention thus broadly drawn, there were no thoughts of Blackberry, office, bills, etc etc.  Matter of fact there was no thinking.  Way hiked out, minor adjustments in trim and body position were all that lay between full speed and swimming.  Back ashore, we felt renewed and refreshed.

*”Fresh Air” on NPR 8/24/10

**Research shows that it’s riskier to talk on a cell phone while driving – even hands free – than having a conversation with a passenger.  Passenger is even an asset: “they modulate their conversation – both topic and tone – based on what they see in front of them.”

***Sadly, Anne Franks’ tree went over last week.  Happily someone had the foresight to plant seeds and saplings have been distributed around the world.

The Mind Around Us

August 20, 2010


   On the front page of Monday’s NYT (8/16/10) was an article entitled: “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain”.  Reporter Matt Richtel accompanied a group of five neuroscientists who left technology behind while floating down the San Juan River in remote southern Utah.  Their purpose was to study the effect of today’s digital barrage on one’s mind as well as what might be the ameliorative effects of nature’s embrace.

  The group was comprised of two sorts: several who employ digital technology with abandon and the rest a bit wary and more judicious.  Trip leader David Strayer, one of the latter, compared the research to the study of the consumption of too much meat or alcohol.

  Dang stuff is sort of addictive.  I know it is rude to check my blackberry in the middle of a conversation or meeting yet I do it anyway.  Find it difficult to resist in fact.  Even worse is texting while driving.

  “Attention is the holy grail” said Strayer.  “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it”.  “Too much digital stimulation can take people who would be functioning O.K. and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy.”

  By the end of the trip, having fallen into the rhythm of the river, all had noticed a change in the nature of their cognition.  Even one of the skeptics said: “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you…time is slowing down…”

  “…even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions – something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise.”

  And other stuff even worse.  Here’s Anne Frank: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.  Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”

  The photo above is of the top of the tree she could see from her attic window and about which she wrote: “From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind…As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be.”

  The scientists hope to develop strategies to identify the related specific neurological mechanisms surrounding attentional disorders wherefrom to enable curative therapies.  Jeesh.  Just turn it all off and go outside.  Or at least look out the window… 

*The photo and quotes came from the video installation by Jason Lazarus “The top of the tree gazed upon by Anne Frank while in hiding, Amsterdam, 2008”.  It can be seen at the Des Moines Art Center through 9/5/10

**In case you don’t get the allusion in the title, The Sea Around Us it the title of a best selling and prize winning book by Rachel Carson.

*** Relatedly (to me anyway) was the recent study showing accelerated hearing loss among the IPod generation.

… and then get back on your sled

August 13, 2010


  That’s Nomade by Spanish (Catalan) artist Jaume Plensa.  It sits in Des Moines, Iowa’s Pappajohn Sculpture Park.  Plensa says that the form of the figure relates to the knees to chest contemplative position his son assumes from time to time.  Pretty cool.

  Though subtly, it is even more engaging than his wildly popular (and similarly scaled) Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park.   A visitor’s connection with the fountain is quite physical – it literally spits at you. The experience is more cerebral in downtown Des Moines.

  Though quite large it does not impose, but rather floats somewhere in between concept and materialization.  The name ‘Nomade’ is French not for nomad, but for nomadic or wandering. An aspect of an open mind.  One can travel far from a state of quiet repose lingering wherever thoughts might crystallize – whether that be into person, place, or thing.

  Far as we know, we’re alone with that ability and along with an ability comes responsibility.  About another, very different work “La Larga Nit” Plensa recalled Catalan writer Vincent Andres Estrelles “who wrote that it is the responsibility of the poet to watch out for the whole community”.

  Plensa said about his Nomade: “It is made to embrace you as you walk into it, to transform the body as it creates a home for it.”  It may have been the heat, but I felt electrified.  Beam me up Scotty! 

*The Poppajohns gave $1.65 million for this sculpture at Art Basel Miami in 2007. 

**The park has work by many other artists including: Caro, Bourgeois, Butterfield, Kelly, Burton, Cragg, LeWitt, di Suvero, and Serra.

**The Poppajohn Sculpture Park is just west of the center of downtown.  If you’re going by on I-80 you could be All-American and see all of the installations without even getting out of your car.  But you’d be a dope to do that.  Get out, walk around, explore the nearby new public library designed by David Chipperfield, have lunch at Centro, then get back in your car, drive a bit west until you come upon the spectacular Des Moines Art Center. Check out its three wings: Saarinen, Pei, Meier. Then get back on your sled a new person and move on.

A Presence of Permanence

August 6, 2010


   Last week while riding my bike along the swollen Mississippi, my mind took me back to the architect selection process for the Figge Art Museum.  One of the reasons David Chipperfield was chosen was that he’d designed several projects alongside rivers, most notably (at that point*) the River and Rowing Museum by the Thames near Henley.

  We first met Mr. Chipperfield (now Sir) at that site and listened to him describe how even more stringent were flood plain building requirements in the UK than in the states.  And how, in any case, a river is a force of nature with which one best not trifle.  He quoted TS Eliot in that regard: “A river has a permanence far greater than mere humans.”

  That respect, in part, led him to set the volumes upon concrete columns thus placing them just above flood level.  Their shape was inflected first by the long obtusely peaked tents set up during the annual Henley Regatta.  The rooflines of traditional wooden barns of Oxfordshire were the second important influence. 

  The structure thus “fit in” and assuaged fears of local conservatives.  Chipperfield also though endeavored to clearly interject something new by having it appear to float over the site – resting it upon nearly invisible walls of glass.  The raised platform also bears resemblance to pavilions in Japan where will be found most of his early built work.

  The hovering effect was achieved for our project by exactly opposite means.  FAM looks like a glistening rectilinear crystal made to appear to float by its stark contrast with the dark concrete plinth upon which it rests.  Though the scale of the two buildings differs significantly, important similarity does not end there.  Both buildings honor their contents without sequestration. 

  Both employ skylights to allow for some natural lighting**, but more importantly both set up an opportunity for the visitor to visually interact with mother nature.  At Henley it’s the embrace (if not caress) of poplars around one small glazed room while here it’s the invigorating slap in the face one receives exiting fourth level exhibition space to look out and over the mighty Mississippi through a huge window sixty-one foot tall and nearly as wide.  Our own Grand Canyon.

*Chipperfield’s recently completed Neues project on Museum Island in the River Spree in Berlin was for ten years one of Europe’s largest.  It’s received raves.  Hope to visit one day…

**The skylights at Henley have been said to have been inspired by those at the Kimball.  Indeed, during our visit, Chipperfield was heard to say that “he’d work very hard to make the building what it wants to be” a phrase made famous by Kimball Architect Louis Kahn.

***cf June 26, 2009 – For a nearby work of Frank Lloyd Wright’s by a river.  There are some similarities as well as fundamental differences.  Wright’s has roots.

****cf June 5, 2009 to read about bridge builders and nature.