Tag Archives: technology

Tim’s Vermeer: The Science of Dutch Art

by Ann Millett-Gallant

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Tim Jenison with his “Vermeer” and the equipment used to make it.

I love a good documentary film, especially one about art, so I was happy to receive Bob Hansen’s recommendation of Tim’s Vermeer. It is an eighty-minute film about one man’s quest for art featuring Tim Jenison, an inventor, video equipment specialist, and entrepreneur who is fascinated with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Known as “the painter of light,” Vermeer was a Dutch painter of the seventeenth century, best known for his portraits, interior genre scenes, and inclusion of detail. For more information on the life and work of Vermeer, see the website Essential Vermeer.

tims_vermeerThe film is narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, of the famous team of magicians Penn and Teller. Penn and Teller were also a part of the team that produced the film, and themes of documentation and magic pervade it. Other major themes include the nexus of art and technology, photography and illusion in art history, digital technology and technological imaging in art, and seeing through photographic reproduction versus human seeing. These themes relate to two of my BLS courses, BLS 345, Photography: Contexts and Illusions and BLS 346, The Art of Life. Discussions of art history and the media and techniques of artmaking in the film are also relevant to my Art 100 course. Tim’s exposé of Vermeer may be interpreted as challenging the notions of artistic talent and exposing the myth of so-called “genius” painting. Yet, in the process, Tim discovers a newfound awe of Vermeer’s resources and artistic focus.

Tim is most interested in Vermeer’s possible use of early camera technology and reflective devices. Inspired by Vermeer’s Camera (2001), a book by Philip Stedman, professor at University College of London, Jenison crosses continents and narratives of art history in pursuit of the truth behind Vermeer’s oil painting The Music Lesson (1662-1664), and eventually attempts to recreate it. Tim says in the film that he feels a kinship with Vermeer as an inventor and musician. He also explains why he decided to focus on The Music Lesson, stating that it is “so complete and self-contained,” compared with all other Vermeer paintings, and he declares it “a scientific experiment waiting to happen.” Through his research and art project, Tim aims to offer an “alternative narrative of Vermeer.”

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

While experimenting with various reflective devices, Tim paints his first portrait from the reflection of a photograph of his father in law. He is modest about his painted product and says emphatically that painting it was a decidedly object experience, rather than a subjective, or personal one. Tim then zooms in on studying image-making and methods of illusion specific to the seventeenth century, which includes optical machines and—most prominently—the camera obscura, an ancestor of early 19th-century photography.

18th-century camera obscura.

18th-century camera obscura.

Tim then compares the painted details of The Music Lesson to optical effects of photography, concluding that Vermeer depicted photographic seeing, rather than human sight. He states that the appearance of “absolute brightness” in the painting is proof that Vermeer painted from photograph, because such light is not visible to the naked eye.

To prove his hypothesis, Tim first visits Delft, Holland, where he learns to speak Dutch, to grind pigments, and to mix oil paint. He also studies the light, furniture, and interior architecture. Finally, he hires artists to make exact replicas of the pottery found in the composition of The Music Lesson. Tim discusses a list of craftsmen and engineers he would need to serve as “experts” in building a life-size model of the scene, saying that he can attempt to complete all the work with a computer.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Tim proves that he is a quintessential “Renaissance Man” (although Vermeer was post-Renaissance historically); to be photographed by a self-built camera, Tim constructs a replica of the scene of The Music Lesson in a San Antonio warehouse from wood, concrete, metal, and glass. Tim’s set is complete with furniture, woodwork, stained-glass windows, and musical instruments. Experimentation leads Tim to discover a system of lenses and mirrors (including a shaving mirror) which, joined with visual color-matching tricks, allow him to build a surprisingly accurate, three-dimensional reproduction of The Music Lesson. Tim also shows his musical skills as he plays on the violin that will serve as his model in the composition.

Earlier in the film, as Tim and Philip Stedman each tried their hands at copying portraits, the music and tempo of the shots slowed down, but they build up again as Tim builds the room and begins to paint the image from it. More dynamic camera work and background music set the stage for many scenes of Tim painting, in which he used his daughter and her friends as live models. This pace is held up for 8 minutes. Time is marked by images of the calendar dates in the lower corner of the screen, as if torn from a desktop calendar. Everything slows down significantly after forty days. At about fifty days, Tim makes a discovery; he finds curves in the painting where there should be straight lines. He explains that Vermeer’s so-called mistake in angles of perspective was a result of viewing and painting a photographic image.

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Following this discovery, time further drags as Tim experiences the physical pain of his actions and seated position, while the viewer watches him paint details such as violin strings, minute decorations on the piano, and the individual threads on a draping, patterned tablecloth. Somewhere in this period, a threat of carbon monoxide poisoning arises in the studio. I must admit, I do not remember why. I may have zoned out. After eighty to ninety days, Tim becomes “repulsed” while painting a royal blue chair with bronze lion heads on the back and correcting his mistakes with a cotton swab. All in all in the film, there are approximately thirteen minutes of footage of Tim painstakingly painting. It feels longer.

In the final scenes, Tim shows Stedman and David Hockney his painting. Hockney, with whom Tim has met previously in the film, is another artist interested in these reflected forms and technologies (see David Hockney’s website here).

Stedman and Hockney discuss Tim’s painting and determine that it is better than Vermeer’s. In the last shot, the humble Tim claims Vermeer was an inspiring inventor and artist.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

The film chronicles important discoveries and historical revisions, but I wasn’t sure if the information alone carried the film. I was just so fascinated by Tim Jenison. He stole the show. He was obviously very smart and skillful, yet also witty, eccentric, and obsessive. It takes one hundred and twenty days for him to paint a replica of a famous Vermeer painting, and the whole project, captured on film, took over five years (2008-2013). For this entire time, Tim’s life seems utterly driven by art and photography.

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Renewal

by Susan Thomas

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Snowdrops and crocuses heralding spring.

As spring struggles to take hold and overcome the last vestiges of our stubborn winter, the budding leaves and emerging flowers hold the promise of renewal for the natural world around us. The lighthearted feeling that warm sunshine and chirping birds induces within us reflects how these changes can bring us out of the doldrums, lift our sagging spirits, and sometimes inspire us to smile despite our problems.

But renewal from without can be limited and ephemeral, especially in today’s world where the frenetic pace and our overloaded schedules loom like a cloud over us daily. We worry constantly that we’ve forgotten something. And when we remember, we worry that there is not enough time to accomplish whatever we’ve finally recalled. We need renewal from within.

Finding sources of personal renewal can be challenging. Hardly anyone goes anywhere these days without some technological device tethered to them, and new wearable devices will exacerbate the problem being connected presents for us. Overuse of cell phones can be dangerous, of course, and we’ve all seen people of all ages misusing their devices, motorists texting while driving, swerving in their lanes, pedestrians stepping out in front of oncoming cars. A few years ago, someone talking on their phone while driving sideswiped my car.

Family time?

Family time?

Even when we share meals with one another, we are constantly checking in to see what we may have missed, sometimes to the extent of ignoring the person across the table. But it isn’t so much the rudeness or the lack of safety that such use represents, it is how it limits our opportunities to engage, learn, and grow from each other and from tech-free activities. It prevents us from living in the moment.

Admittedly, it is not always possible to cut ourselves free of the daily grind. Reports still have to be submitted, email still has to be answered, phone calls still have to be made, evaluations still have to be conducted, and the list goes on. Both personally and professionally, our time is seldom our own. But even a few moments can make a difference. The key is to consciously think about small ways to free your mind. I’m not advocating that everyone should take up meditation or practice yoga. Just find something that works for you. It could be a beautiful image or meaningful music, or even deep breathing. Life is too short to neglect what’s most important.

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Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916.

How Self-Driving Cars Could Change Our Lives in Unexpected Ways

by Chris Metivier

Who's there?!

Who’s there?!

A couple of weeks ago an unusual thing happened to me. One of my neighbors knocked on my door. I haven’t lived in my current house long, and he just wanted to tell me that his lawn mowing had blown some grass clippings in my driveway and to assure me that he intended to clean it up. I certainly wasn’t worried about grass clippings in my driveway, but it was a polite way for my neighbor to introduce himself, and I was glad that he did. He’s a nice guy.

Afterward, my housemate remarked that it was strange for someone to just knock on the door. Typically when that happens it’s some sort of solicitor, and I’d just as soon pretend I’m not home as answer it. He said that he’s actually annoyed when someone knocks on the door unexpectedly. If it had been a friend, he said, we’d have known they were coming.

We considered how we came to have this attitude of preferring to avoid unannounced visitors. It occurred to us that this is the same way we feel about receiving calls from unrecognized phone numbers. I don’t know about you, but I usually ignore those calls, because again, it’s typically a solicitor. The unexpectedness of a visit or phone call implies that it’s likely to be unwanted. That small bit of information is what we’re acting on when we decide to ignore a knock on the door or a ringing phone.

Just Dropping By

Just dropping by. Remember when that used to happen?

He mentioned that when he was young, it was common for family friends to drop by unannounced. It was a normal social practice. But it doesn’t happen any more. We concluded that the ubiquity of cell phones is at the root of this change. We know now when someone is on their way over because they—knowing that I always have my phone with me and they theirs—will call (or more typically text) to let me know they’re coming. I usually don’t even need to answer my door. If I’m expecting someone, I just make sure the door is unlocked so they can just walk in.

This change in attitude toward visiting someone’s home is sort of an unexpected side-effect of cell phone technology. I wouldn’t have guessed that the portability of telephones would lead to a shift in attitude toward something that isn’t obviously related to telephones. It made me think: what other technologies might have unexpected effects on our attitudes toward common social practices?

Google Self-Driving Car

Google Self-Driving Car.

Some days later I was driving on the highway. There was some traffic and I got to thinking, if only everyone would drive exactly the same speed, there would be no traffic. Then I thought, those Google self-driving cars could do that. In fact, those Google self-driving cars could probably do it much more safely and efficiently, with smaller gaps between cars even at high speeds. I suspect they could merge in and out of traffic with flawless precision. There would be no traffic bottlenecks at major junctions. Maybe I’m expressing more confidence than the technology merits, or maybe anyone who doesn’t is a technophobe. (There. I said it.)

Then I got to thinking about how different traveling by road would be if every car on the road was self-driving. Not only would you probably get where you’re going faster, because of the elimination of most traffic problems (like some idiot doing 55 in the fast lane), you’d also know exactly and reliably when you would arrive at your destination. No longer would “traffic” be an excuse for showing up late. And you couldn’t fudge it. If you left behind schedule, there would be no making up the time by driving extra fast. The self-driving cars would always move at the same speed. Robot cars have no sense of urgency.

Nissan Autonomous Drive

Nissan Autonomous Drive Vehicle.

Furthermore, since there would be no driving extra fast, there would be no breaking the speed limit. Maybe the notion of a speed limit would become nonsensical, since the self-driving cars wouldn’t travel at some range of speeds with an upper limit, they would travel (except while merging) at exactly one speed. Probably other kinds of traffic laws would become obsolete as well.

Think about how common it is to exceed the speed limit, and think about how you feel when you suddenly notice a police cruiser on the road behind you, or on the side of the highway. Maybe you don’t do this, but I immediately feel tense, nervous, guilty. Maybe your stomach lurches a little. Maybe you reflexively take your foot off the gas. I do all those things, even if I’m driving below the posted speed limit. I feel like a criminal, who will suffer or avoid punishment, only on a whim of some guy in a uniform. (Who does he think he is?! Ugh! Cops!)

Well ... rats.

Well … rats.

Now think about how you react to seeing a police officer while you’re both on foot. You don’t feel guilty. You don’t feel nervous. You probably feel safe. You might even smile or nod. You don’t have to avert your eyes for fear he’ll memorize your shifty face so as to apprehend you later. When you’re on foot, police are there to protect you, not to persecute you. The only trouble is that this doesn’t happen all that much. The bulk of a typical (non-criminal) person’s experience with police is on the road, where we’re suspicious of them, the threat of punishment implicit in their mere presence.

It's a beautiful evening to be on a foot beat at the park!

It’s a beautiful evening, isn’t it?

I suspect this is a common attitude toward police. When you’re on foot, they’re your allies. When you’re behind the wheel, they are symbols of authority who are only out to enforce laws against you. My prediction is that if self-driving cars were common, people’s attitude toward law enforcement would change dramatically. Most people’s negative experience with the police are over speeding tickets. Since self-driving cars would make the very concept obsolete, the negative experiences (including anxiety) about contact with police would be eliminated (except maybe for parking tickets).

Sure, there are other reasons people might have negative attitudes toward law enforcement. But I’m willing to bet that most folks are like me. If I didn’t think that all cops were out to give me speeding tickets (because of some insidious quota program that the state will obviously deny, but I know better), I’d be likely to have a much more positive attitude toward them.

I know this isn’t really a big deal. It’s not going to change our lives in any really significant way (more than self-driving cars would already). I know attitudes toward police aren’t a serious societal problem that many people give much thought to. And I know that self-driving cars are technologically possible now, but economically a long way off. This is just an exercise in thinking about the ways technology might change our lives in ways we don’t expect at first. It’s an exercise about excitement for the ways in which our lives might be different, and better, due to minor, indirect effects of new technologies. Sure, I’m being optimistic, and sure, you can be be a future-dreading techno-pessimist if you want. But the future will arrive in spite of pessimists, and there will be myriad benefits for those of us who embrace it.

Who's Driving this thing?!

Wait … who’s Driving this thing?!

The First Day of School

by Matt McKinnon

Well, it ain’t what it used to be.  The first day of school, I mean.

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And I don’t just mean the back-to-school shopping, though that has changed a lot, to be sure.

We did most of ours online this year, since navigating Walmart.com is a LOT more appealing than navigating an actual Walmart.

And since many public schools have gone to uniforms, there’s not really much fun in back-to-school clothing shopping with the kids:

“How about the khaki pants and red polo shirt?”

“No, I won’t be caught dead in those.”

“Okay, then there’s always the red polo shirt and khaki pants.”

McKinnon Boys on First Day of School

Gone are the days, at least for those of us in uniform schools, where back-to-school shopping was a creative endeavor to get the coolest outfits possible, actually enjoying the prospect of new clothes.

Toughskins jeans.  Converse Chuck Taylor hightops (later surpassed by real leather offerings from Addidas and Nike).  Cool football jerseys.  A new jean jacket.

Toughskins

Man, those were the days.

And it didn’t cost $250.00 to fully outfit two kids for the entire school year.  (Or at least until they get stains all over their shirts and wear holes in the knees of their pants.  Do kids not wear patches on pants anymore?)

And picking out your clothes for the first day of school was just as exciting, and became even more important the older you got.  After all, I had to make a nice impression on those 10-year old girls I was not going to talk to.  Or even look at.

But now the shopping carts are virtual and the clothing is all the same: red polo shirts and khaki pants.  Maybe shorts.  If you’re feeling crazy…navy blue.

Of course, school supply shopping is still best done at an actual store, especially since the local Walmart and OfficeMax and Staples all have lists sent to them by the school district and even the local schools.  And then there’s the additional list that the teacher sends out.

Back to School SuppliesThe cumulative effect of all this is that there are three lists for each of our two elementary-age kids that my wife and I have to carry around with a real shopping cart (the one with the wheel that won’t swivel right), juggling from one list to the other, trying to mark off what we have while we search for what we still need, all the while trying unsuccessfully to keep items not on the list out of the basket.  (How we ended up with a “Duck Dynasty” pillow in the cart I will never know.)

Not to mention that our high school junior is too cool even to shop with everybody else, so we had to make a special late-night black-ops trip, just he and I, outfitted in dark clothing and sunglasses, so no one he knows will see him…with his dad…shopping at Walmart of all places.

And not to mention that the entire school supply deal set us back about $150.00.  A hundred and fifty dollars?!  For notebooks and paper and pencils?

Yes.  And pens, and erasers, and binders in every size and color imaginable.  And glue and glue sticks.  And highlighters, and rulers, and note cards, and composition books.  And more binders.  And pencil boxes, no wait, they have to be bags with three holes to fit in the binder.  And lunch boxes.  And Clorox Wipes and Kleenex (are those really our responsibility?  Whatever happened to that green stuff the janitor would just spread around on the floor when some kid threw up?)  And we still can’t find any graph paper.  Does Walmart have something against graph paper?  Are American kids just not expected to plot graphs anymore?  No wonder we’re falling behind the rest of the developed world.  I bet they have graph paper in Sweden.

But I digress.

I’m not talking about any of that.

No, what I mean when I say that the first day of school ain’t what it used to be is that, as someone who taught mainly face-to-face classes for years but who now teaches entirely online, the first day of school just isn’t quite the same.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am NOT complaining.

Just observing.  (I tell my wife this all the time.)

First Day of Class

There used to be a nervous energy about the first day of class—when that meant standing in front of a theatre-size room of 100 students or so.  There was electricity in seeing the fresh faces of students experiencing their very first day of college, or even in the nonchalant smoothness of seniors who had waited until the very last moment to complete their GEC credit.

There was magic in the anticipation of how hard the course might be, or how boring the professor was, or how anything I was saying would have any bearing on anyone’s intended career.

I used to enjoy coming up with new ways to start the first day: by proclaiming to the class, for example, that the only thing I hated more than the first day of class was…the next day of class.  Or by moving everybody outside to enjoy the weather.  Or even sitting at a desk like everybody else: just sitting, waiting, and watching as the time for class to start came and went, and still no teacher.  And then getting up abruptly, as if annoyed, audibly mumbling something to the effect that if nobody else is going to teach the damn course, then I might as well.

Yes, those were the days.

But those days are gone.

And again, don’t get me wrong: I am not complaining.  Only observing.

I love teaching online, and have come to see what we do in the BLS program as not just a service to the University, but more importantly, as a service to students—some of whom may not be able to take classes or finish their degree any other way.

And my students, overall, tend to be older, more mature, more driven, and actually interested in what is being taught.

And there is certainly energy and magic in the first day, though clicking on a link to make the course available doesn’t quite compare to bounding around a lecture hall like Phil Donahue in his prime.

No; it’s just not quite the same.

Even though this year I tried.

Fresh Shave and a Haircut

I got a haircut.  I took a shower.  Heck, I even shaved, and thought about adding some color to my graying beard before deciding against it.

And then I sat down, clicked on “Make Course Available,” and…

Well, nothing happened.  At least nothing spectacular.

For that, I’ll have to wait for the next 48 days—or however many are in this first session.

But of course, it’s not that bad…

After all, other than strippers, “escorts,” and the occasional politician, who else do you know can go to work not wearing pants?

Comforts of Home

Yes, there’s something to be said for the comforts of home.

Deleting the “Human” Factor

by Wade Maki

History is often divided into ages based upon a particular trend. The age of reason, age of invention, enlightenment, information and industrialization are but a few examples. Some ages are known for conflicts, others for prosperity. As we are 12 years into the 21st century, I’m noticing a trend that may make this the century we delete the human factor from decisions.

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“I’m still here! Turn the lights back on!”

This summer my department was moved into new offices. Of course they are not new so much as new to us with some recent updates and fresh paint. One of the first things we noticed was how the traditional light switches were replaced with motion light sensors to automatically turn the lights on when we enter and off when we are not around. One might be tempted to see this as motivated by convenience, but one would be wrong. The idea here is to save energy (ergo money) by removing the human factor from the equation. Humans tend to leave lights on and so the automatic sensor is there to handle things without having to rely on flawed human judgment. Even though the motion sensor must use some additional power, it has been determined that the sensor will be more efficient than people. As with anything new the bugs haven’t been worked out such as the daily tendency for the sensor to turn off my light when I read, work on my computer, or just sit mostly still for awhile. Thus, I must pause in the dark and wave my arms in the air to get the sensor to turn my light back on. True to the trend of deleting the human factor there is no way for me to override the sensor.

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We’ve all been here.

This summer I made several airline flights to conferences and events. At every airport where I used the restroom I found a similar trend of removing the human factor from the equation. Want soap? Put your hand here and the sensor will decide how much to give you. Want water? Hold your hands here and a pre-determined amount of water will flow. Want a paper towel? Wave your hands and a predetermined (always too small amount) of paper will be dispensed. The goal, as with my light sensor, is to remove my decision from the equation in the name of efficient use of energy, water, paper and soap. Why this became of interest was that in one of the airports most of the sensors had apparently stopped working leaving only a couple of sinks operational. If you’ve ever seen a busy airport restroom this was quite a sight to watch as dozens of people were dumbfounded (they waved their hands in vain but no soap or water came). You see, as with my light switch, the ability for an actual human being to turn on the water or pump the soap had been removed rendering the sinks non-functional.

The trend then is for small groups of humans (committees I’m guessing) to decide that in the name of efficiency, safety, or some other good purpose, systems should be designed to remove human decision-making entirely. Lest you think that it stops at switches and faucets please know that Google is close to perfecting the self-driving car. As anyone who drives around others knows, the machines can’t possibly do it worse… can they? I suspect this is only the beginning of a century long trend of deleting the human factor.

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Self-driving Google car

If this trend continues what will life in 2099 look like? My life will be managed by devices that wake me up, remind me where to go and what to do, perhaps even when to shower (and for how long). My car will drive me where I need to go. Manual driving will be too risky to allow, but drinking and riding while on your phone is perfectly okay. My refrigerator will know what’s inside and order anything I need from the store, which may deliver it (or have my car add a grocery stop to my commute). In addition to managing my life, my devices will track and report my activities to ensure public safety (this is already occurring and will continue to expand). I could go on, but it is enough to note how some of these things we can see coming by 2099 and others are almost here already.

Of this trend most will ask the wrong questions. Most will ask “how does this make life more efficient and convenient?” Some will ask “what are the costs to us by this loss of control?” In both cases there will be important points on each side to be weighed. However, perhaps the most important question we should ask is “how does removing humans from decisions change us?” Who will we become when we make fewer decisions and cede more control to machines (and to those who program them)? By comparison we know how using cell phones has resulted in a generation that no longer remembers numbers and has forgotten many social amenities. What will life be like 2099? I can give you a rough sketch of this future. Who will people be in 2099? That, may be a much more disconcerting question.

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Carrie Levesque

Recently in the Russian Novel of Conscience course we have been discussing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, about a highly mechanized and regimented totalitarian society (the One State) hundreds of years in the future where citizens have achieved the ultimate happiness: unfreedom.  Taking as our starting point Marx’s claim that machines, invented to help man, have become the symbols of his servitude, we debate the extent to which machines and technology have enslaved or liberated men in today’s world.

As a class, we’ve compiled a pretty good list of technology’s benefits (efficiency, convenience, online degree programs!) and costs (myriad media addictions, a privileging of online relationships at the expense of face-to-face ones).  At midterm, several students have written excellent papers on how we have created a sort of One State within the United States through certain government policies and technologies which reduce rather than foster our individuality and humanity.

Many of these discussions have stirred up nostalgia for simpler times, when it seems people had different values and a different relationship to one another.  They’ve made me think about a book I read recently on a more extreme response to this question, the Back to the land movement (which is a great deal more complex than just ‘living simply,’ but I’m limited to 800 words…).

I grew up in a remote area of northern Maine that has always attracted Back-to-the-landers.  What possesses these diehards who apparently find the southern Maine homesteads of the followers of Scott and Helen Nearing not austere or isolated enough, that they would haul their few remaining possessions to the place where the logging roads end and call it home, I can’t say for sure.

But I’ll admit to having a touch of that idealism myself- to unplug, to live off the land, to disconnect from our nonstop media and rampant consumerism of all the latest technology (though you’d have to be insane to choose the wilds of northern Maine, a place with two seasons: Brutal Winter and Rainy Black Fly Infestation).  Though I now prefer a more comfortable climate, I understand the appeal of living in a beautiful, natural setting, devoting most of one’s time to work in the outdoors without a care for whatever new technology or entertainment the rest of the world is enthralled with.

Coleman Family

And yet, through a closer examination of life ‘off the grid,’ I’ve also come to a greater appreciation of many benefits of our modern life. I recently read Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life Is In Your Hands about growing up the daughter of famous homesteader and Nearing mentee Eliot Coleman. She chronicles the great strain that the demands of homesteading put on her family, resulting in her father’s ill health, her baby sister’s tragic death and her parents’ divorce.  (On a lighter note, she also reveals some of the purist Nearings’ well-kept secrets: Helen’s love of ice cream, mail order fruit and other delicacies.  Even the folks who wrote the (sometimes a tad righteous) book on living local and off the grid indulged a little on occasion).  Though there were certainly aspects of their lives on the homestead that were richly satisfying, some readers may come away wondering if their chosen cure for the ills of modern life wasn’t in some ways as harmful as the disease, physically as well as spiritually.

Another interesting look at the real-life struggles of those who lived in those idealized ‘simpler times’ is the PBS reality series Frontier House.   In 2001, three families (selected from among some 5,000 applicants!) lived off the land for six months on the simulated frontier of 1880s Montana.  The success of their venture was assessed by historians based on whether each family had put by enough food and fuel over the summer and fall to survive a Montana winter.  Though they labored admirably, through all sorts of drama, if memory serves it was decided all would have perished.  The simpler times were never as simple as they seem.   (Frontier House is available in UNCG’s Instructional Film Collection, but sadly, not on Netflix).

There are no easy answers to the question of man’s relationship to technology.  Most people I know lament their dependency on smart phones, social media and a food supply so highly engineered that many of us have no idea what we’re really eating half the time (pink slime, anyone?).   Yet we have so much to be grateful for.  We live in a time of amazing medical advances.  Whatever may plague or disappoint us in our lives, we have the freedom and resources at our fingertips to research alternatives and connect with like-minded people to find a solution.  For all our similarities, thankfully these United States are not the One State.  Our ultimate happiness is not to be found in our unfreedom, but in our freedom to negotiate these complex choices and relationships, to choose our own adventure.

Will it Play in Peoria? (Putting More “Distance” in Distance Education)

By Matt McKinnon

That should really be: Will it “Work” in Peoria?

Or better: Can “I” Work “from” Peoria.

I have been involved in “distance education” in the form of teaching online for six years now. For the first five of these, I, like many BLS instructors, taught traditional face-to-face classes in addition to my online offerings, working a joint appointment in both Religious Studies and the BLS program.

My approach to online education was probably pretty common: It’s just like my “regular” courses—only entirely online: lectures can be morphed into notes that students can read, the discussion board will work just like class discussion, and the rest is really just students reading books and writing papers.

Distance education, I assumed, meant distance “learning,” and any differences between the teaching I did in my face-to-face classes and that of my online courses would be logistical—and up to the students to work out.

And then I moved to Peoria (right on the edge of “Forgottonia”) and discovered what anyone who has ever taught online while on leave from the University already knew:

Distance Education means distance “teaching” as well as distance “learning.”

(Well duh! It makes sense now, but as is the case with all Copernican-type revolutions where the “center” gets displaced from it place of fictive prominence, it came as quite an eye-opener.)

Of course this does not change everything; nor should it. Many professors, including myself, still feel that the best way for education at the highest levels to occur is, well, students reading, discussing the material with the class, and traditional assessment strategies like examinations and papers. (And maybe the occasional interactive activity.)

But it does change some things, and one of the things it changes the most is approach to research and access to a top-rated academic library.

Luckily, however, the same technology that is driving distance education has already been driving distance research for quite a while.

I remember way back in graduate school —not long after Al Gore had invented the internet—when I was assigned my first research assistantship. I worked for Father Kurtz, a Roman Catholic priest (a Jesuit in fact) who didn’t have a lot of things to do other than writing articles and books. So he did a lot of research, which of course required that I do a lot of research.

The major religious studies data bases had recently been put online, going in a matter of a few years from print to computer, and then to “computer that I could access from the comfort of my living room.”

I could compile in an hour research that would have taken his previous assistants days to sort through. (He thought I was brilliant, driven, and a workaholic like himself when in reality I was just knowledgeable of the available resources and lazy enough to find a way to access them from home.

The good news is that now BLS students have even better resources available to them—and presumably more comfortable living rooms than a poor graduate student holed-up in Milwaukee.

The place to start is the Library’s own website dedicated to Distance Education Services.

It has links that assists you in getting hard copies of the books and articles that the library possesses (or that may be better accessible closer to you).

It has online workshops where you can participate in seminars on everything from learning Jing to career assistance.

It has a link to “Path,” the Library’s 10 module research tutorial.

It has links to technical assistance as well as the University’s very own Distance Education Librarian, Beth Filar Williams, who is trained to help you with your online research projects.

(Beth can be contacted at efwilli3@uncg.edu or 336-256-1231.)

Some BLS courses even have research guides tailored to their specific requirements (and hopefully more will have them soon). Here’s an example from the Pathways course.

And, by clicking on “Other Help With Research,” it has links to “Research Guides by Subject,” which will put you in touch with all of the major academic data bases that made yours truly Father Kurtz’s star researcher back in grad school.

(I won’t tell if you won’t tell.)