Posts in: Venture Grant

FYErtility, Creationism, and Readbaiting Titles

In my FYE a man named Dennis McEnnerney played professor. He did outstandingly. During some of our discussions he would claim that the small liberal arts college scene was a matchmaking business in disguise. He would claim that going to one of these colleges was a way for young, fertile, intelligent, upper-class lads and lassies to meet each other and fall in love and create more fertile, intelligent, upper-class lads and lassies.

It’s an interesting theory. It seems somewhat true, though maybe applicable to all relationships, not just romantic ones. Other applicable relationships include friendships and professionalships (cross those fingers for that last one being true).

I think that Boston is the city version of Dennis’s theory. Greater Boston has over 20 colleges, including Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Tufts, BU, BC, Northeastern… the list goes on. Then people graduate and stay to take on biotech jobs and launch start-ups. Boston is brimming with young, intelligent, upper-class lads and lassies. As for fertility, Here is how fertile Massachusetts is (in a lot of words). Public Announcement: no one told me to censor myself in this “blogging about your time at EyeWire” thing, and so I’m interpreting it loosely.

Here’s another photo of me at a desk.

Back row: super cool eyewire neuron poster F]Front row from left to right: the edge on a monitor, a stuffed neuron, a mini glass neuron sculpture thingy majig, me.

Back row: super cool eyewire neuron poster
Front row from left to right: the edge on a monitor, a stuffed neuron, a mini glass neuron sculpture thingy majig, me.

I made a lesson plan for secondary school teachers who want to use EyeWire to teach neuroscience in the classroom. It’s estimated to take 3 hours. An average class at CC is 3 hours. Coincidence? Yeah… but like even so maybe CC should teach my lesson…

I doubt the audience for the block features blog is thick with secondary school biology, psychology, and technology teachers but here’s my lesson plan and definitely holla at me  in the “comment” section if you do fit that description.

Other things I’ve been up to at EyeWire: Emailing, odds-and-ends, using words such as “collaboration” and “gamification”.

I had a thought way back in the day when I found out that I would be working on education outreach with EyeWire. Here is the thought: I am taking a field of research (connectomics) that is controversial and still in its exploratory stage, and I am promoting it to be taught to children and teens in school. What separates me from someone who promotes creationism in schools? I know, I know, I know… it’s a huge stretch to compare these two things but I think it was valid to question my job, if only for a moment. I found that the biggest thing that makes my curriculum different is that I end my lesson asking teachers to promote critical thinking, and to hope for students to have questions that cannot yet be answered. I’d like to help motivate students to have their own thirst for knowledge. Enough thirst that they pursue knowledge independently. I wonder if anyone will use my lesson plan. Probably, I guess. I’m glad I’ll be miles away from whoever does, because just the idea of it makes me nervous. And feeling this way makes me feel young.

MySQL, YourSQL, HisSQL, HerSQL

I went to the Jewish Community Day School in Watertown to speak about EyeWire during the middle school STEM day. Presenting is always difficult for me but this day was fun nonetheless. The kids were super psyched on science and this has provided me with an opportunity to directly chat with some teachers who know more about curriculum development than I do. They’re also my consumer. The teachers are receiving the curriculum I create, and they know what they need.

Ways the wonderful institution of Colorado College prepared me for this day: I taught classes to some of the students of Colorado Springs as an outreach assignment for my Neuroscience and Organic Chemistry courses. Also the CC Psych department requires students to lead lectures and discussions during 400-level courses. Shout out to Colo Coll.

Marissa (a gamemaster) and I. I swear that right outside the frame are inspired preteens.

Marissa (a gamemaster) and I. I swear that right outside the frame are inspired preteens.

Tidbits of knowledge I have due to my internship. The Laws of the Internet state that if I number these then this post will be more popular:

1. It doesn’t matter if you speak the same language, you will not understand each other if there is a big difference in dialect. All of my coworkers speak English. Some of them speak computer-programmer-developer dialect. All of them speak tech dialect. I will probably have a metaphorical nightmare soon where I am at a long dining room table with all of my coworkers, but instead of food on the table there will be handwritten APIs, raid cards, and tablets filled with databases. And one of my coworkers will say “Hey Nina! Can you pass the OS Platform for MySQL?” My gaze will dart between the unfamiliar objects on the table. And then in my confusion I wake up.

2. Someday will always need to be the first day that I speak up. I good at talking with one or two people, and I can talk in larger groups when I’m called upon by another person. In large groups, I struggle to speak out unprompted. This applies to EyeWire, CC class discussions, and life. At EyeWire group meetings I’ve spoken here and there, and I don’t necessarily need to talk in every group meeting. But if I have something to say, shyness should not be the reason I hold back.

3. A Squid must be at least 20 inches to be classified as a Giant Squid. My new big task is to create a list of science trivia questions for a bot to spit out during the next EyeWire competition. If you play in the upcoming Cryptozoology themed competition, you now may have the tools to answer one of the questions (see the beginning of this paragraph for further clues).

4. Fame does not always mean fortune. EyeWire is hot- it was featured heavily in the media for a couple of years now, most recently as the cover story of New York Times Magazine, and even in the Chinese media. Before coming to EyeWire, if I had seen a project on the cover of anything important I’d think: “Cool, this project has made it. They are doing well, they have succeeded.” But no- publicity is sometimes only a nudge towards huge cash flow. And with EyeWire, each time it hits the media is clearly is only a nudge; only a tiny bragging point when the company tries to score grants.

5. Faking it til you make it is real. I don’t know much yet, and I’m not really supposed to. You have to stumble while you pretend to have a clear plan the first time you do anything. But what’s even more real than faking it is asking questions. Then you won’t have to fake it because you’ll learn things, and know them for the future.

6. All of the cool adults use at least three monitors at a time. I don’t really understand how to use more than one monitor yet. I have three desktops on my mac, but they’re all on the screen directly in front of me. It’s hard to type and have your words pop up way off to your right. This takes a lot of coordination- who knew geeks had so much coordination?

More snow photos- we are now at 7feet with no sight of it slowing down. These are relevant because the photographer(credit to Will Silversmith) and the other photograph-ie(Chris) are EyeWire HQ employees:
DSC01759 DSC01761

Making snowcones from real snow.

Making snowcones from real snow.

 

 

BLOCK BREAK NO RULES

Just kidding I have work tomorrow. Let’s see where I left off… Well there has been another snowstorm so that’s another 1.5 feet on Boston. I didn’t work Tuesday because the MBTA stopped service. Every transportation method, even walking, was non-functional.

And what do you have to say about this, Shel Silverstein?

And what do you have to say about this, Shel Silverstein?

When I have been in the office, I have experienced Google Hangouts(video calls) non-stop. A Hangout over here, a Hangout over there, Hangouts left and right. I wonder what people did just 5 years ago when this wasn’t a thing? We Hangout with Sebastian, with the part of EyeWire that’s with him at Princeton, with office members when they work from home and when they travel. We Hangout with the crew that’s in the office 15 feet down the hall. And almost half of the time it goes smoothly! The other half of the time there are internet failures, audio failures, video failures ect. There are almost enough failures to make me question why we Hangout so much. Cumulatively, we may spend hours a week trying to fix the malfunctions of Hanging out. Or at least it feels that way. But all that said, there’s something really magnificent about being able to see a person as they speak, especially when everyone is scattered beyond two locations. It’s easier to coordinate who’s speaking, who’s listening, and how everyone feels about what’s going on. It’s easier to pay attention and verify that you are communicating clearly. I guess easy access to video chat is a pretty cool opportunity. I just wish that setting up wasn’t such an ordeal. I also thought about how little Google Hangout is probably used on the CC campus in comparison. Are we behind times CC or are we all just concentrated in a smaller space?

Ok! Time for a super fun topic. “Business Flirting”. No, I’m not talking about scoring yourself a date, though I did join Tindr to try to meet people/friends/climbers in area.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 1.35.22 AM

What’s this “modesty” you speak of?

It’s Thursday evening, I’m wrapping up my week at work, and the sound of hustling and bustling is growing in the building’s large common/social space, which is down the hall. Jazz music begins. It’s another company’s launch party, and it’s getting busy. Our office decides to close up shop for the evening and join the party in an effort to connect with other people who work in our building. Also for the free entertainment/food/booze/fun. A few of us begin to chat with a couple of guys from another start-up. They’re nice, fun, a couple drinks in. We’re all chatting; I lean in when I have something to say because the music is loud. I’m explaining what EyeWire does, trying to advertise it and show it off. I’m laughing, and making jokes myself.

I think to myself, hm, this is just like flirting but I’m showcasing my company and myself as a worker while trying to avoid showcasing myself as a mate. But then again… what’s the difference between these two demonstrations? Some of my coworkers leave and some get separated. Now it’s just me and one guy from the other company. I guess we’re talking about slightly different stuff than if we were at a bar… but maybe we aren’t. If we were at a bar, we would talk about work too. We begin to discuss his past Colorado ski trip, as I had brought up that I had recently moved from the state. Now this is becoming a challenge. Can I maintain that we are in this conversation together to Business Flirt and only to Business Flirt? Can I clearly advertise myself as a worker and not a mate? He brought up Colorado marijuana legalization and asked for my number. Damn. I had failed. Well, I’ll put this on my To Do list. “Master the difference between Flirting and Business Flirting: Keeping it Fun, Compelling, and Professional”.
I guess next time I have to Business Flirt, there probably will be brighter lighting, less noise, and less alcohol. I think in a different context maybe I’ll be able to add this particular checkmark to my to-do list.

 

And to wrap up the post, more of my commentary on snow:

Boston is hosting an interpretive reenactment of “That Child Who Pretends He Ate Spaghetti But Really He Just Pushed the Spaghetti To the Sides of the Plate”

CAST LIST
Boston: The Plate
Snow: The Spaghetti
Plow: The Fork
I think Charlie Baker is the boy… sorry, but you auditioned I guess.

The Effect of Snow on Nina

ABSTRACT In the following experiment 26 inches of snow were dumped on Boston and we measured the amount of time it took for Nina to get to work with low functioning public transport. The following week we dumped 14 inches on Boston to check for a significant difference in travel time. In the second trial the participant caught a ride with a Lebanese Oral Surgeon/Harvard Professor she found on Comm Ave and this extraneous variable invalidated results. No pepper spray was needed in the conduction of this experiment but the IRB guys are still mad.

Hi guys. Boston snow is outta control. It looks like this:

snow

I only worked one day last week because the state was shut down. I didn’t even know a state could shut down.

So what I did when I was working: After educational YouTube video binging for 3 days I created a few playlists on the EyeWire YouTube channel. I forgot to log off and watched some Kanye before realizing, altering EyeWire’s suggested videos. Ob la dee. Then it was the weekend, and Saturday was the date that some of EyeWire Korea was tripping to Boston. Jung-Man Park, who runs EyeWire Korea, a couple of reporters, and five Korean EyeWire contest winners would all come to the headquarters. We met Jung-Man and the winning players at Headquarters, showed them around, and thanked them.

Front row in descending order of who's laughing the hardest: Nina, Marissa, Jung-Man, Amy, Chris, jay_ Back row from left to right: superrogin, kngskwon, tunerk7, and Mina

Back row from left to right: superrogin, kngskwon,tunerk7, and Mina.                                                                                        Front row in descending order of who’s laughing the hardest: Nina, Marissa, Jung-Man, Amy, Chris, jay_

 

Amy did a bit of business and some promotion, talking with the reporters. Those who were available went out to dinner with Jung Man. This ended up being me, Amy, and Chris. To backtrack- Chris is one of the developers in my office, Marissa in the photo holds the title of GameMaster**, and Mina is the Korean translator in our office. Dinner was super fun! Jung-Man was a cool guy, probably as cool as his name. Here’s us on the way to dinner(featuring the snow before it was a hassle)
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Coming soon to a block features website near you: “Google Hangouts: A Critique”, “Curriculum, and Other Vague Words”, “Business Flirting: A Definition”
**GameMasters mostly act as administrators on the game, connecting with players, organizing in-game events and looking for mis-colorings.

Monday Thru Friday Nina-Five

Recount of my first day in the office:
I’m sitting in South Station, the Grand Central of Boston, rightly lacking “grand” in its title. This is the train station nearest to my internship. Knowing myself as a chronic late arriver, I woke up 2.5 hours before I had to arrive, and I was able to leave 1.25 hours before I had to arrive. This meant that with 15 stops on the T(train), I still had about a half hour to walk to my destination. Nothing calms my nerves like simple math. I check my inbox on my phone and find a message from my soon-to-be boss. She asks if we can meet at Starbucks at 10:30 instead of in the office at 10. I say a silent prayer to the little person on my shoulder who suggested I buy my first smart phone this week. These things are clutch. My just-purchased Au Bon Pain latte and I walk to Starbucks. I have supported Starbucks enough to feel only mildly bad about my rude behavior. I sit down, and thought out my next plan of action. I have 15 minutes. I am currently reading Sebastian Seung’s book. Will it look staged if I am perched with it when my boss arrives? Will I merely look psyched to begin? Will she scoff at the fact that I haven’t already read it? Whatever, that is what I’m currently reading, I will read it. She arrives and does not notice the cover, but is friendly as ever.

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/71h%2BEbYD1EL.jpg

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/71h%2BEbYD1EL.jpg

We walk to the office where she explains the project I will be working on during my time at EyeWire. I will be designing a “curriculum” for high school and middle school teachers to use when they want to bring neuroscience into their classroom. Teachers around the world had used EyeWire as a prop while teaching a neuroscience unit, but they didn’t always contact EyeWire about their use. It was unclear how many teachers had used EyeWire in the classroom, and how successful their experience had been. The biggest indicator of classroom use was the cascade of underage hooligans that flooded the EyeWire chatroom with profanity during the weeks following their lessons. A useful way to track when EyeWire was in the classroom this was, but maybe there was a better way to track this. Instead there could be an official webpage where teachers could record their experience. So my “curriculum” would be this webpage- this is the place where I would post links to helpful neuroscience content on the web for use in classrooms, and teachers would post further resources and lesson plans they had designed. This sounded like an awesome project, but I had never designed a webpage before. Guess I gotta learn how to do that.

My boss, Amy, and I spent time watching youtube videos from educational channels. We watched on one of the ~8 computer monitors in the office that I would be sharing with Amy and two others. This particular monitor was a massive TV screen. Amy encouraged me to use the youtube video’s content in my webpage. Some of the channels with cool content are:

http://www.youtube.com/user/braincraftvideo…….http://www.youtube.com/user/Vsauce ……. http://www.youtube.com/user/Vsauce2………http://www.youtube.com/user/Vsauce3

As noon approached, my other office mates arrived. They are the company’s developers(coders): Will and Chris. Around noon two EyeWire women from the office down the hall join us. Everyone formed a casual circle and one at a time explained what they were working on. I had a flashback to spring break, outdoor ed trips and leader 1 training. Check-ins. I know this! They are playing professional rose-bud-thorn. My hippie heart got a little fuzzy. I would learn that this daily meeting happens once a day, and seemed to keep the tiny company unified. When the meeting finished Will excitedly mentioned that Claire was hosting a google hangout with an amazing neuroscientist, Christof Koch- we caught the tail end on the mega monitor!

Me sporting my "idk what's going on but it's awesome" face

Me sporting my “idk what’s going on but it’s awesome” face

Here’s a link to the hangout- watch if you have 1:44 hours to become inspired. (He used a rock climbing term at  1:11:30 what!!) You can also watch shorter videos of Christof’s talks if you do a google search.

I momentarily did some research and brainstorming for my curriculum project. Then Amy suggested we all go for Chinese. Amy, Will, Chris and I ventured to nearby Chinatown where we had a two hour long lunch break. We laughed, we talked about some computer science, we left to search for a bamboo plant to put in the office. We returned to the office around 4pm. I did a bit more brainstorming and then my first day had ended.

Wait WHAT?! I hope you are thinking something along the lines of:

“You’re telling me that the game that was recently featured on the cover of New York Times Magazine, the game that has 174,000 players, the game that gathered the data for this paper in Nature(CC gives you access thru the Tutt pg) is ‘run’ by a buncha folks that roll into the office round noon just to watch videos and then go out to eat.”

I mean that thought crossed MY mind. But as in the following days I found out that these guys start slow but worked late into the night. They are always some of the last ones to leave the building that hosts ~100 companies. They work as a team, with constant communication within the office and between the Princeton and Boston offices. They know how they work best. They all care so much about the well-being of the company so strict 9-5 schedules and productivity “inspiring” rules are unnecessary. Psych is always high. People bring work home with them, but they do so because they want to. To backtrack- this was not a typical lunch length at EyeWire but yes, everyone comes into the office around noon and the environment is casual. And I guess their hard work and style is paying off, because they’re getting recognized.

Since my first day at EyeWire I have ‘met’(over video chat) the Berkeley student that will be helping me with my project and I’ve excessively youtube binged. I’ve organized information and google searched. I’ve asked questions and listened in on many a google hangout. And I am preparing to do something with the information I’ve gathered.

My next post will be on what I’ve been working on, an opinion piece on the world of google hangouts, and some babbling about meeting Korean EyeWires.

**I looked further into Christoff Koch’s affiliation with rock climbing. He climbs a lot. And he neurosciences. *hand-fans face* This may be what love feels like.

The Search to Avoid Research

Where to start? What do I like to do? I like neuroscience, it would be cool to leave the country. Neuroscience job abroad, now that’s a lofty goal. Ok what else? The prison system fascinates me, though I have no background in that. I like to rock climb- what if I worked in rope access? I guess that would get cold in the winter. I could always just stall and do retail somewhere.

 

It was August at this point, the summer was winding down and I was on my way to my hometown in Massachusetts. I hadn’t been home in a while and I asked my mother if she knew of anyone who might know of a place I could work- she had recently begun a job in management of online courseware at MIT. She must have met a few important STEM-ers along the way. She knew a recent grad named Claire who was working on an online neuroscience course. I googled her, and found a her speaking at  TEDx.

 

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 2.49.01 PM

Woah! She’s about my age and she’s spoken at TEDx? How cool. As I watched the video I became more and more impressed with her accomplishments and stage presence. At the center of the video I became excited- she began talking about a project that had turned neuroscience lab work into an interactive computer game. This is what I’m interested in. In all honesty, the prospect of working in a science lab scared me- doing tedious, slow work and never being sure whether you’ll end up with a product. In  making this computer game, they’re taking research beyond the lab. Regardless of whether they find significant results in each individual project, they had a successful way to get to the results. This is cool. This is innovation. I wanted to be a part of this. If you didn’t have time to watch the video, EyeWire is a “Game to Map the Brain” where anyone, anywhere can create an account and trace their way through a branch of a neuron(brain cell) as it weaves and wanders throughout the retina- the part of the eye that translates light into electrical signals, which is the language of the brain. It’s kind of like a virtual, 3D, paint-by-numbers where a player receives points and powers by painting. If you are interested in playing, it requires no scientific background:

The Game Itself

jcell eyewire teaser

I emailed Claire about having brunch and discussing opportunities for me in the neuroscience field. It seemed weird to me, to email someone I’d never met and ask for a favor or connection. She would not know my credentials, my history, anything. I had done nothing for her. But I guess that’s how all this works- you ask anyone you can. And you expect nothing, you just hope. She sent me a message riddled with excitement and smiley faces. We met for brunch and she spoke about labs at MIT, I explained my interest in doing work outside conventional lab settings. I didn’t mention EyeWire, because it felt uncomfortable to mention that I listened to her speak for twenty minutes before meeting her. In hindsight that was silly. I should have brought it up, but luckily, she did.

Claire arranged a second brunch where I would meet two of the most important people at EyeWire, after which I would get to peek at their lab. I found a fantastic parking spot right outside of the cafe where we would be meeting, so moral was high. My car looked beat up and dusty after its recent cross country drive and encounter with a metal pole. But I thought I looked put together. Brunch went well- I tried my best not to be shy. On our way from brunch to the lab we passed my car and I suppressed my urge to break the current silence with the useless filler sentence “That’s my car”. I needed to removed association from my block-break road-trip lifestyle, for I was playing the role of Future Science Office Woman today. The “lab” was an office with lots of posters and a colorful couch and decorations. Everyone was under 30 years old. This was the hippest science lab ever. I received a brief tour and then everyone had to get back to work.

I returned home with excitement and confusion. This was the closest thing I would have to an interview with EyeWire and it was so unofficial. They said they were interested in having me intern, but on what principals? All I had shown them were my abilities to eat a sandwich and show some enthusiasm. I spent the next few months sending emails, and follow-up did-you-receive-my-last-email emails. I sent them my resumé and a writing sample but I think the realest thing I showed them was that my interest was big enough that I would not take silence as a “no”. Mere persistence doesn’t seem like a credential but I guess when it really comes working in the real world, skills can only get you so far while passion allows you to learn on the job, work diligently and put in an extra effort. That’s how I’m going to justify it all, but in a sense I fell into my internship. I showed up and it just happened. From this experience I hope to be able to keep my moral up when I apply to jobs in the future, because sometimes not getting a job will be random, just as receiving a position at EyeWire has been a bit random. In the future I might not know the right person or due to luck, the person I interview with will have already fallen in love with another applicant. And maybe another time, due to chance, I’ll just fall into a position.

Last week I began my internship with EyeWire, and my next post will be what I have done, seen, and thought so far.

Hi guys! This is my first blog post ever. I am Nina, a Colorado College undergraduate studying Neuroscience for those of you who do not know me. I will be maintaining this blog as I see fit for the next many months.  I will make my first post about how I came to be where I am today, because I am an artist like Quentin Tarantino.

Me sporting my "wtf am I going to do with my semester off?" face

Me sporting my “wtf am I going to do with my semester off?” face

As a Junior in college, I am at the age of the “study abroad”. Last year when I was imagining where I could study abroad, I came up with a short list of random locations. Locations that my school had advertised, that people I was acquainted with had mentioned, and that I thought sounded kinda cool. Japan, Copenhagen, Brazil, South Africa, Nepal, I don’t know. All sounded foreign…worldly…abstract. None of them were particularly known for hosting Neuroscience majors. None of them particularly drew me, I just wanted to travel in general. All of them had a price tag equal to a semester at my college. I remembered a thought I had had in the past: If someone gave me the option of a four-year private college  experience and degree or a bank account with four years worth of tuition in it, I think I could grow successful with either. Choosing would be difficult. A college experience is unique, said to be the best years of one’s life. But I could educate myself for much longer than four years with tuition sized stipend. What if I applied this question to a semester? What if I didn’t participate in formal education for the semester, but I still found a way to learn. I had extra credits, and didn’t see myself gaining enough from taking four more classes- on campus or off – to justify choosing formal education this semester. This wouldn’t mean access to a $27,000 bank account -if only-, but it could give me access to other opportunities. I could get a taste of the real world, I could take a break from school while many of my friends were off campus for their study abroad, and I could meet people who I could reconnect with later in life. Breaking out of the college bubble would allow me to return to my senior year fresh and recharged for academics and college culture. And so my quest began for an opportunity, a job, a volunteer position, an internship, a training… anything. Anything uncharted.

To start, some odds and ends. Here are a few photos from my Brasilia book with modern day comparisons. I had originally meant to replicate the exact angle but forgot. You still get the general idea though.

IMG_20140302_180315_616 IMG_20140306_121905_953

IMG_20140302_180410_023 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMG_20140302_180327_278 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One thing that really surprised me about Brasilia was its extensive bike lanes. When I was first driving in from the airport I had actually noticed that they shut down an entire 4 lane highway and it was moderately filled with bikers, joggers, and families out for walks. Apparently they do this every Sunday. Brasilia had a better biking transport system than Colorado Springs does (though that’s not saying much). It is helpful that Brasilia is quite flat, and enjoys nice weather. I was pleasantly shocked upon seeing all of these bike lanes since one of Brasilia’s most noted flaws is its extreme reliance on cars. However, after asking some people about them, I discovered that the lanes are really only used for recreational biking, not transportation. I would guess this is because of the long distances between work and home, and the lack of a real biking culture there. But its nice to see that the infrastructure is there and that many people were taking advantage of them, even if it was just on the weekend.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

However, the same transportation problems that arise from the city’s construction have remained. I talked to a woman who said it takes her 2.5 hours (yes, HOURS) to get to work each morning.

Which brings me to the protests. Last summer Brasilia (along with other Brazilian cities) protested (and rioted). In Brasilia they stormed up onto the roof of the Congress building, and shot into the administrative buildings. The official reason was World Cup spending, but it was more about being fed up with corrupt public officials. In Brasilia, they mentioned that they were sick of the lack of reliable public transportation. The city built a massive soccer stadium which will most likely go unused after the city hosts the world cup semifinals this summer as the city’s only soccer team is in the third tier, and do not draw large crowds. The money could have been spent on more bus lines but largely went into government officials pockets. With a huge drop in the price of cars in the past few years massive traffic problems have developed despite the wide highways and extensive road system.

The new soccer stadium-my tour guide summed up the construction with explaining that when Beyonce came to town the stadium didn't even fill up.

The new soccer stadium-my tour guide summed up the construction by explaining that the stadium didn’t even fill when Beyonce came to town.

The problems that face Brasilia largely stem from the nature of its construction. By constructing a city in just 41 months, Lucio Costa had to make a lot of assumptions about not only how people live, but how they would live in the future. The famous cities of the world, ones which draw millions of tourists a year, took decades and centuries to form. That’s part of the appeal of these cities.

The problem with Brasilia, and most utopian, ultra-rational city plans, is that they fight against the inherit chaotic nature of humans. We live in cities to have our senses overwhelmed. We want to be surprised by what we see when we turn that winding corner-a beautiful old church or a brightly colored apartment building. Cities should be a bit of an assault on our senses. Brasilia has failed because it fought so hard against those things. I see the initial plan being chipped away at, and the city has regained a bit of a human touch to it, but the rich have dealt with the city’s failings by simply moving out. This is not only bad for city revitalization, but the very opposite of what this utopian city was built for.

Unfortunately I don’t necessarily see the solution within Brasilia’s grasp at the moment. The huge change that is coming is when the inner city apartments which are currently occupied by elderly widows turn over. Perhaps with a higher supply prices will drop and young families can move in-revitalizing the crucial city center and filling the streets with people.

The World Cup could also be the catalyst for social change in the area, which could start better city management. These things in turn could lead to a better city infrastructure and a voice for the city’s lower and middle class. I think these coming years will be a very interesting time for Brasilia and could really set the city on a good path, but it will certainly be an uphill battle.

I should take the time now to thank all the people who helped me get here-I couldn’t have done it alone! So thank you Carl Reed and Diane Alters, who helped with the content of my grant; my parents, who told me to go for it; my grandpa for all the great advice on photography, architecture, and life; the college and the President’s office; and of course the Keller Family for their generous funding of the Venture Grant.

Ellie

–Here are some photos I took that didn’t quite fit into any post but I wanted to share:

Superblocks and South Lake

One really gets of a sense of the “planning” aspect of urban planning when it comes to the superblocks. Superblocks made up the core concept of what the utopian architects of this city had planned. Here are some numbers:

Exhibit A- a building:

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11 of these = 1 superblock

4 superblocks = 1 neighborhood (around 8,000 inhabitants)

15 neighborhoods = 1 wing

4 wings = Brasilia

If you want to see the true rationality behind it all, consider the naming system. Instead of following the tradition in Brazil of naming streets or buildings after public figures, every street, and building is a number. For example, here is the welcome mat of this building:

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SQS                                         = south wing

3 (odd number)                    = west of the Highway Axis;

(second in the odd series) = in the second row of superblocks west of the Axis

08                                           = the eight superblock in the north-south row, out (south) from the Monumental Axis

BL. B                                        = Bock B of that superblock

The same occurs for north-south avenues but with W/E references. In practice, since not all Brasilian think best this way, people give directions just like anyone else “The bus stop next to the kindergarten” or “the market opposite of the church”. Churches or gas stations are good landmark indications because of the sameness of most of the buildings within a sector, the Bauhaus style more consistent here than I would guess anywhere on earth.

 

 

 

The idea behind the superblock was utopian in nature. In theory, each superblock was to be a small, self-sufficient community. There was a preschool and kindergarten, church, and a commercial block in each one. In theory great, in practice…not so much. Many superblocks are lacking the promised structures, though most of them do contain a commercial block, which is the liveliest part of the city I’ve seen. The buildings themselves, dreamed of a utopian place for those of all social classes to interact, are seemingly abandoned. Each of these buildings is required to have an elevated first floor so as to allow easy walking access. The first floor seems like an obvious meeting area, shaded and with amble seating area, but no one is there. I believe that it again goes back to the lack of numbers in the buildings. Perhaps 50 years ago this place was bursting with people walking back and forth but these days there is a feeling of abandonment throughout.

The residences of the superblock would be, say, the vice president of a large company. He could possibly live in the same superblock with his driver. This worked for a little bit, the mingling of social classes. But eventually the upper class moved out to the south part of the city next to the lake.

One can probably see how maddening the monotony of building styles could be to certain people. The city’s severe building codes frustrated people. Imagine living in a gated community with strict visual guidelines like what color you can paint your house and what style fence you can put up. Then imagine that community extending to your entire city, and not really having an option to leave. Times have changed since the 50s though, and I stumbled upon a neighborhood that, while originally all of the houses looked identical, the rules were relaxed in the 1970s. The area was originally built for merchants and professionals (whereas the superblocks were mostly for the workers who built the city), and the owners took it upon themselves to paint the houses different colors and expand the structures. One can perhaps sense a similar base for these houses if you know what you’re looking for, but they have for the most part taken on individual styles.

 

 

The nicest part of the city, home to many of the foreign embassy workers in the city, is South Lake. Because the apartments are still so costly in the city it has become most cost effective (in terms of money per square foot) to built a house in this part of town. Many of them sit on streets that border the large lake, ending with a cul-de-sac. Apparently, fences used to be illegal in this area, but the rule was scraped with rising crime rates. Every house I saw had one. Just as in the superblocks, I saw almost no one on these streets.

It seems as though the neighborhoods are trying to adapt and account for the plan’s deficiencies, but anything with this number of people involved and city building takes a lot of time (the 41 months it took to build the city is a rare exception). I’ll explore what this means for an aging city in my next post.

Ellie

The Many (Many) Works of Oscar Niemeyer

Roberto picked me up from my hotel in his Ford Fusion to start our tour. Yes, even though 90% of Brasilia’s famous sights are on the main street of the city, a car tour was the only way to go about seeing them all in one day. Like I’ve said before, not walker friendly.

Roberto was a great sport, expertly answering my rapid-fire questions about the city. He had lived here most of his life, so he had a lot of insight about the changes the city had seen in the previous decades. He explained something that I had actually thought a lot about-why there was no one downtown. When the city was built, all of the housing downtown was made for families. This entailed 4 or 5 person apartments. But that was 50 years ago and demographics have changed as children moved out and spouses passed away. I talked to a landlady who said that exactly 30 of her 60 units were occupied by single widowers. Meanwhile, the rent remains too sky high so young couples are moving out to the areas around the city, and the wealthier ambassadors and expats have moved to the neighborhood of South Lake. Downtown numbers are dwindling, a problem for the city’s design (that I’ll get into at a later post).

While not directly tied into my venture grant exploration, the buildings were what this city was built around. A utopian ideal of great architecture and monuments accessible to all. The monuments followed the city theme of “empty”, perhaps through the photo you can tell how astonishingly…well, empty, these places where. For instance, at the Palácio da Alvorada (Brasilia’s equivalent of the White House), I was one of 4 or 5 people there. I did find it pretty funny that, instead of a fence, they had a “moat” (I would call it more a shallow carp pond-compete with carp!-that a high school long jumper could easily hop across).

[On a related note, Roberto told me that, when asked the best time to visit Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer responded, “Weekends, so there are no cars in front of the monuments.”]

For lunch, Roberto took me to get ‘real Brazilian pizza’ and mate, where I encountered the most people I had seen at once this trip. There were probably 5 or 6 guys eating at the counter silently watching the Brazil-South Africa soccer match. Brazil won.

One of the happiest coincidences of the days was that the National Museum (the circular building with a curving ramp sticking out of the side) was having an art exhibit on the Bauhaus movement! Ah, ‘twas a good day to be an architecture nerd in Brazil.

While the buildings didn’t disappoint, they did look…worn. White isn’t an ideal or sustainable building color. That being said, a lot of these photos are in black and white because these buildings are so much more about their form or shape, and to have the grimy concrete color in front of the building distract from the photo would kind of be a shame. Black and white really shows off the clean lines. I will say that the photos I had seen previously (and took myself) of the Dom Bosco Church (the one with all the small square panels of blue stained glass) did/do not nearly do it justice.

-Ellie

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