Posts in: Venture Grant

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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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Brasilia

Despite what TripAdvisor told me, the people at the front desk of my hotel do not speak English. That would have been fine if I knew that beforehand, but since I was expecting “Excellent English skills” I didn’t exactly do a lot of research, figuring it would be easy to just ask the front desk. Now, this isn’t because I’m the type of person who likes to travel and figure it out on the fly, quite the opposite actually. However, I’ve found that no matter how much time you spend researching a city there is just no way you’re going to know more than the people who live there.

First, let me clarify. Brasilia is not a destination like Rio. Going to Brasilia is a bit like traveling to Italy and choosing to go to Milan. No offense to any fans of Milan out there. I will admit my only experience with the city was a night sleeping on a cold marble bench in their train station, but you get the idea. To drive the point home, I was the only non-Brazilian on my flight. This is not speculative; I walked through the ‘foreigners’ customs line alone. I was pretty relieved to even be let into the country considering I look a bit like a mass murderer in my VISA photo (I’m gonna split the blame on that one with the Walgreens photo guy).

Check in with the front desk and my general questions about the area (like where to eat) did not go quite as smoothly as I imagined. After realizing neither of us could understand each other (I had a feeling that my one Portuguese phrase, “A menina come uma maca//the girl eats an apple” would not be getting me very far) we met in the middle and conversed in Spanish. I use the word ‘conversed’ lightly, it was mostly him speaking Spanish phrases or words quite slowly to me, followed by a lot of hand motions. But ultimately, as it often does in these situations, we had a good idea of what each other were trying to say, though the conversation ended with me putting my credit card number on a slip of paper for reasons not entirely known. I suppose I should start checking my bank account on a more regular basis just in case.

Apparently, because of Carnival and Brasilia’s poor pedestrian planning, nothing is open within walking distance. Oh well, what’s the saying? “There’s no better way than getting to know a culture than eating their frozen meals”?

The first thing I notice is how empty it feels here. I was the only one checking into (possibly staying at?) my hotel, and despite being surrounded by high-rises, I didn’t see anyone as I walked the block from where my taxi dropped me off to the hotel doors. It felt a bit post-apocalyptic. When I got to my room on the 16th floor and looked down onto the main axis (think of it like DC’s mall) I could see a few groups of people walking the immense stretches between cross streets like little ants. But that was the only real sign of life. This may just be my reaction to staying at a business hotel instead of a crowded youth hostel. I guess when one has spent most of their nights traveling on a bunk bed in a crowded room, one comes to expect certain things with their lodging (namely, a steady stream of loud young travelers coming into and out of the room at all hours of the night). But it still feels eerie, and I’m not exactly sure what to do with myself…

Some of the only people I saw the entire first day outside of a car.

Some of the only people I saw the entire first day who were not in a car.

I was told it wasn’t really safe to walk around the hotel area at night, and I can kind of seem why. This is what the view of the place is at night:

Not exactly a way to blend in with a crowd…

Not exactly a way to blend in with a crowd…

I think my Lonely Planet guide book summed it up nicely as "With long distances and harrowing six-lane highways connected by spaghetti junctions to negotiate, Brasilia is not really a city for walkers."

I think my Lonely Planet guide book summed it up nicely as “With long distances and harrowing six-lane highways connected by spaghetti junctions to negotiate, Brasilia is not really a city for walkers.”

Luckily I did do some research, and had written down the number of a highly recommended tour guide who has a background in architecture. One phone call later I am poised to meet Roberto tomorrow in the lobby of my hotel at 12 to begin our day of touring the architectural sights of Brasilia.

I’m excited to finally see Oscar Niemeyer’s extensive work in this city, as for so long they have been just been staring back at me from the pages of a book. I am a little worried they will not live up to the photos (some CC students may recall me dragging them through the streets of Vienna one night in a desperate attempt to find Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank. I was met with several “this is it?” stares upon arrival) but architecture is an art form you must experience to really appreciate, so I remain deliriously excited to finally step into these buildings.

That’s it for now!

Ellie

My view at night

My view at night

Brazil Bound

Welcome to my blog detailing my venture grant! I suppose my 9-hour layover at the Miami Airport is a convenient time to write a first post. A quick introduction on me, where I’m going, and what I’m doing:

I am a senior political science major with a focus on international relations. Last spring I studied abroad in beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark, on a program studying non-European immigration and integration in Scandinavia. I also took a class there on how to read cities based on their architectural styles, maps, and structure. For my final paper I ended up merging these two diverse studies by looking at how various housing and immigrant distribution policies throughout Scandinavia were impacting social cohesion in neighborhoods. This is all a longwinded way of saying I’ve recently become very interested in urban planning, and how a city’s structure can have impacts on its citizens and the society at large. How can city design positively or negatively impact things like social capital? Why are some neighborhoods rundown and others are not? This brings me to my venture grant.

I am headed (in a few hours) to the capital city of Brazil, Brasilia. I bet you thought the capital was Rio, and that’s okay, I did too until sophomore year when I ran across the city in an architecture course. What’s so architecturally significant about a city most of us have never heard of? Surprisingly, a lot! Brasilia is an architectural haven, and a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. You see, in 1956 it was decided that Brazil’s capital should move from Rio to the more centrally located Brasilia. There was just one problem. This is what Brasilia looked like in 1956.

Brasilia The plan was to build the city up from scratch, which afforded the city complete control over the city’s structure and plan. It was the 1950s, so the utopian urban planning of the Modern movement was in full force. The entire city was completed in just 41 months. Lucio Costa designed the city, with famed architect Oscar Niemayer designing many of the public buildings.

The Critique:

What brings me to Brasilia is actually not the beautiful modernist buildings, but the many faults that people find with the city and its design. The city, designed in the shape of an airplane, has at times been used as a symbol of the failure of urban planning and architecture to take into account the real needs of the people who live in urban areas.

While the museum district is filled with beautiful examples of modern architecture, the city design has sparked debate about just how much government oversight there should be in urban planning, and if it is better to have cities arise naturally with population growth. It is a fascinating contrast to the neighborhoods I studied in Copenhagen which date back to medieval times. While Brasilia looks quite beautiful on a site plan or from an airplane, one finds, in reality, a city devoid of street life. This is due to a variety of factors such as the city being planned on a scale suitable for people moving at speeds of 60km/h (traveling by car) as opposed to a pedestrian friendly city, coupled with the use of single use neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs.

The 1950s brought about a love affair with the automobile, along with cities designed around them.

The 1950s brought about a love affair with the automobile, along with cities designed around them. 

I am headed to Brasilia to see how the citizens of Brasilia have modified their urban environment to cope with poor design, and to understand how the people who live there deal with design issues. I am interested to see if the inhabitants of Brasilia have modified their urban landscape to deal with the sterile environment, if they have moved out of the central districts to create their own spaces outside the city, or if nothing has been done and no street life exists (and what the consequences are if that is the case).

I will primarily study this through photography, both because it’s the format I feel most comfortable with, and due to photography and architecture’s relationship with one another. I’ll be using photographer Marcel Gautherot’s beautiful black and white photographs from the book Building Brasilia for reference (all black and white photos posted will be his unless noted).

I’ll leave it at that for now, I promise more photos for the next post!

Ellie

Technical Difficulties

Final night in Yellowknife. Best aurora yet. First night with camera problems. Obviously.

It was an early display last night, without the interim between the weak and strong displays that I had noticed two nights ago. My complimentary hot chocolate was interrupted by the announcement that the aurora was increasing in intensity, so I was already flustered as I tried to navigate the teepee flap with the tripod. Looking over the frozen lake in front of me I could see several distinct ribbons of light visibly dancing, where mere minutes before had only been a dull haze. Knowing that sometimes the lights can last as little as five minutes, I hustled over to the spot my dad secured on the lake and began setting up the tripod. I had been outside just a few minutes before, trying to photography the early aurora, so the metal was frozen and sticking. After struggling with the legs, I went to mount the camera, and the dang thing would not click into the base.

If I was flustered before I was basically frantic now. Around me I could hear the “Oww’s” and “Ahh’s” of the other guests at the Aurora Village whom I could not see, as night turned us all into black masses. Finally, I managed to get it secured, and with a sign of relief, I turned the lens to the tree line and composed a shot. By this point, the entire sky was ablaze with undulating green bands. Again, we had the privilege to be directly under a portion of the ribbon, but this time two ends flared out in either direction so you could trace the path of the lights from beginning to end. With all the settings adjusted, I pressed the shutter button halfway down and waited for the telltale hum of the auto-focus adjusting to the focal point.

Nothing. No movement. Frustration turned to desperation.

It was the coldest night that I had attempted to use the camera, and as I figured out later, the lens had stopped registering distances as the metal froze. Thinking that this may have been the problem, I dismantled the whole camera and stuck it beneath both of my jackets in an attempt to warm it before the lights faded away. The cold metal dropped my core temperature faster than I would have thought possible, so I quickly gave up that idea, and remounted the camera in a last ditch effort to get a few shots off before it was too late. For reasons still unknown to me, everything came together at that moment, and I took some pictures where the whole sky is full of clearly dynamic green ribbons.

All in all, I was able to get a few pictures that I would have been proud to share. Except, when I went to upload them to this post, I realized that they were all too big. I was experimenting with a higher ISO setting, and it made the images too large for this site to handle. What I could upload is actually a pretty neat picture of the Aurora Village backlit by the rising moon. Though it’s not the most breathtaking image of the night, it is a good representation of the beautiful landscape under which I experienced the aurora on my last night in Yellowknife.

The teepees of the Aurora Village backlit by the moonrise

A Pattern to the Aurora

Last night we took ski-doos (I tried calling it a snowmobile and was met with a blank stare until I amended my verbiage) 30 minutes outside of town to a quaint cabin tucked into a small bay on Great Slave Lake. We were paying for an “Aurora Viewing Tour” which made me cringe for several reasons:

1)   I do not like paying for something that I can do for free. No one can charge to watch the display in the sky, but as I learned early on in this trip, you have to be patient and willing to wait. But waiting out in the cold and wind is not really an option up here, so in essence what we are paying for is a warm house with complimentary hot chocolate and muskox meatballs. The awesome mode of transport was just an added bonus.

2)   I do not like being “the tourist”. That person who walks into a room and stares wide-eyed as they try to get their bearings, equipped with dangling camera and area map. On this trip more than any in my past I have embraced the inevitable and succumbed to the tourist image. Which actually served me well because in addition to finding a bunch of great eateries and good deals, I got a free pass to complain about the cold (just a little).

Regardless to my unfounded aversion to spending money and owning up to being a visitor, the viewing tour was great. We had a beautiful view with a great foreground for my pictures and very little light pollution.

Because we had a warm house to retreat to, we were able to stay up and watch the entire sequence of the aurora. I am beginning to notice a real pattern in the displays, and our guide for the night verified some of my observations.

At first it is just a whisper of light, a band that cuts across the sky devoid of color and movement. Initially I was mistaking the band for a stray cloud and almost missed the beginnings of the show because of it. Eventually, the colors will deepen just enough to give off a faint green hue, but the ribbons of color don’t change their shape very quickly. Last night, this stage lasted for about 45 minutes, but it was so faint at the end that you could only see the color with a long exposure picture, it was no longer visible to the naked eye.

10:36 pm
The initial aurora, colorful enough to see with the naked eye, but with little movement

11:11pm
The aurora as it fades, I couldn’t see the colors without the camera’s help

I thought this was going to be it for the night as the aurora forecast for that evening was pretty calm. So when our guide called us to pack up around 12:30am, I was totally content with the images I had taken. Camera and tripod both safely secured to my dad’s back for travel, we waited outside for the ski-doos to warm up. I was the first to notice the indistinct cloud forming above our heads, and it was only a matter of seconds before it erupted into a flame of color. It stretched almost from horizon to horizon, east to west, and was nearly directly overhead so that we were looking up into the ribbons from below. Paralyzed by awe, I barely had time to get out my camera and snap a few hurried shots before it began to fade and we were herded on the ski-doos. I will confess that I was not a good driver on our way back, as I kept tilting my head back to see if it was still above us. As far as I could tell, it stayed with us until we reached the lights of the city, where it quietly faded away.

12:44am
The second aurora of the evening with deeper colors and more movement

I think I let my descriptions get the better of me, so incase I was not clear, here is the pattern I have noticed thus far:

  • The initial manifestation of the aurora is a stagnant “cloud,” perhaps with a slight greenish hue
  • Early in the evening, an aurora with little movement, but a deeper color so as to clearly identify it as such, will appear slowly in the sky and last for around 45 minutes, the fade slowly back into the night
  • Later in the evening, the same preceding cloud will appear, but quickly explode with color and movement, lasting for less time than the first, perhaps 15 minutes.

I am happy to give my insight, but please take into account that I am still exceptionally new to this. I have heard so many different accounts from residents of Yellowknife that I can already recognize there are no fast and true rules to the aurora. It does what it wants when it wishes, and you have to be ready to observe it, for it will not wait around for you.