Small Streams


Pollock’s Toy Museum
January 26, 2014, 5:45 am
Filed under: art, education, eutechnics, technology, thinking, Tourism, toys | Tags:

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Pollock’s toy museum has been a destination for us since we moved to London. How things make us think has been a hobby horse of mine for the past couple of years. So I was happy that Liz and I could take a short excursion to Central London and walk amidst the toys.

The museum is housed in, well, a house, or at least an “up and down” with not too many conversions. The downstairs holds the toy shop and the lobby, and the staircases and the upper floors display the dolls, dollhouses, games, etc.

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Some of my fascinations are construction toys …

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20140126-105634.jpg mathematical instruments.

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I also found the war games interesting. Never too early to build a distaste for the kaiser.

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Of course, the reason for Pollock’s being is the toy theatre. There must have been a hundred of them.

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They also had some interesting specimen boxes.

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If you ever want to get the imaginative juices flowing or at least cop some ideas for your doll house, I highly suggest it.



The Gift of Science
December 6, 2013, 3:30 am
Filed under: business, education, math, mind, technology | Tags: , ,

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I saw this lava lamp display at the V&A’s Museum of Science. Honest to Pete, I think there should be a whole room devoted to a lava lamp display. Who doesn’t love lava lamps? That and oil and glycerin on a projector, the psychedelic “wet show.” Maybe some polka dots and mirrors like the Mattress Factory‘s Yayoi Kusama installation.

The trick would be to create a room that excited the senses but didn’t make you physically ill.

If there’s any problem I have with lava lamps, it’s that science gift shops devote so much shelf space to them. Many science museums’ gift shops concentrate on the “ooh, shiny” distractions rather than objects that indulge people’s (not just children’s) love of the methods of science. I have to admit that people who run museum gift shops know more about what sells and what sells the experience.

If you’re just out for a happy trip, you don’t want to be scolded into homework at the end. No one likes to take a trip and bring home a memento that reminds them that they are not expanding their minds enough. So I really can’t advocate for a gift pack of Euclid’s Elements — though there are some great geometry puzzles that would make great gifts. The Science Museum does have a great book section and a lomography section and Technology Will Save Us shelves. When I was there last, they had someone demonstrating paper gliders.

I don’t expect science museums to check their impulse to cater to their audience any time soon. I just hope they can do more to indulge people’s desire to think about things. I will now stop ranting and leave you with the instructions for making your own lava lamp.



Mother of All Malls
December 5, 2013, 4:39 am
Filed under: Uncategorized
Camden Lock Market

Camden Lock Market

Arcades were the original malls. That’s a heavy and probably unfair burden to bear. But they were created by retailers and developers to control the environment. You are free to do what you want as long as you are buying and not ruining the buying experience for anybody else.

But the arcade was the nursery of the aimless wanderer, the flaneur, the turtle-walker, the place where you were among, or rather you were, the crowd. The grip of commerce wouldn’t always hold. Your only obligation was to understand and comment on the passing scene.

Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes. — Walter Benjamin

Now we have virtual arcades: Facebook, Twitter, and Tumbler. We can occupy other bodies. We can think and say and retract and sing our bodies electric. Like in the arcade, on the internet, we believe we are free. Our job, of course, as the ads on my WordPress pages reminds me, is to buy.

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Thank goodness there is this wonderful chance to subvert it all: Subvert our tastes, our politics, our relationships, our bodies . . .

For now, at least.

That’s why I think I’ll go back to making things. When you make things you are obligated. You are obligated to do the best job you can, and you are obligated to live with the results.

By the way, isn’t the ceiling at the Camden Lock Markets fantastic?



Post-Thanksgiving Walk
December 4, 2013, 3:35 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,
Well-laden Canal Boat on Regent's Canal

Well-laden Canal Boat on Regent’s Canal

After Thanksgiving dinner, we took a walk along Regent’s Canal. We saw a number of canal boats, but this is the one that seemed most self sufficient. I can give any number of reasons why living on a canal boat would be a very bad idea for me: my height, my poor marine maintenance skills, and my body’s reaction to cold wet weather among them. Still, this well-provisioned craft can help me dream properly.



Wax On
November 23, 2013, 3:17 am
Filed under: art, awareness, business, cities, community, media, observer | Tags: , ,

Last week, I wrote about a tech workshop at Rough Trade East. But don’t go looking up “rough trade” on Craigslist, look it up in the New York Times which has a story on the new branch of Rough Trade in NYC. The old medium of vinyl is growing, perhaps not on a scale that economists recognize (e•con•o•mist, a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing — Oscar Wilde), but enough that more and more people have access to the joy of records.

“As more and more business moves online and also to the malls,” [Martin Mills of Beggars Group, an independent record company] wrote in an email, “there is an increasing countervailing human demand for community, for localness, for tangible beauty, for specialist knowledge, for range, for retail experiences that are not price-dependent but make you feel good.”



I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Toys
November 19, 2013, 7:24 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I’ve previously written about the influences craft has on industry and vice versa. This New York Times article, “Etsy’s Industrial Revolution” concentrates on industry’s reliance on craft. You want to knit a sweater; you’ll probably need some needles from China. You want to make your own needles; here, use this lathe made by Milwaukee Large and Impressive Tool Company. There is a continuum from the handmade to the cottage-scale to the industrial scale to the global scale. The mittens you get on Etsy are handmade. The t-shirt you buy from Snorg Tees made in batches of a hundreds or so, the bespoke chocolate bar, the microbrew, the model rocket: cottage scale. The Volkswagen or Ford: industrial. The micro chip, Microsoft Office, the cellphone app: global.

I imagine you could make a good pastime to sort production according to scale. Handmade: up to a hundred. Cottage: up to a thousand. Industrial: hundreds of thousands to millions. Global: more than that. I imagine there is some clustering going on. For instance the build versus buy argument is very much in play at the handmade scale. You can buy a pot holder or bookshelf for cheaper than you can make it, but there might be a number of people who make potholders and bookshelves and maybe able to make a living, and only because they loved the process of making. The next step would be a cottage scale, hire a dozen employees, execute a marketing plan, farm out the logistics of sending hundreds of items far away, and so on. You might see custom marshmallows in Williams-Sonoma, but producing them for Costco or Safeway or Walmart would be an order of magnitude higher. 

My purpose in musing about this isn’t necessarily to entertain ideas on economics, although I think the economics of marshmallows would be a worthy field of study. No, I’m personally interested in the market for toys, particularly since I read the Bill Keller article on the Rainbow Loom, a fascinating toy children use to make rubber band bracelets. There are three million Rainbow Looms out there. Definitely industrial scale. But guess what? It’s an industrial scale product dependent on the love of craft. I love this line from Keller:

Not least among the charms of [Cheong Choon Ng's] simple device is the fact that it unplugs children for a while from the mind-sucking Matrix in favor of projects that require focus and creativity. (In fairness to the Internet, I should note that kids learn new bracelet designs from demonstration videos on YouTube.)

 How long before there are YouTubes and Pinterests and Instructables with kids hacking the Rainbow Loom, or making their own? Not. VeryLong. At. All.

I also think that looms contain multitudes. You have algorithms. You have patterns. You have sorting and searching and coding. Not to mention the idea of using punch cards for memory. Looms can be seen as an intro to computational thinking. Now we’re talking global. Toys that can make you think. Toys that can change the world.



Vorsprung durch Technik
November 17, 2013, 1:20 am
Filed under: music, technology | Tags: , ,

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Yesterday I went to Rough Trade East over in Brick Lane to take a workshop on the DIY synth presented by Technology Will Save Us.

The navigation and fretting about the trip to east London took up nearly an hour. I used my “how to deal with worrying algorithm” a few times on the way.

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By the time I got out of the tube station, I had lost my place on GoogleMaps (after two months I still don’t have phone service). But I remembered the general direction and when I saw the white church and spire at Old Spitalfields I knew I was going in the right direction. I also remembered that Rough Trade East was in the Old Truman Brewery building. As far as I could tell, Rough Trade East is a record store and not a BDSM supplier. Just like the British. Malcolm McLaren called his shop “Sex” and it was most famous for the music. There was a coffee shop in the store and some intentionally rough-hewn tables where the workshop was held. If the background music wasn’t Nick Drake, it was Nick Drake-like. After my worries and commuting trials, the predictability of Brick Lane was comforting. Think of Brick Lane as Diagon Alley for hipsters. East London, though, has hipsters who don’t just find the newest, greatest band. In addition to TWSU, it’s the home of Bare Paint and Sugru, not to mention the latest British Invasion, Candy Crush. TWSU makes many different kits: homemade electronic cards, the thirsty plant water gauge, electronic dough, and others. What’s more, they support their products through workshops

Our workshop consisted of a small group, four students, one instructor, and one TWSU observer. So there was plenty of time to talk. Also plenty of time to adapt to the small missteps that are usually part of the electronics making process (at least my process). The great thing about an instructor is that you get that little bit of extra information you need at crucial moments. You also get the encouragement you need when you think you’re a total screw-up.

After plugging in a dozen or so components and wires I had a working version, with all the wires, resistor, and capacitors (3), and speaker connected with the right prongs on the microchip.Synth

We also got some context of the synthesizer we were making. Obviously it was not a Korg or anything with a bunch of effects, just two potentiometers that controlled the length and frequency of a square wave. Now that I’ve got some background — and a thing I can play with — I can explore the whole resistor/capacitor relationship. One of these and an oscilloscope could constitute a couple of electrical engineering classes. I also learned that the chip we were using was a 556 (which has 50 transistors) is a child of the 555 timer chip (which has 25 transistors). In case you think I’m getting a bit esoteric, please know that a billion 555 chips are used each year. There will soon be more of these multi-pronged, carapaced voltage feeders than there are cockroaches.

I still have yet to get a tune out of the darn thing, but I must say I’m quite proud of it.

Me doing a little Charlie Chaplin move with the pots.

Me doing a little Charlie Chaplin move with the pots.


Thanks to Andrew and Tom for their help and info. I shoud have asked them why they picked the name Technology Will Save Us. As a big fan of Wendell Berry and Jerry Mander and as a general observer, TWSU sounds a little tongue in cheek if not tragic. Was listening to the radio last night and heard an Audi ad. I had to look up the tagline, “Vorsprung durch Technik, as the Germans would say.” Seems it means Progress through Technology. Must be something that’s going around here.




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