Small Streams

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: , ,


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.

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.

November 15, 2013, 5:07 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,


Yesterday I wrote about Gainsborough’s showbox, a kind of image projector. Similarly, magic lanterns project images on a screen or wall using a lens and a light source. Magic lanterns were around since the 17th century. Many credit Christian Huygens. As always, the point of origin is not distinct and the first of magic lanterns might have been used in the 15th century. The Wikipedia article on magic lanterns is well worth a read. Initial developers made the machines to project ghosts and demons — to scare people. I’m sure some magic lanternists were trying to take the high road and to document nature and the activities of, say, the common clam.

This article by Ann Bermingham describes the showbox and its kinship to the camera obscura, a device John Locke called a metaphor for the human mind (No wonder the British Patent system classified projectors under philosophical instruments).

Eventually the projection industry became standarized, with every sprocket spaced evenly and the narrative arc normalized to the point where the boy got the girl within 90 minutes. There was, though, a time of praxinoscopes, zoetropes, chromoscopes, ad infinitum and beyond.


h/t to the tiki chick

It’s Show(box) Time!
November 14, 2013, 6:54 am
Filed under: art, media, painting, technology, Uncategorized

I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum with a friend of my sister Susie’s. We mostly saw the 19th C. paintings and drawings: Constable, Turner, Rosetti, Burne Jones, etc. I saw a Constable drawing of an elm tree that had me doing a double take. Given my lack of familiarity with the genre of landscape, all I can say is that Constable’s elm tree makes Bob Ross’s pine tree look sad.

Constable landscape

Constable landscape

What caught my attention, of course, was the big wooden box in one of the galleries, Thomas Gainsborough’s Showbox.

Gainsborough's Showbox

Gainsborough’s Showbox

According to the V&A…

In the 1780s Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) painted a series of landscapes in oils on glass, which were viewed in a specially constructed ‘showbox’, described in this way:

“The machine consists of a number of glass planes, which are moveable…chiefly landscapes. They are lighted … at the back, and are viewed through a magnifying lens, by which means the effect produced is truly captivating.’
Gainsborough’s ‘showbox’ contained a painted glass transparency, set before a silk diffusing screen that was originally lit by three candles. The image is viewed through the adjustable lens at the front. The box opens at the top and back and also contains slots for storing the transparencies.

I guess this is not the first example of the magic lantern, but it does show that people’s imaginations were tilted that way since the 18th century. I’ll have to follow this post up with one about the V&A Museum of Childhood, which is just chock-full of viewer goodness. Until then, here’s a Gainsborough on glass:

2013-11-14 11.07.32

James Watt’s Workshop
November 13, 2013, 3:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

James Watt's Workshop

The Science Museum in London, in addition to having umpteen models and replicas of steam engines, has recreated James Watt’s workshop. The exhibit has 8,434 items: tools, machines, parts, gears, ceramic pots, etc. The lathe in the back is pedal powered. I never appreciated what a far-ranging mind Watt had. One of his last projects was a sculpture reproduction machine. People wanted machine produced (read cheap) versions of sculpture, perhaps a precursor to present demand for 3-D printing.

Chocolate Ecstasy Tour
November 10, 2013, 4:30 am
Filed under: art, awareness, food, observer, Tourism, walking | Tags: ,

Yesterday Liz, Piper, and I took a chocolate tour of London courtesy of the American School of London. The tour was an amazing brief for the senses. Our guide was well versed in chocolate knowledge. After convening for a cup of cocoa we visited four chocolate shops. Believe me, four is plenty. My senses were overstimulated by the end.

We visited Roald Dahl’s favorite chocolate shop, the oldest chocolate shop in London, a cool artisanal shop, and a shop known for its mixtures of chocolate with nuts and spices.

Two of the shops were in arcades. Which makes me think, “What’s the difference between a mall and an arcade?” To find out, I suggest going to Pittsburgh’s Fifth Avenue Place and imagine you’re standing in Jenkin’s Arcade. If you don’t cry then and there, your heart is made of stone.

All of the chocolate shops were in the Mayfair and Soho parts of London. I’ll attach some pictures. Not pictured is the fantastic moment when I first glimpsed the white terra cotta grand avenue of Regent Street through the highly articulated channel of Soho.





Charbonnel et Walker, oldest Chocolatier in London.
November 10, 2013, 4:10 am
Filed under: Uncategorized