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 …

20140126-105510.jpg viewing toys and …

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.



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.



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:

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Maker Remaketh
October 31, 2013, 4:06 am
Filed under: business, eutechnics, technology | Tags:

This article in Technology Review, “The Difference Between Making and Manufacturing” takes Chris Anderson to task for his enthusiasms but can also be seen as the play book for the coming years.

First I’d like to say that the author sets up a false dichotomy between making and manufacturing. Large manufacturers have always brought techniques from the kitchen or barnyard, and makers have always hacked ready mades. We’re only talking about a matter of scale. Leaving aside the Marxian perspective that quantity begets quality, the cat is already out of the bag.

David Rotman says makers, or let’s say, those people without standing in the manufacturing community, the unannointed, the macroeconomic non-entities, can do a lot, but they’re not making a revolution.

Many types of manufacturing require a sophisticated series of steps and processes to be done in precise sequence. Selecting the right materials and technologies is key to high-quality, low-cost results. If designers don’t understand the manufacturing processes and materials that are practical, they will never come up with the most advanced and compelling new products. It’s a lesson that has been repeatedly learned over the last decade in the development of new clean-energy technologies. Innovators may create smart designs for technologies such as solar panels, but ignoring the costs and practical details of manufacturing the new products is a sure path to failure.

Things need to be sophisticated, precise, and probably require the capital that hackers like you don’t have. Shift your perspective a bit, though, and you can see that Rotman provides the rubric for makers subverting manufacturers. Get sophisticated enough, get precise enough, and learn materials and processes, but do it cheaply and do it in such a way that encourages continuous practice.

Rotman is right, though, ignoring the cost and practical details of manufacturing is a sure path to failure. It’s just that I don’t believe the failure to be perpetual.

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The British Library
October 26, 2013, 3:24 am
Filed under: drawing, eutechnics, math, observer, technology, Tourism | Tags: , ,

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Yesterday I visited The British Library.



Folding Paper
January 29, 2012, 8:45 pm
Filed under: art, math, research, technology, thinking | Tags:

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Just finished watching Between the Folds, a gem of a documentary about origami. Lots of stuff about the art and science, the emotion and technique, and the history and trajectory of paper folding.

The documentary ends with a profile of MIT Professor Erik Demaine, who linkage computer maker Xiaoji Chen calls the “happiest genius in the world.”

I can see how one enthusiasm leads to another for Demaine: math, paper folding, genetics, and glass blowing — well, I’m not sure how the glass blowing fits in . . . but Demaine says it’s all about having fun. Maybe fun will lead to a cure for cancer as Demaine and others figure out how and why proteins fold, or maybe to nano computers in space.

I guess I should fold some paper while I’m inspired, but I’m more interested in approximating logarithms with musical scales.



My Ignorance
January 15, 2012, 10:42 pm
Filed under: education, observer, technology, thinking, work

Heard this on Eames:The Architect and The Painter

“You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire; you sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire.” — Richard Saul Wurman



My Other Vehicle Serves Data
January 1, 2012, 9:35 am
Filed under: education, eutechnics, research, technology, thinking | Tags:

The hula hoop is not a meme. . . [it’s] a meme vehicle. — James Gleick, The Information

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If things make us think, the Digicomp is an infectious way to get us to think about numbers and computing.

Boingboing just posted a story on the Digicomp emulator. I hope to check it out soon.



Binary Adding Machine
August 7, 2011, 9:20 am
Filed under: education, eutechnics, maps, math, media, mind, technology, thinking | Tags: , ,

Matthias Wandel, an engineer who works in wood, created a binary adding machine, a wonderful thing, a thing that makes you think. I’ve seen a similar adder created with K’nex, but it wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing.

The K’nex binary adding machine uses hinged rods that work like logic gates. Xiaoji Chen created much better looking gates with wooden slats and rivets. She’s modeled the adder in Processing.