Small Streams

I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Toys
November 19, 2013, 7:24 am
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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.

November 15, 2013, 5:07 am
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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
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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.

Charbonnel et Walker, oldest Chocolatier in London.
November 10, 2013, 4:10 am
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The View From Your Window Contest
October 27, 2013, 1:26 am
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The Dish


You have until noon on Tuesday to guess it. City and/or state first, then country. Please put the location in the subject heading, along with any description within the email. If no one guesses the exact location, proximity counts.  Be sure to email entries to Winner gets a free The View From Your Window book or two free gift subscriptions to the Dish. Have at it.

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Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire
June 24, 2012, 8:53 am
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I will be applying to be an exhibit to Pittsburgh’s Mini Maker Faire. I hope you are, too. Here’s

a site that tells you how to make an interactive exhibit

20120624-141639.jpgMore evidence of my hackery, Calcubot Jr. I’m going to have to make measurements soon. Will have to go to school on Belsey’s Instructable.

Calcubot 0.1
June 16, 2012, 11:15 am
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Proof-of-Concept. #counting #calculating No measuring. Needs to be reinforced at bottom or a separate foot track needs to be built. You never forget your first bot.

Diddley Bow Pick-up
June 12, 2012, 6:59 pm
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Spotted at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh at a Kids and Creativity event. I’m going to have to make one of these. According to Christian at the electronics station, the pick-up is made with a magnet, a coil, and, as you can see here, a bottle cap.

Finger-Activated Switch
June 11, 2012, 8:19 pm
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I used an NPN transistor, a resistor, and an LED for a circuit that’s completed with my own conductivity. #counting #calculating