Category Archives: craft

‘hello world’ on the Replicator 2

20 minutes set up, 10 minutes to print. A whole new world, endless itches to be scratched, and lots of extruded, environmentally safe (comparative), plastic gewgaws, tools, parts, and maybe even inventions to come.

(This is a print that comes pre-installed with the SD card you use to load files into the Replicator. The chains move freely after a gentle snap of the connective plastic printed with them.)

Arduino Weekend: Freaks in Garages Working together

Several years ago, when I took off a month between jobs, I spent a week geeking out on the Arduino. This weekend, I’m geeking out with my niece – who is a geologist – soldering a bunch of Mintyboost kits for Christmas, mastering the Arduino, and doing some LCD stuff.

As a geologist, my niece has professional reasons to care about electronics and the Arduino. She does field work with instruments and sensors that often need repair, tweaking, and maybe even hacking (that might be my fantasy). A little while ago, she sent me this picture:

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A colleague (colleague, ha! they’re just my niece’s friends) was working with a microcontroller to do . . . well, something geology-related. Anyway, after soldering some of her instruments, she’s got enough of a bug for us to hang and do this.

The other exciting thing about this little adventure is that, while I was ordering parts, I discovered that there’s a new thing called the Arduino Mega!

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It may be hard to see the cause for excitement, but basically the Mega has 54 output pins (they make up the little walls around the edge of the board), compared to the Uno, which has only 14:

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Going past the 14 pins in the Arduino is one of those plateaus that can kill a hobbyist’s momentum. When I had an idea for a project with about 30 LEDs, I was told I needed to get into shift registers. I did so, but it was painful and took a lot of space:

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While it was rewarding to get it done, it took up most of my time and posed some other problems (like space and weight of the components), so my project never got off the ground.

These plateaus occur in all sorts of places: GUI controls for mid- to low-level programming languages, pointers in C++, database hooks in most programming languages, PWM and servos in electronics, hell, even setting up the IDE for a relatively simple programming language. One of the things that was cool in the Lady Ada feature of Wired was how she highlighted how much more support there is in overcoming these hurdles in the last 3 – 5 years.

Chris Anderson: We’ve had the notion of garages, workshops, sheds, and DIY tinkering for a long time. And yet there’s a sense that something’s different now. What characterizes the 21st-century maker model to you?

Limor Fried: One of the things about doing projects is that documenting them and sharing them with people used to be really difficult. Now we see so many people putting up videos, and it’s so easy. I can make a five-minute video in an hour, with a preface and edits and nice audio and everything. And I think that makes a difference, because when people are exposed to this stuff and they actually get to see it, they get inspired.

There are also so many really great websites where people can share their projects. We have Instructables and iFixit and Etsy and Make and Hack a Day and our own Adafruit. So people who used to do this stuff alone now have even more community. It used to be just freaks in garages; now it’s freaks in garages working together.

Of course, I live on the second story of a brownstone, so we’re more “freaks in old maid’s quarters working together.” Still, a good time to be alive, tinkery, and not afraid to get a few burns.

Design Moments & Techno Flashbacks from All the President’s Men

As a kid, I wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein (both of them, yes). I could barely tell you what Watergate was about, or where they followed the money to, but I read the book in my tent in the backyard at age 10 and was absorbed – by their investigative intensity, the puzzle-solving, the clever interview techniques, the big journalistic personalities. The movie got me into the book and I recently rented it. What great production design, and how interesting to see all the pre-chip technologies at play (and the use of which advances the story, one of the most amazing things about the movie is the drama they brought to interviews, phone calls, phone book searches). Anyway, some fun screenshots:

a photocopy of a typed phone list(!):

typewriters:

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phones that were heavy enough to be murder weapons in other shows but, for this movie, where you screw off the voice piece to listen in instead of hitting mute:
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UHF and VHF for close to 15 stations accessed with knobs that turn:
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handwriting(!):
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if it weren’t for the thumbtacks, and the fact that Robert Redford would never do requirements gathering, I might think this was a card sort:
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before people just threw them out, there was a time when there were rooms full of phone books:
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and, sadly, one last thing lost to that era: the bad-ass newspaperman who still thrills to a story, cares about the free press, and totally kicks ass:
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Bill Evans on Craft, Ideas, Creativity, and bottom of the T

This is fantastic. Bill Evans talks about the importance of quality and accuracy in musical invention. In this four minute clip, Evans illustrates one point: doing a specific thing well is the key to great creativity, doing a broad thing vaguely OK isn’t close. He points to mediocre art coming from people who “would rather approximate the entire problem than take a small part of it & be real & true about it,” arguing that it’s “better to do something simple which is real . . . it’s something you can build on, because you know what you’re doing . . . whereas if you try to approximate something which is very advanced and you don’t know what you’re doing”

Then, amazingly, through several improvisations on top of “I like New York in June,” he illustrates a specific, focused approach that moves as well as a general approximation approach.

(Interestingly, I have for many years, been a fan of Oscar Peterson and wondered why people like Miles Davis hated him so much. That sample at 1:30 just deepened my understanding of this. Wow.)

New Year, New Job, New Project

In a couple weeks, I’ll be starting a new job (deets later) and thought it was time to clean the rust off the tools in my toolbox. I’m starting an ugly little blog called “Learn to Code Already (and while you’re at it, learn some data, too)”. During my union organizing days, I wrote code to pay the bills (hopeless political causes are romantic and certainly the good fight, but they are financially suspect). When I became a digital/interactive/game designer, some time in 1996 – 1997, I realized that basic computer knowledge could have a huge impact on the quality and innovation of a design. My computer knowledge was basic:

- databases (I wrote programs in C and Java for Paradox and DBase IV and in Visual Basic for Access)
- command loops
- data variables and structures like arrays, lists, and structs
- conditions (if … then)

The only hard part, conceptually was learning about relational databases once my freelance work required me to move past flat file systems. The rest was pretty straightforward, requiring some rote, some instructive debugging, and excitement at what these things might do. (I learned BASIC on TRS-80 and within a week was hooked, writing D&D character generators, lunar lander games, and even the beginnings of a Zork-style adventure game.)

With this small bit of knowledge, some free time, and youthful arrogance and curiosity, I was able to write database programs for health organizations, artificial intelligence routines for a deer hunting game as well as several classic board games, re-write the timesheets reporting program so I could get better data on my clients at R/GA, create small HTML tools that sped up and improved the accuracy of posting to client review sites . . . to name some highlights.

Today, those skills are rusty and there are new languages and types of languages that make me want back in. As I wrote to a programmer friend of mine:

* I’m frustrated that I no longer have a coding language or tool to play with ideas (I used to have VB and that allowed me to write bulletmaker and a new timesheets program for Nike as well as a deer AI).
* I’m frustrated that it’s so hard to find a place to start
* I want to start a new language
* I want to blog about coding. I bought “learntocodealready.com” and want to make it a group blog for four or five people to record their progress, save resources, share tips, and build the case that code is the cell unit of creativity

He wrote back:

Nice. Just last weekend I realized there were far more powerpoints on my computer than source code files. Not good.

So starting digging in with jquery tutorials.

It’s also worth highlighting Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed argument. Read it yourself, but the short version is: we can master our tools, or let them drag us along by the nose and hope we go somewhere interesting. Or as the good folks at Whole Earth Catalog used to say, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

I’m starting with Python, using Zed Shaw’s Learn Python the Hard Way, a book targeted at absolute beginners and which strives not to teach Python in a hard way, but in a way that has lasting value.

Three goals for the site:

1) convince people that learning to code is valuable, fun, and attainable. Further, that it should be part of our literacy in the digital age, especially if we’re in that business.

2) Collect resources, inspirations, code snippets, and advice that clears the way for people to start learning at a level and in an environment that works for them.

3) Collect little tidbits of information, inspiration and wisdom from my own experience working through some Python books, then getting into HTML 5, then PHP/MySQL.

Ping me if you want to join up: kip dot voytek at gmail dot com.

Practice, Craft, In Your Blood: “Man in a Blizzard”

Roger Ebert blogs, rather gushes on his blog about “Man In a Blizzard”:

This film deserves to win the Academy Award for best live-action short subject. (1) Because of its wonderful quality. (2) Because of its role as homage. It is directly inspired by Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent classic “Man With a Movie Camera.” (3) Because it represents an almost unbelievable technical proficiency.

You can tell from the cinematography he knew exactly what he was doing and how to do it. He held the Vertov film in memory. Stuart must already been thinking of how he would do the edit and sound. Any professional will tell you the talent exhibited here is extraordinary.

The creator of the film writes to Ebert:

The simple answer as to how it was done so quickly: practice.

Most of the work I’ve done for the past half dozen years has been improvised online press-related shorts, which by nature requires a fast turnaround. Before that, I used to storyboard all my work — so I had a strong sense of film language. The trick is to step into situations, often without a plan, and try to make it look like it was all planned. For instance, when I first started doing work for Filmmaker Magazine, I had just done my NYFF44 series, and Scott Macaulay asked if he could see the scripts I used for the episodes; I had to tell him there weren’t any.

“In your blood” from the title is a reference to another blog post, where Ray Bradbury talks about reading Moby Dick dozens and dozens of times to prepare to write the screenplay for the movie version starring Gregory Peck.

Cleese’s creativity tips: sleep, avoid interruption

Nice talk by John Cleese about creativity. Things that emerge for me:

1) sleep on it — he has a great story about losing a killer first draft of a sketch, forcing himself to re-write it from memory a day later, finding the first draft and discovering that the second draft was quite a bit better. Creativity isn’t a moment in time, the unconscious mind, different parts of the mind, create even when you’re not consciously setting out to do it. Reminds me a little of the story about Ray Bradbury reading Moby Dick 60 times and certain parts 100 times to ‘get it into the bloodstream’ as a source of creativity when writing the screenplay for the movie.

2) don’t get interrupted — find the flow, nothing new here, but there’s something refreshing about the lack of theory and his willingness to use simple language and simple stories to convey his “system” (which he doesn’t have, he just has some thoughts)

3) we don’t know where ideas come from — at first blush it feels like he weakly answers this (funny, but weak) but I think there’s something powerful in refusing to answer the questions, insisting that we don’t know, insisting that it isn’t from our tools and referring us back to the mysteries of the unconscious to force us to cultivate creativity instead of looking for ideas.

4) stop the mania — if you’re just keeping the balls in the air, “you’re not going to have creative ideas”.

Before a rather frightening riff on self-awareness, he describes creativity as our little tortoise mind a timid, plodding, easily spooked thing (I suppose, the editing only leaves us the image, not the setup) and advises: “Set boundaries of space . . . boundaries of time, create a physical and mental oasis . . . then and only then can you play.”

For the electronics plateau, a boost from MAKE

When I was learning to program in C/C++, for several days/weeks and on several attempts I hit the pointers plateau — that thing which, conceptually, I couldn’t get my head around sufficiently to really grok the damn things. I eventually took a class that spent three weeks on it and now I understand them — their purpose, their usage, their style and how to troubleshoot them. A couple summers ago, I took a geek vacation between jobs and worked my way through the NYU ITP Physical Computing class curriculum and dug deeper into some Arduino stuff.

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After a couple weeks, I hit a plateau. I needed things like shift registers to multiply the number of LEDs I could manage with the Arduino’s 13 pins; I needed to use a 555 timer chip to get pulsing, and there was a whole range of chips starting named 74______ that were described as “hugely useful” or “workhorses”. These things were critical and basic, like pointers, but (like pointers) it was impossible to find documentation for them that was comprehensible to someone with my level of experience. It was one of the weird places where the web let me down. I must have done dozens of searches, asked everyone I could for help, and could find nothing. Which is a drag, cuz those chips are what give real ooomph to physical computing projects.

Make Magazine has fixed that with Make: Electronics, an unusually good book even by O’Reilly standards. It contains in-depth explanations of how transistors and logic gates work at the physical level — giving you a more intuitive sense of how to work with them (rather than following steps by rote); detailed descriptions of the pins at three levels: the official specs, the occasional nomenclature, and the actual function; and some simple circuits that show what the thing does. The last might be the most important. Even the most basic 555 Timer chip examples I could find had so much stuff going on that it was impossible to isolate the chip and learn, iteratively through tweaking the code, what the things does. To top it off, the Maker Shed Store has a components kit that pulls all the stuff (including jumper wires) together for you.

The one weird thing about the book is in the index:

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What the hell kind of alphabetization system is this?

Of course, it’s not like I have time to do anything on my nifty hand-made workbench. But it’s nice to have it when I’m ready. Hope springs eternal. Put differently.

while (!endOfUniverse)
hope.spring();
;

Ha!

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Virtual shrug: Adobe’s upcoming ‘museum’

GS&P just put out a gorgeous and inviting teaser/trailer for the Adobe Museum of Digital Media. It’s a beautiful, well executed virtual museum. The creatives have done some interesting things around conceiving of a virtual building that could live in any real city (or virtual rendering of a real city), and how to move about and recreate the sense of sight lines and movement of a real place.

The whole exercise is a preview, so it’s hard to know what we’ll be seeing in August, but I tend to be pretty meh about virtual anything. It seems like an easy impulse that we’ve lived with for many years: put the word virtual in front of anything and you have a concept for digital, along with a baseline for solving most of your design problems.

I did a talk last weekend to museum and art publishers about where e-Readers and interactive reading were going. To prep for the talk, I grabbed a bunch of art books for the iPad. In general, the results were far from magical. The interactions were banal, click and play kind of stuff. But, one of the books that horrified me was “The Art Authority”:

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Seeing this screen gave me flashbacks to early CD-ROM designs and BOB from Microsoft. Back then, we used metaphors and virtualizations because, I think, computers were new to people and we wanted them to feel comfortable and grounded. To do that, we tried to give them a sense of physicality.

There are all sorts of problems with physicality in designing interactive/digital/screen-based experiences: 1) you use a lot of real estate for the interface-metaphor and therefore less space for the content; 2) the interface-metaphor behaves in an insistent way, continually making itself the center of attention, rather than fading back into the role of facilitator/quiet mediator of content; 3) interface-matephors pull you into a level of specificity that can actually break rather than create an illusion of physicality. As a result, most of them are cheesy or childish.

To be clear, GS&P have gone farther and built something virtually that would be impossible in the real world. Already, we’re in the realm, then of speculative architecture rather than simple virtual thinking. And, as I mentioned above, the experience is beautiful and the space is interesting, so the speculative architecture aspect of the project is quite teh awesum.

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But despite the coolness of the building, there’s still a need to justify the overhead of the interface-metaphor. In the physical world, you need a physical museum to show art. That physical world has requirements that make museums great architecture: the environment to protect the art, how crowds are managed, what the space for art encounters is like, what kind of art can be shown, what the building says about the art within, what an art viewing session is like, and what the building does for the viewer as a piece of art itself.

The internet is already a ‘place’ where art is displayed. So, what do we get out of putting a virtual building in between the internet and the art that would normally live there? And is it worth the costs of the overhead (especially if people are viewing it on an iPad or something smaller)?

The part that’s really interesting to me, is the way the video for the interviews was handled. There’s a satellite transmission aspect to the video, the purpose of which is unclear:

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If I ventured to guess, I would say the idea was to stylistically degrade the reality of the real talking heads to dial up the reality of the virtual building. But that graininess goes away when the trailer shows team meetings, so I can’t be sure. Leaving aside the motivation, however, the degraded scan lines do highlight, even or create discomfort with the larger metaphor by once again calling attention to what’s being done rather than than the art that will, eventually, be displayed.

In a real museum (or I should say a Real Life Museum), the trailer would be about how the curators and the museums conceived of the show — how did we choose the themes and the art, what popular and academic understandings of the artists did we want to explore or explode, how did we arrive at the final works, what collaborations and personalities came to bear on the final product — not how the space was conceived.

Enough. Twitter version:

When we do virtual things, we need to ask, what’s the star of the show, what’s the point, is there balance, and are we serving the content?

Beer Mats, HBR, and a book or two will make you an expert

After my TEDx Kent talk — a delightful romp though kipbot’s pissiness at how kids today don’t respect the amount of craft and expertise needed to do digital — someone recommended I read Rethinking Expertise, by Harry Collins and Robert Evans. Collins and Evans are sociologists at Cardiff University who specialize in the acquisition and social understanding of knowledge and expertise. The book is

meant to increase the chance that the process of coming to be called an expert will have more to do with the possession of real and substantive expertise … to treat it as something other than relational

It’s quite a good read, though the introduction, and the purpose is kind of sad: “First we need to work out what it means to know what you are talking about.” What a sad task to have to take on.

There is a lot in this book to blog about, and I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I had an aha! on the subway (the realization and insight kind, not the marketing kind). The book is based on a ‘periodic table of expertises’, which contains a spectrum of knowledge levels around which we build our expertise. The spectrum reads:

beer mat knowledge – little trivia fun facts that are technically right, but doesn’t get you beyond definitions
popular understanding – such as a pop science book that gives you enough to talk about it at parties, but not enough to answer questions
primary source knowledge – reading books in the field
interactional expertise – doing it
contributory expertise – originating ideas in the field, serving as part of the peer community that defines and propels it

The last two are the areas of true expertise – people who study a field by immersing themselves in the primary literature (often in university) and then do the field, where they gain deeper knowledge and understanding, eventually moving into a kind of mastery where they shape the field with their contributions. The book is focused on science, so the idea can be understood, by majoring in biology, going to grad school where you study more primary literature, but are in a lab and teaching (interactional), and then doing some research that can be published as a contribution to the field (the dissertation).

Anyway, I love the beer mat analogy, and it’s actually real — they found a beer mat for Babycham company that tells you what a hologram is (with exclamation points too!). But the real insight for me was the faultline between primary source and interactional expertise. How many times have we made ourselves conversant in (and considered ourselves capable of managing) a field after reading a couple books in the field? Without doing the work, without reading something by or talking to someone who actually has done the work to see what the difference between dynamic interactional and static written knowledge would be. The degree of immersion is important here. In his reportage and non-fiction writing, Martin Amis regularly refers to reading a couple yards of books to get a handle on the field (specifically he was talking about nuclear disarmament policy and Stalin research). This was a huge insight for me as a manager and as an observer of other managerial cultures.

The other piece I really liked was the distinction around popular literature on a field. Somewhere between beer mats and text books are popularizations — the Stephen Hawking pop science stuff. I used to make fun of the Business Week cover dynamic in the internet industry — the day something gets covered in BW, the client or your boss calls and says “OMG we need to have this!!!!” But now, looking at the broader spectrum of expertise — going from beer mats out to doing and originating — I’m wondering if things like our beloved HBR, the sacred text to many of us (including me), is actually popular or primary.

PS Jeff Parks, in his talk, “Being Human is not Quantifiable” has a funny riff about expertise. While looking at Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours quote, he gently mocks the notion of a social media expert arguing that this stuff hasn’t been around long enough for some to put 10,000 hours into it!