09 November 2006

random thought

while reading john maeda's blog this morning, i came across this statement.

Understanding and "listening" to one's materials is a critical factor to finding the most natural form of expression for a set of given constraints.

which was expanded to the original "fifth law of simplicity."

A material's failure to comply to a specific application
provides indication that its more natural usage lies elsewhere.

i couldn't agree more.
and i think there's something there with the "set of given constraints"
but how do you find those constraints?
how do you physically and intuitively understand?
how can we, as teachers, help others learn these constraints?
how can we, as learners, always "hear" the materials?

08 November 2006

answering david's question: why wire?

why wire? good question. and i guess one i haven't answered yet quite fully.

i'd be lying if i said that my choice of wire is completely objective. had i not had the experiences with making chainmail and jewelry and little wire figures and helping dad build fences, etc, i probably would not have been as struck to make things after seeing arthur ganson's stuff. but because wire was a material i was already comfortable wtih and had around, somehow it seemed more accessible. i didn't sit around and ponder the plusses and minuses of the material. it was the material i had and was the material i understood. so let me just admit the subjectivity of my decision to begin with.

but, really, nothing in life is truly objective. we, as humans, don't have enough time to sit around and fully think out every possibility. our choices are determined by our past choices and current comforts. that being said, after working with wire as much as i have, i've come to some realizations as to why it's a great material to build mechanisms/sculptures with. although maybe my decision to come to wire wasn't overly objective, perhaps my thoughts as to why it's a good material can be separated from that.

first off, flexibility... physical flexibility. especially when trying to feel out a new idea, flexibility is important. the mechanisms can be tweaked to get the desired result. once you get a feel for the wire, you can prototype new things quickly and see how it works and then work on a more finished version. the flexibility allows for higher tolerances, so less precision is necessary when making a mechanism. this is good because it's not really possible to precision engineer things in some places. the flexibility allows for creating curves. you're not just limited to right angles and straight lines. also, the physical flexibility provides a very material constraint to building structures. if you don't understand the material or think about the geometries, your structure might fail. this provides insight into why triangles might be a good geometry. also, thickness being important to prevent bending. and thinking about things like how much weight can this hold. etc. (that last bit was rambling, but maybe you still get my point?)

second, flexibility in what you can make with it. not just limited to one scale. can make really small delicate things or larger things. in some ways, much less limited than working with legos or k'nex or something of that ilk. but by the fact that you have to make everything, it's limiting in a different way. also it allows for the integration of found/scavenged parts more readily than other building materials. basically, if you have the scaveneged parts, you can find some way with wire to hold them in place. sometimes they're not the most elegant solutions, but it is sufficient and aids in the prototyping/building/design process.

third, cost and availability. it's generally available everywhere for not too much money. places like africa and south america have a rich tradition of making toys and art out of found objects. particularly if an angle for learning is taken, this could be advantageous. here's one place where people in developing nations might have a leg up over developed ones. or rural vs. urban. and if people are connected via computers ($100 laptop?) maybe this will allow for an influx of ideas into places where ideas often just leave? but back to cost... a lot of schools can't afford lego robotics. and instead of sitting around wishing they had these lego kits, maybe a way to get the same ideas across with cheaper materials (at a bit of a time cost) is a worthwhile solution.

other random thoughts: you can't make anything too precise and as a result might be more likely to experiment? (analogous to the thought that sometimes it's good to draw with your wrong hand or without looking at the paper.) drawing in 3-D. actually making the parts vs. using provided parts.

hrm. yeah. those are my thoughts for now. maybe i have more... i'll add them when they come.

06 November 2006

answering glorianna's questions: personal story

"OK now go into what you have discovered about the physical world by building something.... tell a very specific story about making your giraffe -- what did you have to start, how did your understanding change?"


oh boy. Don't I already talk about this enough? ;) Anyway. Maybe I'll tell several stories. Life is all about stories.

I needed a demo and I needed it bad. I had one week. I had wire. And I had whatever was around me at the lab to use because I didn't really want to waste my time searching for parts and waiting for them to arrive when I could be using that time building. I only knew one thing: the theme was "dance." One afternoon, I sat down with one of my friends and brainstormed about different objects/animals dancing. I decided that I really liked the idea of a giraffe, mainly due to the fact that I really like the elegand awkwardness of the giraffe. And I really like the way their eyes look so gentle. So I set out to make a wire giraffe that danced. I went through a few different design ideas. I knew I wanted to use a spring for the giraffe's neck so it would wobble. Other than that, I knew I wanted to use a wire gear a la Arthur Ganson. I asked Roger if we had any springs lying around and he handed me that one. I asked Roger if we had any motors, and he gave me that motor... a simple DC motor with a max output of Not Very Fast. I decided upon making a crank rocker and having the giraffe rock back and forth, with its neck swaying extra. Since we had a laser cutter with lots of spare acrylic around, I decided to make the base out of acrylic. I wanted the part that the giraffe was on to be green like grass but all they had was this glass green color. And I wanted the rest of it to be clear, but all they had was black. hrm. I went with what I had. I underestimated the amount of gearing down that a worm gear to a spur gear creates, and as a result, ended up with a giraffe that doesn't rock as quickly as I'd like, even when the motor is at full speed. For the programming of the Gogo board, we thought it would be nice to have some sort of differential for the speed. So we ended up settling on two touch sensors that the faster you could run on them, the faster the motor went. All that was left was to have a base for it. Again... I had wire and one day left, so I decided to wrap wire around until it was stable enough to support the giraffe and its base. I had used this technique before when making little wire figures. It was a fun demonstration of principle, but I think I could do better. The design was heavily determined by my previous experience (mostly none) and by the materials I had readily available (in and around my office).

+my graduation hat
This all started because I wanted to have a thinking cap... a crank on the left side of my head. So I made a crank to a worm gear to a spur gear, again using the same basic beginnings that I'd used on the giraffe, but in a different context. Instead of going to a horizontal rocker, I went more for a swing version with a little guy sitting on a swing in a graduation hat. I wanted it also to have a lightbulb on it. Since I had cleared out the insides of a lightbulb earlier so I could use the lightbulb as a small flower vase, I had this lightbulb lying around. So I put a fake filament inside it. And just for geeking's sake, I made the hat spell MIT. Anyway. Again, this design was heavily determined by the materials I had available... only wire and a bit of brass and some aluminum can from the energy drink I was having while staying up late to make this. All tooling was done using pliers, a dremel, and a knife, which is what I had in my office. It sounds unglamourous to say this, but I'm trying to be honest here. Also, the design was unplanned from the beginning; I simply made it up as I went. Luckily this worked, and I think I ended up with a crank rocker of a bit more simple elegance than the giraffe. I want to make another one for my next graduation. This time more elaborate. But I would be unable to do that had I not had the experience of dealing with this first hat.

+wire man with sword
I talked about this a bit in my entry (below) about my meeting with Arthur Ganson. This is the design that is most driven by a strong idea of what the motion and overall feel should look like. The design process is getting easier but still I find that I fight a bit. Intuition is getting better as to how to get wire to react how I want. I find that I appreciate making arbitrary limitations on the design process (such as using only found/cheap materials) because it limits my vision to a manageable chunk.

Anyway. What does all of this have in common? There was a lot of learning between the giraffe and the man, even though the man isn't done. The man is closer to my original concept, whereas I find the giraffe to be a bit gauche and inelegant at times and not quite what I had wanted. The graduation hat was an important step to learning how to make more elegant things quicker. After finishing the man, I'm sure the next things I attempt will be quicker and even closer to my original design thoughts. My intuition about what is feasible has started to affect what my design is.

Having limitations is nice because it gives me a smaller area to explore more fully and more confidently. I even set limitations in my drawing, even though I feel that's the area in my life that I have the most control/understanding. Setting limitations allows me to push the boundaries of those limits, to explore freely. And through examining the limits, I learn when certain techniques might be useful, and I might also pick up some physical knowledge that I otherwise would not have gained. For example, I've lately been drawing quite regularly with either my left hand (I'm right handed) or by not looking at the page. Arbitrary limitations. By drawing with my left hand, I'm more aware of the feeling of the pen on the paper. And from the beginning I usually just concede that the drawing will have a certain lack of control, which allows me freedom to explore the feeling of the pen on the paper. By drawing without looking at the paper, I've been exploring the link of the line I make to the line my eye makes as it follows around the object. And as a result, I become aware of the link between my eye and my hand.

answering glorianna's questions: imagination

I can't separate myself from my experience; I am my experience. My experience is leading me by my nose... sure. So maybe instead of trying to appear objective, I should be blatantly subjective. Glorianna's comments I think are quite right. And I think her process may be a better suggestion than "give me the first page."

So again. Please be patient. I'm not a writer. In fact, I find dealing with words overly cumbersome at times. Maybe it would be fair to say that this thesis will end up with me examining my thought process just as much (if not more) as I want to explore others' thought processes.


+ what do I want to make?
+ what can I make with these materials?
+ what makes me want to build something so badly that I scavenge?
+ what if I have a kit/materials but no technique?

Sometimes as an artist, I feel that the overwhelming pressure is to be "new," to be "unique," to be "cutting-edge" and all that. If someone can look at your work and name your influences, somehow it makes you less of an "artist." There's this idea that permeates -- the idea that the artist is a lone genius living in the wilderness and that one day inspiration, a muse, comes down and the artist creates. No artist lives in complete isolation. Ideas don't come from nowhere. What makes something unique is not so much that the techniques are radically new, but maybe more that the things have never been put together in that order before. What goes for art in this case also goes for design to some degree. People want designs to be "innovative." Following from the conversation over dinner at sponsor week, perhaps innovation comes from viewing the problem in a unique way. Hm. I'm a little off topic now.

Anyway. I think the first two questions fall into the same answer... the first step is usually immitating what's around you. There's a lot you can understand about something by observing an object and interacting with it. But when you try to build your own version, you realize (more) why the design is how it is. Especially when you are able to try alternative designs and see how they may work differently or may not work at all. A good example I can think of this is truss structures. If simply observing a truss structure, it may not seem obvious why there are all these triangles around, but if you try to build something that is only squares (for example), you soon find that it fails. I had this experience as a kid. Cylinders/columns are also another good example. It's easy to build paper versions of different extruded shapes, and simply placing the same weight on the top, you can see which is stronger. And it's this gut intuition that matters... not knowing all the reasons like... well... the mass is a certain distance from the neutral axis and thus has a large moment of (bending) inertia blah blah blah mechE stuff that I learned in 2.001.

So maybe you want to make something that's familiar to you. And the perceived affordances of the materials will depend on your prior experience with those materials. You're more likely to use a material as you've seen it used.

The third question is harder. What makes you want to build something so much you want to scavenge parts? Oh man. Well. I guess I'm a strange person to ask about this; I make things compulsively/obsessively. I was just telling someone the other day that me drawing wasn't a question. In some ways my compulsion to draw exists beyond me "enjoying it"... I MUST do it. And if I didn't have my familiar materials to do it with, I would come up with some way to do it... in the sand, make my own paper, make my own glue, burn a piece of wood to use as charcoal, use hairspray as fixative, etc. I've actually done quite a few of those when I've been in situations where I want to make something and I don't quite have all the necessary materials. I think the simplest answer to this question is the idea that making something might have a personal, emotional meaning to you. "A cidade que a gente quer" (the city that we want) is a good example. This desire is something the student needs to bring. No amount of cajoling by the teacher can force a student to care. So if this is given by them, they'll be working on something they care about, and will therefore be more involved.

At least, this is my own personal experience. I've found that if I don't care about what I'm working on, it's damn near impossible to get me to do it. But if I care about it, I'm fixated on it until the end. And the things I care about end up with better results. And vice versa. (I was once often told about my highschool english papers that I write well, but uninspired.)

So for the last question... What if I have a kit but no technique? Hm. Good question. This is part of the reason I think the kit should go along with a small booklet. The contents of this booklet are up for debate. Perhaps the contents could emerge from my experiences with what the people who interact with this kit want? If I find that people have trouble starting here or going there, perhaps instead of telling them what to do, I could provide helpful questions to ask yourself? Maybe ideally, there'd be an online community of people using these kits and sharing their experiences with others.

Maybe this is enough for this post for now.

05 November 2006

oh the thesis

so here is a first stab at what could possibly be a thesis proposal page. plus a lot of parentheticals. plus a lot of blathering. a rough rough draft, i guess. a week later than i'd hoped. but starting is always the hardest part, you know? the first paragraph is a bit of a throw-away. i always have these, but i thought that including it here might help show my thought process. i kind of gave up a bit towards the end. i'm writing in a loud place. i feel restless. i keep getting interrupted. i have homework i need to get done. be that as it may, hey, i've started.


I once heard it said that mathematicians do their best work in their 20s, physicists in their 30s, and that engineers just get better with age. While I can't vouch for the validity of the first two thirds of that statement, I believe some truth lies in the last third – engineers get better with age. But maybe this is too specific of a statement for my purposes. Let me generalize. First, age is not really the key factor, experience is; engineers get better with experience. Second, the term “engineer” shouldn't just apply to people with engineering degrees. Anyone who takes an idea and makes what they want with what they have avaible to them is performing the role of an engineer, be it mechanical, electrical, etc. Maybe in its most general form, the statement “engineers get better with age” turns into “people who make things become more able to do so the more experience they have.”
This is crap. I can't write.
There is a body of knowledge that exists beyond words, in a realm of pure experience. When dealing with the physical world, and in particular with mechanical and structural design, this ineffable, tacit knowledge is unavoidably present and thus must be knowingly addressed. Due to the inadequacies of language, this experience cannot be fully discussed through any traditional means, such as writing, speaking, drawings, etc., but can only be explored and understood through personal experience, through interactions. The best we can hope for in communicating the inexepressable parts of our experiences to others is to evoke their own similar experience through our words. (z.B. if I say to you that I ate a sweet apple the other day, those words evoke in your mind your own experience of eating a sweet apple, even though you never ate the same apple I did.) When it comes to teaching (or enabling the learning of) an area that is comprised of a large amount of experiential knowledge (such as the field of mechanical and structural design) the limitations of communication become readily apparent and can be quite the obstruction, especially when the other person does not have the same experience base that you do. So how does one, as a teacher, approach teaching such a field?
(Do I need to elaborate on why I believe that mechanical and structural design relies heavily on tacit/personal knowledge?)
Experience. It all comes down to experience. Instead of the teacher trying to transfer their knowledge to the student (which I don't think they should be trying to do, regardless, but that's another matter), the student must be encouraged to explore and to reflect on their experiences. Through experience, they accumulate tacit knowledge. Through reflection on their experiences, the students can build up their own method of critically thinking about what they've learned. Therefore, it is critical in such a situation that the barrier to exploration be as low as possible so that the students feel safe and encouraged. Because of these reasons (among others, that maybe I should elaborate on later), I propose that a low-cost construction kit focused on enabling the building of interactive kinetic sculptures would be beneficial in aiding the learning of mechanical and structural design.

01 November 2006

first day of a new month

i had a dream the other night. about media, somehow, though i don't remember. i think i was trying to explain what MAS meant and CMS and all of that... what is media... and i woke up with the words in my head "you can't have media without content" or something along those lines. the media is what carries the content.

media is what carries content
you can't have media without content
you can't have content without media?

oh the things i dream.

in other news, i met with arthur ganson on monday morning and had a really lovely conversation. i finally showed him some of my work. (he really liked my graduation hat.) and we talked about the things i made and the process behind it and the thoughts behind why i want to do what i do. particularly, we talked about my man with the sword and why it's different having it sense IR and turn on when you're in front of it vs. working with a crank. and it took a while, but i think we got to the bottom of it -- by having the sensing and the ability to turn on lie in the machine/sculpture itself, separate from needing a directed cranking, the sculpture is given its own sort of agency... it becomes a separate entity. its own gesture becomes more free. he also asked why i wanted him to swing his sword feebly, as opposed to confidently, and what's the symbolism of his heart making his hand swing. well... when i found the paperclip and built the head/cape, somehow i thought he ended up looking a little old. when i put the sword there, i couldn't imagine him ever looking very convincingly intimidating... so somehow i thought it would be right if his swinging the sword was a little feeble. and i think somewhere along the way i projected myself onto him... and if i were swinging it, i wouldn't be menacing. but i also thought he felt trapped and confined into doing this one thing... that he was made to do it but didn't want to do it, and so he did it but lacking the motivation. which brings the heart into play. he was made to fight, but he has a conscience? symbolically speaking, of course. and so his heart makes it move because he feels bound to doing it, but his heart also makes the action erratic and wobbly and a little weak.

if that makes any sense.

so to tie back into my thesis, why is sensing/programming important when making things? in some ways, i think it's best to learn the mechanics separately and to then add sensing... so i wouldn't say sensing/programming is imperative to learning about mechanisms. but what it does allow is a parallel logic structure between the virtual and physical world as well as it allowing the final machine to have its own agency.... you can put more of your knowledge/logic into the machine.

hm. it's almost lunch time. i guess that's all for now.