Category Archives: homework

Midterm project, week 1: Observation

First, Diego, Filippo, and I met to talk about what we thought our project was going to be, how we would actually implement the idea, and what materials and research we’d need to do to get there.

Diego checking out the vintage iPod box I brought in as a visual aid for the shape of our thing:

I’m not sure what else we might have observed that would be truly relevant in the development of a gadget that doesn’t serve any real purpose, but we observed whatever we could think of.

What I think is significant about the cat thing is that it’s proof that, really, anyone can play a theremin. You don’t have to be human, you don’t need opposable thumbs, you don’t have to know anything about electricity or traditional musical instrument interfaces (though there is evidence that animals know more about electromagnetic fields that humans do, in some ways).

Filippo showing the Jon Spencer video:

The Jon Spencer video shows us a similar thing, but also introduces theatricality to the mix. Anyone, even a nonhuman, can play a theremin or thereminic instrument, but if you are a human and you have a sense of whimsy, you can play that instrument in a much greater variety of ways. Spencer shows that you can play a theremin with any part of your body. Probably the only other instrument that can boast such versatility is the drum, but even that is mostly theoretical. Yes, sure, you can strike a drum with your nose, but it’s going to hurt, so most people probably don’t do it. Playing a theremin with your nose is harmless, however. There is no penalty for eccentricity, except that if you flail around too much, you might stray out of the sensors’ range.

The loopqoob is also versatile—you don’t have to have fingers, necessarily, but they certainly help. Ditto for eyes—the markings on the loopqoob help you tell the sides apart, but do they really hint at what revealing each side does? No. Those patterns on the side probably respresent something, but the metaphors are not obvious.

And then, we observed actual, live humans using the IR-sensing thingummy on Diego’s Groovebox. Here’s Diego setting it up:

and here are various people trying to make sense of it.

Mostly, we learned that people like playing with IR sensors. But I think it’d be more interesting to be able to play one of these things with someone else—to introduce some more variety to the mix.

PhysComp, week 5: Serial Out

I was trying to figure out the math to make part of the graph show up as brown—i.e., earth—and then scatter flowers on top, but something wasn’t working out and I was running late, so I gave up.

Anyway, here are the progress shots:


Pot hooked up:

Blinking LED:

I also shot a fascinating movie of the program loading on the Arduino and starting up—you know, flickering yellow light, then blinking LED; hot stuff:

Final code on Arduino:

int potPin = 0;
int potValue = 0;
int ledPin = 2;

void setup()
// flash LED three times to announce start of program
pinMode( 2, OUTPUT );
digitalWrite( 2, LOW );
delay( 500 );
digitalWrite( 2, HIGH );
delay( 500 );
digitalWrite( 2, LOW );
delay( 500 );
digitalWrite( 2, HIGH );
delay( 500 );
digitalWrite( 2, LOW );
delay( 500 );
digitalWrite( 2, HIGH );
delay( 500 );
digitalWrite( 2, LOW );
delay( 500 );
digitalWrite( 2, HIGH );

// start serial port at 9600 bps:
Serial.begin( 9600 );

void loop()
// read analog input, divide by 4 to fit it in the range 0-255:
potValue = analogRead( potPin );
potValue = potValue / 4;
Serial.print( potValue, BYTE );
// pause for 10 milliseconds:
delay( 10 );

Final Processing applet

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Somewhere I have some notes on this mind-numbing article, but I can’t find them. It’s probably because I carried this thing around with me for almost two weeks, as I slowly, slowly forced myself to read it. When I finally got to the blessed end, my response was . . . nothing? I have next to nothing to say about this article. It has next to nothing to say to me.

First of all, the political angle seems utterly forced. If you lop off the preface and epilogue, the essay seems less absurd, more grounded in reality. Instead of contextualizing Benjamin’s arguments, the comments about Marxism and Fascism push the discussion out of context, from the matter-of-fact, yeah-duh realm of “films are different from paintings” to the what-the-fuck-are-you-talking-about realm of “everything can be explained by Marxist theory, including your sandwich.” I’ll have the roast Capitalist Pig with frisée on ciabatta, please. Thank you. Sentences like,

However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production.

make my brain shut right off. I must have restarted reading this piece four times; finally, the only way I got past the first page was to just turn it over. Skipped it. Gave up on trying to make sense of it. Moved on.

This kind of thing makes me feel like I’m growing senile. Help! I’m turning into my mother!

It also makes me wonder if it’s just a translation issue. “Aura”? Are you kidding me? Surely there was a better word available—a word that means something, a word that does not automatically invoke the sensation of being bullshitted. If we’re supposed to take this “aura” concept seriously, the translator needs to find a word that’s not loaded down with the weight of all that is woo-woo.

Probably another reason why I found this essay mind-numbing is that I just. don’t. care. about. film. I watch, like, four movies a year, and those are all on Netflix. I can’t remember what was the last movie I saw in a theater—Art School Confidential, maybe? To which I was dragged. Before that, I think it was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Honest. Not a movie person. Even when I was TA’ing a film class in college, I don’t think I ever watched more than half of the movies that were under discussion. It wasn’t necessary to see the films in order to mark up students’ papers: if the paper’s good, you don’t need to have seen the film.

Similarly, if the essay’s good, you don’t have to be already up to your neck in Marxist art theory to find it relevant.

The essay is not good.

The question my mind kept coming back to, as I drifted in and out of sleep while trying to read this thing, was, What does this have to do with our class? The best I could come up with was that bit about how at a play, the audience identifies with the actors, while at a film, they identify with the camera. So . . . something about interactivity, and what’s interactive versus what’s mock-interactive . . . ?

The other thing I kept coming back to was, He’s piling an awful lot of cultural significance on top of traditional art. Not just the aura nonsense, but also the stuff about cult and ritual. Maybe this is my perspective only because I’m from an era that has radio and TV and movies and computers, or maybe it’s because I grew up in an artist’s family, but I don’t find art important. Not in and of itself. Individual works, or parts of works, might be moving or thought-provoking, but art by itself? A lot of it is shite. The idea of it having any cult significance? Unless Benjamin is talking about religious icons, I don’t see it. And if he’s talking about something else, he fails to explain what that something else is.

One of my favorite lines in the whole string:

An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.

Those are strong words, Walter. And completely meaningless ones. Awesome.

Another fave: “Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects designed to serve in a cult.”

This, I’m certain, is just an instance of awkward translation. The verb tense is confusing. Why present tense? Why not “Artistic production began”? Because that’s what he goes on to mean. So, here, the translator is just making him sound like an ass.

Much as in the aura argument, Benjamin’s invoking, in §xiii, of Freud as some kind of master of scientific investigation, undermines whatever it is he’s trying to say. So, as the film reveals to us visual details that normally go unnoticed, so psychoanalysis supposedly reveals psychological details that we otherwise don’t perceive.

Yes, we don’t perceive them because they’re not there. It’s amazing to me that people still talk about psychoanalysis, when to me, it’s always seemed that Freud might just as well have been talking about astrology or cloudbusters. I mean, he just fucking made stuff up about his patients. He generated ideas about how people behave in his head and then managed to convince himself—and thousands of other suckers—that his ideas could be seen in living, breathing action.

I don’t know. I’m trying to make it sound here like I have some kind of overall response to what Benjamin is saying. But, really, I don’t have a response to his argument because I can’t find his argument. He says a bunch of stuff, a few words on each page may spark a glimmer of recognition in my brain, but otherwise he might as well be talking about 1930s German politics, for all that I can relate to it. Oh, wait—he is talking aboit 1930s German politics, at least in part. Right.

Oh, the Rapture!

For week 5’s ICM homework, I was so excited to be able to scrape data off Web pages that the page I chose to work with was the Rapture Index.

It’s always bugged me that the Rapture Index doesn’t have an RSS feed—it’s like the weather; we need to know it every day. Now, however, I can finally just roll my own feed.

The problem is that I can’t get my Rapture Scraper to show the correct description of the prophetic activity level (see under “why is this null?!?”). Just because the index has been stuck at “fasten your seatbelts” for as long as I’ve been watching it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to know for sure. Like, what if the index suddenly climbs above the record high of 182? They’d have to make a new prophetic activity category, don’t you think?

So anyway, that’s the main thing I’d like to fix. I’m also unclear on why the text is so jagged. Smoothing is turned on in two places, and I’m using the font (Lucida Sans 20) only at the size at which it was bitmapped.

Another modification I’d like to make, oh, I dunno, when I have some of that “free time” I’m always hearing about, would be to maybe have the rapture balls bounce around at a speed that’s proportional to the index. The colors should probably also heat up. So when the world goes crazy, so will the application.


Two birds, one stone:

Sorry about the wobbles.

This is my video journal of the Servo lab for PhysComp, filmed for CommLab on a Sanyo Xacti 6MP digital movie camera.

I tried to edit this within the Xacti, but I ended up joining the clips together in the wrong order. It was way too much work to separate them again—it’s just a lousy way to edit—so then I dumped the mess into iMovie HD (an older version, recommended by Bre Pettis in his very fine Getting Started in Video series), recut and rearranged it, and added title frames from Photoshop (too bad they look like crap after compression) and CC-licensed music by the excellent Kristin Hersh. This was my first time using iMovie; I found it reasonably intuitive.

So, basically, it’s just the worst video for a Kristin Hersh song ever. Rock on.

Plugged in

outdoor electrical socket that looks like a surprised face

I finally got around to installing some WordPress plug-ins. Here’s what I’m running at the moment:

Akismet 2.1.8
Akismet checks your comments against the Akismet web service to see if they look like spam or not. You need a API key to use it. You can review the spam it catches under “Comments.” To show off your Akismet stats just put in your template. See also: WP Stats plugin. By Matt Mullenweg.
Category Selector Back to the Sidebar (MOD) 0.7
Puts the category selector section back to the sidebar of the Post page. Now you can write at a WordPress v2.5 blog without hating v2.5. By Baris Unver.
FeedBurner FeedSmith 2.3.1
Originally authored by Steve Smith, this plugin detects all ways to access your original WordPress feeds and redirects them to your FeedBurner feed so you can track every possible subscriber. By FeedBurner.
Fluency Admin 1.2.1
WordPress 2.5+ only. A rethink of the WordPress admin interface giving it a slightly more modern application-esque feel, inspired by Steve Smith’s Tiger Admin. Firefox, Safari and IE8 only. By Dean Robinson.
No Self Pings 0.2
Keeps WordPress from sending pings to your own site. By Michael D. Adams.
Wiki Dashboard 0.1
Mini-Wiki on the wordpress dashboard, for multiple autors [sic] collaboration. By Dzamir.
WordPress Admin Bar 3.0.2
Creates an admin bar inspired by the one at Credits for the look of this plugin go to them. By Viper007Bond. Stats 1.3.2
Tracks views, post/page views, referrers, and clicks. Requires a API key. By Andy Skelton.
WP Ajax Edit Comments
Allows users and admin to edit their comments inline. Admin and editors can edit all comments. By Ronald Huereca.

I’ve also edited the stylesheet so that the body text is sized in points rather than pixels, and I tweaked some colors and margins and such.

Photo: Oh. by Adam Smith; some rights reserved.

PhysComp lab, week 3: Electronics

This week’s PhysComp lab looked pretty straightforward, but that’s only if you don’t take into account my singular gift for turning LEDs backward and mixing up power and ground on the breadboard.*

So, first, there was the obligatory soldering. It wasn’t quite so bad this time, I think, though I did manage to melt some of the plastic inside the jack.

Soldering the DC power jack

Then I had a lot of puzzlement over the high voltage readings I was getting. And there was a burning smell, even though I’d turned off the soldering iron ten minutes before. Hmm. Could there be something wrong with the—

Ice used after I made the mistake of touching the voltage regulator

Handy Tip: Voltage regulators get really fucking hot. Don’t touch them.

Finally, I found the wire that was going into ground instead of power and got the desired voltage reading. Then, I added a switch and an LED.

Breadboard with power jack, voltage regulator, push-button switch, and LED

And, again, wired the switch into ground instead of power. Got that sorted, and—

Pressing the switch to light the LED

Ta da!

The next step, putting two LEDs in series, went fine (with voltage readings of 2.11 for the red LED and 2.88 for the green), but when the instructions said to add a third . . . well, I’m not sure how you add a third LED in series. Is it like this—

How do you put three LEDs in series?

Probably not, since that wiring scheme works, while the instructions imply that adding a third LED makes them all go out. Comparing my voltage numbers here would probably tell me the answer to this question, but although I took lots of photos to record the multimeter readings, I can’t remember which reading was from which part of the circuit or taken at which step. Sigh. I should have just written them down.

Setting the LEDs in parallel was also pretty easy, but measuring the amperage across them was simply not happening. I tried it every which way, but I couldn’t get the circuit closed with the multimeter as part of it. After trying several interpretations of the written instructions and circuit diagram, I gave up and moved on to the pot part.

Breadboard with potentiometer and LED

Again, no problem wiring it. The voltage readings were 1.78 at about halfway and 2.89 at full blast.

This lab took me about four hours, sadly.

* The reason for the latter, in my defense, is that the breadboard in my kit has ground on the outside rows, while the breadboard in all the photos within the instructions has power on the outside. I always forget to check the color of the row, matching only the position. And sometimes I’m just not paying attention.

Applications presentation

I had very little to do with Group 5’s brilliant presentation, since I was out of town for the weekend, but I did set up the Powerpoint slides.

Group 5: Let's put it to the test
Applications presentation slides

For context, here are the project descriptions, written by Jorge:

My Lung Buddy

My Lung Buddy is an empathic breathing guide that senses your breathing rate and matches it so that you’re both breathing together. Slowly, My Lung Buddy adjusts its rate to a predetermined pace in order to help you attain the sense of calm and well-being that comes with breathing deeply in a measured way. My Lung Buddy doesn’t force you to breathe with it. It simply reminds you that breathing is important. And that you don’t have to do it alone.

The ITPod

The ITPod is an on-floor oasis that offers students short escapes from the blinking, buzzing and beeping that fill a typical ITP day. It’s a simple structure, airy enough to ward off claustrophobia while still allowing for separation and privacy. A comfortable hanging chair dangles inside an enclosed cylinder of cloth, which glows with warm, diffused light. A floor compartment lets you tuck your stuff out of sight and browse picture books from a community library. Noise-canceling headphones offer four settings: (1) silence, aided by the headphones’ noise-canceling properties; (2) white noise to help drown out thoughts and distractions; (3) the sound of falling water or other natural sounds; and (4) a guided breathing session. Each program is twenty minutes long and fades in and out along with the light, giving the user enough time to recharge.

Lunch Date

Lunch Date is an opt-out service that helps ITP-ers meet and share meals with fellow students and faculty with whom they may not otherwise cross paths. An email directs students to a simple form that asks for two times when you’d generally be available for a 40-minute lunch, and the number, between zero and four, of Lunch Dates you’d like to have per month. The program compares everyone’s schedule, sorts people into anonymous pairs, and sends out text messages each morning: Reply yes if you’d like a lunch date today, and no if you’re too busy. A negative reply sends the computer back into the pool of candidates until a match is found, and another text message alerts each lunch date to meet at the elevators fifteen minutes before the time is set. By automating the social selection, Lunch Date eliminates the awkwardness and inertia which might keep students from getting to know someone they’ve never met. And because it’s an opt-out program, it nudges those who aren’t already ultra social to engage in an easy, commitment-free way. After all, it’s just 40 minutes. And then it’s back to class.


LeisurelyMail is a simple plug-in designed to relieve the tense breathlessness with which we typically attack our in-boxes. When installed, it changes the visual effect of opening an email message. Instead of a sharp pop-up or a boring drop-down pane, the email window opens slowly, unfolding over a full second of time. Every few messages, an extra momentary pause is built in, as the window shows an image of nature, or a simple reminder to breathe, before revealing the contents of the email. Because sometimes you just want to say screw it and burn through your work, you can revert your email to its normal function by holding down the option key as you click.

Focus Pocus

Based on a theory of how we block out unnecessary inputs . . .