Saturday, July 31, 2010

More in the Way of Hands, Mechanical

Since I've been on the subject of waldos, and making things by hand, I might as well show a few of the myriad interesting images I've come across. The hand can be interpreted in so many ways.

First, an amazing clockwork hand manipulator, which I would love to have, even if it's really simply art for art's sake. However, imagine if this could read Jacquard cards (or complex cams) and thus make your hand move in specific ways. Gives a new meaning to the term "player piano" - or perhaps, "piano player." Which would it be?

And a YouTube video of how it works:

Shane Willis' cool Escher-inspired hands repairing each other.

Part of a school project where students had to build working hands out of popsicle sticks and strings as a study of engineering and physiognomy.

A Becker Lock Grip hand, modded by the writer of a blog on "Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues." In fact, modded twice. Really a very nice hand to have if you need a prosthetic arm, because it is so moddable (and cool looking). An interesting discussion, too, of people's reactions to different prosthetics he's tried... And a neat video of him using it to chop tomatoes.

(Editor's note: Wolf Schweitzer, author of the Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues blog, above, has written to tell me that I must include the beautiful Monestier-Lescoeur hand, made by a sculptor and automata maker who does very interesting work. He's right - check it out: you can see the video here)

Another school project, with instructions

Kroenen's Mechanical hand, a reproduction of the one in the movie Hellboy.

A cheap mechanical hand ($17) which I came across on BoingBoing

I wasn't able to get a copy of this amazing tattoo of a hand emerging from this person's flesh, but I encourage you to go look at it.

In the Waldo tradition, this person made an oversized wooden hand to fit on their arm

Lastly, Ambroise Pare's excellent rendering of a mechanical hand, made from the original but with metal parts inside. From a nice Timeline of Robotics website.

The picture at the top was in Google Images, but led to a site which proposed to scan my computer for viruses, and nothing more. So I snagged the image and got out of there...

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Magical History Indeed

(Editor's note: it has been pointed out to me that the book I reference below has already been mentioned on this blog, years ago, under a different name (Edison's Eve). It seemed familiar, but all the searches I did came up without a cross-reference, so I let it go. However, the articles I list below are so interesting that I've decided to let the post stand.)

On pursuing some other research, I came across a reference to what looks like a wonderful and extraordinary book. Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, by Gaby Wood, looks to be a treat. Although the book came out in 2002, the author's fascination with humans looking to make machines like themselves (and ultimately, to lose that line between themselves and their machines) makes for a truly interesting read. The Observer, in an insightful review, describes some of this fascination:

"Never far away from the mechanical joke is the threat of death and horror and Wood does not miss this lesson. Her stories always end in the dark. So she describes an automatic chess player first made in Hungary in 1769, in which a moving statue of a Turk seated behind a board atop an elegant cabinet would play, and almost always beat, the best human masters. The Turk got star billing until well into the nineteenth century, was memorably if unreliably described by Edgar Allen Poe, and ended its life in a fire at Philadelphia's so-called Chinese Museum in 1854.

"Long before then, everyone knew there was a human director concealed within the Turk's cabinet, hidden by a useless but convincing set of gears. Wood carefully documents the Turk's life, but she's much more interested in that of its directors, some more than 6ft tall, trapped for hours within a tiny box. The best of them collapsed into alcoholism. 'Death came to put an end to his painful position', joked a Paris journalist.

"The point of such tales, so Wood convincingly insists, is not so much to illuminate the capacity of machines to behave like humans, but to reflect on how people turn themselves into machines. She recalls that while Edison devoted huge efforts to building speaking dolls, it was the phonograph which he baptised his 'baby'. She describes a film made in 1902 by the French genius Georges Méliès, in which the cinematographer plays his own decapitated head powered by a vast set of bellows."

The Guardian, in their review, actually went so far as to quote an extensive section from the book, about Jacques de Vaucanson, an early automata maker and brilliant man, known for his duck which ate and "digested" its food. The story is long and wonderfully written, and I highly recommend you go read it for yourself, but here is a sample:

"Vaucanson's earliest mechanical influences came from the church. He was the youngest of 10 children (born in Grenoble in 1709), and his Catholic mother would take him with her every time she went to confession. While his mother was with the priest, Jacques stared at the clock in the adjoining room. Soon he had carefully calculated and memorised its mechanism, and was able to build a perfect copy of it at home.

"His father, a master glovemaker, died when Jacques was seven, and the boy was sent away to be schooled at a monastery, where he arrived clutching a metal box. He didn't get on with the other boys, and couldn't concentrate on his lessons. Eventually, the father superior was forced to open the box. He found wheels and cogs and tools, next to the unfinished hull of a model boat. When confronted, Vaucanson refused to do any studying until he could make his boat cross the school pond. He was locked in a room for two days as punishment, but he spent the time making drawings so exceptional that the maths teacher, who was later to be lauded by the Royal Academy of Sciences, decided to help him.

"Of course, a story exists about the youthful genius of all famous men. What is curious here is that all of Vaucanson's early efforts as a mechanician were connected in some way to religion. The clock was seen at confession; the maths teacher was a monk. He went on to be taught by Jesuits, and, on leaving school, became a novice in the religious order of the Minimes in Lyon. This was the only way, he thought, that he would be able to pursue his scientific study, given the limited finances of his widowed mother. Indeed, Vaucanson was given his own workshop in Lyon, and a grant from a nobleman to construct a set of machines; but his talents were only encouraged up to a certain point. In 1727, to celebrate the visit of one of the heads of the Minimes, he decided to make some androids, which would serve dinner and clear the tables. The visitor appeared to be pleased with the automata, but declared afterwards that he thought Vaucanson's tendencies "profane", and ordered that his workshop be destroyed."

The article goes on to describe how Vaucanson escaped the monastic life and went to Paris to seek his fortune, find a patron, and do the work that he cared about most, including the incredible flute-player Vaucanson thought up literally in his sleep, a nearly impossible proposition for the day, but he pulled it off in the most extraordinary way. Aside from the man's brilliance just watching the things he made travel through history is an amazing story, and like most stories of lost things, fairly sad, with a few interesting notes about the beginnings of the French Revolution.

Within the quoted section in the Guardian we watch Vaucanson's inventions move through history, lost and found several times, becoming increasingly defunct, while later tinkerers are unable to get them to work properly. Interestingly, the author of the Observer article mentions meeting a contemporary who was working to recreate the digesting duck --

"A couple of years ago I met a brilliant English artisan who'd been hired to make a modern replica of Vaucanson's duck - most of our chat focused on just how this trick defecation worked. But spread out on his table were lumps of dead duck, bits of wing, tendons and feet."

-- And now you can see a reproducktion (sic, sorry) on YouTube doing its thing. It used to have its own video, but it's been taken down - all I can find now is this very nice man apparently telling French schoolchildren about Vaucanson's brilliance.

Lastly, in a wonderfully reflexive postmodern touch, someone has created an automaton of Vaucanson himself, making his duck.

Well, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The obsession with mechanical life goes on.

Get the book from Amazon

Friday, July 23, 2010

New Story Coming Out

Just a quick note to say I have a story coming out this fall in the new Hadley Rille anthology, The Aether Age (Helios). The book is a collaborative between the editors and the authors, set in a world where steampunk technology is developed by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and so on. It was really interesting and absorbing for me to write, and I'd love to do more - apparently this is only the first of several books set in the Aether Age world.

Hadley Rille Books published a story of mine in their Footprints anthology, if you recall, and I got some positive mentions for it - by people like Gardner Dozois in Locus' Year in Review, to name one. Let's hope this will do as well... though I have to say, it looks like a very cool anthology!

You can find out more about the Aether Age at the blog. I'll announce the publication date as soon as I find out about it! In the meantime, I'm very pleased about the cover art.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Adele Blanc-Sec Comes to the Screen!

Okay, you-all probably already heard about this, given that the movie has already been released all over Europe, but I only found out about it this morning. After all, I've been busy building a house. Nevertheless... peel me off the ceiling!

I am absolutely over the moon. Thank you, Luc Besson!!! I have been a fan of Adele Blanc-Sec for nearly 30 years, if you can believe it: I found one of the comics in a store the very first time I went to France. It was a comic book - but it had naked breasts! And a strong woman protagonist who smoked and pulled guns on people! And it took place in the early 1900's, with all the wonderful fin de siecle architecture and early-century atmosphere! I'd never seen anything like it - the whole thing just blew my young mind. And I learned a lot of French trying to figure out what was going on.

This series of books, originally written by Jacques Tardi in 1972, is a hu-u-uge reason why I love Steampunk today. It made the most incredible impression on my young mind, and I spent many years hunting down first French, then English versions of the books. They have been hard to find, and I loved them a lot - and by extension, I learned to love Tardi. And now, thanks to the movie, Fantagraphics says they will be bringing out new English translations this fall. This sounds exciting, but it's only Volume 1 - the others will follow later (I hope).

This is a very long time coming, but I am redeemed! Bwahahaha!

Check it out:

Unfortunately, according to IMDb, the film seems to have no release dates in any English-speaking countries. It's not clear why this is, but I encourage all to write to the distribution company and demand to know when they will bring this awesome-looking film to the English-speaking world. In the UK, that would be Optimum Releasing, but I haven't found anything for North America yet. It seems like the delay in announcing it is pretty long. I just hope they're not bickering about the bath scene or something (argh).

Thanks to the Steampunk Home for finding this!

Slashfilm has some photos here...

And here are also Two reviews one of which doesn't like it so much and the other which does. I don't care - I see scenes, even in the trailer, that I remember from the book, and it makes me childishly happy, regardless!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Where's the Waldo?

Last night I had a dream where hands had become obsolete. For everything one wanted to do, one selected a tool that attached to one's arm, and then used the tool to do the activity. Golf clubs, oars, hammers, even cutlery -- they all had little slots in various walls; and when you wanted to do that activity, you simply stuck your (obsolete, apparently) hand into the ends that stuck out, and they would click onto you, becoming part of your body.

This is, of course, ridiculous, because hands and arms are one of the most amazing examples of evolutionary engineering that one can find in nature. Ultimately, a huge number nonrotational mechanical devices -- pliers, pistons, and even backhoes, to name a few -- are directly related to the structures of our hands. Why (as in my dream) would anyone make tools that bypass that extraordinary usefulness?

But it was just a dream.

In 1942, Robert A. Heinlein published a story called Waldo, about a man who is weakened by disease who invents a device (nicknamed a "Waldo") which allows him to magnify his own manual strength: the movement of his own hand would direct the device, which was also hand-like.

The Giant Hand, which is waldo-driven and was also at Maker Faire - and anyone could sit in the driver's seat

Since then, of course, remote manipulators (actually called waldos) have become common, especially for magnifying size and strength or reducing movements to microscopic size. For the most part, they have been used to reproduce hand movements; but this has progressed to things like powered exoskeletons, a la Ironman or Aliens (curiously, some of the real life ones were actually inspired by Heinlein, again - this time the book Starship Troopers). True, the contemporary exoskeletons can only walk a mile in half an hour, and their power packs don't last long; but someday, of course, we'll all be fighting wars with faceless super-soldiers.

Cyrano de Bergerac must have had a good sense of smell

Much of the funding for exoskeletons has come from places like MIT and the Pentagon, homes of ubergeeks and soldiers -- thus the dream of making oneself superstrong and impervious. True, the appeal of Ripley in the cargo loader in Aliens saying "Get away from her, you bitch" is enormous. But why can't we create waldos for other uses, perhaps to enhance more peaceful parts of us? I'd like to see sensory enhancement, not just moving and lifting. Waldo noses, for example, that allow you to smell better or in weird and interesting ways -- imagine smelling the difference between oxygen and helium, or being able to have a nose like a hound dog! I'd love to be able to become a SuperTaster , like in the They Might Be Giants song. Or perhaps someone could make Steampunk-like eye enhancers, like in City of Lost Children, that let you see infrared, ultraviolet - or even (gasp) real X-Ray specs?

There are actually waldo noses, although sadly they do not connect to anyone's sense of smell. And of course, visual enhancers have been around for a long, long time (say, three thousand years or so?). At Maker Faire two years ago, too, I saw Elly Jessop's wonderful Opera Glove, which she developed in MIT's Media Lab. This shoulder-length Glove was a sort of Voice Waldo, allowing her to catch her voice and manipulated it with an interactive glove. Very cool! In fact, a nice note (sic) to end on:


How to see if you're a Supertaster

Saturday, July 10, 2010

On Utopias and the Hand

This year, in an effort to get the count in so our school could get more accurate funding, I became a census enumerator for the Non Response Follow Up (NRFU) part of the census operation.

It was interesting because, being someone who moved back to the area in which I grew up, I finally got to go down all the roads I'd wondered about as a kid -- and explored the outer reaches of Last Chance Road, which winds and bumps for eight miles or more into the back country, unpaved all the way. Some of it requires four wheel drive just to be able to get over the lumpy terrain or up the super steep hills. People there live in all kinds of interesting situations.

When I told other census workers I was going up Last Chance, they looked at me in awe. "Aren't you afraid to go up there?" one person asked me. "I had to go there to find houses. Brrr," and she shuddered. Other people had similar reactions. "Be careful," one person told me, as if I might not come back.

However, I knew a great many of the people who live back there. Some of them are teachers at the local school, and a great many have kids who go to school with my children. The larger majority of them are people who wanted to own their own land and their own homes, who wanted to grow gardens and live in nature, but could not afford to do it in fancier "rural" neighborhoods like Bonny Doon -- which has city garbage service, post boxes, and a bus line. Instead, they opt to drive in and out the five or six miles of rutted dirt road to their houses in the knowledge they can live their lives undisturbed, without a mortgage or a crazy lifestyle to support it.

Some of them have been there from the beginning. One of the teachers, for example, has a half-adobe house with hand-hewn beams and lives in a valley rich in creek-bottom soil. The garden, and the plants and flowers all around their house are like a fairy tale -- the result of more than 35 years of hard work. They built their house themselves, with no hired help, and it's a lovely work of art, like a house out of the Brothers Grimm.

A Low Impact Woodland Home – but not from here. This one's in Wales...

Another family homesteaded a piece of property where the soil wasn't quite so rich, but 36 years on the garden is extraordinary: fruit trees and bowers of roses, vegetables and one of the most beautiful hand-built log houses I've ever seen. It took three and a half years to build, hauling the trees in from the forest, peeling them and setting them; cutting the floorboards and making kitchen cabinets from hand-cut boards without the benefit of power tools.

Other houses perch on hillsides with extraordinary views, tucked among the manzanita; and there was one amazing treehouse I came across that towered over a hundred feet up in a huge tree, a three-tiered platform with arguably the most breathtaking vistas anywhere.

Some of the houses there are newer, and built with less creative endeavors in mind, of modern trucked-in materials; there are even all-mod-con trailers parked here and there in the woods. But they have the same idea in mind: a beautiful place, undisturbed by your neighbors. Even people who live only a few yards away from each other don't bother each other, except to say "hi" when you are getting in and out of your car. The unwritten rule is that they are all out here for one basic reason: to be left alone to live their lives. How that makes these people scary, I can't imagine. I suppose the outside reaction to their life-choices says more about the people who are scared than it does about the people they are scared of.

I wasn't part of the 1960's and early 1970's ideology which some of the old-timers up Last Chance have managed to successfully embody. However, my parents were. They were a bit old to be hippies, but they had a creative (some would say bohemian) outlook which fit well with the can-do attitude of the times. In 1967 they built one of the first summer craft schools in the United States and called it Big Creek Pottery. It was more than a place to go to learn to throw pots; it was a place where people discovered themselves, dropped some of the pre-existing ideas of who they were. That sounds cheesy, but think about it: they learned how to build a kiln; they learned the chemistry of glaze formulas; they had lectures and slide shows and demonstrations by some of the leading craftspeople of the time. And they stepped out of their lives for a moment, into a place in the country, where there was hand-cooked food, two acres of vegetable garden, goats, chickens (fresh eggs!), and all the stars in the world to look at when they stayed up at night. It was idyllic, and it was hard not to go home changed.

Most of my early adulthood was spent coming to terms with the fact that adult live would never be like that. The eighties and nineties were enough to teach me that those days might never return. However, now I've come back to the place I grew up I'm finding new generations of believers in the idyll: this area is rife with organic farms, and new crops of idealists keep Last Chance alive and kicking. The can-do attitude has not died.

Wavy Gravy

This summer my children went to Camp Winnarainbow, a circus camp which was started by 1960's icon Wavy Gravy. I sent them there because it sounded fun, learning stiltwalking, trapeze, tightrope, juggling, you name it. When they came back changed, I couldn't help thinking of Big Creek Pottery and wondering what experiences they'd had in their time away. My younger daughter, given to fits of evil genius which tended to ruin her sister's life, suddenly was making an effort to be sympathetic and good-hearted. The older daughter seemed calmer, and talked about wanting to do acting. She'd never wanted to be onstage in front of lots of people before.

Winnarainbow's slogan is "Toward the Fun," a humorous take on the Sufi expression "Toward the One." And as it happens, there is another agenda here: one of giving children a safe place to go and explore parts of themselves they don't get to be with every day -- without fear of being made fun of or the sense that they are weird. There is a whole tent devoted to costumes (one drawer is labeled "gorilla parts"): spangly things, wigs, silly hats, ball gowns, makeup. Children can access this treasure house at will, and often wander around with costume parts on as part of the everyday routine. The Tornado of Talent goes on almost nightly, and everyone gets to show what they can do. My younger daughter, who had been bullied at school this last year, discovered an insane talent for improv -- when I got there, strangers would come up to me and tell me she had the best sense of humor in the camp -- and is now putting that talent to use practicing comebacks for the bullying remarks she might encounter next year.

The camp is associated with Patch Adams, and some of the counselors have been Clown Ambassadors to other countries. Their stated philosophy is to teach responsibility for one's own behavior, and develop confidence, inner security, and appropriate self expression; to value the uniqueness of each individual within a diversity of backgrounds; and "to provide a training ground to nurture leaders for a peaceful, harmonious and sustainable culture."

I'm not an advocate of backwards-looking thinking. I don't believe we should always be remembering the "Good Old Days" and wishing we could go back. But I do believe in learning from our past. There are a lot of failure stories from the 1960s: hungry people abandoning their attempts at self-sufficiency; communes where people had impossible falling-outs; the sexual revolution backfiring as women who didn't want to sleep with every living being were told they were "uptight."

At the same time it can be awfully tempting to look back and see a time with fewer electronic devices, when we weren't all expecting Internet access and people had so very much time to actually build things and make things - and talk to each other face to face. The loss of hand-work as a regular part of life is a definite problem with the way we do things now, which is why I'm always so pleased to see people making things with their hands. Here in California, I see music programs, art programs and all the shop and woodworking programs being cut out of existence -- not only that but the equipment is being sold off and the buildings closed or even pulled down. The outlay involved to rebuild these programs, buying the equipment and so on, will be impossible for many, many years; and in the meantime, generations of children are being raised who aren't being taught to do anything with their hands other than type and write (and use a Wii). And sports, of course, but not all of us are cut out for that.

So it's easy to look at a time when most people did have those skills - the skills to build their own houses and to fix their own cars and make gardens out of poor soil, and did have time, and worked together to build a shared vision of the future - and see a time that's slipping away. And yet, here I am, talking to a much vaster audience, all about making things and being idealistic. And there's Make, and Instructables, and learning things via YouTube, all the products of visionaries. My daughter learned how to do Jacob's ladder from an unknown 11-year-old boy on YouTube; how cool is that? You can convert your diesel car to cooking oil, and power your generator on walnut shells, if you learn how at places like Maker Faire which is the coolest thing ever, and a place where like-minded visionary people can come together. It really isn't a lost culture, after all, we're just doing it a little differently. So I'll finish with one last exhortation: Make stuff. Do it a lot. Use your hands. And don't be afraid to change your environment. Or the world.


A Wonderful book by Juhani Pallasmaa called The Thinking Hand:
"In The Thinking Hand, Juhani Pallasmaa reveals the miraculous potential of the human hand. He shows how the pencil in the hand of the artist or architect becomes the bridge between the imagining mind and the emerging image. The book surveys the multiple essences of the hand, its biological evolution and its role in the shaping of culture, highlighting how the hand–tool union and eye–hand–mind fusion are essential for dexterity and how ultimately the body and the senses play a crucial role in memory and creative work."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I'm Not Dead

Okay! A long period of illness mingled with huge life changes have kept me from the blog, but things are settling down now. My apologies for my silence: I was building a house, moving into said unfinished house, and coping with not being well all at the same time. Building a house is a colossal undertaking, and moving can be truly awful, even without the poor health. But now we have electricity, toilets, and even a shower, and today we put two of the doorknobs on. And I'm healthy again. Which just goes to prove that personal things really can interfere with your goals in life.

So with that said, I am back. I am finishing the Machines novel, starting a garden, and revisiting lost haunts. Summer is here, peaches are ripe, and I have the summer to pull myself together. I may be a little slow for awhile but I am planning to post one post a week until I have some fewer boxes in my living room...

Next up: Utopias and Good Intentions