Friday, January 31, 2014

Exhibit News

Our newest exhibit builder, Thor Myhre, has been busy in the shop working on a couple different exhibits. He originally set out to add another route to the Aerotrack, which uses air to blow ping-pong balls through transparent plastic tubing. (This excellent exhibit was originally developed by Jeremy Robinson, and has gone through a number of incarnations over its 16  year history at Mindport.)

Thor, in the process of working on Aerotrack, became intrigued with the basic theme of pneumatically driven ping-pong balls, and has embarked in a whole new direction. I won't spoil the anticipation by disclosing too much, but this exhibit involves using pressurized air to set balls dancing to adjustable rhythms. As you can see from the picture, it's grown into an octopus of tubing and dancing balls, which combo I've jokingly dubbed "ping-pong polka." A simpler version of this exhibit should be available for your delectation within the next few months as an experiment that will be added to and modified from time to time, according to our observations of its public interaction. Stay tuned for further news on this one.

We've had problems with the bicycle pumps that drive the air engine exhibit failing frequently, due to enthusiastic attention, mostly from young visitors. In fact we've gone through any number of these pumps, which cost over $100 each, so we're anxious to address this vulnerability. Bill Lee, our exhibit manager, has done extensive research on beefing them up, and may have a satisfactory solution in place soon. We have a couple other creative ideas for additions to the air engine. These will find their way onto the stage as we find time to implement them. As is always true with the creative work of exhibit building, ideas have a way of mutating as development proceeds, so that the idea we start with often ends up manifesting entirely differently than anticipated.  Hence my reluctance to inhibit exhibit builders by being too specific about their work in early stages of conception. It's much more interesting to leave the development process open ended until it settles on its own direction.

Kevin Jones

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MoreOn Tools or Are We Dirt on the Carpet?

Surfacing a copper block
Every Monday several friends and I meet for lunch. Toward the end of our session today we got to talking about tools after one of us described the hell he's been going through in order to set up an on-line store for the small business he runs. Another of us, a machinist by trade, and I responded with a dialog about the trustworthiness of tools, real physical ones.. Both these discussions followed on the heels of another about electronic publishing, electronic books, and the fact that the next big thing is the sale of used electronic books. Talk about corporations usurping every opportunity for the "little guy" to earn a living!

The underlying theme of this conversation is the fact that the physical world is being vacuumed up by software and spewed forth in the non-physcial realm of cyber-space, controlled not by us, but by large corporations. Amazon, word has it, can swoop down and repossess books that you've purchased, and you have no say about it. Furthermore, they know everything about what you're reading, hence have a bird's eye view of what you're thinking. Our computers, which supposedly are our own property, really belong to "the man." Every day there's a new "update" to some program or another. Sometimes, when an update installs itself, features of programs change or disappear. Companies increasingly attempt to seduce us into running our software ("applications") or storing data "in the cloud," i.e. on their turf, instead of our own computer, which is presumably our turf. . . but isn't. I liken the relationship we have with, say, Microsoft to the relationship of our eyes to our brain. If you consider the brain to be Microsoft, and the eyes to be "personal" computers, those organs are essentially part of the brain, just as "our" computers are more part of Microsoft (and other providers of software) that they are property belonging to us. By extension, it's obvious that Microsoft and other such corporations own and structure a large part of our lives. What do we think about that?

We often refer to our computers and other electronic devices as tools. They may be tools, but whose tools are they? Microsoft's or ours? As our machinist cohort pointed out, by contrast physical tools are our friends. They actually belong to us and if we possess the requisite skills they'll do our bidding, help us fabricate what we need to fabricate, and they won't crash in the middle of an operation and cause whatever we're working on to evaporate into thin air.

In whose service does your computer really operate? Indeed, it does a few things you think you want to do, but it does them according to how the writer of software code structures them. Frequently the operating system does not do its job well, and furthermore it attracts intruders who can steal your money, credit card numbers and even your identity. Look closely and it becomes apparent that your computer is really a tool of companies like Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, or Verizon, along with a few criminals, and its most important purpose is to Hoover* up your money, your job, not to speak of depriving you of an ability to use your hands and mechanical skills, if you still have any.

My friend who's attempting to set up his on-line store described a group of on-line applications that are supposed to work together to allow prospective customers to browse his stock, create orders, and collect money. He's spent months at this, and is plagued by complete frustration. None of these tools seem to work together flawlessly, and frequently they don't work at all. No window pops up and informs him why they don't work, but they just don't. It's like purchasing an electric drill and discovering that the batteries don't fit, and that the bits rattle in the chuck because they were designed for a different drill, and the trigger hurts your finger so much that you can't hold it down long enough to finish drilling a hole. (Maybe the battery powered electric drill is a bad example to use. I've had a few issues with them, namely that there are three lying around my shop that no longer work because the rechargeable batteries have died and getting them replaced costs more than a new drill. What waste!)

You can enjoy drawing your own conclusions from this piece. Suffice to say, this system, under which we now limp, is making dull tools of us all. Time to wake up and take back our lives from the corporate Hoovers.

*You knew that the Hoover was a vacuum cleaner? Or is that awareness a generational thing?

Kevin Jones
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