ebogjonson.com's solid state projects archive

i really feel like making things with my hands. Oh! and taking their pictures!

May 9, 2006

every day we're hustling

Spent a large portion of last weekend back-reading Emeka Okafor's The Timbuktu Chronicles, a technology and entrepreneurship blog focusing on sub-Saharan Africa. (Someone turned me on to Okafor a while ago, but I've forgotten who; apologies to you if you know who you are.) In between lots of optimistic blog-and-tell (apparently the African swimwear manufacturing sector is heating up), Okafor does some neatly programmatic prognosticating about a possible, tech-driven African renaissance, wondering, for example, whether the West's (or at least the Bay Area's) reignited "need to grapple with the tangible tactile 3rd dimension" has application in Africa:

The now almost retro cyber-age had emphasized the importance of all things digital at the expense of those objects we can grasp. The merging of the bit the biological and non-biological atom in the developed world is on track courtesy of robotics and nanotechnology, while in areas south of the Sahara the 'made' atom has barely gotten of the starting block. The uptake of technology in Africa has been symbolized almost completely by cellphones, computers and information -ICT as it commonly labeled. As a result the nerves are beginning to sputter into life, but the equally important muscles and sinews have not even begun to coalesce.

In a Timbuktu Chronicles post "Fundamental, Unsexy and Absent" the non-existence of an industrial mechanical base was highlighted and its pivotal nature emphasized. The boring 'old' industries of Metalworking and various types of Manufacturing and Chemical Engineering have had to bow off the stage in the developed west while the young upstarts of the information age, biotechnology et al bask in the spotlight. This could rightly be considered progress in the industrialized and developed/ing countries, but not where industrialization has experienced a still birth and these industries do not even exist. The ability to communicate effectively does not confer the title of 'developed' on its wearer's head, ICT is to a large degree an enabler and facilitator.

Okafor is bullish on the idea that the post-hobbyist instrumentalities and practices popular among our local DIY types will open up transformative zones of people/entrepreneur driven growth and industrialization. It's a compelling, current, optimistic scenario, and if I have a nano-sized nit to pick it's that "reignited" interest in the atom in the West or no, places like Haiti or portions of sub-Saharan Africa have always already being zones of intense "maker" activity. The atom hacking and hustling required just to keep head above water in some places means that people are constantly surrounded by a nimbus of modification. It's like a literal poor man's version of Madeline Gins and Arakawa's architectural surround, an enveloping "architecture" that exists not to support Gins and Arakawa's (art)project of life-extension but plain old life-continuance, maintenance, life-not-dying-enance and so on.

(This is a random aside, but I had a chance to hear Madeline Gins speak/read last year in LA. She was fascinating but scattered, and when the audience started tiring just a bit of her shtick she disdainfully saluted the crowd and spat "Goodnight, plants!!!" at us before storming off the stage. Completely amazing.)

Okafor name-checks MAKE Magazine and the transit from there to there (and potentially back) could fill the pages of several well-designed magazine special issues. How long, for example until we see a "MAKE: THIRD WORLD" issue? ("MAKE VISITS THE GARAGE LABS OF SUPER TINKERERS FROM TURKMENISTAN TO NIGERIA TO PARAGUAY!!!") How about a February MAKE exclusive: "BLACK MAN HACKS TRAFFIC LIGHT!! USING XBOX SCRAPS!!!" As much as MAKE contemporizes Popular Mechanics and Heathkit (there's also a hint of "In Search of..." thrown in there somewhere, but that could also just be the taste of nutmeg) it also indulges in stealth deployments of "Budweiser Presents A Black History Month Special: Great Black Inventors," MAKE's central "genius in you" storyline implicitly suggesting the existence of "genius in them" angles, "look what I made!" being less than six degrees of separation from "didja know what they made?"

Or is that "didja know what we made?" The communitarian storyline might be the spécialité de maison of middlebrow, corporate-sponsored, African American media but MAKE still a kind of freedom that when applied to US blacks (pun not intended, but noted) takes on science fictional overtones. Even correcting for the distorted ways people talk about Africa it seems a universal black affliction, infecting even Okafor's straightforwardly earnest postings. His hopes for a coming maker golden age seem the stuff of a hacked Cyptonomicon, but then that's likely why he put "The Timbuktu Chronicles" on the header and not "Sub-Saharan African Technology Today."

Posted by ebogjonson at 9:02 PM | Permalink

April 21, 2006

hand and eye of the father

right hand - Over the past year I've been having powerful urges to make stuff, as in with my hands make stuff. As luck would have it, there's an awful lot of easy to follow, maker-related media out there these days, meaning I'm either particularly attuned to changes in the aether or just another trend victim jocking today's iteration of the next.

I'm going to start my solid-state, open source kick small, with a homemade electric cat drinking fountain templated on nicrosin's hack pictured above. (Hat tip to the make blog.) I've actually owned two store-bought electric cat waterers. (Or did my cat own them?) The motor on the first one died and the second broke in transit from MA to LA. Complete ripoffs at 49 or so bucks twice, and me with no receipts. :(

I'll post photos when the thing gets a bit beyond the ideation stage.

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left hand - This is likely a common chain of association, but the maker meme reminds me of my father.

gerard dauphin in uniform

Although he was born and raised in Haiti, Dad was a fairly typical American/home-ownerish type who believed in the powers of his own ingenuity and hammer. If something could be made from scratch, in his book it must be made from scratch. In his day he replaced car engines with salvage, hacked boilers, cobbled together roofs; he built carports, sheds and bathrooms. I was less than appreciative of his ways (I thought he could be unnecessarily frugal) but I went to the well gladly whenever I needed to, medalling in science fairs, for example, throughout junior high on the strength of his contraptions. My ambitions to, say, make bendable models of "spacetime" in the 7th grade (?!) found their perfect expression in an insight he had had (likely years before) about the properties of solder and thick copper wire, in his habit of buying odd things like magnets and lenses just in case he might need them later, for lord knows what.

His entire life, literally until the day he died, was one long, sisyphean work of home and auto improvement, our house and cars perpetual works in progress. Dad even managed to die with his tool-belt on: The stroke that killed him set in as a mild buzzing in the ears while he was picking up some obscure power tool at the home of a friend. The two discussed my father's worsening headache at some length in dude's garage, but instead of going to the emergency room (or, more plausibly just to bed, given his various anti-clerical temperments) Dad went to the hardware store, likely imagining that the fix for what ailed him might be found there. He bought a drill bit or some such, stopped for chinese, drove home and then promptly dropped dead in the driveway after perfectly parking his ancient, jury-rigged ride in his rigorously chosen, preferred spot.

(The location had something to do with a tree. It grew out of our sidewalk at on odd angle, and for thirty years my father had daily premonitions that it would fall.)

His orderly, suggestive exit aside, my dad's drive to make things was explicitly political. He was not much concerned with the environment as he was American hubris. As an involuntary immigrant he had ambivalent feelings about life in the land of plenty, saw connections between the grinding poverty in Haiti and the blithe excess here. He was a bit disconcerted by his hand in expanding evil in the world (like most Haitian men, he viewed his wife and children as extensions of himself, and my mother, sister and me are all inveterate consumers) and he took great pleasure in short-circuiting what he viewed as an top down directives to consume by making and reshaping existing products to his various needs. He had an analogue of the intuition part of the post-internet generation has come to, gassed as it is on its power to code lots of something out of literal nothing: even a world full of trash can be made anew. Shit, endless supplies of cheap trash might actually be a new-making pre-req.

Whenever my mother or I insisted on the freshly minted or new Dad would sneer that we were "making America beautiful," and it was in that crack that I found my own voice in opposition to him. I've clearly resconsidered my quarrel with my father on the question of making v. buying certain things (you wouldn't be reading this otherwise), but on the crucial question of aesthetics we will likely remain at loggerheads. My dear old dad, you see, did not much believe in beauty. For example, to my great chagrin he made my first bicyle out of a pile of parts he had collected at the no-joke, actual junkyard. The thing worked fine but was a mess to look at - seat, frame, spokes and handle-bars a mish-mash of styles and eras, states of disrepair and decay. I had to force him to put a new seat on (he was going to throw this crazy, gold-speckled banana seat he had found back in the junkpile), and it was another ordeal getting him to paint the thing a single color. I think he could have turned me on to the pleasures of symetrical ownership and sourcing sooner (i.e., pre-posthumously) if he had been less engineer and more artist, but therein lies the tale, right?

All of which is why you can bet that when I post my pics of my cat waterer there won't be tape on the walls like in the hack above. (Will that even stay on?) Part of the reason is that I don't want to mar my pretty walls and part of the reason is that all that tape seems unsafe. Dad would likely have also disapproved of nicrosin's design owing to some insistent disquiet about all that looping wire - just the thing a cat might pull down and chew and electrocute himself in a bowl of water. (Doh!) Now that I think about it, it seems that of the million things my father knew about jury-rigging and hacking and re-purposing, the only techniques he was at any particular pain to pass on concerned the right and wrong way to do potentially dangerous stuff - change a light switch, for example, or how to properly move cars on and off cinderblocks.

I always found his care on these topics somewhat insulting, like I struck him as some sort of moron or incompetent. The lessons took, though, and, if there's anything bitter at all at the bottom of this it's that while he had the eye that looked at left-over fish tank pumps and saw cat waterers, me, I got stuck with the vision that looks at a cat waterer and sees a kitty death trap. Which is to say, I got the evil, deconstructing eye, putting me somewhat at odds with the spirit of the age, after all.

Actually, it really does sting, all of it: the lost patrimony, the uninherited impulses, the need at this late stage for me to bend my knee north towards all those happy, shiny, optimistic, enterprising kids and websites, most of them in San Francisco, most of them very quite nice, just like James Murphy said. But you do what you have to, right? If you don't make your fresh lemonade out of the freely available lemons, you're just another consumer making America beautiful, just like dad said.

Posted by ebogjonson at 12:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)