Thoughts on Being Part of a Media Frenzy

Photo by: Sven Hoppe/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Photo by: Sven Hoppe/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

So, maybe you’ve heard about this traveling robot called hitchBOT? This little robot traveled all over Europe and Canada and was destroyed in Philadelphia over the past weekend. I offered to help repair or rebuild the robot with the help of our resources at The Hacktory on Sunday. By Monday the story was making international news. Stories about it in France, Italy, Canada, and Australia were linking to our website, as well as tons of US news outlets.

Yesterday I did a slew of radio interviews for local Canadian radio stations, all of which used a script of the same questions. One of the questions was, “Why do you think there’s been so much interest in this story?” I clearly don’t have one single explanation for this, but I have some thoughts.

Take Apart TableWhat I have been saying is that people really love robots, which we’ve seen at The Hacktory. Every time we run our “Take Apart Table,” where participants get to take apart old electronics and building something new, there’s one or more kids who say “I’m going to build a robot!” When we’ve designed interactive projects and installations with elements similar to the hitchBOT people of all ages really love them.

In addition, I think the US news this summer has featured some harsh realities about our culture, and I think this story gives people a bit of a diversion from that. It also reinforces the old stereotype of Philly as an unfriendly, uncouth and dangerous place, or for international followers, it reinforces this stereotype about the US.

I am a big fan of Roxane Gay, and I read her piece last Sunday in the New York Times reflecting on the mourning of Cecil the Lion vs. Samuel DuBose. In it she wrote, “On Twitter, I joked, “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.”” This week you could make pretty much the same joke about dressing as a robot.

I hesitate to tie the story of our hitchBOT efforts to a polarizing topic, but I have followed the news about the #blacklivesmatter movement. I think it is an important and timely intervention in our culture which is revealing issues about racial and economic disparity that we still need to work on collectively.

At The Hacktory, we purposefully chose to locate ourselves in West Philadelphia (aka University City – because some people don’t realize that is in West Philly). It’s a great neighborhood in general, but also a site of huge demographic change and disparity. Our workshop is on the edge of the Promise Zone, one of a few zones across the US defined by very high poverty and therefore will be given special attention via federal grants.

We’ve worked with schools in the neighborhood and I’ve gotten to see how they are doing what they can to provide quality education and a safe environment on shockingly meager resources. I think most people in the general public wouldn’t believe that teachers and school administrators are actually working under the kinds of conditions these amazing people are, or that there aren’t laws out there that would ensure they don’t have to. For example, you would think it might be a law to have a nurse present at every school every day. Not so, and because of that, students in Philadelphia have died while at school.

I’m writing all this to say, I personally take these matters seriously, and I know our team at The Hacktory does too. We have recruited diverse and skilled board members, and we have been pursuing grants to help us provide our after-school program for free to neighborhood students. We strive to provide our classes at a range of price points, some as low as $10, and our weekly Project Night is always free. We are also working to develop opportunities for neighborhood students to learn programming skills, which is a great path towards a high-paying career, since these skills are in extreme demand, and many employers hire programmers who are self-taught.

One of the best things about Philly in my view is the other awesome organizations that are working on building a more diverse pool of technically talented people, including Code for Philly, TechGirlz, Coded By Kids, and our local chapter of Girl Develop It.

Just wanted to put that out there.

Building Tools for Continued Learning

I realized recently that a lot of my frustration in learning code has come from a lack of tools made for how I want to learn. I am continually thinking of building blocks that I can use for my own purposes. When I see an example, I put it in a mental library that I can call on in the future, but I don’t have such a library for the bits of code I have – which is now quite a lot.

I started thinking back on when I learned another language – Portuguese – as an exchange student, and what tools or practices I used to help me improve. I’m wondering what of those tools I can find or replicate to help me continue to learn to code.

I remember clearly watching the movie Central do Brasil (Central Station) before I left the US, and not knowing a word:

I’ve watched it again since returning (It’s good, you should watch it!) and can catch pretty much all of the dialogue. I find the subtitles mostly distracting.

When I arrived in Brazil though, I knew literally nothing except “obrigado” or “thank you” (which I said incorrectly as masculine, not “obrigada”). I didn’t even know “Oi” for “hi”, but I learned that quickly.

Thinking through what helped me get to the point where people complemented me on my accent and vocabulary, there were definitely a few tools that helped me a great deal. Read more

Progress

So I did’t want to post the previous post without trying to make some progress on my own. Later that week I went back and worked on my own, and made a little progress.

I started at the beginning, just getting the LED to light up with the switch.

Second attempt at logic gates
Second attempt at logic gates

Then, after struggling a bit more, I got the LED to light up with the transistor.

 

Yes! It works!
Yes! It works!

I had to test every connection to get this to work, verify the placement of every component. You can see in the video, it turned out it was really a problem of the LED not getting enough power. I jiggled the header pins connected to the battery wires, and then it finally worked.

First test: circuit with transistor from Georgia Guthrie on Vimeo.

On a roll, then I got the AND gate to work. An AND gate is a type of logic gate that is used to create boolean functions (yes/no logic). They are the fundamental building blocks of computers, and used to be constructed by mechanical means. You can string a number of logic gates together to take specific inputs (in our case, switches) to produce different outputs. You can construct these gates to combine logic for an output of one, others for an output of 0. This part all makes sense to me, though I don’t think I can explain it well. The part I struggle with is still getting the components to work on the breadboard.

AND gate from Georgia Guthrie on Vimeo.

Next was the NAND gate, where I got off track again. For this one the LED should turn on when both the switches are in the off position. This didn’t work for me, but I think again it might be a connection with header pins, or the LED not getting enough power. I actually ordered some other jumper cables to use for future prototyping, female-male to use with the battery packs, and male-male to use on the breadboard, as I think these are easier than regular stiff breadboard jumper wires.

Anyone reading this can you tell me what I’m doing wrong? I’m still pretty lost.

Struggling

Breadboard circuit of LED with switch

I’ve been having a really hard time with the hardware courses. Not that the coding part is easy, but the hardware has left me feeling like I will never get it right. This was one aspect of the SFPC coursework I thought I would do ok with, since I had some familiarity with it, but the opposite is turning out to be true. It feels like I have never touched these things before.

Last week when we were making logic gate with transistors I had so much trouble I really wanted to give up. It was made worse by the fact that when the instructor came to help me, he told me what I really should have been doing was drawing the large illustrations he made in smaller versions in my notebook, as he told the class. Sure, this is something I would have done if I had been able to get one thing to work from the beginning. Instead, I was focused on just keeping up, but I fell behind at the first step of soldering pins onto battery cables with no clamps or way to hold the components in place, or a holder for the soldering iron to prevent it from flipping around on the table and burning me or someone else. Once I fell behind there was no way I was going to pause and draw, I was just trying to get the components to work. The farther behind I got, and then had to take the time to do the drawings, there was no way I was actually going to learn everything the other students were. It was extremely frustrating and defeating.

One thing I did get better at was how to use a breadboard. Yes, this is something I never really got before. Read more

Assignment: The Biggest Problem

<iframe src=”https://player.vimeo.com/video/68299139?color=999999&title=0&byline=0&portrait=0″ width=”500″ height=”264″ frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/68299139″>All watched over by machines of loving grace</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/whatonline”>WHAT</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

In our first class with Allison, we learned about the concept of Liberation Technology, or technology that aims to liberate people from unjust economic, social, and political conditions. We watched All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (which you can probably find a link to in its entirety online somewhere without Spanish subtitles, but I’m not finding a link at the moment.)

Our homework was to write a blog post to answer the following questions:

What is the biggest problem in the world today (or problems)?

What is the role of the artist in today’s technological, economic, and political environment?

What is art?

Easy peasy, right? Read more

SFPC: First Day

Awesome start to SFPC. Once I got there I was a lot less nervous, there were so many cool people to talk to ! Most of the day consisted of orientation – straight just filling us with it, and exercises to help us get to know each other, answer any questions we have, and get the creative process started.

One activity we did really helped me understand the possibilities of the program on a higher level. It was part of Zach’s class, which is meant to help us understand “Poetic Computation” and our assignment was to break into teams, and create a human fax machine. Our fax machine would translate a drawing from one half of the team to the other, who hadn’t seen it, by using sound only. For this, we had to create our own code of sounds that stood for shapes and direction. Our team went directly to an approach that used a grid to create pixels, and a code that relied on counting, which had mixed results.

Later when we re-convened Zach described how the process of translating one form of information into another, which is what a lot of technology does, can produce interesting results, and can be a starting point for the “poetry” we are going for. I latched on to this concept, and I think it helped me get what the program is all about in a much deeper way. If we can become familiar with the basic building blocks of code – the process of translation, or something like the grid or field for graphic representation, or the point of origin – and then play with those elements, it makes so much possible, but also it’s so simple.

Bottom line: first day rocked, and I’m excited that I got even more sleep for the 2nd day!

Night before starting SFPC

It’s a good habit to record thoughts and feelings as they are happening. It’s something I’ve done sporadically in the past. This is the latest version of picking this practice back up.

Tomorrow I’m starting at the School for Poetic Computation. It’s an organization/institution/collection of people I have been following since it started ~2 years ago. It’s something I always wanted to attend, but thought it would be a long time before my schedule and finances made it possible. Now here I am, and I almost can’t believe it. I am so excited to get to meet and work closely with the founders and instructors of the program; they are doing so much work I admire, and I definitely want to model my career steps and projects on theirs. I am also really excited to spend this much time in NYC, to soak it in a little, see what it’s all about. I am also kind of hoping I will confirm the thoughts I’ve had of NYC, that it’s a little over-rated, and that the things I love about Philly I love because they are great, not just because I’ve gotten used to them.

My friends and partner John have been asking me all weekend how I feel. My answer is: excited and fairly nervous. Excited for the reasons I listed above, nervous for a few reasons. I think it’s likely I will like a lot of the people in the program, though there’s always the potential for a few bad apples. Or maybe even people who are just neutral and too cool. I am nervous about how that might shake out, even though I’ve been in the new kid situation so many times before. I’m also nervous having to make things on my own. Of course this is the whole reason I signed up for the program, and it will provide me with some much-needed time away from The Hacktory, but I sometimes wonder for myself if I have fallen into the role of organizing things/classes/people at The Hacktory as a way to be part of the larger culture, but also because it was safer than making things to put out in the world. I’ve seen in our after-school students the hesitancy to make things; they understand there’s a risk there. Similarly, because I’ve spent so much time organizing other things, I am nervous that finding inspiration to anchor a project or the work I do in the program will be hard. I am also nervous that learning the coding part will take more time than I’ll be able to devote, even in the entire course of the program.

Yes, I think these fears are normal, maybe a little unfounded, and I think they will quickly be dispelled. I’m looking forward to posting more updates about how it goes.