Building a Drawdio

Last evening I went to RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) to see Mark Frauenfelder, and Carla Sinclair speak about the "maker movement" going on now. This morning, Mark brought some kits from The Maker SHED — the store for MAKE Magazine's products — to share with The RIT Make Club. Although I just wanted to hang out to see how basic the Learn to Solder Kit really was, I couldn't resist[*] trying to build the Drawdio Kit. With it, you draw a line with a pencil then use the line to change the pitch the Drawdio emits — the line acts as a resistor to complete the oscillator circuit [* har har]. I finished it up pretty quick, and got back that old feeling of how nice it was to build a project from a kit that, well, just worked. If I remember correctly, 4 people were also building the Drawdio's and they all got them working.

Anyway, the Learn to Solder Kit was pretty nice. The circuit board has some extra pads so you can learn to melt and work with solder before going on to build the basic circuit. Mark had also brought several Super TV-B-Gone Kits which were very popular because they were more than just toys, they were actually useful (for turning off nearly any television by sequencing through all the known TV power-button codes).

In all it was a really nice experience. Mary Lynn Broe organized this as part of The Caroline Werner Gannett Project which brings together "21st century thinkers and scholars in the arts, sciences and technologies who ask the unasked questions." Hopefully we can build from this to get people who make things together, as well as the people who don't make things yet.

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Let's Talk Cycling

I went to Brighton Town Hall (2300 Elmwood Ave.) for the Let's Talk Cycling discussion. It turned out to be the featured lecture at The Rochester Regional Group of the Sierra Club meeting that night. After some Sierra Club business, Jean M. Triest was introduced. She's a Traffic Safety Specialist at The Monroe County Department of Public Safety. As a reasonably well-seasoned cyclist, her talk was a bit on the basic side for me — bikes need brakes, reflectors, a bell, and a headlight and taillight for night; bicyclists are recognized as legal drivers; ride in the same direction as traffic; use hand signals; obey traffic-control devices; be visible; be predictable; etc.

She cited a study from The League of American Bicyclists that examined the causes of bicycle accidents. She started out with some myths and the first was surprising: "traffic passing from the rear is the biggest risk to a bicyclist" is a myth. In a chart she showed me afterward, when comparing types of accidents with bicyclists, getting hit from the rear is the least likely kind of accident. The most likely cause of accidents — 25% — was riding in the wrong direction. Poor lighting is another problem cited (and cited separately from rear-end collisions).

I was getting kind of jaded about the whole thing.  For the question in my mind was, "if I do all this stuff, how much can I reduce my risk?"  As best I could tell from anecdotal experience, even if I'm a perfect cyclist, my odds are not that much better than if I was not that good.

I decided to dig around a bit and found the Crash-Type Manual for Bicyclists by Carol Tan and The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center [although the information resides at The Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center.] It's a detailed summary of a study (although inconveniently stored in 73 separate PDF files) on the underlying causes of bicycle accidents. Indeed accidents from the rear are comparatively rare (less than 3%), much more likely on roads higher than 60 KPH (37 MPH), and much more likely in unlit areas at night.

In perusing the data, I noted that by using the same techniques to avoid an accident while driving an automobile, I can avoid the vast majority of the accident types between a bicycle and a car. From there, I can further reduce my risk by being seen: in cases where the bicyclist was otherwise not doing anything out of the ordinary, most of the accidents could be attributed to the driver not seeing the cyclist. It's rather obvious to say this, but most drivers don't want to get into an accident, even with a cyclist — and it's clear from watching a busy roadway that they're generally excellent at not colliding with stuff.

And much of the advice Triest gave was along the same lines: be seen, behave like a car, and don't not behave like a car — stand your ground. By following this advice, it's unlikely you'll ever be in an accident on a bicycle, at least with a car. And if you do get into such an accident, it can be traced to not following that advice.

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David White Discusses the New Age at the Bertrand Russell Society Meeting

I stopped by at Verb Café at Writers and Books (740 University Ave.) for the meeting of The Bertrand Russell Society. David White was there to talk about Joseph Butler and Ken Wilber. White brought faith in the possibility of a "New Age" — where humans would work together toward common goals using a far more fluid communication method than the chunks of individual works produced today.

His evidence is the proliferation of conversational communication across vast distances. Essentially things like text messaging and blogging where the works are specifically brief. He teaches a course which exploits this: rather than asking students to summarize a work in an elaborate essay, they are invited to explore it then to respond to a small part of it that they found particularly interesting or inspiring. The aggregate of these responses is a new cumulative learning.

I feel that the development of a global consciousness is likely, but the form it will take will be much more subtle. I disagree with the notion that it will be guided by any person claiming to be a guide although some will migrate in that direction. Rather, I feel it will form organically and naturally only through careful nurturing.

One of the concepts that's poison to this idea is one of failure. We seem to have this collective notion that there are people who fail — and with at least a subtle negative connotation — and others who succeed — the pinnacle of existence. This dichotomy is entirely wrong.

The nature of a rewarding life is to constantly try. And that means — at least in this parlance — failing. As such, this "failure" is not "failure" at all, but evidence of actually trying. Not failing is not trying which is a much worse fate.

White cited Plato's Allegory of the Cave as an analogy to the difference between thinking like today and thinking like the "New Age". People who think like today — like individuals competing to survive — are like Plato's prisoners in the cave, resigned to seeing the world as simply shadows on the cave wall. Those who think in a "New Age" manner are analogous to those who escape and return to describe the world outside, explaining the shadows. Unfortunately, the prisoners are certain their form of reality is correct and reject the new information.

I think White was trying to act as a guide: that by taking the prisoners through the steps to the outside that he could teach them the more complete truth. However, I believe more in human behavior based on Plato's cave: that people will nearly-unanimously reject the notion of a "New Age" and of thinking in a different way.

As such, I think a better way is to reject the concept of failure as it applies to a person's life. In this way, the prisoners are released and free to go. Admittedly, convincing people that failure is false is nearly as difficult a task, but I'll argue that it is already ingrained in the culture of the U.S. West Coast with their "it's all good" kind of philosophy.

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About Peacework Organic Farm at Thursday Thinkers

I headed to the Rundel Auditorium in The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) a little late for Thursday Thinkers. Elizabeth Henderson had already started speaking on the topic, Locally Grown: Green and Economically Viable? She farms at Peacework Organic Farm (2218 Welcher Rd., Newark).

The farm itself is owned by The Genesee Land Trust, Inc. (500 East Ave.) and leased to the farm for long-term use necessary to maintain organic methods. The farm offers people the opportunity to experience farming and to get 7 to 11 items of fresh vegetables for a full 6-month season from May 21 through November 15. The monetary cost is small, but it also requires 12 hours of farming in 3 4-hour morning shifts.

The farm is certified organic, meaning they use techniques of replenishing and recycling rather than using chemical pesticides and commercial fertilizers. They use cover crops like buckwheat to keep weeds down and to keep the soil healthy and nutrient-rich. They also maintain a "microherd" of microorganisms that work the soil year-round. In addition, they monitor reports from other farms and agricultural organizations to prepare for particular kinds of pests. Once, for instance, they sprayed their potato plants with copper to block a late blight — one of a few chemical-oriented approaches they take. More often, though, it's a matter of understanding the balance of flora and fauna to keep pest populations at bay.

They offer a Mayday Celebration on May 2 this year including a potluck dinner. In addition to Peacework Organic Farm (2218 Welcher Rd., Newark), check out The Genesee Valley Organic Community-Supported Agriculture (GVOCSA) for a similar program.

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JCVD at the Dryden with a New Pair of Eyes

Today I went to The Rochester Optical Factory Outlet (400 Jefferson Rd., in Hen-Jeff Plaza) and picked up my new glasses (with the lowest price in town — and honestly priced to boot). Last month I went to The Ocu Sight Eye Care Center (1580 Elmwood Ave.) for an eye appointment: partly for issues with near-sightedness, and partly to get those eye disease checks that I don't get without owning glasses. Everyone who has glasses sneers when I say I have better than 20/20 vision, but damn it: I can't read street signs at night! Accordingly , my prescription was pretty weak, but now I can see far-away things. It may not be perfect (I'm still working on figuring out if it's honestly wrong or if it's just confined by the granularity of a weak prescription) but hundreds of yards better than what it was.

So one of the first things I got to do was to go with Ali to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) where we saw JCVDJean-Claude Van Damme's Tree's Lounge … er … sort-of. Ali didn't intend on seeing it, but I suggested we walk from her house to double-up a little physical activity, but she didn't feel at all like walking back home alone afterward so begrudgingly stayed (and actually thought the film was okay).

I thought the film was very good overall. I remember from film class in college something about film genres taking a turn at some point — when the formula used is somehow tweaked so the film is still recognizable by its pedigree, but is significantly unique as well. In this case, it's the action genre: where the bad guys establish a sophisticated upper-hand, the good guys are embarrassingly disorganized save for the few heroes, and good wins in the end. Plus there's a showcase for special effects and a reinforced apathy for the loss of lives of the unknown.

In JCVD, Van Damme plays himself — an action star tired of constantly being personally associated with the attributes of the characters he plays and the films they are in, and pretty much the only guy who could possibly fit the role. He returns to his hometown of Brussels and quickly becomes the central figure in a heist gone awry. From there it's action-movie anarchy: mobs of people surround the bank to cheer on the most famous Belgian outside Belgium, Van Damme's role in the heist is not as it first appears, and, of course, he's not some ass-kicking, bulletproof hero.

In a jarring foil to the climax, Van Damme steps out of his film-self to deliver a monologue directly to the audience. He ends up coming across closer to Jesus Christ than to his own JC moniker (Jean-Claude, that is — far more closely associated with bad acting and terrible movies). Practically a classic Catholic confession, he reveals that he's conflicted: for after having traveled the world and experienced all the different kinds of people he's met, he cannot see how each and every one of them shouldn't be adored for who they are. Yet his films — the entire action genre — broadly categorizes everyone in the world to one-of-two, black-or-white categories.

So in its own way, JCVD is incredibly powerful. For it has forever tainted any future viewing of an action movie for me. It's really where my own philosophy led anyway, but JCVD accelerated my progression to a fully new mind-space.

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Waltz With Bashir at The Little

Ali and I went to The Little (240 East Ave.) to catch a couple movies. She had read the book and wanted to see the film The Reader, and I've been meaning to catch Vals Im Bashir (Waltz With Bashir). They both started about the same time — although the shorter Waltz started 10 minutes earlier, so I got out some 45 minutes earlier. I headed to Spot Coffee (200 East Ave.) but couldn't figure out how to get on the Internets with their wireless Internet [assuming "Spot on WIFI" was the SSID of their network.]

Anyway, Waltz With Bashir is a rather interesting movie. It's an animated film about a man who had fought in Israel's war with Lebanon 20 years ago. He can't remember anything of his involvement in the war until one of the people he fought with reveals a recurring dream. The man then seeks others who fought in the war by his side to help him get his memories back — particularly about a massacre he has the most trouble remembering.

The scenes of war were particularly surreal. Not because of the unreal aspects of the animation, though, but from the insanity inherent in war itself: particularly those aspects that bridge peaceful life with war life. The soldiers are expected to behave a certain way, but their humanity draws their attention to commonplace things: sounds and silence for example, or the benign apathy of plants to politics, borders, and war.

I look at this whole war thing like I must be crazy. I mean, I can't see how it makes anything any better. It's a deliberate act of malice that changes the course of people's lives, justified in future retrospect that it will have been seen as unavoidable and written in history as a good thing by the victors.

So I see these films that portray war as this absurd exercise and it seems true through the rich approximation of emotions. But then I'll talk with some guy returning from Iraq and they all say it was such a rewarding experience. On the one hand I feel like my fellow fairly-trade-coffee-chewing aristocracy, proud of our nuanced and clearly superior understanding of war. Yet it's a much more filtered view than those who are actually at war.

Unassailable logic dictates that to really get an answer, I'd need to go to war myself. But aside from gaining more knowledge about the world, I otherwise find the idea, well, bad.

I think I might just leave this one unknown.

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