Saturday, October 27, 2007

Maker Faire, part 3

There was also some art where the point wasn't so easily found.

Tree of Secrets, dream recorder



For example, the Tree of Secrets, which was a cardboard tree with microphones hanging off of it. You could speak your secrets into those microphones, and they would get recorded. Then you could play them back. I think you could also listen to other people's secrets (thus making it a tree of no secrets, said Steve :-)) When the tree accumulates enough soundtracks, it starts mixing them up. I guess that was supposed to somehow make it more interesting. :-) Another example: a dream recorder (?) that looked like an old, rusty voltmeter from a high school physics lab. You put it near your bed, and record your dreams in the morning. "Record" is too ambitious a word, though, because the only thing you can do with it is press one of the two buttons: "good" or "bad". :-) Also, if I remember correctly, it's connected to the internet, and the needle on its face shows you the proportion of people who are having good dreams versus bad dreams. (Or maybe my subconscious made up this part as it tried really hard to find some meaning in this project. :-)) Even so, this kind of dream evaluation could be shared only by people who have identical dream recorders near their beds. But... how many of them are there? Isn't the dream recorder a one-of-a-kind thing, given that it was created by a graduate student as a course project?

Yes, both of these exhibits were created as course projects by students of a graduate program with some kind of... umm... trendy name, like Interactive Communications, or Interactive Media, or some such. Steve told me I wasn't supposed to see a point in these projects: they were Art. Period. I said it wasn't obvious to me that this program was primarily artistic rather than technical, as the name sounded slightly geeky. Well, Steve shamed me for looking for utility value in this art. Oh well. ;-) Yet I kinda felt sorry for those students. While I do remember having to do graduate course projects that seemed about as useful as shoveling sand from one pile to another (i.e. they did not involve original research, only reshuffling the existing data), I still think they were more meaningful than, say, making a tree of secrets. As I said, I'm not cut out to be an artist. :-)

If you were curious what true randomness sounded like...



Along the same lines, I felt, was Kosmophone by Jerry Chamkis, a "musical" instrument that synthesizes sounds from gamma rays. This device measures frequency, wavelength, or energy (he said those things were interchangeable :-)) of gamma rays that are hitting the Earth at all times, and a synthesizer "translates" those measurements into sounds. By the sound of it, gamma rays hit it at varying intervals averaging about once in a couple of seconds, so the device produces a steady ping-pong-pung of random notes at random intervals. This was the gist of the half-an-hour long talk by Jerry Chamkis. I actually figured out what it was doing after hearing the first 5-10 of these "musical" sounds. The rest were the details about how this instrument was made. I more or less slept through the details, but Steve was interested: his graduate studies in physics were all about chasing elementary particles, so he found some common ground with Chamkis. He had a chat with the creator of the Kosmophone about stuff like what materials you use to make a light-tight casing for your sensitive components. :-) The obvious -- and perhaps the only -- point of Kosmophone, as Chamkis readily admitted, was to give the listener an experience of true randomness. Try as they may, humans can't create truly random processes. But truly random processes do exist in nature, and spectral characteristics of gamma rays hitting the Earth are one of them. So, before I could open my mouth and say to Steve "this could make a really good random number generator on a computer", he turned to me and said the same thing. ;-) Then one guy in the audience said it out loud. Apparently all the computer geeks in the audience had the same thought. Chamkis replied that while that's true, it wouldn't be practical, because the rays hit the Earth way too infrequently. In computer applications -- mostly cryptography -- random numbers need to be generated much faster than a sequence of gamma rays would allow.

So, the projects demonstrated at the Maker Faire were a mixed bag. Which of course means there was a lot of good in it too. There were tons of robots, as I said before, but most of them had artistic rather than utilitarian value. For example: a robobabe/angel, or Marvin Niebuhr's Screaming Babyhead band of robots -- a very steampunky bunch of musicians. If they played any music, it must have been lost in the general din of the exhibit hall, as I couldn't hear anything.

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