Wearable Technology and Me (part 1)

August 8, 2010

So I got the idea to try to make some wearable technology. I think I was watching Alan Alda on PBS one day a few years back and he was with some grad students who were working on visors and backpacks that had sensors and it seemed really neat, albeit totally geeky.

After a visit to NYC Resistor last summer, I learned how to solder and I was essentially ordered to buy an arduino and learn how to use it. So I bought one and learned some basics.

I realized I needed a bit more help from the experts if I was going to do anything more interesting than flash some LEDs, so I took a trip to another hackerspace in Brooklyn (Alpha One Labs) for an arduino class. I was getting a grasp on the technology part, but I still had no idea how to sew, so I decided it was time to explore that side.

I could have borrowed a sewing machine from my mother or just bought a cheap one from the store, but I decided it would make my project better if I could start with a broken machine and learn how to fix it. (Sometimes it is just more fun to put obstacles in your own way because solving problems is good for the soul.)

So after a few near-misses on Craig’s list, I found one at a garage sale. It didn’t work, so after disassembling and examining it, I pinpointed one problem area- the wires looked to be in bad shape.  I learned a little about circuits in my arduino lessons, but I didn’t know how to apply that knowledge to a faulty plug and wire in the real world.

While on vacation in Florida, I learned all about how to use a voltimeter from my father-in-law who happens to be an electrical technician.  Plus, he let me keep his extra voltimeter to test the machine at home. I read a few chapters from his Electric Circuits textbook in the guest room every night before bed and I felt confident that I could now tackle this problem. So I had all that going for me.

When I got back, I tested the wire and it was totally dead. Based on what I learned in Florida, I was able to see why:

Before I learned about circuits, I always thought the two prongs on the plug and the two wires took the electricity from the outlet and sent it up into the machine. I never realized that the electricity was traveling in both directions, which I could have realized if I thought about the word circuit for a few seconds.  Before I understood this, I thought a half severed cable was just at 50% power. Now it was obvious; the circuit was “open” so the electricity was simply not flowing.

Next I went to the hardware store to take advantage of even more human capital and make sure I knew what I was doing. You don’t know what you don’t know, so I wanted an expert’s opinion about what cable to buy, what plug to buy, how to rewire it so I didn’t destroy my machine or my house, etc.

He helped me, drew a diagram, gave me the right stuff and sent me on my way. When I got home, I was able to use my new tools, rewire a motor and try it out. When I plugged it in, it immediately went on. I was excited for a few seconds, then I realized that it wasn’t supposed to go on until I stepped on the pedal. The circuit was supposed to still be open until the pedal was depressed, closing the circuit and letting the electrons flow.

I was able to disconnect and reconnect the wires and test it again. I plugged it in and nothing happened. . . which was a good thing. Now all I had to do was press down the pedal and see if I was successful. Here is the video:

If you can hear, those parts hadn’t moved in years, so the next step was to oil and/or replace those parts. I still have a long way to go, but at least I was able to save a sewing machine’s life. Now if I can only learn how to use it, I might have a chance to accomplish my goal of making wearable technology. Next step: How do I thread this thing?

To be continued . . .


Failure- (part 2)

June 1, 2010

In part one of this post, I described failure as technology’s gift to us. It is a gift because it helps train our brains to become problems solvers. There are two important elements to this gift and I will drill down and explore those elements in more depth here.

1. It is only a gift if we decide to take failure as a challenge. Giving up is like returning the gift.

2. While we can fail and subsequently learn from failure in anything we do, technology is an especially talented teacher.

Sometimes we need to give up. Sometimes we are fixing something for someone else and we don’t have the luxury of time, so we outsource our failure to someone with more expertise. Sometimes we can’t afford to learn by trial and error because of the financial or safety risks involved. These are situations requiring common sense and are outside the scope of this post. Those are the times that we have to refuse the gift.

Even when those situations do occur, we can still squeeze a little learning out of the failure if we have an opportunistic worldview. When there is a major leaky pipe in the bathroom at our job, the smart thing to do is to call a plumber. We may not have the money or the legal right to try some experimental plumbing at work, but observing and asking the plumber questions is free and completely legal.

I wouldn’t work on fixing the brakes to my car without being completely confident that I know what I am doing. I wouldn’t perform even minor surgery on myself out of fear of the consequences. Sometimes fear of failure can be a healthy and fiscally sound emotion, but there are countless opportunities to hack and modify and try things out that are not major risks to our health or wealth. These are the times we need to recognize. These are the challenges. These are the opportunities to learn and grow and hone our brains into problem solving tools .

Whether it is a broken toaster or a formatting issue in a Word document that we just can’t figure out, technology provides us with fertile ground to learn how to problem solve. We can learn from any failure in life, but technology is a better teacher because of the nature of the beast. Take art as an example. If you are attempting to draw a picture using pencil and paper, you don’t necessarily need to learn how to learn anything during this process– it is just about expression. Sure, the pencil tip might break and you might need to trouble shoot that issue, but no matter how poorly you draw, you can still complete your project.

With a pencil and paper, you can draw poorly and still get to the proverbial finish line; failure to know how to draw doesn’t force you to learn anything. However, if you are trying to draw using even simple drawing software, you will frequently experience a number of failures, any one potentially stopping you from finishing your art. Your mouse might not work. Your monitor might shut down. Your icons might disappear. You might exit before saving. You might accidentally color the entire page in one solid color. All of these failures require you to solve a problem before reaching that finish line.

Source: Todd Barnard's Flickr page

You still might be a terrible artist, your picture might still look awful, but in order to draw it and print it out and hang it on the refrigerator next to the pencil and paper version you had to learn how to problem solve. Technology failures force us to learn if we want to reach the finish line.

Whether or not you have a talent for cinematography, if you don’t have the right codecs installed, you can not edit the movie you shot. If you can’t convert it to the right format, people can’t see it on YouTube or in their DVD players.

Examples like these pop up whenever we use any mechanical device or digital software. Bloggers need to be writers and problem solvers because they use technology. Graphic designers need to be artists and problems solvers because they use technology. Opening a photo album on the couch with grandma might be pleasant, but it doesn’t teach either of you how to solve problems. Uploading them to Facebook or Flickr and sharing them with the right people will because you have no choice. Technology requires you to overcome failure. Technology requires you to problem solve.

These are the frustrations that turn people away from technology. These failures are seen as flaws in using technology. Instead of letting that mindset ruin your experience, try to view these failures as a gift. Try to view them as the prize at the bottom of your Cracker Jack box.
Cracker Jack's Nobel Prize

Source: Nevada Tumbleweed’s Flickr page


Failure- (part 1)

May 28, 2010

Failure is technology’s gift to us. Failure is a gift because it teaches us how to solve problems. Whether we are talking about mechanical or digital devices, troubleshooting the reasons for failure is an inescapable feature of the user experience.

Failure is simply shorthand for “learning the hard way.” Throughout most of our lives we don’t want to learn the hard way because it is, well . . . hard. It is hard because it is time consuming. It is hard because it tests our patience. It is hard because it exhausts us mentally and often physically. It is much easier to simply follow instructions or observe a master and repeat the steps. It is easier because we don’t have to learn from our own mistakes.

Learning from the mistakes of others is wonderful and it is one reason why humanity can make such tremendous strides generation after generation. We make progress because Chemists, Engineers, Architects, Designers, and Psychologists can reap the benefits of hundreds and thousands of years of trial and error simply by reading a book or listening to a professor. If we had to learn everything we know through trial and error, we would simply not be able to learn as much over the course of our lives. Shortcuts, like learning from the mistakes (and successes) of others, are a necessary part of learning. People like Socrates, Einstein, Buckminster Fuller and Richard Feynman could reach the heights they reached precisely because they “stood on the shoulders of giants.”

However, it is important to remember that these “giants” learned what they learned by persevering through failure after failure after failure. When something isn’t yet known, trial and error is the only real way to figure it out. Joe Sutter couldn’t have known a fraction of what he knew about the design of Boeing’s 747 if it wasn’t for the Wright brother’s seemingly endless string of failures.

Their early failures were a gift to Joe Sutter, Boeing, and anyone who has ever benefited from air travel. Those failures were gifts because they taught the Wright brothers that something they were doing was wrong. This knowledge helped them eliminate ideas and discover the truth the same way a sculptor eliminates the extra marble to uncover the statue. Every failure was the gift of real-world instruction.

So why do we hide failures if they are are so beneficial? Why do we quit when they start to accumulate? Why do we ignore the instructions they give to us?

We do these things because failure exposes a soft spot in us, it shows us a place where we are vulnerable, where we lack power over our surroundings or ourselves. When we fail we come to a point where we have to make a decision; we can either resign ourselves to the fact that we are ineffectual, or we can solve the problem.

“Remember the two benefits of failure. First, if you do fail, you learn what doesn’t work; and second, the failure gives you the opportunity to try a new approach.” -Roger Von Oech

Failure is technology’s gift to us because it trains our minds. It trains us to become problems solvers. It trains us to look at the world in a more optimistic way because over time we learn that as long as we keep trying new approaches we will eventually find a solution.

When we troubleshoot a technological problem, we begin to see things not as objects, but as systems. Viewing a toaster as a mysterious machine that produces results doesn’t help us fix one when it breaks. Viewing a toaster as series of processes that are interconnected in a toast-making system can, however.

Source: freepatentsonline.com

Failure is technology’s gift to us because the first step to solving any problem is to learn how the system is supposed to work. The next step is trying to figure out what processes within the system are not doing their job. Before we have even fixed the problem, we have already gained new knowledge and our view of the world has begun to change. Because of the failure of technology, we are learning to see the world not as a place full of mysterious objects, but as a place full of systems that we can learn about.

The great irony, the great gift, is that failure sews the seeds of its own destruction by training us to solve problems.

(to be continued)


Review: Made by Hand by Mark Frauenfelder

May 16, 2010

Let me start by saying that I am the kind of person who reads 5 or 6 books at a time and because I am a slow reader it usually takes me a month or two to finish a book. I finished Made by Hand in 3 days and didn’t read anything else during that time– it was a complete pleasure.

Frauenfelder has an easy-going writing style and an interesting journey to write about. When I first heard about the book, I thought I was going to be getting something from a super-genius “maker” who was going to share some of that genius with the rest of us amateurs.

Made by Hand is wonderful because it is almost the exact opposite. Mark leads us through his ego-less mistake prone adventures as a peer, as a confidant . . . as an amateur. He pulls no punches and shares every mistake, every overestimation, every moment of doubt and regret throughout his various projects.

Frauenfelder also shares his triumphs in such a way that makes you feel like you accomplished something too. The experience I had reading this book was like spending a Saturday afternoon over a friend’s house chopping wood and fixing the garage door while taking some time out to drink a little lemonade and play with the kids.

Made by Hand was such a quick enjoyable read I had to make sure I highlighted the best passages to go back and review later. Here are some of the most memorable chunks.

page 145

Suddenly it went from being a piece of trash to a source of valuable raw material. This wasn’t a unique occurrence: Ever since jumping into the DIY world, I had found this happening more and more. Stuff I used to throw away– rubber hoses with holes, pieces of chain, electrical cords, scraps of lumber– became useful parts for projects.

I think anyone who has any experience with the DIY world can relate to that sentiment and it is a powerful one for so many reasons.

He profiles some people who are living lifestyles we don’t often encounter doing things we don’t often see. From these people (and a heavy dose of trial and error) Frauenfelder learns how to make a coop and raise chickens, become a beekeeper, hack his espresso maker and a host of other neat projects and the reader is right there learning as he does.

When reflecting on his progress to date as DIYer, on page 221 he writes:

I am not as afraid of new challenges because I know that with enough perseverance, I’ll eventually get them done. It’s a great feeling.

On the final page, Frauenfelder sums up what he learned from the “Makers” he encountered. He writes:

They’ve told me that making things has changed the way they look at the world around them, opening new doors and presenting new opportunities to get deeply involved in processes that require knowledge, skill building, creativity, critical thinking, decision making, risk taking, social interaction, and resourcefulness. They understand that when you do something yourself, the thing that changes most profoundly is you.

This book will change how you see the world around you as well. It is pretty amazing that a book this informative was written in such a fluid, conversational tone. I highly recommend it.

When I finished the book, it just felt wrong to put it away on a shelf to live a purposeless existence, so I decided to make something useful with it. My wife is always complaining that we are going to run out of bookshelf space before our son graduates Kindergarten, so I figured this could be an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. In keeping Marshall McLuhan’s dream alive, here is the short tutorial I made for my “The Medium is the Message” Invisible bookshelf:



May 15, 2010

How is disassembling a broken DVD player the same as learning history? They are both about discovering point A from point Z. As a teacher and a history buff, I always wonder why we teach history in chronological order. To someone living in the year 2010, ancient Greece or the events surrounding the fall of Babylon are not especially interesting because that someone has no context. What does the Sykes-Picot agreement have to do with my life? Who cares?

When we start teaching history from the beginning and move toward the present, the person never learns the answer until the very end of the book, that is, if they are still paying attention. People tend to find history most interesting when they start from the present and keep asking why. We can learn a lot more about the history of the Middle East if we start by asking “Why did 9/11 happen?” than if we start by telling students “In 1916, blah blah the Ottoman Empire was blah blah disintegrating and . . . blah, blah, blah.” In other words, start from the current time and work backwards. Don’t build history, disassemble it.

Why did Z just happen?

Well, because X became Y in the 1979 coup.

Why did X happen?

That is controversial, but most people think it is because of the fall of W after the border dispute with V.

What made V think they had a right to that land?

After the Economy of U collapsed, they had to abandon their colonies and help T fight their civil war. After independence, V wanted to reclaim the borders they had before U colonized them.

Why was T splitting apart?

This narrative might go all the way back to the war of independence that G fought, but we would never care about G if we started there. Finding out that G is the root cause of Z makes the whole journey interesting.

Learning is about discovery, about asking questions, about teasing out relationships and inter-dependencies. History is a path backwards from where we are that helps explain why we are here. Learning history is simply disassembling the world’s events sequence by sequence.

This same concept applies to repair and troubleshooting mechanical problems, like my broken DVD player. Three years ago my wife bought me a small DVD player for Christmas. The DVD player looked great, but the very first time we tried to watch a movie, the door wouldn’t open. I tried to pry it with a butter knife but it wouldn’t budge and I didn’t want to break it. Ironically enough, I bought her a DVD player as well, and that one worked, so we simply set the broken one aside and essentially forgot it existed.

Today I saw it sitting on a shelf and decided to investigate a little more. I got my screwdriver and began to disassemble the player screw by screw. Once I had the case open, I began to learn how it worked. I saw that there were some parts that had no connection to the door or the platform where we lay the DVD, so I removed them and focused my attention on the parts that were connected.

As I turned the parts around and looked at them from different angles, I poked and twisted stuff to see what moved what and where. I saw one piece that looked like the glass eye of a camera lens– it was a moving part that slid along two tracks right behind the DVD platform. Hmm, maybe this was the source of the problem?

I decided to plug it in and press the Open/Close button to see what did or didn’t happen.

The only thing that moved was the glass eye with the laser and that only moved slightly. At first I thought maybe the movement was restricted by something that came loose and that the laser housing was supposed to push the platform into the door and open it when I pushed the Open/Close button.

I moved the housing back and forth along the tracks, but it didn’t seem to have any way to push the platform forward or pull it back. I got the impression I was at a dead-end. So I decided to continue disassembling. I pulled a few components apart and examined them. The Open/Close button was connected to a circuit board with wires leading out of it. I traced the path of the red power wires to things that looked like motors. I then looked to see what the axles coming out of the motors were supposed to spin. I then saw gears that meshed with other gears, that turned other axles, that turned other gears. Finally I saw a black gear that seemed to mesh with a gear on the DVD platform that wouldn’t open. Aha!

Now I had a few leads to help me solve my problem. I knew how the door was designed to open mechanically. All I had to do was try to isolate the part or parts that were failing to fulfill the promise of the designer. Maybe the motor was bad and it didn’t convert the electricity it was receiving into movement? Maybe the wires leading to the motor were detached and the motor was never able to perform it’s duty? Maybe the gears were blocked by a loose piece? I didn’t think the circuit board was the problem because things did happen when I pressed the Open/Close button, just not the things I wanted to happen.

I decided to start with the gears, because I could make sure they could spin just by using my fingers. If they did spin freely, then I would need to examine the motor and the wires.

I tried to spin the big gear with my finger and it was tough to move at first. Then all of a sudden, the teeth of the gears meshed together and as it turned the door began to open! As it spun around I saw some extra plastic between the gears like the webbing between a duck’s feet. I easily pulled the thin webbing out from between the gears and it was as good as new– better in fact.

I reassembled the player, plugged it and pressed the Open/Close button. Success! Now I had to make sure my tinkering didn’t create some other problem, so I popped in a DVD and pressed play. It worked!

Fixing that DVD player was such a rewarding feeling. We could have returned it or thrown it away and avoided the problem, but by taking it apart piece by piece, I was able to learn how this machine worked.

I saw the connections.

I saw the relationships between objects and events.

I saw the sequences and the paths.

I saw the inter-dependencies.

As I learned how it worked, I learned what area to investigate further. As I investigated, I was able to isolate and test the parts to find the source of the problem.

It turns out that Z happened because G wasn’t free.


Project #1- Mousetrap Racer

May 1, 2010

Let me start by saying that I am not a natural craftsman. Not by a long shot.  I am, however, trying to learn and this post will be about the evolution of one of my new re-purposing projects.

I recently stumbled upon a website called DocFizzix.com and was blown away by what I saw- simple vehicles that use a mousetrap as an engine.  For a low price, you can order a kit for any number of different mousetrap race cars, boats and other neat vehicles.  As soon as I saw this, I realized I could make one and maybe introduce the idea to some of my students either in class or as part of an after school club.

The more I looked at the pictures and learned how to make one, the more I wanted to try with all re-purposed materials. So, I looked around and found these parts to use:

Left over wainscoting from our dining room project 3 years ago:

wood and saw

Toy car that no longer worked from a thrift store:

junk toys thrift store

disassembled toy car 2

This refugee toy had to sacrifice its wheels so that my mousetrap racer could live:

disassembled toy car

The cheap wooden clothes hanger that was intercepted before making its way to the recycle bin:

broken clothes hanger

This was the slapped together skeleton for the racer.

Partially completed mousetrap racer 2

First attempt. I learned the hard way that the mousetrap was too brittle for a screw, so I used some nails instead.

Partially completed mousetrap racer

After a little tinkering with the wheels, axles,  and the amount of tape I used (waaaay too much) I finally was ready to test it.

It didn’t move.

So I tinkered some more and made the design simpler. I knew this wouldn’t be an award winning racer, not only because this was my first attempt, but I was doing it with no blueprint. I simply looked at pictures from DocFizzix and started to scavenge for parts.

I ordered an official kit this week so once I see the plans and put it together, I should be able to improve my re-purposed Frankenstein mobile. I already know it is too heavy, but as the video shows, it does work. My day 1 record of 3 feet shouldn’t be hard to top once I have some clue what I am doing.



April 30, 2010

“I don’t know how to fix everything–but I know how to fix SOME things and I’m here to share what I know.”

The quote above comes from Kyle Wiens, the man behind ifixit.com an inspiring, collaborative project designed to aggregate user-generated repair manuals for electronics around the world. In addition to the values I wrote about in my previous posts, this project incorporates community and connectivity of knowledge to the list of benefits. To learn more about ifixit, check out this promo: