A place where I can talk about my research and other interests -- history, magic, ham radio, technology, and making things.

Friday, June 19, 2009

History Kits

I recently read an article by Rich Mitchell from the November 2007 issue of QST, the magazine of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). Titled Building Kits to Learn, Mitchell explains the modular construction of a small radio transceiver kit known as the Pixie 2. He uses this as an example of the knowledge one can learn from assembling kits. It's not just a matter of putting pieces together -- you can use a kit as a platform to better understand a topic.

I've assembled a few simple electronics kits, and Mitchell's article has inspired me to attempt to construct the Pixie 2 in the manner he describes. He makes a strong case for each of the four stages as providing one with a better understanding of the building blocks of radio fundamentals. In particular, he mentions that this approach is similar to an old radio servicing approach used in testing the stages of radios.

Constructing a kit in this manner includes an attitude about the elments that comprise a radio device, and the components necessary for its proper functioning. I wonder if a similar approach could be used in learning about historic topics. In technological histories, building a device might inform one with a perspective of assembly and the elements of its functioning that a review of the literature on the subject might not address. Using the device, in addition to a sense of satisfaction, might reveal experiential contingencies that weren't apparent in a schematic or theory.

With radio, as in this case, a builder gains experience and understanding of how each stage of the tranceiver functions, and gets the reward of hearing and sending signals from the proper construction and alignment of those elements.

Could a History Kit be put together to help teach a particular topic? What would it include? Could it be made dynamic yet modular so as to incorporate elements of complexity that historians like to analyze; or, would such an approach only apply to seemingly linear topics?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hacking as a Way of Knowing

In May, I participated in the Hacking as a Way of Knowing workshop hosted by Bill Turkel and Edward Jones-Imhotep. It was a great weekend of hands-on collaborative work that resulted in some really interesting projects.

I spent most of my time there making a scanner camera similar to one I had read about in Make magazine. The results can be seen in the Projects section of the website that has been posted at NiCHE. There's a picture of the camera and a number of photos taken with it at the workshop, as well as a small video about it.

The website has lots of information about the workshop, including reflections by some of the participants (including myself) on their experiences. I'm looking forward to applying things I learned from the workshop to my research work. For instance, my research on stage magic has shown that simply understanding the method or secret to an illusion does not convey everything about it. Experiencing a performance of magic involves an embodiment of intrinsic knowledge particular to the magician, the assistants, and the audience members that might be lost in translation if it is only read about. I have some ideas on how to experiment with this, and will post the projects here on the blog.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tangible Interfaces

The video of our initial efforts with the Trackmate system was posted on the NiCHE website. If you didn't see it, you can check it out here.

I was drawn to this system because tangible interfaces seem to be a more organic way of dealing with information than typing on keyboard or moving and clicking a mouse. Users interact with different things, move them around, and things happen. They have control over what goes where, and in what orders they want to try things. It seems to offer more power to the user.

This isn't entirely true, though. The system is designed to operate in particular ways and under certain conditions. The program and interface is also ultimately determined by the one who makes it, and it can only do what it is programmed to do.

Still, creative applications of such systems can hide that. Affordances may be worked into the interface that guide the user through the interaction in a subtle and non-obtrusive manner. The aesthetics of the device could be masked so it all seems more natural or commonplace to a user. From my research on magic, there seems to be a potential to make such devices and their use seem almost magical.

This would be great for museums and schools, particularly where resources are limited, as it could encourage playful interaction with a topic. The activities would assist in learning and communicating, and the user could gain knowledge and insight via the total experience.

The video from the Trackmate page shows some useful and interesting applications of their system. Prior to that, I had read about the Augmented Reality Toolkit (ARToolkit), which also attempts to offer an accessible way to comingle digital information with the physical world. A unique demonstration of the toolkit was provided by Julian Oliver's levelHead spatial memory game. A series of blocks are set before a webcam, and the image rendered on the screen is not of the designs on the blocks, but instead depict small rooms. One of the rooms contains a person, and you rotate and reorient the cubes to move the avatar through a maze-like system of rooms that appear within the blocks.

The equipment to do these things includes a computer, suitable webcam, the software, and the physical objects. Lighting may need to be controlled, and calibration of the system prior to use is important. Additionally, one will need to spend some time to learn and practice with the system in order to design with it. This technology, popularly applied, is still not widely in use, but it is becoming more accessible and straightforward to work with, as evidenced by a comparison of the ARToolkit and Trackmate.

These tools seem to be at a point where they are there for interested individuals to experiment with. Even small museums, with limited resources, might have a volunteer or staff member interested in these sorts of things who could learn to work with the technology and apply it to their institution's situation. An educator could attempt to create an interactive system for their classroom.

The impressive processing capabilities of digital technology can be subtly integrated with the physical world, so one can enjoy the benefits of both.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


As part of Global Hackday, Adam Crymble and I have been working on a tangible interface using the Trackmate system. Using Trackmate, you can make a system whereby physical objects can be tagged. As they are placed and moved on a surface, those objects can then cause different things to happen.

Our idea was to use this as an interface to information about members of the NiCHE knowledge cluster. Objects would represent a variety of categories and areas of expertise for the NiCHE members. You select the topics you're interested in, place those objects surface for the interface, and the best matches are displayed on the screen. You can instantly see who best to collaborate with on a given set of topics, or see who is working on those fields.

Check out the NiCHE website for more info. We were working on a video about it -- I'll post that when it's ready.

Blogging Redux

I started this blog during my MA in Public History. I'm restarting it in order to have a place to talk about some of the things I'm working on and other bits that I find interesting.

I'm working on a PhD in History, and my dissertation project is about magic tricks and magicians from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I'm planning on posting some items related to my research.

One of my interests in history are in attempts to incorporate more than just solely textual work. My own beliefs at the moment are that there are human experiences which aren't necessarily translated that well into text, and I'd like to explore what a historian could learn by incorporating other, more experimental elements into their work. Look for some of that to be incorporated here as well.