The New Garden of the World — Review of The Machine in the Garden

The Machine in the Garden, written in 1964 by Leo Marx, explores the relationship between the pastoral ideal and the industrial progress that ostensibly is in opposition to that ideal. This book is not necessarily a literature review, although it enlists a half dozen full-length writings to understand the cultural symbols that encode the interplay between imagination and reality.

The urge to idealize a simple, rural environment is strong throughout the two centuries of progress that mark the industrialization of the United States from the American Revolution through until the end of World War II.

The literature that Marx introduces to illustrate the division between the two realms are masterworks that also serve as products of their times. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and Ethan Brand by Nathaniel Hawthorne are instruments played in the concordant symphony of poetic realism that unites the two fronts.

At no point does Marx introduce the actual machines of the machine age to refine his point, instead preferring to rely on mid-Nineteenth century literature and art to capture the sensory images of the age.

Marx asserts that the authors of the 1800s addressed the alienation and environmental blight that accompanies that rapid industrialization that the building and deployment of the continental railroads brought with them.

The central question that Marx attempts to address is how come there is an attitude of hostility towards civilization? What is it about the products of industrialization, which bring us a miracle of goods and services that enrich our lives in innumerable ways, that provides us the impetus for abandoning them in order to reduce the technical complexity that has befallen us? What is attractive about the pastoralism that is represented by the untouched landscape, revered at Walden Pond, that is unspoiled and identified by nature as much as a rejection of the artificial world?

The romantic pastoral, a literary device embodied in the semi-primitivism of the cultivated landscape, is located chiefly by its opposition of the forces of civilization, the so-called fever of the world. It’s hard not to be taken by the opposing scene of the abstract when faced with the overwhelming force of a dehumanizing and polluting industry.

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Everything you need to build your own Turn Touch smart remote

Back in 2014 I was driving up the 101 coming back from a YC alumni Demo Day and I had a lightbulb moment about the way I wanted to control my new Hue lightbulbs. That’s when the idea of Turn Touch was born. I’d had some experience building open source hardware projects for my home, and developing open source art installations for Burning Man at a slightly larger scale, but I had never thought I’d build an open source hardware project that would be commercially available (or at least available on Kickstarter). Turn Touch is now available to buy for $49 if you don’t feel like building your own.

There are four steps to building your very own Turn Touch:

Step one: Laying out the buttons and writing the firmware

Step two: Designing the remote to have perfect button clicks

Step three: CNC machining and fixturing to accurately cut wood

Step four: Inlaying the mother of pearl

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Building Grove — interactive trees that come alive to your breath at Burning Man 2016

Grove is a set of 10 interactive biofeedback sculptures, a conversation between humans and trees. Each tree is made of steel tubes, thousands of LEDs, and custom breathing sensors.

Grove is a 2016 honorarium installation at Burning Man and is the second installation made by the group that made Pulse & Bloom in 2014. The core team is ten people: Saba Ghole, Shilo Shiv Suleman, Severin Smith, Steve Lyon, Hunter Scott, David Wang, Francis Coelho, Naeemeh Alavi, Luke Iseman, and myself, Samuel Clay. Grove was conceptualized by the artist Shilo Shiv Suleman as part of her larger series exploring nature, intimacy and technology called Beloved.

Here’s how Grove works: you sit down at the base of a tree and a flower opens up in front of you as it senses your presence. As you breathe into a pink flower lit from inside, the tree fills up with your breath, rising white streams overtaking multiple slowly descending green lines. As you breathe, the tree shimmers with light as it becomes a nighttime desert oasis.

This post offers details on how this installation was built, from the custom circuit boards to the blooming flower and breathing sensors. You can access the complete source for Grove on GitHub.

Grove is made up of ten trees, each of which has its own breath sensor and set of two thousand LEDs across four 5 meter 144 LEDs/meter LED strips and 16 high current LEDs in the leaves. That takes both a lot of power to run and a lot of manpower to setup. This is what that setup looks like.

This photo and a few others below are by Daily Swa Laurel

How the electronics are made

Since the trees light up with your breath, we need to consider how the breath is sensed and then how the thousands of LEDs are driven.

These are five stages to making the electronics work together:

  1. Designing a breathing sensor
  2. Making the main control board
  3. Driving high current LEDs with a custom lighting board
  4. Writing the firmware
  5. Powering ten trees in Grove
Continue reading Building Grove — interactive trees that come alive to your breath at Burning Man 2016 (4427 words)...

Open letter to my family in Ohio: I am still coming home for Thanksgiving this year

Dear Mom and Pop,

This was going to be an awkward year for us from the start. Thanksgiving is normally a time when we, two dozen immigrant Jews and first-generation Americans, come together to eat a turkey stuffed with oranges, served with a side of smoked fish and a dozen competing salads.

Before the election, I thought the greatest thing that would divide our dinner table would be my recently adopted vegetarianism. But us Jews are all about dietary restrictions. Eight breadless days of weight loss every year during Passover. Fasting from food and water every year for the day of atonement. Two sets of plates for Shabbat and for everyday. I was certain that refusing meat wouldn’t stop me from feeling embraced and loved at the table.

A russian salad feast courtesy of my friend Andrey Petrov

But then last week you voted for Trump. Jewish refugees from the Ukraine now living in Ohio voted for Trump. You have told me several times that Obama is the worst president in our lifetime. And so you voted for Trump.

Continue reading Open letter to my family in Ohio: I am still coming home for Thanksgiving this year (961 words)...

Building Pulse & Bloom - an interactive biofeedback installation at Burning Man 2014

This was my second year attending Burning Man. Many use Burning Man as a week to detach from their workweek and experience a new life of intense leisure. Not me, I come to Burning Man to build.

Pulse & Bloom is a 2014 honorarium installation. The core team of 6 people — Saba Ghole, Shilo Shiv Suleman, Rohan Dixit, Heather Stewart, Luke Iseman, and myself — built 20 interactive lotus flowers made out of steel and rowlux. Each lotus flower ranges from 8 to 18 feet tall, each of which lights up with your pulse. You and another person can put your hands on a couple of Hamsa hands at the base of the lotus flower and your respective heartbeats will light up the flower.

We’ve gotten some great press coverage at the BBC, The Guardian, The Atlantic’s Big Picture twice, CBS News, NBC News, and MSNBC.

As usual, the complete source code for Pulse & Bloom is on GitHub.

Your heartbeat in light

Here are a couple videos of all twenty lotus flowers in full working order.

Each lotus flower is blue until a person or two sits down at its base and places their hand on the pulse sensor. You can see the Hamsa hand and its embedded pulse sensor in this shot of my girlfriend Brittany and me working on keeping the electronics going.

Photo credit Jim Urquhart / Reuters

When a pulse is read, the lotus flower shoots the heartbeat up the stem and into the petals, where it blooms in a brilliant display of amber. When two people’s hands are being measured, both of their heartbeats are shown as two distinct colors.

Continue reading Building Pulse & Bloom - an interactive biofeedback installation at Burning Man 2014 (3403 words)...