Archive for May, 2011

AL-Gorithm at Maker Faire

Editor's Choice 2011

I just finished up a fun but exhausting weekend at the Bay Area Maker Faire, where after the mafan and technical headaches associated with showing Scratch-n-Sniff last fall, I decided to show AL-Gorithm, my favorite electricity-less project (and an Editor’s Choice winner!). For this installment, I substituted wood for metal as a backing material, placed a tap light behind the text for added drama, and substituted an actual file cabinet armature for the iron dowels I hung the piece on last time.

As always, I had a number of really good conversations about the abstractions that underlie computing, including one specifically about analog computers with Dwight Elvey of the Computer History Museum, who actually had an analog computer set up right across from my table. One woman compared my hanging pages to a slide rule, which I really liked, while it reminded several people of the skewer-like physical sorting mechanism from the days of punch cards.

Algorithm Close up

The zen drudgery of mechanical repetition—as I learned while creating this piece—often leads to insight, and the repetition of presenting this project to hundreds of people whose technical understanding ranged from “Unix? I thought they weren’t allowed to castrate boys any longer” to knowing chuckles “Yes, I’m familiar with grep” is no exception.

I tried a number of narratives to explain why I thought it worthwhile to painstakingly cut out hundreds of paper strips. Experiencing text as a computer does resonated only with coders, who were definitely in the minority of my visitors. Forgetting how to read, while zingy, added too little substance. In the end, the explanation that clicked for both the technically oriented and the overwhelmed families that composed the majority of my audience was the power tools analogy: if all you’ve ever used is a power saw, you’re never mindful of the difficulties and characteristics of sawing, nor can you fully appreciate the materials you’re cutting. Likewise, if you only ever work with digital text, you can’t fully appreciate its texture or what it means to alter, filter, cut, or rearrange it.