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Technology v. Art

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

I’m not particularly sure I need one of these, but there’s now a company manufacturing a set of gloves equipped with a Bluetooth headset. Just make the traditional thumb-and-pinky handset gesture and you’re on the phone.


I don’t use the phone out in the cold very often so I’ll probably walk away from this particular gem, but the fact that it’s out there got me thinking about technology as a means of artistic expression. From that angle, LCDs, transducers, processors, switches, and so forth are really no different than the paint, brushes, and canvas that a more traditional artist would use. There’s a fairly widespread belief that engineering, or worse yet programing, is not a creative pursuit. While the bluetooth glove is hardly High Art, I don’t think it can be denied that its the product of a creative and fun-loving mind. And if that not at least one good definition of an artist, I’m not sure what is.

What’s interesting about engineering as an act of creativity is that very often the elegance of a creation is visible only to the creator or his peers. There’s a parallel in the traditional art world, with some claiming that certain art forms can be appreciated only by someone educated to comprehend their nuances. This may be true. Or it may be an excuse to conceal mediocrity. That’s a debate for another time. But in technology, an appreciation of its underlying elegance does require familiarity with what it took to achieve it.

This though isn’t new. Consider this:

I have often felt that programming is an art form,
whose real value can only be appreciated
by another versed in the same arcane art;
there are lovely gems and brilliant coups
hidden from human view and admiration, sometimes forever,
by the very nature of the process.

These words were originally penned (keyboarded?) over thirty years ago, but they’re every bit as true now as they were back then. It’s not clear to me whether there are today fewer or more people equipped to appreciate technological elegance, but I’ll take solace in the fact that the technological elegance is out there, and from time to time I have the privilege of looking at another’s work and saying “”Wow!”

I’m glad to be living in a world where technology is so accessible that people are using it to create things like Bluetooth gloves. And the way, if you need a pair, you can get them here.

The Cutting Edge of 1950s Technology

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

A whirlwind vacation in Memphis, Tennessee this week yielded, among other things, a visit to Sun Studios. This is the record studio famous for having discovered folks like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In addition to all sorts of interesting tales about the birth of rock and roll, the tour included a look at some seriously interesting 1950s – vintage recording equipment.

One rather unusual item was a ‘record cutting lathe’, the device that used to cut the lacquer master used to generate the negative ‘stamper’ that pressed the actual records. This particular one was a desktop machine about a yard across that must have weighed at least 100 pounds.

I happened to notice that one of the controls on this monster was labeled outside-in / inside out, presumably for selecting the direction in which the recording head moved as the master was cut. When the tour was over, I asked the docent why anyone would want to cut a record from the inside out.

She admitted she didn’t have an answer, but allowed as to how it was a good question. I did some research online later that day. Here’s what was revealed.

As you probably remember, LP records turned at 33-1/3 RPM, which amounts to about half a turn per second. But the length of one turn around is greater at the outside edge of the record than  toward the middle. So the speed of the stylus over the groove decreases as the program plays, starting at about 17 inches per second at the outside of the record and slowing to  about 8 inches per second at the inside.

This means that the fidelity of the recording is potentially better for the outermost grooves. Since most classical music starts out quietly and builds into a dynamic multi-instrument crescendo, it was deemed desirable by some to cut classical records from the inside out, so the more demanding end of the piece could enjoy the better performance of the outermost grooves. But it never really caught on, at least in part because it would completely confuse an automatic record changer.

It was, however, fairly commonly used for the recording of long, multi-disk transcriptions, where the odd sides would be recorded outside-in and even sides would be recorded inside-out. That way, listeners would not hear an obvious change in fidelity on the transition between disks.

I’m consistently amazed by how much our progenitors were able to achieve with so little to work with. I wonder if, sixty years from now, others will say the same about us.


Product Endorsement?

Monday, July 30th, 2012

When I created this blog, I never thought I’d be doing product endorsements. And I certainly didn’t think I’d be doing one for a product I’d never tried, or even touched. But this looks like too much fun to resist.

The product is called Bugasalt, and basically its a teeny low-power indoor-use shotgun that fires a tiny quantity of table salt over only a few feet, with the intent of causing mortal injury to flies and other bugs. The inventor, who identifies himself only as “Lorenzo… a working artist”, apparently got this thing to the pre-production stage via family financing, and is now collecting pre-orders to get it into full production.

I know what’s involved in product development, especially with an Asian source and engineering team, and my hat is off to Lorenzo. It seems like he’s about eighty percent of the way there, with only volume production and delivery remaining.

I’d been having thoughts about trying to build a fly eradicator based on one of those high-power blue solid-state lasers that are said to be able to light a match. That project is now on indefinite hold, which I’m sure my insurance company and local fire department are quite happy about.

Update – I’ve since purchased one of these, and its every bit as expected. Definitely worthwhile!