Archive for the 'Projects' Category

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The Sound of White Space or Pregnant Pause Parturition

As anyone who’s tried to write fiction knows, the real hurdle is not deciding what to write, it’s deciding what not to write. The empty page, like the empty score or the empty canvas, is white not because there is nothing on it but because everything’s on it—possibility, like light, is additive. The act of putting a word on a page, a note in the air, a drop of paint on the canvas removes a bit of that possibility, revealing a glimpse of what it may actually become. I know I’ve read somewhere that a block of uncarved stone contains every sculpture and that it’s only by chipping and chiseling that an artist collapses the artistic wave function into a singular reality. The result is the interface between the remaining possibility (positive space) and the absence of what has been removed (negative space).

Sometimes, though, that interface is deceptive. Foams, for instance, have voluminous contours, but pressure or heat or vigorous movement reveal their deception, reducing them to a mere puddle. Impermeability between negative and positive spaces in a work of art may well correlate to its quality and perdurance, I put that out there to the turtlenecked Barthes and Foucault-reading crowd to discuss. In any case, designers who find commercial success of the Architectural Digest sort are great fans of drawing rigid lines of Germanic severity to divide what’s there from what’s not.

While I find this hard-edged contrast alienating in architectural spaces (I much prefer the worn edges and threadbare plush of vernacular utilitarianism), I all but require it linguistically. There is no place for diaphanous prose in my bookshelf, nor will I fight you for tickets to any recent mainstream movie. Blurring the boundary between meaning and nonsense purposefully is either comedy or chicanery; accidentally, it’s the sign of mental rot.

I find political discourse in general and American political discourse in particular a perfect example of this foamy, insubstantial nonsense, a populist pastiche of pre-chewed jingoistic pablum that fills heads with bubbles that quickly deliquesce to nothing. I was curious, in exploring notions of positive and negative space, to discover how this discourse is actually constructed.

To this end, I took this year’s State of the Union address, all 69 minutes of it, and reduced it to its negative space, cutting out all of President Obama’s utterances. What remains is a strangely compelling silent dance between the beats. How we don’t speak is as idiosyncratic as how we do. In Obama’s case, the space around his words is punctuated with generous pauses and a constantly turning head (though one suspects this may have more to do with the dual teleprompters than with his oratorical style). His hands are animated while he speaks, but drop with a thud against the lectern as he pauses, fingers interlocked.

The rhythm of his silences follows the rhythm of his speech. Even without hearing a word, we can tell by watching the crowd how his rhetoric moves between introductory remarks, political self-congratulation, and exhortation, before ending on a note of overwrought patriotism. The accompanying silence in the room is mesmerizing, both for its depth and its duration. Here is a man who can hold an audience for over an hour, and, I’d argue, comes pretty close to holding an audience for half an hour without saying a damn thing.

How much of the negative space that we experience do we throw away as soon as we can see where the positive space begins and what do we lose in the process? I think it depends on what it is we’re experiencing, but my guess is regardless, it’s more than we think.

The Measure of Man (and Wife)

sideboob scales

Only once have I ever seriously considered getting a tattoo and it was in a dream, but what a tattoo it was! Almost every surface of my body was covered with some sort of graduated scale: one arm bore a metric ruler, the other its English equivalent; my elbows and knees measured angles and my cheeks were marked in such a way that I could determine the volume of liquid in my mouth by their stretching. When I woke up, I toyed briefly with getting a scale tattooed on my abdomen to measure the aging of my body. A perfectly accurate scale would stretch with the inevitable appearance of a gut and later sag as my skin lost its elasticity and my gut its girth in my later years. What a depressing thought.

There’s something infinitely fascinating about anthropometric graphics, especially historical ones that overlay scientifically and/or proportionally iffy mappings and measurements over the body. Despina made the point this week that everything we create is anthropometric in nature—our sense of scale exists in relation to our bodies, to our hands, to our particular sensory apparatus. No big surprise there. The problem, of course, is that when you mass produce something—say you’re an industrial designer making a table—you do so for the average body. A 60cm tall table might be ideal for the majority of people, but the extremely short and the inordinately tall on either side of the height distribution curve are shit out of luck.

Antrhopometric graphics

Vitruvian Man and his French cousin Le Corbusier’s modulor are abstractions and averages of our bodies’ proportions. As our bodies are abstracted, so is our experience of the world. It’s possible that Americans’ totally irrational attachment to feet and inches, an attachment responsible for the loss of a $125 million Mars orbiter as well as my perpetual befuddlement when looking at motors’ torque ratings, is actually an attachment to a more personal way of understanding the world.

While the meter owes its origin to the distance from the Equator to the North Pole (it was supposed to be one ten millionth of that distance), the foot’s origins, as its name suggests, are humbler and closer to home. It makes sense that since we’ve always seen the world as it relates to us, long before platinum-iridium bars we measured it with our bodies.

The wikipedia entry on the history of measurement has this to say:

The common cubit was the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.


It was divided into the span of the hand (one-half cubit),


the palm or width of the hand (one sixth),


and the digit or width of the middle finger (one twenty-fourth).


If Noah had been cursed with short arms, his ark with all its cubits and spans might not have fit all the animals he was responsible for saving. But imagine an entirely bespoke world, where my dining room table was 29 of my inches off the ground and yours was 29 of your inches off the ground. It would be a nightmare to coordinate measurements but it would also transform the world from human scale to this human scale or that human scale.

Which only highlights the utter anachronistic idiocy of the English system, as it is now as much an abstraction as the metric system, only more unwieldy. And it was this that led me to my project for this week.


I really have no sense of English length units. My wife has no sense. [Drum hit cymbal crash] Of metric units, of metric units. This has proven a problem on more than one occasion when only one of us had access to a measuring device. For instance, I was out looking for a bookshelf to fit a narrow space and found one on the sidewalk I thought might work but hadn’t measured the space exactly so I couldn’t be sure without calling my wife. Even with the exact measurements of the space, I could only guesstimate the shelf’s measurements by eyeballing, and I didn’t want to carry the thing ten blocks if it wasn’t going to fit.

To make sure this would never be a problem again, I sanded off the scale on one side of a standard yardstick and replaced it with two scales based on separate measurements of three parts of our bodies available in duplicate to ensure ease of use: the length heel to toe of our feet, the width across our palms from index knuckle to pinky knuckle, and the width of the middle segment of our middle fingers (which were identical at 3/4 in. and thus provide us with a common if slightly inconvenient unit of measure). I tried to select measurements that would not vary too much with time or normal wear and tear. The result is a ruler that allows either one of us to easily convey measurements to each other remotely by converting between units of our bodies into standard units of measurement. And my wife thought it was sweet in an OCD kind of way.

Feeling chuffed with this idea and my yardstick, I realized that my system would break if neither of us had access to it, but then I remembered that I’m a high technologist and dutifully banged together an online version:



Wikipedia also says that the yard may also have come from the measurement of the waist. Note the 36 inches. I’m the fucking Vitruvian man.


Black Hole Box

Black Hole Box

I was supposed to create something that responded to my relationship with energy. I use energy, selfishly. Like any other creature, I think about my needs, not about how those needs impact the larger systems of which I’m a part. I wanted to make an unnatural, inorganic living thing, an exceptionalist machine.

Black Hole Box is a black box connected to the internet that uses up batteries by continually checking the charge remaining in the batteries. When it drops below a certain threshold, the onboard microprocessor orders more batteries online. The batteries, which it orders from a local supplier, arrive within four days and the Black Hole Box’s owner must change them. The system’s survival depends on money that it doesn’t earn, energy it doesn’t produce, and processes it can’t control.

Black Hole BoxBlack Hole BoxBlack Hole BoxBlack Hole Box


UPDATE: This project had a fantastic ending. After several months in the men’s bathroom raising eyebrows, making staff chuckle and the water guy look forward to refill day, the ladies met a fitting end. Near the end of the madness of the Spring Show in May, a group of thirteen-year-old boys discovered the ladies and went into a kind of frenzy, tearing them out of their plastic housings and stuffing them under their shirts. I could not have hoped for better.

Make a system. Do it with three of your classmates. Go.

Matt, Marco, Sarah, and I met two nights ago to talk about systems. The conversation started with fully formed systems. Matt brought up a number of ideas for creating interesting interactions within the class—ropes on pulleys, melting snowballs packed with India ink—which I objected to on the grounds that “neatness” does not a system make. Having just read an article that noted that only humans can provide feedback in a technological system, I countered with the possibility of creating a system that devolves into chaos unless constantly tended, like audio feedback or juggling. Not so popular either. Marco mentioned food and and mobiles, to which Sarah added balancing. We discarded games outright (too tip of the brain). We were briefly enthusiastic about using the whole Floor in some way—laying a string-based communication system along all the cable trays or bouncing a laser beam from room to room using a series of mirrors—but Matt had already done that (and it was awesome, by the way, so still a solid idea).

Discouraged by our seeming lack of progress, we tried teleology. What purpose could a hypothetical communication system of our creation serve at ITP that was not already the province of an existing system?

Marco mentioned the water bubbler in the front hall. We have two water bubblers at ITP. One is in the front hall; the other is across from the bathrooms at the far end of the back hall that leads to Red’s office. The extra jugs are stored in the men’s room, stacked floor to ceiling on their sides in crates along the wall. If the bubbler in front of the bathrooms runs out, no problem, some passing man can easily be co-opted into going into the bathroom to grab a full jug or some free-thinking woman can make a quick incursion when the coast is clear. The bubbler in the front hall, however, often goes empty several days before someone finally lugs a full jug all the way across the Floor. What if we created a way of communicating that the jug in the front hall needed replacing to the bathroom? We discussed wireless radios, string, a siren, and abandoned the idea for more talk of melting, inky ice.

I remembered going to see Eric Maskin talk right after he’d won the Nobel Prize for his work on mechanism design theory, a system that allows two or more parties to reach an agreement that accomplishes a desired outcome even when their priorities and goals are unstated. The simplest example is the mom with two kids and one piece of cake: she wants them to split it without complaining, they each want the bigger piece. One mechanism that gives everybody what s/he wants is to have one child cut the cake and the other choose which piece he wants. I mentioned this story. Everyone nodded tiredly. We reluctantly returned to the water jugs as our frontrunner, and then we had our breakthrough.


Trying to hammer out the technical details of signaling an empty jug across the Floor, we realized we didn’t need a technological solution, we needed an incentive! We could hide money behind some of the jugs so when they are pulled out, a dollar bill drops down. No, too venal, and besides, who’s going to pay? We could attach messages or riddles or candy or some other small reward. Then Sarah brought up the crucial point that the jugs are in the men’s room, thus only men will receive the incentive. That made us jump. Porn! Matt drew us all close together and whispered, “Juggs! Juggs behind the jugs!” thereby tying the conceptual knot into a tidy little bow.

I’m not joking when I say that this is one of my favorite projects so far this year. We’ve created a system that with its very existence calls attention to itself as well as lots of other systems. By choosing pornography as our reward for altruism, we’re calling attention to and extending the male stereotypes that played a role in the decision to store water jugs exclusively in the men’s room. Men can lift, men are brawny, men like boobs. On top of that system flows its opposite, a current of political correctness that will find such assumptions offensive or, less contentiously, single out a few ITP men at random to dispel any illusions of brawn. Pornographic portrayals of women also raise questions within religious and political contexts, and placed as they are in a charged semi-private space, one also wonders about their social implications. Should any discussion ensue, it will take place over a variety of communication channels, exposing our decision-making and accountability systems.


Besides facilitating discussion of itself, this system is also notable because despite its crudeness, it works. It has a clear purpose, a mechanism that coordinates several distinct components, and an agnosticism for other systems that while important to our community are not essential in this particular case. Changing a water jug requires only one person. It doesn’t matter if our pornographic incentive discourages 119 people from having anything to do with the water jugs if there’s 1 that can’t help but think of breasts every time he passes the bubbler. In a community that includes roughly 120 men, it seems safe to assume that a good portion like to look at women’s breasts and that a few are true enthusiasts. So even if we alienate a portion of the community that might otherwise occasionally change a jug, by creating one or two water jug fanatics we ensure that there is always water to drink in the front hall.



This week’s cinematic challenge was to create the visual equivalent of Hemingway’s terse but complete “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn,” a microcinematic three-shot story. I composed and shot a story about putting an egg carton with only two eggs left in it in the fridge and opening the next morning to find the two eggs snuggling cozily in adjacent spaces, surrounded by half a dozen quail eggs. Then I read Robert Bresson’s Notes sur le Cinématographe, and it made me think that maybe I shouldn’t force the egg to tell a story but rather to capture the story inherent in the egg.


Web app screen shot

I like word games, I won’t lie, so I was pretty chuffed when I came up with the idea of creating a lamp that runs LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP—one of the predominant acronyms behind the scenes on the web, both because of its robustness and its appealing freeness).

Puns aside, the idea is simple: I wanted to give people (especially strangers) remote control over a physical object in my house. My initial goal was to implement a RESTful interface for as many different channels of user interaction as possible, and to that end, I built a PHP script that will accept input from as many sources as I could think of and a single web front-end that displays the results.



1) Scenario: You're in my house
     Use the light switch!

2) Scenario: You're on the internet
    -Run the Processing sketch that
      allows you to switch the light.
    -Use the web interface directly.
    -Send dengdengalex[at]gmail an
     email with 0, 1, or 2 in the body.
          0 turns the light off,
          1 turns the light on,
          2 tells you the light's status

3) Scenario: You're on a mobile device
     -Send an email as above.
     -Text "alexlight" followed by a:
          0 to turn the light off,
          1 to turn the light on,
          2 to get the light's status

Following this fabulous tutorial, I built an Arduino-controllable power outlet. Though I chose a lamp, the system can accommodate anything that can be controlled either with an on/off switch or a relay.

There is a php script that is triggered every couple of seconds by the Arduino which records the state of the switch connected to the outlet and another script that changes that state when it receives input (via web, text message, Processing, or email) and displays the state information on a web page. The final script runs in the background on the server polling for new email.

There are a couple of little fixes that I probably won’t get around to but I will mention so I won’t forget them, the most significant being the meta refresh method I’m currently using to check for the light’s status on the web page. I know I could call a php script in the background using AJAX, I just haven’t figured out how yet, so in the interim, I’m reloading the whole page every two seconds. Because it’s so small, the user probably won’t notice, at least not until his browser crashes.

The other major problem is email. There’s a bit of a lag. If it weren’t for my sucky hosting company, I’d be able to run a cron job on the server to check for new email every five seconds or so, but my host limits me to running jobs every fifteen minutes or on a specific minute of each hour. I tried several workarounds (putting fifteen minutes-worth of looping in the script so that it runs the entire time before it is next called => crashed the server; adding the same job 60 times, one for each minute => the server ends up synchronizing the jobs and calling about a quarter of them every fifteen minutes).

The Kill Switch: Turn Off Sites At Will

Following the footsteps of fine sites such as bacolicious,, and cornify, The Kill Switch loads any website of your choosing (save, which doesn’t play nice) into an iframe using URL rule rewrites in an .htaccess file to funnel whatever follows “/TheKillSwitch/” into a GET variable and superimposes a nice toggle switch with which you can turn the site on and off (toggling the visibility an initially invisible black div).

Try out the The Kill Switch or use the live example below by clicking on the toggle switch.

Ideally, your browser would remember which sites were off so that even if you closed the window or navigated away from them, the next time you tried to open them, you’d be redirected to my page until you toggled them back. Greasemonkey and SQL would do the trick, but that would limit the site to Firefox. As a compromise, I’ll try to have my site remember which sites are on and off, so that if someone else KillSwitches Google while you’re browsing it through my site, it would turn off for you too.

John Dimatos alerted me to a much more elegant solution which is both way beyond my ken and also way too irreversible (and way cool too). Steve Lambert’s Self-Control is a little application that allows you to blacklist websites for a specific time period. It works on a system level (I’m guessing on your hosts file) and is a real bitch to shut off when after three hours, you regret the bravado that led you to believe you could go without checking your fantasy team for a week.

Get meta or

Hours of fun.

It’s been a while since I really dug into the web, and I hadn’t realized just how shitty sound playback is in pre-HTML5 browsers. Eventually, I got the sound working using Scott Schiller’s extremely elegant Soundmanager2, which uses behind-the-scenes Flash to deliver reliable cross-browser and platform sound with Javascript. Not ideal but certainly better than relying on god knows what sound plugin.


doorDoorSob is a door that doesn’t want you to leave a room. A Processing sketch allows the playback on a screen of a human face’s progression from ecstatic happiness to utter misery to be controlled by a potentiometer activated by turning a doorknob. Depending on the state of the face (and by extension, the potentiometer), a voice repeats either “yes” or “no” more or less emphatically. The volume of the voice and the brightness of the face are affected by the amount of ambient light falling on a photoresistor. My intention is to install the photo sensor next to a doorknob so that when someone puts their hand on the knob, it blocks the light and brightens the screen so that the video is visible and the sound is audible. The pot is moved by the knob, so that as a person starts to move the knob to open the door, it reacts, getting more and more distraught the closer the person is to opening the door (and leaving the room).

A week reading about the location of consciousness (apparently behind the eyes according to most people with a minority locating it in their upper chest) and our dubious awareness of our own perceptual and cognitive shortcomings has left me scratching my head. I haven’t done huge amounts of reading in the cognitive sciences, but I’ve done enough to feel that Julian Jaynes’s arguments against the necessity of consciousness in “Origins of Consciousness” and Dan Ariely’s TEDtalk about the limits of free will are a series of cleverly erected straw men. I’ve never heard anyone claim that consciousness is as ubiquitous and constant as implied in Jaynes’ refutation, nor do I buy Ariely’s claims that people’s laziness and susceptibility to influence constitute proof of sensory and cognitive deficiencies. The self-awareness and introspection that these men refer to as consciousness seems to me a response to complicated social structures. It’s essential not to the survival of the individual but to the survival of the group. It’s no wonder then that it tends to lag a little when considered in conjunction with the senses.

And it was thinking about the conniving, scheming, backroom dealing, weighing, and planning to which consciousness presumably emerged as a response that I started thinking about all the unconscious social and physical cues that US Weekly body language experts and NLP practitioners are constantly harping on about. We like it when people laugh at our jokes and praise us, we don’t for the most part like making people unhappy or getting yelled at. How would we feel if everyday objects called our attention to the actions we perform unconsciously?

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