Doing the Circuits

Electricity, as I’ve mentioned before, is something of a problem for me.

It’s obviously brilliant, and pretty important to modern life and that, but I just don’t really understand it.

Recently, we bought our machine-obsessed son a kids circuit kit called Snap Circuits, and it turned out to not only be the introduction he needed into the world of electronics. It was what I needed to.

The kit is pretty simple – lots of parts, be they wires, resistors (I think I’m beginning to understand what these do), LEDs or motors, which clip together easily and an instruction set with 100 different circuits to try and some pretty good explanations as to why and how each one works.

Obviously, the best bit comes when you put the instructions down and you try stuff out. ‘So, what do you think would happen if we changed this for this?’, ‘How could we connect this circuit up?’. That joy of creation, of doing their own thing, is strong in kids. The (very) simple circuits he and I create are basic compared to those in the books, but, for him and so much more exciting, because we’ve done it.

For me, it’s exciting too, because it’s a sign that I’m beginning to remember and/or learn some of these basic bits and build my own knowledge. I’m not going to be making my own robots any time soon, but I can make a light switch on and off now. Without the instructions. It’s a start.

Choose Life

Having kids is fun. It’s fun for loads of reasons. One of them is museums.

Adults can – and do – go to museums without children. There are perks to that. You can read the plaque thingies and take your time.

But museums with kids, especially museums for kids with kids, are the best. Often stuff you find exciting as an adult – a real human brain; a planetarium – become doubly exciting with kids – A REAL HUMAN BRAIN?! A PLANETARIUM!? – and you have to follow the enthusiasm.

We went to the Centre for Life in Newscastle last week. Home – you may be surprised to learn – of both a real human brain and a planetarium.

Kids museum like this (and Eureka, which I’ve written about before) are just brilliant to visit with kids and allow them to play and learn. My two especially liked the Curiosity Zone. And I liked this explanation on the wall.

IMG_1115We built huge marble runs, and made our own cog and gears sets. We made music. We built buildings to try and withstand strong winds. We made stuff spin round and stuff fly up in the air. Loads of physics and engineering in action, with no rules and how-to’s. Just the room and equipment to work it out.

Like it says: “Research is like a more formal sort of play”.

And if you actually want to try your hand at science.You can do that. My three and five year-old were learning about acids, alkalis and universal indicators. And making nice colours.

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And of course, there is the Planetarium. Show me someone who doesn’t want to sit back and watch amazing images from the Huble telescope spin round over their heads. I don’t know how much of the film the kids took in. But sometimes, it’s ok just to be awe-struck, sat back in silence and not quite understanding how to make sense of it all.

Isn’t that what we all do if we really think about space anyway?

Filter Required

I’ve written before about my relentless struggles with the internet.

The internet is a beautiful, amazing thing (apart from the times it’s ugly and horrible. Which it can be. But that’s not what this is about). So much knowledge, so much information.So much to watch, to read, to hear. And it’s free. And people out there that you know and/or like are sharing it, making it so easy to find.

The potential is incredible. What do you want to learn? What do you want to find out more about? It’s all there, it’s searchable, it’s discoverable (and yes, sometimes the information can be less than reliable).

But how do you manage it? How do you decide what to invest your time in. At any given moment, you could be putting on Google Cardboard and visiting new worlds. You could be listening to hours upon hours of podcasts – full of intrigue and discovery . You could be trawling through the archives of magazines, downloading e-books, reading article after article, blog post after blog post, watching video after video, digesting album after album.

How do you learn where to focus? How do you not find yourself saving links, and bookmarks and bookmarks and links? How do you decide where your interest should go first, and what can wait?

When do you find time to sleep?

How are people ever bored?

And are our brains designed to handle this much stimulation?

A trip to Eureka

First, some context. Eureka in Halifax is the ‘National Children’s Museum’. The hugely interactive museum (there’s very, very little that’s hidden in a glass case, and much of the stuff that is in cases you still interact with in other ways) is all about play and learning. The exhibits cover pretty much any interest a child may have – sound, how your body works, gardens, nature, playing shop (or post office or bank clerk), garages, and a whole house, with kitchens, bedrooms, attics and bathroom set up for play.

We liked the bathroom.

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I’m not going to ‘review’ Eureka, because I don’t think that’s what this blog is about.

I am going to remark on what I find most remarkable about Eureka.

It’s how much the every day appeals to kids. They spend hours pretending to pump petrol into cars, putting shopping in their trolleys, then scanning it at check-outs, getting ‘money’ from the bank.

It makes you look at your own life – the mundane things you do day-by-day – and realise how fascinating they can be. Take a bank. You go to a clerk/cash point ask them for money, and money appears. It’s like magic. And with that magic you can buy as many sweets/chocolates/toys as you wish.

And the supermarket. Someone, somehow has collated all this food. So much food. In one place. And you can stroll round, load your trolley high and pick anything you want. It’s an amazing opportunity – pretry much any food you can imagine. It’s all just there.

My son particularly loved flushing the toilet. He can do that at home – yes that’s right we have a fully functioning toilet, what show offs – but here, they had a see-through system and cistern (grim in a real toilet, fine for when the lid is drilled shut). He flushed endlessly, watch the cistern fill, and the system flush. Clearly, he was trying to work out how it worked. How does it fill up, how does it get forced out, and where does it go. As anyone who’s ever had a plumbing disaster knows, this can be useful information to store. For emergencies. But for a kid, this – this automatic task you do countless times a day – is a source of fascination.

Kids are great.

 

A new understanding of what we mean by ‘art’

I have to start this post with a confession; I’ve never been what you’d call an ‘art lover’. There is some art that I love. Some. It tends to be the really ultra dramatic stuff. And by that I don’t mean expressing fearsome emotions or catching a moment of history. I mean stuff that is just physically big. The bigger the better. And ideally made of metal. And if it’s on canvas, it needs to be bright, bold, textured.

I am not a man who appreciates nuance when it comes to art.

This week, as part of Leeds Digital Festival, The Lumen Prize Exhibition came to Leeds Dock, bringing with it seven award-winning pieces of digital art.

This, it turns out, was my kind of art. And it was my kids’ kind of art too.

The highlight, surely, was Portée (captured below in a setting far more grand than a disused building on Leeds Dock, but you get the idea, I’m sure). Blue illuminated wires criss-cross the room. And in a corner, sits a piano. The premise is kind of simple, and kind of wonderful. You shake, touch, bang the giant wires, something triggers in the piano, the keys hit down, and a chord or phrase is played. And repeat.

The theme that starts here and stays with me is agency, interaction and immersion. This is not art you passively observe. This is art that doesn’t just invite you to engage with it, it needs you to engage with it. I’ve always felt something of a passive observer of art. It’s there, I see it, I move on. With this piece. I’m – we’re – in control, and part of the joy and intrigue, is thinking, ‘how have they done this? When I pull this wire, what happens where to play those notes’.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Metamorphy needs you to bang, push and pull at its silk screen to create colours, the illusion of flames and an uncanny sensation like you’re opening some kind of cosmic wormhole.

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Man-A uses a smartphone app to bring a large piece of work to life, flickering and moving on your phone screen. My son was hooked, and Moc – his clear favourite – brought trees and other flora shooting up and flowering to the sound of his voice.

My daughter – younger by a couple of years – was particularly taken by Passages which scans the people in front of its projected screen for movement, captures it, before allow the images it captures to disintegrate. It looks similar – and more brilliant – than it sounds, look:

As a parent, seeing this stuff is so exciting. Firstly because it’s obviously really clever, and well, pretty cool. Secondly, because of what it gives you and your children. A chance to play with art, and to create something by being part of it. It moves art into a new sphere. An infinitely more appealing sphere (well for my family anyway). It’s one where technical ‘fine art’ skills are no-longer the bottom line, where the division between artist and observer begins to blur.

It encourages you to be involved in art. To think about art in a different way. Maybe – who knows – my kids are learning that art is something we all do. Not just something ‘artists’ do. Which means that they feel invited to create and to consider themselves artists themselves.

When they’re a little older, who can imagine what new technology will enable people to do and create under the banner of ‘art’. Maybe they might feel like they want to harness that to do something themselves. Or they may not, whatever. But the important thing for me, right now, is that art isn’t something static, but something involving and exciting that can exist across more than one of your senses, and it’s something we can all be a part of.

Confronting your ignorance

I like to think of myself as fairly learned.

I have GCSEs, A-Levels, a Degree, a post-graduate diploma. I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts about all manner of things – science, technology, society, design, culture – and I like to read.

But there is loads. Seriously loads that I don’t know.

The above statement is, of course, true of us all. But, there’s something about being a parent that throws this into stark relief.

Kids ask questions. You start explaining something to your kids, and you suddenly realise you do not have the answer.

‘Is this mist or fog?’ *blank look and panicked guess*

‘Why is it misty/foggy?’ *quick say something about moisture in the air and hope for no follow-up questions*

‘How do power stations make electricity?’

This is one that stuck with me. I have no idea how a power station creates electricity from coal. I know that this is something they do. I know that we rely on that power for all sorts of stuff. And I kind of assume that although I pay extra to use renewable energy, the energy I actually get in my home is from these nearby coal power stations we were discussing. I assume that, but I don’t know.

The two pages below are, roughly, the extent of my knowledge.

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My ultra basic bluffer’s guide to electricity, Chris Oxlade’s ‘Using Electricity’

Now, I know I’m not an idiot. I assume I’m probably above average when it comes to ‘knowing stuff’ (although a recent edition of This American Life told me about the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I’m now not so sure).

But realising how little you know about how electricity is produced, and then realising that your child, of course, assumes you know the answers, and then, reflecting on how much you rely on someone – anyone – understanding that science (so you have lights, and WiFi [how the heck does WiFi work?!], and your fresh food doesn’t rot in a cupboard) doesn’t half make you starkly aware of your own ignorance.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find out how electricity is made.

Making a Maker; Making Me a Maker

First off, credit where credit’s due; the title of this post owes a lot to the title of this book.

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I’ve not finished reading the above book yet (in fact I’m a grand total of eight pages in), but it felt relevant nonetheless.

It’s Sunday night, and I feel like I’ve spent much of the weekend in the world of the Maker. My invention/machine obsessed five year-old (“I’ve been an inventor since I was one!” and witness ‘The Door-Opening Machine’ below) and I went to the Maker Faire UK in Newcastle on Saturday. It was ace. Fascinating, often confusing. But so, so interesting, seeing this stuff people make, or design, or build, that I could not even start to comprehend or work out how to do. I got home and spent the evening going down rabbit-holes of Raspberry Pi (I’m still not sure quite what this is, but it’s awesome, right?), make your own robots, Hackspaces, teach yourself coding and much more besides.

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In the car today, I told my wife I may buy a soldering iron (I soldered at the Maker Faire for the first time since high school. I was rubbish, but we made a badge with a blinking light. Eventually. With some help [I say we, I mean me, I was terrified of the dangers of a tired five year-old armed with a soldering iron]).

I don’t have anything to solder. Yet.

As I write this post, I’m calling out on Twitter for tips on how to learn code (beyond just, you know, making text bold and that).

This is going to relate back to the title soon.

See, I don’t think I’ve ever been much of a maker. Sure, I played Lego. I played Lego a lot as a kid. But stick me in a design & technology lab at school, and I don’t even know which bit of a set of pliers will cut the wires (I do now). Ask me to put up some shelves, and I make excuses until my father-in-law despairs and does it (thanks John!). My son has a small collection of model locomotives. If they break, rather than take them apart and try I fix them, I take them to a shop.

But that’s changing. My son wants to know how stuff works. He wants to know what impact using a bigger or small cog will have on a set of gears. He wants to know how his trains work. Today we took him to an amazing theatre show called Landscapes by Mimika, with clever sets and puppets. He loved it, but most of all, he wanted to understand how the stuff was made, how it moved.

And, it turns out, I’m interested too. Today I’ve taken two model trains apart, and working out how they work (at a very basic level) (they were starting to not work, now they’re a little bit less starting to not work). We’ve picked up some old circuit boards and broken motors (from a box marked ‘Free Stuff’ at the Makers Faire), and I want to find out what they did. And how.

As I’ve already said, I’m thinking about buying a soldering iron.

I’m planning to visit Leeds Hackspace. For him. With him, hopefully (if they’ll let us). But this is no more a selfless act. Making a maker (or starting to at least), is making me a maker. And maybe, as he grows, he might lose interest. But I’m starting to think I might not.