alexandtheweb / blog

Blue

In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue, a woman, Julie, loses her husband and daughter in a car crash. After a failed suicide attempt while recovering in a hospital, she absconds from her former life and friendships. She also destroys an unfinished score her husband had been composing: a work written in celebration of European unity following the end of the Cold War.

But the perished score haunts Julie; and life’s intricacies and conflicts soon begin to draw her back in. At first, she tries to stop her husband’s former collaborator from recreating the lost music. In the end, she helps restore it. The film ends with the piece being performed. Despite her grief, Julie is unable to remain a ghost and exile inside her own reality.

Shortly after Brexit, I remembered the music featured in the film and its theme. It began stalking me, as it had stalked Julie.

Europe has meant everything to me. Poland joining the EU in 2004 allowed me to move to the UK and be with the person I love. Twelve years later, I’m still in love – and not just with the boy. I’m in love with this island.

Tomorrow, the UK begins its exit from the European Union. It is about to become a willing ghost and exile, a thing onto itself. I hang on to some hope that, like Julie, something – life, reality – will draw it back in.

But right now, I can’t think of anything else to say. I’m drowning in blue.

Link to the score

DigiCrafters: fun, physical computing for kids

One of the last modules I took as part of my MSc at Sussex Uni was Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments, taught by my dissertation supervisor Dr. Judith Good. In a laid-back, “caffeine addicts anonymous” atmosphere, we covered learning theories, learner-centered design and issues of motivation and emotion in instruction. Good fun.

The Fear sets in.

Then our graded project for the module was announced and it was… erm… daunting.

Our team was to visit a local school and, with the help of its students, devise a way to teach kids how to become creative users of technology. For a child-allergic introvert like myself this was as close as you could get to “worst nightmare” territory.

But hey, it’s nice to be surprised – especially by yourself. Over the course of several visits to the Self-Managed Learning College, Marie, Andy and I hung out with a group of 10-12 year old girls, made silly Arduino-based projects and generally had a grand time. In the end, inspired by the fun we had, we made something which I think is pretty cool: DigiCrafters.

DigiCrafters

But… what is it?

DigiCrafters is a handful of basic, color-coded projects which let kids craft cool stuff with circuit boards, lights and sensors. As a “thing”, DigiCrafters is a website and a series of instructional videos – but only for now.

How did it come together?

Wires and circuit boards are intimidating. We wanted to show our girls how easy it was to use a few basic digital components to make crafty stuff. We decided the best way to go about it was to make things that were weird and mysterious – like our Glowing Gremlin Egg project.

Our team’s objectives meandered somewhat at the start, as our intrepid group of girls decided they wanted to use our treasure chest of electronic gizmos to build a musical instrument which responded to their heartbeats. We briefly pursued this, but then realized that, rather than teaching the kids anything, we’d end up making them a toy to play with. So we shelved the idea and focused on small, rewarding projects that slowly opened up the possibilities of wires, circuits and code.

But the idea that 10-12 year olds were keen to design something as amazing and complex should not be dismissed. It showed us that kids are keen to make new and fantastic digital products, even if they don’t yet have the skills to do so. So something may yet come of the musical heartbeat idea – watch this space.

What are you teaching?

Our projects are not aimed at kids who – as many lucky ones already have – had exposure to electronics and basic coding concepts. We wanted to introduce kids to the idea that it’s easy to make something fun and creative with computers and their various components. Along the way, we would slowly be exposing them to the core concepts of digital and analog signal processing, I/O, tangible UI design and of course code.

Why circuit boards and sensors and wires?

We think teaching kids to code is fantastic. But computers don’t just exist as laptops, tablets or smart phones anymore. They’re everywhere! Almost any object can execute code. Almost any object can sense. We felt the idea that the digital and physical boundary has long ceased to exist should be taught.

What’s next? Workshops!

This feels like the first, tiny step in something that could become quite awesome. And while having an Instructables-like website is great, DigiCrafters is more fun when done in a hands-on, group environment.

This is why we’re keen to develop a proper “curriculum” of crafty projects and package them into kits and workshops suited to various interests and skill levels. And then let kids come and make stuff!

To start with, we’re hoping to run a few trial workshops during the Brighton Digital Festival. There’s loads to be done and we’ll need help: volunteers, experts, sponsors. If you want to get involved, please get in touch

Last but not least, epic thanks.

It’s early days but we already have tons of awesome people to thank. Dave, Kate, Jenny, Naomi, Philip and everyone at the Self-Managed Learning College: thank you so much for your support. May you be richly rewarded with kittens and cakes forever.

Feeling the future

The Man Who Fell to earth

In 1974, four years after Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ was first published, the BBC made a documentary about David Bowie called ‘Cracked Actor’. In it, the gorgeous, fragile, coke-emaciated Bowie (see 30:25) likens the first swell of success to being a frightened passenger in a rapidly accelerating car.

What does it feel like to be unsettled by the rush of life around you – especially by the onset of new technology? If Douglas Adams was right then my age – early 30’s – has yet to qualify me for future shock. But in Bowie’s analogy I recognised the slight, unsettled sensation which now besets me as I come across certain news stories or life events.

As part of a technology-assisted learning module I’m currently doing at uni we’ve been working with a group of 10-12 year old girls at the Self-Managed Learning College. The hope is that we can broaden their understanding of how technology can be used to make things, not merely to consume them.

Our first meeting with the kiddos evolved into a project brainstorming session. With almost no prompting, the group showered us with ideas: they demanded we build pillows that store dreams, jackets that detect moods and robots that babysit. They wanted to design fridges that suggest recipes and thought-controlled musical instruments.

What struck me was not the breadth of their whimsy – but that I knew for a fact not a single idea spawned from their 10-year-old imaginations could be dismissed as science fiction. The technology for everything they wanted to make is already here and within reach. And that’s wonderful. And that’s also really weird.

Slowly it dawns on you: little belongs anymore to the realm of outright fancy. There’s Google Glass. Then there’s no-touch biometric data capture. And then there’s – no, really – rat telepathy over the internet. There’s my friend whose life-saving ICD can be hacked and compromised. It also makes her, in strictest definition of the the word, a cyborg.

I don’t have a weighed, rational opinion about the ethical and social implications of any of these things. They continue to fascinate and absorb me. Nor do I, in earnest, have future shock. I have some of its symptoms, sometimes. But that gives me enough to describe it, not just in Bowie’s visceral terms.

It’s the feeling of waking up in a world that doesn’t belong to you.

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