The Odd Bird

Once upon a time, there was a big tree in the middle of a vast field and under the tree was the land of the Running Chickens and Roosters. As you can tell by the name, the Running Chickens and Roosters were birds who were very comfortable on their feet and could run around and walk as much as they liked, but they could not fly. In fact, they were so good at running that they didn’t need their feathers anymore and they used to complain about how it got in their way of moving around swiftly on the ground, until at some point, they started to lose their feathers and became Naked Running Chickens and Roosters. While these birds could not fly, they still were good jumpers and once in a while the young ones would play jumping games and bet on who would jump higher.

The tree in the middle of the field was so high that no one had seen its top and it soared up, as if going up until it touched the sky. The field was also very vast and it seemed it went on forever. No one had seen the end of the field, but legend had it that long long ago, a group of Running Chickens and Roosters had decided to go to the East of the tree, walk until they reach the end of the field and then come back to tell everyone else what was there. They had left and after many many days of walking and running, they had suddenly seen a shadow of a large tree in the distant horizon. They had gotten excited and ran to it. It had looked more and more familiar until when they got to it, they had seen that it was their own tree that they had reached from the West side! From that point on, the birds decided not to explore too much.

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Once one of the Naked Running Chickens gave birth to an Odd Bird. They called her that because unlike her peers, she was covered in soft feathers and had short awkward feet. She also had a big beak and couldn’t run or even walk well. After initially being interested in her, the young birds forgot about her and she was usually lonely playing by herself and staring up the tree, wondering what was up there. When the Odd Bird grew, unlike what everybody expected, she did not lose her feathers, and her legs did not grow longer. The only part that seemed to grow most were her useless hands that were bigger than all the other birds and were covered in feathers. The other birds used to tease her, go up behind her and pull out a feather, knowing she could not reach them when she ran on her clumsy legs. But after a while, they got tired of this game and ignored her completely.

One morning, when one of the chickens woke up, she saw that could not move! It was as if her feet were frozen to the ground. As time went by, more and more chickens and roosters started to have the Big Freeze, as it came to be called, where their feet felt frozen to the ground and they could not move anymore. Everybody became scared. “What was happening?”, they started asking, “What if this happens to everyone? This would be the end of the Naked Running Chickens and Roosters!”. The birds went to the Old One, who was the oldest living chicken and known to be wise and full of stories of the past. She said, “a long time ago, I heard from my great great grandparents, that there is a special fruit at the very top of the tree, that can cure this disease like a miracle!” She cleared her throat and continued, “but it would really be a miracle if anyone can find this fruit because no one has gone up the tree yet and my great great grandparents knew about it because one had dropped down. But that happens once in every hundred years or so!” The birds started to panic. There was a cure, but it was out of reach, so there was not a cure. They were doomed!

The next day, all the birds came to the bottom of the tree and the athletic ones started to jump higher and higher. Maybe someone could catch the first branch and, who know, go up from there? But soon they saw that compared to the height of the first branch, their jumps were completely useless.

At this time the Odd Bird was passing the crowd. She had heard of the Big Freeze but felt couldn’t do much about it and nobody cared about what she felt anyways. But she liked jumping and went to see what was happening. After doing useless jumps for a while and getting tired, the birds were angry and frustrated. Seeing the Odd Bird standing there, they started teasing her, not in the nicest way, about her useless feathers and whether they could borrow them and put them on the ground so that they at least don’t hurt their bums when they jump up and fall down. They started running after the Odd Bird trying to pluck her feathers and, of course, because of their long feet they usually could easily overtake her, except that now they were tired from all the jumping and she was motivated to save her feathers and running in front of them, she started jumping and flapping her hands and closing her eyes and suddenly she felt that the earth was not scratching her short awkward feet and the angry shouts of the mob behind him had subsided and there was a gentle breeze on her face and when she opened her eyes, she saw that she was … flying!

It was in her blood. Suddenly, everything made sense, she did not have to think or try or fail. She was high, higher and higher. She did not care if she disappeared and she did from the eyes of all the birds on the ground who were dumbfounded and could not take their eyes from the dark fading spot in the sky. The birds stood frozen to the ground for a long time. The Odd Bird had flown up towards the tree and so high nobody could see her anymore. Night fell and still the birds were waiting for her. The next morning came and went and there was still no sight of her. Maybe she had died, maybe she had fallen to the other side of the skies, maybe this was all a dream. The Odd Bird did not come back that day. Everybody thought she was dead. More birds succumbed to the Big Freeze.

The next morning, a young one looked up the sky and, suddenly started screaming: “She is coming back! She is coming back!” Everybody gathered and with outstretched necks they looked up the sky and saw a small dot growing and growing. When it came closer, indeed, it was the Odd Bird. They opened a circle for her and applauded her as she landed gracefully. They had a million questions: “How did she do it? What was up there? How did it feel to fly?” She did not reply. She looked tired. She opened her mouth and a strange fruit fell out. The birds stepped closer and picked it up. Suddenly, they knew: this was the magic fruit from the top of the tree! They started cheering. This was a miracle. The Odd Bird was a hero. They put her on their shoulders and walked to each of the sick birds. Upon eating a little of the fruit, the Big Freeze was gone. The danger was over, they were safe.

The birds celebrated for three days. They gave the Odd Bird many gifts and payed her the highest respect. She was happy but mostly silent. At the end of the three days, they told the Odd Bird that they wanted her to be their leader. The Odd Bird thought for a moment and then said, “Thanks very much for your offer! It’s very kind of you and I might accept. There’s just one thing that I have to do before I can become your leader.” The birds said, “What is it? If we can help, we would do anything we can.” She said, “Thanks! But it’s actually something that only I can do. I want to go up the tree again. There was another fruit there that I want to try and bring back for you.” The birds all got excited, “Another fruit, wow, what kind of miraculous properties would that one have?” The Odd Bird said, “I don’t know. I guess we have to try it to find out.” After saying this, she took a long look at the birds standing around her and started running down a path that they opened for her and started flapping her wings and going higher and higher until she disappeared in the sky.

To this day, the Naked Running Chickens and Roosters are still waiting for the Odd Bird to come back and bring them the second magic fruit. Many birds believe that she died trying to go up the tree for the second time. Some birds think that she found paradise up there and forgot about them. And sometimes, when a new baby is born, their mother touches their skin and secretly wishes that they grow soft feathers all over and one day fly up to the top of the tree.

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Toronto Mini Maker Faire!

Last weekend I spent most of my time at an event that I had been waiting for, for a few months. The Toronto Mini Maker Faire had been on the horizon for a while and it was very auspicious that it finally landed when I had also began leading a series of Maker workshops at our lab at York University. The MakeShops are designed to facilitate hands-on design activities for undergraduate (mainly engineering) students using novel technologies such as 3D printing and embedded computing. The Maker Faire provided an excellent opportunity to do a field trip and connect with different hacker/maker communities within Toronto.

Here, I will briefly give an overview of the projects I saw there and also briefly describe a wearable computing project that I did with a friend. This will also provide an overview of the current state of the hacker/maker subculture in Toronto.

Wearable Computing

A trend that is becoming more and more mainstream is Wearable Computing. In rough terms, these technologies are identified by that they are worn on or around the body and are a specific form of ubiquitous computing. These technologies are currently most well-known in the form of gadgets such as the Google Glass and Galaxy Gear. But they have a surprisingly long history in research and there is a whole conference series dedicated to them.

At the Maker Faire, there were several interesting wearable projects on display. SoMo, is a wearable MIDI controller that is designed to be placed on the body to generate music that corresponds to movement. It consists of a accelerometer, micro controller and wireless modem.

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Another project, the Schema Factor, that reminded me of a strangely similar project I had worked on last year, involved a MIDI controller in the form of a glove. The controller was wirelessly connected to Fruity Loops, a sound generator and controller program, and movement through an accelerometer was translated into changes in sound modulation and track volume.

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The main difference from my idea (other than minor technical things such as the use of Ableton as the sound software and the actual sewing of the device onto the glove in my case) was that I used RFID readers to identify tracks through RFID tags placed on my body. So each body part (e.g., left hand, right hand, …) corresponded to a track.

 

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Next on was the Social Body Lab, this lab at OCADU is headed by the visionary Kate Hartman, whose visionary art/science projects (most notably Botanicals) have become well-known all over the world. Two main projects were showcased by the lab. Nudgeables is an interface for use in a social setting where two people can let each other know they are thinking of or need to find one another by pressing a button that activates a small vibration motor placed on the other person’s clothing. Vega X Bike lights are wearable wireless bike lights that are easy and cool to wear. This group hosts a wearable meetup series.

I also showcased a wearable project developed with a good friend Natalie. I will write about this project in detail in another post. For now, here’s a brief description of what it was. We designed a hugging hat that turned the wearer into a new cyborg creature, the LuvBug, who thrives on hugs and physical touch. Whenever this new touchy-feely being is hugged it starts playing music and show a light show on its horns that progressively gets more intense and louder. Here’s a picture of Natalie being a LuvBug:

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Hacker/Maker Communities

Toronto has several hacker/maker communities that were present during the Faire. These range from the Toronto Tool Library, a social initiative that provides access to power tools, as well as, kitchen utensils to members and community, to the Extreme Knitting and Weaving group at the Textile Museum of Canada.

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Other more traditional hacker/maker groups include Site3 coLaboratory, an art and technology collective that bring together their skills to create innovative projects (one of their main focus seems to be working with fire, something that is highly celebrated in Burning Man where they usually have a strong presence at). They have an open-house on Thursday evenings. hacklab is also of note for being Toronto’s hacker collective (it is located in Kensington Market and has an open-house night on Tuesdays).

My favourite Toronto maker community is Maker Kids. This is a non-porfit children making organization that has after-school programs and community activities for children. It’s headed by Andy Forest whom I met last year at TedX Toronto. I volunteered for them last year and gave a short presentation on tangible design for their participants. I have been inspired greatly by Andy and his team. At the Faire, they had several tables and programs but one that was a lot of fun to check out was a toy-hacking station where children cut apart dolls and toys and reassembled them into new creatures. Watching children reassemble these toys, I felt I was seeing a new generation of geneticists being inspired!

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There were some unusual groups there too: The Open Organization of Lock Pickers, had setup a lock picking village where they taught everyone how to pick locks!

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3D Printing

There was a considerable presence of 3D Printing vendors, enthusiasts and manufacturers at the Faire. Since 3D printing is a big topic that I will probably go into more detail elsewhere, I will not elaborate on it here. Two projects seemed unusual to me.

Students from the University of Waterloo were showcasing a 3D chocolate printer (but no samples).
20130921_155655 And there was a gentleman who would 3D scan your head if requested! I did this and am waiting to get a 3D model in my email to play with!
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Indie Makers

Besides the groups that I mentioned already, there were a number of groups that are hard to categorize. These ones I describe briefly in this section.

Le Petite Print Shop, a steam-punk project from Austria, featured a 100 year old type writer that you could use to tweet:

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The Arduino-Powered Foosball Scoreboard, automatically displayed your score as you played foosball:

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The CodeShield is a teaching tool that magnifies the size of a microcontroller and connects it to a regular version so that students can see better what each socket and components does:

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An excellent project, used Makey Makey and Raspberry Pi to create an affordable customizable interface for children with cerebral palsy and autism:

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Ice Volcano created (surprisingly smooth and and tasty) instant ice cream from liquid nitrogen and fun ingredients (frozen marshmallows anyone?):

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And finally, R2D2 and the cardboard armour man, who walked around the Faire, making everyone smile and take pictures!

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At the end of the Faire, I was happy, exhausted and inspired to go back to the lab and attack more projects! Hopefully, I will have fun things to share with you in the coming months…



A Touch of Spain

“But the heat is too much!” That was the first thought that came to my mind when I learned the next bus out of Seville to Lisbon is full and I have to wait about 8 hours to catch the next, overnight bus. After a couple of minutes, though, I came to my senses: there are worst things than being stranded in a beautiful Spanish city, even in the middle of summer.

My first visions of Spain after I crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco was giant wind turbines, a new version of Don Quixote’s friends, I guess! ImageFrom Tarifa, I had taken a bus to Malaga, the birthplace of Picasso, stayed there overnight and then went to Seville. After wandering the city for a bit, I had checked into a beautiful traditional “pension”.  A very interesting thing in Spain are themed hotels where you can get rooms which are designed to look like 16th or 17th century rooms. Some of the rooms have musician themes, so you can get the “Mozart Room” or the “Beethoven Room”. Some even come with pianos or violins and are soundproof! The concept is very interesting but I passed and went to a simple but clean and comfortable traditional residence. ImageIn the afternoon, I met with my friend who is the head of a lab that focuses on Assistive Technology at the Electronics Department at the University of Seville. After visiting with researchers and seeing demos and giving a short talk about my research, my friend kindly took me out that night and we saw a mesmerizing flamenco show, tried Spanish tapas and walked around town until 1am!

The previous day I had also visited the bull ring, a very interesting and unique experience. The bull fighting season is at its peak in April but there are no shows in August. We went through a guided tour of the exhibits. Our guide mentioned that the bull’s meat is highly prized and the bulls are generally treated very well until they are killed in the show.

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This fact reminded me of a story from the 1001 nights: Once there was a farmer who had a bull and a donkey. Every morning, he used to bring the bull to the fields and work him until dusk. The donkey was left alone and rested in the barn. One day, the bull was very tired and asked the donkey for advice. “What should I do so the farmer leaves me alone for a bit?” The donkey was wise and felt pity for the bull. He said, “you have to pretend you don’t feel well.” The next morning, the farmer came for the bull but try as he might, he could not coerce or force him to move. After some trying, he took the donkey instead and worked him all day. At the end of the day, the donkey came back to the barn exhausted and saw the bull lying down and playing with the hay. “Thanks so much, dear friend!” he said. “I really needed that!” The next morning, the same thing happened and the bull was left in the barn and donkey worked all day. While straining in the field, the donkey thought of a way to get himself out of this self-imposed torture. When he got back to the barn, he told the happy bull: “I got to tell you something, I heard the farmer talking to himself about you today!” The bull said, “really? What did he say?” “Well,” the donkey said, “he said ‘it’s a pity the bull is sick but I will have some good kabobs made out of him soon!” The bull jumped and said in fear, “Oh my god! What should I do? The farmer will butcher me!” The donkey said, “don’t worry, friend! All you have to do is show him you are not sick!” So the next morning, when the farmer came to fetch the donkey, the bull jumped to its feet and walked to the fields eagerly and the donkey was left in peace again! Image

After visiting the bull ring, going to a tapas place and trying some bull meat was essential! The food was amazing and the best part was a delicious cold soup called Salmorejo that is similar to Gazpacho but a bit thicker. My Spanish colleague told me that the key to a successful soup like this is the freshness of the tomatoes and the quality of the olive oil. She said she will send me herrecipe so I can try it at home. I told her I will send her the recipe for the Persian cucumber and yogurt soup (“Mast va kheyar”) which is also a summer soup. Image

That night, my friend also brought me to see an amazing flamenco show at a small intimate venue called “The House of Memories”. Of course, I have listened to flamenco before and seen it being danced on video but this was something else. The show started with a flamenco guitarist and a female singer with a deep voice whose song filled the room the brim. I could pick some words from the lyrics but unfortunately couldn’t understand most of it which according to my friend was very beautiful and sad. There is a favourite district in Seville called Triana, which apparently is where flamenco started. I could pick that beautiful word in the songs a few times. Image

After a couple of songs, the first dance started. A handsome man in dark clothes came into the room and started with such graceful moves that I was dumbstruck for most of the act. He occasionally used parts of his body as mesmerizing percussion. I was so taken by the dance that I wanted to get up and do one myself too! Next, was a beautiful technical guitar solo song. The final act was unreal. The female dancer seemed half-human, half serpent. The intensity in her face was thick as a black gypsy shawl and her sudden leaps were enough to take your breath away. Again, I was mesmerized. When we walked out of the venue. The streets were full of song. Many people were sitting and playing guitar on the streets and from many restaurants you could hear live flamenco bands singing. Combined with the sound of horse hooves on the streets and general scarcity of cars in the narrow central lanes, it was enough to transport you to another time.

After my friend left, walking back to my hostel, I saw a band playing amazing songs on the streets. It was a street party at 1 am on Monday! At the end of a song, one of the band members asked, “nobody has to work tomorrow?!” and one person shouted, “No, I am Spanish!” It was a sad but humorous take on the reality that these days jobs are hard to find in Spain.  Image

The next day, after realizing I have a few more hours in the city, I walked to the palace which was much bigger than I thought. There are many layers of history in Seville and many people have called here home at some point: Romans, Arabs, Catholics, Jews, … The shocking thing about the palace was that there was so much intricate work done by the Muslims and the themes seemed so fresh that the idea that they did not live in the city anymore, felt drastic, as if they were an alien species who had simply vanished once an invisible bell was played. Image

The heat was too much and I rested on a bench in the palace park, (connecting to my inner hobo!) and then went for dinner. I was so impressed with the skills of a driver who could drive a truck in the super-narrow streets of Seville, a place I can’t imagine driving even a small car! Coming back from Europe, in Canada, I once mistook the side of the highway as another lane! Everything is very wide in North America!Image

On the way to a restaurant I had seen the day before, I saw that the historical cathedral was open for service, a happy fact, given that I had missed it earlier. An impressive tower is besides the Cathedral and I learned it used to be a “minaret” originally, and the Muslims used it as a place to call for prayers. ImageAfter visiting the church and having dinner, I got lost again (almost intentionally, I had too much time until the bus!) and walked for a couple of more hours until I found the bus station.