This week was the hardware intensive week! And maybe the last of the big snows? Despite having at one point assembled a computer, various small robots, and held a title like "master electrician" (in the technical theater sense heyo) before this I'd never actually built a circuit. I guess maybe a potato clock? Anyway, it's incredibly satisfying! (and I really like soldering now that I have the hang of it) We started with copper tape and paper circuits:
If you're in the know you can see the beginnings of a SPDT switch on the bottom there. If you're not that's fine but I'm not going to get into it since I think a hands-on approach is the best way to do this stuff justice. And that's why I'm glad we started with this super simple approach since as soon at the pieces start doing things for you you don't get to appreciate all the steps in the same way. Or how painfully easy it is for things to touch not-quite-right and not work. Or that the reasons you need resistors where you might not expect is because energy is this fickle real-world chemical reaction—some things are designed the way they are because of immutable material properties! All of this (9V battery not pictured) is just to turn on the LED. So thinking about how many connections there are in something only slightly more complicated?? We moved over to bread boards
No soldering fun here, but for the best because troubleshooting logic can involve lots of plugging things in and out. Here we were using NAND gates to try and create other gates, I think this was an XOR gate. Logic gates are kind of wild if I think about it too much—they take two inputs, and depending on what those are spit out one output. All in +/1s and -/0s. And that's the basis of computing. Everything else is degrees of making the 1s & 0s intelligible/usable to humans (oversimplification but not really). Logic gates are a sort of "primordial soup" and some things that don't need full computers just run on combinations of them; like elevators or light switches. (our working definition of "full computer" being that it needs memory, time, and calculation abilities)
After breadboarding we made a 1-Bit Computer (designed by Taeyoon & Pedro G. C. Oliveira) on a printed circuit board (PCB) that had a "clock" (a capacitor), memory (more gates), and could count up to two in binary! This addition ability coming directly from the logic gates' ability to tell when both inputs are 1. This technically could have been done on a breadboard or even paper circuit, but the PCB means less potential for missed connections and just an overall tighter use of space; things we can now fortunately take for granted. On our final hardware intensive day we jumped to Arduinos, basically small very open-ended computers. But for the Arduino suddenly the specter of software appears and there's a whole different interface. Instead of the hardwired logic being available only directly we can now write what we want applied to what inputs. The simple adder looks a lot different.
This part was easy to me, this is what I've seen before, but now in comparison the explanation for why the computer thinks like this made much more sense. This intangible version was almost not as interesting. Of course that's because now that this is easy we can beat our brains into more complex problems. (I'm also totally glossing over the fact that the software to write my software is also a whole constructed environment of 1s and 0s)
This progressive view of building up a computer more generally made me think about how very small properties get built on and expand into much larger inscrutable forces. For our critical theory class this coming week we've been reading about the dangers of surveillance algorithms, but even before Big Data and machine learning I think even this little nitty gritty stuff is the root of changes in the way we interact with spaces and each other. Sort of obvious but for that reason worth slowing down and really looking at. I've been reading this book Code/Space and just passed a great line (p. 30) saying "Theory = Mathematics = Code = Story." That very first thing is theory; an interpretation of things. Steampunk is a unpleasant genre, but I think it's interesting in that it is an exploration on what if we'd latched our theory development to different physical mechanics than the ones we did. Even if there is a material "truth" in circuits we're the one's taking that to whatever conclusions we imagine. I'm clearly just chewing on something here but the point being I think that this kind of foundational electronics experience is part of "digital literacy" that should be available to people. There's sOoOo much I don't know and more than I could ever hope to, but knowing that nothing is truly "automagic" is a healthy skepticism start. Also now I can solder stuff. Stay tuned for that final project.
Oh, also this week was the quick-fire four-minute student introductions, which I'll put here for posterity/incase you missed it. (I start @ 44 min in)