News&Musings
I need your voice. Both comments and new posts are most welcomed. For a prolific blog on the same subject check out Wisdom of the Hands written by teacher, author and woodworker Doug Stowe

Good!? Old Days

March 24th, 2014 by Richard Burman

I am trying not, in the Working Hands Project, to romanticize the past. Not to lament about trades that have disappeared or how things were so much better back (when?). On the other hand, recognizing the past is important. The advancements in this era did not come out of a vacuum. This generation does not have a monopoly on good ideas. The way we do things now is built upon what we have done in the past.

When I watched this video I was both saying YES!! and rolling my eyes at the same time. What we have learned about lead paint and other unsafe practices is valuable and modern protocols based on this knowledge do save lives. What we have lost is a physical engagement with the world that is based on discovery, trial and error, calculated risk and interactive fun. What we do have instead is the potential for endless and bottomless consumption. This has never been part of our human makeup. The disconnect we have with our hands goes against the way the body and the brain have evolved.

The blogs I write sometimes come out of articles or videos I come across at a particular point. It can also come from what I am doing at the time. For example I have been trying to redesign a camera slider which I had made but there were some problems. This undertaking has taught me a few things; bouncing ideas off other people helps a lot, giving time and letting a new idea or approach reveal itself and finally just try something out, no matter how far-fetched it is. In my case I was uncertain how to secure an angle iron to a cross piece. I tried one idea which was not very solid. I looked carefully to see why it was unstable and then I saw where the weakness was coming from. The solution is now much closer.

The freedom and adventure that was a normal part of a day for the boys and girls in the above video is an approach to life that we can all benefit from. Instead of a “Maker Culture” the dominant fashion is that of consumption, something that builds up and eventually blocks the arteries of our imagination. If I had to write a synonym for “Maker Culture” it would be “Try It Out Culture” or “Take a Risk Culture” or “Make a Mistake Culture”. That last synonym has special meaning for the author of the article “Great Moments in Building Science“. He recounts to his reader some of the real whopper mistakes he has made in his career. He believes we learn better from our failures than from our successes. The article was sent to me by Jon Eakes who is a communicator in the field of home renovation. Jon knows I have tried a few experiments in my home with varied levels of success.

The topic of the documentary trailer above is also the topic of a wonderful feature article from “The Atlantic”. The Overprotected Kid explores our preoccupation with safety which according to  the author has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer. She then describes a new kind of playground which looks a lot like like an abandoned dump. It is located in Wales and her own son goes there to play. She considers this concept a better solution.

I wrote another blog last year called “Playful Imagination“. Nice to see it is possible to put the play back into PLAYTIME.

Function restored … not quite yet.

March 6th, 2014 by Richard Burman

I have come across a lot of news lately on the various options there are for those people who are missing one or both of their hands. Most readers of this blog already appreciate what hands can do. But when I listen to the stories from people who, through surgery or prosthetic device, having regained manual function, the appreciation is tremendously elevated.

The simplest choice is a passive device which can appear remarkably lifelike, matching the skin tone and contours of the natural limb, while still providing some important functional abilities, such as pushing, balancing and supporting.

The next level of complexity uses technology similar to what was developed in the early twentieth century. Due to their reliability, durability, and relatively low cost, body powered devices are the most popular prostheses. They are controlled by a harness that captures an unrelated movement of the user’s body, such as a shrugging of the shoulders, and transfers this movement through a cable system to either a hand or hook.

Next in line are myoelectric prosthetics which use battery and electronic motors to function.  It is custom made to fit and attach to the remaining limb.  Once it is attached, the prosthetic uses electronic sensors to detect minute muscle, nerve, and EMG activity. The myoelectric artificial limb does not require any unwieldy straps or harnesses to function but the disadvantages are currently their weight and cost.

New social and technological developments are becoming part of this world as well. The Open Prosthetics Project is website initiative dedicated to the development and sharing of new prosthetic technology, funded and kept alive by the prosthetic community itself. Their motto is “Prosthetics shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg” (very clever!). There is a range of discussions from the practical to opinions on legal and financial issues and the validity of claims from various prosthetic manufacturers. I am slowly learning how the complex abilities of the natural hand are very hard to replicate.

3D printers are playing a role in prosthetic development. In 2011 Richard in South Africa had an accident where he cut off his fingers on his right hand. Straight out of hospital, Richard set to work in researching and developing a finger replacement for himself. While surfing the internet he discovered Ivan who had created a giant mechanical prop hand. Even though Ivan lived in Bellingham, Washington he was genuinely enthusiastic to join the project. Each owned a 3d printer so they could prototype the ideas they shared. Initially the final parts were made of CNC machined aluminum but now they can use the plastic shapes made from the 3d printers. They came up with a design that helped Richard along with others who heard of their work. To support what they were doing MakerBot donated two Replicator 2 3D printers. Learn more about their involvement on the MakerBot blog. The company Robohand, the fruition of their initial collaboration, has helped over 200 people.

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James Sides is the first person to test a prosthetic robotic hand actuated by electrodes implanted in his forearm. The implantable myoelectric sensor system, or IMES, was developed by the California-based Alfred E. Mann Foundation with support from the Department of Defense. An recent article by the American Forces Press Service tells you more about about this project and other initiatives coming from military agencies. What was interesting to me was that Sides’ prosthetic uses six of the eight electrodes, and in the future they could tap into the extra two if they had a hand that would allow more activities, such as bending the wrist back and forth. There is still the need and potential for more development in the future.

Myoelectric prosthetics inevitably with become lighter, cheaper and more capable over time. Even now there are sensors built into the hand that can control the motors to handle even the most delicate of objects. As far as feedback to the brain through the nerves … well don’t get your hopes up. Wait a minute … maybe it is possible if you follow the work of a number of European researchers. This article and video done by The Telegraph gives a good overview. It is revolutionary that they were able to connect to nerve endings in this subject’s body. These are nerves that have been inactive for nine years since this 36-year-old amputee lost his left hand in an accident. It is exciting but the scientists say that development of a fully functional “bionic hand” is still some years away.

Gerwin Smit was a PhD fellow at a university in the Netherlands who wanted to take development in another direction. He learned more than 30% of people who get fitted for a prosthesis eventually stop using it. In some cases it is because of the weight or the effort to overcome friction inherent in devices that use cables. His idea was to make it much lighter with no motors or batteries and to eliminate the need of cables. Gerwin looked at airplanes and cars that use hydraulic cylinders for their brakes. Watch the TEDx talk and you will be impressed at what he came up with.  On June 11, 2013, he was awarded a PhD at TU Delft for his work on the subject. I hope he can bring the idea out of the university setting and into the real world.

Hand transplantation takes us away completely from the prosthetic world. The first hand transplant to achieve prolonged success was directed by a team at the University of Louisville in 1999. The Louisville group went on to perform the first five hand transplants in the United States. As of March 2011, there have been a total of 70 hands transplanted on 52 patients around the world. There still remains problems of drug-related side effects, uncertain long-term outcome, the high costs of surgery, rehabilitation and immunosuppression. The woman is the picture had a double hand transplantation in September 2011. There were serious complications at first but over time her body adjusted. In this Jan, 2013 story done by ABC News it notes that Lindsay Ess has at least two more years of daily therapy ahead of her, but she said her situation has inspired her to want to help others with disabilities, including wounded veterans.

I have been hearing a number of testimonials from recipients of a prosthetic or of a transplantation. There is a common feeling of joy at finally accomplishing those tasks that we take for granted. To be honest I don’t often think how lucky I am when I brush my teeth or tie my laces. But I do think sometimes how nice it is to find time for tinkering down in the basement. So maybe that is where I will go right now.

When a Hose is not a Hose

February 4th, 2014 by Richard Burman

I came across this photo recently on Facebook and immediately thought it was from Make Magazine. I pictured an article about the value of free play for children, their natural gift for imagination, etc.. It turned out to be a photo essay on autism. Nonetheless my interpretation of  the photo was about the joy of discovery.

Discovery is a key concept for people who do things with their hands. A friend of mine was fixing his motorcycle and discovered a little too late that tubes of silicone have an expiry date. Having to remove sticky uncured silicone was not so pleasant but he will know next time to check the date. Kids when left to their own devices usually discover what’s fun, what’s safe, what works and sometimes that happens by making mistakes.

This same friend told me a story about his nephew as a toddler and a Christmas he had out of town with his family and quite a few relatives. It was Christmas Eve, he didn’t have his usual toys and coming to his rescue was his aunt who cut out some paper boats and little fish, made up stories and kept him entertained. The next morning he was inundated with gifts. There were boxes everywhere. As the day wore on my friend noticed that, instead of playing with one of his new toys, he was quite content to amuse himself with those paper boats.

This morning I heard a story on CBC radio’s show The Current. It was called Kiddie Consumerism: How to combat baby product marketing. For one mother featured in the story, the endless cycle of buying became too much. Just over a year ago, UK-based writer Hattie Garlick made what became a very public promise. On her blog, Free Our Kids, she vowed not to buy anything new for her then 2-year-old son Johnny for one year. She did worry whether her toddler, by not participating in structured activities, would suffer socially or developmentally. She found the opposite whenever she would witness her son in the garden with friends. Without having expensive toys, it was their imagination that led them to do things far more interesting and enjoyable than any activity the parents paid for previously.

So as with that boy in picture, the freedom to discover is one of the greatest freedoms we can have.

Knit Picking your Way to Happiness

January 26th, 2014 by Richard Burman

I came across this cartoon recently that has an interesting perspective on our present culture. The young person is quite determined to teach her grandmother the proper technique to eat pasta. The grandmother on the other hand has never considered consuming food as being an art form. It is more natural for her to engage in an activity that has been an artistic pursuit, a therapy and most probably, a necessity.

In my own personal hand-on activities there is usually not a lot of repetitive motion. Knitting has always intrigued me as to what physiological benefits there are. Nineteenth-century physicians recommended that working on a simple piece of knitting counteracts restlessness and discontent. Anxiety-ridden women were told that the quick manual movements and the subtle clicks of the needles had a soothing effect. According to THE LADIES’ WORK-TABLE BOOK of 1844;

Useful and Ornamental Needlework, Knitting, and Netting, occupy a distinguished place, and are capable of being made, not only sources of personal gratification, but of high moral benefit, and the means of developing in surpassing loveliness and grace, some of the highest and noblest feelings of the soul.

Kelly Lambert, Ph.D., the author of Lifting Depression makes a strong case that complex use of hands, such as with knitting, releases the neurotransmitter serotonin and engages the effort-driven rewards circuit as the efforts made produce a sweater or scarf.

I also came across an interesting post from MAKE that combines the long tradition of  the “needle arts” with the newer aspects of Maker culture. Agnes the Knit Bot is a humanoid robot that knits on a circular loom. Agnes debuted at the 2013 Maker Faire U.K. Seeing knitting brought together with robot technology is quite delightful. It makes me think of the grandmother in the cartoon. When she was a young woman, knitting away, I am sure she was quite aware of industrial sewing machines but personal robots were not yet possible. And while she may have shown off her handy work at a county fair, I wonder if these events had any resemblance to the present day Maker Faires. Making was already an integral part of daily life and not a pursuit followed by a minority.

In The New York Times in March, 2005 there was an opinion piece written by Carol E. Lee who noticed that knitting was suddenly in vogue. It is worth the read as it stitches together a portrait of knitting and the perceptions of it through time.

My use of the words “needle arts” is not totally accurate as needles are not the only way of getting yarn together in organized fashion. Arms apparently can do the job as well. Audra, a self-proclaimed craft addict demonstrates this in her blog.

If you have anything to share about your own experiences with these types of pursuits, feel free to spin us a yarn in the comment section.

It’s an Exciting Time to Tell Maker Stories

November 22nd, 2013 by Richard Burman

In the Globe and Mail today there is a feature article called Remaking the way children learn and play. Reading articles like this one reminds me why I wanted to do the Working Hands media project in the first place. The research I have being doing for the past two and a half years has shown me this topic is both timely and fascinating. I have learned about the serious problems we are facing:

  • the shortages of people in skilled trades that we have now and will increasingly have in the future
  • the disconnect with our objects where disposal, not repair, is often the preferred option
  • the removal of industrial arts from schools
  • the overwhelming amount of content available and the great ease we have in consuming it
  • the disparity between how our bodies have evolved and the lifestyle we live

I have also learned about many positive initiatives. Ever since the first one in 1950 in Madrid, Spain, there have been hundreds of competition events for those who are starting off in skill trades. In addition to national competitions, every two years the best from the each country compete in a WorldSkills Competition. In 2011 I had a chance to visit and film at the 17th Skills Canada National Competition in Québec City. It was quite inspiring to see young people so passionate and dedicated to their trade.

It started in 2006 in the Bay area. It is now happening all over the world. Maker Faires are gatherings for all-ages of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors. In 2012 I attended New York City’s Maker Faire. It was very COOL.

There are now opportunities and places for kids and adults to do hands-on activities year round. Makers Spaces are popping up everywhere including libraries. The Globe and Mail article talks about MakerKids which is a makerspace for youth in Toronto. In Oakland California there is The Crucible where forges roar, sparks fly, glass bends, neon glows, and creativity explodes. There are websites like iFixit which wants to build a global community of people helping each other repair things. We have toys now like GoldieBlox that want to disrupt the pink aisle and get girls building.

There have been scientific studies done to show the positive benefit of using hands in a complex manner and the effect on learning and our sense of well-being. In a complex manner, which does not include the use of the keyboard, refers to activities like handwriting, building, repairing and even repetitive tasks like knitting. Even using a tablet has been shown to be more effective for children’s learning compared to using a laptop. It is no accident that Montessori schools have designed their flash cards to have the letters made with sandpaper.

Yes it is an exciting time to tell these stories. The world is changing rapidly; the state of our environment, economics, technology. Some of the answers to moving forward, I believe, rest in our hands.

UPDATE: I just read another great article on the Makezine website. How to Remake the World by Making with Kids gives you the point of view of the Co-Executive Director of MakerKids.