Scene & Herd - A king, a judge, a robot and lots of dorks

Scene & Herd

What's the best way to unwind after a long day spent sitting in university classrooms discussing esoteric engineering, electronics and computer programming concepts?

Well, if you're a student at Georgia Tech, the answer might very well be to spend a long evening in a university classroom discussing esoteric engineering, electronics and computer programming concepts.

That's what many of the participants in last week's dorkbot meeting were doing. Dorkbot is an informal club, with chapters on five continents, dedicated to discussing the intersection of technology and creativity. The group's motto is "People doing strange things with electricity."

Last Thursday evening's meeting at Georgia Tech's Couch Building was the first meeting of dorkbot-atl (that's the dorky name for dorkbot's Atlanta chapter). It was open to the public, so I stopped by.

The first speaker was a stylish, handsome German man named Greg Kellum. Kellum talked about his techniques for creating what he calls "moving light environments." A moving light environment is similar to, say, the elaborate lighting at rock concerts and dance clubs. The main technical difference is scale. Kellum's techniques appear to be tailored for smaller rooms, such as art galleries or bars. He tried to get a bar in Berlin to host one of his installations because Berlin is so dark in the winter, but he gave up after realizing that barkeepers are "hedonists" who aren't all that good at follow-through.

Putting the "bot" in dorkbot that evening was presenter Keith Rowell. Rowell screened video clips of robots, including robots walking, robots running, robots fighting one another, robots shooting flames, a stylish robo-rhino, and much to the amusement of the audience, a robot kicking a wastebasket down a set of steps. When finished, he fired up his own creation, a biped robot named Knewt. It looked like a robo-dinosaur.

My favorite presentation — and perhaps not coincidentally, the least technical — was by Greg Dongowski. Dongowski is a visual artist who has developed technically simple but conceptually ambitious gizmos that allow people to draw pictures based not on what they see, but what they hear. Imagine this: Person 1 draws a sunflower on a piece of paper. Person 2 cannot see what Person 2 is drawing, but they can hear what Person 1 is drawing thanks to a microphone amplifying Person 1's pencil strokes. What Dongowski's work shows is that, even though Person 2 can't see what Person 1 is drawing, their drawings are often similar. The sound of pencil strokes actually communicates information about shape.

Dongowski's presentation actually featured the evening's dorkiest moment. Explaining to the audience what a Vocoder is, he cited famous albums by Air and Peter Frampton that use Vocoders to make human voices sound robotic. An audience member chimed in that a Vocoder was also used for the voices of the Cylon Warriors in the original "Battlestar Galactica."

King thing: Last weekend was chock-full of events commemorating the birthday of the Indisputably Greatest-Ever Atlantan (and, arguably, the Greatest-Ever American — e-mail me if you wanna argue!).

I didn't do any of the formal events. Instead, last Sunday (the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s actual B-day), I just drove down to the MLK Jr. National Historic Site and King Center for a casual look around.

It turns out that I didn't need to do any planning. Interesting stuff just happened. About a minute after parking my car, I was standing in front of a statue of Gandhi listening to Mark Victor Hansen. Hansen is the co-author of the mega-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. Now that I think of it, "book series" isn't quite accurate. Chicken Soup for the Soul is a book/CD/DVD/greeting card/tote bag/vitamin/pet food/coffee mug empire. The only thing they don't sell, it seems, is actual chicken soup.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Hansen was talking into a camera about Gandhi's wisdom. His audience was a group of people wearing T-shirts that said "Enlightened Millionaire Institute." Shortly after watching an Enlightened Millionaire stand next to Hansen for a Hindi chant in Gandhi's honor, I headed to the museum for a look around. After that, I walked over to King's tomb.

While crouching to take what I hoped would be artful photos of the tomb, I heard a familiar voice behind me. I turned around and saw a woman dressed in matching blue sweats and a University of Michigan knit cap telling what looked like a tour group about King's birth home. It was Judge Glenda Hatchett and the tour group was made up of, wouldn't you know it, more members of the Enlightened Millionaire Institute.

I'm not sure what the Enlightened Millionaire Institute does exactly, but after spending about 30 minutes with them, I do have an idea of where a large chunk of their membership dues go: expensive tour guides.

Chicks and bikes: On Saturday afternoon, I stopped by the Jimmy Carter Museum to scope out the ladies. Not just any ladies, though. I was there to scope out First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image, an interesting exhibit about the lives of presidential wives.

Actually, "wives" isn't quite right. Not every first lady was the president's wife. Prior to being her husband James Madison's first lady, Dolley Madison acted as Thomas Jefferson's first lady. Jefferson was a widower and he needed someone to tend to the White House's social and ceremonial functions. Jefferson had a girlfriend, Sally Hemmings, who probably could have done it. Hemmings was, however, Jefferson's slave and thus not exactly 19th-century America first lady material.

That evening, I stopped by the Atlanta Brewing Company for the Georgia Bikes! alcohol-themed fundraiser, the Tour De Beer. Georgia Bikes represents the interests of cyclers. According to event co-organizer Katie Sobush, Georgia Bikes!'s recent successes include getting the state to fund more signs informing motorists that bicycles are entitled to use streets, new handbooks to inform police about cyclist rights, and the introduction of a new Share the Road specialty license plate that, according to Sobush, is outselling the new specialty NASCAR license plate.


For more of Andisheh's adventures, visit andy2000.org.

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