Force and numerical illiteracy

I'm a numerical illiterate.

walker's belly: motor controller, diodes, voltage regulator and arduino My grandfather, a Universidad Técnica mathematics professor, later also tutored rich dumb children in a small room with a blackboard at the back of the house. Before I even learned how to read and write I would peek during his lessons watching him scribble symbols on the blackboard in dazed fascination.

In the same way that I couldn't imagine ever getting tall enough to look down at the bathroom sink, I couldn't quite imagine a time when I could spend hours playing with the mysterious symbols on the board. Getting taller just sort of happened but, I never managed to wrap my head around the language of numbers.

Outside my family I never encountered teachers who seemed to care about math themselves. In Junior High my math teacher's usual job was that of phys. ed. coach. Over the years, when I asked what this was all in aid of, I was bluntly told by several teachers, that there really is no point to math now that we had computers and calculators, you do math to prove that you can do something pointless, that you have discipline – the mental equivalent of running laps around the field.

My parents were at the other extreme, life-long delighted enthusiasts. My mother trained as an inorganic chemist and looved math, doing problems the way others do crosswords. My father was a chemical engineer. Reality, my mother said, could only be understood mathematically. She would look at the model of the atom we used in class with disbelieving contempt, and go on at length about the structural nothingness of the kitchen table.

I felt the honesty of their enthusiasm, the only thing they had in common, but I honestly never had a clue what they were talking about. I learned never to ask for help with my homework because my mother always wanted to show me at least four different ways to do things while all I wanted was to end it as soon as possible.

Like most illiterates, I cunningly worked my way in circles to cover up my ignorance.

But I can remember the exact moment when the point of it finally clicked. I was wandering through Munro's books in Victoria when I picked up a book on the life of Tycho Brahe, the brilliant rich mathematical weirdo with the fake nose. I read how Johannes Kepler used his astronomical observations to work out that the planets had elliptical orbits, leading to another absolute tear in the medieval belief of the perfect harmony of spheres. Reality connected to abstraction.

I was actually shocked. No one had ever brought up something like this. It had nothing to do with taxes or the non-existence of physical reality. I wish I could remember the name of the book. Not long after I found out about Eratosthenes figuring out the circumference of the earth quite accurately by comparing the angle of the sun's rays in two different towns at the same time. And, trying to understand what integral calculus was all about, I realized, finally, decades too late, what a swooping and fantastical thing mathematics could be. They could simply define the mysterious unknowns in a situation, call them 'x' and then work with everything they did know. Its logic can describe the tactile world, or it can wander off to imaginary realms.

But I've never gotten anywhere near any of that. I didn't learn to add and substract till I had to work a cash register. I've never learned to multiply and divide. If it wasn't for online calculators I wouldn't be able to work out the circumference of a circle, area, weights, fractions, nothing.

Knowing nothing, when I started trying to build robots I had to start with the children's books, The New Way things Work by David Macaulay and Neil Ardley was my favorite. And I finally recognized my endless hunger for getting at how a system is put together, magnetism, gears, and what makes motion possible. How to make things move.

But this was also the moment when I thought I could leave aside calculations and theorems and work blind with whatever surplus materials I could afford to get my hands on. Read more ›

Blob – still not a rolling beast

Size matters!

blob-02   Trying to build the blob 'robot' has shown me this better than anything.   And I don't want to abandon the Blob, but I'm far from getting it working the way that I want. I'm in love with the idea of building a robot that's big, super-light, semi-autonomous. I want a slow-moving beast that can wander the urban landscape. I showed the latest version of the blob at the Eastern Bloc here in Montreal as part of the Robotis Personae exhibition, January 22-February 11, 2015. I decided to hang the blob from the ceiling instead of trying to make it move around. That in itself was a huge sadness for me.blob in my studio. Right now, this is not a robot. It's a noisy, beautiful and brainless hunk of metal.   I built the original skeleton by riveting sheet aluminum over a frame of heat-bent aluminum channel stock. I wanted to try to build a large, light robot that would bounce awkwardly on misshapen-wheels, forever on the point of tipping over... And this has made everything difficult! How do you get not-round wheels turning smoothly? How do you keep something on the verge of tipping over from actually tipping over?  Right now, the answer is, you don't.

Pulley-boxes: fun nightmare

I built 2 pulley-boxes in order to slow down the motors and increase the torque enough to make the oddly-shaped wheels spin.  I'd never tried to build a pulley-box before, it was a fascinating process that I meant to document step-by-step. ... But... as I worked, I realized that without access to the proper equipment, though the end result is functional, they look shabby and shoddily-built. Not something I want to show off! With each project that I make, it's always a struggle to find and buy the necessary supplies.  The 2 pulley boxes were no exception.  I had 2 surplus dc gear-head motors that I thought were strong enough, and some steel tubing that would work as an output shaft, so I wanted to find 4 pulleys, with a specific internal diameter.   After looking at a baffling amount of pulleys and timing belts online I wound up going to the General Bearing Service (GBS) store here in Montréal. I plunked my motors down on the counter and the staff diligently and patiently searched through catalogues trying to find something based on my sketches and measurements.  In spite of my flexibility with the outer diameters, I was there for over an hour, and I'm not sure I could've done it differently.  I couldn't build anything without online stores like Digi-key, but sometimes I still find myself trekking out to Abra, Addison's, or GBS down in St. henri.  For heavier items like electric motors and hardware, Online deals usually stop being deals when you factor in brokerage fees and shipping.
attaching pulley to the output shaft.

attaching pulley to the output shaft.



  The best and most unexpected part of this version of the blob is the sound! It's mostly generated by the wheels turning and spinning lazy-susan bearings attached to their frames. Odd. Amazing. I absolutely want to build upon this accidental audio element. I also played with a large piezo disc to the motor on one end, and attaching a large surface transducer to the piece with a small amp in between.  Sounded exactly like a table-saw. blob-easter-install from Beatriz Herrera on Vimeo.

I'm seeing how energy is wasted!

I can see how I designed a set of wheels that directed the force down, to 'punch' the ground rather than to roll.  I thought if I balanced the blob perfectly on wheels, just having the wheels slamming into the ground would be enough to have the whole piece move forwards of back. 3 obvious errors with this:  
  1. Haven't figured out how to balance the blob so that it rolls effortlessly on its own.
  2. I need a secondary set of proper 'drive' wheels in order to have the piece actually rolling forwards and back.  This means extra motors, more batteries etc. OR ripping apart the motors and crooked wheels.  I don't want to do that.
  3. This piece needs suspension... the piece needs to be able to bounce a little bit so that it can roll smoothly on surfaces that aren't perfectly smooth. I tested this in my studio, which has polished concrete floors, and it made a difference to have the piece on a rough wood floor.  Ridiculous! Unacceptable!
The motors are super strong. But the power is lost. When I dismantled the Blob I saw that the steel cotter pins (2 on each side) that held the wheel shafts to the output shaft of the pulley-box had gotten literally shorn off. On the ground next to the piece there were small piles of black dust that turned out to be pulverized rubber from the wheels banging down on the ground with a crazy amount of force. All of that is lost...

Re-design of the whole piece is necessary!

The blob's weight still means that it needs massive motors (in hobby robotics terms). As soon as the motors get bigger and heavier, the motor mounts, shafts, wheels all need to increase in size.  I'm also only working with aluminum right now, which is far lighter than steel.  But it isn't as strong.  I might have to change materials for bearing mounts, shafts, main frame etc.  this will also increase the weight and energy requirements... more batteries which means a LOT more money. I'm undecided between two options for the drive mechanism:
  1. Wheelchair motors. Incredibly heavy, but powerful and rugged. I already have a pair in my studio.
  2. Find electric bicycle or scooter type gas engines. I've never worked with gas motors. Also, this would mean that I could only run the blob out-of-doors. I would love to do this! BUT, it also means a level of robust and safe design that I haven't attempted to tackle before.
I'm worried about time and money. I think I'm going to start harvesting metal stock from my older sculptures to re-build. pulley-boxes from Beatriz Herrera on Vimeo. a test of the pulley-boxes that I made for the blob robot I need to leave this aside for a bit in order to begin a new robotics project this Spring. BUT... I don't want to totally forget this piece! I have a skeleton to work with, experiment with! There's a contradiction in robotics: it's impossible to sketch out a movement without going through several maquettes... but it's impossible to expect to be able to scale up a project without understanding a bit of the physics of power transmission and force...   There's problems that I need to resolve and understand here!  

Rocker @ Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine

dismantling rocker

Rocker trapped in an airport vitrine

I took my Robot "Rocker" to be part of the "Colis Suspect" project hosted by the artist-run-centre Admare in the aeroport des îles-de-la-Madeleine January-February

ile rocker from Beatriz Herrera on Vimeo.
Read more ›

Dots magazine featured a beautiful article about the Robotis Personae exhibition that I was part of at the Eastern Bloc this Winter Beyond Blinking LED - Exploring Robotic and Organic Ecosystems at Robotis Personae...  icon-arrow-right 
dots magazine article about robotis personae exhibit



Digital/robotics artist Erin Gee stopped by my studio to talk to me about my work for her blog: futurefemmes

...highlighting women in digital culture and producing interviews showcasing netart and cyberfeminism.

Erin's own ongoing robotic project, swarming emotional pianos, is super complex. It searches for ways in which to generate live music performed by hacked roombas. The compositions are generated by using sensor data from method actors 'emoting'. But even though her methodology is complex, the idea behind her work is simple: using robots to highlight the barely-perceptible subtlety of our emotional language in a new way. My own loves gravitate towards robotic sculpture and drawings. So, the video gaming universe is totally outside my ken. And I never would've come across artists like Angela Washko without Erin's coverage.
Drawing as Electronic Art
Herrera -
"Drawing is a connection between my brain and the world. And it helps me not panic. And it makes me laugh. And it surprises me."

...see the rest of the piece, and a ton of other artists via futurefemmes — Beatriz Herrera - July Artist Feature

Break it! Build it! exhibit at BCA in Vermont

BCA Centre, Break it! Build it!

Burlington City Arts July 25 - September 13, 2014

Artists:Christopher Abrams, John Cohn, Jenn Karson, Keegan Kuvach, Kristin Rogers, and me.

The BCA is right on the town square next to Burlington's city hall. The Arts Center is a restored firehouse, and most people still seem to refer to it as the firehouse gallery. Read more ›

Blob robot

it ‘s warm in Montreal!

I hope this means that I’ll be human again, and that I’ll be able to finally, finally find a way to buy some metal and get back to work on a couple of projects, the main one being: The Blob robot, always meant to be the boorish big brother of Rocker, Walker and Porcupine…part of the “Humo, Leche, y Miel series.


Blob6 ½’ long, 5’ tall, 48” wide. aluminum, rollerskating wheels, rubber, rivets.

Right now, the Blob is an empty shell in my studio waiting to get re-build.  Originally I wanted it to be a groaning, autonomous robot that would swerve drunkenly about on kidney-shaped wheels.
Read more ›

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Ode to St. Henri Studio

The most beautiful studio ever
(In the not-rat-infested-Fattal-building)

view of the railroad tracks outside my building

The Fattal lofts between the Turcot interchange and the railroad tracks on rue St. Remi, in St. Henri was one of the most beautiful spots I've ever gotten to live in. That's saying a lot considering I lived in a historical building in Banff, Alberta for four years, and grew up by the Pacific Ocean.

Me and Pete knew we couldn't stay. The brick building was going to be demolished. The rest of the tenants had already gotten their eviction notices. But having our own warehouse loft, even for a year, was super heavenly.

Not to say the St. Henri studio wasn't kind of sketchy towards the end. Pete moved back to Calgary and, as the building emptied, squatters started moving in. There were super loud parties, and not a fun crush of chaos; but that intense, dangerous loudness of five am. when very large men waving small metal objects started accusing each other of disrespect while teen girls wept under my window with needles stuck in their arms. A stray kitten that wandered in with a bloody paw and stayed was the only company I ever had.

That last July, one of the tenants on the third floor died; no one noticed till fluids started leaking under the door into the hall. A special team in protective gear rolled a dumpster up to the window and spent a week cleaning. It wasn't just that the smell was unbearable. It was a physical guilt: an invisible clinging syrup that drove the animals crazy and made my hackles rise along with the sadness that went with thinking of a man dying alone a few walls away from me.

But it was beautiful in St. Henri: super quiet in the evenings, sometimes we could climb up onto the roof and right up onto the billboard to watch the highway traffic. Love train whistles. The edges of the tracks weren't fenced off and filled up with wildflowers.

I found this note, which was written just before I moved out in 2012:

Odd hallucination, sleep paralysis hit hard, rolled over and stared at my un-built robots. They seemed very much metal flesh. Surprised this is me, curled up on a couch in a warehouse in St. Henri, unit 60, next to the loading dock at 780 St. Remi; in Montreal with metal bastards, not quite robots. A bit ashamed, the way I get when I think about how I live! My work is proceeding at a snail's pace, though family and stuff took time away. I don't know if I'm a loser working too slowly, or if the nature of what I'm doing simply requires this kind of time investment?

Oh my god, someone must've killed a skunk outside, my eyes are watering! That's odd, the police are back in my parking lot. But I don't know why? Super quiet tonight, no screaming, arguing or dozens of cars rolling in. Ah well, Hank is purring and I'm sleeping with the baseball bat that Pete left me... Hank

The cranes from the Super-hospital construction site up in Westmount.

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