Digital Poetry Machine

This all began when John Derian, my colleague and frequent collaborator at Brooklyn International, saw moss on the internet. He waved me excitedly into his room.

“Have you ever seen moss graffiti?” he asked. I said I hadn’t. “You can grow moss on all kinds of surfaces,” he said, growing more animated. “We should do a moss project!”

I started nodding. I may have been stroking my beard, if I had a beard at the time. “They could write poetry with moss,” I said. “It could come at the end of a poetry unit.”

“We could study plant biology in my class, then grow moss poetry all over the place,” said John signaling with his hands that we should be growing moss over every inch of the school.

Later that night he texted me, “MAGNETIC POETRY! We can make magnetic moss poetry! Like on the fridge!”

A few weeks later, John and I were at MAKE Camp at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications program. There were all sorts of workshops about how to use the latest student-friendly microcontrollers, how to use a laser cutter, how to incorporate technology into Common Core curriculum, and many other topics. For a day and a half we diligently attended workshops until we found ourselves in one which was moving along a bit slowly for our tastes. I happened to have shiny new Sparkfun Arduino board sitting in front of me. And for some reason I thought about the magnetic moss poetry. I turned to John and whispered:

“We need to use this with the moss poetry.” I pointed toward the Arduino.

“Huh?” said John.

“When you stick the magnetic moss words on the wall, the Arduino reads the words off the boards and posts the poem on a website. Or something like that.”

“Can we do that?” asked John.

“Let’s figure it out,” I shrugged

For the final three days of MAKE camp instead of attending workshops we pestered graduate students with questions. We knocked on professor's doors hoping for help. We bought drinks for the Sparkfun educators who’d come to the event, and picked their brains. We considered giving each word board a unique resistor value. This worked, but would have been a giant hassle. We thought about using a Kinect and some image recognition software. This solution seemed less conducive to the type of student learning we were after. We finally settled on using I2C EEPROM chips to store words on the back of the boards. With overnight shipping on the EEPROM chips, and wonderful support from the community at ITP, we were able to build a working prototype made from a cardboard box and notecards in a couple days. In the process I learned a whole lot about Arduino programming, multiplexers and I2C EEPROM chips.

We told Brian Cohen, the director of Beam Center about our idea, and he approved. We would once again partner with Beam Faculty member, Mark Kleback, in creating something inspirational with our students. Mark had access to an Arduino prototype which would be capable of connecting to the internet and posting the moss poems to Twitter. More importantly he has the expertise to make it all work.

But the moss wouldn’t grow. It shriveled and died. We tried new formulas, alternate surfaces, a fancy misting device, all to no avail. Dead moss did not look good. We considered grass, or chia. They too were rejected for aesthetic concerns. We considered fake moss. It was ugly, and covered passersby in a remarkable amount of green dust.

So we forgot about the moss. The students used a laser cutter to etch the words out of cork instead. The result is nearly as excellent as moss, and a testament to just how creative a profession teaching is. We'll post more details when we we’re done.

Let's test it out!

Let's test it out!

The magnet connection works too.

The magnet connection works too.

The Arduino is successfully reading words off the I2C EEPROM chips via the magnet/ copper tape connection. But some the connections are unreliable. The program is crashing frequently.

The Arduino is successfully reading words off the I2C EEPROM chips via the magnet/ copper tape connection. But some the connections are unreliable. The program is crashing frequently.

Hit the big red button to post your poem to twitter.

Hit the big red button to post your poem to twitter.

The moss that wouldn't grow

The moss that wouldn't grow

Programming the I2C EEPROM chips

Programming the I2C EEPROM chips

The circuit for programming the chips

The circuit for programming the chips

Laser cutter at work.

Laser cutter at work.

WORDS!

WORDS!

Prepping the boards.

Prepping the boards.

Attaching the circuits to the word boards.

Attaching the circuits to the word boards.

It works!

It works!

Word boards and big board are complete. Time to test!

Word boards and big board are complete. Time to test!

Watchdog timer to the rescue! Well, that's my dog Sadie, but a watchdog timer is also good. We start the timer at 4 seconds in the setup(), then reset the timer at the end of the loop(). If the loop crashes because of a bad I2C connection, the sketch will automatically restart.

Watchdog timer to the rescue! Well, that's my dog Sadie, but a watchdog timer is also good. We start the timer at 4 seconds in the setup(), then reset the timer at the end of the loop(). If the loop crashes because of a bad I2C connection, the sketch will automatically restart.

We are now successfully posting to twitter from the Arduino. The school network will not connect to an Arduino (or a Raspberry Pi for that matter) so we have tethered the Arduino to an old desktop and we're posting to twitter via a Python script. Thanks to Mark Kleback for finding a quick solution. All that is left is to continue fine tuning the connections on the board, and install the big red button (which is functioning perfectly). Students are finishing up their blogs about the project on Monday, December 15. It's been fun. I'm excited for the next adventure

Here are a few Digital Poetry Machine student blogs:

https://bihstech.wordpress.com/

http://proartschoolblog.wordpress.com/page/2/

http://technologycreation.wordpress.com/

http://realrealreal777.wordpress.com/

https://bihsdigitalpoetryblog.wordpress.com/

Twitter Tests - @BIHS_Poetry