Restless Device

A Podcast about Extraordinary Technology with Dave Unger

A Case tractor (right) and a Fordson Dexta tractor (left) at Cromford Steam Rally 2008, Derbyshire, England. Via Wikipedia.

The Liveried Tractor

I don’t recognize other people’s cars. I definitely couldn’t tell you the make or model of anyone’s car. They all look the same to me. I think this has a lot to do with paint colors. With a few exceptions, all the cars seem to be black, grey, or blue.

If you want to see bright colors, look at the paint schemes of tractors. They are amazing colors. There are blue, orange, bright red, purple, and green tractors. These are colors that stand out. Aren’t tractors practical, industrial machines and so shouldn’t they be painted some sort of no-nonsense grey? How did tractors get to be the colors that they are?

Bethlehem Steel once ran more than 2.5 miles along the Lehigh River, and occupied more than 1,600 acres. Photo by HAER. Via Library of Congress.

Ruins and Monuments of Industry

I love old industrial sites. I love the texture and color of the rusted structures, the overwhelming scale, and lost-world feeling. Two places come to mind– Gas Works Park in Seattle, WA (which I can see from my apartment window) and the SteelStacks in Bethlehem, PA (where I grew up). In both, ruins have been turned into monuments of industry. But they are a strange way to remember industrial history. In both, the remains of industry are the background for recreation areas. The rusted steel towers and machines have been turned into aesthetic objects.

So what’s going on here? What does it mean to turn ruins into monuments this way?

Magic, Technology, and Arthur C. Clarke

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C. Clarke.

This quote from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has been ringing in my ears lately. I see this quote around a lot, but the more I think about it, the less clear (and the more intriguing) it seems. Who is it that can’t tell magic and technology apart? And what kind of technology counts as “advanced?” I’m not sure.

By Maurizio Pesce, via Flickr.

E03 — 3D Printing: Imagining and Making

People think 3D printing is going to change the world. They imagine ways that it might transform our society, economy, and culture. In this episode I look at why 3D printing is so compelling– why everyone is so interested in it right now. I talk about where 3D printing came from and how it’s changing, examine the structure of how people popularly imagine 3D printing, and look at the Utopian hopes that people attach to the technology.

Cover for Mike Gardiner and Charles G Smith, Lisp: Theory and Practice, Cambridge : Acornsoft, 1982. (Image courtisy of Paul Downey

E02 — Lisp: Learning to Think about Thinking

The Lisp programming language is strange, amazing, and beautiful. Some say it is the most elegant and powerful language ever created. You can learn all the basics in a few minutes, but the language is also subtle and sophisticated and learning it can bring you face-to-face with the underlying structure of thought. For decades, Lisp was the main language for artificial intelligence research and it was also the basis for two important teaching languages– Scheme and Logo. Recently, aspects of the Lisp way of thinking have also shown up in the United States’ Next Generation Science Standards. In this episode I look at where this language came from, how it works, and how it became part of the national discussion about education.

Perpetual Motion, by Norman Rockwell

E01 — Perpetual Motion

What if we could build a machine that ran forever without using up any fuel? Such a machine would be a perpetual motion machine, and, sadly, it is impossible. Even so, people have been trying to build them for as long as people have been building machines. Perpetual motion machines appear in many early books about machines, and hundreds have been patented. In this episode I look at how and why these impossible devices have interested so many people for so long. The answer is related to how people see inventors and to a tension between thermodynamics and the technological imagination. In the end, perpetual motion machines also give us a way to think about today’s ecological concerns.

Marconi Wireless Station

E00 — The Antenna of the Species

Technology can be strange and wonderful. It is a creative, expressive, and speculative pursuit that can tell us about who we are and where we’re going. In this episode, I introduce the topic of the podcast series and reflect on the similarity of engineering and art. Like artists, people who make technical things act as antennas: they pick up the invisible currents of life and translate them into tangible things.