Chain Reaction contraption

Bruno Munari's chain reaction contraption

We (Karen, Mike, and Luigi) explored cause and effect today as we started a two-day build of a metaphorical chain reaction. Using Bruno Munari's drawings as inspiration (including his drawing of a machine for sniffing artificial flowers), we organized the work tables into a snake-like chain for the group to build their metaphorical machines. Ultimately, these will be linked together and set off as the finale of the workshop.

Luigi discussing a clapping machineThinking hardKaren helps with a switch idea

Getting ideas from past projects, a few new building materials, and a variety of evocative objects that we revealed especially for this activity, the monks jumped right in and started designing and building. There is little hesitation with this group as they each gathered a wide variety of materials and carried out a series of rapid prototypes - making observations, and discussing each of these with their partners.

EnvisioningDrop switchLooks good on paper!

Ultimately, ideas began to form, and challenges emerged that seemed too compelling to ignore. Each pair of monks made good progress in the short two and a half hour session, and it was difficult to get them to take a tea break (and we were quite late for lunch).

Pressing the switchMarble releaseChecking out the gear
Solar systemKaren helping with cricket programmingIntended trajectory

The ownership of ideas seems strong with this group, but, the ownership of the artifacts created during previous activities seems less important. Past project contraptions (like the automata, and Mylar Reflection machines) have been quickly incorporated into this final activity. Often, the machines from past activities are dismantled in order to utilize a cam, linkage, or machine system in their current projects. We were a bit surprised when we learned that they were taking apart machines that were not theirs to begin with, and when we asked the monks if this was OK, they looked at us with a sly smile and said "of course". There seems to be little need for them to own the artifacts of their learning, and as one mentioned "we carry our thinking and ideas with us much easier than our contraptions".

Testing the motorPulley
Karen and Tashi programming a cricketHigh and low tech


Reflection contraptions


"Failure is the pillar of success"

       - Tibetan proverb
Dhondup examines caustics on the wall


The next day we set the monks onto their next challenge: to construct a machine, or a kinetic contraption of some kind, based on some of the qualities of light that they had noticed the day before. During the previous day's discussion about the light exploration exercise, we noticed that, while being extremely skilled debaters on a logical and analytical level, the monks had some trouble either noticing or talking about the aesthetic qualities of what they were seeing. This turned one of our preconceptions on its head: before leaving, we had a feeling that the monks might find the cardboard automata activity too mechanistic for their enlightened minds, and that they would be taken in by the inherent beauty of light reflections; the opposite happened. So, being mindful of their attitudes, we tried to emphasize that they should concentrate on the aesthetic (a word that doesn't exist in Tibetan) qualities of light when thinking about their machines.

Planning on paperMaking a light lotus flowerCaustics and bunny

Another thing that surprised us is how quickly the monks come up with ideas that are creative, ingenious, and well formed. A few of them started by sketching out design ideas on their notebooks, while some others had an initial concept that they started, we would say, "prototyping", by either modeling a certain motion or projected image with their hands, or building quick and limited versions of what they intended to ultimately realize.

Building togetherBuilding a water boilerTashi cutting Mylar

By now, the monks have become much more comfortable and skilled at building. They approach the materials table with an air of purpose, and quickly scour it for the materials they need. They are also becoming much more comfortable flagging one of us down to ask for help, where to find materials, opinions on how to make something specific happen, and just to share their excitement at some of their discoveries. At the beginning of the session, Mike made an introduction in which he talked, among other things, about the difference between low-tech, middle-tech, and high-tech, specifying that all three types of technologies are equally important as ways of learning through building, and that they could choose to use any of them in their contraptions. The monks took this to heart, and we had examples of all three:
The lotus and the Buddha
Lobsang Dhondup made a contraption that is technically very simple, but very beautiful and ripe with meaning. His process was interesting and relatively unusual, in that he spent a very long time just playing with the materials, making observations, letting the quality of the reflections, and the interactions with the material (Mylar, in this case) "speak" to him and dictate what he was going to make. Initially he expressed frustration that he did not know what to do, did not have an idea for a machine. After being encouraged by us that what he was doing was exactly right, he made a number of observations about the way that light reflects, and how minute changes in light source and material positioning result in big changes in the image that it projected. Eventually he stumbled onto a reflected shape that reminded him of a lotus flower, and immediately knew what it was what he was going to do. This is the beautiful result.

Konchok Choephel and Tenzin Choegyal made an example of what we called "middle tech": their contraption projects beautiful and multi-colored light by using a simple slow-moving motor to rotate a disc. Interestingly, this was a direct off-shoot of their previous explorations with Mylar in a cardboard tube. They also first built a prototype, using just two tubes and turning the disc with their hands to see if their concept would work. The final piece projected a dazzling light show on a surface, which they further modified by reflecting that off a piece of crumpled Mylar.

Buddhist, scientist, or neutral?
Finally, Tashi's machine made use of a
Reflections on the ceiling
Some of the monks' choices surprised us for their creativity and playful spirit. Two monks decided to create a Mylar dish that could project beautiful reflections on the wall, and also double as a water boiler (for tea, maybe?). Others made a "peeking box", lined with Mylar and filled with balls, the object of which was to trick observers so that they would not know how many balls were inside. Finally, Geshe Niyma made a machine that could be activated by either the wind, a motor and a switch, or a cricket, therefore combining low-, middle- and high-tech in the same machine.

Testing the temperature
Mystery boxGeshe Niyma's three techs contraption

Once again, these inspiring individuals surprised us with the insights they brought to the activity, their engagement, and humor!

Light and shadow tiger


Mylar reflections

Tibetan-style debating

Yesterday we started our exploration of light, reflection, and caustics, looking through an "aesthetic" lens. We started by asking the monks to place a small mirror on the wall, and stand to one side (away from the wall) with a flashlight. They made predictions about where the reflection would fall on the other side, then explained their reasoning before turning on the flashlight and testing their theories.

Measuring angles with stringMeasuring by line of sight

All developed initial theories, a few created crude measuring devices, and others made guesses. All were engaged in lively debate (as is natural for this group) before testing their theories.

Hitting the screenSchematics on paper

Following the initial activity we handed each of them small sheets of Mylar (a highly reflective, flexible material), and rolled Mylar in a cardboard tube. They proceeded to explore the reflections generated by these materials when lit by their flashlight, and outdoors in the sunlight. Observations were made, new theories generated, and the session ended with a shared discussion about the highly complex, and beautiful reflections.

Monk in the Mylarcardboard reflectionsMylar reflections in the sun
Aiming the reflection at the ceilingMylar reflections fill the room


The Ganga and the ghats

The burning ghats from the Ganges river
We had been wanting to see Varanasi since our brief transit through its outskirts on the way to the Institute from the airport. One afternoon, finding ourselves free, we decided to take the plunge and go into town. Asking someone how to do something or go somewhere in India often means that they will show you, or take you there themselves, and so while we were just trying to gather information by asking Lakdhor how to get to Varanasi, what ended up happening was that Neema, one of our translators, "volunteered" to accompany us. What made us a little concerned is that two of the translators, Neema included, seemed to feel that Varanasi was "crazy", and told us they didn't really like going there because it was too chaotic. This, coming from a guy who lives in India, and lived four years in Chennai (Mumbai), a much bigger town, was disconcerting. No less, we decided to go.
Auto-rickshow ride
As always, the sights and sounds begin with the ride there. The way to go is by auto-rickshaw: they sit three Westerners in the back (Indians manage to squeeze in unbelievable numbers of people, however), and so Neema shared the front seat with the driver. It's very difficult to give a sense of what traffic is like: a series of close shaves with other vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows, a constant honking of the horn to alert other travelers of your presence, a racing spirit that compels drivers to try to pass the rickshaw in front of them, and thousands upon thousands of people, all going somewhere to do something.

Streets of VaranasiThis is what it's like when there's no trafficGathering water
School boysTubingMacroMan
Lift with your knees?

After a harrowing and fun 30 minutes, we had to get off the rickshaw: traffic became so intense that motorized vehicles didn't have a chance anymore. We switched to a human-powered rickshaw, which took us a little further, and then we started walking. As soon as we turned into one of the labyrinthine side streets, the feeling changed drastically. Most of the traffic was on foot, and the houses are small and crowded against each other, and open to the street, whether it was to sell something or just offer a window onto the world.

Tree house
Temple or phone booth?

We had to ask for directions a few times, receiving contradictory information, and took a couple of wrong turns (remember, this is with a Hindi-speaking guide!), but eventually we found our destination: the burning ghats.

Wood for the pyresBurning ghats

Hindus believe Varanasi to be a holy city, and if one dies here, is burned on the banks of the Ganges, and has their ashes thrown in the river, they will escape samsara, the cycle of rebirth and worldly suffering, to go directly to Nirvana. The burning ghats (steps) are were the cremation ceremonies take place. Between 200 and 300 people are cremated daily here in Varanasi. This was also the


place in Varanasi where we saw other westerners. We decided to take a boat ride along the Ganga (this is what the Ganges is called here), and we were told a few instructional tales by our colorful guide.

Our guideOur rower

There are five types of people who are not cremated, but are thrown directly into the river: pregnant women; children under 10; holy men; in all three cases it's because the children, or holy men, are already almost pure. Also, people who die of cobra snake bite, as the cobra is associated with Lord Shiva, and to die of its bite is considered a blessing from the god. Finally, people who die of small pox, for reasons that escape me. The ride along the river was lovely, and the sights unforgettable.

A tree full of kites
On the roofs of VaranasiOn the GangaThe sinking templeSunset on the Ganga

Back on solid ground, our guide took us to his favorite temple, which is underground, three stories deep. Visitors can look down into a well and see the statue of a bull, next to the symbol for Mother Parvati. On the way back to the auto-rickshaw, he helpfully led us to his relative's silk shop (located inside his house, of course), just in case we hadn't realized that we might want to take a look at some fabrics, maybe a pashmina or two. He was very dismayed at the possibility that we were not interested, but we eventually managed to extricate ourselves from there and make our way back to Sarnath.

Roadside GaneshaCows parkingUnderground temple


Thoughts on a design-based activity

Discussing and problem-solving
One of our goals for presenting the automata activity was to encourage the workshop participants to construct their own understanding about mechanisms by first observing motion machine models, then discussing their ideas about the ways they worked, and ultimately, building their own automata in their unique way. Although the group was eager to discuss (and argue) their ideas about the inner workings of the mechanisms, they were a bit tentative when they started to construct. Their ideas and initial thoughts were challenged, and ultimately strengthened as they completed their models.

Karen facilitating
Prayer wheel: lashing detail

Many commented on this activity during the discussion session (roughly translated):

"What I thought of in my mind and in reality were two different things

[when making their own mechanisms].

What I imagined worked perfectly, but was harder to build things perfectly."

        - Ngawang Lobsang

"I was reminded of the inner workings of a water pump from when I was younger in Tibet."

        - several participants mentioned this

"When we started, the mechanisms looked strange, but opening them up made us focus on how they worked even more."

        - Kalsang Gyatsen

"One thing influenced another thing's movement, and so on. I did not realize this fully until I tried it."

        - Geshe Nyima

"In Buddhism we say that the creativity in each person is different because of the experiences from a previous life."

        - Geshe Yeshi

"This workshop is very different from the others, because in this one the responsibility

[for the learning]

is on us. This is very good."

        - Geshe Nyima

Mike helping construction
Geshe Nyima working at his automata
Luigi with Geshe Yeshi

Tashi working at his amazing prayer wheel
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