When you’re a little kid, the proverb “It is better to give than to receive” sounds like nonsense grown-up talk; most little kids would rather get a toy than give one away. But here’s a story about giving and receiving that shows what the proverb is really trying to express.
In 2010, I went to Burning Man with a bunch of friends. My friend Debby and I were walking around the city there, checking out all the art projects, and Saturday afternoon, after we’d all been living in the desert for a week, we came across a Wishing Well.
Here’s how the Wishing Well worked: you could make a wish, or you could grant a wish. To make a wish, write your wish on a rock (provided), along with your name and where you were camping. To grant a wish, rummage around through the stones that other people had written their wishes on, and see if there are any wishes you can grant. If so, take the stone with you, go find the person who wished on it, and make their wish come true.
I decided to make a wish. I wrote on a stone that I wished for a trinket to bring home to my daughter. I added my name, camp location, and tossed it in the Wishing Well.
While I was doing this, my friend Debby was rummaging around in the wishes that other people had tossed in the well. She held up a few stones that said all sorts of predictable things, and then held up a stone that said that “Dave” at such-and-such a camp was wishing for “fresh pineapple”. The entire population of the city had been camping in the desert for a week, and fresh fruit was an exotic wish indeed. But then Debby said, “I’ve got one.”
“You’ve got one what? A pineapple?”, I asked laughingly.
“Yes. A whole fresh pineapple. I have one. It’s been packed in ice all week, in a cooler, back at our camp.”
I was incredulous. “What were you going to do with your pineapple? Do you have a plan for it??”
“No”, she said, “I didn’t have a plan. It just seemed like a good thing to have.”
“Well, do you think we should bring it to ‘Dave’, and grant his wish?!?”
“Definitely,” Debby said.
So we took Dave’s wishing stone, went back to our camp, dug the whole, entire fresh pineapple out from the cooler, and set off to find Dave. Black Rock City (Burning Man) is never really entirely organized. In 2010, the population was over 50,000 people, and even though we had an approximate address of where to find ‘Dave’, Debby and I had to wander around quite a bit, and ask a lot of people for directions and clues before we triangulated on Dave’s camp.
When we found the right camp, we started asking “Does anyone here know Dave? Is Dave here?” After a few minutes, Dave poked his head out of a tent and said “Who are you? Why are you looking for me?”
We said, “We’re here from the Wishing Well. Are you the person who wished for fresh pineapple?”
“Yes? Yes…” he said starting to choke up, disbelieving, and getting emotional. “Yes, I did wish for that, but I thought it was impossible… oh my god…”
We handed the fresh pineapple, still cool from the ice, to Dave, who took it. He stared at it as if it weren’t real, as if none of this was really even happening. He broke out in tears of joy, hugging first the pineapple, then us, then the pineapple again. Debby and I told him to enjoy it, and we went on our way, grinning and laughing.
The next day, someone I didn’t know stopped by our camp, asking “Is Mark here? Does anyone know Mark?” I said “I’m Mark”, and they handed me a little hand-made necklace with the Burning Man logo on it, and said “This is for you to bring home to your daughter; I found your wish in the wishing well. I made this necklace, and I want you to bring it to her!” I gave a big smile and a big thank you, and a hug, and tucked the necklace away somewhere safe for my trip home.
Later, I was reflecting on these two experiences: receiving the thing that I had wished for, and giving someone else what they had wished for. It was exceedingly clear to me which had been more rewarding to me. While I did like receiving the necklace to bring home, granting Dave’s wish for pineapple had made me feel absolutely wonderful inside, and that feeling still stays with me today. So, I thought, I guess it really is better to give than to receive.
The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that the real gift had been the one that Dave gave to me and Debby: by asking for something, Dave had given us the chance to give it to him, and then to feel wonderful about it. It’s the same gift that I gave the necklace artist by asking for a trinket to take home: a chance to do something nice for someone and feel wonderful about it.
I think about this story when people offer “Is there anything I can do to help? Is there anything I can bring you?” My first impulse is often to say “No thank you, I’m all set”, because I don’t want to impose on them. But then I think that maybe a better answer is to say “Why yes, actually, there is one small thing that would be nice…”, because then I am giving them the gift of being able to do something nice for someone, and to feel good about it. It’s “giving the gift of receiving”.
Sometimes, by asking for something, we can make other people happier, and that seems worth doing. Someone’s got to toss their wishes into the well, so other people can grant them.
This is a 100% recycled yak fur story.
Molly asked me a thoughtful question while I was in the middle of something else and I said “Just a second, I need to rotate my brain.” A moment later, I said OK and she asked me if my brain was all rotated now. I replied, “Well, 82° out of 90°, close enough.” Molly quipped “And since when did you ever do things square?”
But then I nerdsniped myself. I started to wonder about 82° angles. If a polygon with 90° angles is a square, what sort of polygon do you get if you turn 82° at each corner? It’s not one of your basic shapes, because:
- 120° angles make a triangle (3 sides, since 360° ÷ 120° = exactly 3)
- 90º angles make a square (4 sides; 360° ÷ 90° = exactly 4)
- 82° angles make a ??? (?? sides; 360° ÷ 82° = 4.3902439024???)
- 72° angles make a pentagon (5 sides; 360° ÷ 72° = exactly 5)
It must be some kind of … star shape, 82 doesn’t go evenly into 360, which means that you’d have to spirograph-around the circle more than once to come back to where you started.
But what kind of star? How many points would there be on a star with 82° angles at each point? I decided that I had to know, and that I wanted to see what the star looked like, not just find out the numeric answer. The numeric answer is the GCD of 82 and 360, and I could figure that out, but then where’s my picture of the star? I decided to write a quick program to draw stars with angles of ‘N’ degrees at each corner, and to print out how many points there were on the star.
So ten minutes later, I had refreshed my Logo skills. Luckily, Logo is secretly sort of a dialect of LISP, and I’m very comfortable with LISP-like languages. Here’s the code I finally came up with:
to anglestar :angle clearscreen penup forward 150 pendown make "count 1 setheading :angle while (heading > 0) [ forward 200 right :angle setheading round modulo heading 360 make "count sum :count 1 ] forward 200 show :count end anglestar 82
And it printed “180”, meaning that this is a 180-point star. Or, as Molly pointed out, more of a bike wheel than a star really. An imaginary bike wheel.
I decided to try other angles since I now had this great program. With N=80°, you get a nine-pointed star, because 80° x 9 = 720°, which is twice around the 360° circle:
And with N=81° you get a 40-pointed star:
Although as Molly pointed out, this one isn’t really a ‘star’, either. This one is more of an imaginary bicycle gear, a lot like this real 40-toothed bicycle gear:
Oh, and after all this, Molly very patiently re-asked me her original question again, and I answered her without yak-further delay.
Some things we try because we have a clear idea where we want to be and a clear idea how to get there.
Some things we try because we’re suddenly shocked to find that the heretofore completely impossible has suddenly and surprisingly come within practical reach.
And some things we try just to play, and to explore what if. We start with our heads full of simple ideas that turn out to be wrong, and we awkwardly replace them in torn out bunches with new confused half-understandings that, later, will let us reach something wholly unexpected.
I’m not sure which of these things in doing here, which means it’s probably that last one.
We celebrated the winter solstice last night with friends and laughter. I wore a little pin with a circle of LEDs on it, animating a cycle of light and dark.
I think that for lightbenders (LED art hackers) like me, like us, the winter solstice is actually a bit of a mixed blessing; I’m as eager as the next guy to start the slow journey back toward warmer weather, but given than our LED creations thrive in darkness, the arrival of the winter solstice means there will be fewer hours of darkness each night to illuminate with our creations.
Likewise the summer solstice marks the start of the shift away from the happy-go-lucky light-out-past-dinner-time days, but it also brings promise of a winter’s beautiful dark canvas, which we’ll light with our love and our craft.
Have a bright beautiful solstice, everyone. And if you keep your calendar that way, Happy New Year!
Eleanor and I spent this weekend working on her Halloween costume. Part of what she planned was a ‘hoop skirt’, but as you can imagine no commercially available hoop skirt met her exacting standards of design and quality — and also my exacting budgetary requirements. Naturally, we decided to take the DIY route! And, we pondered, what goes into a hoop skirt? HOOPS, obviously!
We picked up a used dress at The Garment District (our local vintage/costume/cheapo clothing mecca), a set of three hula-hoops, and some leopard-print duct tape. The smallest hula hoop became the bottom (largest) hoop for the skirt; the other two had to be dramatically resized smaller (via pliers, dremel, duct tape). We started construction from the waist down, with a nylon web belt with a parachute snap buckle. From there, we hung each hoop with repositionable blue painters tape, and balanced each one until it was level. Then Eleanor secured each hoop in place at the right height with duct tape.
And presto! A hoop skirt made with real hoops! (and duct tape, of course!)
This past January (2013), I created “Firelight”, a lantern that shines with the light of a simulated fire.
The lantern contains over a hundred LEDs, a microcontroller, a battery pack, and custom software. The software monitors the remaining power in the batteries, and as the voltage slowly runs down, the flames burn lower, finally dying into embers as the batteries die.
I presented the Firelight lantern at the Veracode winter Hackathon, where I lit it, and then gently blew on the coals to kindle a flame. I’ve had a few requests to build more of these lanterns for other people, and I’m considering it, but haven’t made a decision yet. More pictures are here.