The Church of Murphy:

Though I love to debate religion (and politics), I am keenly aware it would be considered terrible form to do so in this venue. But if I should in the future refer to "Murphy” (of Murphy's Law) as a deity, it is strictly tongue-in-cheek, and  NOT an intentional assault on traditional theism. Instead, I play this game of referring to Murphy in ways often heard in traditional religious settings, as a helpful reminder to myself of the way I beieve the universe of physical stuff works. There is only a single command on the "tablet" in Murphy's church:


At first blush, this sounds like the universe is set against us. But that's not actually what it says (that would be: EVERYTHING WILL ALWAYS GO WRONG). No, the way I view it, the (non-living) physical universe is neither “fer ya”, nor “agin ya” - it is completely neutral. The reason I like to constantly remind myself, using jokes about “The Almighty Murphy”, is that it is most often the case that when the physical universe bites me in the ass, it is because I have lapsed into somehow believing it is on my side. As example: hoping that vibration in my car's steering column is going to get better on its own.

Problems in human medicine are often far too complex to expect that they will be solved within the span of a physician's lifetime. Aging, cancer, vascular disease – the list is both long and deep. One of the reasons I'm drawn to motion control is that its puzzles are generally solvable within my time on the planet  (though they are not trivially simple). The best ways I know to avoid the trap of  “hopeful thinking” when it comes to materials (including electrons) and how to get them to do  my bidding:

  1. Use the scientific method when time permits. Got a "great"  idea? Good for you – test the crap out of it before even thinking it might be solid.

  2. If there is not time to fully test every detail, have at least one  plan B. (On second thought - have a plan B even if you think you've tested everything.)

In preparation for producing Sisyphus tables for the home, we've spent over three years testing prototype mechanisms, putting 1000's of hours (and miles) on them, tweak after successive tweak. Something which surprised me early on, because I hadn't really encountered it in my prior decades of motion control artwork, is how singularly important the need for low-noise is to me now. (Think about it - how many machines in your home are truly silent while running?) Throughout these years of testing, Micah and I have often puzzled over some errant “tick” or “squeak” emanating from a Sisbot, debating each other as to what “must” be the cause. Murphy has listened to our chatter, no doubt amused. In every case, not until we thoroughly tested our theories and uncovered the actual culprit, was a problem truly solved.

You'd be surprised how tough tracking down an intermittent noise can be. Indeed:  Murphy works in mysterious ways.

Best friends

My buddy Tim flew in from Cincinnati last weekend. OK, not just buddy, but as he will gregariously remind you - best friend!   I met Tim around the same time as Bev, early in our first year of med school. It took about a year before she and I were a couple, but Tim and I bonded immediately.  Maybe it was during that first week just before the start of classes, when we received our 'free' stethoscopes (curtesy of a major pharmaceutical company), and our official short white coats. Tim and I used them to sneak into a glass walled observation theater above one of the operating rooms at the University of Minnesota Hospital.  There we watched for our first time, a surgical resident “open” (begin an operation by cutting the skin using a scalpel). A mix of dread and thrill filled us as tiny beads of blood grew around the edges of the long incision, swiftly dabbed with sterile gauze by another gloved and masked resident - and the simultaneous thought that not only was this legal, it was noble. And we were now part of it. Over the next four years, we shared lots of intense experiences – many related to the rigors of medical training, many to the wild and crazy shit we did that will not be detailed here (as he is still practicing :). Tim flew in for the weekend simply because he wanted to see Sisyphus Industries as it is forming. Knowing our history over the years of helping each other with major home improvement projects, he'd brought his work gloves.

We had only two days, but they were packed.  Bev and I picked him up at the airport on Friday morning, then drove directly to our shop/showroom just in time to help Micah and the guys from Triple Edge Fab move a first short run of ten steel tables into our space.  Just after the TEF guys left, I had a meeting with a software developer at the space.  We then headed over to UP (coffee shop a block away) for a late lunch.  The next day, Tim and I returned to the shop.  I took him upstairs to our maker space and showed off our shiny new machines (and the not so shiny old ones). Then we went over to the large space down the hall that we start sub-leasing next month.  I wanted his opinion on various ways we could set it up.  Part of his job as a senior pathologist at a major hospital system in Cincinnati, is running a large clinical laboratory.  He has a great deal of experience coordinating  people and technological resources to optimize the flow of high-quality work. He had a number of ideas as we looked at the space - some I hadn't thought of.  It was a huge help.

Bev and I put him on a plane the next day, tight hugs exchanged as we parted.  He vowed to return, work gloves in hand.

Bde Maka Ska - walking on water


We took the dogs for a walk on the lake today. If you're not from here that may sound strange, but in winter, the majority of Minnesota's 10,000+ lakes freeze over. And if where you live is a warm place year round, this probably sounds absolutely horrid. But a frozen lake creates an amazingly beautiful public space - and in this case, right in the middle of a very urban setting.  "Lake Calhoun" (as I've known it all my life) was named by U.S. Army surveyors in the early 1800's, after Secretary of War John C. Calhoun (who later served as Secretary of State and Vice President). The local Native Americans called it Bde Maka Ska, which means "white bank lake".  Turns out, John C. was also a notorious proponent of slavery.  I don't know the details of how or why,  but the signs around the lake changed last year. Also not sure why it was decided to chose an unpronounceable transliteration of that Dakota word, or why the "Calhoun" remains, but so it goes.

16" thick cracks

16" thick cracks

If you're concerned about us falling through, you needn't be.  It takes 4" to be safe for an adult human. Today, as Bev and I were headed out on the ice with Kafka and Euclid, we saw some guys loading up their gear.  They had just finished a dive (as in scuba), and reported the ice thickness to be 16" (they had chain-sawed their entry hole).  Bde Maka Ska is a round lake about 1 mile across.  In the winter, this translates to 401 acres of an absolutely flat, no-man's land of snow and ice, smack dab in the middle of one of the most popular meeting places for couples, families, dog lovers, and just about everybody who lives in the Twin Cities.  Summer or winter, there are always people around, in, or on that lake.  Of course there are far fewer in winter, and many people are afraid to go very far out on the ice (even if you grew up here and know it's safe, there's something eerie and foreboding when you're out there and look down into that frigid darkness). So on most days, except for a handful of ice fishermen and snow-kiters, the four of us are mostly alone out there.  The dogs are in heaven, since it's the only time they get to run free. And with the proper outerwear, the cold is not an issue (much :). What always amazes us is that it is never the same from one day to the next.  The snow drifts, the ice formations, the truly alien sounds of the ice shifting - never the same.

another ice pattern I've never seen before

another ice pattern I've never seen before

I spend a lot of my "thinking time" on the lake, walking the dogs.  It is where I try to let go of the trees and see if I can make out any forests.

Came on this the next day .  Some kind of alluvial drainage pattern left after last week's brief rain and thaw - now frozen between two layers of ice.

Came on this the next day .  Some kind of alluvial drainage pattern left after last week's brief rain and thaw - now frozen between two layers of ice.



Step and direction:

Over my years learning motion control from the bottom up,  I've absorbed a lot of tech-lingo. Some of it resonates. Programs I've written go all the way down to the very bottom of digital position control - what is referred to as a “step” - the smallest increment of controlled movement possible. I think of steps as “motion-pixels”. Stepper motors are designed to physically embody this:  the “driver” electronics takes its orders in a step by step fashion, and accordingly makes the motor rotate a tiny, reproducible quantum for each incoming step command. Since a step can either go forward or backward, there is one more bit of information required as well - direction. Position control along a path is about getting bazillions of steps and each of their directions exactly right for each motor. And full motion control adds the right timing of these steps to produce the desired flow along the path (speed and acceleration profiles).

I've many times thought about how "step and direction" applies to life in general, itself often described as a path. To be desirable, action must be applied in a proper direction,  with proper timing. I've been asked, on occasion, if I regret having trained as a physician, only to have practiced for 5 years. It could be seen as a rather large waste of time and energy, which might have instead been spent on my art. To this logic, I have two responses:

  1. I've always been glad I pursued my childhood dream of being a doctor, for many reasons. Maybe the strongest, is that there are few trainings that reveal such a full view of the human condition to a young person (being in the military, the police, the clergy are others that come to mind). Another, is that I wouldn't have met, in my first year of medical school, a classmate named Beverly.

  2. Though it is impossible to know, I feel relatively sure that had I set out to make a career in the arts immediately after high school or college, it  would not have gone well.  And almost certainly I would not have landed in the medium of motion control, as 40 years ago, this technology was essentially inaccessible to artists.

Unlike Sisyphus, whose steppers' every move is controlled down to the minutest level, preordained by numbers in path-files stored in a computer, my path is an amalgam of rational planning,  luck, and emotion-driven feelings for which I have no analytic explanation. That may sound like a good description of “random”, but it is anything but. No more than the shape of a river viewed from my window seat, or a tree as it grows over its life, balancing the need for sun, water, and the ability to withstand wind, rain and snow. 


Slow Dance:

A week ago or so, the thought popped into my head that I should check on “Slow Dance”, a Kickstarter campaign that happened just before ours, and became an invaluable guide for us as we prepared for our launch. Though Slow Dance and Sisyphus differ in shape, size, and function – they share a number of similarities:

  • both are kinetic

  • both are intended to be enjoyed as artworks in the home

  • both strive to engender a feeling of awe in observers

And the history of its creator, Jeff Lieberman, overlaps significantly with my own in that his art is solidly influenced by his analytical tools and education, and he has installed several large-scale, kinetic sculptures in public spaces. During the month before we launched, while Slow Dance was rocketing to its over half-million dollar funding from nearly 2000 backers, I reached out to him for advice. Despite his being swamped by Slow Dance's success (a deluge of questions / comments which I would soon personally understand), he responded quickly with some great pointers that were a tremendous help.

When I checked Slow Dance's updates and started to read, my heart sank. Just a bit. But it hurt to read his Dec. 7 update. If you're not familiar with KS - “updates” are the main line of communication between the “creator” and the “backers”, after a campaign ends. This is where news about how things are going with the process of making and shipping the "rewards". It is sometimes good news. Sometimes not. But no news makes backers nervous, and Jeff hadn't updated for a while. In this update he comes straight out and says there will be a delay, but it is because he wants to assure high quality. Writing that kind of update hasn't landed in my lap yet, but I can easily see myself there. But, if at some point along this winding and branching path, I feel quality is threatened by one or more "weak links", my plan will be the same:  Level with backers, and make sure it gets done right even if that means some delay. If/when that happens, I sincerely hope our backers are like Jeff's – understanding and supportive.

The Triad, with proviso:

In my prior description of “the Triad”, I failed to mention that Bev and I each hold a secret card which we can play when/if we feel strongly counter to one another's choice – we ask our kids! Ben is 32, Casey just turned 30. Ben weighed in on my blog drafts first:

For the blog post: Mom is right, you need to edit it. First, it sounds like you are really overwhelmed and negative when that is not at all true. I know you don't want to over-promise, but you're taking that way too far. You also failed to mention all of the good things like upgrading the tables to solid steel and injection molding the parts so there is less assembly (and less to go wrong). Second, it's really stream-of-conscious and includes lots of extraneous details. You don't want to sound like a teenager ranting on Tumblr. Third, you don't want to post too often, so these are probably just one blog post.

Two days later, Casey:

So... I like it!  It's hard (impossible) to read it from an objective perspective since you're my dad and I couldn't not read it with your voice in mind. But still, I think the reason I'm down with what I read is that it's honest. I think you should open with an explanation of what the blog is and what you're going for, rather than putting that later on. But it was clear to me after reading those two posts that this is not at all your Kickstarter updates, nor updates really at all about the tables (though clearly there will be references). This is about your journey as an (emotional) artist starting a business with his wife and buddy/colleague, after raising almost $2 million off a crowd-funding website.  Do I think the blog is necessary? No. You could just journal this. Do I think some people will enjoy it? Absolutely. Do I think some people will not understand at all? Absolutely. Does that matter? I don't think so. Haters gonna hate, you do you, etc.  As for the writing, it's definitely all over the place and stream-of-consciousness-y, but such is your writing style, and if people don't like it, they won't read it. I found it readable and like a window into your (mildly crazy) mind, so I enjoyed it.

That makes it three to two :)  And now that I've followed Casey's suggestion to clarify the focus of this blog, Bev's on board.

The Triad:

So far, although we are working with a large (and growing) number of people, there are just three of us at the core of Sisyphus Industries: Bev, Micah, and myself. On the advice of our lawyers, (never thought I'd even think that phrase): we each need to have official titles. Micah is COO, Bev, CFO, and I, CEO. (Yeah, I know, big whoop. But still, it looks great on legal stuff.) Bev and I, being married for over 33 years and joined in both spirit and financial decisions, have more say than Micah in how our company will use its KS funding. Though I am the CEO, (and the artist, dammit) turns out she and I have equal sway. Micah has less financial say, but this turns out not to matter much. We discuss all decisions involving significant allotment of resources (time and money), and public perception (web presence and communication) between the three of us. Most of the time there is no discord, but if there is disagreement, any two votes outweigh the other. This works amazingly well (except when I'm in the minority ;).

When I mentioned I was thinking of blogging, Bev (a.k.a. “the voice of reason”) expressed some “misgivings”. I promised to let her read and veto any/everything I write before posting. After she read through the draft of my first post, her response was rapid and succinct: “Nope.”

She thought it overly  - “negative” and “whiny”- I think were the adjectives she used. She thinks sharing too many of my anxieties will undermine our backers' confidence. I'd agree, if that were the case. But I don't think I'm overdoing that part. We can portray ourselves as completely in control and certain to succeed, but Micah and I know that can't be completely true - not when you are making something for the first time. And by “making”, I don't mean  Sisyphus tables - I mean a company of several people working effectively to build, pack, and ship over a thousand robotic art tables per year. I am both artist and scientist. I have been using technology to help me make my art for over 25 years. Having successfully completed several large-scale public art projects in the past, many of which I was doing for the first time, dealing with uncertainty is not new to me. My track record is solid. I just want people who are interested in the process to understand: this ain't a slam dunk.

So I texted Micah and asked him to review the draft. He texted back: “It looks great!” “Do you want me to setup a link to the blog?”

I relayed that to Bev. She said we'll talk about it tomorrow....

(If you're reading this, Micah and I were able to convince her, and the Triad has worked again!)

(written Jan. 1, 2017)

After Kickstarter, Proto-phase:

My hope is that this blog will serve as a behind the scenes look at this weird, wonderful, challenging project we've landed in - where over a thousand people we have never met have each entrusted us with over a thousand dollars (average) to build and deliver a new type of art for them to live with in their homes. I will chronicle my thoughts, feelings, and impressions along the way (and not focus on practical details, which I will continue to do in my on-going updates to our Kickstarter site).  

Since our wildly successful Kickstarter campaign ended a little over two months ago, thoughts and emotions have flooded in. At first, as you might expect, they were mostly the excitedly-planning / elation type. But over the past couple weeks, not so much. I feel engulfed by an avalanche of “details”, and am just beginning to realize: each is just a decision. One that will be magnified a thousand times... and may take considerable time before we know if we've goofed (or maybe just had bad luck)... <gulp>.

Actually, on many different fronts, things are progressing well. And today marks the last day of our 2-month “proto-phase” - the period Micah and I agreed to use for doing our final testing of prototype tweaks, and then to locking in design and fabrication strategies. I can't speak for Micah, but I think we both appreciate that every one of our choices carries a certain amount of uncertainty, and we both know we are unlikely to get all of them right the first time through. Despite this really great, logical argument of why I should be continuously in a swamp of anxiety, I'm not. We're not. Though Micah is far less verbal then I in sharing his feelings about uncertainties and their potential consequences (boy will he vouch for this!) - I know when he's concerned about something. And I have seen (and heard) him concerned, on occasion, over these past two months.  Usually over different subjects, but Bev too.

But however each of us processes the scale + uncertainty factor, we are all incredibly stoked to be allowed this privilege. A lot of these months spent working in the Sisyphus Industries (SI) space, I have thought (and told Micah) that I feel like I'm a kid at summer camp. He of course didn't respond other than a muffled laugh. But I can tell, he likes it there too.

(written Dec. 31, 2016)