31D0M: Use something combustible

Yesterday’s project in 31 Days of Magic from Jason Miller‘s strategic sorcery community was to use something combustible.

To me, the word combustible generally and generically implies five things in magical work: candles, incense, paper(s), wood, and firespinning.  My firespinning gear (staff and fire-breathing torch) are both in another state; and fire-spinning is not a lot of fun when it’s cold enough to freeze your hands to the metal bar of the spinning staff.  Admittedly, it’s not cold enough to freeze my hands to the bar — but my stuff is in storage elsewhere, anyway.

I’m also in someone else’s house at the moment. And I’m welcome here, and I’m welcome to use their house altar for my work.  So I light some frankincense-myrrh incense (there’s something combustible!) and I set to work.

31 DoM: use something combustible First off, I’ve been meaning to learn how to work with electricity for a while now. And I have this CircuitScribe pen in my bag, waiting for the right time to put it into practice.

The idea is that the CircuitScribe pen from Electroninks is a basic ballpoint pen, but the ink is impregnated with quite a lot of silver.  Silver conducts electricity rather well, so drawing lines on paper with this pen results in drawing circuits.  Hence, CircuitScribe.  These pens aren’t cheap; they’re around twenty dollars here in the U.S., or $50 for a kit with additional tech elements other than a red/blue LED light element.

31 DoM: use something combustibleIt’s a pretty simple bit of technology to use. Draw a big circle on a sheet of paper with a special silver-gel pen, and stack some batteries upon it. Fold the piece of paper over the battery stack, and draw a new circle, with a line connecting it to the lighting element.  Both the batteries and the lighting element come with the pen in a single kit.

And that’s it.  That’s the whole technical apparatus.  It’s not hard to make the light glow either red (if the batteries or LED system are oriented one way) or blue (if the LED system is oriented the other way. No mess, no fuss, no fooling around with lead-based solder, or non-lead-based solder. Pretty easy to make circuits, pretty easy to make designs or patterns, and charge them with energy — literally — since there’s electricity flowing through them. Amazing, right.

31 DoM: use something combustibleExcept I had to draw four separate circuits that didn’t work before I got one that did work.  Lo and behold, here it is:  a little red LED lights up.  Isn’t that amazing? A special pen with ultra-special ink, two batteries and an LED component, and I can work with electricity! Woot!

I love this kind of science.

Now, if you flip the batteries upside down (- to + instead of + to -), or if you turn the LED system unit around so it’s attached to the batteries in the opposite direction, you get a different flow:  Now the light will turn blue:

31 DoM: use something combustibleMy girlfriend sees the light go on, and goes “ooh!” in a way that’s totally genuine and not sarcastic at all.  Then I turn the LED system around, and show her how the other light, the red light works, and she says, “Oooh!” in a tone of somewhat less wonderment and amazement.  The excitement is wearing off.

A few more times flipping the batteries, making the light come on and off, and she’s lost interest. So have I. The last of the incense has burned away, and we’re hanging out in a house with little to do in the dark of winter.  Someone (probably me) paid $20 for this CircuitScribe pen, so that it will turn on a little light, red or blue, and perform a one-time magic trick.

And, OK.  I get that I can buy a lot of small modules that let me do more than just draw wires for a light.  But in essence, it’s hard to see what I’ve done here.  I mean, I sort of knew how to build a circuit before, without CircuitScribe pens.  I’ve soldered before, too, and I’ve built things out of LittleBits.

But right now, I can’t help but feel that I’ve been played for a fool.  The real magic of this CircuitScribe pen lies in the modules that attach to the lines you draw, not in the pen itself.  I can send electricity through silver wires that are drawn on paper — but I can’t make the circuit do anything without a module.

I would have been better off buying a roll of wire, and some cheap motors, LEDs and other bits and bobs from RadioShack or Adafruit. It’s likely that buying all that ‘stuff’ will cost me a hundred bucks or more.  But buying five of these pens is an insufficient replacement for having an supply of parts and wires for most of the work I need to be doing with electronics.

And that’s kind of the point that I want to make here, today.  It will take me two to five years of dedicated study before I have the knowledge base to make electronics a part of my magical arsenal.  It would take me a similar amount of time to make music, or mechanical automata, or any other intense, knowledge-heavy subject a regular part of my magical practice.  I can’t simply whip out a wand — I mean, a pen — burn some incense, draw a few lines and make a few connections, and suddenly know how to make electronic devices.  There’s a process of learning here that cannot be … ahem… short-circuited.

And so the thing which I burn to ashes today are my illusions about learning and teaching electronics to my students. If I want to teach it, I have to learn it. If I’m going to learn it, I’m going to have to invest the time and the money to learn the relevant skills properly, and thoroughly.  And all the funky silver-gel pens (silver, the metal of the Moon which is the realm of illusion!) and red and blue reversible LED modules in the world are not going to teach me or my students to be successful electronics or electrical experts.

That said, the pen is a pretty cool toy.  It got me started. It will help my students get started.  But it will not replace sometimes-enjoyable/sometimes-difficult learning.   How appropriate that the LED which lights up burns red and blue — blue for the expansive realm of Jupiter, the powerful imaginal realm where we learn to expand our horizons; and red for the realm of Mars, that equally powerful imaginal realm where we learn to cut away whatever does not work.

Illusions dispelled about the ease with which I will achieve my aims, I can now truly begin.

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  1. Red and blue are also Shango’s colors — Shango the king, who spits lightning at his enemies. (Don’t ask me where the color correspondences come from. The African diaspora has absorbed a fair amount from Western magical sources, not to mention from Catholic ones, but the colors could also be indigenous Yoruba. I just don’t know.)

    But what I really wanted to say was that this reminded me of Mr. Miller’s most recent post, “What to Teach First?” You’re a wise teacher, able to recognize that to master electronics you need far more than this one cool toy. But this cool toy could well spark (pardon the pun) the interest of a young student, and give them a taste of wonder that will help them muster the stamina to study electronics. Or not. But as someone who draws, I have to admit I find the idea of a pen that can draw circuits interesting, in that “this is probably useless but how cool” kind of way. Maybe the thing that would shift the pen from cool-but-mostly-useless to artistically useful is a working knowledge of basic electrical wiring? So one can hack the pen and liberate its potential from the modules sold to use with it.

    So: pen as a tool to come back to?

    • Yes, this is definitely a tool worth finding a way to hack. I just need a more solid grounding (ha!) in what about it is hack-able about it.

      As for this being the toy that sparks an interest… I agree, it could be that. I’m gong to be teaching a class on electrical systems next quarter, which means figuring out some of these systems soon. But it’s shocking that in the 1950’s we had better toys for teaching electronics and chemistry to children than we do now. Adafruit has taken over the market for small electric toy kits that you assemble, but there are a number of these modular systems these days with pens or snap parts or little bits to try to teach electronics.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. Mr. Miller mentioned me on his blog and there was a two-day surge of interest. And now we’re back to more or less the same level of involvement as before. 🙂

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