ACT News


Gang-gang. Beanie-counters add a new kind of beanie

Canberrans know that we are in midwinter, beanie-demanding, ear-protecting times. This very morning your columnist has come to work wearing with pride the swish navy blue and gold CBR Brave ice-hockey supporters' beanie.

We don't know how this treasured headwear was made but we are sure that its manufacture won't compare with the ingenuity with which the beanies have been made to be handed out, at registration, to participants in this week's annual International Conference on Auditory Display (ICAD 2016).

Those that register for this presentation by the ANU's College of Arts & Social Sciences at the ANU's School of Music are handed a "data beanie" to protect them from this host city's Icelandic mid-winter chilliness. But, in the spirit of the cerebral conference, these beanies are computer knitted from punch-cards that encode data logged from elephant seals diving under the Antarctic ice. There is to be a special ICAD concert during which attendees will hear a sonification of the data that is knitted into their beanies!

Try and keep up with THAT, so-called Canberra Symphony Orchestra! When will CSO beanies be issued to the orchestra's loyal subscribers?

The beanies have been created by Professor Angelina Russo and in one of Wednesday's conference sessions she will give a workshop showing people how to knit a "data scarf".

On to the professor and her cerebral knitting (even after her patient explanation of it to me my brow is still as knitted as one of her beanies) in just a moment,but first a word about ICAD.


This year's conference focuses on something called "sonic information design" which, esoteric conference literature half-explains, "has the aspiration that artificial sounds may be designed to make the world a better place".

So, for example, papers to be given at the conference have titles such as The Triple Tone Sonification Method to Enhance the Diagnosis of Alzheimers and Dementia and Musical Robots for Children with ASD Using a Client-Server Architecture.

But now back to Professor Russo and to the virtuoso knitting she does using that contraption of yesteryear (they had their heyday in the 1980s) the domestic knitting machine that used punch cards to tell it what and how to knit. Professor Russo has several of these old knitting machines (today you have to buy them on eBay). She enthused to me that they were the first contraptions to enable "digital fabrication in the home" making them in a sense a kind of forerunner of today's 3-D printers.

She says that the beauty of using these ancient machines is that, because they need data entered on punch cards, today's knitters can knit absolutely unique-to-them items using data to do with something, anything, of interest (sometimes of sentimental importance) to them. So for example she is a runner and knows of intense runners and cyclers (who can be a little obsessive and narcissistic) who have collected data about their running, and entering it on punch cards, have then knitted it up.

We thought at once of a patriotic Australian cricket lover creating a Sir Donald Bradman beanie using the bedazzling statistics of his career. Extreme bird lovers might like a scarf made (to wear when out twitching) from data captured not from seal song but from the mimicry calls of the superb lyrebird.

In conversation with the professor we imagined how every known thing about a loved one, living or gone to their Great Reward, could be turned into data and knitted into something. One might in a sense be able to "wear" one's late nan. The professor says that what people love about data knitting is the uniqueness, unique to them, of what data they choose to knit about, and the joy, the novelty of the weirdness of in a sense converting data into clothing.

Fans obsessed with celebrities, with Beyonce say, or Taylor Swift, could knit garments about their chosen ones. In my case this would mean knitting myself a Maria Sharapova beanie incorporating all the data of my Warrior Princess's lustrous career, her 35 singles titles, her lifelong prizemoney of $US36,484,486, etc etc. How one misses, this year, her sonification of deathly quiet Wimbledon.

This all surely has (we only thought of this later and didn't raise it with the professor) an element of magic about it, of alchemy. Water into wine. It is the conversion of something, in the beanies' case the songs of elephant seals, first into one thing, data, and then into yet another thing, a one-off garment of unique significance.

Of the data scarf workshop event she (Professor Russo, not Maria) advises that she will give an overview of computer knitting processes, techniques and technologies. Then participants can map their own dataset into a computer punchcard to control a knitting machine.

She says that although each person is applying the same process, different design decisions will result in different scarves. You can map the data into a pattern in many different ways. The mapping of the data onto the pattern and the choice of colour and contrast has a big effect on the final creation.

The elephant seal data was collected as part of a Turning Nature into Knowledge, Under the IceCap project. The complex bio-logging data on which the ICAD beanies are based uses not just the songs of the songster seals on their dives but also data about wind speeds, salinity and temperatures where the dear seals swim and croon.

ICAD 2016 continues at the School of Music until  July 7.