Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Beautiful Future - The Genius of Syd Mead

I'm firmly in the middle-ages of my life. One of the interesting things about getting older, is that you have the perspective of time to look at innovation and change. I was born in 1965, an era that was full of futuristic promises - space travel, new materials and technology, computers, and a very early internet. The sixties were all about a utopian vision of the future. Change was good in every way. Little did we know that it would lead to the scarcity of resources, shaky politics, and family crises of the seventies. (sorry, went a little dark there) 

Although I was young, it seemed like our future was full of shiny promise and an easier lifestyle. Pop culture and corporate artists painted a vision of streamlined living paired with unbelievable assisting technology. You can see this theme in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the kitchen. It even showed up in music, with the electronically influenced sounds of the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, and even the Beatles. All of these groups started to dabble in the sterility of synthesizers created by pioneers like Robert Moog

One could argue that Syd Mead was at the center of this futuristic vision. He's most popularly known for his work with sci-fi movies like "Star Trek", "Blade Runner", and the original "Tron". However, he was prolific in many other fields. After a short stint in the Army, he graduated from Pasadena's Art Center in 1959 and went on to work at Ford's Advanced Styling Studio. Check out this awesome pic of the studio environment - a retro designers dream! 

After just two years at Ford, he branched out into contract illustration work with other large firms like Philips Electronics. In 1970 he started Syd Mead, Inc. Along with his other high-profile clients his firm did architectural renderings for Intercontinental Hotels, and several big design firms.

What I love most about Syd Mead's story of success is his endless productivity and talent. The quantity, quality, and variety of his designs is staggering. This is a visionary artist, who has never stopped working. I find this incredibly inspiring. He's played a very important role in product and conceptual design. In many ways, I think we need to envision and manifest our future more often. Just like Syd does on a daily basis.

In 2010, Mead did an interview with Drew Stock for I was agog to hear that Michael Jackson almost created an amusement park with Mead, but it never got past the concept stage. How interesting that they were close friends! He also talks about his experiences in film-making. The article is definitely worth a read. In it, he responds to the question, "How do you cope with the fact that the future never really arrives?"
"The future arrives in bits and  pieces, constantly. The future doesn’t start from zero, it starts with the entire accumulation that is represented by ‘now.’ What we do now actually invents the future. If we celebrate crap, guess what? I strive to depict my futures  as bright, functional, well conceived and consistently elegant. At least, I can say that I didn’t contribute to everything going to hell." 
Played against the backdrop of our current obsessions with zombies, war films, and post-apocalyptic themes, I think Syd's vision of the future looks pretty bright. I recommend browsing his body of work on Google images. Here are some of my favorites.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Makerbot Madness: My Early Experiences with 3D Printing

Thanks to a Federal grant called The Carl Perkins Fund (think industry magnate, not "blue suede shoes"), this year I received a Makerbot 3D printer for use in my classroom. The specific model I received is the Makerbot 2. Sadly, not the new and improved black version pictured on their web site but a very cool wood, plastic, and steel model. With some educational discounts, our unit cost a touch over $2k. 3D printing is like science fiction come to life. Here's a picture of our little mad scientist: 

What's the big deal about 3D printers? Here are some example scenarios which may be coming to you in the near future:
  • Instead of ordering a new plastic replacement part for your dishwasher, you simply download it and print it.
  • Before you buy a new set of silverware, you want to see how it feels in your hand and examine the design more closely - download/print.
  • The plastic handle on the hatchback of your car broke - download/print.
  • Finally, here's an odd one but totally plausible.Your daughter is studying AP Anatomy and Physiology at your local high school.  She downloads and prints the actual bones in her index finger based on recent MRI. She presents her research on phalanges, passes around her finger bones to the class as an example, and gets an "A" on her project.
3D printing applications are limitless. 
If you can design it, it can exist.

3D printers are all the rage right now. Obama even mentioned them briefly in his State of the Union address last month. How does it work? Here's a simplistic explanation of how we're using our Makerbot to print 3D objects:
  1. Find or create a 3D version of an object on your computer. To create models you can use many different industry-standard or free tools such as SolidWorks, Sculptris, Sketchup, Blender, and many more. If you can output to an STL or OBJ file, you're good to go. I highly recommend Thingiverse, an awe-inspiring library of free, downloadable models for 3D printers. These user-generated models, are so cool and fun. Visit the site - it's a great way to see the revolutionary power of this medium.
  2. Use a slicing program to create a 3D printer-compatible file. Although Makerbot makes it's own free program called Makerware, we prefer a program called ReplicatorG. The slicing program cuts the 3D object into layers and creates a unique tool path for each layer in the model. In addition, it allows you to 
  3. Print the object. This is where the magic happens. Our Makerbot uses plastic wire (or filament) that is fed through heated extrusion tips. These tips move along an X and Y grid, following the tool path and building the object layer by layer until it is complete.
Forms of 3D printing have been around since the 80's, but the exiting news is that it's now available for home and educational use. Makerbot is the clear leader in the consumer market. According to their Wikipedia page, "MakerBot Industries is a Brooklyn, New York-based company founded in January 2009 by Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, and Zach "Hoeken" Smith producing 3D printers. MakerBot builds on the early progress of the RepRap Project with the goal of bringing desktop 3D printing into the home at an affordable price." Think of RepRap as the home DIY version of the Makerbot. Btw, RepRap is very cool, and worth checking out. I'm thinking about building one this summer.

While these machines are wonderful, they are also very fussy. They require constant tinkering to get good builds. Personally, I enjoy this process. However, if you're thinking that 3D printers are just point and print - we're not quite there yet. For every three builds, we get a disastrous glob of melted, spider-webbed plastic. 3D printing can take a long time. When I come back to my classroom in the morning after an overnight build, sometimes I see joy or failure. If you're using 3D printers, here are some tips:
  • Adjust the temperature settings of your extruders and the heated build plate. If you're using ABS plastic filament you can run at higher temps, PLA can run at lower temps.
  • Use calipers to measure the actual thickness of your plastic filament. Use those more accurate measurements to tune to the settings in slicing programming.
  • Play around with the support material settings. If you're printing a complex model, using the right amount of support material can really help the quality of the build.
  • Cool air drafts affect build quality. Many makers are building plexiglass plates to cover the printer openings, or even creating a large box to put on it during printing. A cheap solution is to place a cardboard box over it to keep the build space nice and warm.
  • Blue painter's tape seems to be an excellent alternative to the supplied build plate tape. If you've had trouble with the model coming loose from the plate during the build, this seems to be a a good solution.
I would encourage you to learn about this new technology. It's incredibly fun and definitely revolutionary. Embrace your inner Maker! Here are some recent builds that we've done in class. The first two pictures show the supporting material which surrounds the build, and the final Reddit Alien character. The last picture is a Go Pro camera mount for a student's senior project. My class is just about to begin a unit where we design an build 3D models. I'm excited to get started.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Don't Worry - Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis Have Got a Handle On It

Anyone else weirded-out by all of the asteroid activity lately? If the Mayan apocalypse (ahem, change of consciousness) had not already occurred, I might be looking at these as signs of impending doom. One of my talented students has been raising my awareness of all the interesting things happening in our sky - thanks, Austin! As you may already realize, the internet is a particularly good resource of animated GIFs and vidz to help me illustrate.

DA14 Asteroid Flyby
According to NASA's website, the Earth received a belated valentine yesterday, "Asteroid 2012 DA14 is a small near-Earth object – approximately 150 feet (45 meters) in diameter. On Feb. 15, 2013, the asteroid will pass by our planet at a remarkably close distance, but the asteroid’s path is understood well enough that there is no chance of a collision with the Earth." Here's a little glimpse of it:

Russian Meteor Injures Hundreds of People
On a unrelated but strange note, residents of Russia's Ural region got a fantastic fireworks show with a horrifying sonic boom attached to it. On the same day that DA14 flew by, Russian residents saw a huge fireball in the sky and felt a percussive explosion that shattered windows and injured hundreds. According to NASA, the explosion created a blast in central Russia equivalent to 300,000 tons of TNT. Luckily no one was killed. Here's a fantastic recap from several viewpoints:

In my tiny mind, Russia is becoming the place where magical yet scary events constantly occur. It seems lawless, wild, and beautiful all at the same time... kind of like an alternate-reality version of the best and worst in America. If you dare, watch this compilation video of driver dashboard cameras capturing the madness on Russian roads:

Enjoy the show in our sky!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Killing Machines

Earlier today, I caught my cat feasting on a bird that she just killed, guts and all. I had to pry her away from her prey. It's horrifying to see our nice little kitty as a cold-blooded meat eater, but this scenario has happened so many times. I can't even count how many dead or traumatized little field mice that I have release back to the wild (or served as hedge fertilizer in our yard). I'm getting really good at winging dead mice from our front porch all the way to our voluminous hedges about 15 yards away.

Just before Christy and I got married (eleventy-billion years ago), we adopted a runt-of-the-litter kitten we named "Stimpy". This cat became legendary in our lives, as well as our friends. We had to feed her with an eye dropper for the first month of her life, but she eventually bloomed into a beautiful cat with a very sweet demeanor. That cat ruled our house in a very regal way for many years before we had to put her down a couple years ago. It was very sad, but she lived an excellent and cushy life. During her time the only "kill" that she brought in to the house amounted to a few acorns. Needless to say, she was not a cold-blooded gansta.

Our current cat was also picked up from our local Humane Society. When we went in the "Cat Room", she climbed up on my shoulder immediately and was very friendly. She's been a fantastic cat, and very affectionate. We decided to name her "HR Fluffinstuff" but she's more commonly known as "kitty". Underneath her purring mass of soft fur is a voracious hunter. It seems like she kills at least one bird or mouse per week, and the sad part is that she loves to display her kills on the carpets of our home or worse - in our master bedroom. The most horrifying moment so far was when we returned from a family vacation to find a huge male blue jay in full rigor mortis.

Weirdly, our kids never bonded with Stimpy but they are very attached to HR. I attribute this to the power of raising a kitty from a young age to adulthood. There's something about that nurturing process that bonds owners to pets. In return, HR loves our kids and is incredibly gentle.

A couple months ago, I read a hilarious comic on this topic via By the way, if you're not familiar with Matthew Inman's awesome site, I highly recommend it. He created a great infographic titled, "How much do cats actually kill?" Here's just one of the many data points he presented. Click here or on the the picture to see his complete work.

The data is based on research from The University of Georgia's Kitty Cams project (I kid you not, you can read about it here: In a brilliant  but simple move, researchers attached tiny video cameras to cat collars in order to track their activities. The results show a secret life of cats that is both fascinating and horrifying. Our little lovable kittens are indeed killing machines! The study showed that one in three cats hunted prey and average two kills per week. BASED ON CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATES, OUR CAT IS KILLING 104 ANIMALS PER YEAR!!!!  This doesn't even take into account all the weird prehistoric beetles and moths that she brings in!

Pets are odd. Domesticated wild animals seem like an impossible thing, yet it's one of the most common arrangement in many households. Go ahead kids, pet that cat... but respect the killing machine within.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Grafitti is Cooler than Wine

It's been awhile since my last post! I decided to take a little break from my blog. School is back in session (sesh!), and it's time to get back on the horse.

I saw this cool mini-documentary about graffiti artists doing what they do on the sides of wine crates, and eventually labels. If you know me, you know that I'm not a huge wine fan. I get headaches from red wine. I can drink it, but I prefer not to. This sets me up for awkward moments at the dinner table and in restaurants. Not liking wine as an adult is kind of like not eating vegetables - people are like, "Huh?" Props to Fin Bec though for a brilliant product idea.

Back to the video. I think it's fascinating to watch artistic process. In addition to all the cool final products in this video, I love the fact that we get an inside look at how they work in both planning (or lack thereof) and technique.

From the YouTube video description:
Produced by Rebild Productions
A micro-documentary of the 2012 MyFinBEC project where graffiti and street art meet wine. Eight international artists from around the world met in June 2012 to paint on wooden canvases made of 84 wine crates. These paintings were then used as wine labels. Visit to order limited edition wine cases.
Talk to you again soon!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Support Indie Game Developers and Worthy Charities via the Humble Bundle

As I've mentioned before, my household (-christy) are big fans of Minecraft. This game is probably the most successful example of an indie game that went on to make millions. Many times we're so enamored with the big game studios that we forget that there are many talented and innovative smaller efforts in the market. One cool way to support these earnest code monkeys, is to buy bundles of their games that appear in the Humble Bundle (aka the Humble Indie Bundle)!

I'll let Wikipedia do the summary here...
The Humble Indie Bundles or Humble Bundles are a series of game bundling experiments that allow users to purchase collections of multi-platform DRM-free independently developed video gamesonline in a "Pay what you want" manner, with proceeds bypassing middlemen and going directly to the indie developers and charities. The first bundle was organized and managed by Wolfire Games. Beginning with the second bundle a separate company spun-off, Humble Bundle, Inc., with the sole purpose of making bundles. The bundles are made available for purchase during limited time frames. Purchasers are able to set how much they wish to pay for the bundles and how they want their money to be distributed between the games' developers and two charities: Child's Play and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The games in the bundles run on Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux-based systems and are digitally distributed without digital rights management (DRM) controls.[1] Five bundle drives have been completed to date, breaking over $7 million in total sale and charitable donations.
Right now they are offering a great new version featuring some cool games:
  • Voxatron - an old-school, pixelated platform shooter that has cute hip graphic styling. This game was created by Joseph White and his team at game developer Lexaloffle. The tiny pixel peashooter bullets are awesome, and so are the pixelated explosion effects. If you're old-school like me, you'll notice nods to Robotron, Diablo, game boy adventure games, and many other classics. As an added bonus, it has very cool level building tools and user generated content options.

  • Blocks that Matter - Here's a very cool platform puzzler featuring a tiny driller robot named "Tetrobot". This game was created by Swing Swing Submarine - a small French game company owned by William David and Guillame Martin.  In a sly nod to creative rights, Tetrobot travels through underground puzzles to save his creators who were captured by someone trying to steal their work! It's a Tetris and Minecraft mashup that you'll really enjoy playing.

Please support the Humble Bundle! It's an excellent way to support worthy charities and the creativity of indie game developers. The latest bundle features the games above plus the game, "The Binding of Isaac". Pull out your e-wallets and buy now!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The End is Nigh!

Why go for a bike ride, when our robot overlords can ride the bike for you!?! I love this little guy, especially when he's taking a break and checking out the scenery. I kept wondering, "Where is he going?"