The Fab Lab and the Unwettables

There are occasional instances when my current employer makes me go ‘cool!’  or ‘I want that!’.  Today both have happened.

Recent research at MIT is codifying the way surfaces repel materials.  Researchers have been refining their understanding of the way thin liquids like oil can be kept from coating or being absorbed into a material.  By examining the way duck feathers resist the higher surface tension of water, scientists were able to come up with a surface that could resist coating by oil and even pentane (a solvent which has the lowest surface tension at atmospheric pressure, and is thus most liable to wet a surface).  They are now completing a list of the ‘rules’ that apply to wetting.  In this future this should mean super-wet-proof materials for consumers.  Cool.

In addition, based on MIT models, a new fabrication lab is being opened in Providence.  It will be an industry-grade lab that’s open to the public for a variety of projects and developments, and is being opened in association with AS220, an arts and technology collaborative.  Since its based on similar labs somewhere around here, it makes me want to go out and fabricate.  I have the ideas, and could possibly have access to the tools, so why not?  I want that.

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Creepy and under my skin.

I’m all for new inventions.  And I know how debilitating conditions like diabetes can be.  Still, the idea of a dime-sized device under my skin freaks me out, especially when that device is in control of monitoring my health.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned or simply unrealistic.  After all, the kind of patient care required for lifelong illnesses must be truly demanding.  The kind of self-monitoring that goes on with certain conditions must be tedious.  I support the right of anyone to live a healthy, happy life.  But part of this whole monitoring idea is about relinquishing control.  Sure, the implanted sensors could give a more accurate reading of your body’s function than any person not hooked up to a machine.  But the idea of that same quick, accurate reading being used to inject me with certain substances is downright frightening.

Maybe it’s all too much movies.  The weird and wired plug-ins in the Matrix also were creepy for me to watch, even though they weren’t real.  I guess it’s just one more step towards the computers taking over, and to be frank, I’m not quite read for that one.

Let’s just give people money…

Ok, Google is pretty cool.  And, they have a sense of humor (unlike Kia).  But the recently announced Project 10^100th is beyond awesome.  Have a good idea?  Lack the technical expertise to implement it?  We’ll give you money to get the job done and hook you up with the appropriate know-how (we are, after all, a search engine).

I, for one, have about a thousand ideas I need to dust off, spruce up, and submit.  I’m not going to list them all here, because then you’d steal them and win the prizes for yourself.  But, that being said, the spirit of this whole competition is about doing good stuff for the world.  So, if you have your own ideas, please submit them here.  The due date for project submission is October 20th, so get cracking.  And if you do end up working on a project of ultimate coolness as a result, remember the humble blogger who sent you on your way to funding.  Heck, I’d even volunteer for a project of ultimate coolness…

The computer industry: ‘They really need something right now’.

A new technology (developed at the Oven Glove)  that uses block copolymers anchored by more traditional lithographic microchip methods of production to create even more powerful chips could be tested and ready within the next two years.  It’s an interesting study.  Because of our knowledge of the way molecules and structures of a very small nature work, we can apply the natural arrangement and make it do what we want.  It’s like cultivation, on a micro level.  I wonder if the same sorts of domestication trends could happen with molecules after long-term interaction with humans, and what that interaction might look like in a non-living substance?  Would a change be effected through attempting to create some of the more rare molecular structures out there?

Even more interesting was the comment about the industry of magnetic media, and how they could really use some new innovation right about now.  I mean, I understand progress, and I would also like to move forward and have faster and better machines.  but I didn’t realize we were in such dire straights with computers.  Is it because the rate of hardware development is slowing?  Is it because the public is used to an increasing rate of change?  I guess I just wasn’t aware there was anything worrisome about where we are righ now.  Explanations, anyone?

Stacey, the not-so-delicate flower

What is it with me and blog titles that should be the names of children’s books, anyway?

Mike gave me a present yesterday night.  It arrived on our doorstep sometime during the evening without either of us noticing – he had to wake me up to give it to me.  It’s very pretty, a little unusual, and very, very delicate.  The spring ring clasp itself is about the size of a sesame seed.  Not easy to put on when you can’t really see what you’re doing.  I was afraid to wear it to bed last night, and a little timid about wearing it to work today, though I eventually overcame my fear.

I shared these fears openly with Mike, saying how I might catch the delicate chain on a fence and tear it free from my neck, thus losing his lovely gift.  His response was simple – “Don’t get it caught on a fence.”  For some people, that advice would be easy to follow, but not generally for me.  I am not a accident-prone as I was during adolescence, but I still have stupid things befall me.  I still end up stepping into puddles that are three times as deep as they seem.  I still break things.  I think I’ve dropped and broken three glasses thus far at work in 2008 – there are more that didn’t break.  I am, after all, not really a delicate flower.  I’m more of a hardy rose – trim me back for the winter, but don’t expect to need to take me inside.

How does this all fit in with the new image of the female, and my current exploration of more traditional female roles?  I can do mannish things like build my own house or fix the garbage disposal.  I’m also still a nerd – I like tech stuff and sci fi and I have allergies that make me blow my nose a lot, which is something of a pansy sort of thing.  So maybe that makes me a female-male-female.  I now pay someone to cut my hair and actually style it sometimes and have had my nails done and (GASP) my legs are actually not hairy, in preparation for warmer weather.  Mostly this means I’m spending more time and money on things I didn’t used to bother with.  But maybe these things are also turning me into someone a little more sensible, a little more pretty, and maybe even a little more delicate.

News you can Use

Ok, so the title of this post should really be something more like “News you really like”, or “News people in rural Kenya or other poverty-stricken parts of Africa can use”, but those seemed not as catchy as my current title.

Via the MIT website and the MIT-Lemelson awards program, I discovered a great program called KickStart that is one of those great places where innovation, business, and development combine.  The ‘company’ (the organization itself is a nonprofit, but it works on a business model such that after initial development, publicity, and distribution, the system runs itself) develops and implements a variety of simple, handheld, or manpowered machines to increase productivity and income.  Current machines include a variety used for turning available materials (sand, dirt, cement, clay) into building materials like bricks or roof tiles, an oil seed press, and several forms of manual irrigation pump, ranging in size from portable by one man to permanent.

While initial funding for research and advertising comes from donations and grants, KickStart is really about developing a process, not just a technology.  For example, with the development of the oilseed press, KickStart first looked at what was in demand in the area.  With government price controls being lifted on cooking oil, prices were skyrocketing and tehre just wasn’t enough oil to go around.  KickStart developed a more sophisticated oilseed press from models in other countries, then trained four local engineering firms to build it.  Using advertising to market the press and its advantages over other models, everyone benefits.  The engineering firms sell more machines that have high quality and hence increase customer satisfaction.  The cooking oil presser is able to process more cooking oil at a higher quality, therefore turning a higher profit.  The consumer of the oil, which was previously in shortage, now has an assurance of enough product.

If you were as excited as me, you will be disappointed to note they have no internships or
volunteer positions available at this time.  There are some job openings, but nothing that really agrees with my current skill set.  Alas.  My dreams of following my sisters to Kenya and learning Ki Swahili will just have to wait a little longer.

It’s only Memorex

I’m not sure all of you remember it, but there was an ad campaign from my childhood that questioned or not whether or not something was real, or Memorex.  The whole idea was that cassette recordings were so accurately rendered that on Memorex tapes, you couldn’t tell the different between the actual or recorded voice.  Of course, no recording sounds exactly the same, but maybe Memorex was sophisticated enough to fool very early voice-recognition software.  Maybe.

However, in the modern world of email forwarding, YouTube, and Flickr, among other technologies, I’m starting to wonder if there’s an real content left out there.  Paramount is releasing movie clips as a means of expression on online sites, and MTV is soon going to release clips of its shows in a similar fashion.  Big news industries around the world such as CNN and the BBC are advocating for user comments and blogging in a bid to increase readership.  We’re all passing along the blog posts or articles we think others might enjoy, but are we giving our own response to it, or just starting with ‘thought you’d like this’?

For a short period of time I did some babysitting for an absolutely adorable boy with Downs Syndrome.  He loved the Wiggles and Bear in a Big Blue House, and used quotes from these shows whenever possibly relevant in a conversation (and sometimes when not relevant).  Because he loved these shows, he would watch them over and over again, as do many children with favorite shows, and certain phrases became ingrained in such a way that they became stock phrases for certain expression.  While in this case I think the quotes helped with self-expression, I don’t think movie or television quotes are really widening that range for most of us.  I would hate to see a time when we can only express ourselves with phrases preserved in media.  Language should grow, not collapse in upon itself and fall out of use.

Autism, vaccines, and social diagnosis

Autism is a condition that I don’t really understand.  It’s probably a condition that most people don’t understand, which is why so much is still in question about it.   Ok, we do know a few things.  We know it starts before the age of 3 and is usually hereditary.  We know it affects all areas of brain development, if we don’t know how.

Despite the fact that autism and related disorders (such as Asperger’s) are not completely understood, the federal government seems to be confident that childhood vaccines do not cause autism.  With this landmark case, however, there may be some evidence that vaccines can aggravate related conditions that could eventually cause ‘autism-like symptoms’.

While I understand the need to distinguish between different related conditions, and the problems that can arise from a lack of understanding of what a condition might entail, it is indeterminate classifications such as ASD (autism spectrum disorders) that riles me about the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition).  When these classifications are used to determine the fate of children with mental impairments, when they determine the funding, support, and government assistance that children receive, it makes me wonder what decisions are being made and why.  Are we diagnosing to try and help more people in need?  Are we diagnosing to fit the known familial and financial circumstances of the child?  Are we diagnosing to the best of our ability within classifications that are at times vague and overlapping?  And if we are picking and choosing diagnoses, is this right?