Small Streams


The Gift of Science
December 6, 2013, 3:30 am
Filed under: business, education, math, mind, technology | Tags: , ,

20131206-083006.jpg

I saw this lava lamp display at the V&A’s Museum of Science. Honest to Pete, I think there should be a whole room devoted to a lava lamp display. Who doesn’t love lava lamps? That and oil and glycerin on a projector, the psychedelic “wet show.” Maybe some polka dots and mirrors like the Mattress Factory‘s Yayoi Kusama installation.

The trick would be to create a room that excited the senses but didn’t make you physically ill.

If there’s any problem I have with lava lamps, it’s that science gift shops devote so much shelf space to them. Many science museums’ gift shops concentrate on the “ooh, shiny” distractions rather than objects that indulge people’s (not just children’s) love of the methods of science. I have to admit that people who run museum gift shops know more about what sells and what sells the experience.

If you’re just out for a happy trip, you don’t want to be scolded into homework at the end. No one likes to take a trip and bring home a memento that reminds them that they are not expanding their minds enough. So I really can’t advocate for a gift pack of Euclid’s Elements — though there are some great geometry puzzles that would make great gifts. The Science Museum does have a great book section and a lomography section and Technology Will Save Us shelves. When I was there last, they had someone demonstrating paper gliders.

I don’t expect science museums to check their impulse to cater to their audience any time soon. I just hope they can do more to indulge people’s desire to think about things. I will now stop ranting and leave you with the instructions for making your own lava lamp.

Advertisements


Wax On
November 23, 2013, 3:17 am
Filed under: art, awareness, business, cities, community, media, observer | Tags: , ,

Last week, I wrote about a tech workshop at Rough Trade East. But don’t go looking up “rough trade” on Craigslist, look it up in the New York Times which has a story on the new branch of Rough Trade in NYC. The old medium of vinyl is growing, perhaps not on a scale that economists recognize (e•con•o•mist, a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing — Oscar Wilde), but enough that more and more people have access to the joy of records.

“As more and more business moves online and also to the malls,” [Martin Mills of Beggars Group, an independent record company] wrote in an email, “there is an increasing countervailing human demand for community, for localness, for tangible beauty, for specialist knowledge, for range, for retail experiences that are not price-dependent but make you feel good.”



Maker Remaketh
October 31, 2013, 4:06 am
Filed under: business, eutechnics, technology | Tags:

This article in Technology Review, “The Difference Between Making and Manufacturing” takes Chris Anderson to task for his enthusiasms but can also be seen as the play book for the coming years.

First I’d like to say that the author sets up a false dichotomy between making and manufacturing. Large manufacturers have always brought techniques from the kitchen or barnyard, and makers have always hacked ready mades. We’re only talking about a matter of scale. Leaving aside the Marxian perspective that quantity begets quality, the cat is already out of the bag.

David Rotman says makers, or let’s say, those people without standing in the manufacturing community, the unannointed, the macroeconomic non-entities, can do a lot, but they’re not making a revolution.

Many types of manufacturing require a sophisticated series of steps and processes to be done in precise sequence. Selecting the right materials and technologies is key to high-quality, low-cost results. If designers don’t understand the manufacturing processes and materials that are practical, they will never come up with the most advanced and compelling new products. It’s a lesson that has been repeatedly learned over the last decade in the development of new clean-energy technologies. Innovators may create smart designs for technologies such as solar panels, but ignoring the costs and practical details of manufacturing the new products is a sure path to failure.

Things need to be sophisticated, precise, and probably require the capital that hackers like you don’t have. Shift your perspective a bit, though, and you can see that Rotman provides the rubric for makers subverting manufacturers. Get sophisticated enough, get precise enough, and learn materials and processes, but do it cheaply and do it in such a way that encourages continuous practice.

Rotman is right, though, ignoring the cost and practical details of manufacturing is a sure path to failure. It’s just that I don’t believe the failure to be perpetual.

20131031-090630.jpg



Change Happens
April 24, 2011, 8:32 am
Filed under: business, eutechnics, Our Country | Tags:

This article in a reusable bag company publication chronicles the reduction of plastic bag use in California. Some supermarkets say that plastic bag use is down about 25% over three years. The rest of the country is probably not far behind.

Habits change and incremental change can save us.



Let the Debate Begin
November 21, 2009, 4:43 pm
Filed under: business, health, politics | Tags:

According to the New York Times there are enough votes for cloture so the debate on the Senate’s health care bill can begin.

For many, expanding government’s role in health care means a deepening slide into socialism.

But if our health care system can’t compete with other countries’, it means our businesses can’t compete, our manufacturers can’t compete, our retailers can’t compete, and even a number of services can’t compete.

If we forego the chance to reform health care, we might be on the right — but losing — side of an ideological argument. Essentially, countries like China, Japan, and Germany would be creating favorable business conditions and we wouldn’t be, playing a game of monopoly capitalism where we would not be able to participate.



Odorless and Colorless
September 13, 2009, 6:39 am
Filed under: business, ecology, health | Tags: ,

The Times’ reporting on violations of clean water regulations is nothing short of devastating. Clean water is something you take for granted, but the article by Charles Duhigg is a vial of smelling salts to make us think of an issue too easily ignored. The article is a combination of research, moving stories of people victimized by a rigged system, and lots of hand-wringing or silence by politicians and public officials.

In Charleston, West Virginia, the water is unfit to bathe in, let alone to drink.The poor water quality is due — not according to coal companies but anyone with a shred of scientific capacity — to coal companies injecting slurry back in to the ground. State DEPs and the EPA have been hamstrung in their efforts to police bad behavior. According to one regulator . . .

“We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases, put them in a box, and lock it shut. Everyone knew polluters were getting away with murder. But these polluters are some of the biggest campaign contributors in town, so no one really cared if they were dumping poisons into streams.”

So the costs were externalized onto the people of Charleston, who can’t take a shower for fear of getting a rash, or take a drink for fear of losing their teeth or gall bladders.

The problem with enforcing the regulations is that it’s not so apparent that our water is polluted. Toxic chemicals found in tainted water can be invisible. In the ’70s when The Clean Water Act was instituted, the problems were more apparent. Raw sewage made a better target than minuscule quantities of arsenic.

Regulations come with a cost. Fining and restricting coal mining activities will surely raise the price of coal, and therefore of electricity. The average utility user will bear the burden. But it beats having to use bottled water to brush your teeth. Plus, we’ll have the bonus of being awake.



Another Pittsburgh Diaspora
September 7, 2009, 9:05 am
Filed under: business, community, education, eutechnics, railbelt, walking | Tags: , ,

We are wealthy in direct proportion to the ability we have to act on our dreams, to make what we only imagine.

Recently, our city has lost the capacity to make a million barrels of beer — not that the Iron City Brewery has made that much beer in a while. Sales have been below 200,000 barrels for years. Much of that capacity was used to make crappy beer, malt liquor and light beers. I for one found myself a lone defender of Iron City beer, though it could give you both a headache and a stomach ache after two beers (which probably had to do with how much adjunct grains they used).

The big loss is not the beer. There is no lack of beer. The loss of the skills, talents, and connections that were part of the workforce of the brewery, the nearly hundred workers who knew how to run a boiler, create a valve, maintain the flow of thousands of gallons of water, or fill thousand of cans a minute will be lost. A shop full of artisans is a hard thing to create, but in deciding to close shop, the owners of the brewery have undone what had taken years to do.

The oldest parts of the brewery buildings will remain, maintained perhaps by the mechanisms of preservation law. What mechanisms do we have to preserve the artisanal and craft abilities of a hundred workers?