Wednesday, December 8, 2010

If you build it they will ride

I've been working on a bicycle project lately, and as a result, I've been thinking about and riding bikes a lot more than usual.   As someone who still doesn't ride to work enough, I'm no expert.  But it feels like we're close to a tipping point.  I mean, San Francisco is the 6th most bike friendly city in the US.  But we're not there yet.  We'll be there when we have a real bike infrastructure.  I'll risk my skin in the (relatively) safe (mostly) bike path route to the studio.  But I won't take my kid.  If we had separated, car-safe bike lanes, like they do in Holland and other civilized places, we'd be much of the way there.

But in the mean time, I had a burst of optimism when I saw this video about New York's attempt to build it so that they will come.  The best part is that riding a bike is a fix for so much of what needs fixing about early 21st century urban life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dumb Prototypes are Brilliant

Prototyping for Elmo's Monster Maker iPhone App. from IDEO on Vimeo.

Low resolution prototypes are the bomb.  The quicker you can turn your ideas into something other folks can experience the better.

Here some of my old colleagues from IDEO are demoing their idea for a dancing Elmo iPhone app.  This is a classic example of "puppet show" prototyping.  All they did was have an idea, make an iPhone cut out and press record.  Brilliant.  You could have coded the whole thing and made it 5% more realistic.  But it wouldn't have been more fun.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

And the X Prize goes to...a gas powered car!

Edison 2 X-Prize from Johnny St.Ours on Vimeo.

Electric cars have their good points.  And plenty of bad ones.  The conviction of many that they are a panacea for global warming is infuriating.  Only 27% of the US's carbon emissions come from the transportation sector, and cars are just a portion of that.  The embodied energy of batteries is HUGE.  Their efficiency and energy density leaves much to be desired.  Plus I'm just bothered by people who believe in silver bullet solutions to complex problems.

So it put a smile on my face when I read today that the winner of the Progressive Automotive X Prize was an aerodynamic, light weight, low power, gasoline car.  Not electric.  Not Hybrid.  Light weight and low power are the classic formula for fuel efficient vehicles like the Nuovo Fiat 500 and Morris Mini of the 1950s.  But there's a special place in my heart for the Citroen 2CV, the "umbrella on four wheels," which was designed in the 1930s, but released after WWII.  The design brief was for a car that could carry 4 peasants and 220lbs of farm goods at 37mph and get 78mpg.  That's right, 78mpg.  In a way, its sad that we are only shooting for 100mpg, almost 80 years later.  Many, Saul Griffith among them, think that its not nearly enough

Hats off to the Edison 2 team and their 250cc wonder.  Less is indeed more.  As the Edison folks themselves say, "There are only two absolute virtues.  The first is light weight. The second is aerodynamic drag.  Everything else is a desperate compromise."


Monday, September 13, 2010

The Wildness and Vulnerability in Me

My teacher, friend and sometimes colleague Michael Barry shared this amazing mini documentary about Shinya Kimura with me.  I love Shinya's post-apocalyptic junk yard aesthetic.  These bikes look like they are cobbled together just enough to take their speed runs at Bonneville.  They feel utterly functional, like they are predetermined by the intersection of the tools you have in your shop and the parts that are lying around. But they're really delicate aesthetic exercises in authenticity; imaginary relics of a parallel hot rod universe.

I loved the way he said "A motorcycle is more than art, its something that brings out my instincts, the wildness and vulnerability in me."  He has taken the visual language of speed on a budget, and distilled out only the emotions.  I'm sure these bikes are fast enough to scare you.  But ultimately they are about the sounds, smells and feelings of speed, not speed itself.  Wildness indeed!

 Custom Bobber Chopper 2 - Hoon

Friday, September 10, 2010

Experiences Make Technology Matter

I was really taken aback by the Apple Facetime commercials that have been running lately.  They don't tout the technological superiority or long list of features that the iPhone 4 has.  They show people connecting.  Sure they are connecting because they have a bunch of cool technology.  But the technology is not what matters.  What matters is how people feel when they have an amazing experience.

This video about open source eye tracking technology feels much the same to me.  Eye tracking technology has been around for a while now.  And it is kind of cool in and of itself.  But what is even cooler is to witness the experience that an artist with ALS has when he is able to create again.  Its so inspiring, in fact, that people are investing their sweat equity to make it happen.

All good design is experience design.

check out the video here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Just the most important boat of the 20th century.

I'm going to Oahu next week for my sister's wedding, so I thought it might be nice to have a little Hawaiiana on the Thing Tank Blog.  Also, I happened to run across this video.

Today catamarans are commonplace.  The ubiquitous Hobie Cat was, at one time, the most popular sailboat in the world.  But the inventor of the modern sailing catamaran did it for fun.  With a background as a pilot and glider builder, he understood the lightweight construction methods of the time.  But he took his cue from the polynesian designs he saw overseas during world war II.  

Its absolutely incredible to see this masterpiece of engineering out joyriding.  Talk about experience design!

Thanks for showing us the way, Woody.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The World's Greatest Radio Station

No really.  WWOZ is amazing.  Its the world standard for featuring local content in a place that is the world standard for local content, New Orleans.  I love WBGO for straight ahead jazz.  Its New York's local jazz station.  KCRW is great if you have a range of tastes to cater too, without being too least common denominator.

But I'm just going to say it.  KPOO is the greatest radio station in the world.  It is a beautiful cross section of the pan african diaspora, by folks who know what they're talking about.  Gospel, hip hop, latin jazz, blues, funk, reggae, forgotten R&B of the 80's?  KPOO's got MULTIPLE shows for each of those, and most everything in between.  Don't like what you hear?  Its going to be a new genre in an hour or two.  Judge, Marilyn, JJ on the radio, Bobbie, Harrison, Emmit, Thomas, Noel, Irie, Pam Pam, Dave, Johnny Brooklyn, KK Baby, Francesca, Chata and Damien, you keep on doin' what you're doin'.

Until now, it was hard to play over my airtunes enabled stereos at home and in the studio.  But now you can click on this link to listen to KPOO through iTunes.

What's your favorite radio station?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Red, Yellow, Orange, Green, Scraper Bikes is on the Scene

Scrapertown from California is a place. on Vimeo.

The latest bike phenomenon isn't about fixed gear hipsters, carbon coveting spandex boys or rail riding street BMXers.  Scraper bikes are on the scene.  Born in East Oakland, scraper bikes are about self expression, community and just plain representing, on a budget.

But my favorite part about scraper bikes is the parade.  There's something inclusive AND competitive about riding around in packs, showing off your scraper bikes.  Its East Oakland's second line.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sometimes Simple Solutions are Better

iPad + Velcro from Jesse Rosten on Vimeo.

The inevitable avalanche of iPad related cases (my wife already has two), stands, docks and everything else has begun. But as this video reminds us, sometimes you just can't beat the classics. Velcro and the iPad are the new chocolate and peanut butter.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Yup, I'm building an outrigger canoe with my 7 year old daughter.

My daughter is 7, and loves to make stuff.  I figured now was the time to do something ambitious but doable with her while she still wants to hang out with her Dad and play with tools.  So why not build a boat.

We need a boat.  I used to timeshare a boat big enough to tackle the bay, but it was hard to find enough crew with time in their busy schedule.  Plus I also want to go sailing places that are mild and fun--where my daughter can learn to sail.  And capsize!  Boy, it'd be nice to have a boat you could paddle too.  Who makes such a beast?  We do, of course.

I have been following the amazing work of Gary Dierking for over 10 years.  He has done as much as anyone alive to translate pacific canoes into modern materials.  His canoes are human scale--you can drag them into the water yourself.  Not hoists or trailers.  They paddle and sail.  They are swift, not by packing more sail area and righting moment than other boats, but by just being small, narrow and light.  

I bought plans for his Wa'apa design.  For ease of building, storage and transportation, the main hull is built in 8 foot lengths.  Two ends bolted together makes a 16 footer, add a middle section, and you have a 24 foot canoe.  We're building a 16 footer.

As boats go, its pretty easy to build.  But I made it even easier by having all the plywood and foam parts machined.  In a way, I've made it into a kit.

And look how far we got in just two weekends.  And not particularly hard working weekends at that.  The first one, my regular partner in crime, Jon Carver (and his dog Nigel) came to lend a hand.  Last weekend, my brother, Pete, came all the way from Phoenix to play.  Its been fun a blast already.  And we haven't even gotten to the water.

All the plywood parts laid out.

D with two halves of the main ama.  Tusky!

Jon in his apron.
Weekend 1's bounty, 4 sides and 4 bulkheads.
Nigel, wondering when we are going to stop hammering!
Pete and D, hamming it up.

Yup, it looks like a boat.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Rather Literal Turing Machine

Alan Turing was a hell of a guy.  He didn't quite invent the computer, but pretty close.  He proved that a simple language of zeros and ones, a bunch of address locations,  a writer, a reader and an eraser could calculate any computable function.  The idea that the instructions to manipulate data, and the data itself could be all jumbled together as long as you kept track of the addresses are at the heart of the thing I'm typing on right now.

Back when I was a wide eyed undergraduate taking Daniel Dennett's Philosophy of Mind class, I got introduced to the idea of the Universal Turing Machine.  It was a machine so powerful, it might be capable of intelligence or even consciousness.  And yet it was profoundly knowable.  For a Cognitive Science major, that was pretty mind blowing, since the minds we are all used to interacting with are profoundly difficult to understand.  Alan even came up with a criteria for measuring artificial intelligence, the Turing Test.  Oh yeah, he also pretty much won World War II, but that's another story.  

It was only after reading Alan's biography that I realized just how persecuted he was for being gay.  He was, in fact, found guilty, in a court of law, of being homosexual, and was chemically castrated.  He took his own life two years later, at the age of 41.  It was so egregious that last year Gordon Brown publicly apologized, 55 years after his tragic death.  

But his story started with a roll of tape, two characters, a pen, an eraser and an eye.  And it was weirdly moving for me to see the machine in person, after seeing it my minds eye all these years.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Got Thermolene?

I wrote about the abject insanity, and delirious optimism of home-made rocket cars in my entry Turbines, Hot Rods and the Optimism of the Space Age.  There seemed to be a lot of similarity between the engines in the different vehicles.  What were those cool ribbed spheres?  How the heck did they work?

And then I learned about Turbonique.  

"But there is one name that stands alone at the apex of the daredevilry supply industry: the Turbonique Company of Orlando, Florida.

Though the company no longer exists, mere mention of the name "Turbonique" still inspires a shudder of awe among drag racing enthusiast, the company's principle target market.
Even in the Wild West atmosphere of 1960s drag racing, Its products represented the zenith of no-compromise, crazyass crazy.
Recall Acme, that enigmatic mail order purveyor of catapults and jet skates to cartoon coyotes? Pikers, compared to Turbonique."
Turbonique made, among other things  "thrust engines"...
untitled image
Turbine powered "drag axles"....
untitled image
and, of course, turbine powered "liquid driven superchargers."untitled image
All of these lovely devices were powered by a rocket fuel called Thermolene.  As if pushing your car with a bomb, with a nozzle on it, was not crazy enough, they made superchargers, powered by nozzle bombs that are likely to also make your engine explode.  That's two great explosions for the price of one.  Thermolene indeed.
But that gave me an idea.  I've been thinking about how to make a hot rod for 24 Hours of Lemons.  Maybe this self powered turbocharger thing might work, only without the Thermolene, thank you very much.  Why couldn't we build a leaf blower powered supercharger.  
Looks like I'm not the first person to have this idea.More Leaf-Blower Supercharger Photos Found!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pattern, Paper Folding and Me.

A3 Animal B from michael schoner on Vimeo.
You know what they say about hammers. They think everything is a nail. I'm not sure what that makes me, but pattern and folded paper seem to appear somewhere in most of the projects I work on. There's something visceral, almost approachable about the topology of folded paper. Add pattern, and that topology starts to take on a life of its own.

I love the feeling of simultaneous form and flatness in these masks by Neterlands architect Michael Schoner. And there's something cool about doing work that is vaguely representational with such a thorough abstraction. But then again, maybe I just see nails

24 Hours of Lemons

Talk about a liability waiver.  The 24 Hours of Lemons is a race for $500 cars on real racetracks.  As you can see, its quite a cool mix of sillyness, shade tree engineering and actual near death experiences.  

Its real racing.  And like all racing, its about cheating.   Do you expect us to believe that sweet MR2 cost $500? And the austin mini with something crazy under the hood?  Not a chance.  At first I thought the same thing about the Jag XJS that was out there, but how broken does an XJS have to be to be worthless.  Perhaps that's a retorical question.

That said many of the cars you'd think would be crawlers went well.  Shout outs to the blue jeep cherokee and wienermobile toyota tercel.  There was some nice driving out there.  

Now we just have to figure out what we should run next year.  Any suggestions?