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Entries in technology (35)

Wednesday
Sep162015

Bahamas: Please Forgive My Heart, 2013

This particular video is of the recording studio units that were used for Bahamas's Please Forgive My Heart, evidently a rare 1967 Germanium Neve console, which means nothing to me, but they also show a tiled shower stall for reverb.  I know about this because Eon Sinclair wrote an article in On Site review 28:sound 'Singing in the Rain', p43, about all the music recorded in washrooms in the 50s and 60s. Please Forgive My Heart is a Bobby Womack song, but that is by the way, other than his version of 2012 sounds pretty electronic – I don't think a shower played a part.

There were a lot of sound links in Eon's article which aren't linked in the ISSUU pdf, but are found here: www.onsitereview.ca/28/p43  We had to take off a few for copyright violation, but what's left is a half dozen videos with beautiful reverb.

It is always encouraging to find a substrata of creative activity that actually prefers the old techniques: vinyl lovers is one – a richer sound supposedly.  As I never get rid of anything, I still have my old vinyl collection, but without a system anymore to play it on, other that the Philips portable turntable I got for my birthday in grade 11, but which turns slightly faster than it should having had the belt replaced by Philips in London to suit the change in power delivery.  A long sentence, but one could do such things once. 

Tuesday
Sep012015

the freestep

Freestep bicycle

Having ridden a bike from the age of six, I've had in total four beloved bicycles in my whole life ending up with a quivering azure racehorse of a 10-speed that simply has a fit at each pebble in the road. I love it dearly. In this column I have written about bamboo bikes, ash bikes, carbon fibre frames, build-your-own bikes – it is a huge field: bicycles, bicycle lanes in cities, street bikes, bike-shares, bike couriers, bike paths, and the variety of bikes themselves is seemingly endless.  A long way from having to choose either a CCM or a Raleigh.  

This one, the Freestep, comes they say from the skateboard world. Well, only in the shape of the non-pedals really. Instead of pedalling, one pumps the boards as on a step-master thing (clearly out of my depth here).  No seat, you will notice. You stand and pump your way along, and in the process get very very fit.  

This model, above, has a nice fat retro frame, all gentle curves and cream enamel.  It is a curious blend of soft 1950s styling and 2010s auto-mobility here – we seem to want autonomous travel, without rules, just to be able to get about under our own steam seemingly without tradition, except for a sweet nostalgia that companies such as Best Made, or Labour and Wait promote.  It is a feeling that things were better once, that you could trust things when they were more solid, more straightforward, more utilitarian. Does this feeling exist in direct inverse proportion to how much time our minds spend in the virtual, ephemeral, complex world of our devices, while our bodies sit inert, in thrall to a preoccupied brain?  And somewhere after a long day at the screen face, we would like to take our clunky childhood bike and tool around the neighbourhood?

 

Tuesday
Mar242015

Christopher Lavery: Cloudscape, 2010 

Christopher M Lavery. Cloudscape, 2008-2010 $120,000 public art commission, Denver International Airport Emerging Public Artist Project. Steel, polygal, LED Lighting, solar panels.

Friday
Aug082014

Charles Stankievech, The Soniferous Aether, 2013

35mm Film Installation
Duration: 10:18 Loop (this is a lower resolution edited trailer – just a taste)

from Stankievech's website:

The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond is a 35mm film installation shot at the northernmost settlement on earth— ALERT Signals Intelligence Station— as part of a series of fieldworks looking at remote outpost architecture, military infrastructure and the embedded landscape. Shot using a computer controlled time‐lapse tracking camera during the winter months, the military spy outpost radiates within a shroud of continuous darkness under a star-pierced canopy harkening an abandoned space station.
He speaks about it as the first panelist in Air | Land | Sea with Charles Stankievech, Kara Uzelman and Cate Rimmer, part of Gallery Hop Vancouver co-presented by the Canadian Art Foundation and the Contemporary Art Society of Vancouver.  This is a tremendously interesting three presentations:
Saturday
Jul262014

Harry Partch, Barstow, 1941-55

This is from the era that Buckminster Fuller was busy with his domes and Jeffrey Burland Lindsay was manning Fuller's Research Institute in Montreal – 1948-53.  It seems to me, because I am doing all this investigation into Lindsay, that this was a particularly exciting, open and boundless era for experimental work. 

And yet, when Lindsay moved from Montreal to Los Angeles in 1953, it looked like this:

The 200 block of South Main Street, Los Angeles, 1952Harry Partch lived in Los Angeles, and later in Petaluma where Jeffrey Lindsay did a sun shelter out of a shallow space frame section of a dome: a magical telstar sort of thing on a pole.  There is such a disjunction between the visionary structural work and musical experimentation of the time (this piece for example, and John Cage's 4'33 which was composed in 1952), and street culture, which appears to be still lodged in the Depression with desperate hitchhikers stuck in Barstow.

'Barstow', from The Wayward, for two voices, surrogate kithara, chromelodeon, diamond marimba & boo (1941-1955).  The spoken parts are 'eight hitchhiker inscriptions from a highway railing at Barstow, California'.

Part of the YouTube description: In late 1939, [Partch] went on a hitchhiking trip to take photos in the Southwestern deserts of California and Arizona. In the tough little Mojave Desert junction town of Barstow, California, in February 1941 while waiting for a lift, he noticed the following inscription on a highway railing:

It's January 26. I'm freezing.

Ed Fitzgerald. Age 19. Five feet, ten inches.

Black hair, brown eyes.

Going home to Boston, Massachusetts.

It's 4:00, and I'm hungry and broke.

I wish I was dead.

But today I am a man.

Monday
Jul212014

Air Ocean World

 

Buckminster Fuller. Air Ocean World Dymaxion Map, 1946

part of Fuller's Dymaxion World Map Patent: click on the image to see the whole patent. The critical paragraph: 'It is an object of my invention to provide a sectional map of the world, or of a portion of its surface, which is so constructed that its parts can be assembled to give a truer over-all picture of areas, boundaries, directions and distances that is attainable with any type of plane surface map heretofore known.' Was this a mathematical/geometrical puzzle? One must always remember how interlaced Fuller's researches were with military problems. Fuller's Dymaxion 1946 cartography patent.  Oh these patents.  Such energy has been expended in mapping to render the three-dimension sphere on flat paper without distortion, or at least with understandable distortion.  We no longer understand such distortions but there is a lively discussion of the politics of map-making, several of which we had in On Site review 31: mapping | photography. The Dymaxion map is an icosahedron where to preserve the actual shape of the continents and oceans, bits are lost in the edges of each triangular excerpt.    

Dymaxion: dynamic, maximum and tension.  It was Fuller's mantra, but it is quite surprising how far his ideas spread: far beyond domes and living off the grid.  Most of his work in housing and cars was done before WWII, and little was financially viable.  After, he mostly wrote and lectured and this is where his influence sank deep into the postwar American art movement.  Black Mountain College also keeps reoccurring as a site where everyone met everyone else, John Cage especially.  1948-50 or so seems to have been a period of wide-open possibility where all disciplines were in intense conversation with each other. 

Jasper Johns. 'Map (Based on Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Air Ccean World), 1967. Hans Namuth and Judith Wechsler, 1990. Distributed by MoMA, Circulating Film Library. From the MoMA description: 'a portrait of the artist at work. The film begins in 1972 with Johns repainting Air Ocean World based on Buckminster Fuller's dymaxion Map. Johns work is traced over the next eighteen years. His Untitled, 1973, with its cross-hatching, flagstones, and anatomical parts become recurrent motifs, as Johns begins to imbed skulls and severed arms in them. The paintings become more personal as Johns gradually 'drops the reserve' in his recent series, 'The Seasons'. The film culminates with Johns working on the final state of the etching based on 'The Seasons'. There is no narration as such. Jasper Johns speaks at various points, John Cage reads Johns' statements, then rearranged through a computerized method based on the I Ching, curator Mark Rosenthal comments on several stages of Johns' work, and Christopher Ricks reads passages from Beckett's Foirades/Fizzles.'
In 1990, Hans Namuth and Judith Wechsler made a film about Jasper Johns: Jasper Johns: Take an Object.
It begins with Jasper Johns painting a huge dymaxion map (destined for Expo 67, now in Cologne's Museum Ludwig), Janis Joplin on in the background.  Then comes John Cage reading a selection of Johns' statements: 'art is either a complaint or an appeasement'.  One can see traces of the map that keeps occurring in the way patches of colour or marks or objects sit in some folded relationship on the canvas. But that aside, this is a truly rivetting film, and reminds me again of why Jasper Johns is so important.  

Tuesday
Jul082014

the world of patents

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE 2,682,235 BUILDING CONSTRUCTION Richard Buckminster Fuller, Forest Hills, N. Y. Application December 12, 1951, Serial No. 261,168, p. 1.

Investigating the world of patents in conjunction with Buckminster Fuller's 1951 patent of the geodesic dome, which made him quite wealthy as he licensed the rights far and wide, I have discovered a) that patents only last 15 years and then are released to the public domain, and b) that there is a certain madness in the patent world.  
Evidently inventions must be novel, useful and not obvious.
Novel we get, not obvious means that it can't be a logical development of a previous patent, but useful?  This clearly is a wide and ambiguous quality.  

Many patents are genuine developments that advance medical technology, etc., but someone wants to put a clamp on the developments to make money from it.  Well and good, research and development costs.  Others seem to respond to some really annoying problem someone has in their daily life and god dammit they are going to solve this, patent it and make a fortune.  Such as the bird trap cat feeder, which catches sparrows and feeds them to cats. 

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE 4,150,505 BIRD TRAP AND CAT FEEDER Leo O Voelker, Linn Kans 66953 Application August 8 1977, US1977000822683 p.1.Now, what world does this person live in?  Is there a personality type that easily loses perspective in the blinding light of their own genius?  What is wrong with sparrows that they should be so cruelly hunted – it is something like finding out that the Elizabethan delicacy, lark's tongues, required a thousand tongues to make a single serving.  Was Elizabethan England overrun with larks?  Was Kansas in the late 1970s visited by a plague of sparrows?  

Oh no, there is a large section of google references to sparrow control.  Evidently they are invasive, successful and displace little native birds.  This is one of the discussions we are having in the contributions to On Site 32: weak systems – successful invasions of the small and insidious.

Wednesday
Jun182014

Albert Frey: cotton house, 1933

Albert Frey, Swiss, studied at ETH Winterthur, a critical point as technical schools taught construction and technology. He graduated in 1924.  What a time to be a young architect: he worked with LeCorbusier and Jeanneret in Paris from 1924-28 alongside Sert and Perriand, then moved to the States.  He joined Lawrence Kocher in New York and worked with him until 1935.  Kocher was also the managing editor of Architectural Record, a journal that promoted American modernism.
Frey worked on the Museum of Modern Art in 1937-9 and after this moved permanently to Palm Springs, falling, like so many European architects, for the freedom and space of the American south west.  

Two Frey and Kocher houses: the Aluminaire, a demountable house faced with aluminum panels, which was moved several times in its life, and a canvas cabin, both done in the early 1930s.  They did permanent houses, including one for Raymond Loewy, but these two are in the nature of workshop experiments.  
The canvas house, built for Kocher, consists of painted sail canvas stretched over a redwood frame, insulated with aluminum foil.  These details come from Joseph Rosa's book on Frey, but compared to the Aluminaire there appears to be little information on the canvas house. The images here are from a single website.

Frey and Kocher, canvas weekend house, 1933

However, in Popular Science, February 1933 the canvas house appears.  For 15¢ (20¢ in Canada) what an exuberant little publication this was: packed with ideas, inventions, the wonder of developing technologies and sheer curiosities — it shows a most positive and active engagement with newness that I just cannot see anywhere today. Here is a pdf of the Feb 1933 edition.

Popular Science, February 1933, p42

On p 42, just above identifying dogs by their nose prints, is 'Architect Designs Cotton Houses'.  The write up:  'Houses of cotton are proposed by Lawrence Kocher, noted architect, to solve the low-cost housing problem.  Models of two types, a $1,500 five-room home and a week-end house, have been designed.  A weatherproof exterior is provided by a roof and walls of fireproofed cotton ducking stretched over a wooden structural frame.  Inner walls are also of cotton.  Insulating material may be added to exclude heat and cold.  Since the canvas is flexible, it is adaptable to any shaped surface. '

This is the Villa Savoye for Depression-era America: inexpensive, democratic, inventive, flexible. 

Tuesday
Jun102014

soccer ball technology

Adidas's FIFA World Cup history, 1970-2014Thought I ought to know something about soccer ball technology, given that the hexagon ball which has held sway for decades appears to have been replaced by something much more free-form and sinuous.  

The first World Cup was held in 1930, in Uruguay. The ball had twelve panels, leather, two of which were laced to tighten the outer shell over the inner ball, originally in the 19th century an inflated animal bladder, later rubber.  The quality of the ball had much to do with the quality of the leather, and whether it came from the rump (good) or shoulder (less good).  The six panels of two strips became six panels of three strips each, making the ball smoother, then changed back again.  There were other variations: interlocking T-shapes, other geometries.  It is a parallel investigation to map-making where a round globe is represented by flat paper; here flat pieces of material are shaped and stitched together to make a globe.

Adidas's twelve panel white leather football for the 1966 World Cup1970 Adidas Telstar football, Buckminster Fuller's truncated icosahedron sphereBuckminster Fuller designed an infinitely smoother ball in 1970 of twelve pentagons and twenty hexagons composed as a truncated icosahedral sphere. Hexagons and the pentagons at their intersection were coloured black and white for television visibility and, supposedly, for the players to more easily see how the ball was spinning. Up to this point all footballs had been single colours.  The Bucky-ball, as it is known but called by Adidas Telstar, was used in FIFA World Cup matches until 2006 when a fourteen panel ball was introduced, in 2010 the eight panel Jabulani ball was developed.  

The eight panel Jabulani is made of thermally bonded moulded panels of ethylene-vinyl acetate and thermoplastic polyurethanes, textured with specific grooves designed to improve aerodynamics. Evidently players don't actually like this ball; it changes direction in mid-air and performs completely differently in different altitudes.  Curious that such a high-tech construction and aerodynamic design makes such an unpredictable ball.  One does wonder what influenced its adoption.  Adidas-sponsored players claim to like the Jabulani

From a NASA study mentioned on wikipedia: When a relatively smooth ball with seams flies through the air without much spin, the air close to the surface is affected by the seams, producing an asymmetric flow. This asymmetry creates side forces that can suddenly push the ball in one direction and cause volatile swerves and swoops and this effect is referred to as knuckling. Older designs of the ball have a knuckle speed of around 30 miles per hour (48 km/h).... the Jabulani, with its relatively smoother surface, starts to knuckle at a higher speed of 45–50 mph (72–80 km/h). This coincides with the typical speed of a ball following a free-kick around the goal area making the effect more visible.

There have been subsequent developments, the current ball being used in Brazil is called the Brazuca, eight panel, very decorative.  Smooth balls with little obvious construction or material markings offer a good surface for graphics so that the most recent balls are like small demonstrations of national identity.  Brazil's World Cup ball is all coloured ribbons, very curvy, like the pavements at Ipanema.
Here is a video comparing the official Brazuca with a replica.  The real one is covered all over with little bumps: this will be the aerodynamic stuff.  The replica is shiny as a billiard ball.

Football technology is a huge area, the images will take you to a couple of comprehensive sites with lots of information on the history of soccer balls. It's all very interesting.

Monday
Jun092014

Soccket balls

Soccket, an energy-generating football, generates and stores enough electricity after half an hour of use to power a small lamp

In honour of FIFA feel compelled to say something about soccer this week.  Shall start with the electricity generating football, SOCCKET, put into production in 2013 with kickstarter funds.  It was developed in 2012 by Jessica Matthew, an Edo from Nigeria, a very clever girl who went off to Harvard and allegedly taught herself mechanical engineering.  Her psychology and economics degree shows: the project is sophisticated way beyond its energy-generating possibilities.  

The football has a pendulum inside which turns a generator attached to a battery.  This adds a bit of weight, but just an ounce.  The ball is airless, don't understand that bit.  It has a 6W output: for the undeveloped world, this means a lamp can be plugged into it for three hours after half an hour of kicking the ball around.  For the developed world which is actually purchasing the balls for quite a lot of money, it can recharge your phone. You buy this soccer ball really as a charitable act: you buy one and one will be given to someone far away.
Pulse II, a skipping rope that generates electricity from the spinning of the rope in the handles.
Uncharted Play, Inc, Matthew's design firm, also makes a skipping rope, PULSE, where the generating mechanism is in the handles.  This sells for $295 in New York.  Says Matthew, 'Right now, we  are selling them in New York and in New York, we charge people a lot because it is New York'.  As I said, clever.

In an interview, Nicole Brown of Uncharted Play explains the marketing of PULSE: 'Because charging a cell phone is more of a developed world issue, we’re going to give a SOCCKET, which powers a lamp, to the developing world for each PULSE sold.'  Images show little children in otherwise un-illuminated huts doing homework by the light of a tiny led lamp and, where living off the grid is not an option, iPhones in bright white rooms are plugged into it. I understand that the developing world far exceeds cell phone use compared to the developed world which has so many more options, but one's First World charitable impulses are triggered by the combination of technology (which we have) and poverty (which 'they' have).

It's good, this project, but the marketing of it is a bit patronising.  I found a hysterically funny collection of comments on SOCCKET on Seun Osewa's ₦airaland Forum covering every possible aspect of the project, such as, from Willskid:
Seun and Mum
Mum: Seun, where u dey go?
Seun: I wan go play ball
Mum: Ori e da... U no go go read ur books
Seun: Mama u forget say u and papa fone don flat...If i nor play ball, u no go charge ur fone today oo...


or from Virgo:
So while developed countries produce electricity with Coal, Liquid Petroleum, Petroleum Gases, Nuclear, and others, Africa must resort to kicking a ball around in order to enjoy electricity?

Let's just say ₦airaland remains skeptical.

Friday
May302014

Samurai ningyo

Ningyo: samurai tradition has been celebrated on May 5 since 730 AD, originally called Tango-No-Sekku (the first day of the horse). During the Edo period of 1600-1868, the celebrations and displays by the samurai class were elaborate displays of weapons and combat; the first samurai dolls appear at the end of this period, at the beginning of the Meiji era.  The Bata Shoe Museum has a samurai doll, a ningyo much like this one, that dates from 1870.  The samurai as a military class had sidelined the emperor to figurehead status, a situation that lasted 'until 1868 when the Meiji emperor was restored to power'.  It is interesting that Bata's ningyo was created just two years later, valourising the tradition of a class that had just been demoted and its right to carry arms abolished. Originally it was only the samurai class that commissioned ningyo, however, as Japan embarked upon a long modernising process of industrialisation, they came to stand for 'pure' Japanese character and became generalised and idealised.

Samurai protected farmers: the strong protect the weak, and in turn the weak will serve the strong. This theme (according to an essay by Timothy Mertel) appears symbolically as the tiger and bamboo: the tiger protects the bamboo grove from predators, and the bamboo camouflages the tiger's lair.  This is the major tenet of Japanese feudal society.  

Our man, above, has been a fixture of my life forever, can't remember when he wasn't there – it might have been a wedding present for my parents. His sword is in a tiger skin sheath. The armour is, I think, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333): lacquered plates laced with silk and repoussé metal mounts. I'm taking this description from Mertel's piece, so far it all fits.  I've never known anything about this small figure until today.  He is wearing rather lovely cream silk jacquard bloomers.
The Bata Shoe museum describes the shoes thus: 'These samurai shoes are called tsuranuki. They are made of bear fur, which symbolises the intrinsic ferocity, strength and courage of a samurai warrior.'   

Ningyo bodies are straw with carved heads and hands covered in a crushed oyster shell paste which is then burnished and painted.  My fellow has the most delicate pale blue gloves embroidered with flowers.  His face is quite fierce, and is a particular samurai of legend, the details of which I cannot find.  

The armour: it is very interesting, and it was the flexibility of the dragon skin ceramic discs that reminded me of samurai armour: metal plates that were laced together so they moved and didn't inhibit action. 

Thursday
May292014

ceramic armour

ceramic plates in a Dragon Skin body armour vest

When we see the bullet proof vests on foreign correspondents, they are basically kevlar with ceramic trauma plate inserts roughly from 5" x 8" and 1/4" thick for concealed vests, to 10" x 12" plates up to 1/2" thick for tactical vests. They work in combination with the aramid fabrics: high ballistic protection from the plates, dispersal of blunt trauma from the fabrics. 

Boron Carbide: B12C3  for those who understand such things is exceptionally hard because the molecules form a network plane.  Not a new technology, it was first synthesised in 1899.  The discs in the Dragon Skin are silicon carbide (SiC) or carborundum, used since 1893 as an abrasive. thank you wikipedia.  Both these materials have a zillion other uses: something about how their molecules arrange themselves in dense interconnected plates makes them exceptionally inert, resistant, hard and defensive.

The small overlapping plates of the Dragon Skin allows more motion and is designed, evidently, to absorb multiple hits, which is a sobering thought.  All of these are meant to protect vital organs, not to render someone entirely bullet proof.  I expect that development in ballistic technology forces the development of anti-ballistic systems.  There is, for example, something called a full metal jacket bullet which is a soft lead core fully jacketed in hard metal which allows higher velocities as the hard jacket slides more easily down the bore.  Do I want to know this?  I suppose so, I thought the movie Full Metal Jacket was actually about some kind of armoured jacket for soldiers.  The point of a full metal jacket bullet is that they can be used indiscriminately against both soft and hard targets. I think I'll leave this topic now.  

There was a scandal in 2007-8 where the US government did not equip its soldiers in Afghanistan with $5000 Dragon Skin armour, choosing cheaper armour from companies with government contracts.  Some things never change.

Wednesday
May282014

uses of kevlar

Tim Smit, Urban Security Suit, 2008

Kevlar clothing: lots of examples in biker jeans which have strategically placed panels on the knee, thighs and back. The jeans however are dreadful: huge and wrinkled.  Well, biker jeans often are. 

And then there is the slash-proof pinstriped banker's suit lined with kevlar.  Truly horrible.  Much more beautiful is this 2008 outfit by Tim Smit in the Netherlands, who does not appear to have a web presence other than many reviews of the Urban Security Suit.  

Neoprene, kevlar panels, mucho style, the hood comes with a gas mask: for being kettled at anti-globalisation protests clearly, special pockets for defensive accessories.  The comments on the gizmodo site were scathing: the kelvar too thin, neoprene too hot, etc etc.  But they cavil: one might as well look beautiful as no armour is without its chinks.

Tuesday
May272014

carbon fibre

easycomposites.co.uk: Carbon Fibre Cloth Fabric 12k 2/2 Twill 450gsm. This roll is 1m (39") wide. £20/linear metre. Use in conjunction with a 3k 200g surface layer then 1 or more layers of 12k 450g cloth to produce larger parts or thicker laminates. 'Also commonly used as the reinforcement/bulking layers for carbon fibre moulds. In some circumstances this 12k 450g cloth can even be used as the surface layer on cosmetic parts where a larger weave pattern is desireable although care will need to be taken to ensure that the greater texture of this heavy weight carbon fibre cloth does not 'print through' making the surface of the part uneven.'

It did occur to me I have no idea what carbon fibre is.  It is carbon atoms arranged longitudinally as very thin strands which are spun to make thread, which is woven to make fabric. The fabric is woven, for some reason, as a twill, giving it its recognisable appearance (above) The fabric is then combined with a resin and moulded, rather like fibreglas, to make a material five times the strength of steel at one-third the weight.  Magic.  

The resins can be thermoset polymers – epoxy, or thermoplastic polymers: polyester, vinyl ester and nylon.  Kevlar, the bullet proof fabric, uses carbon fibre and aramid, a polyamide whose molecules are also directionally oriented.  Silica and rubber can also be added to the binding polymer for different kinds of performance.  

If moulded, as the Carbon Black wheelchair, sheets of carbon fibre cloth are layered in a mould which is then filled with epoxy.  There are various ways it is all set: air, heat, vacuum.  Arcane? no, there are YouTube videos on how to use carbon fibre kits to mould all sorts of things.  And the image above from easycomposites will sell you everything you would ever need to make things.  

Besides the vaunted Formula 1 cars which use it, so does BMW for some body panels: while steel is less than $1/lb, carbon fibre is $10, which is why it isn't used everywhere in large quantities. Plus it isn't really recyclable.  The first I ever heard of it, a long time ago, was as graphite golf clubs: very whippy and light.  I'll stick with my persimmons.  But every music store these days has carbon fibre guitars looking extremely sexy: black and gleaming, with that characteristic twill catching the light. 

Blackbird Rider Nylon guitar, reviewed in Wired, where Charlie Sorrel said it resembled a 'medieval stealth lute'.

Monday
May262014

carbon black

the 7.5 kg Carbon Black wheelchair

A couple of years ago I saw a BBC documentary on the struggle Andrew Slorance, wheelchair bound himself, and his wife had in designing a carbon fibre monocoque wheelchair and getting it to market. They had sunk all their money into producing a prototype, and then another prototype. You felt for this pair, the process was so expensive: to get a protoype to test even was incredibly difficult and meant finding shops in remote industrial parks in the centre of Scotland that could even work with carbon fibre. I remember thinking at the time that good design is not its own reward.  Nevertheless, they persisted.

The gist is that the basic monocoque is cast each time for each individual according to their needs: backrest size, seat width and depth, leg length. Then there are stability adjustments that locate the centre of gravity. I remember in the documentary they had problems with it tipping over until one had learned how to judge where one's centre of gravity actually was. This appeared to be the major stumbling block to the design being picked up for manufacture, that and its cost.
Other options are the wheel size, the size of the rim you push the wheels with, lights, guards and various add-on things.  

It is smooth, it is clean, it is quite glamorous engineering. The glamorous Sophie Morgan, all tawny blond hair and beauty, is the Carbon Black ambassador and inhabits both her chair and the website

Carbon Black was shortlisted for a design award from the London Design Museum in 2012 and has been nominated for a World Technology Network award.  A group called SMART:SCOTLAND provided an original grant to build moulds and to market Slorance's prototype, and then in 2012 in the run up to the 1012 Paralympics the project got £350,000 specifically to get this product to a global market.   From the Highlands and Islands Enterprise announcement of the grant: 'Using the very latest composite materials and Formula 1 engineering, Carbon Black is set to change perceptions of the wheelchair. Carbon fibre offers incredible strength to weight properties, combined with unprecedented stiffness for optimal energy efficiency. The monocoque design is both lightweight and strong, yet has a minimal appearance, resulting in more person, less wheelchair.'
It has become a big project.  

Slorance had been in a wheelchair since his mid-teens when he broke his back.  He felt keenly all the problems with standard wheelchairs: their weight, their sheer ugliness, their mechanics, their ugliness, their unresponsiveness, their seeming inability to move along with technology. Perhaps people are so stunned by finding themselves in a wheelchair that it cows them into inert acceptance. The wheelchair so separates them from, in Slorance's case, normal teenaged dashing about, that it must seem often to be an instrument of torture.

Carbon Black weighs 7.5 kg including the wheels: this is the result of using carbon fibre with its huge strength to weight ratio. The fact that Formula 1 technology keeps being mentioned indicates something of the cost of such a wheelchair.  Of course it is a wonderful material, warm to touch and mouldable; the launch price was £7,800 and I have seen other prices nearer £12,000.  The Carbon Black System tumblr blog is full of ways to get subsidies for this price, such as access to work allowances, NHS vouchers and so on.  This is a grand site, much newsier than the formal site. It looks like they sell one a week.   

Thursday
May222014

the SoftWheel wheelchair

SoftWheel wheelchair

If yesterday's Free Wheelchair Mission wheelchair had all the dignity of a chair, the chair of the Soft Wheel wheelchair is near-invisible.  It was developed (through Rad-BioMed Technology Accelerator and the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Economics) by a fit Israeli farmer who had broken his pelvis and was shocked by the state of ordinary wheelchairs on off-road terrain.

There is nothing faintly humanitarian in this project, it is pure technology, this wheel, and about time too.  The Acrobat™ wheel used in the Soft Wheel project, uses three shock absorbers rather than spokes and is also being used in bikes.  Until the wheel meets an obstacle, such as a stair, or curb, or pothole, it acts as a normal wheel, but on encountering a large and immoveable change of grade, the shock absorbers reconfigure their lengths in a form of selective suspension.  The wheel itself absorbs impact, rather than the chair or the body.  I sense it will be expensive.

Clearly a first-world device: businessman, downtown, big city, good shirt: we get it. This isn't about difficulty, but about success.

Grand idea, what is interesting is the invisibility of the 'wheelchair' in all the promotional material; if there are handles at the back they don't appear.  The wheels alone are obvious, as substitute legs.  This is blade runner stuff where there is almost an advantage to prosthetic technology over the able-bodied, a shift in perception that was brought to the fore in the London Paralympics in 2012.  Disability is increasingly (theoretically) an anachronism.

It is at either end of the wheelchair trajectory – one end is the plastic garden chair, the other is the Acrobat™ wheel – that exciting developments occur, each filtering in towards the middle, or so one hopes.

Wednesday
May212014

the free wheelchair mission

free wheelchair mission's inexpensive wheelchair project

One of the critiques of things such as keepod is that access to information technology isn't a straight line to water purification, for example.  Hardly a critique I know, but I did read it.  However, there has always been a pragmatic streak in people that allows them to figure out problems and solutions – it used to be said of fellows from Saskatchewan farms that they could fix anything with wire and binder twine, a gross gender stereotype no doubt, but not a bad one.  Kids growing up on isolated farms in the early 20th century were innovative, practical, used to doing a lot with very little.  

Of course today one can look on the web to see how to fix something, but often that seems to be the blind leading the blind: just because there is an app for that doesn't mean you can actually fix the wheelbarrow wheel.  

This wheelchair costs $77.91 to manufacture and deliver.  Anyone who has dealt with our medical system and CSA approved wheelchairs knows that 'proper' wheelchairs run to thousands of dollars, and my god they are ugly. And they weigh a ton.  (Ah well, just looked up the cost of a wheelchair and you can get one for $245 at Costco.  Clearly my experience is out of date.  Gosh, here is the EZee Life™ Economy for $150.  Whatever.)

The Free Wheelchair Mission was started by a biomedical engineer in Californa who developed this wheelchair as 'a basic design at an extremely low cost to reach the highest number of disabled impoverished people in the shortest possible time'.  He uses component pieces already being manufactured in high volume, perhaps for something else: mountain bike wheels, plastic garden chairs, nuts and bolts, casters, all manufactured and flat-packed with cartoon-like instructions in China and sent off in containers to sites in need.  

Jens Thiel, in 2010, had a website loaded with photos of monobloc plastic chairs used in strange ways – I wrote about them at the time.  Thiel's site has disappeared unfortunately, but this designboom entry will do.  Is the plastic chair the cheapest and most easily found seat for a wheelchair?  Probably, but it also has a look that is not medical, which is perhaps more important.  It is a chair first, with wheels.  This seems important somehow, that one sits in a chair rather than a dark complex piece of disability kit.

Increasingly, sitting here in one of the G8/G7 countries, I feel locked into technologies that are complex, dark, inaccessible, expensive and not very nice looking.  There is a revolution going on that does not extend to the society in which I find myself. 

Tuesday
May202014

keepods

When I started to write these posts, in 2009, the second posting was about the Jiko stove, which I'd seen on the Shell/BBC World Challenge, an annual competition of solutions to problems in parts of the world without services, especially electricity and clean water.  There were rafts of efficient and safe braziers designed that would minimise the amount of fuel used and the smoke emitted; there were ingenious water purification solutions such as the Jompy where a water pipe ran through the stove and purified the water in the process.  There was the Sudeepa, a beautiful little glass jar with a screw on lid and flattened sides used as an oil lamp that if knocked over would not roll.  2009, the invention of devices was in full throttle.   

Gradually the Shell/BBC World Challenge changed from solutions, such as prosthetic limbs made from melted down pop cans, to something more entrepreneurial, so that now there were cooperatives that made things, such as baskets out of telephone wire, or ottomans from crochetted plastic bags, or honey from collective bee hives, that needed the competition money to get such things to market, especially foreign markets.   Projects such as these are the staple of the Thousand Villages stores, and recently, Holt Renfrew's oddly disjunctive charity-based product cabines full of interesting small things, bangles and satchels from places like India or Ghana.  

There was a shift from products to solve local problems to the marketting of local products calibrated for conscientious westerners.  World Challenge stopped running.

Now, in 2014, five years later, the most revolutionary products are technological: how to get the still developing world hooked into global systems and this is happening with lightning speed: the underbanked, 50% of the world, increasingly use mobile payment networks such as M-Pesa, a mobile network moving quickly through Africa, Afghanistan and India. The fellow living in a street market selling stuff to tourists isn't paid in cash, but through his mobile phone.  Would I know how to do this?  uh. no.  

Keepod is an IT project, developed by Nissan Bahar and Franky Imbesi in Tel Aviv.  It loads a USB flash drive with an Android 4.4 operating system that then uses any kind of discarded computer whose hard drive has been removed as a temporary facilitator.  They have separated the hardware (simple mechanics and can be shared with many people) from the software (individual and portable). This is, so far, running in Kenya – pictures of lots of children with their keepods on a cord around their necks.  In an interview, Bahar and Imbesi said that within minutes children were posting images to facebook – it isn't that the knowledge of the rest of the world is lacking, even children know what they can't do, it is the equipment that is lacking.  This is quite different from one laptop per child which requires literally millions of computers.  This requires millions of USB drives which Bahar and Imbesi feel can be sold at $7 each: $5 for the drive, $2 for the program, loaded and upgraded locally at a keepod point in a market – a new small business.   

The keepod is the latest solution to what is ultimately an equalisation of access, and is actually more nimble and sustainable than anything I see around me. 

Wednesday
Jan082014

Coppicing

Coppiced lime, Dunwich Heath, England.

Why do I feel I need to know about coppicing?  Because trees grow, often in the wrong places in a small yard, and one must do something about them or they will take out your foundation.  

We are a country of forests and timber, most of which goes for dimensional lumber and pulp.  However, in countries with hardwood forests, ancient forests that have cohabited with centuries of settlement, forests are managed.  

Coppicing is where a single-trunk tree which normally would fractally divide and subdivide from tree trunk to twig, is cut off at the base allowing shoots to sprout from the still-living roots.  These shoots differ from the original tree trunk, in that there are many of them, they are thin and straight and, because of the vigour of the root system, literally shoot up without dividing.  Then they are harvested, which is interesting, as there was, and is, a need for straight pieces for rails, poles; whippy shoots for wickerwork: this is using wood without re-shaping it in a mill.  

A coppiced tree can last for centuries, perpetually young if harvested regularly with none of the shoots actually allowed to mature into a full tree.  I'm sure there is a rather brutal metaphor there, if one cared to work it out.  It is a dying practice, the need for hop-poles and thatching spars sadly diminished.  Ray Arnatt once showed me his car from the 1920s he'd brought from England when he emigrated, which had a wooden frame and was sheathed in painted canvas: the frame was bentwood, like bentwood chairs, steamed into shape.  This would have been coppiced wood, probably ash — strong and inviolate, the integrity of the whole cross-section of a tree complete.

In comparison, our clear cut treatment of softwood forests seems shockingly impatient.  It is a habit we do not investigate, perhaps because we don't inhabit our forests with any kind of intimacy, they are a hinterland to our cities or our agricultural territories, a backdrop we don't know very well.   Aboriginal peoples knew the forests well, they had those centuries of cohabitation, but the proportion of people to trees was low.  There were many trees they did not know individually either.  

But we have the tools and technology to harvest full trees and make them into any kind of shape we want – it is a luxury of excess product and we are profligate with it.

Thursday
Oct242013

Quadraat, 1992

Fred Smeijers, design sheet for Quadraat, 1992.

Fred Smeijers, Dutch graphic designer, formed a design studio called Quadraat in 1992, in Arnhem. 
Punch cutting is a 16th century way of making type that Quadraat, the typeface, is based upon. A counterpunch is a punch that makes punches.  

When making a piece of type for a letter press, the original was cut on a steel punch, then a mould was made from it, and then type was cast from the mould.  To cut the original letter, the steel had to be cut with sufficient depth into the matrix.  Internal curves and angles are extremely difficult to cut deeply, so a tempered steel counterpunch, harder than the matrix, was used to cut the negative spaces inside the letter.  The counterpunch, used for each letter gave a consistency to the corners and curves.
Smeijers wrote a book about this, Counterpunch: making Type in the 16th Century, Designing Typefaces Now

In terms of writing, it is always interesting to find that no matter what the historical investigation, or the mechanics of making a font today, there is this scrap of paper where the letters are drawn out by hand; where the writing of the letters, the drawings, are so delicate.