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Thingiverse is a swap meet for exchanging digital files for 3D printing of tiny objects, like the stuff for doll houses. You download a file and print out the object using a the previously reviewed Makerbot or 3D printing service. Eventually, the objects will be larger, and the selection larger, and you’ll be able to print out complex things. For now, 3D printing is a thrilling hobby, and this exchange site is a real tool for model makers.

-- KK  


The Scale of the Universe 2


This is a cool tool for comprehending, appreciating, and demonstrating the scale of our universe. I used to recommend Charles and Ray Eames‘ classic film, Powers of Ten, as the best way to get a sense of our cosmos. It’s still effective, but two bothers have made an on-line portal that blows Powers of Ten away.

Check out The Scale of the Universe 2. It takes a minute to load. Once ready, be prepared to have your horizons stretched. I like the way they pile in the expected and unexpected size examples, which anchor the scale in a refreshing way. The continuous zoom is what makes this device work, rather than the quantum powers of ten of the film. (In fact you can read off the powers of ten in this model as well.) And the fact that you drive the slider. And like anytime you drive, you get a better sense of the place than you do as a mere passenger.

For the first time, I really got a visceral sense of our place in the universe. As many have noted before (but none have explained) we — our visible bodies — are located approximately in the middle of the universe’s size range. The largest things we know and the smallest things we know are roughly the same magnitude away from us.

And BTW, this app is what electronic “publishing” is really about.

— KK



Chased By the Light

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Chased by the Light

This project is a zen masterpiece. It is also a behavior-modifiying challenge for all digital photographers: Look instead of click.

In the 1990s veteran magazine photographer Jim Brandenbrug gave himself an impossible assignment: “For 90 days between the autumn equinox and winter solstice I would make only one photograph a day. There would be no second exposure, no second chance.” A single exposure, a single click per day! He was using film, and he was photographing wildlife, including elusive animals in the north woods in upper Minnesota. Film is unforgiving. For amateur and professional alike getting even an acceptable photo in these conditions with one shot requires relying on the Force. Yet Brandenburg found, or made, one beauty after another. Most mortals would need a hundred shots to get one like these. The 90 images stand strong each on their own, but the complete symphony is one of the most impressive acts of mindfulness I’ve seen.

(The full set of images were also published in a smaller format in the November 1997 issue of National Geographic.)

Besides the book, there is now an iPad app.

— KK

Chased by the Light
Jim Brandenburg
1998, 104 pages

Available from Amazon

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App $10


Sample Excerpts:

Wolf chasing ravens by jimbrandenburg

I sensed there would be lessons learned. There were, but not always those I had imagined. Some were merely lessons remembered, recapturing things I had forgotten, such as remaining open to chance, and that, in nature, not all beauty is giant in scale. One such lesson occurred on October 15th, the twenty-third day. It was late and I despaired of capturing anything of value. The day was dark and gloomy; my mood reflected the weather. I wandered through the dripping forest all day long. Tired, hungry , and wet, I was near tears. I was mentally beating myself for having passed up several deer portraits and the chance to photograph a playful otter. None of those scenes spoke to me at the time.

But perhaps because I was patient, and perhaps because, as natives do on a vision quest, I had reached my physical limits, I became open to the possibility revealed by a single red maple leaf floating on a dark-water pond. My spirits rose the instant I saw it, and although the day was very late and what little light there had been was fleeing rapidly, I studied the scene from every angle. Finally, unsure of my choice, I made the shot anyway, thankful at least that the long day had ended. Once more I was surprised by the result. The image seems to have a lyrical quality, with a rhythm in the long grass.



Big Bandwidth

To get the most bandwidth these days use cable.

For my home/home office we switched from the fastest internet we could get over the telephone lines to best internet broadband we could afford on a cable modem. This was a big switch for us because we did not have cable. So we had cable hooked up to our house just for the internet. We signed up for Comcast’s “Extreme” level of broadband since there can be 5 – 9 people using the line at any one time. The improvement was dramatic.

We now get about 60 Mb/s download and 17 Mb/s upload. This gives me and my assistant in the office and my family of five, plus the relatives downstairs, plus the Netflix and X-Box live connections, plenty of bandwidth to share. We pay about $120 per month for the connection.

It’s been running at this level for about a year and we’ve had very little problems. Someone in the family can be streaming a movie on Netflix while my son plays Battlefield live on the XBox, while I download a software update, while my daughter watches YouTube — all at the same time with no noticeable delay.

Not having to wait for downloads and being able to zip around on even image-dense web pages is pure joy. Since I spend so much time online, the monthly fee is well-worth it to me, the family, and our little office.

To test the speed of your internet connect use this free website, Speedtest. Here is our snapshot today.

P txt



User Manual First

In the old days (before the web) you could not read the operating manual or instructions for an appliance, device, or tool until you got it home and unpacked it. Getting the manual was considered one of the benefits of purchasing the product. In fact, you had to purchase extra copies if you lost the original, or wanted to check it out. It was often only later when you finally had the box opened that you discovered a) it did not permit the function you bought it for, or b) it was a quarter inch smaller than it looked and so didn’t fit, or c) it was incompatible with the assessors set you already had, or d) it had no manual!

Those days are gone. You can find a PDF version of the manual for most products on the web if you search hard enough. It is not as easy as it should be, but the smarter manufacturers make it easy to download the specs of whatever they sell.

That leads to this new rule: get the manual first, before you buy.

For a large home remodel I had to purchase a pile of new appliances, lights, plumbing fixtures, hardware, materials, gadgets, and some tools. I instituted a “Manual First, Buy Later” policy, and it had immediate positive effects. Once I identified a possible candidate for purchase, I would google for its manual. Equally important as finding the operating instructions and basic specs, is to get hold of the installation instructions. There are few sites that aggregate manuals and specs of major lines, but often I would wind up at the manufacturer’s site. There I would download the PDF and read it carefully. That’s where you find out its precise dimensions, its actual power needs, its exact connections, its real compatibility. I lost count of the number of inappropriate bad purchases I avoided by studying the manual and specs first.

What baffles me are the clueless manufacturers who still don’t put their installation and operating manuals online in 2012. (I’m thinking of you, LG.) The main result of this process is simply fewer surprises. Less returns, better integration.


I was heartened to see that even the professionals do this. Here is a snapshot of our plumber “at work” in the bathroom. He has his tablet opened to a installation PDF, and his phone is googling a help number for questions brought up by specs in the PDF.

Locating any particular item’s installation and operating specs is still not as easy as it should be. Amazon could make it the norm to have the full spec PDF for every item they sell, or Google could try to algorithmically sort them out, or some clever aggregator could centralize them all. But for now it is worth seeking them out first, any purchase later.

— KK



One Highly-Evolved Day Bag

I asked Charles Platt, former editor of Cool Tools, what he is packing these days and he replied with this list. It’s not your usual selection:

I like to be fully prepared when traveling, but I hate excess weight. This has led to a computer bag containing not just a computer but as many small items as possible, packaged in such a way that they don’t fall to the bottom in an undifferentiated mess.

The key to the packaging is to use a modular system based on Darice Mini Storage Boxes (available with or without compartments–I prefer those without). These parts boxes measure about 3.5″ x 5.7″ x 1.2″. They have durable metal hinges and can be stacked edge-to-edge. My computer bag holds five of them in its main compartment. Amazon sells an assortment, or you can buy individual styles from CraftAmerica.

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Inside the storage boxes I keep:

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* Retractable Rosewill ethernet connector, about 1.5″ x 3″.

* Mini-USB to full-USB wire adapter, 6″, for uploads from camera to laptop.

* Mini-mouse. I don’t like trackpads.

* Spare laptop battery.

* Medications. To save space, I transfer pills into little 3″ x 4″ zip-lock plastic bags. I peel the prescription labels from pill bottles and stick them to the bags. (but cheaper from eBay).

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* One 50mm diameter concave mirror, so that I can examine my own eye if I get a foreign object in it and there’s no one else to assist. The concavity allows very close-up focusing.

* Cell phone charger.

* Camera battery charger.

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* Earbuds and wire-mounted microphone with USB plug, for Skype calls via laptop. Especially useful when traveling internationally.

* Miniature 3-foot measuring tape in 1″ x 1.5″ enclosure.

* Plastic lightweight miniature camera tripod, folds to 1.5″ x 6″ x 0.6″, so that I can take time exposures almost anywhere.

* SD data card reader with USB connector. Just in case image transfer from camera to computer fails.

* Miniature LED flashlight.

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* Aegis Padlock 500GB external USB drive, with 256-bit hardware encryption. The nice thing about this drive is that you enter your password on a numeric keypad built into the drive. Thus, no software drivers are necessary, and you can plug it into any computer. And if you leave it behind in a motel room, your data are secure (supposedly there is no backdoor to bypass the encryption). Can you plead the 5th Amendment if an inquisitive US immigration agent wants to see what’s saved on it? The last I heard, that issue is being litigated in a couple of test cases.

All these items fit inside the five storage boxes. In addition of course the bag has its own set of storage pockets containing pens, blank sheets of paper, two pairs of eyeglasses, paper printout of all addresses and phone numbers, business cards, passport, a printout of all online passwords using a simple cipher that I can decode in my head, and a pocket digital camera, currently a Canon S100. And, of course, there’s a computer (Sharp MP30, no longer made unfortunately).

The bag itself is quite small: 12″ x 14″ x 5″. Even when it’s fully loaded, I find the weight tolerable.

— Charles Platt



Extended Warranty Evaluation

The sales pitch for an extended warranty is simple: pay some extra money now to extend the manufacture’s 90-day warranty another 3 years to save on expensive repairs later. For most appliances an extended warranty is a rip-off. The cost of this insurance rarely pays for itself. Either the device keeps working till just after the warranty period, or the cost of the warranty extension exceeds the cost of replacing the unit. Either way, the money made by selling uneconomical extended warranties is a major source of profit for retailers. That is why they are selling it: because on average most devices don’t break during this period. Therefore, the wisdom of the smart shopper: skip the extended warranty.


There are a few exceptions to this rule. At this particular moment in technology, there are 3 major devices that seem particularly repair-prone and problematic, with frequent failures within their first 3 years, and with high costs of repair. According to a study by the independent Consumer Reports (August 2011), those three are: personal computers, refrigerators and zero-turn-radius riding lawn mowers. And because of their frequent failure across brands the insurance of an extended warranty is justified in their cases.

But not all extended warranties (EW) are the same. You can purchase an EW from the manufacturer, from the retailer selling the device, from a third party, or from your credit card company. And different issuers have different selling points.

In the personal computer realm, the best deal is Apple’s. As 25-year Apple fans we automatically figure in the cost of AppleCare’s 3-year EW for any device we purchase from them. Sad to say, we frequently need it. Happy to say, their service is great. We take the ailing unit to a local Genius Bar, and they swap out what’s broken and make it right. Over the years we’d had screens, keyboards, drives, motherboards, power supply, all repaired for no extra costs over the EW. And that is not to mention the great real-human phone support help for any kind of software related questions.

Refrigerators are a different matter. Almost everyone has one, and newer models (particular those with ice makers) can be very complex. In the past few months, we needed to purchase our first new refrigerator. Even our plumber told us that the EW was worth getting for a refrigerator. But what kind? Sears offered one plan. Home Depot another. Visa, our credit card company offered another if we used their card. Square Trade offered third-party service. With the help of Camille Cloutier, we researched all the plans to see which had the best deal using a new LG refrigerator as a test case. Her research is summed up in this table here.

The short answer is that like many other industries, when you get behind the curtain there are really only a few major players. Most retailers and card companies outsource their extended warranty programs to a few industry giants, who rebrand their service, and then outsource the actual repairs to local companies. But because there are so many brands involved in this transaction it is very hard to assign credit or blame when things don’t work out. If you read the feedback in forums on refrigerator repairs most unhappy customers aren’t making the distinction between the manufacturer of the appliance, or the retail seller of it, or the company selling the EW, or the actual company supplying the repair technicians who come to your house. Those are four different companies for one experience for the customer.

What I found in warranty repair is that the competency of the local service branch probably plays more of a difference in customer satisfaction than anything else, but was the least consistent. If the local agency did a poor job fixing a problem, customers would naturally blame LG, or Panasonic, or GE for crappy quality and service. It is hard to judge the service quality in an EW, but it is essentially the same as the quality of a regular warranty repair — that is dependent on local crews — and this is important — who often service all the different manufacturers. The Maytag man is unusual because most of the others repair technicians are contracted out and work on all brands.

Maytag repair man

So the choice of EW providers comes down to price and plan. All the policies we examined include a “No Lemon” clause — if three of the same repairs are made in a 12 month period and a fourth becomes necessary, they will replace the unit, and most of them share the same long list of exclusions. Of all the policies, Visa’s was the shortest and least specific. Its instructions on claim processing seemed the most lengthy (to report a problem, they mail you a claims form, you get an estimate and return that claim form, once it’s approve, the claim can proceed).

Most 4- to 5-year service plans cost about 20% of the purchase price. Except Home Depot; they charge a flat fee of $100 for a 4-year extended contract on refrigerators (on a large one that’s only 4%). It begins when the 1-year manufacturer’s warranty ends, so I went with them for our extended warranty on a new fridge. I now have 5 years of service for $100, which seems like reasonable insurance.

— KK



VW Vagabond

This couple penny-pinched their salaries for several years, bought a VW Van, and drove it around the world (US, South America and Africa). They share what they have learned on one of the most helpful websites I’ve seen for this sort of thing. I really like their sensibility and advice. Very reasonable and very wise. They also “review” the tools and stuff they found vital in their small traveling home on this page. Click on a tool to see more.

They give good advice about shipping vehicles (very complex) and even saving up enough to make the journey. They have a book, too.

While living in a VW Van for three years, they got the idea that even this lifestyle was too complex so they get simpler for the next stage. They are now bicycling across Asia, another adventure and great idea. They are riding recycled 1980 mountain bikes. As usual they have all kinds of great tool reviews (water filters and the like).

Part of the reason their advice and website is so useful is that they have no sponsors — a rarity for ambitious trips like this these days. It keeps them honest and useful. Check ‘em out.

Sample excerpts:

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Rain gear has proven to be pretty
much useless here in Southeast
Asia. To wear even the thinnest,
most breathable layer in this heat
creates a sauna-like effect. We
have taken to simply riding in the
rain… it’s refreshing, really! If it
pours too hard to see, then we
pull over in a bus stop and wait
for the drizzle to return.

Bangkok Station 4 am Rich Bike 313x230

This is Rich preparing to cycle out of the
Bangkok railway station at 4 a.m. Notice
the reflective vest and reflective tape stuck
all over the bike. Reflective vests are
available from almost any bicycle shop. The
3M tape is the stuff used on highway guard
rails in the U.S. We purchased strips of it on
eBay for a few dollars.

We purchased our down bags at the Veterans
Thrift Store. They are a few years old and
needed a good washing but are as functional
– albeit with less status – than their adventure
store counterparts. Rich paid $10 for his and Amanda’s was only
$1.65. We washed them on the delicate
cycle then ran them through the dryer on low
heat for a few cycles. If you put a running
shoe (make sure it’s clean) in the dryer with
the bag it will keep the down from clumping.
We hung them on the line for two sunny days
and now they look and smell brand new – or
close enough.



TechShop Membership

TechShop (previously reviewed here) is a member-based workshop. They have one of every tool you could dream of — laser cutters, plasma torches, computer-control sewing machines, welders, 3D printing machines, you name it — plus piles of regular tools (drill presses, lathes, oscilloscopes, miter saws etc.), and once you are member and cleared for training, you can use them whenever you want. They have a big open tables, lots of room, and offer classes for various tool craft as well.

TechShop sells day passes, week passes, monthly passes, or yearly membership.

The big update is that they have expanded their locations from their original Silicon Valley station. They are currently in 5 US locations, with 3 more in progress, and are adding more each year.

The idea is brilliant. Why should you purchase, maintain, and upgrade expensive shop tools that you might need only once in a while? It’s a whole lot better to join a co-op that buys, houses, and upkeeps the gear. You pay rent to use it — a price that will be a lot less than the cost of purchase. The downside, of course, is that you need to travel to the TechShop, which can be inconvenient. I’ve found 3 types of folks using it: 1) Those who have tiny apartments and no tools, or tool space, of their own; this is their workshop. 2) Those who are working on a prototype, or a big art project, for a specific period of time; this is their lab and office. 3) Those who own a decent typical workshop but want occasional access to a laser cutter, or 3D printer; this is their luxury.

Here are some photos I took at the San Francisco location:


A cage of power tools.


Welding machines waiting to be used.


A work table with floating power cord, easily accessible from any side, but not in the way. The lockers are for members use.


A plywood bench made using tools on the premises.


Working at the laser cutter control station.

-- KK  


Material Libraries

There are thousands of types of materials to make things from. The first impulse for most of us is to use known materials like wood, steel, concrete, and glass. But each of those have hundreds of varieties, each with their own properties. How about metallic ceramics? And every year brand new materials are invented. How can one find out what materials are available?

One way to become familiar with the vast possibilities of materials is to visit a materials library. That’s what professional designers and architectures do when embarking on a project. Maybe what they design can be made of some kind of glass? Or super strong plastic? Or bendable wood? Larger design firms have their own material collection, which they use for inspiration, research and for sharing with clients. Below is an unusually large material library at the New York City architecture firm 1100: Architect. Smaller ones can be found at most design firms.


Not everyone has the space or time to build their own. So Material Connexion is a commercial business operating in 8 major design-center cities of the world. For a subscription fee you can use their extensive material library. They add about a dozen new materials per month. A fair number of university art centers also use them to install and manage their collections.

MaterialsLibrary Home

Art, architecture and design centers in colleges and universities have begun creating material libraries that rival the depth and usefulness of book libraries. Notable collections include Harvard’s Materials Collection and RISD’s Material Resource Center in Providence, RI. At both you can check out a sample to study, just like a book:

To Borrow Items from the Material Resource Center
Select items from the shelves and bring them to the checkout desk.
Materials circulate for 7 days at a time. Please return materials promptly – an overdue fine of .20 per 5 items will be charged.

The Materials Lab at the University of Texas was the pioneer in creating material libraries several decades ago. Their own library contains 25,000 different types of materials. Even better, the catalog of the Material Lab is openly available online. It’s organized by domain and even though you can’t touch them, you can learn a lot by browsing and searching. You can quickly see, say, how many different types of concrete blocks are available, or how many types of metallic glass, or plywood laminates.

Chances are that if there is a art/design college near you, they have a material library that you could at least visit. The local art college in my neighborhood is the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I visited their materials library, which is small, but stimulating. Here the librarian oversees the collection. I was free to browse it.


Even better, it is not hard to accumulate your own collection of materials, or even start a shared library with friends and colleagues. It is not just the pieces of stuff that is valuable, but the information about the stuff — its specs, what it can do, or not do, where it comes from, how to get more of it.

-- KK  

Material Connexion Materials Database
Individual online subscription

University of Texas, Austin Materials Lab
online catalog, free

California College of the Arts Materials Library
openly accessible, but non-circulating
online database, free