Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Make Anything: High Tech

A life goal of mine is to be able to understand how anything is made and/or know that I could make anything.  Technology will always be advancing and I will never be an expert of any field, but it always appealed to me as something to strive for.  That is why when I heard about a company called the Tech Shop I was instantly intrigued.  In Tech Shop there is all the equipment to build most anything that anyone could want.  Their slogan is "Build Your Dreams Here".  It has its origins in Menlo Park, CA.  No sites were located anywhere close.  I checked back every couple of years and they were expanding.  Eventually, I heard about a Tech Shop that was to open soon in Durham, NC; close enough to check it out.  I was surprised that I never heard anything else about it aside from that singular article.  

Finally, a few months ago, I checked again and found out it was open, and had been open for a few years.  As I later found out, the confusion was likely that the shop in Durham was originally opened with a deal made with the primary location.  The owner could open his own business and use the Tech Shop branding, but it would operate as its wholly separate entity.  More recently, the original Tech Shop owners took more of an interest in the Durham location.  They provided additional funding for extra equipment and now the Durham location is fully a part of the original Tech Shop family.  

That bit of history is not part of the regular tour, but rather an added tidbit from my inquiries.  In addition to having the equipment, they also have classes to train people to learn to use the equipment safely and also others to just learn how to do something new.  I found one I was interested in and signed up.  Now I had my motivation for going and prepared for a tour; camera in hand.

This facility is tucked in an industrial park.  The building is not showy aside from a few decorations out front.

Got my pass.  Officially ready for the tour.

The first area is for laser etching.  The machine above is the etcher.  This is directly across from the reception desk.  There is a large window that people waiting in the lobby can ogle through to watch while others work.  

Here is my tour guide showing me the equipment in the wood working area.

This room is dedicated to a large CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router.  This one is for softer materials in general.

Work stations are set up in rows for individuals or groups to plan out their creations.
This is MakerBot.  I believe it is the second generation, aka Replicator.  The MakerBot is a personal 3D printer.  It prints a plastic material (same material that is used for LEGO's) in layers to form any design.  The goal is to package the industrial CNC machines into a product that is accessible to individuals.  The equivalent would be the invention of inkjet printers so people would not need a press to make professional documents.  

This is the 1st generation of the MakerBot.  As an example of what can be made, I was shown this crustacean creature that was printed.  All joints snap together and pivot.

This neat contraption was also printed.

Here is an industrial CNC machine for metal parts.  We only passed through because there was currently a class going on showing everyone how to use the equipment.

This is an overview of the machine shop.  The CNC router is where all the people are standing at the far end.

There is plenty of welding equipment and a perfectly flat and level table to work on.  

This is a plasma table.  It can cut through 1/2" thick steel.  The picture below shows the remnants from where a gear was cut out.  I had a little one-up-manship here.  A plasma table was the first thing I ever designed.  Mine could could through 3/4" thick armor plating and would support sheets of 8' x 24'.  

I enjoyed this part.  To be able to "Build Your Dreams" you have to have everything.  This area, inside a place called the Tech Shop is as un-tech as anything.  Heat your metal in the furnace shown above then forge it into any shape that desired using the anvil and tools shown below.

Then there is also a small area for castings.

That was everything for the first floor.  On the second floor the first stop was a room dedicated to screening processes.  Everything to make your own t-shirt logo.

This creepy room is an empty office.  People can rent a room like this to store their work or anything else.  Some of the other large areas upstairs are for training rooms and there is also a decent kitchenette.

All of the doors and drawers of the kitchenette were made on the equipment in the wood shop.

An area dedicated for sewing

The electronics work stations.

The tour concluded back at the main lobby.  The desk is littered with different items that had all been made in their facility.  It ended in perfect time too.  My class was just about to start.

This is the classroom.  The session was not on Autodesk, but people can come here to use the software or have a class on it.  

My degree is in mechanical engineering.  To be able to build much today there almost has to be electronics involved.  I have had some introduction to it, but it has been a long time.  The session I signed up for discussed the Arduino electronics board, did some basic prototype wiring and programming.  When programming, the first program most people learn is called Hello World.  All it will do is bring up a window and display the text "Hello World".  In electronics, the Hello World equivalent is to turn an LED on and off.  That was where it started.  The conclusion was something I had never done before.  The board was actually interfaced to the computer during operations and the brightness of the LED was dictated by the position of mouse in a window.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Make Anything: Medium Tech

Most people in my family know I have a history of tinkering.  Recently, my wife's aunt asked if I could "fix" a music box.  I looked at it for a minute and told her I would attempt to, but did not want to make promises.

The first object I ever took apart was a Super Nintendo that no longer would function by literally breathing life into its cartridges.  Parts were laid out in lines; as organized as possible on the basement carpet.  Several screws and miniature plastic parts were cluttered around me.  It got put back together.  Strange thing was that it worked less than it did before.  I never understood what the difference was.  I think all the parts got put reassembled.  Throughout the years I started taking apart other things.  Toy robots are the most fun and have the most inventive designs.  Printers had the most salvagable parts.  It was always things that had come close to being disregarded anyhow, but the track record of things becoming functional after the fact was not great.  So now my latest challenge would be a music box.  

Diagnosis: It was over sprung.  To get the spring unsprung was going to require a complete tear down; my specialty.  Once that was accomplished I inspected the individual parts for further damages.  It was worse than I thought.  The main gears would not align because the gears moved on the shaft.  It all sat loose.  Extra holes were drilled into the box from the bottom.  Someone else has attempted to fix this box.  I tried moving the gears back in place on the shaft but could tell it was bending.  Without proper tools, a different approach was decided.  Whoever tried to fix it before put an 1/8" piece of wood under the mechanism. My alternative was to design a part to replace the piece of wood.  The part would also incorporate a feature to hold the shaft in place.  It also gave me a chance to test out a 3D printing website. Shapeways has basic modeling tools available on their website.  Once modeled the part can be loaded on their website as private or publicly viewable.  Similar to sites like Etsy, the items can be sold in an online market place.  The model can be viewed and embedded conveniently so it can be sold or displayed through other venues. 


Shapeways has a variety of materials to choose ranging from flexible plastics to precious metals.  I went with a form of aluminum.

To verify my model I printed a a template.  Once I felt comfortable with the design, I placed the order.  It arrived a couple weeks later.  The part arrived in the box below. As such, here is my first blog unboxing.

When first opened, the initial presentation is a card to make you feel good about the purchase. Generally good content, but the heart diagram is a bit cheesy.


Underneath the card there is ample bubble wrap protecting the purchase.  The card gives a nice touch so it feels like more than just a part shoved in a box.  It is a totally different display compared to if the bubble wrap is the first thing seen.


This photo shows the texture from a 3D printed aluminum.  The website has plenty of documentation to describe the strength and look of their different materials.

Here is the part in place in the music box.The raised feature on the hinge side is what holds the shaft in place. Once it was in place I added some oil that would be for a model train for good measure.  Finally, I could reap my reward and hear the song.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Solving Solar, and then Some

Solar and Innovation
Irregardless of your view on the solar industry there is a statistic out there that will support your claim.  As different companies try to develop studies to get the information they want; as the same information is gathered using different means; there is always different information.  Are solar panels 8% or 20% efficient.  Is China undercutting pricing so other countries cannot compete?  Has solar power reached parity with other forms of generating electricity?  It takes an expert studying the subject full time to be able to interpret all the data available.  Can you trust the expert who is reporting the data?  Who pays him?  What were his sources of information?  My goal is to convince you of a particular direction for the solar industry without you having to make many assumptions.

2008 was a depressing time in America.  The economy was tanking.  The housing market and auto industries were on the brink of collapse.  When asked how America would cope going into the future, the frequent answer from political pundits and financial analysts was ‘American innovation’.  (Oh no, he’s going into politics.  Profanity involving Obama and Solyndra are spewing from the conservatives’ heads like puss from a canker sore.)  I agree, it is not the best practice for the government to get into capital investments.  It is not ideal when the majority of new companies are likely to struggle, when any corporate connection will be analyzed by every news channel for weeks and sit on the skins of voters like a bad rash (resulting in the canker).  But that was how this term tried to spur innovation when most other investment paths had dried up.  The result was a backlash that may have set back the solar industry with all the controversy.  The common accepted belief is that the US has the most advanced solar tech, but other countries, China and Germany, are adopting it faster and exporting it at a faster rate.  If they are getting more profits from it, then their industry is going to be driven by better products that will reach parity faster what does that imply?  Other countries will be the leaders in this growing industry.  

Where is America’s innovation?  The American innovative spirit is what has been indoctrinated in several political speeches as the saving grace for the economy.  So where can it show up?  The auto industry?  Don’t worry, nothing too hurtful to be said here.  Sure there can be small improvements in the overall design of a standard car.  The components can be more efficient, but that is not the type of innovation that drives a country.  The hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants have potential.  But people respond slowly to justifying the cost.  If you want to sell products that are in demand across the globe look to solar.  Solar has the characteristics needed to drive innovation.  

That is why the statistics do not matter about whether there is cost parity or how much more efficient it is in an area.  Globally there is demand and America cannot afford to take the back seat while other countries drive solar revolution.

Solar and Immigration
Now for something different; let’s talk immigration.  Remember when Newt Gingrich promised an electrified fence at the border if he were elected President.  That does not have to be such a horrible idea.  (And my friends say I’m an over-zealous Obama supporter)  I discussed immigration with a co-worker at a previous job.  His name was Fortino.  He was very clear and concise and in very short order convinced me that no action should be taken to change immigration.  In short, if you deport all illegal immigrants, prices skyrocket, good bye re-election.  If you open the borders there would be a rush of people into the country that would be abhorred by the average American for taking jobs that would otherwise be available.  The goal of any immigration law should not be to impact immigration, but rather to diminish drug routes into America and restrict the means of getting arms into Mexico from America.  

By itself solar is a tough sell.  But if it is able to be incorporated into the cost of another project it could become a worthwhile investment.  I propose that the US and Mexico work out a deal to build an electrified fence; not one that will electrocute people, but rather one that will send power into both countries.  The greatest benefit will be if Mexicans build and sustain the fence and American companies provide the solar panels for it.  The location is ideal to achieve maximum efficiency in solar panels.  The quantities would drive profits and innovation to ensure America can hold its own.  Since Mexicans would then have greater opportunities for gainful employment there will be less reason to go into gangs.  Communities would spring up on both sides of the fence across the entire border.  Instead of necessarily a physical fence you have the fence of a community watch.  There is then a reason to put in a highway system that runs from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico.  This allows quick maintenance of the fence and allows any illegal activities to more easily be caught.  There is then a reason to have police to protect the towns that spring up and the security to protect the power companies.  These forces would take on some if not all of the duties of the border patrol.
In recent news, the Obama administration set a solar road map that opens up large extents of land for utility scale solar projects.  Details can be found in this LA Times article.  Maybe he is on his way to build an electric fence.  It would be a great zinger in the up coming debates with Romney.

Solar Versus Nuclear
Several people turn to nuclear power as an answer to energy dilemmas.  However, the risks of nuclear power are far too great in my opinion.  Nuclear waste storage and fallout would be the most common.  If you eliminate the need for nuclear energy you also eliminate the largest reasons governments give for having uranium enrichment capabilities.  Eliminating the need for nuclear power would eliminate the largest reason any country would have for a facility that could potentially manufacture nuclear warheads.  Yes, there are still medical reasons for it, but as contrarian evidence I only need to quote the world renowned Dr. McCoy.  "It's the God Damned Spanish Inquisition!"

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Dr. McCoy confronts other doctors on their primitive practices
The claims that every part is inspected and designed to such incredible safety tolerances that nothing can possibly go wrong have also never set well.  That was said of the original nuclear reactors.  Now, after a few fallouts and several close calls, new designs are being developed that are purportedly safer.  

However, the problem is not the parts.  It is the people.  If a reactor gets built cities will spring up around it.  Gradually more and more strain will be put on it.  Eventually there is a dense population that relies on the continuous surge of power.  The people that work there may go through mundane drills to stay ready for any occurrence, but the relaxation will eventually set in as they rely on the notion that nothing can go wrong or some light would tell them what needs to be done.  As a cost saving measure the power company  may try to cut some corner.  Those 3 factors, population density, false sense of ease, and increasing profits will all act together when something does happen.  So when and if a disaster does happen, millions of people must spontaneously be relocated.  The land is rendered useless for centuries.

An alternative solution has also been sought after.  Nuclear fusion; the same processes evident in every star.  It still harnesses the energy stored inside atoms, but it does it in a way that results in no toxic waste and is so unstable that if something did go wrong in the reactor the entire process would just stop.  I have heard it said recently (sorry, don't remember the source) that 2 gallon jugs of water would provide the energy equivalent of an oil tanker.  On the opposite side of the topic, in the study of fusion, there has yet to be a system that can be run continuously and produce a net energy.  The attempts have consumed more than produced.  20 years down the road and billions of dollars later I can see a scientist approach his funders and say something along the lines of, "Well guys.  It's a funny thing.  Turns out nuclear reactions simply obey the laws of conservation.  Split atoms and get energy.  Fuse them, well, and lose energy.  Sorry."  Net energy gains are the ultimate goal, but reading into it, it looks like intermediate successes with controlling plasmas that could result in advanced technologies elsewhere.  Nuclear fusion makes for such a great sales pitch I have one of my own to present.

Dear Powers that Be,

          The research my company has conducted indicates that implementing nuclear fusion in space will eliminate the continuation and instabilities of current ground based research facilities.  The result of which will certainly produce an influx of energy.  We propose to initiate an orbital satellite around Earth and to beam the energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation back to a distributed ground network of collectors.  The projected cost is estimated to only be $5 million (Less than .1% of current fusion research).

                                           Justin Newsome
                                           President and CEO, Solar Hijinks Inc.

Once funded, install a nice solar panel system on the house I would have just bought.  Contract is technically met.  Then, save the remaining $4 million  for the lawyers needed once the Powers that Be realize the scam.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Thoughts on Ready Player One: Prison

Ok, Wade, the main character in the book Ready Player One, does not actually go to prison.  But when he is unable to pay his bills, he is sentenced to an alternative.  Wade sets himself up to owe a massive debt to Innovative Online Industries; an antagonist company out to turn the virtual world into a new, expansive revenue stream.  This parallels the real world concern of maintaining an open internet.  That is the theme of the majority of Ready Player One, and there are likely several discussions on it.  What I will dive deeper into is a look at the consequences Wade experienced for not paying his bills.

Because the debt he owed was to Innovative Online Industries (IOI), he became employed by IOI. He describes the system as indentured servitude. Representatives of IOI came to pick him up from his apartment. He was indoctrinated to the processes that would become his day to day life.  Wade would work as a help desk rep.  He would answer calls to help people so they could go back to enjoying their lives in the virtual world known as the OASIS. When he was not answering calls he would either be in the cafeteria or in his cell, or dormitory.  The food he ate and living expenses were deducted from his wretched pay.  As such, most people could never afford to pay off their debt and would be forced into servitude for the rest of their lives. To monitor Wade's activities there was a security camera in his room and he was forced to wear an ankle bracelet and ear tag. 

That's not so bad right? It's easy to hear the arguments on both sides.  Some people would be for it saying:
Those people never should have gone in debt in the first place. Or..
By keeping them locked up those people can't be driving up the prices I pay. On the other hand..
They are being kept from their friends and family. And..
They could contribute to society much more and pay off their debts sooner in other industries.  And..
The company takes such advantage of them. And..
When they come back to the real world they are less prepared because it would have changed so much. And will make it more likely they will have future debt.

Those are all arguments applied to our prison system.  Outside of those, I like The Shawshank Redemption quote,

"I had to go to prison to be a criminal."

Another issue in our real world scenario is that their living expenses come from taxes.  Because prisons get increasingly over populated, the amount of tax keeps increasing.

National Prison Expenses
Year Cost
1985 $9.6 billion
1990 $12 billion
1996 $22 billion

The main purpose of prisons is to punish.  This point can be argued; someone might say it is to rehabilitate or to protect society by removing the individual.  But as far as being locked in a cell and forced to a limited schedule and structure, that sounds closest to punishment to me.

By invoking the Principle of Shawshank it is observed that prisons are counter-productive to reducing crime. So, what would a prison look like if the primary purpose was to reduce crime with minimal drain on societal resources? What would it look like if punishment was not the primary consideration?

It would look like a society. Personally, I believe everything happens due to cause and effect. If someone commits a crime, there is a reason they committed the crime. A series of events observed by an individual that are interpreted by a series of chemical reactions in an individual's body that result in a consequential action. As such, when the person is arrested and found guilty, they would be offered a choice. The status quo; go to prison for a defined period or enter a new society where privacy would be minimal and potentially need to take a drug regimen. The fabricated society, lack of privacy, and potential therapy and drug regimen would all be to ensure the causes of crime do not enter into the effect; to ensure the individual does not have motivation to commit the crime.  As much as I would like to see this in practice, it is easy to see several fictional plots developed around it with tales of how it would go wrong.

In this society people could work at real jobs making real salaries rather than the pittance of a conventional prison.  People could utilize their time to work and develop a skill rather than working out and developing relationships, forming criminal clubs.  The state funded facilities would cost less because the housing expenses, food, health care, and other necessary amenities would largely be paid for by the inhabitants.  Finally, because most people in society would not go for this idea so far as it has been presented there is one final benefit to mention.  Since the people who committed the crime are able to live normal lives for the most part, the terms of a societal sentence could be longer than the terms of a prison sentence for the same crime.  This means they would be off the streets of main stream America.  Admit it, you can see the benefits, but have already started writing a screen play in your head to catalog the horrific scenarios of how it would pan out.

Those mental screen plays are why this problem cannot be solved.  Think of any water cooler conversation you have had, or maybe over heard, where people complain about the problems of the world, mock the politicians for their horrible decisions, then come to the conclusion of ,"but what can we do?"  People are always far more ready to discuss how bad a decision can be and dismiss it from the beginning rather than discuss a plan in depth, and see how it can develop to improve the world.  Again, it comes back to cause and effect.  This is a perfectly natural response for people to have.  The behavior has its roots in risk aversion that has served most humans so well for centuries.  That, in itself, is a crime and why the risk takers will be the ones who make a difference in the world.


Gangs form for protection.  People who do not feel safe in their environment form together to look after each other.  If a person feels disadvantaged in society they might reach out to the gang for support.  If you are not with the gang, you might be a target for the gang, therefore join the gang.  Then, for whatever reason, a gang member gets sent to prison, now even more unprotected.  This causes the gang to spread further.  The inmates get released and the gang has spread.  I believe gangs should be eliminated, but it is not going to happen by trying to imprison all members.  It should happen by providing everyone with a protected option.  This currently takes the form of community activities.  This is great for prevention, but once in the gang, there needs to be a protected alternative.


With the current prison system, cause and effect make sense for what is observed.  People spend days or years in prison.  Time is largely not spent in productive endeavors.  While in prison, society moves on.  The individual is released back into his original environment, has a huge hole in his work history, and is less knowledgeable about the latest societal trends.  What possible effect could be expected?  If he was on drugs, he has the same drug using acquaintances.  So he goes back to using drugs.  The positive friends may or may not still be around.  Any void there will likely be taken up by more negative influences.  Because life is going to be especially difficult, the same crimes are likely to be taken up.  Cause and effect.  Prison cannot be effectual if it is used primarily as a means of punishment.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Thoughts on Ready Player One: Education

Part 1: The Status Quo

In the case of the current education system, the educational requirements are too demanding to meet the needs of every student.  Exploding populations force more students into every school which in turn forces more students in each classroom.  The majority of the time, students of all ability levels are in the same class and receive the same lessons.  This forces some to be bored and others to have suffering grades.  Parents may argue that teachers need to teach better, but to resolve deficits education funds are one of the first to be cut.  The people that would be great teachers frequently leave teaching because of the stress, lack of respect, and little pay.  Yes, lack of respect, because for some reason, when a child is involved, conversations get personal.  The comment about little pay deserves some actual numbers because it is all readily available on that great Book of Knowledge called the internet.  The US entered the recession around 2008.  The graphs below show North Carolina teacher salary schedules for that period (page 2 if you actually do the search).

2006-2007 North Carolina Salary Schedule
2008-2009 North Carolina Salary Schedule
2010-2011 North Carolina Salary Schedule
2012-2013 North Carolina Salary Schedule
From the charts, notice how the years were grouped together to cut costs.  Also note the the first interval shows a salary increase while the following years decreased dramatically.  That was during a recession, if you want to dispute their salaries in positive times refer to this article by the NEA which conveniently describes the salaries before the recession following the trend for a decade.  It shows that the increases do not keep up with inflation.

Even if you do not have children, this should be important to you.  The reason is that each year a good 1/4 of the material is revisited the following year.  If there is mastery of the previous year's material more time can be devoted to the new.  If there is repeated mastery there is likely good study habits.  This carries over the 12 years and into college.  1/4 is my own personal observation; of course the figure varies.  It implies that to have the most educated work force and therefore most innovative economy, funding should focus on elementary ed., then middle and high school, and then college; not the other way around.    Without a devotion to education in the developmental years other nations will surpass our economy.  Technical positions will increasingly be found overseas rather than at home.  This is how the decline of the American economy will occur unless action is taken.  On CNN, Fareed Zakaria's Global Public Square: Fixing Education touches on these points.

That is my rant that assumes traditional answers.  If you want to take traditional actions contact your representatives in congress. makes it easy for people to find their representatives and their contact information.  If you have an Android powered smart phone or tablet you can download the Congress app.  Another source of useful information is by the Sunlight Foundation.  The name makes it sound like a religious cult, but it is actually a project dedicated to transparency in government.  Since this is a big political season, I will cover the tools on their website in a future post (mostly for my own voting awareness).

Part 2: Education in Ready Player One

The problem is that budgets have to be balanced some how.  If money does not get cut from education, where does it come from.  Some industry has to be hurt.  So, we look beyond traditional answers.  The science-fiction book set in 2044, Ready Player One, examines educational structures by following Wade through his school experiences.  Wade started in a school system similar to our present day ones, but then became eligible to join a virtual classroom.  He received a state funded Augmented Reality (AR) headset and AR gloves.  Ernest Cline, the author, contrasts the two experiences.  In the former educational setting Wade gets bullied routinely.  His family lacked the finances for the latest fashions and other students found this as an easy target.  On top of that he was picked on because he had a pension for playing video games and an aversion to exercise which led him to be over-weight.

Wade is a geek; well versed in the latest technologies.  So the transition to a virtual classroom was perfectly suited to him, but in the real world he was routinely pushed around because of his abilities.  In the virtual classroom his avatar still only had the most basic clothes (accessories and customizations had to be purchased), but if someone tried to taunt him his aggressor could be muted.  There could be no physical assault.  There is finally a safe learning environment.

Every school has issues getting new equipment, and the facilities are routinely put through a gauntlet of structural, chemical, and aesthetic tests by the students.  In the virtual classroom the facilities are all digital so it did not cost any extra to have them look like palaces.  There are no heavy book bags to lug around; only goggles and gloves.  As Wade points out, the digital domain contains the absolute largest up-to-date library.  As classes would start, the software prevented distractions from other students.  The programming optimized the learning experience.  There were many benefits described to having a completely virtual classroom.

Part 3: Steps to Turn a Fictitious Education System into Reality

On the other hand, there are many logistical nightmares to resolve before it can be practical.  Wade looked forward to logging in to school as an escape from reality.  His home and social lives were at best abysmal.  The average student would not be nearly so inclined to regularly maintain their attendance.  How do you handle the interactivity?  What if the student has a question?

To resolve those issues, set aside the ideological school system proposed in Ready Player One, and consider an option that is outside the traditional realm of teaching.  There are a number of online sites developing to provide supplemental educational resources.  Khan Academy has developed from a single person trying to tutor his friends into several educational videos on many topics.

Salman Khan Gives Overview of Khan Academy

The Khan Academy introduction video is given as a TED Talk.  The slogan for TED Talks is "Ideas Worth Spreading".  Khan Academy certainly falls into that category.  There are several TED Talks but there are also other TED initiatives.  TEDx is a locally produced TED conference.  It allows a group of people that are geographically located close to each other the chance to host their own TED event.  TEDed is focused on educational videos.

One of the videos I remember watching in school was pure genius.  Donald in Mathmagic Land inspired much interest in math that carried me through months of drudgery.  And, as luck would have it, can still be found.

Disney's Donald in Mathmagic Land

This is a nascent industry which can readily be adapted into an official education and is already sprawling with competition.  These are only a few resources.  I have been told of others that are already paid subscription services.

How do these resources get incorporated?  All teachers should begin recording their lessons now.  Eventually a company, perhaps one that already acts as a repository for videos (ahem, You, cough, Tube) will organize the educational ones and allow a system of ranking their quality based on each individual states' standards.  Whatever service this is (hack, YouTube, wheeze) would need to get the teachers involved and registered so their vote counts and also so that the teachers can receive monetary rewards as other teachers show their video.

NOTE: As I venture down this speculative future classroom you will likely see several details left out.  "Where will the funding come from?", for instance.  It is all gut reactions to these ideas.  Off the top of your head you can likely come up with several answers for each potential reason not to follow through with this proposed change.  I discuss what I see as the big picture details.

The rewards system provides incentive for teachers to make great lessons.  Students will end up watching the best ranked videos which would likely be better than the lessons they would receive from today's system.  Teachers go from a phase of teaching to facilitating.  Teachers at this point would answer the students' questions directly.

Eventually, as all students get rid of those ridiculous over-stuffed book bags for simple tablets (just a guess that we will entirely skip giving laptops on a large scale to students.  I know laptops are given in some schools, but again, in the large scale tablets will win) the first place teachers will direct students to their answers is in their device.  Go to that topic's FAQ or Help menu or whatever other interface is decided at the time.  If that question is not listed and the teacher cannot find it, the question gets added to the ever expanding compendium.  The answers then get ranked, reviewed, and sorted.  Because most questions will be the same, after a few years most will be answered.  Finding the answers will be a developed skill.  After school, in the so called real world if such a thing exists, they will be less devoted to asking for answers and perfectly able to consult the Book of Knowledge (aka, the internet) for their answers; partly because of years of practice finding their answers and partly because such an interface would propagate through all of society.

Next step: At this point, students are getting great lessons and teachers teach less.  They would still conduct demonstrations and teach topics that they believe can be presented better. However, there are still distractions in the classroom.  Students disrupt other students, the vibrating of cell phones in their pockets.  Who just texted me?  It is so nice outside!  What time is it?  Ready Player One.  Now it is time for the AR headsets and gloves.  New technology invites teachers to try new ways of teaching their lessons to impact their monetary reward.  Not only do lessons get recorded and rewarded, but also the accompanying demonstrations.

With students fully attentive, with few questions that cannot be answered online, teachers are left to supervise at their desks, while wearing their very own headset and gloves.  The student to teacher ratio will comfortably increase as software allows better interaction and people become accustomed to the new augmented lifestyle.

This is when people generally get upset at these ideas.  They argue that I am eliminating jobs.  Well, yes, I think I would be.  But there is little improvement that can be made in the current standard.  Talk to one side and hear, "People only want to pay for a baby sitter.  No wonder it is difficult to get quality teachers to stay in the industry."  Talk to the other side and hear, "The teachers available are horrible.  They get months off for vacation and don't even teach worth a damn."  The proposal is a resolution to a contradiction.  It is a fore drawn conclusion.  In some form, this is where the industry is heading.

UP NEXT: Thoughts on Ready Player One: Prison

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thoughts on the Book, Ready Player One

Ready Player One follows Wade, aka Parzival, around in both the real and virtual world.  It takes place in the near future; 2044.  The author, Ernest Cline, uses a literary tool that can draw in several readers who otherwise would not be inclined to pick up a science-fiction book.  The main story line is developed around one character's obsession with 80's and 90's music and movies.  The story is good by itself, but it was heightened as I experienced the full impact of nostalgia from almost every reference.   

It is always fun when science-fiction selects a time that is within a generation away.  This way, the world has to resemble present reality, but the author has the free range to deviate for technologies that may soon get developed.  And as today's technology is continually surprising people with its progress, much is likely to change by 2044.  

The technology Ernest Cline uses to enhance his world is augmented reality (AR).  He describes all the equipment that alter each sense to take the user from a bleak life in reality to one, or several, more fulfilling lives, in a virtual space.  Earlier movies such as The Lawnmower Man attempted to use the idea of AR for scary effect.  Because it is new and foreign to people it easily lends itself to making people feel uneasy.  And while the applications Ernest shows may make people feel uneasy, he depicts real world uses that overall make the world a better place to live (as long as the company is controlled by a worthy individual).

New technology tends to make people uneasy.  However, as it slips into existence people get used to it, and it becomes common place.  There was no place for an iPad until Apple created the market.  How much time is currently spent playing video games.  That question includes Farmville, or whatever other new game has come along.  First AR will be used for video games.  It is the most natural progression.  Then, multi-player role playing games.  Then, massively multi-player role playing games (MMRPG).  As the video games find massive audiences, Facebook and Google will upgrade their Face Time and Hangouts (interfaces that allow people to interact with each other with video), respectively into new social networking virtual experiences.  

Gaming Consoles have Explored Different Interfaces. Now Nintendo is Edging into the Social Network platform. Not Much of a Leap to Create a New AR Interface and then you could Control your Already Customized Avatar.

The virtual realities may start out as simple block like environments such as Mine Craft, but they will eventually evolve to be as real as any user wants.  Eventually go to Hell and back in a marathon session of the latest all too realistic Diablo.

"There are only two industries that refer to their customers as 'users'." -- Edward Tufte

People and the environments they interact in will seem to evolve in a flurry of activity. Why go visit family when you can plug in and have the same connection without having to drive? Why go to a friend's house to watch a movie when you can plug in? Eventually, as more and more memes get sucked into the AR sphere businesses will begin to take advantage of the cost savings and added customer communication.  Cline point out those advantages as he subjects Wade to the abuses of being a help desk rep.

That is all the progression needed to turn the majority of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One from science-fiction to fiction. Part of my interest is that he explores the potential reinvention of a couple long standing institutions; education and prison systems. The next posts in this series will discuss his vision and how society might get to a point of implementing some version of it.

UP NEXT: Thoughts on Ready Player One: Education
COMING UP: Thoughts on Ready Player One: Prison

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Google I/O: An Ethos of Google

Lore tells that in a particular instance of a particular Google board meeting, Google tasked the attendees to come up with a company motto.  While several tried to come up with elegant descriptions of what the company stood for, one was far more catchy and captured the spirit of what was desired than the rest; 'Don't Be Evil'.

Since that time, several issues have risen to test the robustness of their motto.  Competition between the likes of Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, and Microsoft test the lengths that they are willing to go to be on top.  Countries have been on both sides of their actions.  And individuals debate whether their technological expansions are innovations or invasions of privacy.

Is Google a monopoly? If it is, is that a bad thing?  After the 'Too big to fail' banking fiasco, I am quick to say nothing should be too big to fail.  That is part of capitalism.  However, C-Net recently posted an article explaining the benefits and necessity of some industries consisting of only a few major competitors.  Primarily, in industries that have a large initial expense, smaller competitors will not be able to compete.  The example was given of aircraft manufacturers, where the primary companies are Airbus and Boeing.  Are people going to be benefited by having more companies?  That point can always be argued both ways.

Google has been fined several times for gathering data that is deemed as an invasion of privacy.  For them to provide the best services they need to gather the best data.  To best locate a person, wi-fi locations can be mapped.  This gives better local results.  To give the best street view experience, they actually have cars that drive around taking pictures everywhere.  People complained about their faces, their houses, their license plates.  Governments place cameras everywhere, but as soon as Google takes a picture in public everyone is offended.  The company satiated the complaints by incorporating technology to automatically blur the offending areas.  Seems like cameras should be required to incorporate the same technology.  It would be horrible if you took a picture of a friend at the beach and posted a picture of someone else on your favorite social media site because they were in the background of your picture.  I go the other way.  I want to know when Google would be driving by my house so I could take one of those old timey pictures.  Do a search for my house and you would see a picture of my entire extended family standing outside (no one smiles) along with many of the possessions from inside the house. I never know their schedule or how to find that, so it will never happen.   

In contrast, Facebook has this whole wiki post listing their ethical mine field.  My favorite is the PR company, Burson-Marsteller, they hired that ended up doing an anti-Google smear campaign.  The campaign was trying to highlight Google's horrendous privacy policies.  Many of which are similar to those of other companies, except that Google tries to be more up front about everything.  Or perhaps they are only more up front because of the smear campaign.  The entire history of Burson-Marsteller would make for interesting reading because if someone uses them there is almost certainly a juicy reason that PR is needed.  Come on David Fincher, this would make a great follow up to The Social Network.

In comparison to the other companies competing in similar markets, Google seems to be on higher ethical ground.  Granted, the motto was not 'Don't be as evil as that guy'.  But, when Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google at the time, went before congress to defend the actions of his company, he did use the argument that with technology advancing every day, even though Google looks far superior on that day, it is only a couple steps from falling behind the other tech giants.  The technology sector is notorious for moving from one big thing to the next.

Some people who are Google fanboys will still talk against them when discussing so called deals with the devil.  They forged a deal with Verizon to get a demanding presence in the mobile industry.  To expand into China they agreed to censor certain search results.  They eventually did pull out of China when their requests were too great.  Also, going against the Verizon deal is Google's effort to introduce incredible fiber networks.  Kansas City is the first location to receive that opportunity.  Having enormous quantities of bandwidth to play with opens several possibilities that will allow them to perform the Herculean effort of rectifying their deal.

On top of that they also have side projects such as cars that drive themselves.  They recently achieved 300,000 miles on open road.  Another big announcement was that of Google Glass; their augmented reality headset.  The key point for those announcements is disruption; disruption that evolves the societal infrastructure.  Perhaps those could become new revenue sources.  If not, it keeps people talking about Google and going to their website.  It is a great business model cause the more people that look at the internet, the more revenue they get.  It boils down to the more time they free up for people, the more money Google makes.  It's beautiful.

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