Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.


On the Bookshelf: The New Cool by Neal Bascomb

The New Cool

A Visionary Teacher. His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts.

by Neal Bascomb

I am not quite sure how exactly I would describe The New Cool. On one hand it is a book that explores the potential future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education. On the other hand, it is a story about a high-school sports team that, even though they are relative underdogs, manage to come through and triumph in the face of adversity.

 I guess the best I can say is “Welcome to the world of competitive high school robotics.”

The New Cool follows Team 1717 of the engineering academy at Dos Pueblos High School, a.k.a. the D’Penguineers, during the 2009 FIRST Robotics competition from the unveiling of the game their robot would have to play that season, through the development and building process, to the FIRST robotics competitions that pit robot against robot.

The 2009 FIRST game, Lunacy, is pretty intriguing and was probably a lot of fun to play. The first video is an animated description of the game. The second is a bit of the flavor of the competition from the Team 1717 point of view.


At the risk of an editorial digression I would have to say that there are points of this book that I really liked and other points where I felt it was very much lacking.


As a story about what could, and should, be the model for education in today’s modern world The New Cool is a fantastic read. This is what education should be about, more than just trying to stuff as many facts and figures into a kid’s head so they can take some sort of standardized test, but real and practical learning that lets students develop skills that are important in life and in a career. The New Cool demonstrates that these kids are involved and excited about this competition and really invest in the work that makes it possible. More importantly they have a teacher and mentors that provide real, practical, applications for learning. Nobody is standing over the teacher’s shoulder to judge if the students are learning enough according to an arbitrary standard. That the kids are learning is evident by their failures and their successes. Yes, you learn from both.

The New Cool is a story about vision in education. It is a story about the dedication of a good teacher. Most of all it is a powerful story about kids who want to do something to learn.


Ok, as far as the story itself went The New Cool lacks an engagement with the characters. There are so many players doing so many different things that there really isn’t room to really get into the trials and tribulations that the students have to overcome. Even those the story follows most closely come off pretty flat. Underscoring this is that these are pretty privileged kids. For the most part, these are kids who have smart parents who are encouraging and involved with their children’s education. If there is a lesson missed in The New Cool it is that the involvement and encouragement of parents goes just as far as that of a teachers, perhaps farther. One chapter in The New Cool does follow a kid from a bad neighborhood, with little encouragement who does make the effort to participate In FIRST with a team called 2Train, but we never really hear back from him. Granted, unlike Team 1717, 2Train is a FIRST Team without a lot of resources that probably didn’t make it very far in the competition, but really, to participate at all and learn by trying, doing, failing and/or succeeding is just as much a victory as going to the robotics championship and that is something that deserves to be highlighted.

Dislikes aside The New Cool is certainly a book worth picking up for its forward-looking story about vision in education.

Ok, a brief editorial digression:

I wish that this really was the trend in education, but I fear it is very much against the tide of the tyranny of standardized tests and the blaming of teachers for kids who aren’t learning. A teacher can teach, but they can’t make a student learn if the kid isn’t at all engaged or interested in the material. FIRST is great for STEM education, but programs just as innovative as FIRST need to be developed for other subjects outside of STEM.

That’s the kind of vision needed in education.


The Catch: Augmented Reality / Diminished Reality

Singularity Hub :  New Augmented Reality Software Removes Objects from Video Feeds in Real Time.

“What if you could remove all the ugliness in the world? It’s not a hypothetical question. Researchers at Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany have developed a new augmented reality technique that erases images from real time video. Called Diminished Reality, the software can take any area selected in a video feed and use photo-shop like adjustments to copy the surroundings into its place. Where once you saw an object now you see the object has been removed. A piece of your world has been erased. Diminished Reality records video from a camera and displays the modified result on a screen with only a 40ms delay. To your eyes it’s effectively instantaneous. Watch a demonstration of the augmented reality editing program in the video below. I’m blown away by how well it works in these early examples.”

Talk about giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Most of the applications I have come across for Augmented, and now Diminished, Reality are gaming / entertainment and advertising in the form of virtual pets, virtual LARP-type activities, and virtual advertising banners that can be highly targeted to individual persons. This demonstration seems closer to the espionage application of the really ugly shirt that played a key role in William Gibson’s novel Zero History (my review here) by rendering the character wearing it invisible to video surveillance by triggering a computer program deep in the London surveillance camera system (see questions five and six of this interview with Gibson) . It may not exactly be to that stage yet though it seems to me this is a very long step in that direction.

The Laughing Man is hacking your eyes!Considering this is a potentially very long, twisty, branching and strange road, the ability to modify reality in this way seems to have limitless implications. The 5GW theorist lurking in my brain (and clapping on the sidelines), also has to wonder about how easy it may one day become to seamlessly and unobtrusively cause distortion between perceived Observation and actual Observation before that information feeds into Orientation. Understanding the mechanisms of 5GW may be instructive in harnessing this type of power, it may also be vital in learning to protect against it.

Department of the Future: Mobile Manufacturing

Department of the Future: Office of Technology Forecasting

One of my favorite futurism topics is the rise of short-run, rapid-prototyped, just-in-time manufacturing. John Robb recently posted about the MPH (Mobile Parts Hospital) in use by the U. S. military and currently being adapted to serve as an MTC (Mobile Technology Complex) by U. S. Special Operations.
The utility of this sort of mobile fabber, even if it is expensive (1.5 million), is that it can produce highly customized designs on-demand. Even at that price it quickly earns its keep by short-cutting the time and logistical effort needed to produce and move specialized parts or equipment world-wide distances. Just like table-top fabbers that can produce plastic parts, the MPH can be moved to virtually any location (it is 8′ X 8′  X 20′), and begin production limited only by raw materials and available designs.
Future versions of the MPH will include a 3D metal fabrication device called a DMD (Directed Material Deposition) for Laser Engineered Net Shaping.

“A high power laser is used to melt metal powder supplied coaxially to the focus of the laser beam through a deposition head. The laser beam typically travels through the center of the head and is focused to a small spot by one or more lenses. The X-Y table is moved in raster fashion to fabricate each layer of the object. The head is moved up vertically as each layer is completed. Metal powders are delivered and distributed around the circumference of the head either by gravity, or by using a pressurized carrier gas. An inert shroud gas is often used to shield the melt pool from atmospheric oxygen for better control of properties, and to promote layer to layer adhesion by providing better surface wetting.

This process is similar to other 3D fabrication technologies in its approach in that it forms a solid component by the layer additive method. The LENS process is unique since it can go from raw material directly to metal parts, in many cases, without any secondary operations. It can produce parts in a wide range of alloys, including titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, and other specialty materials; as well as composite and functionally graded materials.”

More interesting reading about the MPH in action on the battlefield here. (PDF)


A Fabber in Every Household: Erik Chevalier

(Hat tip to Zenpundit for bringing Ignite to my attention.)

In the past I’ve posted about the evolving technology of the 3D printer (a.k.a. Fabber) such as the RepRap, and in book reviews like Makers by Cory Doctorow. Mr. Chevalier’s idea of an artist’s co-op is an excellent one that, if it works, is the kind of thing that could have very interesting consequences.

However, I see the potential that in the developing world, these machines have an even more profound ability to provide the means to be a skip-over technology much like cell phones and satellite TV have, in some places, skipped over traditional land-line based telephone and cable TV systems. Instead of creating large mass-production facilities or arranging expensive transportation of inexpensive items into areas of the world not well know for their stability or safety, I would imagine nimble manufacturing companies with the ability to quickly respond to a wide variety of demands with very minimal infrastructure requirements. Even more intriguing is the possibility that, should the cost of these machines (the $1,000 figure in the presentation might be adequate) drop to the point that they can be purchased through a micro-loan program (or purchased and franchised / licensed to third parties), this could represent the start of a widely distributed / open-source / resilient economy, not inside the developed world, but well outside of it.

Some links from the video:

Cornucopia Food Printer

Invetech Bio Printer (.pdf)



Objectifier on Facebook

Project: Department of the Future?

“We can’t afford just any old future.”

Directive 51 by  John Barnes

Directive 51 is one of those apocalyptic thrillers that, once read, leave me with the uneasy feeling that I should be stockpiling canned goods and firearms. The book is a good read even if it regularly takes some fairly dubious turns away from plausibility and requires quite a bit of the suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, that isn’t what has made it linger in my thinking. Aside from some of the 5GWishness, Resilient Community and Global Guerilla aspects it contains, the most interesting thing about the book is the organization the main character belongs to, a cabinet level governmental department called the Department of the Future. The Department of the Future (or DoF) is further divided into the Office of Future Threat Assessment, the Office of Technology Forecasting and the Office of Political Futurology. Now, I’m not certain that such a government department would ever really be able to exist, or even function if it did exist much less be the centerpiece for national disaster management and response that it is in the novel, but it is very intriguing as a virtual think-tank (or maybe better yet ongoing Blog-tank!) type institution dedicated to looking down the road to the what is not only ont the horizon, but over the horizon.

Any interest out there for such a project?

RepRap: Self Replicating 3D Printer

Highly customizable, exponentially scalable, parthanogenic fabrication. Coming soon to a resilient community near you!

More info here!

Non-Kinetic Uses for Robotics in Counterinsurgency

I am currently reading Wired For War: Robotics and 21st Century Conflict by P. W. Singer, as well as following the Wired for War Symposium at CTLab, previously mentioned here, so understandably robots are very much on my mind.

Matt Armstrong of MountainRunner has an article in the symposium that discusses the military robot in the context of General Charles Krulak’s ‘strategic corporal’.

“The intoxicating allure of technology risks unintended consequences in the psychological struggle for minds and wills in modern conflict. In my many conversations on the “public diplomacy” of unmanned warfare, few consider the robots, autonomous or remote controlled, in a war fought among the people. How do we build relationships with the locals in the sterility of robot-human interfaces? Will improved human-robot interfaces really overcome the understandable perception that American lives are worth more than locals?”

My question (via an on-line networking platform) was what were the possible non-kinetic applications of robotics that could contribute as effective and/or strategic aids to a counterinsurgency effort, yet not be percieved as ‘military’? Perhaps building infrastructure (I was thinking along the line of robotic street sweepers, pothole fillers, well diggers and underground pipe and cable layers).

Matt Armstrong quickly responded:

“Strategic aids” as you put it could include unmanned water and food trucks, even garbage trucks (remember SWET? “Sewage, Water, Electricity, Trash” as an effective COIN approach?). Then there’s tele-medicine, and more.”

Seeing as how 5GW, being a response to 4GW guerilla/insurgent warfare, has greater non-kinetic than kinetic utility what else could the “and more” include? How could robotics (autonomous, semi-autonomous, or remotely controlled) be deployed as part of a larger 5GW effort? What sort of scenarios might they be involved in?

Already on the table:

Street sweeping

Road repair

Well drilling

Underground pipe and cable laying

Water and food delivery trucks

Garbage trucks


Link: CTLab Virtual Symposium on Wired for War

CTLab is hosting an online/virutual symposium exploring the topics raised by P. W. Singer’s new book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.

I’m not quite finished with the book yet, but so far it is excellent and well worth the price of admission. For any military thinker, futurist or tech junkie out there this is a great read. The symposium, starting today, already looks to be off to a great start with a great lineup of contributors.



From Reuters:

“A Canadian filmmaker plans to have a mini camera installed in his prosthetic eye to make documentaries and raise awareness about surveillance in society.

Rob Spence, 36, who lost an eye in an accident as a teenager, said his so-called Project Eyeborg is to have the camera, a battery and a wireless transmitter mounted on a tiny circuit board.

“Originally the whole idea was to do a documentary about surveillance. I thought I would become a sort of super hero … fighting for justice against surveillance,” Spence said.”

This story interested me, not only because it seems like a really cool idea, but because of the book Upgrade Me: Our Amazing Journey to Human 2.0 by Brian Clegg that is currently sitting in my antilibrary.

Wired has more:

“If successful, Spence will become one of a growing number of lifecasters. From early webcam pioneer Jennifer Kaye Ringley, who created JenniCam, to Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell, to commercial lifecasting ventures Ustream.tv and Justin.tv, many people use video and internet technology to record and broadcast every moment of their waking lives. But Spence is taking lifecasting a step further, with a bionic eye camera that is actually embedded in his body.

“The eyes are like no other part of the body,” says Spence. “It’s what you look into when you fall in love with somebody and [influences] whether you trust someone or not. Now with a video camera in there, it will change how people see and perceive me.””


“Even in the age of miniaturization, getting a wireless video camera into a prosthetic eye isn’t easy. The shape of the prosthetic is the biggest limitation: In Spence’s case, it’s 9-mm thick, 30-mm long and 28-mm high.

While that might seem like plenty of room in an age when digital cameras are squeezed into unimaginably slim and compact phones, it actually isn’t. The average area available inside a prosthetic eye for an imaging sensor is only about 8 square mm, explains Phil Bowen, an ocularist who is working with Spence.  Also, a digital camera has many more components than the visible lens and the sensor behind it, including the power supply and image-processing circuitry. Getting a completely self-contained camera module to fit into the tiny hollow of a prosthetic eye is a significant engineering challenge.”

The coolest thing about an idea or a project like this is the potential it reveals. Follow Rob Spence’s progress at his project site The Eyeborg Project and Blog.

Pew Study: Generational Internet Usage

Generations Online in 2009

“Contrary to the image of Generation Y as the “Net Generation,” internet users in their 20s do not dominate every aspect of online life. Generation X is the most likely group to bank, shop, and look for health information online. Boomers are just as likely as Generation Y to make travel reservations online. And even Silent Generation internet users are competitive when it comes to email (although teens might point out that this is proof that email is for old people).”

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has quite a few interesting reports. More of them can be found here.

New Toy

The Black and Decker Energy Saver Series Power Monitor

I got this last week as a late Christmas present and so far it seems pretty cool.

Insallation is allegedly very easy, and probably is for most people. The device is basically two parts. This first part is the monitor that mounts on the outside of your electric or electronic meter (though check the Black and Decker website to make sure yours is compatible). Mine was supposed to be compatible but the spinning disk on my particular meter didn’t quite line up as nicely as advertised with the sensor arm and took a bit of very frustrating adjusting before it was able to correctly take measurements. I’ll bet later versions mount the arm on an adjustable swivel to make installing easier instead of currently having to adjust the entire unit, mounting bracket and all.

The second part is also very easy. With a bit of middle school math you plug (no pun intended) your electric rates into the base unit and then you are set to go. (The instructions are fairly easy to follow on this part but be sure to read the troubleshooting sections where they hid how to re-syncronize the base with the meter monitor.)

The monitor keeps track of your energy usage in kilowatt hours and in dollars and will estimate your monthly useage (provided you give it an accurate sample). The most useful thing about the monitor is the ‘tare’ function that allows you to isolate the energy usage from a particular appliance even your air conditioner, something other power monitors are unable to do. It also has a tempurature and time display that can be handy.

Although you will probably have to put some effort into cutting your energy useage to justify the $100 price tag, a teenager or two might make it very worthwhile.

A couple of other handy reviews:


the gadgeteer (One horror story comment: here)