Personal Fabrication for Dummies

You can now get a personal fabricator for $5000 from Desktop Factory. That’s about the price point where LaserWriters started to gain widespread acceptance. Although I’m a big fan of 3-D printing, I don’t actually expect them to appear in most houses anytime soon. I get excited about them because they dramatically accelerate design cycles for anyone building solid objects of any kind.

I found this nifty tutorial to the world of custom manufacture on the Replicator blog: Personal Fabrication for Dummies.

By the way, you can also fabricate objects by shooting lasers into granulated sugar too, if you prefer. Not very practical, but worth a peek.

The History of Rome podcast

If you haven’t yet been convinced to give podcasts a try, here are two good ones that may push you over the edge. I would never sit in front of a computer and listen to a lecture or radio program, but I really enjoy putting podcasts on my iPod and then listening to them while I drive or while I’m folding laundry (or both, if I happen to be driving the laundrymobile). It’s a very satisfying way to learn.

These podcasts are both about matters historical, recent and ancient.

The first is just one very good episode of This American Life. It’s called Another Frightening Show About the Economy and it’s about the collapse of the Wall Street financial system. I saw it recommended lots of places (including Paul Kedrosky’s blog) before I finally listened to it, and I’m glad I did. Very informative.

The more ancient historical matter is the History of Rome podcast. I first heard about this on Alex Palazzo’s molecular biology blog, and once again, it’s a real find. It’s compact, entertaining, and enlightening. I knew the writer and narrator, Mike Duncan, was a genius when he deadpanned that the Roman tactic of bringing down Carthaginian battle elephants with chariots was similar to the one employed by the Rebel Alliance against Imperial Walkers on the ice planet Hoth. Now that’s bringing history alive.

Pictures of the Sun

It’s fun to look at pictures of planets taken by our robotic eyeball extenders. We get to see things that are too darn far away to see with even the biggest earthbound telescope.

But there’s another kind of treat when we look at our own sun with new eyes from here on earth. We’re used to seeing marvelous detail in the moon’s changeless cratered face, but the sun is just a blinding fireball to our eyes.

When I look at a planet, I think “That’s a place.” I can imagine flying over it, or even stepping out of my little tin spaceship onto its surface. But the sun is always just the sun. Not really a place, just a white hole in the sky. My imaginary spaceship never goes there.

New telescopes (and a few space probes) are changing that. The featureless sun is really a charismatic world of curdling fire, boiling magnetic storms, and vast billowing exhalations of solar steam.

These pictures (from the Boston Globe’s Big Picture series) prove that the sun is a place jammed with personality: The Sun – The Big Picture. And if you want to know why they call it “solar wind”, be sure and look at the animation where a strong gust from the sun whips the tail off a comet

Another successful walk

It was a cold and blustery day at Suffolk Downs, but the sky was blue and the walk was a success. We’ve been doing these fundraising walks with Jay since he was first diagnosed in 2001, and they just keep getting bigger. Years ago a nearby park in Cambridge was big enough to host the walk. Now we walk around a horse racetrack with an enormous parking lot out front. It’s a great venue. Those horses have a nice track. Here’s a brief local news clip of what the event looked like: “Greater Boston Walk for Autism” raises over $1 million.

Today there were over 20,000 people walking. This single fact brings obvious good news and bad news. Good news: we’re raising lots of money for autism research. Bad news: autism is a growth market. I’d love to tell you to sell your autism stock, but in truth you should be buying. It’s amazing how many families it affects.

When I ask for people to give money to this cause, I’m painfully aware of how many good causes are out there. You have your favorite charities and I have mine. And if some other evil had touched my life, I would be asking you to help me fight it instead of this one. But this is the one that touched my life. It moves me; I want to move you.

When you live in a house touched by a disability like autism, it’s very easy to turn inward. Most people seem to have it easier than you. There are two mistakes here. The first is thinking that some people get off easy. Every family has troubles, but they are often hidden from view. This leads to the second mistake, which is turning inward, thereby feeling sad and lonely at once. You can’t always stop the sad, but you can stop the lonely. That’s one of the things that’s great about the walk. You achieve a practical goal, raising money, but you also get to look around and say, “My God, look at all these people who have to deal with this.” It gives you sympathy for others, and then, as a kind of bonus, some healing sympathy for yourself.

This is my story. Tell me yours. We have to keep telling each other the stories that matter to us. It’s the only way to get by.

This is a picture of my wife Wendy near the table where she was making inspiration ribbons for the walk. Each one is inscribed with the name of someone with autism.

As a result of her efforts and the rest of our team, including many of you, Jay’s team raised over $7500 and counting this year (it’s not too late to give!).


Alan’s Color/Language Project

Alan Kennedy has written here many times before, most recently about the many color-related idioms that people use around the world. Alan has wonderful vantage point for making his observations: he teaches English to adults who have come to Manhattan from all over the world. He has taken a particular and abiding interest in colorful language, and when I offered to support his research on this site, he was happy to take me up on it.

So I am delighted to present a new and permanent installation on this site, Alan Kennedy’s Color/Language Project. There are three parts to it.

First of all, you can read his short article, Linguistic Facts About Color. I found the Berlin/Kay color spectrum especially interesting: languages always add colors in the same order. Any language with words for only three colors will always have names for white, black, and red. Any language with six color words will add green, yellow, and blue. I was surprised to see that leafy green has primacy over the blue of sky and sea. Even yellow outranks blue.

The next resource for the Color Project is an ever-growing spreadsheet, Color Idioms In Different Languages (if you prefer, you can see that same information as a single Google Spreadsheet page). Look at the color distributions by language. The list is far from comprehensive, but it hints at some intriguing possibilities. Is German bluer than most languages? Is Korean redder? And why?

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, you can add your own favorite expression to this resource using this Color Idiom contribution form. The suggested idioms won’t appear instantly on the list; Alan will review them from time to time and they’ll get added to the published spreadsheet.

So there you have it: a new resource, courtesy of Alan (with a little help from his friends here at Star Chamber Headquarters). Help it grow.

Autism Speaks walk

Jay GulleyThis is a picture of Jay. Jay is my son. Jay is autistic. We wish that he weren’t, because his autism makes life difficult for him and for those who care for him. But there you go. It is a fact.

Given that we can’t do what we desire more than anything else, which is to wave a wand and make his autism vanish, what can we do? We can feel sorry for ourselves. I’ve tried that one a lot. It hasn’t helped (not yet, anyway!). We can hope the world will spontaneously get better, but as they say in the Army, hope isn’t a plan. There’s nothing wrong with hope, but hope plus a plan beats hope any day.

Here’s the plan. I’ve thought about this, and it’s about the only thing that makes sense. We can raise money to be used by skilled researchers to help understand the origins and nature of this baffling condition. Every new scrap of insight they gain is helpful, not least for its value in helping us cope, those of us standing in the long shadow of autism. And with a plan in place, it becomes a little more reasonable to hope that we may be able to make real gains against current cases and prevent future cases of autism.

Here’s how you fit into the plan.

Coming up this Sunday, October 19th, my family will be participating in the Autism Speaks fundraising walk called Walk Now for Autism.

This is the link to my wife Wendy’s fundraising page: Wendy Gulley’s page.


As usual, I include Wendy’s email message below, for those of you who want to learn more details about what Jay’s been up to in the last year.

Continue reading “Autism Speaks walk”

The Sweet Tea Map

What divides the North from the South? Surely nothing so simple and stark as the Mason-Dixon line between Maryland and Pennsylvania. It should be something that reflects behavior and cultural norms. We might consider what the locals call a small stream. Is it a branch (southern) or a run (northern)? Appropriately, the battle referred to by the Union army as First Bull Run went by the name First Manassas Junction in the Confederacy.

Less obscurely, numerous maps have been made about the Soda/Coke boundary, south of which all carbonated beverages are termed “Coke” (we will pass over the abomination “Pop” with no further mention). As a native North Carolinian, I never called my (non-Coke) soft drink a Coke, so the Soda/Coke line never rang true with me. But I can vouch for the veracity of another beverage-centric line of demarcation: the sweet tea line. In the South, you can always count on being served sweet tea if you ask for “tea”.

The Romans stopped their northward civilizing advance into Europe wherever they could no longer cultivate grapes. It was bad enough being without olive trees, but a life without wine wasn’t worth contemplating. Perhaps Lee’s legions, stopping at a roadside inn near Gettysburg, felt the same way. “No sweet tea, boys. Let’s head on home.”

Imaginary Law Firms, Part 1: Brannock, Foley, and Freeth

This is Charles Brannock, shown next to his device (not to scale).


This is Jack Foley. On the right is a gentleman skilled in his art.


T.J. Freeth (1819-1904), our firm’s founder, was unavailable when the photographer came around, but this is his nephroid. To the right you see an ordinary nephroid lurking in a coffee cup.


You know the ordinary nephroid as the reflected catacaustic of a circle, the involute of Caley’s sextic, and a generally good-natured two-cusped epicycloid. But Freeth’s nephroid is something altogether different: a strophoid of a circle with a double curlicue in the kidney crotch. (Common decency and good taste prevents us from displaying Freeth’s supertrisectrix strophoid.)

For their vision and lasting impact on our society, we salute Messrs. Brannock, Foley, and Freeth.

Behind the CLICK: the anatomy of a camera shutter

Most of us have put away, given away, or thrown away our old film-based cameras. No more 35 mm film canisters… now we have sleek solid state digital cameras. Except that the shutter, as ever, is still a tiny clockwork marvel of gears and levers.

You press the button on top of your camera and it goes CLICK. But what happens during that click is surprisingly complex. It’s especially complex for the shutter on a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) digital camera. For instance, consider this puzzle. How does a shutter mechanism that can only operate at 1/300 of a second nevertheless provide an effective shutter speed of 1/3000 of a second?

Derek Miller of put together a great piece explaining how this is possible along with many other fascinating details. Here’s the post: Camera Works: shutters, flashes, and sync speed. Don’t miss one of the resources that he points to, Jeffrey Friedl’s presentation of some high speed photos taken of a lens-less SLR in action. You won’t believe all the craziness that happens in 87.8 milliseconds every time you take a picture.