Presidential trivia in the news

Presidential trivia time. Can you name a president who was not a US citizen when he were born? Spoiler alert for Birthers: it’s not Barack Obama.

Ready? Martin Van Buren was the first president to be born after the United States became a country. So any of the presidents from Washington to Jackson began their lives as subjects of the Crown. If you’re keeping score, that includes Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and a brace of Adams.

Is that a trick question or not? I’m not sure, but I like it. But even more do I like my next question. It is my favorite presidential trivia question: Can you name a president that was not a US citizen when he died?


Ready? Coming along just one president after Van Buren is John Tyler. Tyler, a Virginian, was known as His Accidency because he filled the office after William Henry Harrison’s speedy demise. By the time of the Civil War, he had long since retired from political life. Nevertheless, he joined the Confederacy and was elected as a representative to the Confederate House. He died in 1862, which means that his death occurred after he had renounced his status as a US citizen. QED. Tyler’s death went officially unmourned in Washington. Last question: Can you name another president whose death was unmourned?

Ready? Carter, Clinton, Obama, and a brace of Bushes are unmourned because they are as yet undead.

Now that’s a trick question.

John Tyler came to mind recently because he made the news the other day. Incredibly, and despite the fact that he was born 221 years ago, two of his grandsons are still alive. That’s right. Two grandchildren of a US president who took the oath of office in 1841 are eating Cheerios and watching the Daily Show.

Now you know. If you don’t use that one at your next cocktail party, don’t blame me.

Tactile computing

Quartz had a nice piece last week on computer-mediated interaction with three-dimensional objects. I’ve seen work done by the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, and it always seemed more gimmicky than anything else. But the guy featured on Quartz, Oliver Kreylos at UC Davis, is doing some remarkable work. The one that really impressed me was the interactive sandbox where he uses a Microsoft Kinect to figure out where the surface of the sand is, and then he uses video to paint a contour map down onto the sand. Build a mountain range and he’ll calculate the map.

The video is worth watching. You get a sense for how much insight people can derive from an interactive surface like this, and the approach is a nice mix of high-tech and low-tech.

When you virtualize something into the digital ether, it vanishes in some important sense. Think of a library of CDs disappearing into MP3s on a hard drive. You gain convenience, but you lose the tactile persistence of physical objects. The music that you own becomes more forgettable. In the last few years, I’ve moved from CDs and even MP3s to a music subscription program (MOG) that comes in by WiFi to wireless speakers around the house. It’s terrifically convenient. But my wife was complaining that she liked the old CD player better. “How can you say that” I said, “when you can listen to any CD in the world with this thing?” But in truth, I understand. She liked having the physical CDs sitting around. They reminded her what she liked and what she wanted to listen to.

Here is the problem: You’re sitting around and you think, what do I want to listen to? So you go to your music service and stare at a search box. You could play anything. But you have to THINK of it first. And that’s expensive.

We could just keep the CDs sitting around as big physical reminders, but why not use something smaller? It occurred to me that we might use chips, blank poker chips, as physical reminders of the various digital artifacts we own. Here is a collection of music chips that my wife made. You see them in bowl and you pick one up. And then you think, “Why yes, I would like to listen to some Joe Jackson.”


I’m trying this with music, but this approach would work with any digital artifact: a movie, a program, a book, Stick a little bar code on it, and the computer could help you act on it. The sensible interface of the future will have more PUI (physical user interface) to mix with the GUI.

Printing helicopter parts

I am a 3D printing enthusiast, but I admit that a family only needs so many small plastic Yoda heads. The idea that everybody will own a 3D printer and use it to make useful stuff for their house seems pretty silly when you see what people are making with their low-end devices. I can’t think of the last time I had an urgent need for a plastic shower curtain ring or any other similarly small plasticky household thingy. But I have started using Shapeways as a service both to buy other people’s designs (check out this origami crane skeleton) and to print stuff of my own, like this metal shape.


By reading the Shapeways blog, I’ve started to understand how 3D printers can be genuinely useful for normal people. They claim that some of the best selling pieces on their site are for robot quadcopters. Hobbyists are buying these helicopters and then tricking them out with highly customized parts.

So this is the scenario that makes sense to me: if a product is designed with 3D printing in mind, then it is, by definition, ready to be fixed and improved by 3D printing. All the parts can be made available on the web as 3D plans ready to print. When needed, they would be ordered from a shop like Shapeways. The turnaround time of 1 to 2 weeks isn’t fast, but it is vastly cheaper than buying your own machine. What’s true for hobbyist toys now will be true for many things in the future. I can see a selling point for a product being that you have access to 3D plans for all parts.

And look at this video of the Shapeways operation. It’s amazing how tightly they pack the print volumes with lots and lots of pieces. These machines are cumbersome and slow; it’s the only way to get low prices and fast turnaround.