Sunday, May 29, 2016

Exploratorium - Strandbeest Preiview

We were able to attend another fun and amazing members preview at the Exploratorium, San Francisco's well-loved, hands-on science museum – a show featuring Theo Jansen and his Strandbeests (beach animals). The show gives visitors an overview of all the work that goes into one of these amazing "animals": the evolution and the death of various types of beests, their musculoskeletal systems, their rudimentary cardio-vascular functions, and their still simple nervous system abilities (more advanced species can sense their environments as well as save information).

Outside, in the plaza, visitors can also push a beest, feel the systems at work (they are surprisingly heavy but easy to move).

Here, Jansen explains how the "gills" drive a cam and fill the bottles with pressurized air, and then there is a way for the Strandbeest to test the hardness off the sand, so it knows how close it is to the surf (and doesn't walk into the water).

And here is the Strandbeest in motion – if it senses that it is too close to the water's edge, it can change direction.

One imagines that if you could figure out the mechanical engineering to just make the legs, and you might be very happy with that. Over the last 25-plus years, Jansen has added ways for the beests to "live" autonomously on the beach; "breathe" air to metabolize; and "see" the shoreline and avoid waling into the sea.

Jansen explains that his dream is to have the beests live and die, evolve and grow on their own – that he can release them into the wild and have them survive. It was a true pleasure to have the chance to see the beests and meet the artist – fascinating and beautiful.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Berkeley Art Museum Members Preview

Saturday, January 30, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) re-opened for a members' preview. Their new building was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who also design the ICA in Boston and The Broad in LA.

The building design is a combination of old and new; it's the former UC Berkeley printing plant, with the addition of a new cinema/theater and a connecting spine of stainless steel. The printing plant cues of art deco were preserved, and the functional north-facing saw-tooth sky-lights were re-created to fill the gallery spaces with natural light. There is a bit of a fiction that you are in the old printing plant; it is a new building behind an existing facade.

You enter along Center Street, below the extended terminus of the spine, and are brought into a large collection space. In front of you a multi-story hall, below the spine, leads to the theater; to your left, the space spills down to a wooden seating area. The main gallery spaces are wide and open, allowing plenty of room for installations and media pieces.

There is a tall, triangular sliver of a lobby for the theater; it's unclear how BAMPFA will use the space. The theater itself seems an excellent space to watch movies. On the second level, along the balcony over-looking the main hall is the cafe. Awkwardly, the end of the spine over-hanging Center Street is not a feature space - currently housing some small plants.

The second level, and the view looking down the spine as well as into the galleries below, is filled with wonderful shapes and counter-pointed lighting effects.

Take the fire-red stairs to the lower level and arrive at the galleries for the permanent collection, as well as the study and research areas. These galleries feel a bit less generous than the ones upstairs; a separate long gallery with a butcher-block floor houses the buddha.

One of the stated goals for the new facility to connect with "wider urban and public contexts". There seems to be some suggestion of this with the large, outside video display at the Addison Street end of the spine. Otherwise, there does not seem to be much of a nod to public spaces - the old building had a couple of public plazas (though not necessarily inviting public spaces).

Looking forward to vistiing during regular hours and getting to know the building.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Tinkering with Tinkercad

When I first started out as an architect, personal computers were just hitting the practice; small offices were just starting to give CAD (computer aided drafting/design) a try. Now, we have 3D modeling in the cloud. It's rather astonishing.

Even more astonishing, modern CAD software now outputs to 3D printers. I made this little test house to see how to link and embed a model made from geometric primitives in Tinkercad. I then exported the model as an .stl file and printed it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

STEAM Engine

Our rallying cry for the new Science and Innovation Center has been STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math), and now the class has had the chance to stand at the confluence of a few of those subjects. Our physics teacher, Jon, has asked us to print out a few parts for a Stirling Cycle Engine - a highly efficient, closed-loop engine.

The class arranged the parts on the build plate in two sets - the first set pictured here; parts were downloaded from Thingiverse. You can clearly see the cylinder body along with other parts - the Stirling uses a "displacer" as well as a piston; the top of the displacer is the larger disk opposite the cylinder body on the build plate.

The Stirling uses the difference in temperature between the gases in the chamber and a pair of plates, which are the aluminum parts mentioned in the video - there is a hot plate (on the bottom) and a cold plate (on the top); a variety of energy sources can be used to create the temperature differential. Once the flywheel is set in motion, very little energy is needed to keep the engine running.

The whole thing makes more sense if you download and study the assembly drawings. We'll release and clean the parts and give them to Jon's class. Can't wait to see the thing in action.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

MakerBot Replicator 2

A couple of years ago, MakerBot took a turn from making 3D printer kits and printers that looked like kits, to "mature products". It introduced the Replicator 2 in 2012, as their first real attempt to make a salable consumer product - for about $2200. The Replicator 2 got rave reviews and seemed to spark the market for "pro-sumer" devices, as the number of competitors seems to have swollen in the meantime. And this new class of devices has now found their way into homes and schools everywhere.

This year, MakerBot introduced their latest "5th generation" products, and the price for the Replicator 2 dropped to $1899 - too cheap to ignore. So I went to the Microsoft Store and grabbed one. Set it up, pushed some buttons, and it's very easy to get started - really impressive how easy it is to get started. I printed a couple sets of the nuts and bolts on the provided SD card. Piece of cake.

But there are nuances and issues. My idea is to teach a technology class as an art (architecture) class, so I tested the printer by printing a model of the house, and the steep, curvy contours of the landscape made a giant mess - the extruder never stops extruding, and drags a thread of plastic every time it has to "cross a valley", thus filling the valley. After the printer finished, I had to go back and clear out these threads, leaving lots of funny edges and bumps.

There is also an on-going balancing act going on in the hobbyist community between getting the plastic to adhere to the build plate during the printing process, and releasing the printed object when finished. It involves: blue painter's tape, kapton tape, isopropyl alcohol, acetone, hair spray, glue sticks and other household cleaners and chemicals - or some combination thereof. The basic process I've started with is to lay down blue painter's tape on the build plate (made of acrylic), and clean it with the alcohol between renderings.

The other battle going on is a search for a solution to the curling of the plastic as it cools. The nuts and bolts are about 3/4" in diameter, and I had no problem printing them directly on the build plate. When I first tried a larger print (4-in square base) without the tape, the plastic peeled up at the corners, and began rocking back and forth as the extruder crossed the area. The tape does not prevent the curling, but seems to keep the print job in place, holding the edges steady to get a better render.

I've also found that by turning the model in the software, you can get the extruder to cross the "valleys" in different ways, so it's worth checking the "print preview" to see which position gives the cleanest render.

Any way, there is much more "art" to this process than it might seem. Regardless, it's an amazing technology.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Week of Science

Science is awesome. Scientists are awesome. I've been binge-watching Neil dGrasse Tyson YouTubes since Sunday.

On Sunday, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted the re-launch of Cosmos, a beautiful re-visioning of Carl Sagan's 35-year-old original; both open on a sea cliff near Carmel, CA, so there's kind of a local connection. Dr. Tyson flew around in a little capsule that reminded me of a cross between Flight of the Navigator and Count Dooku's solar sailer from Star Wars (I don't recall seeing the outside of Sagan's ship): fantastic imagery and story-telling. Can't wait for episode 2. Way better than Downton.

On Monday, Dr. Randy Schekman, cell biologist and Nobel laureate, gave this year's Brizendine Visiting Scholars talk about protein secretions in yeast cells. Nerdy? You bet, but not unfathomable. Dr. Schekman traced the path of proteins thru a series of organelles inside a cell, and described the process he explored using yeast cells. I asked my co-worked what he thought, and he said, "He lost me." Hmm. Not a real nerd.

On Wednesday, Dr. Dan Siegel, psychiatrist and professor at UCLA and founder of the Mindsight Institute, spoke about being an adolescent. Speaking as he was to an audience full of adolescents, he carefully crafted a description of the adolescent brain and the changes in development of the various structures inside it. He used a kind acronym of "essence":

  • emotional spark, social engagement, novelty, and creative exploration

to frame the areas of brain growth that are happening - not as nerdy, but illuminating for students and teachers alike.

Saturday, December 07, 2013


My cousin Henry is a musician and world traveller. At dim sum the other day he leaned over and asked me: so where are we headed tech guy? And I said: wearable tech. Of course, I don't have Google Glass or even a Fitbit, so I'm not sure why I said that except hat I've been reading about this trend.

Then Henry leaned over and showed me his UP band. We discussed his recent bike trip down the coast, and how he used his UP to track his progress. He showed me pictures from his phone and shared some great stories. So Iguess wearable tech is not where we're headed - we're already there. And I'm kinda behind the times.

I do, of course, carry my iPhone with me, and on the iPhone I have an app that basically does a lot of what a fitness tracking wrist band does - it's a GPS pedometer app called Moves. I particularly enjoy when Moves gives me credit for cycling when I'm driving around town. Is it cause I have a convertible? But, boy, look how much I exercise. Not much.

So I decided to take the next step and get a Pebble smart watch, which I've now had for about a week. The Pebble is a watch that adds a kind of bonus display to your phone, and will vibrate when you get a text, a call, or an email - you can then see a small summary of your communication on the watch face. When it's not being an iPhone display, it's a watch, so it doesn't seem like something "else" to wear.

I've already grown to love it and it kinda reminds me of the old days when I first got a Newton Message Pad. there's something a bit rough and kit-like about it that invites customization. And there's a thriving community customizing it. I particularly like a web site where you can make your own watch face - Watchface Generator for Pebble by Paul Rode; fairly easy to waste hours fussing around here. Build your face by uploading a background, adding analog or digital clocks, and other things - then use a QR scanner like Red Laser to download the .pbw file to your phone, and use the Pebble app to load it via Bluetooth.  It's fun and easy.

Here are a couple I made (click the link to download the watchface):


The "Think Question Create" tag line is from the school where I work, Marin Academy.

So how is it working out? The convenience is that I no longer have to take my phone out of my pocket to see who's calling, or get a text or email (just the sender and subject line). That doesn't sound like a big deal, but it turns out it is - at least for me, and I would imagine for lots of folks who do IT work.

Out of the box, the Pebble will just display time and remote your music app. In order to get this kind of functionality, you do have to add some extras: I am using an app called SmartWatch+. This app includes a tool to read your calendar, your texts, your emails, and grab weather info vis-a-vis your GPS. You then have to add a watch face or watch app that will display that info - they have one bundled, but I prefer these from


I find that while I'm running around campus, I usually have Smartface going, if the day is not too busy, I prefer the Futura display, and then at home I switch to a basic clock display like the ones above. Just a couple things. When I get a text, the watch vibrates and shows as much as it can in the display. When I get an email from one of two accounts that I have configured, the sender and subject one show up, but when I go to read more, it just says "Loading" and never loads (or I've never seen it finish loading). And its o'd that the watch will display the battery level of your phone, but so far, I have not figured out how to view the battery status of the watch itself.

I also find I don't have to dig out my phone to check if I messed something - my watch will know. The SmartWatch+ also includes some other apps which I have not yet explored: the is a weather forecast, a stock ticker, a more advanced music app, a more complete calendar app. I have yet to load the camera app, a Bitcoin tracker (I'll never need that one I hope), GPS screen, HTTP request screen, Find my Phone, and Reminders. Lots more to play with.

Unlike the fitness trackers, the Pebble does not collect much data, it just displays data you already have on your phone on your wrist. I stopped wearing a watch way back when I was an architect and I was still drawing on drafting tables with pencils (remember those); when I was drawing I'd take off my watch then I'd forget it at the office. So we'll see how long this lasts.