TechShop Open House

Yesterday and today, the TechShop in Menlo Park held an open house. I had heard of this place before, but it is in Menlo Park, which is a bit more than an hour from me, so I never really seriously considered joining. I must admit, having driven down and visited the place today, I’m definitely considering doing so. It basically rocks.

They have lots of different machine tools and shop equipment available for members, but the bit of kit that I was most interested in was the laser cutter. This is a rather nifty gadget that can cut and engrave many plastics, paper, cloth, and wood (no metals really). I turns out that I have been contemplating a project where such a capability would be useful (mainly, the manufacture of a high precision Nipkow disk for a mechanical television set. As I watched one of the workshop members demonstrate the capabilities of this cutter, I felt it might be nice to try to do a test. So, I broke for lunch, drover over to a nearby Togos, had a sandwich, and in a fit of serendipity, stopped at the nearby office supply store to pick up some poster board. I then drove back. Sitting at one of their public access Ubuntu machines, I wrote a simple Postscript program that plotted the outlines of a nipkow disk, and sized it to 10 inches (the paper stock I had was 11×14″). Here’s the same Postscript file converted to a PDF. I saved it to my USB stick, then brought it into the laser cutting room. Martin (I think that was his name) then imported the file into Corel, setup the print options, loaded one of my pieces of poster board, and printed. I hit the “go button”.

And it cut a perfect version of this piece. The holes are remarkably smooth and beautiful. It’s cut with a degree of precision that I simply can’t imagine. It’s well beyond the level of any jig that I could have made. He printed another one for me, just for fun. Both of them took less than two minutes. Damn. (I tried to figure out some way to photograph the piece in a way that would show just how cool they were, but so far, no dice. Take it from me though, very cool.)

If I was going to do this for real, I’d probably cut a round backing piece out of a thicker wood stock, and then glue a perforated piece of matte board to the front to make the thing for real. But the principle is definitely there.

They have other good stuff too. Multiple lathes, including a smallish South Bend similar to the one I learned what little skill I have with a lathe that I have. Mills. Metal cutting bandsaws. TIG and MIG welders. A 3D printer. It’s just freaking amazing.

If I can get my crap together, I suspect I’ll be paying the $100 monthly fee for a couple of months. It just rocks.

Thanks to all the nice helpful people there.

TechShop is the SF Bay Area’s Only Open-Access Public Workshop –Welcome

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Ratatouille Opens! iPhone arrives!

Phew. I was on Ratatouille for almost two years, and today it’s finally in theaters. I wonder if all you crazy people camped out waiting for your chance to buy an iPhone are going to cut into our weekend box office. 🙂

Click here to find out about all the people camping out for the iPhone. Attempts to find people blogging about camping out in line to see Ratatouille have not yielded any results, but reviews have been pretty darned good (94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) so I hope that some of you will drag your weary bodies and shiny new iPhones to the theater and see it.

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So Long Brown v. Education…

I hope that the ghost of Chief Justice Earl Warren rises from his grave to haunt the Supreme Court. Prepare to set your clocks back fifty years.

Supreme Court: Schools can’t use race to assign students

To be fair, I haven’t read the actual decision (PDF link). I’ll try to do so tomorrow and have more commentary then.

Addendum: Sigh. The PDF above is 185 pages, and I don’t have the time at the moment to go through it and develop a more informed opinion. I surfed on over to SCOTUSblog, and read some of their commentary. From this post::

One reading of today’s decision in the race cases is that the Supreme Court has outlawed programs that seek to increase racial diversity in the schools. Justice Kennedy’s concurrence does not adopt that view, however. And because his is the fifth vote, it is controlling. The better view, I think, is that the Court today has come close to extending the Grutter model to the lower school context, holding that school districts may account for race as one factor among many in student placement.

Schneier on Security: Risks of Data Reuse

I know I’ve been a bit over the map with my postings lately, but I’ve been catching up on my blogroll, and there are some pretty diverse topics. From Bruce Schneier comes an interesting article pointing at research which shows that the Census department supplied data that enabled the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, in violation of the law and contrary to their stated position.

Schneier on Security: Risks of Data Reuse

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Morse v. Frederick

First of all, I’d like to just say one thing:


How many of you felt that this phrase was trying to convince you to use illegal drugs? What if it were on a banner held by teenagers?

The majority of Supreme Court justices thought this rather comical phrase was a sufficient enticement to encouraging illegal drug use that schools were entitled to confiscate such a banner and suspend a student for holding such a banner at “a school sponsered and sanctioned event” which was apparently to stand on the side of a street as the Olympic torch passed by.

When did we become such a nation of pansies? That the merest mention of something which which we might disagree requires that we squash it by rejecting all legal precedent and tossing our First Amendment rights onto the fire?

Justice Stevens writes in the dissent:

In my judgment, the First Amendment protects student speech if the message itself neither violates a permissible rule nor expressly advocates conduct that is illegal and harmful to students. This nonsense banner does neither, and the Court does serious violence to the First Amendment in upholding—indeed, lauding—a school’s decision to punish Frederick for expressing a view with which it disagreed.

Justice Stevens’ dissent is in fact very good, and (while I’m no law student) I think draws on precedent to a much larger and more thorough degree that the majority opinion. I urge you all to read this decision.

Morse v. Frederick – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Addendum: BoingBoing has a replacement banner for you students that would seemingly avoid the issues that Justice Roberts raised in the majority opinion.

Lord, let there be one more tech boom, I promise not to blow it this time…

Over on Eric Wolf’s blog, he writes an interesting post about the Internet boom phenomenon: Lord, let there be one more tech boom, I promise not to blow it this time…

I have a slightly different take.

We all like to jump on the bandwagon when something is new and exciting. I’m a lucky man: I chose to be educated in a field which has been the source of many of these new trends, namely computer science. More than that though, I tried (and continue to try) to monitor what’s new, what’s coming down the pike, what trends are gonna be big. I’m an early adopter. I have yahoo and gmail identities without digits in them. I’ve been through six generations of cell phones. I created one hundred podcasts, and then got off the bandwagon. And you know what? It hasn’t really helped me make any money (other than perhaps my salary) because ultimately I don’t buy into the hype nearly as much as the masses.

As we sit poised on another of these “boom” product release (the impending release of the iPhone) and my livelihood continues to be dependent upon the boom of an impending movie release (Ratatouille), I can’t help but ask if we could develop a society which moved at a slightly more leisurely pace, which didn’t rely on the herky-jerky motion of “progress” to get us out of bed every morning.

In Japan, there are cultural movements which are a reaction to the breakneck pace of advancement that Japan has acheived over the last century. They want to adopt a different style of life, a slower pace, by choice. This “Slow Life” philosophy is governed by the following principles:

We value the culture of walking, to be fit and to reduce traffic accidents.
We respect and cherish our beautiful traditional costumes, including woven and dyed fabrics, Japanese kimonos and Japanese night robes (yukata).
We enjoy Japanese food culture, such as Japanese dishes and tea ceremony, and safe local ingredients.
We respect houses built with wood, bamboo, and paper, lasting over one hundred or two hundred years, and are careful to make things durably, and ultimately, to conserve our environment.
We take care of our forests, through our agriculture and forestry, conduct sustainable farming with human labor, and ultimately spread urban farms and green tourism.
We pay less attention to academic achievement, and create a society in which people can enjoy arts, hobbies, and sports throughout our lifetimes, and where all generations can communicate well with each other.
We aim to age with grace and be self-reliant throughout our lifetimes.
Based on the philosophy of life stated above, we live our lives with nature and the seasons, saving our resources and energy.

(From this article).

We tend to admire growth. We crave the excitement of explosions, of boom and bust. We have accelerated our lives to the point that each of us will likely have multiple careers. We will make and squander fortunes. Marry, divorce and marry again. When we make a plea to have another boom, perhaps we should take a step back, slow down, and figure out what will really make us happy.

Oh, by the way, I’ve got $50 for anyone who will stand in line for me at AT&T…

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SIGGRAPH 2007 Papers

I was reminded that the deadline for cheaper prices for attending SIGGRAPH is this Friday. That reminded me that I had not gone out and discovered what papers will actually be presented at this year’s conference, so a moment’s Googling revealed:

SIGGRAPH 2007 Papers

Are any other brainwagon readers going to be at SIGGRAPH? Podcasters? Just cool people I should meet? Send some mail to me and maybe we can get together and smooze.

Addendum: This paper on a novel 3D light field display seems like it owes some heritage to the old mirror screw television sets I’ve been reading about lately. Does this remind you of the scene with Chewbacca playing chess? Or perhaps the Krell machine in Forbidden Planet?

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Hydra Console Game Dev. Kit

The Hydra Consome Game Developer’s Kit is getting quite a bit of play on various blogs. It’s a little game console based upon the Propeller chip created by Parallax (more here) which is an interesting little gadget. It has eight relatively simple cores sitting on a single chip, and is relatively cheap and fast. You can dedicate individual cores to implementing virtual peripherals like NTSC output or monitoring I/O devices, and still have plenty of other computational resources to use for other purposes.

The only real problem with this system is its rather steep price: $200 is more than a DS, more than a PSP, more than a GameCube, and very close to a Wii. You could rightfully say that “yeah, but those don’t have developer kits and information”, and you’d be right. But I still think that a market opportunity is being missed for a simple game machines that perhaps non-programmers would buy, but that amateur programmers might actually create content for. I’d think that something at half the price would be worthy of lots more attention.

ThinkGeek :: Hydra Console Game Dev. Kit

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25th Anniversary of BladeRunner

Slashdot had an article today marking the 25th anniversary of the release of Ridley Scott’s vision of Bladerunner, and points at Mythbuster Adam Savage’s claim that it stands at the apex of science fiction effects, created in a time before computer graphics.

I think I agree.

I’m tempted to add another Ridley Scott film into the mix: of course the classic Alien, complete in 1979, and I’m also quite fond of the John Carpenter film The Thing from this era, but the combination of visuals and story in Bladerunner are awfully amazing. Astounding even. If there is one movie that would compel me to upgrade my DVD player to something more high definition, a good release of Bladerunner would be near the top of the list (seeing it on conventional DVD just does not do it justice.)

But to be honest, it isn’t really the big effects shots that stun me with this film. I mean really, check this out…

Okay, this is a nice wide establishing shot with some clever background work. But now look at these shots:

Bladerunner succeeds in no small measure because of the care which is taken in all the shots which are not the big effects shots, which just show photos of the actors giving solid performances. Try comparing this to shots in the latest Star Wars trilogy. It’s no contest. None at all. True classic movies succeed not because one or two shots are unforgettable, but because they nearly all are.

Oh, and this movie might actually be one that might make me believe that film still has some merit and relevance.

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Reports on Mogo, a computer program for playing Go

I’ve read quite a bit about computer chess and checkers (although my own program, Milhouse, has been fairly stagnant for over a month). I’ve read somewhat less about systems which play games like backgammon, othello, poker or mancala. But it turns out I’m almost completely ignorant of the state of the art in programs to play Go. Part of it is simple: I don’t play go. It confuses me. But it does have a bunch of interesting characteristics that makes it particularly challenging for computer play. I ran across these links to Mogo: considered one of the stronger players. Looks like I’ve got some more reading to do.

Sylvain GELLY’s Home Page

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A quick test of ocropus

If you wandered into my office, you’d probably be shocked by the vast amount of just raw paper I have lying around. I scribble notes, I use photocopy machines, I print stuff all the time. And I have lots of books and magazine articles I’ve clipped over the years.

I’d like to do some optical character recognition and digitize these papers, but I frankly am too cheap to buy OCR software, and besides, most of it runs on that Microsoft Operating System that Shall Not Be Named, and I have foresworn that I shall not give Microsoft any more money. I’ve tried a couple of really awful open source solutions like gocr, but it’s frankly terrible. On the Google Blog, I recently read that Google had used the tesseract engine and had created a suite of applications called ocropus that could be used for the purpose.

ocropus – Google Code

I did a quick test. I scanned a page from an old Sky and Telescope article: it describes a lensless Wright Camera. It contains inset boxes and graphics, and I had found it a fairly challenging thing to extract almost anything out of. To run ocropus, i simply typed the command “ocropus ocr testocropus.png > testocropus.html” and got this result. It isn’t perfect, but it’s not that bad, and probably represents a pretty significant reduction in labor (at least, given the speed at which I can type) in terms of getting a reasonably accurate representation of the fairly difficult text.

If you have some ocr tasks, you might think about giving it a shot. I will be doing some more experiments, and will keep you all posted.

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Addendum: A second test with a second scan of a less challenging paper, done at the recommended 300 dpi and the resulting output.

Early patent on mechanical television…

I was noodling around, and found reference to a patent on an early “mirror screw” version of mechanical television. Don’t know that that is? Don’t worry, this link is more for me than for you.


Addendum: It’s amazing what you can find online. has a scanned copy of A. F. Collins’ Experimental Television. Very cool.

Addendum2: Another book on early television. And another.