A look at what – and who – is pushing the future in new directions


Brain Food: Perfect Pairs, Cohesive Compression and Bridge Beats

We had a lot of great stories this week for Brain Food, if I do say so myself. From tiny apartments to musical bridges and the positive aspects of pairing – if you were looking for a brain buffet, you’ve come to the right place!

The Xylophone Bridge (Treehugger)
One of the amazing entries in the Seoul Cycle Design Competition is the Xylophone Bridge – an interactive bike path that lights up and plays music whenever someone rides over it. Yes, please.

Tiny Apartment Transforms Into 24 Rooms
344. Square. Feet.You have to see it to believe it.

Netflix’s Time Off Plan (The Daily Telegraph)
The company lets its staff take as much holiday as they want, whenever they want. It’s not too good to be true — this non-policy actually seems to be working.

Re:Form School
Re:Form School brings together artists from around the country with the intent of raising awareness around our flagging school system. It’s a part of the “Let’s Redu” project, which encourages both local and national engagement with education and youth initiatives.

Two is the Magic Number (Slate)
Lennon & McCartney (via Slate)Sure, Lennon and McCartney were an abnormally adept creative pairing. However, there’s nothing magical about the increase in creativity and output that two heads can inspire. In this fascinating series from Joshua Wolf Shenk on Slate.com, we are able to get a better idea regarding the power of pairs.

Brain Food: Internal Antennae, Hobby Astronauts and Designing Dollars

This week’s Brain Food wraps up all sorts of interesting news, from thorium reactors that could wean the world off of oil in five years to IF that cup of coffee you currently have in your hand is actually doing anything for you.

An Implantable Antenna (Technology Review)
Researchers at Tufts University have developed fashionably useful way to alert doctors to potential problems in our bodies. The silk and gold implant, pictured below, acts much like the internal reporting system used in software, recognizing changes in our body’s proteins and chemicals and shooting an S.O.S. back to our physician.

Now Playing: Night of the Living Tech (The New York Times)
Forms of media consumption don’t die, they adapt and morph – find what they do better than anything else and capitalize on it. Who’s ready for the death of hyperbole?

Danish Amateurs Hope To Launch Suborbital Rocket Next Week (Universe Today)
Don’t try this at home … Peter Madsen could be the first amateur astronaut to launch himself into space, assuming the test run, scheduled for next Monday, goes as planned. If successful, Denmark would be only the fourth country to successful launch a manned flight into space.

The Anthropology of Coffee (Boing Boing)
Perhaps the most literal “brain food” posting yet – coffee keeps us awake, engaged and … well, using the bathroom. BUT, where did our love for coffee come from and why do we keep coming back?

The Dollar ReDe$ign Project
America’s current currency design has been around for a while. Over at the “Dollar ReDe$ign Project,” founded by Richard Smith, a wide range of very talented people want to change that.

Russia in Color, a Century Ago (The Big Picture)
A far cry from the sepia-toned pictures I imagine documenting the 20th century, Sergei Mikhailovich’s vibrant color photos taken of Russia between 1909 and 1912 are incredible.

The Titanic is Falling Apart (National Geographic)
The Titanic is slowly succumbing to the wears and tears of life at 2.4 miles below sea level, but scientists are making one last attempt to ensure its heart will go on by preserving a 3D model of the ship and its final resting place.

Chris Watson’s ‘Whispering in the Leaves’
This extraordinary sound installation is the audio equivalent of 3D cinema. “Visitors will be immersed in a dynamic, spatial soundscape of primate calls and birdson, backed with a shimmering wall of insect sounds. Some of the species heard are currently unknown to humans. Visitors will experience the heard but never seen.”

Chris Watson – Whispering in the Leaves from Whispering in the Leaves on Vimeo.

Tree Cathedrals (Wired)
No matter your denomination or beliefs, you can’t argue against the beauty of these “tree cathedrals”. The coolest thing about them is that once they’re set up, nature is more or less allowed to take its course – creating a work of art/faith that is constantly changing.

Thorium Reactors (PopSci)
Thorium, named for the Norse god of thunder, is plentiful and potentially very powerful – 1 ton of the stuff could produce as much energy as 3.5 million tons of coal! Further development of tiny thorium reactors could be the key to a fossil-fuel-free world in just five years.

Re-calibrating Perception on the “Social” in Social Media

Making Twitter Money!Oh, how many times have I thrown my hands up in despair, mere mental inches away from deleting my Twitter account forever. Sometimes, despite my best intentions and the interests that drove me to consider communications as a career in the first place, I just want to escape.

It’s the politics, the unstoppable gold rush for new followers and retweets, likes and hearts. And yes, I play the game. Interest in SEO and Web analytics means that I spend hours looking at where people are coming from, how long they’re staying and how engaged they are – thinking of ways to achieve more and reach further.

And yet, sometimes I have to close my eyes and mentally drift away …

According to Sarah Lacy, I’ve lost the plot or at least have a tendency to drift. In her excellent article this Monday over at Tech Crunch, “If You’ve Got Social Media Fatigue, UR DOIN IT WRONG,” Sarah gives her view on those who are just sick and tired of all clicking and updates.

She makes two main points, in my opinion:

1) There are those who want to love social media in a purer form, but can’t deal with the fact that not everyone sees it their way. (Me, at times) These individuals may indulge in talk of ye olden days of social media (around 2008) with a heavy heart. These people are doing it wrong.

2) Social media is easy love. It’s not hard to reach 1,000 friends or accumulate Twitter followers if that’s what you’re trying to do. Retweets and Likes don’t always signify a “sale” – the commitment is too easy. In fact it’s almost no commitment at all.

That ease of communication and connection is what makes social media seem like kind of a bloated concept at time, but it’s also what Sarah believes makes these sites so worthwhile.

“What made social media a phenomenon were moments like these. Passively connecting in-and-out of a persistent conversation with people you know and see everyday, people you know but have lost touch with, and people you don’t know but share interests with. People who in a more efficient world, you might have known. It’s about making relationships more efficient. My parents know what I’ve been up to by reading my Twitter feed, so when I call home I don’t have to answer a vague question like “What have you been up to?” I answer a specific question like “What country are you traveling to now?” If a friend is looking for a job at a given company, I can’t always remember who I know who works there, but with LinkedIn, I don’t have to. And seeing what an old flame looks like on Facebook never gets old.”

I don’t think there is such a thing as social media abuse. In almost every situation, you have the power to turn off communications. And in the end, if what you’re getting out of it isn’t feeding into your life in some sort of worthwhile way, then you probably don’t need that input to begin with.

Plus, it makes sense for some people and organizations to have massive followings on Twitter and other social accounts. For example CNN tweets the news, David Lynch tweets the weather, some brands tweet product updates and sales … the same for Facebook, Tumblr, Posterous, Ning, etc. There is no one “honest” way to use social media, but I do think that there are different approaches that are more or less genuine for certain users.

Either way, whether it’s a moment of excitement when Justin Bieber retweets you or a digital signifier of your commitment to Spam, you set the rules when it comes to social media. If you’re tired of feeling like you’re in a race for relevance, then, as Sarah would say, “UR DOIN IT WRONG.”

It’s a little old (2009) and not completely on the same topic, but anything Merlin Mann has to say about social media is worth opening up to. In my opinion, that is.

(image via Venture Beat)

May the Future be Filled with Dancing Robots

Dancing Robots - via Metro.co.ukIn 1983, David Chambers asked a group of children to draw what they believed scientists to look like. He compared the children’s perception to reality and recorded his findings  in the article “Stereotypic Images of the Scientist.”

Recently, researchers at Illinois State University repeated the test, this time substituting “scientist” with “robot.”  Psychologist Corinne Zimmerman and engineer Kevin Devine presented 143 schoolchildren, between six and 10-years-old, with the proposition, “Draw a picture of a robot doing something robots often do.”

What the children drew, according to Zimmerman, showed a “clear stereotype of robots.” The children drew robots that were square and autonomous, engaging in activities such as household chores and homework (keep dreaming, kids). Around 30 percent of the children drew robots engaged in “robo-boogieing.”

29 of the children involved in the study were then pulled aside and taught about what robots currently do in the “real world.” These lessons included a trip to see an industrial robot in action. Later asked to redraw their vision of a robot doing robot things, 28 of the children sketched robots more akin to the industrial mechanoid they had seen.

Three months later, those 29 children were asked again to complete a drawing. For the most part, the change in perception had stuck and a majority of the children drew industrial, human-operated machines.

Zimmerman claimed that the lessons had shortened the distance between fantasy and reality for the children. She opined that the acceptance of realistic robots would “help students move into related careers.”

However, not everyone is excited about Zimmerman’s opinions on converging realism and creativity. Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in the UK, worried aloud about the “damping of ideas” and was doubtful whether acclimating children to the realistic robots of today would inspire them to build the robots of tomorrow.

Surely, the Wright brothers dreamed of wings before they ever flew. I would also be willing to bet that more aeronautical engineers were inspired by Buck Rogers than the WWII rockets that formed much of the foundational research that they continued. Surely, the future is defined more by the impossible than the possible.

For that reason, I say don’t let the robots stop dancing.

(image via Metro.co.uk)

Start the Presses! Copper Nanowires Enable Bendable Displays, Solar Cells

Tiny copper wires can be built in bulk and then “printed” on a surface to conduct current, transparently. | Benjamin Wiley, Duke Chemistry

DURHAM, N.C. – A team of Duke University chemists has perfected a simple way to make tiny copper nanowires in quantity. The cheap conductors are small enough to be transparent, making them ideal for thin-film solar cells, flat-screen TVs and computers, and flexible displays.

“Imagine a foldable iPad,” said Benjamin Wiley, an assistant professor of chemistry at Duke. His team reports its findings online this week in  Advanced Materials.

…“If we are going to have these ubiquitous electronics and solar cells,” Wiley said, “we need to use materials that are abundant in the earth’s crust and don’t take much energy to extract.” He points out that there are very few materials that are known to be both transparent and conductive..

…“We think that using a material that is a hundred times cheaper will be even more attractive to venture capitalists, electronic companies and solar companies who all need these transparent electrodes,” he said.

I’m a bit of a geek, so I find this kind of news tres, tres exciting (and for those of you who like to dig into the science of it, as I do, you can read the full article at Duke News).

This research suggests a future in which the following is highly probable:

  • Electronic displays can be printed out in roll-to-roll fashion, much like newspapers are
  • And, just like the newspaper, you can fold it up and put it in your back pocket and train your dog to bring it to you along with your slippers (though probably not advisable)
  • Other thin-film conducting materials, such as solar cells, can also be printed on this copper nanowire material. I imagine that all these cool, bendable electronics will include solar-charging batteries as well.

The smartphone was the beginning of personal, portable screens. The iPad (and the soon-to-be ubiquitous tablet) is the second generation. My bet is that the flexible screen, such as this technology will allow, will usher in the 3rd generation of personal computer. And since they’ll be able to connect with large screen devices at home and work, and access files and applications stored in ‘the cloud’ (mega servers; or on your personal servers), I’m also betting that netbooks, laptops, and desktops will be “sooo first decade (2000-2010)!”

Looking at a Rosie future…

Remember Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons? Well, make room, cause Rosie and her relatives are planning to move in – for good.

From folding your laundry to washing your dishes, these newfangled ‘bots do all the chores that you’ve probably always hated. For years, scientists and engineers have been creating simple robots to replace those menial tasks, but just recently have they perfected more intricate technology. South Korean scientists at the Korean Institute of Science and Technology have designed Mahru-Z, a humanoid robot with 3-D vision to recognize chores that need to be tackled, and plan on introducing Mahru-Z to the wider public within the next ten years. Needless to say, the introduction of such technology into our lives would be a real weight off our shoulders.

But robots can play a much more integral role in our social lives than most of us would expect. While robots might start out by relieving us from such domestic drudgery as mopping the floor and vacuuming those nasty carpets, they may also be our friends. From retirees to only children, robotic companions could play a large part in keeping people company, whether it’s by playing chess or taking a stroll around the neighborhood. After all, robots won’t argue, won’t lie to you, won’t divorce you, won’t fall asleep mid-conversation, and won’t storm out angrily. And while such complex AI technologies will take a considerable amount of time to develop, we’re certainly getting closer.

In the meantime, let’s stick with sipping robot-made lemonade while robots make our beds and dust our rooms. So many new and diverse robotic technologies are being perfected, giving us time to stop and smell the roses.

Tweak and Snip Innovation

A recent WSJ headline notes that at 3M, “Innovation Comes in Tweaks and Snips.” Apparently, 3M CEO George Buckley had recently charged staffers to find cheaper ways to make products like respirator masks as a way to improve products and cut costs, suggesting that in hard economic times like these, innovations can be found “at the bottom of the pyramid” rather than in pursuit of a single “grandiose invention.” 

Certainly, innovation can come in many shapes and sizes, but the brand of iterative chicken scratching suggested in this charge raises serious questions about the definition and terms around “innovation.” For example, can any/every iterative maneuver, be it cost cutting, process improvement, or otherwise tweaking and snipping, be considered “innovation”? Where are the lines drawn around an “ah-hah moment” born of the elusive “creative spark,” and simple problem-solving?  Are we wrong to lump the concepts of innovation, invention and creativity into the same category?  Is being “skillful” the same as being “innovative”? What about resourcefulness?  And, where does novelty come into play?

With operations in more than 65 countries, 75,000 employees, and global sales of over $23 billion, 3M leadership must remain engaged on all levels of the innovation pyramid in these tough economic times. No stranger to innovation, Buckley’s training as an electrical engineer combined with a broad knowledge of physics and thermodynamics led to many patented, industry-changing inventions including early prototypes of the front-loading washing machine. In his role as CEO of 3M (current tagline, “Innovative Technology for a Changing World”), Buckley is both an idealist and a realist when it comes to innovation. The cost-cutting exercise around the respirator masks belies the depth of Mr. Buckley’s creative nature. 

In 2007, I had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Buckley to talk about the dynamic of creativity. An intensely curious and widely read man, he described himself as a life-long-learner, drawing upon ancient history, biographies, classical music and the arts. Buckley is comfortable talking in broad abstract terms or in the vernacular of the pragmatic, Fortune 500 business leader that he is. Introverted and thoughtful, driven to a state of near constant scanning and observation, absorbing, processing and critiquing, Buckley believes that the creative process occurs at the intersection of intuitive vision, specialized “deep” knowledge, and opportunity. He believes that creative discovery is something other than linear processing that “comes on another level of awareness … part genius, part maverick … a willingness to risk, to go out into an unknown realm.”

Always PUSHing the future, Cecily Sommers concurs, citing two categories of innovation: 1) problem-solving through ideation (brainstorming around a challenge or opportunity and then choosing the best option); and 2) leaps in logic (blue-sky dreaming … asking the broad “what if” questions). Sommers suggests that the creative process applies in both approaches, and that moments of insight are found in each. She also notes that iteration is fundamental to the innovation process as a whole.

I suspect that value to society, or “social value,” is also a factor in determining the innovative quotient of a product or process. Resourcefulness, for example, can be a component of innovative behavior, however it does not necessarily deliver social value. If you’re lost on a deserted island, there will be great personal value in being able to forage for food, fashion shelter out of palm fronds, and create an imaginary friend out of found objects …. But, where is the value-add for mankind?

Novelty, toys and games can claim some real estate in the sphere of creativity, innovation and invention as well. Think Nerf ball. Invented by journalist-turned-toy-mogul, Reynolds Guyer, the Nerf was a literal game-changer, challenging the once unbreakable rule that “you can’t throw a ball in the house.”  The invention of the Nerf spawned an industry of fun, neon-colored, foam-based weaponry and continues to score millions in revenue every year.

Finally, in this sampler platter on innovation, we need to consider context. One man’s failure is another man’s innovation. Take the ubiquitous, highly innovative 3M product, the Post-it note. In the context of the 3M research department, inventor Spencer Silver’s attempt to formulate a new super-sticky adhesive was a failure. Years later, however, colleague Arthur Fry conceived the application for Silver’s easily removable glue compound that we celebrate today. 

NOTE: In recent efforts to “make the Post-it brand more relevant and ‘cool and hip’ (their words) with members of Gen X and Y, 3M marketers have launched “Project Things We Forget” into the social media marketplace.  The project website has attracted 770,000 visitors; has 13,000 fans and 700 friends on facebook; 1,500 followers on Twitter; 700 devotees on stumbleupon; feature stories on over 674,000 sites; and a review on Singapore’s largest radio station. Woot!

Post-Note:  As for the challenge to 3M respirator researchers – consumers can breathe a sigh of relief; an ultra-low-cost respirator mask will be released into the marketplace next month.  Aaaachooooot!

An Almanac of Human Emotion

wefeelfine_top2500“I believe in technology, but I think we need to make it more human. I believe that the internet is becoming a planetary meta-organism, but that it is up to us to guide its evolution, and to shape it into a space we actually want to inhabit—one that can understand and honor both the individual human and the human collective, just like real life does.” – Jonathan Harris

Four years ago, Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar set out with a lofty goal – to create a database of human emotions on the Internet. Twelve million feelings later, the two have put together the We Feel Fine project, which includes one of the coolest Web sites I’ve seen in awhile and an extraordinarily beautiful book that was recently released. (Most of which is available to read online!)

The two artists and computer scientists wrote an algorithm that scrobbles the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling,” essentially harvesting human emotion by recording the full sentence and context in which the phrase occurs and identifying the polarity (happy, sad, giddy, etc.) of the specific “feeling” expressed. Because the blogosphere is full of metadata, it is possible for them to extract rich information about the posts and their authors, from age and gender to geolocation and local weather conditions, adding a new layer of meaning to the feelings. Exploring this huge stockpile of information from the viewpoint of 6 different movements — Madness, Murmurs, Montage, Mobs, Metrics and Mounds — has resulted in an ever growing portrait of our culture’s collective emotional landscape.

Some of the fascinating results? Moods hit rock bottom on the day that Michael Jackson died. The high-water mark was the day President Obama was elected, when the word “proud” was all over the blogosphere. People in New South Wales consistently feel far more awful than the rest of the world. Women are far more likely than men to verbalize their feelings. Human beings get happier as they get older. The most frequently expressed emotion on the Internet is feeling better.

We Feel Fine does a dazzling job of turning the big, bad, cold-feeling World Wide Web into a warm, passionate portrait of the individual human and the human collective. I browsed through the book for approximately 30 seconds before mentally adding it to my Christmas list. It’s beautiful. So here’s to exploring the ups and downs of everyday life in all its color, chaos and candor, and here’s to human beings feeling better than fine.


Nature's Orchestra

font,letterform,listen,silence-c24f59dc91ee4536872533b9ba92c908_h“If we don’t take the opportunity to form a baseline understanding of natural soundscapes, we’ll lose part of our own humanity. These sounds taught us to dance, and they’re part of our language. I think we owe them something.” – Bernie Krause

Western culture has long favored sight over hearing. Bombarded with thousands of visual images every day, we pay very little attention to the subtle sounds that enter our ears. Middle school sleepover games of “Would You Rather?” always resulted in a unanimous group decision that being blind would be, like, WAY harder than being deaf. American bioacoustician Bernie Krause thinks otherwise and has devoted the last 40 years of his life to recording the earth’s rapidly disappearing “biophony” — a term he coined to describe what the world sounds like in the absence of humans.

He believes that biophony is unique all over the world; nowhere in nature sounds anything like anywhere else. He also believes that in a biophony, animal groups each communicate at a different frequency so they don’t interfere with one another’s voices. When the pitches are mapped out, it ends up looking like a musical score, with each instrument in its proper place.

The problem with this lovely orchestra concept is that man-made noise (anthrophony) greatly intrudes on this natural symphony. The noises of machinery and cars interfere with a part of the sound spectrum already in use and suddenly some animal can’t make itself heard, which Krause has proven can have a significant impact on evolution.

Today, there are fewer and fewer places on Earth where man-made noises don’t prevail — over 40 percent of his original field-recording locations have been lost due to increasing habitat degradation and human noise.  To combat that, Krause is making it his mission to compile the largest private archive of natural sound anywhere — fittingly named Wild Sanctuary. The collection of sounds represents over 3,500 hours of wild soundscapes and nearly 15,000 species. Even more intriguing, Wild Sanctuary’s Internet home base is Google Maps and Google Earth, an innovative bridge between the virtual and the natural world that allows you to click on any location you’re interested in and hear exactly what it sounds like.

It’s easy to see ecological problems. Now we need to learn to listen to them as well. Should we be focusing on developing quieter, as well as cleaner, technology and machinery? Would more noise ordinances benefit animals in nature? There isn’t really an answer — it’s just about using all of your senses when trying to make sense of the world around you.

For Your Consideration: The Fuel Film

What’s there to be said about fuel dependency that hasn’t already been said? As with most things that incorporate quite a bit of science – it’s not a matter of finding the information, so much as it is a matter of packaging that information so that the average person can walk away understanding what all that science means to him/her and actions he/she can take right away.

So we have “Fuel,” a film by Josh Tickell that tackles the question of how we can live more sustainably – or rather, what fuels us and whether or not we might find more success somewhere else.

The film won the audience award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It’s been slightly re-cut – things have added, but the film we’ll be seeing is basically the one audiences in Utah rewarded with 11 standing ovations.

The coolest thing about what Josh Tickell’s done here lies in all of the special features, as it were – though you don’t have to buy the dvd to get them. These include:

  • a green curriculum hub (coming soon), which offers a free educational cut of the film for use in the classroom
  • the Fuel Tour, an experiential cavalcade of sustainable vehicles, press events and demonstrations based around the launch of the film
  • the Fuel video blog, offering teasers and fun-size clips from the film

Even if you aren’t able to make it to the premier, there is plenty of fuel here to run on. More information on screenings can be found on the Fuel Web site.

You can request a tour stop in your area (U.S.A.) too, that is if it’s in conjunction with a local college/university (Environmental Studies departments, start revving your algae-run engines). It’s a car parade + screening + discussion + music + tour of green vehicle + educational materials.

Tickell helps us move beyond the grim wake-up call of an An Inconvenient Truth, advocating for a change Elvis-style: “A little less conversation, a little more action please.” Request a tour

A, B, C's of font design

biscuits-previewI was blown away the first time my accountant used the “f” word.  Since when does a bean counter talk bold face and italics?

B.C. (before computers) the word “font” was exclusive to graphic design.  Basically, unless you were a card carrying “creative,” you never had meaningful access to the secret society of typography. (Afterall, there are rules about this stuff … when typography falls into the wrong hands, all kinds of illegible things can happen.)

Anyone who has practiced the fine art of graphic design prior to the main-stream presence of word processing knows what I’m talking about. If I start waxing on about “keylining” or the living hell of “type spec-ing” you have my permission to slap my wrists with your pica ruler (google it). Let’s just say that, like nearly every aspect of our modern way of life, the design field, and specifically the manipulation of typography, has been literally transformed by technology.

In his classic tome, Designing with Type (1971), James Craig reveals the back story on all things typography — symbolic pictographs, iedographs, and early alphabets like Phoenician, Greek and Roman. Craig discusses the anatomy of a letter and common font terminology like: uppercase, lowercase, x-height, ascender, descender, counter, serif, san serif, boldface, italic, condensed, extended, leading, point size, punctuation marks, and the beloved “ampersand” … &.

When it comes to specific fonts, Craig has his favorites and goes into great depth on five classics that he believes provide a “standard by which to judge/evaluate all typefaces” — Garamand, Baskerville, Bodoni, Century Expanded, and Helvetica. I’m guessing that he would look askance at some of the fonts I’ve uncovered in my research here.

I’d invite Prof. Craig to contrast the Bodoni cap “S,” for example, with a cap “S” configuration designed by Estonian font designers, Vladimir and Maksim Loginov, made out of biscuit dough (biscuit alphabet shown above left). The brothers Loginov specialize in developing “unique, untraditional fonts.”  From the myraid samples offered on their website, I’d say they have exceeded this expectation.

If you’re still thinking that nothing could be more pedestrian than font design, fasten your seatbelts and take a look at the iQ Font project by Pierre Smeets and Damian Aresta. I’d bet large sums of money that the genesis of this idea occurred in a dorm room somewhere.

iQ font – When driving becomes writing / Full making of from wireless on Vimeo.

Baa-baa Bauhaus

sheep2-300x240Forget bioplastics, carbon nanotubes, “smart fabrics,” and polli-bricks, … Apparently, the new darling of the design world can be found grazing in flocks on grassy hillsides. In celebration of this ancient technique/emerging trend, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum is currently featuring Fashioning Felt, an exhibition dedicated to exploration of the “varied new uses of felt,” a material derived from sheep’s wool.

A hallmark of such far-flung regions as Austria and South America, felt or felted wool is created by washing and pressing woven wool, causing the fibers to shrink and tighten into a dense fabric of uniform thickness. According to exhibit curator, Susan Brown, the process of matting together wool fibers using humidity and friction requires very little technical expertise and is believed to be one of the earliest techniques for making textiles. Wikipedia dates the practice back to before the Middle Ages, “… as the raw material has been readily available since the widespread domestication of sheep, the use of felted wool for clothing and other purposes characterizes some of the earliest civilizations.”  In fact, the word “felting” comes from High Old German, “a language spoken before the 12th century.”  (I myself have unwittingly been a practitioner of this craft for decades, as evidenced by the stack of unintentionally felted sweaters in the corner of my closet.)

 Felt walls in Wosk Theater at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California

We’re not talking about mittens here. The decidedly low-tech felt has found its way into the halls and walls of high style design and avant-garde environments worldwide. The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit presents “innovations in handmade felts and contemporary uses of industrial felt in a wide range of fields including product design, fashion, architecture, and home furnishings.”  An architectural application of felt from the Wosk Theater at the Simon Wiesnethal Center Museum for Tolerance in LA is shown left. The stacked felted wool walls create a peaceful and intimate, yet powerful “inner sanctum” for screenings and special presentations.

 "Relief Chair" by designer Ben Mickus

Commercially produced felted wool is also an excellent versatile material for dying and sculpting. Strips of wool felt can be cut, twisted, folded and stitched to form sculptural wall panels and firm thicknesses can also be combined with other materials to create sleek, modern furnishings. Heads up Bauhaus fanny-meisters Breuer, Le Corbusier and van der Rohe – designer, Ben Mickus pairs stair-stacked grey wool felt with stainless steel in his functional, form-fitting Relief Chair (2008), shown left.


But, probably the most fascinating element of the Fashioning Felt line up is video installation, Making of the Palace Yurt, by William Berry. Susan Brown describes the pain-staking project and processes in a February ’09 blog:

During a visit to Cooper-Hewitt about a year and a half ago, West-coast felt-maker Janice Arnold was intrigued by the form of the museum’s conservatory. Its domed roof and iron mullions resemble the radiating struts of the framework of a yurt — the circular tent dwelling of the nomadic tribes who first created felt. Next week, Arnold will begin installing Palace Yurt, an installation crated especially for the Museum’s exhibition.

The traditional yurt is a trellis-frame tent covered with thick felts made from raw sheep’s wool. The largest, most elegantly decorated tent is the place of celebration, songs and epic poems… Arnold will create a total environment from her luxurious handmade felts, which combine Merino wool with silk, metallic fibers and sheer fabrics … Her technique allows for richly textured [opaque] areas in combination with gossamer sheer ones.” 

So – New cool design isn’t always about uber-techno-nano breakthroughs. Really, the only necessary component here is the ability to be open to new possibilities. “Smart fabrics” might be the wave of the future, but close on its heels are the same old “dumb fabrics” presented in brand new ways.  The Fashioning Felt exhibit runs through September 7th… and, no time to spare. In an effort to raise the profile of wool and other natural fibers, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2009 to be the Year of Natural Fibers. Really.

Post Note: For those who wish to pursue felted wool on a foundational level, the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture sponsors About Sheep Basics, an intro course designed to “provide a broad spectrum of sheep information for the new or intermediate sheep practitioner.” The $45 fee covers a 3-ring binder complete with all course materials. Individuals completing the course will receive a certificate of completion from the University of Wyoming.

Post-post-note: The U Wyoming course is about raising sheep, not making yurts.

Pulp-Based Computing Kindles My Interest

There’s been a lot of talk about the future of printed media lately. Printed newspapers are on the verge of collapse and even the most lauded news organizations are trying to figure out a way to make money online as their print revenue vanishes. On August 3rd, USA Today is launching an electronic version of their newspaper, which will be a digital replica of the print product, albeit with additional interactive and exclusive content — including video.

Along with reinvisioning the idea of newspapers, the book industry is undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis, with mixed reviews from consumers. The second version of Amazon’s Kindle wireless reading device was released in February, with over 300,000 sales already. Some consumers love the e-reading tablet…the Kindle store boasts about 1500 5-star customer reviews, with comments about how clean and functional it is. Novelist Nicholson Baker devotes 6,219 words to the subject in a recent article for the New Yorker and the one and only esteemed product endorser, Oprah Winfrey, has declared the gadget “life changing” and the “wave of the future.” Not bad for a $299 electronic gadget in a world recession. Some avid readers (myself maybe included), however, are a bit wary of the “exceptional reading experience” Amazon bills its Kindle as. It seems hard to fathom that interacting with an electronic tablet can give a book lover the same experience as browsing through a dimly lit used bookstore and returning home to curl up with a dogeared paperback and a cup of coffee. The former can’t actually beat out the latter in a battle of the book experience, can it? (Keep in mind I’m severely biased.)

Dear Detroit, from Your Neighbors


The first thing you’ll notice about Broken City Lab’s “Cross-Border Communication” project is that they’re playing with a bit more firepower than your grade school teacher had when he or she taught you subject against the oft-malfunctioning, pull-down projector screen.

But then they’re trying to reach a larger audience – a whole city, actually.

Broken City Labs, based in Windsor, ON and across the river from Detroit, is a creative research group. Led by artists, they are committed to “tactical disruption and engagement” – thinking in between the lines to create conversation and, hopefully, consolidati0n, around pertinent issues affecting Windsor, specifically, but often with great significance to other communities as well.

What’s this have to do with a several-thousand dollar projector and Detroit Rock City? Broken City sums it up in the first of 12 planned messages to be broadcast against the Windsor skyline, “We’re in this together.”

It’d be hard to pin down a state more affected by the current economic state than Michigan. From Flint to Detroit, Michigan’s 15 percent unemployment towers above the national average. Just across the Detroit River, Windsor has experienced similar economic decline.

Understanding is a powerful tool for both conversation and forward momentum. Understand the issues. Understand each other. Naturally, we understand those who we can relate to. And so, Broken City Labs plans to throw up a signal for those across the river, separated by distance, country – but not so remote after all.

Political "Boy"cotts in Africa.

338263_dc3fcba7971In some religions, to find oneself in seventh heaven is to reach the highest of seven heavens and thereby finally achieve a state of extreme happiness or bliss. Recently, in some African countries, males might be more apt to define their seventh heaven state of extreme happiness as the seventh and last day of the week-long sex strikes their wives, girlfriends and lovers have been engaging in, all in the name of social and political change. Originally dreamed up by Aristophanes’ fictional character Lysistrata in Athens in 411 B.C., the idea of women withholding sexual privileges from their male counterparts as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace has been reemerging and playing an interesting role in global politics.

Last Tuesday’s episode of The Colbert Report featured an interview with Leymah Gbowee, the Founder and Executive Director of the Women in Peace and Security Network – Africa, a women’s organization in Ghana that builds relationships across the West African sub-region in support of women’s capacity to prevent, avert and end conflicts. This articulate, self-assured winner of the Blue Ribbon for Peace prize is one of the stars of the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a tribute to the women of Liberia who banded together to end a bloody civil war and bring peace to their shattered country. Ms. Gbowee was one of the founders of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, which brought Muslim and Christian women together for the first time in Liberia. Armed with only white t-shirts, the courage of their convictions and a threat to withhold sex, these women formed a thin but unshakable white line between the war’s opposing forces and successfully demanded an end to the fighting. In one remarkable scene of the documentary, the women barricaded the site of stalled peace talks in Ghana, and announced they wouldn’t move until a deal was done.  Due to the women’s determination and large-scale organization, then president and dictator Charles Taylor agreed to a ceasefire. In 2003 the Accra Peace Talks were officially held in Ghana, ending a decade of civil strife that took hundreds of thousands of lives. That same year, Liberians elected the first African woman head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as President, solidifying the women-led movement toward peace.

In a similar movement in April 2009, thousands of Kenyan women vowed to begin a weeklong sex strike to force an end to their country’s ongoing bickering between leaders. Organized by the Women’s Development Organization, the “boy”cott aimed to put pressure on men to persuade politicians and their supporters to prevent a breakdown of the fragile coalition government between Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki, instated as co-leaders of Kenya after the country’s intranational violence in late 2007. The organization’s chairwoman, Rukia Subow, says that her group has looked at all issues that can bring people to talk and they’ve seen that sex is the answer. “It does not know tribe, it does not have a political party, and it happens in the lowest households.” The wives of the Prime Minister and the President are said to have taken part and the strike resulted in the speeding up constitutional reforms and reforms on justice and police. While the women of the country may have been happy with the results, one of the males affected by the strike was less than pleased with their methods. Mr. James Kimodo sued G-10, an umbrella group for women activists that was involved in calling on Kenyan women to boycott sex. According to CNN, Mr. Kimodo said the seven-day sex ban resulted in stress, mental anguish, backaches and lack of sleep which led him to file a lawsuit claiming lack of conjugal rights affected his marriage. …As of today, the lawsuit has not been settled.

According to Cecily, rape and violence toward women and children has always been one of the strongest instruments of war. The power struggles involved with rape can psychologically shift the power from one side of a battle to the other very quickly. Female empowerment enters these struggles and shifts the power in yet another direction. It’s amazing that these African women were able to band together across religion, tribe and class, reclaim their own sexual agency, and use it for their group’s political and social agenda. A quote from Leymah Gbowee attests that “A lesson we have learned from this war is that we have to fight to make sure we are on par with men. We cannot become complacent. And we can’t underestimate our power to do good.”

A new program sponsored by the Nike Foundation is called The Girl Effect, which is defined as the powerful social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate in their society.  A large majority of microfinance programs are directed at poor women, as it’s been proven that they’re the most likely to affect change positively and invest loans into their families and their villages’ futures. The women of Liberia and Kenya are living proof that female morale, courage and non-violent resistance can succeed, even where traditional diplomacy have failed. Is it always going to be necessary to use sex abstinence as a political bargaining chip in these situations, though? There has to be an alternative way to ensure that women’s voices are heard in the political ring. After all, men might not be the only ones suffering from stress and mental anguish in the absence of sexual privileges.

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