Think Before You Knoll

Knolling is a super popular aesthetic conceit masquerading as an organizational tool. Adam Savage has encouraged hundreds of fans to knoll. Whole Instagram empires are devoted to knolling everything from survival gear to charcuterie. Knolling is simply putting like objects together on flat surfaces and squaring them relative to each other and their nearby environment. The technique has come to be seen as a habit of a highly efficient and organized maker of things, but it is important to consider its utility before ordering those custom screened “Make America Knoll Again” tees.

A page from Tom Sachs' Ten Bullets Zine describing knolling
A page from Tom Sachs’ Ten Bullets Zine describing knolling

The term knolling was coined by a janitor, Andrew Kromelow, while he was working in the Eames furniture studio. At the end of each day he would organize tools and materials so they looked nice and neat. This was done for the appearance of organization, and not organization itself. This was not the action of someone intending to make tomorrow’s work more efficient, this was the action of someone whose job it was to make things appear tidy. Continue reading

Soft Robots (Actually) in Space

When I spoke at the SpaceApps conference, I hadn’t realized how close I was to working with NASA in a much more official capacity. A few months earlier I developed some prototypes for Final Frontier Design, a company devoted to the design and engineering of spacesuits. This was in my role as lead scientist at Super-Releaser and the end goal was proving to NASA that mechanical counterpressure garments (like I described in my talk) could be a practical reality with some time and development. I’m pleased to announce that they approved our proposal and we will be working on a new generation of EVA gloves over the next six months.

What I’m most excited about is the opportunity to bring all of the elements of engineering, prototyping, and digital manufacture for compliant materials to create and test all of the iterations of the glove we’ll be going through. There are thrilling mechanisms and intricate problems that I believe are only workable with compliance in mind. After all, we’re interfacing with the most mechanically complex manipulator the body has to offer.

Hopefully I’ll be able to update as progress is made. I will still continue my development work at Super-Releaser and research on the Neucuff, though the frequency of updates may drop off.

Title image by Lisandro Sanchez.

First to Blog

This is a response, more of a high five, to Zach Hoeken’s post up on MAKE: “First to File? Nah, First to Blog!” Basically his post was a series of ideas that have been hanging around in his notebooks, possibly eligible for patents, that he would rather see out there and made in the world than locked away between the pages of a personal sketchpad forever or exploited to the chagrin of mankind by some unruly technological entity, wrapped up in complex patent labyrinths, and never put to a more just use than in sole product from a sole company (see 3d Systems vs the Form 1, Patent Busting3d printing patent challenges, etc). Even worse is the possibility of an idea getting patented and never implemented, only used as a club to hit innovators over the wallet (see Intellectual Ventures). I’m in favor of this. Truth be told I’m pretty aggressively anti patent, which is why all of my recent robotics projects have been released into the open source. Although I realize there’s a difficult road ahead, finding ways to keep funding innovation and novel IP in the world patent abolitionists have been gunning for, I believe open access to information and the network effects it generates far far and away outweigh the small innovation boost you get from researchers confident they’ll be the only people able to profit from the particular idea they’re developing. Continue reading

National Robotics Week

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to show off the soft robots I’ve been developing at the National Robotics Week: Extending Human Reach event held at HUGE labs and facilitated by Honeybee Robotics. I was originally excited at the prospect of seeing the incredibly varied group, the police standing next to bomb sniffing drones, LittleBits showing off tiny circuit construction kits, Honeybee demonstrating the lab tools they designed that are currently roving around on Mars. It was a shame I didn’t have more time away from my booth to check out the tech everyone else brought, but the general crowd was so excited, so eager to chat about robots and what I was presenting, that the event was almost over before I caught my breath. Thankfully Numi was there, helping set up, answering questions, and generally being awesome.

So, now I’ve got a pile of business cards representing science minded folks to email, some new medical applications to push the next prototypes towards, and an urge to show this stuff off to the public more.

Four stars. Would present again.

Also, download some robots.

Please, don’t shop at Wildwood

I don’t tend to use this space for out of channel stuff. I’m all about making and building and doing and all that, and don’t want to cloud things up with all kinds of other dross. But, this feels like a special case for all you makers out there, especially ones with laser cutters. DON’T SHOP AT WILDWOOD DESIGNS (aka Cherry Tree Toys).

One sheet cut through at 40% power 10 speed. One did not.

Wildwood Designs (site, Facebook, Twitter) sold me a bulk order of custom cut plywood. It was 100 sheets of the 1/4″ veneer core birch plywood. I’ve bought a half dozen sheets of it before at the recommendation of some folks from Artisan’s Asylum, and thought it was a good consistent material. That notion took a sharp turn as I opened up the box containing my purchase (a solid three feet of stacked sheets of wood) and found two different products inside. One was the wood I was used to, a plywood that cuts well and leaves a nice soot-free edge. The other had the same veneer jacket, but was a completely different beast. I haven’t given everything a final count, but it looks like about 70% of all my wood is the very, very bad kind. Continue reading

Building a Better Bucket

Mold making and casting has been a huge part of my life for years. It started in the SFX industry, making molds and cleaning up parts for robotic snakes on Snakes on a Plane (really), and has become an even more significant factor with the recent soft robotics project. However, one thing has plagued me this whole time: buckets.

There are lots of elegant methods for prepping a mold, squaring away your shop space, keeping everything all clean and science-y, but no matter how you slice things (unless you’re dealing with 50 gallon drums), pouring out gooey slimy liquid rubber always ends up being a mess. I often end up going through several sets of stirring sticks and dipping disposable cups into my material in the hopes of keeping everything quarantined and safe from contamination. Still I end up feeling like a Dickensian orphan, dipping a ladle into what amounts to $200 of runny goo. Continue reading

I am Laser Endowed

A few months ago, something magical happened. Over the years, I have been building, bit by bit, a way to twist the world into a shape more to my liking. With little pokes here and there, I’ve managed to eek out a life that has me selling the things I build, make, design, and hack for a living. Sleek and Destroy is now the source of my entire income and I even have employees. This is absurd. I feel like the police should be on to me and haul me off for impersonating a successful adult who knows what they’re doing any second.

I was afraid I'd ordered something too big to fit in my house. Fortunately the box contained plenty of fluff.

In line with this trend, they should also haul me away for steadily becoming a supervillain, for I have a laser. An 18-wheeler arrived at my Bushwick studio carrying a pine box big enough to send Orson Welles six feet under in style and within a few short hours filled with grunting, swearing, and sweating, I had a functional robot helping me build things in my house. Continue reading

A Cheater’s Guide to Self Improvement: Addendum

As a followup to my previous post, I’m going to try and elaborate more on the individual techniques I use for tricking my brain into acting like the focused productivity machine that it certainly isn’t. Here are a selection of tools and tricks I’ve used to good effect when trying to keep my productivity up and my wasted time down. Some of them work incredibly well with me. Some of them are tricks of last resort I use when I can’t seem to get focused any other way. Your mileage may vary.


Gilding Primal Instinct: The Executioner

I try to plan out every moment of my day at least a couple of days in advance. Sometimes it gets all wonky and I have to spend time shuffling and juggling tasks as things get thrown about by unforseen circumstances, but sticking it out is worth it especially for the record of what I actually spend my time doing. This is all motivated by the need to prioritize tasks without having to decide, when I find myself with a free moment, what the most important thing I could be doing it is. If I break down tasks into actionable chunks and then sort them into my schedule based on priority and accounting for deadlines I can actually get a substantial block of crucial work done without having to choose it over more fun but less urgent projects. The schedule is law and what’s on the schedule shall get done. Looking a week ahead and popping in a few slots where I have to do some research for a pending project or manage some tedious CAD I’ve been avoiding helps make sure they don’t get put off further.

I tend to schedule in more time than is truly necessary to complete each goal so that I can use the remaining bits to faff around, check my email, and generally reward myself for keeping on track. Cool down time between highly disparate tasks seems to be pretty important to prevent burning out. I use a pretty extensive task list to manage what goes on the calendar. Continue reading

MAKEzine Interview Postscript

Recently I was interviewed by Make Magazine for their series Meet the Makers. You can listen to the podcast here. What follows is some extra links, photos, and resources that help illustrate the projects I mentioned in the interview.

I was incredibly flattered when Mark Frauenfelder asked me if I wanted to be one of the makers interviewed for the MAKE Podcast. I jumped at the chance. Now, having concluded the interview just a few minutes ago I wanted to share some links to the projects I mentioned, offer up a little further reading, and provide downloads for the open source designs I alluded to during my chat with Mark.

This is the tensegrity structure I built as a class project ever so long ago. It’s made of cotton string and 3/16″ dowels and supports a 1/2″ steel ball bearing exactly 24″ off the ground.

Here is a picture of the metal rod tensegrity structure I mentioned. Here’s a photo of the load bearing one that was a class project way back in college.

I talked for a bit about Smooth-On, the company that makes a whole bunch of mold making and casting projects, and how they had a tutorial on getting a metal look using cast plastic and metalized powder. I’ve found the relevant section inside one of their Youtube videos here. You might also want to look into the SFX powder pigment Pearl-Ex for playing with adding cool colors and effects into your casting/sculpting projects.

If you’d like to find out more about my huge mobile pipe organ project, The Anywhere Organ, you can find pictures up on Flickr, a running record of the progress I’m making up on its Tumblr, video of it in action here, and downloads for the design on Thingiverse. Continue reading

A Cheater’s Guide to Self Improvement

So, guilt is a powerful motivating force in my life. I’m pretty adept at performing complex mental ninjutsu on myself to weasel my way out of things I should be doing, that are good for me, but I’ve got no burning desire to do. Take flossing, for example. It’s a trivial task that has a pretty substantial benefit in terms of reducing the guilt I feel about generally boycotting my teeth after losing my retainer some time towards the end of high school, and reducing the number of days per week brushing a bit too hard yields slasher fiction levels of upsetting sink imagery. Yet, there’s a routine I’ve developed to work myself around and out of the desire to floss. It’s like taking a mental detour around my sense of duty and pragmatism which usually arrives at the junction of dorking around on the internet and checking my email.

This is why I create structures outside of myself for enforcing the things I want to nail down, and shunning the stuff I want to get rid of. The way I see it, the distance between an action you want to perform and the final result is a kind of switchboard. Some of the terminals are in your brain, some are in the outside world. Your own willpower is one of many factors influencing what can actually get done, and it’s a fragile, fallible, and prone to fatigue, as one famously counter intuitive study proved. Relying on it alone is a mug’s game. Continue reading