Yet More 3D Fun! On Buddhas, Vending, Arty Caterpillars, an Ancient Archer and Puzzling Cubes


There is something completely mesmerizing about watching a 3D print being made. The machine hums, the extruder head moves with possessed purpose and layer by infinitesimal layer a shape emerges. The journey from conceptual to physical is a miracle every time, no matter how mundane the object may be. 

Maybe one day it won’t seem so magical. I keep a old print of a NASA photo of Saturn stashed in my drawer to remind me of past wonders. It was printed during a visit to a friend who lived on small farm in the rolling hills of southern Indiana—the middle of beautiful nowhere. Yet we could see Saturn, up close, in all its ringful glory. A spec in the night sky was beamed into a big old desktop computer, printed out on a color printer—itself a marvel—and presented as a souvenir.

And now I have a Buddha in my phone. As part of an Intro to 3D Printing workshop, I walked around a two foot sculpture, snapping 37 iPhone pictures, which were then stitched together using a free app called 123D Catch. I can twirl my digital Buddha in every direction, view him from every angle, and, once he’s cleaned up, make prints. I can make Buddhas for everybody. Inifinity and beyond, indeed. As a bonus, my smartphone seems to have found a new inner peace and now says, “oooooohhhhmmmm" when it rings. 



Four more stories for the files: 


“In a way, we’re automating Kinko’s,” says Will Devno, one of a team of three Berkeley students who prototyped a Makerbot-powered vending machine called the Dreambox for $10,000. The first one was installed on campus last March  as and has apparently been doing quite a business. 

Customers upload printing files on the website and pay via PayPal. The next day, a text is sent out with a code to unlock a drawer in the vending machine where the finished prints await pick up. Most prints cost about $15.00.

Once all the glitches are fixed, the plan is for a national roll out, installing Dreamboxes in shopping malls and stores. Who knows? Maybe Kinko’s will buy them… 

• The Silk Pavilion

Across the country at MIT’s Media Lab, the printers are silkworms. Sixty-five hundred silk worms, to be exact, that collaborated in the creation of an ethereal dome structure in the building’s foyer. 

A project of Neri Oxman's Mediated Matter Lab, the Silk Pavilion explores a new paradigm for additive manufacturing, one that breaks free of the traditional CNC-style gantry framework. 

After careful observation of how silkworms create webs (not the cocoons which are harvested for silk), a steel and silk framework was constructed and the worms—actually caterpillars—set loose to finish the piece. This “swarm approach” to 3D printing has all kinds of implications. 

“…(I)magine a swarm of small-scale printing units collaborating to ‘print’ something bigger than themselves,” Oxman writes. “Future research aims to unite 3-D Printing with Artificial Intelligence to generate printing swarms operating in architectural scales depositing structural materials.”

The caterpillars eventually turn into moths, which can produce an estimated 1.5 million eggs. That’s enough worms to weave another 250 pavilions. Additive manufacturing meets Malthusian logistics. Just make sure you have plenty of mulberry leaves.

 • The Ancient Archer 

Meanwhile, at Swansea University in Wales, researchers have been reconstructing the past. 

In 1545, Henry the VIII’s favorite warship, the “Mary Rose,” sank near the Isle of Wight. Five hundred men and, apparently, some sea dogs, went down with the ship. Thirty years ago, the ship was raised and about 90 skeletons retrieved. Ten were sent to Swansea. 

Now, with the aid of 3D printing and some very clever facial reconstruction artistry, we know what one of the soldiers—presumed to be an elite archer based on artifacts found on near his body—looked like. 

"…What’s so exciting is that we can reveal the face of a man who has been hidden from history. We wouldn’t have portraits of him, as we do for wealthy and powerful people from the past – for example we’d already seen the face of Richard III on paintings before his remains were discovered.

This is a face of an ordinary man, albeit in a crack regiment, and he hasn’t been seen for almost 500 years. Thanks to 21st century technology and expertise, we can bring him vividly back to life, and understand more about his world…”

• The X Cube

Nearly four decades ago, Hungarian Erno Rubik unleashed his eponymous Cube unto the world, fascinating and frustrating millions of people for billions of hours. One of them was an American seventh-grader named Dane Christianson, who spent countless hours on the bus rides to and from school mastering its quirks. Two years later, as a freshman in high school, he created his own riff on the puzzle, turning it into a rectangle, then made a video

Recently, Christianson, now a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, posted the video on Reddit where it racked up 1.5 million hits in a little over a week. 


So Christianson went back to the drawing board—and 3D printer—to create yet another puzzle: the X-Cube. Since Erno neglected to take out a U.S. patent on the Rubik’s Cube, the X-Cube is going commercial with a  Kickstarter to raise funds. 

Notably, Christianson is not taking out a patent: 

"…I would rather spend my time sharing the puzzle than suing people over it. A patent is for keeping something out of someone’s hands, which runs opposite to the spirit of the puzzle.

Knock-offs happen. It’s inevitable with any product in today’s world. But  knock-offs can reach markets that I cannot! I just want to get the X-Cube out to the world. I’m sure it will be successful whether or not it is patented…”

He is also making the 3D files open source, so anyone can print an X-Cube if they would like, rather than buy one. 

But that takes away precious time from getting to the fun part, which is why, with almost three weeks still to go, Christianson's Kickstarter is now 25% above his funding target. Couple that with interest from puzzle and game retailer Marbles, and the X-Cube may be the “it” toy for Christmas 2013. 

"The X-Cube has 52 moving parts, 102 stickers, and 125 decillion possible permutations. 

That’s 125,486,757,308,950,508,983,252,156,416,000,000 (1.254x10^35) permutations! That’s over 2 quadrillion  times more permutations than the original 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube for all you cube geeks, over 208 billion  moles of permutations for all you chemistry geeks, and all you math geeks can check my math.”

Oh dear. Where’s my Buddha? 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

Competitive Edge, Ten Types of Innovation & Why a Minimum Viable Product Isn’t Enough


…The rule of thumb here is that if you use four, five, six or more types of innovation, specifically choosing the ones that others in the industry that you’re in, or hope to be in, have chronically ignored, you will almost always get disruptive innovation…It means you’re setting the new rules and everybody else has to respond to them.

—Larry Keeley, co-founder, Doblin (video)

Think fast: What set Henry Ford apart from the competition? The invention of the assembly line, right? It turns out that is just part of the story. When Ford started his company, there were nearly 90 automakers vying for a nascent market. Ford was the only one to focus not only on building a car, but also on building the market. Ford was the first to create a nationwide network of  franchise dealerships, vastly improving distribution. He also paid most of his workers twice the going rate. If the Model T was to be a success, Ford needed a middle class that could afford to buy them.

There were yet more innovative strategies driving (literally) the Ford success story—which you can read about in The Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs, a new book by Larry Keeley, Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn and Helen Walters (Wiley, 2013).  

For the last 15 years, Keeley, cofounder of Chicago-based consultancy, Doblin (now part of Deloitte), and his colleagues have systematically reviewed thousands of businesses—from Ford to Toyota, Dell to Apple and Zappos to AirBnb—to better understand the nuts and bolts of innovation—defined as “the creation of a viable new offering.” 

Beyond Lean Startup ”pivots” and Design Thinking Post-its, the Dobliners' have focused on the underlying dynamics of innovation: the process over the product.

The discovery of ten distinct types of innovation led to an analytical framework for spotting weaknesses and identifying opportunities within a business, a corporate division, or across an industry sector. It works for startups, companies at their peak, businesses past their prime and for non-profits. It is a powerful tool for due diligence. And it helps to broaden perspective beyond the narrow, potentially fatal incremental thinking that can come from too tight a focus on “pain points.” Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) are just that. If innovation stops there, a budding business won’t get very far. 

The Ten Types of Innovation is part textbook, part workbook and part treatise to show innovation as a discipline. “Anyone can (and should) learn to innovate and, with practice, anyone can become better at innovating,” the authors insist. 

While that sounds a little like Ratatouille’s Chef Gusteau—”Anyone can cook!—it is true and for the very same reason. It is about mastering the basics. 

Rather than recipes, though, the Ten Types are presented as a kind periodic table for business, sorted into three broad categories. Each Type is further divided into specific “tactics”—the business equivalent of the elements.


1) Configuration:  logistics 

  • Profit Model: how you make money
  • Network: how you connect with others to create value
  • Structure: how you organize and align talent and assets
  • Process: how you use signature or superior methods to do your work

2) Offering: core product or service

  • Product Performance: how you develop distinguishing feaures and functionality
  • Product System: how you create complementary products and services

3) Experience: customer facing 

  • Service: how you support and amplify the value of your offerings
  • Channel: how you deliver your offerings to customers and users
  • Brand: how you represent your offerings and business
  • Customer Engagement: how you foster compelling interactions

Note that invention, insight, creativity, discovery and inspiration are not innovation, though all have roles to play. Product extensions—more colors, flavors, sizes—also don’t count as game-changers. In fact, they can be distractions to developing more profitable strategies. This dovetails into one of the book’s key messages: product is only one type of innovation. 

In the history of successful innovations, it was always the case that people were using multiple types of innovation. Nevertheless, if you ask people to innovate inside your own enterprise—you decide you have some crisis of growth—what happens almost every time is somebody runs around all the cubicles, thumps everybody on the head, picks the ones that sound ripest and sticks them in a room and says, “Okay, innovate now!”

When asked to innovate, what people assume they are trying to develop is some new product…So somebody focuses on the product per se. If there are engineers on the team, they will have axioms. They will say, “The product has to be 10x better than whatever it’s replacing.” They will have a variety of cost metrics.

But people will invariably focus predominantly on the products. We can prove this is the dumbest place to start and a completely inadequate way to finish…

—Larry Keeley, Corporate Venturing & Innovation Partnering conference  

The problem is products can be copied, so are the most difficult type of innovation to defend. Henry Ford’s genius was leveraging other types of innovation to support the Model T. He set his company apart by innovating  across the framework: Profit Model (affordably priced, half payment upfront), Network (vertical integration—he bought rubber plantations to supply tire production), Structure (better pay and hours reduced employee turnover) Process (assembly line), Product Performance (the Model T was designed for DIY repairs using inexpensive parts), Product System (modification kits to transform a car into a tractor, etc.), Channel (dealerships) and Brand (created an in-house film studio to make films that promoted Fords). 

Or, to use a more contemporary example. there are now dozens of smart phones, but Apple’s iPhone still commands nearly 40% of the US market due to the innovation of iTunes and an apps platform, but also the network of Apple stores, staffed with helpful genii happy to explain all the bells and whistles, inspiring customers to buy even more. 

The product becomes enmeshed in a series of virtuous circles. It is the alchemy of the aggregate that makes for a thriving business and an enviable bottom line. 



These days I tend to prefer my nonfiction digital, but the clever designers at Pentagram have done such an elegant job making a truly daunting amount of information accessible, old-timey print may be the better format to take in all that the book offers. 

The horizontal orientation and softcover binding is—how to put this?—lap-friendly. I read through focusing on thematic arcs and key advice, knowing that I would return to the book as a reference. The number of examples and case studies analyzed through the rubric of the Ten Types is dazzling. Very quickly, I began looking at all kinds of businesses through this lens, trying to figure out why some have succeeded and other seem headed off the rails. It helped me identify the part of a project in which I am involved has a serious weakness and what might be done about it (see chapter 19: Innovation Tactics). The discovery wasn’t necessarily a revelation, but brought greater clarity.


Innovation itself also benefits from good design. The penultimate secton of The Ten Types focuses on prototypes and pilots. 

"There are two main reasons to use innovation prototyping. The first is to reduce risk and uncertainty. To accomplish this, focus your attention efforts on the things you have to get right for the innovation to succeed. Starting with the easy problems is a recipe for disaster in commercializing innovations—it shoves all of the critically important work to the end of the process, when accumulated expense and exposure to customers is at its greatest. Instead, ask yourself which elements of the innovation idea matter most—without which your concept will simply crumble. It is an aspect of customer behavior, the feasibility of the offering, or the viability of the business model? These central elements should be the focus of your prototyping efforts. 

The second reason to use prototypes is to evolve and improve your innovation iteratively. This means that prototypes are fundamentally transitional and ephemeral; much like a lost wax mold or a miniature model, they will be consumed and discarded in the development process. Start with the cheap methods—paper, digital visualization and simple models—and transition toward higher-fidelity and higher cost methods only as uncertainty declines and validation of your concept emerges. Otherwise, you risk wasting money on prototypes you will need to discard—or worse, have cost and effort bias your judgement and lock you into flawed designs.” 

—Ten Types of Innovation (p. 218)

Of course, successful innovation only means your business has survived another round in a game that never stops. Like voting in Chicago, innovation is best done early and often. 

So get to it. 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


Chicago’s 3D Printer Experience: On Ratus plasticus, 3D Natives, Lions with their Heads Screwed on Straight and Topology Optimization


I would know that rat anywhere. The curve of his spine, the delicate perfection of his rib cage, legs bent in classic rodent crouch and that built-for-mischief rodent skull. The rat, or, more specifically, his white plastic skeletal facsimile, is a star, a celebrity whose photo has been splashed all over geek publications, including Wired magazine. 

So when Tom Burtonwood, master printer at Chicago’s brand spankin' new 3D Printer Experience (3DPX)—a hybrid store, workshop and studio/classroom—handed me the plastic skeleton, almost literally hot off the press, it was like meeting an old friend. The magic, of course, is that Ratus plasticus (not its official name…), who was a mere 10 months old when he made his history-making voyage through a medical CT scanner, is very likely still alive, white fur and adorable whiskers intact. 

Almost 120 years after the accidental discovery of the X-ray gave us a way to peer inside bodies sans scalpel, it is now possible to recreate exactly what’s inside—and to make copies wherever and whenever we’d like. Ratus plasticus is immortal, an instant artifact slicing through time, space and imagination.

"We are like archaeologists," notes Burtonwood, “but unearthing objects from the future.” Or recent past. Or, since virtually anything can be scanned, ancient history. Burtonwood, who also teaches at the School fo the Art Institute of Chicago, began to experiment with 3D printing by scanning pieces from the museum’s collection, turning them into plastic tchotchkes. Not even the iconic lions were safe…


The playfulness of the objects masks the serious potential of the technology. The lion’s screw and socket system, for example, was designed on a computer and printed so precisely to spec that the head twists on perfectly straight. 

Likewise, the popular “head scans” offered at 3DPX, are a kind of “gateway” amusement. It is fun—and funny—to stand on a platform in the window, spinning in place for a scan. But when you see a file of you in neon green being twirled and tweaked on a computer screen, your every gesture mimicked to perfection, the ramifications of what just happened begin to sink in. Mini-me is a kind of clone.

At least on the surface. The literal strength of additive manufacturing—as 3D printing is also called—is on the inside. “Topology optimization,” to use the fancy term, is about finding the perfect balance of strength and lightness, often biomimicking nature. 

"…The results of topology optimization are structures that have outward dimensions identical to normal load-bearing elements such as beams, yet have interior dimensions that look very different from traditionally manufactured parts.  In place of triangular or circular voids, these parts have remarkably organic, almost bone-like shapes. The reason is, topology optimization software systematically analyzes the stresses on these shapes and then removes the most superfluous material from the design. This process is repeated over and over by the optimization software, and by the end the computer design leaves only a skeletal interior structure…"

—Brian H. JaffeTopology Optimization in Additive Manufacturing: 3D Printing Conference

Additive manufacturing is a whole new way of thinking about how things can be created, whether it’s rat skeletons, fashions, or buildings. And just as there are “digital natives”—children who never knew a world without smart phones, touch screens and tablets—there will be “3D natives,” for whom the miracle of printing objects will simply be a regular part of everyday life.  

Indeed, a new middle school tech academy set to open in Charlottesville, Virginia, will have one 3D printer for every four students. Charlottesville is a pioneer, but as the costs of printers, scanners, computer software and feedstocks keep dropping— in no small measure due an onslaught of virally popular crowdfunded projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo—more schools will follow.

Almost every day—and from seemingly every part of the globe—someone is coming up with a nifty new way to play with 3D printing. For example, Doodle3D from the Netherlands, provides a child-friendly way to turn drawings into objects, no computer programming experience required. Tellingly, though, as the company’s Kickstarter video shows, it also brings out the inner-inventor in adults as well. 

"I still think it’s a little miracle," says Frans Beelen, who designed a colorful handle to more easily carry several shopping bags at once. 

Yes, Frans, it really is. 

– J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


3D Update: Try This at Home / Biomimicry edition…


Great tech innovations have a way of morphing from gee whiz wonder to part of the daily landscape in the blink of a cyber eye. Life before smart phones and tablets? Barely imaginable. Life before the Internet? Really

The current torrent of 3D printing breakthroughs is a little different. The gee whiz came with the realization that it could be done by almost anyone. Now it is about the riff and variation of what to print (houses? body parts? guns? tchotchkes?) and how to turn almost any material into a 3D “ink.” 

What’s amazing is that it is not surprising a rat skeleton can be printed from a scanned live rat: We have come to expect the miraculous, though still marvel at the detail. 

3D printing is a multi-disciplinary playground, where the outlandishly imaginative is applauded, experimentation encouraged and a sense of fun seems to permeate everything. Led, and perhaps liberated, by a joyous makers’ ethos that made a thriving Thingiverse possible, the 3D revolution is driven not by a tech elite, but rather the universal human need to create. 

The tools and software for 3D printing are getting simpler and cheaper all the time. Comparatively inexpensive laser scanners designed for home use, such as Makerbot's Digitizer and Indiegogo favorite, the Photon 3, are just months away from market. Paired with open source software compatible with Mac, PC and Linux, these scanners will uncork yet another round of inventive genius.  

 (T)he Photon isn’t just for 3D Printers, it’s the best tool for 3D animators, designers, hobbyists, prototypers, engineers, or anyone in the business of 3D creation. It’s perfect for reverse engineering, prototype development, duplicating objects, modifying existing products, archiving, generating content for video games, experimenting and so much more. Scan models, tweak them or combine them. The options are endless.



Biomimicry is the ultimate cheat sheet: mining eons-worth of evolution for a fast insights to design problems. Nothing iterates like nature. 

Strictly speaking, the printed rat skeleton was copied rather than bio-mimicked, but it is hard not to consider the potential in light of two other recent breakthroughs: printing cell-like material complete with pores that provide nervous system functionality; and self-assembling materials inspired by the ways proteins fold, create using "4D" printing (time is the fourth “D”).

Each technology is remarkable in its own right. Imagine a surgeon printing a scan of a patient’s organs and bones before an operation, or a doctor printing “cells” for artificial tissue to treat a burn victim. And with materials that self-assemble, it’s a hop, skip and jump to thoughts of the Singularity

What if you could combine them, using a Photon scanner and a Makerbot printer…at home? 

What would Yoda, Star Wars sage and resident Thingiverse poster geek, say? 

"Me real make! I live want to! Hmmmmmm.”


— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

The End of the Beginning: The Starter League and Beyond


No one wanted to leave on Friday night. The Starter League Class of Winter 2013 clustered near the entrance of Chicago tech hub 1871 for a long time after the “Starter Night” festivities wound down. We were a herd of newly minted proto-developers in black hoodies, not quite ready to be history. After 11 weeks of having our brains bruised and battered by the quirks and complexities of computer code, we were just starting to get the hang of it, starting to get good at working together, starting to see the potential. 

Which, of course, was the point. It is a “Starter” League after all, designed to get students “from zero to one.” Personally, I only made it to 0.5, but many of my classmates became remarkably adept—indistinguishable from the more accomplished entrepreneurial geeks glued to their laptops, draped over every surface at 1871.


For the first time in my life, I found myself on the wrong side of a learning curve, a feeling that was alternately horrific, humbling and weirdly wonderful. Trying to figure out HTML/CSS  felt like learning how to knit in the dark. Knit one HTML, purl two CSS, then jump over to a browser to see if it worked. 

I am not a terribly good knitter even with the lights on. Yet, despite my striking lack of natural gifts, I am not done with the digital yarn. The logic of the code’s illogic somehow osmosed its way into my fingertips—enough that I think I can do this. I may never be great, but then my objective was always about communicating better with front end developers, not displacing them. 

Still, it has been profoundly unsettling to realize that the codes that run our lives are such a tangle. It turns out that behind the smooth sleek curtain of tech, there are legions of nerdy wizards scrambling to come up with fix after fix after fix. The code for CSS (cascading style sheets), for example, is such a mess, we were taught to cut and paste a “reset” at the top: a long patch of code designed to clear out decades of accumulated cyber plaque. 

Likewise, we learned to include parallel commands to accommodate a variety of browsers because Firefox, Safari and Chrome all “hear” things a little differently. At the same time, there can be several ways to code the same command—some considerably more convoluted than others—which creates the equivalent of digital dialects. Things can—and do—get lost in translation. 

There is a very good reason that the questions on the Starter League’s application focus so heavily on persistence. You will tear your hair out and mutter obscenities at the screen. You will struggle to figure out how to explain the problems you’re having. And when the least little thing goes right, you will feel like the master of a (very small) universe. 


The Starter League’s ethos is everything you could hope for. There is a genuine culture of support. But the optimism that everyone can become proficient at coding is a little rosy. It really is beyond most of us to get even moderately good at this.

HTML / CSS. Python. Ruby. Rails. Javascript. PHP. Codes woven together. Nested into one another. Syphoning data from API’s. Dancing a Github polka two-step waltz. 

For all the attention to website user experience (UX), precious little seems to have been aimed at improving coding UX. I found myself wondering: Where was the visionary—the Steve Jobs of developers—who would banish “clear fixes” and other such tortures to usher in an era of intuitive user-friendly coding?

It could be a long wait, so I will continue to knit badly until I knit better. The “weirdly wonderful” part of being so inept in class was the realization that everyone, including the teachers, still struggles. The ones who succeed just don’t let the potholes stop them. 

So I have started to open doors that, prior to TSL, I would have left shut. The recent Chicago Women Developers get together at Google for International Women’s Day was a revelation. What a remarkable group! I can practice HTML/CSS at “XX hack nights,” and, once I am a little more confident, perhaps take class in javascript or python. 

I also plan to check out the Tuesday evening OpenGov hack nights at 1871. I came across this group during an HTML class break and, gracious, it’s another pod of brilliance. You don’t have to be a great coder to be a part of it, either, just willing to parse through data and figure out ways to be helpful.

Finally, I will lobby Shay, Rhagu, Neal and Mike for a Starter League HTML/CSS weekend boot camp for those of us still struggling to get to “one.”

I know I can do this…


A major part of TSL experience involves joining a team, ideally made up students from across the range of classes—HTML/CSS, Web Dev, UX and Design—to collaborate on building a real live app. 

Imagine the first day of band practice in third grade and you’ll have a pretty good picture of how things start out. None of us really knows what we’re doing, and now we’re doing it together.

Amazingly, this works. Eighteen teams presented Friday night. Several of the apps were quite good, among them Operation Overlord, a second screen reference app inspired by the WWII HBO series, Band of BrothersNugHub, a GrubHub clone for dispensary marijuana that might one day make a fortune; and the delightfully designed Sinkup, an app for scuba diving in Lake Michigan. 

I joined the Parent Leader Toolbox team. The group was already pretty far along with design and programming when I came on board, but needed help developing content—a comfort zone for me. 

The inspiration came from a book called How to Walk to School, detailing the efforts of a group of East Lakeview moms to improve Nettlehorst, their neighborhood elementary school. The app was designed to pick up where the book left off, providing case studies, templates, tips and resources to help parents groups at other schools. 

For Starter Night, the app was a handsome rough sketch. But it may grow to be much more than that. In April, several team members will meet with some of the moms to figure out next steps. Should this be a website? Should this be a digital book? Both? The format will need to be mapped out, a production strategy developed and funding options brainstormed.

It really is remarkable to think that a group of people who didn’t know each other three months ago could pull this off. There is still a long way to go, but we have made a start. 


—J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


A Juncture in the Narrative: The Starter League, CSS/HTML and Me…


Boston roads are based on 17th century cow paths. At least that’s what I was told on my first traffic-addled trip to Boston oh so long go. “You should have no trouble getting around if you can just think like a 17th century cow...”

I still haven’t figured out Boston roadways, but, like a good 17th century cow, I have now trod the path often enough to recognize landmarks and wrong turns. Indeed, going astray is yet another good excuse to make a new friend. No worries.

I have been thinking a lot about 17th century cows this past week, in the aftermath of my very first CSS/HTML class at Chicago’s Starter League. That’s the code that runs the “front end” of a website, making it look the way it looks (“back end” code makes the whole thing possible).

It starts out reasonably enough, but in no time devolves into a series of symbols and shortcuts that simply need to be known: pointy brackets (<>) versus curly brackets ({}), when to use colons, semi-colons, equal signs and quote marks, and a document head versus copy headers (h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6).

CSS (cascading style sheets) and HTML (hypertext markup language) are not languages with letters, but something closer to the ideograms of Chinese. Symbols gain meaning through proximity. One little change can have big implications.

Or, to use another analogy, CSS/HTML are kind of like a cyber lichen: two separate life forms that work better together. HTML can exist without CSS, though not vice versa. Yet without CSS, HTML is a mess. It needs CSS to tell it how to behave in proper company.


For a long time, I was happy enough to let all the coding magic stay behind-the-scenes. I worry about content (traditional definition) and functionality, leaving it to designers to make things look good and coders to translate designs.

Inevitably, there would be breakdowns in the process. After working closely with a designer, the coder would tell us what was—and more to the point—what wasn’t possible. Lack of browser and OS compatibility would trigger rounds of crack-of-dawn memos. On more than one occasion, I’d race over to a Best Buy to see what a website really looked like on a PC, having learned that no matter how many test filters the coder said he had tried, the site looked different in real life. A website that would be a thing of beauty on my MacBook would go kerflooey on a PC—a situation exacerbated by the collection of unsupported versions of Internet Explorer still in popular use.

So in addition to designing for the end-user, we needed to design for the worst browser, too. Bummer.

I tried dabbling with a variety of web services that promised to give me, the mere content person, the power to design and code myself—without having to do anything particularly icky techy. I had a blast on Apple’s iWeb (R.I.P…). I played with Wordpress blogs (ultimately abandoned for wysiwyg—”what you see is what you get”—shortcomings). Webdoc was (still is) a drag’n’drop wysiwyg  hoot—but its narrow column-size is just too limiting. (e.g. - Travel Notes: New Orleans and Inventables)

Clearly, the time has come to pull back the curtains on the mysterious back end of the front end—to crack, if not hack, the code that runs my world. While the odds may be  slim that I’ll ever make the grade as a great coder, I want to understand how programmers think. I want to see what they see when they open a design file. I want to be able to make small fixes on my own. Most of all, I want to trade out the barrage of “please fix” memos for far more interesting creative conversations.

I want “programming thinking” to be part of “design thinking.”


Enter The Starter League (aka, TSL, formerly The Code Academy), a coding program in residence at 1871, Chicago’s spiffy new tech incubator on the 12th floor of massive Merchandise Mart. Founders Neal Sales-Griffin and Mike McGee hit upon the idea for the school after spending the better part of a year diligently trying to teach themselves code by reading every how-to book and wading through every online tutorial. (They got very good at tutorials…) TSL is the program they wished had existed for themselves and  turns out they weren’t alone.

In less than 2 years, over 500 would-be programmers from all over the world—though most, like me, from Chicago—have taken an ever-expanding array of 11-week TSL courses, tackling Ruby on Rails in the “Web Dev” class, programming for mobile apps in Advanced HTML/CSSS, along with user experience (UX) and graphic design.

The goal, according to Web Dev instructor Jeff Cohen, is to get you “from 0 to 1,” a rather modest ambition—one often exceeded, given what I’ve seen presented at Demo Days. Students from various classes form groups that build real live web apps, with code uploaded to GitHub, a code wiki, for all to see. There are no grades or certificates, so the pressure is all “proof in the pudding”: Is it a good idea? Does it work?

Over the last year, I have seen teams, beaming with excitement, present their projects—some of which are good enough to develop further as real businesses. One after another, students, who come from all walks of life and career, give testimonials, telling how they knew nothing when they started and how they can’t believe how far they have come.

Heady stuff. Especially when I am still firmly rooted in point A, knowing nothing. Even headier after last Friday night’s Demo Day orientation, where students were given one-minute slots to pitch/share app ideas. Oh my. Without giving too much away, they ranged from electronic health records to pot (yes, that kind of pot), from scuba diving to boat rentals, and from television fashion / shopping to scrapbooking for WWII vets.

I love my Winter 2013 class. Something wonderful is starting to perk.


Right now, though, I have to get back to my homework, which means thinking like a 17th century cyber cow. Or perhaps a 14 year-old boy in a plaid shirt, glued to his computer in an electronic gizmos-strewn bedroom.

Which got me thinking: How did HTML, with all its arcane quirks, happen?

It turns out it wasn’t a 14 year old boy, or a cow, but a British computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, who in 1989 had a six-month contract at CERN, a big particle physics lab in Switzerland. In an effort to develop a better way for scientists all over the globe to share information, Berners-Lee invented the web link. But first there needed be a web. A World Wide Web. So he invented that, too.

To put the history in perspective, in 1989, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was in Pre-K, no clue to the mischief to come.  

HTML took its cue from an existing computer language, SGML (Standardized Generalized Markup Language), which is tackled the structural basics: titles, headers, paragraphs and lists.

It wasn’t long before the then-handful of the world’s geeks started adding “tags”—a computer-friendly way to indicate different types of content. Competing browsers led to a turf war for standard tags. Should images be referred to as <img> or something else? A young Mark Andreessen working on the Mosaic browser at the University of Illinois thought it should and unilaterally made it so.

One person’s logical abbreviation can quickly become another’s “huh?” The link attribute rel, for example, is pronounced “reel” and stands for “related.” There are tables and tables of these things you just need to memorize—complicated artifacts of someone’s long ago idea of simplicity.

In fact, things have become so out of hand, it is best practice to start off a CSS file with a “reset”: special code designed to clear out legacy default goblins.

So in essence, the whole shebang starts with a fix.

HTML begat HTML+, which begat versions 2, 3, 4 and now 5—the latter adopting an agile approach to encourage constant tweaking.

It makes my head spin.

But it must be do-able. All those fine people at TSL Demo Days say it is. The TSL faculty, unshakably upbeat and encouraging, promise to help, help, help. It’s got to be better than writing all those memos, right?

h1   {

       color: tinkled-pink;


— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


• A History of HTML by Addison Wesley Longman / W3

• W3C (World Wide Web Consortium)

• Life at 10x and Beyond: Lichens, a Liverwort, a Microscope and Me… by J. A. Ginsburg / Dot to Dot

Maps: What You See and What You Don’t—On Birds, Bats and Bugs

I spotted this map posted on a wonderful tumblr called Exp.lore, the latest digital project from that indefagitable seeker of “interestingness,” Maria "Brain Pickings" Popova. 

It reveals far more than perhaps even the mapmaker realized.

Just as footprints in the snow mark a path, suggesting a story, these dashes suggest all kind of things we cannot see. Why are there four flyways? How have they been shaped by wind patterns, topography and climate shifts? 

I was reminded of a long ago, behind-the-scenes tour of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. We wandered among Etruscan bathtubs, Tibetan musical instruments and drawers and drawers of bones and butterflies. We nearly passed out when a tailgate party-size cooler with a pickled giant squid was opened. But the jars of smaller pickled critters fascinated me most. To the scientists’ delight, they discovered mites on the eyelashes of bats, preserved through the generations as an added bonus. Presumably, some of the parasites and microbes in and on the mites were preserved as well. 

Maps are more than data points. They preserve—in a sense pickle—slices of space and time. And like the bats, they can be full of added bonuses, some only apparent after years have passed and we have the tools to see them.

These flyway maps particularly resonated with me and I sent Maria a note about some of the stories that I saw in them: 

There is actually a lot more going on in these maps than you may realize. I stared at theme and variation of them many times while covering the spread of West Nile virus (WNV) across the continent. There’s a bit of overlap between the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, btw, which I learned chasing wildlife biologists chasing migrating birds being chased by mosquitoes up the Mississippi flyway one spring for a National Geographic television segment. I also learned about badminton-style nets, strung yay high between trees to catch real birdies… 

But I digress. The point is those maps also chart all the insects and microbes that travel either in, on or in sync with birds. Coming and going, birds from the various flyways funnel through Mexico and Panama, where they trade fellow travelers. 

Birds are “amplifying hosts” for West Nile (and a whole bunch of other related viruses). Generally, birds don’t die from these types of viruses because they have adapted to them. In fact, dead birds were the tip off that WNV was a new disease. Almost nothing kills a crow and the viral loads in crows those first couple of summers were so high, one researcher told me they basically turned into virus. Ten, twelve years on, you don’t hear much about dead birds. Evolution is an amazing thing. 

Anyway, virus numbers explode in birds, so when virus-free mosquitoes bite them, they pick it up. The virus is so adaptable, it can actually be passed from mama skeeter to baby nymphs, no bird required. But, of course, the nymphs grow up, bite birds and the cycle goes again. 

WNV spread across the country in just a couple of seasons fueled by the migration patterns revealed on those maps. The speed came as a real shock to scientists.

The map also tells a story of how the world is stitched together—which is fitting, given its style. Birds need good habitat at either end of their journeys, and good “pit stop” habitat along the way. If they find drought, flood, deforestation, urban sprawl, pesticides, it’s a game changer. If seeds, flowers, bugs and worms aren’t there to be nibbled, it’s a problem. 

A true bird’s eye view of the world is literally that of a movable feast.

The maps may also reveal a clue to an ancient mystery: specifically, why horses, which evolved in North America and—as one equid species or another—were fixtures on the landscape for tens of millions of years, went extinct here during the Pleistocene. As the current and chronic tragedy of America’s wild horses demonstrates (descendants of animals shipped from Europe, beginning with Columbus), horses can survive almost anywhere. A few animals can turn into a sizable herd in just a decade or so. 

It turns out  there is a horse virus related to WNV (which, btw, also affects horses) whose genome is part old world, part new. Nobody knows how or exactly when that little DNA tango happened. But it is conceivable that a hybrid virus developed in birds whose new world / old world flyways overlapped up north—round about where Sarah Palin can see Russia from her porch. From there, it would just be a matter of time and flyways. (Equids expanded their range into the Old World by trotting over a land bridge in the Bering Strait that appeared and disappeared as the climate shifted.)

Although a virus alone may not have killed off America’s ancient horses, combined with pressure from human hunting and the challenges of a changing climate, it could have contributed to a perfect storm: an infectious disease affecting both mortality and fertility, severely altering herd dynamics. 

All this is speculation on my part. But it was fascinating to think about, sitting around a card table in the woods near the Mississippi River, taking blood samples from birdies caught in badminton nets. Science at the frontlines… 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


• How We Use Maps and Globes: An Illustrated Guide from 1968 / by Maria Popova, Brainpickings

When the Planet Has a Fever and the Kids are Sick: McKibben’s Math, Colborn’s Letter, Planetary Chemistry and Grassroots Economics


It has been a record-breaking year for breaking records. Heat waves. Cold snaps. Floods. Tornadoes. Super storms. Blizzards. Wildfires. Cyclones. Polar melts. Equatorial droughts. Rising seas.

Crops failed. Infrastructure buckled. Forests burned. Subways drowned. Shorelines vanished. Neighborhoods blew apart. Mold grew.

It is not hard to connect the climate change dots when there are so darn many of them. But for those still struggling, environmentalist Bill McKibben connected them for us in a devastating piece—Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math—last July in Rolling Stone magazine: 

  • Once greenhouse gases (GHGs) currently wafting into the atmosphere are accounted for, we are already 75% of the way to the 565 gigaton of greenhouse gas limit linked to a doom-and-gloom 2 degree Celcius global temperature rise.
  • The 2 degree target is optimistic. Look at all the trouble 0.8 degrees has already caused.
  • It is not only the carbon we are burning today, but also the carbon assets still in the ground—2,795 gigatons worth—about which we need to worry. 

…We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians…

..You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

Yet there is even more to the story. It turns out we are poisoning ourselves right along with the planet. 


Theo Colborn, a thin slip of a woman with a voice as gentle as the grandmother she is, packs a punch. An environmental analyst, expert on fetal development, Time magazine “Hero of the Environment,” professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Florida and founder and president The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), Dr. Colborn warns of another fossil fueled catastrophe with generational implications: petrochemicals polluting the very cells of life.

At TEDxMidAtlantic in Washington DC last fall, Dr. Colborn read a letter she would later send to the President and First Lady. By turns, it is personal, professorial, horrific and hopeful. 

In the 1950s, when the Colborns had their four children, parents counted their newborns fingers, toes and private parts to assess overall health. It was an optimistic decade that saw the start of  the post-WWII industrial boom and the beginnings of the space race. Petrochemicals that had been developed for bombs were transformed into fertilizer, while miracle materials came pouring out of research labs to build rockets bound for the moon and beyond. Consumer applications, from non-stick frying pans to fire retardant pajamas, quickly became part of daily life. 

…As a result, today the surface of the earth is saturated with man-made chemicals that society and the global economy have become totally dependent upon—chemicals that can interfere in the womb with the delicate endocrine system that makes possible the development and differentiation of that precious single cell in the womb into a normal healthy child. 

Yes, a small number of the nearly 100,000 new chemicals produced up through 2011 were tested but at high, occupational-level doses for the probability they could cause immediate harm, obvious birth defects, and cancer—and governments set standards, using risk assessment and cost benefit analysis to determine whether a chemical is safe, based on the odds of getting cancer. But, the odds that a baby born today will become compromised with one or more endocrine disorders are far greater than the odds of getting a malignant cancer. 

This has happened because of the old chemical safety standards that predominantly focus on cancer. Those standards are deeply embedded in the language of federal health regulations allowing corporations to continue to put dangerous chemicals into their products, into the food we eat, and into the air we breathe. Chemicals are now in wide use that were never tested using assays that can detect disturbances in the womb that eventually lead to diseases that might not appear until puberty or even later in life such as obesity, infertility, dementia, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Our laws have let this happen… 

—Theo Colborn, PhD / letter to President and Mrs. Obama

* Ed. note: emphasis added in quotes throughout post  

Just as with GHG’s, people had no idea of the potential harm, nor any way to measure the risk. Conventional scientific wisdom was proved wrong time and again. It turned out that chemicals could indeed float into the placenta, into the embryo and into the very fetal brain itself. No one knew about epigenetics—that the micro-environment around genes can determine whether they toggle on or off, zig or zag. 

Dr. Colborn points out that the discovery 45 years ago that a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy affected her baby should have been a giant tip off that environmental chemicals could pose a serious health threat. Yet research just crept along for decades. The best science available—a favorite fallback phrase of corporate and bureaucratic spinmeisters—was not nearly as good as it might have been with more funding.

But now we know. 

… Today, one out of every three babies will develop diabetes and if you are African American or among the other minorities that will be every other baby. One out of every 88 babies born today will develop autism spectrum disorder and if you are a boy, that is one out of every 54. And in less than 10 years 80% of the population will be overweight. No woman should have to live with knowledge about epidemics like this throughout her pregnancy and then watch every day for any tell-tale sign that her precious baby might be diabetic or autistic because somehow the chemistry in her womb had become flawed.  

Many of these disorders that were once rare are the result of fossil fuel-derived chemicals interfering with our endocrine system, the overarching system that integrates all our body’s glands—like the pancreas, thyroid, adrenals, sex organs, and segments of the brain, and now we know, even body fat, the stomach, and intestines, are all part of the endocrine system—and they all produce hormones and function under hormonal control.  

Dr. Colborn makes a plea for more research, a “Manhattan Project”-style effort, bringing together—and generously funding—the world’s best thinkers to find a way to break the petrochemical spiral to disaster. 

…Mr. President, the best way to get out of a hole is to stop digging it deeper. It is here, where you, as the head of our nation, can step in and help. Keep in mind that both the ravages of climate change and the increasing endocrine-related epidemics are intimately connected with the increasing use of fossil fuels and their byproducts. By drilling deep into the bowels of the earth for coal, oil, and natural gas, we have unwittingly and catastrophically altered the chemistry of the biosphere and the human womb. Something must be done immediately….


The good news: one solution addresses multiple disasters. Reduce the use of fossil fuels and petrochemicals and things will start to improve. But with global carbon emissions averaging an annual increase of 3%, McKibben calculates that we will blow past the magic 565-gigaton GHG number before 2030. Even worse, data indicate a temperature spike three times what was earlier predicted: 6 degrees Celsius. “That’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction,” warns McKibben. Of course, if that happens, we might just have a generation of sci-fi children to match. 

Perhaps things will turn out better. Last July, in the Rolling Stone story, McKibben speculated that it would take something really big—”…a giant hurricane swamps Manhattan, a megadrought wipes out Midwest agriculture”—to make things politically palatable for policy-makers to do the right thing.

Lucky us, 2012 saw both disasters.

In the shredded, waterlogged aftermath of Hurricane-turned Superstorm Sandy, politicians on both sides of the aisle pointed to climate change, seeking tens of billions of federal dollars to repair what was damaged and to shore up infrastructure in New York and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, 80% of US farmland experienced drought, making it “more extensive than any drought since the 1950s,” according to the USDA. “Severe or greater drought is impacting 67 percent of cattle production, and about 70-75 percent of corn and soybean production.” 

McKibben and others, inspired by the anti-apartheid movement that toppled South Africa’s racist regime 20 years ago, are now calling for a global movement to pressure large investors—pension funds, municipalities, university endowments—to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies.

…Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes. That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. It rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments; 155 campuses eventually divested, and by the end of the decade, more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 counties had taken some form of binding economic action against companies connected to the apartheid regime. “The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, “but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure,” especially from “the divestment movement of the 1980s.”

The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you’d still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies. But the link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The same logic applies to the world’s largest investors, pension funds, which are also theoretically interested in the future – that’s when their members will “enjoy their retirement.”) “Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective,” says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk. “The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.”


It might just work. In November, McKibbon’s 21-city bio-diesel bus tour, "Do the Math," inspired 192 student groups pressure their schools to divest, and the Mayor of Seattle to order city pension funds to cut ties to fossil fuel companies. 

It is a modest start, amounting to just a few tens of millions of dollars in an industry worth trillions. But it is a step in the right direction: a grassroots, follow-the-money approach could succeed where international treaties and global political will so far have failed.

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


• Fossil Free Campaign / Divestment Toolkit (website) 

• Bill McKibben (website) 

• Hot Topics: On Weather, Preppers and the Promise of a “Blue Economy”  / by J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews Dot to Dot

• Bouncing Onward: Climate, Consequences, Crops, Memes & Resilience / by J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews Dot to Dot

A Solstice Encore: Imaginary Carl Sagan, a Holiday Mix Tape and the Tannahill Weavers


A few years ago, Maria “Brainpicker” Popova and Mel Exon of BBH Labs put together an online holiday mix tape. Friends were asked to claim a date, suggest a song and write something about the season. I drew the winter solstice, December 21. What a hoot.

This year, I was so distracted by the Mayan media frenzy, I nearly forgot the date had another meaning.

I’ve reprinted my entry below, but to see it in all its original Taped Together glory, click here and page down to the 21st.

Happy Solstice One and All!

“If Carl Sagan had lived long enough to have owned an iPod, what would have been on it?”

In my quest for the perfect solstice song, I found myself channeling a dead astronomer, hoping for inspiration. I had learned—the hard way—that solstice music as a genre is dominated by the tenderizingly sweet sounds of New Age artists. Alas, I am Old Age and, apparently, diabetic.

I briefly explored the limited but promising niche of hibernation songs. I thought about my friends who had married on this day-of-longest-night many years ago. So brilliant. I tried conjuring up Chinese astrologers, Egyptian priests, Aztec mathematicians and, of course, those henge-loving Druids. Surely they must have chanted or hummed or sang or drummed as they witnessed time writ cosmic in the swinging perfection of the planet’s seasonal pendulum? Sadly, nothing that has survived to rank on Amazon…

Finally, I asked Imaginary Sagan.

“Good Morning, Starshine?” he offered, apologizing for having come of age in the Hair-y Age of Aquarius.

"H’mmm. Might work in the southern hemisphere, where it’s turning into summer, but it’s not festive enough.”

“Let’s go to the pub,” he suggested. “You wouldn’t believe how many award-winning thoughts I used to have in pubs. Billions and billions of them.” And he was right. Sitting in the cozy glow, with laughter and live music and the cold Chicago winter on the other side of the door, I watched a parade of Imaginary Ancients troop in, grateful for a pint and some company. It’s a big, cold, lonely universe out there.

So it’s the last call of the night, the last call of the last season of the year. Close your eyes. You are in a pub somewhere in Scotland. You are surrounded by friends, feeling warm, rosy, loving and loved. Now, raise your glass and sway along to The Tannahill Weavers singing “Auld Lang Syne” in deliciously indecipherable Scottish. Here is to you, Robert Burns. Here is to you old friends, stars all.

— J. A. Ginsburg

File Under “Good, Evil and the Neutrality of Tech”…


Two stories that spun me awake this morning, zipping through Zite and flipping through Facebook…

Harvard archeologists literally reconstruct the past with 3D tech (via Wired):

…”This is conservation and protection for the cultural world similar to that undertaken for the natural world,” Greene says. “3-D imaging can be used not only for objects, but also for standing monuments. Basically, broader access to 3-D scanning tools could create a kind of “version control” for material culture…”

Congressman calls for a ban on 3D printed guns. So, a problem that you didn’t know existed with a solution that won’t work. Great. (via Boing Boing)

…The congressman points out (correctly) that all-plastic 3D printed weapons would not be easy to spot using traditional methods, such as metal detectors….

The good news? Civilizations destroyed by build-a-guns can be reconstructed in a lab for future study.

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


• The Fab Age: 3D Printing, Biomimicry, the Moon and More! by J. A. Ginsburg / Dot to Dot