Scaling Good: Project Frog’s Buildings and The Kitchen Community’s Learning Gardens


"…The typical parent, the typical taxpayer, the typical voter, when asked what constitutes a quality education will talk exclusively about the who and the what: the teachers and the curriculum. But we know the where is also part and parcel of a quality education. We believe that where our children learn matters. And when we send our kids to schools with crumbling walls, with leaky roofs, with mold all over the carpets, not only are we not creating an environment for a quality education, but we’re also creating conditions that get in the way…"

— The Center for Green Schools 

American public schools are in such disrepair, it will take more than a half trillion dollars to bring them up to date, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Green Schools, supported by the National Education Association, the 21st Century School Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Lung Association and the National PTA. 

Put another way, fixing American public schools is a half trillion dollar-plus business opportunity with a long string a collateral “goods”: healthier children and teachers, better environments for learning, digital-age connectivity and cheaper operational costs. This is the low-hanging fruit of school reform. The classroom, as Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi famously put it, is the “third teacher.” Children learn from their surroundings, good or bad. Right now, hundreds of thousands of American children are learning that they are a low priority, which it both shameful and shortsighted. We are blighting our own future. 

The “go-to classroom” in the US is a noisy, stuffy, dimly lit, poorly insulated   prefab trailer, notes Ann Hand, CEO of Project Frog, a San Francisco-based construction company on a mission to build better schools. Prefabs are typically pushed into service decades beyond a projected five year lifespan. “They’re full of mold,” says Hand. “The number one cause of absenteeism in California? Asthma.” The most dedicated teachers, thoughtful curricula, committed parents and motivated children are no match for a literally toxic environment. You can’t learn if you can’t breathe. 

The good news is the dramatic and fast difference righting wrongs can make. “There are a lot of studies out there that say that with natural daylight, kids’ grades go up about 20%. That’s taking someone from a C to an A,” says Hand. Improve acoustics and air quality and academic success  almost becomes a given. 

Yet faced with anorexic budgets and long construction schedules, administrators and school boards often have little choice but to opt for quick and dirty band-aid repairs. Enter Frog with its “technologically advanced component buildings” designed to maneuver past these very hurdles. Components are delivered to construction sites in a series of cheerfully branded, IKEA-like flat-packs that can be assembled into a building—aka, a Frog—over summer break. Unlike a prefab classroom whose dimensions are determined by the size of truck (determined, in turn, by the width of a traffic lane), Frogs are free of any such restrictions. Instead, Hand explained at the recent KIN Global conference, Frog schools are designed around what’s best for learning. 

(KIN Global 2014 Change at Scale: Ann Hand)

Mixing human-centered designed to focus on students’ needs and integrative design for better building performance, Frog has figured out how to deliver a higher quality school faster and at a competitive price. Improved energy efficiency means a Frog costs less to run, too. 

"…We have urban planners and architects on our staff, but they sit next to people from product design, people from strong manufacturing backgrounds. We’re crashing all of those capabilities together and really creating an innovation engine that we just so happen to be asking…Is there a better way to build?" 

Clearly, the answer is a resounding yes, but it has been a years-long nail-biting journey full of cash-flow cliffhangers and near-miraculous team triumphs to get there. The first installment of Frog’s first large scale order—15 of 40 schools in California—was finished with only hours to spare before the morning bell of the first day of class last fall. Immediately, the company shifted gears to analyze dozens of lessons learned from a summer spent on the exhilarating edge of panic and possibility. Hand slowed down the sales pipeline to give Froggers—there are fewer than 60 employees—a chance to catch their collective breath. In addition to schools, Frog had been building healthcare clinics for Kaiser-Permanente and developing a “flex” design adaptable for almost any use. Sales had been on track to hit $100 million this year, but Hand cut the target in half, figuring time was more valuable than money in the near term to add resiliency to supply chains and smooth out the rough edges of production. If all goes well in the next couple of years, Hand sees IPO in Frog’s future. It turns out daylighting not only boosts grades, but bottom lines as well. 


For Kimbal Musk—of the irrepressibly enterprising family Musk (Tesla, Solar City, SpaceX)—the sweet spot is right outside the school building in the garden. For nearly a decade, Musk has been working to spread the good food word, first with a handful school garden near his Kitchen chain of “community bistro” restaurants in Colorado and now with hundreds of gardens in Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver.  

"… Scale does matter. It really does matter…When you do one school, you have a system. When you do a 100 schools, you have to have a totally different system…There’s no point in doing one school. You’ve got to do 100 schools, create the system that works for 100 schools and then you have a system you can scale."

Like Project Frog, Musk’s Learning Gardens are modular, flexible, affordable and designed to be an easy “yes” for school administrators. The components are basic but thoughtful: a series of sturdy above ground planting boxes set at the perfect height for young gardeners. They can be placed almost anywhere, from asphalt to rooftops, and are easy to maintain, pre-plumbed for irrigation. Set up takes just a couple days, with children, teachers and parents doing the actual planting. 

Musk wants kids to learn about science and nutrition but sees Learning Gardens as a kind of all purpose outdoor classroom: a part of the school, rather than a special project tucked away behind a fence. In fact, proper siting is essential. Gardens must located where kids naturally gather or Musk’s team won’t build them. “Scale is a combination of how many schools you can be in and how many kids you can reach when you’re in those schools,” he explains. “The critical thing about what we do is that it works in every single school yard in the world.”

(KIN Global 2014 Change at Scale: Kimbal Musk)


"Change at Scale," the theme of this year’s KIN Global, focused on the difference between a good idea and a transformative one. It turns out there is a pattern—something I first learned from energy pioneer Amory Lovins while writing a magazine story on distributed power generation. If a solution is modular, flexible, scalable, affordable and recyclable, bet on it. It almost doesn’t matter what subject—energy distribution, social networks, personal computers, IKEA furniture—the formula works. This is nature’s tried and true strategy: from particles and proteins to atoms and cells to everything that is and has ever been. In fact, the smaller the building block, the greater its potential. 

Hand and Musk have developed solutions that embody those characteristics, bringing an elegant clarity to problems that have confounded generations of school administrators, school boards and politicians. Rather than try to shore up a broken system, they have set their sights on outcomes (happier, healthier, more successful students), then took the list of seemingly insurmountable hurdles as marching orders. It turns out a healthy school environment is good news for the environment as a whole which, of course, is an A+ for everyone.  

— J. A. Ginsburg


Science Hack Day Chicago 2014: Reinventing the Space Suit, Cosmic Biomicmicry and the Joy of Thinking Different


Science Hack Day (SHD) at the Adler Planetarium is a hoot. Two years ago, I was thoroughly charmed at demo day watching teams—who had spent the night at the museum—present a series of delightfully and often literally “out there” ideas. “Galaxy Karaoke” and “Quantum Foam” anyone? How about an app to calculate that pesky space-time jet lag for those really long flights? It’s an Einstein-inspired must-have. Or how about a brain wave-operated video game?

I couldn’t make it last year, but when an email announcement wafted into my inbox this year, I cleared the calendar. This time I wanted to be part of a team and was no longer intimidated by the sad fact that I am not a very good coder (sorry Starter League—more my fault than yours). Instead, I could offer words. What startup couldn’t use a few good words? 

Since 2010, there have been dozens of Science Hack Days held all over the world. This time for extra fun, the Chicago SHD was run concurrently with the International Space Apps Challenge.

Some teams came ready-made, knowing exactly what they wanted to build, though most people were like me: clueless but willing. Remarkably, not only did groups gel around projects by early afternoon, but the work quickly become so riveting, it took coaxing to get us all to take a break on Sunday morning to go see a free planetarium show. It turns out that if you want to think outside the box, it really helps to see beyond the planet. A quick jaunt through the solar system, through the Milky Way, past billions of galaxies to the edge of the known universe clears out all manner of cognitive cobweb. “Shoot for the stars” is just good advice. 

I joined Team Sentio, working on a Space Apps project for the Space Wearables: Fashion Designer to Astronauts challenge. Cosmic style absolutely counts, but we took things a bit deeper, reimagining the space suit in terms both of form and of function. 

There were four of us: Kent, a proud member of The Mars Society and veteran of Mars Desert Reseach Station who has thought deeply about what it would take to live and work far from our lovely ”pale blue dot” planet. Alex, an extraordinarily creative thinker whose annual visits to the Burning Man Festival have reinforced his rather boundary-stretching ideas about perception. Julieta, whose impressive official title—Associate Director, Space Visualization Laboratory, Adler Planetarium—only scratches the surface of a deep interest in senses and sense-making. For my part, I tried to keep up with on-the-fly research, pulling up articles and papers on everything from lateral lines in fish to the impact of toolmaking on the evolution of the human hand. We also had a team mascot: six year-old Maia—by far the cutest one in the picture above. 


The modern space suit can make even the fittest astronaut look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It is a cocoon designed for disaster, keeping out radiation, regulating body temperature, supplying oxygen, facilitating what is delicately referred to as “astronaut hygiene” and protecting against the occasional ping of a stray micrometeorite. All of this, of course, is essential, but it hobbles an astronaut from the main mission: exploration.

We wouldn’t think of sending lovely Maia out to explore her neighborhood sealed in a bulky helmet and gloves, yet this is exactly what we have done to astronauts trying to explore the cosmic neighborhood. Our senses tell us everything from whether the sky is cloudy or clear, humid or dry, hot or cold, raining or snowing, day or night. But put on a space suit and suddenly the steady flood of information we take for granted is either muffled or gone. It is hard to walk, turn one’s head, kneel down to take a closer look or even pick things up. Even sight, the one sense that as Julieta points out allows us access to the heavens from earth, is restricted to a much reduced narrow field of view. 

The team wondered whether there might be a way to redesign the space suit so instead of limiting perception, it increases it. We came up with Sentio, a spacesuit that not only reinstates senses rendered useless in space, but then goes a step beyond, augmenting and extending them for applications that haven’t been needed here on Earth.

There are two parts to the design: physical and sensor-based. We started by rethinking the glove, which meant reexamining the hand: 

The hand is where the mind meets the world. We humans use our hands to build fires and sew quilts, to steer airplanes, to write, dig, remove tumors, pull a rabbit out of a hat. The human brain, with its open-ended creativity, may be the thing that makes our species unique. But without hands, all the grand ideas we concoct would come to nothing but a very long to-do list…

—Carl Zimmer, National Geographic

Darwin was the first to speculate that toolmaking could have played role in developing the shape of the human hand, which is unique among primates and, indeed, unique among all species. It turns out he was right.  Our destiny has literally always been in our hands. Yet while human hands are exquisitely adapted to life on Earth, new hands with new abilities will likely be required for life beyond our planet. For that, evolution will need a jumpstart. 

The Sentio suit glove has two parts: a control panel for the hand itself and a series of snap-on extensions for whatever task needs to be done. Why try to grasp a drill when you can be the drill? For that matter, why stop at hands? Boots can be redesigned for climbing and a prehensile tail added for better balance and grasping. We have an ark-full of nature’s designs all around us for inspiration. (Bio)mimicry is simply the highest form of flattery. 

Organisms capable of changing form turns out to be more the rule than the exception. Many species, from butterflies to frogs, undergo radical transformation from one stage of life to another to adapt to different environments and needs. Although a caterpillar may be well-suited for nibbling milkweed plants, if a Monarch has any hope of flying to Mexico for the winter, it can only do so as a butterfly. Likewise, humans flying to other worlds would be well-served to add shape-shifting to the tool kit.  

The Sentio suit is also fitted out with sensors. A sensor on the outside of the glove, for example, could be coupled to  pressure-triggering mechanism on the inside, turning the glove into a kind of second skin. Likewise, a sensor placed on a drill bit module could be coupled with a sensor in the glove control panel, providing an astronaut with a physical, real-time intuitive sense of the drill bit’s temperature.

An astronaut also could be sensorially attached to a series of little rovers (Kent dubbed them “goslings”), instantly increasing an astronaut’s “footprint” beyond the suit. 

Senses could also be remapped in a sort of synthesia by design. For example,  a sensor measuring cosmic rays could be programmed to tighten a wrist band when conditions were dangerous, thus giving physical sensation to an otherwise invisible experience. Solar wind might be turned into sound. This is data visualization blown out for all the senses, turning abstractions into formats that can be more readily and quickly interpreted. Once you start skipping down this path, the possibilities are endless.

Senses could even be shared and empathy engineered. For example, if an astronaut were to get hurt, a sensory signal could be sent out to others on the team who would instantly feel whether the injury involved an arm or a leg, even if their injured colleague couldn’t speak. 

The Sentio suit is also designed to take better advantage of sight, the one sense that functions in space pretty much as it does on Earth. The surface of the suit is "bedazzled" with a colorful array LEDs that can be programmed communicate identity, state of health, type of work, news of a discovery, danger or just about anything else. This is another example of a taking a cue from nature’s playbook. Bioluminescence is a fairly common form of communication, used by everything from fireflies and creatures of the deep to fungi and algae. 

Perhaps aliens, at least the science fiction kind we know about, look alien for a reason. Why should the forces of evolution—change over time for the survival of the fittest—stop at the stratosphere? 


Ours, of course, was just one of many ideas floating around the room and after 30 hours of deep thinking and imaginative hacking, it was time to present. Among my favorites: 

  • A scheme to trick out a dual control kite with Arduino servos to  gently steer a very small satellite-connected sensor system from its transport ship to the surface of Mars. This team did a lot of kite-flying on the beach and nearly blew us all away with an ad hoc indoor wind tunnel. The system will tested in May using a weather balloon designed to release its payload at 100,000 feet altitude, which just happens to roughly approximate Martian conditions. 
  • Planet Lab: A website-in-development designed to help students—and their teachers—learn science. Only one out of every five high school students in the US demonstrates proficiency in science. There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs, including out-of-date textbooks. School districts typically use the same books for the better part of decade, but science moves at an astronomically faster clip. The site connects kids and teachers to leading science organizations and researchers and includes a database of classroom-ready and beyond-the-classroom projects. 
  • The Wii / Quadcopter / Oculus mashup: Basic research rocks. For no other reason than to demonstrate that they could do it, this team wired a quadcopter drone to a Wii balance board and the drone’s camera to an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The “pilot” can see a drone’s eye view through the headset while operating the drone by shifting weight on the balance board. Quadcopter Quidditch anyone?


A week ago I had no idea I would be interested in any of this. A week ago, I would not have thought that four strangers could come together and engage in such a far-ranging, creative and compelling discussion for hours on end. Or that our brainstorming would cascade into so many different concepts with applications far beyond the range of our mission. Imagine empathically wired teams of emergency first responders or LED baseball caps colorfully registering fan support and disapproval. The rooftops around Wrigley will never be the same.  

Rather than the usual narrow hackathon focus on “pain points” (no Grubhubs for the Moon or Sittercities for Mars here), the teams thought big, played with tech and to quote Ariel Waldman, “instigator” of Science Hack Day, learned ”to manipulate science as just another material.” This is what thinking different is all about and it is pretty wonderful. Just take the first star on the left, then straight on ‘til dawn. Magic every time. 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


• Ariel Waldman on Science Hack Day, San Francisco (video)

• Science Hack Day: Basic Brilliance / TrackerNews Dot to Dot / J.A. Ginsburg

• Science Hack Day 2014 / Sentio Space Hack by Kent Nebergall / Video by Julieta Aguilera

Can Robots Be Created with a Sixth Sense? 

• Lateral Line Helps Fish Determine Sound Direction

• Hexagonal plate skin gives robots sense of touch

• Scientific papers related to Hex-O-Skin

• World Cup 2014: Paraplegics Will Walk Independently in Mind-Controlled Robotic Suits 

• Think Different / Apple ad (video)

Mulling Snow, Climate, Pain Points, Bootstrapping and Chicago’s Advantage


It turns out the snow pack they are so desperate for in California’s Sierra Nevada has instead landed, flake by elegant flake, right here in Chicago this year. It has been yet another shovel-in-hand weekend, with yet another 3 to 6 inches expected on Tuesday. Still, despite the misery and inconvenience, all this freak weather could play to Chicago’s competitive advantage in tech—and most everything else, too. 

Rarely does climate change figure into discussions about tech ecosystems. It should. Everything about tech, from developer talent to data storage to financing, can shift to greener pastures pretty quickly.  A special report on tech startups in the Economist magazine noted 

"…This digital feeding frenzy has given rise to a global movement. Most big cities, from Berlin and London to Singapore and Amman, now have a sizeable startup colony (ecosystem). Between them they are home to hundreds of startup schools (accelerators) and thousands of co-working spaces where cafeinated folk in their 20s and 30s toil hunched over their laptops. All these ecosystems are highly interconnected, which explains why internet entrepreneurs are a global crowd. Like medieval journeymen, they travel from city to city, laptop, not hammer, in hand. A few of them spend a semester with "Unreasonable at Sea", an accelerator on a boat which cruises the world while its passengers code. Anyone who writes code can become an entrepreneur anywhere in the world, says Simon Levene, a venture capitalist in London…” (emphasis added)
California’s extreme drought could, according to experts, turn into a decades or even centuries-long megadrought. Meanwhile, rising sea levels on the East Coast mean even average storms can trigger billion-dollar disasters (see Sandy). This is not good news for anybody, but the most severe costs will be felt locally. Both New York and San Francisco are already dealing with an anti-tech blowback driven by spiraling housing costs ("These 2 cities are now exclusively for rich people", "Tech’s growing problem in San Francisco") The impacts of climate change will make an already bad situation worse. 

There is hardly a spot on the planet that isn’t off-kilter weatherwise. Italy and France are dog-paddling through record floods (seriously not the moment to go Florence.)Australia is sweating through a record summer. The World Economic Forum now ranks extreme weather number 6 on its list of Global Risks, singling out Asia as being particularly vulnerable:

"…Japan’s Tokyo, Manila in the Philippines and China’s Pearl River Delta region—one of the most densely urbanized areas in the world—top Swiss Re’s list of cities most at-risk in terms of population. Only one non-Asian city, Los Angeles, made the top 10.
The insurer named the Pearl River Delta—which includes Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Macau and Guangzhou—as number one when looking at the number of people potentially affected by storm, storm surges and river floods…”

If you are looking for a “pain point,” climate change is the big one, affecting everything from supply chains to blood banks.

As high as Chicago’s snow piles and deep as its pot holes may be, our city may find itself in a better position than most to find opportunity in this rather bleak global weather forecast. Some of the same factors that made Chicago interesting to settlers two centuries ago are still in play today: Lake Michigan, a central location and nearby some of the best farmland in the world. Add to that a deep bench in manufacturing, engineering, architecture and design and a uniquely compelling picture emerges. Today, when it seems as if every city uses the same economic development playbook (accelerators! incubators! investors! universities!), competitive advantage requires a bigger picture perspective. 


Adrian Holovaty’s presentation on bootstrapping at the recent CEC Startup Showcase has sparked considerable discussion on the Built in Chicago blog—and beyond—about the city’s place in the tech universe and how best to measure success. (“Is Chicago’s tech community in search of a new identity?”) Is bootstrap culture our strength? Is it diversity as Matt Moog suggests? Should it be measured in VC investment dollars? 

Almost everything now is either a tech-driven or tech-enabled business, so what really counts is the blend. Positioning the tech sector as an economic savior is disingenuous. The real money in tech is as a value-add. Bits meet atoms. Google is in the thermostat business, while Tesla cheerfully disrupts the auto industry. 
Chicago’s budding bootstrap community, which includes hardware as well as software developers (with considerable overlap between the two) could serve as a much needed catalyst, strengthening the connections between the city’s manufacturing, engineering, design, architecture and tech sectors. In fact, a new co-working space set to open later this month called Catalyze Chicago in the West Loop will prototype a new kind of co-working space for product developers. Its list of advisors is impressive, including software and hardware heavyweights and a few Kickstarter veterans (As Catalyze grows, it would be wonderful to see some women industrial designers and product developers added to the mix.)
The more opportunity for these different worlds to connect, the more potential there is for productive and profitable collaborations. Ironically, the segregation of tech-haves and have-nots causing so much unease on the coasts is also a creative buzzkill. When the best and brightest are shuttled back and forth within the cushy confines of corporate buses and provided company-catered meals morning, noon and night, they end up silo’ed with an ever-narrowing vision of the world. Bootstrappers have to reach out and collaborate. It is their resilient edge. 
I would love to see a sector-bridging public lecture series in Chicago:  ”AIA night at 1871” “Urban Ag Night at 1871” “Kickstarter Night at 1871”  ”Theatre Tech at 1871.” There so much potential yet to be tapped.
Now, we just need someone to invent a self-healing pot hole-impervious asphalt and we’ll really be in business. 
(reprinted from the Built in Chicago blog) 

Glass, Tech and Civilization: The Material that Makes Just About Everything Better

imageI stared at the small glass bottle in the exhibit case for quite a while. Somehow it had survived millennia. Taken out of the case at the Museo del Vetro—the Museum of Glass—on the Italian island of Murano, its specialness would have been obscured by an utterly unremarkable appearance. Spectacular glasswork is part of the Venetian sparkle, its seductive shimmer. Such a small plain bottle. Who made it? What did it hold? How had it managed to navigate the centuries intact? 

It was late winter and the tourist rush was still off in the distance, so I had the Museum mostly to myself. Murano, too, for that matter. I strolled narrow streets festooned with colorful laundry hung to dry overhead, nibbled on the most delicious cookies from a local bakery, listened to seabirds and felt  the warmth the fast-approaching spring. It was easy to slip back in time—maybe not millennia, but certainly a few centuries into the past—to a time when even the plainest of glass jars was still something to treasure. In a pre-plastic world, glass provided secure, transparent storage. In Italy, of course, form and function are incomplete without beauty. The little bottle was a light translucent lavender. 

Last fall, I made a glass bowl of my own at a workshop given by Chicago’s Ignite Glass Studio (a particularly popular offering through the Chicago Ideas Week festival). Glass, it turns out, is neither a liquid or a solid, but an amorphous solid, which means it has properties of both. The basic recipe is simple—silica (sand), soda ash and lime—but it can be chemically manipulated in the most remarkable ways, adding color, thermal properties and resilience (the newest version of Corning’s Gorilla glass for smartphones and tablets can be bent without breaking). Glass can be molded in a kiln, “floated” on tin sheets to make windows, rolled, spun and even 3D printed

Blowing glass, though, has an almost alchemical magic to it. The glassblower literally breathes life into the form by providing a bubble of air and must keep the form alive by constantly spinning a heavy metal rod. What starts as an unpromising molten blob attached at one end slowly transforms into something delicate, translucent, ethereal. It takes brute strength and a delicate touch, neither of which I possess, but my master teacher deftly filled in the gaps. 

The video below is a demonstration from the Corning Glass Museum. Watch  all the way through and you’ll be joining in with the videographer exclaiming early and often, “Wow!”

My little bowl was nowhere near as elaborate, but still fills me with wonder. It turns out it doesn’t matter whether the glass is half-filled or half-empty. The point is there is a glass. 


No one material has been at the center of more disruptive innovation than glass. Edison’s lightbulb, the archetypal symbol of innovation, required a glassblower to blow the bulb. 

Centuries earlier, Galileo, who ground his own lenses, pointed his telescope toward the heavens, boldly looked where no one had looked so clearly before, and profoundly altered our view of the cosmos and our place in it. The Space Age had begun. Similarly, microscopes made the invisible visible, leading to new theories of disease and a much deeper understanding of how bodily systems worked. These tools of superhuman sight led to insights that changed the world.

Eyeglasses, which date back as far as 13th century, did not bestow  superhuman powers, but vastly improved countless lives by bringing the day-to-day into focus. Eight centuries later, a project to make affordable glasses in Africa just won a prestigious award from the Siemens Foundation for empowering technologies. A single eyeglass machine carted from village to village by a trained operator can churn out thousands of pairs at a cost of less than one dollar per to manufacture That’s not just life-changing, but potentially society-changing.

Back to the 19th century, Edison’s lightbulb almost literally lit the way for a revolution in electronics that would define much of the 20th century. Vacuum tubes, which made radio, television and sound recording possible, also required glassblowers in their development. Even today, many university and corporate labs have a glassblowing studios on premises to fabricate equipment and components. 

The story of Steve Jobs’ discovery of a failed glass product developed by Corning in the early 1950s is the stuff of Silicon Valley legend. In a mind-boggling six weeks, the company manufactured enough of its super-tough Gorilla glass to launch Apple’s first iPhone, ushering in the era of the touchscreen. Tablets and smart phones are just the beginning. Thin bendable glass is the next gadget frontier: 

"…it also means an entire galaxy of new types of gadgets that haven’t even been conceived of yet. Imagine an in-car display that ripples and wraps itself across your dashboard, or some sort of super-charged Magic Eightball that is simply a sphere with a 360-degree display. These gadgets are still a ways off, but the likes of Corning, Apple, Samsung, and LG are skating to where the puck is going. In 20 years, you won’t be able to believe that the world of gadgets was once so boxy.

—John Brownlee / Fast Company Design


Modern cities glisten with glass. Buildings soar ever taller, reflecting the sun, the weather, each other. But there is much more to a building’s glass surface than an elegant shimmer. Glass can let in light, add color and provide thermal insulation. Now, with integrated solar panels, a building’s skin can also generate electricity.  

Imagine:  a city full of elegant buildings that double as power plants. Let’s raise a glass to that. From ancient perfume bottles and stargazing telescopes to the lights of Broadway and a clean energy future, glass just seems to have a way of bringing out the best civilization has to offer. 


• For the Files: Glass, Tech and Civilization bibliography

A Tale of Two Maps and Why You Can’t Teach an Old Grid New Tricks


Oh b’rrrrrr. It’s January in Chicago and it’s snowy and cold outside. No news there. But when the temperature dips from the merely miserable into the realm of record-breaking arctic awful, it is the only news that matters. Snow at least can be shoveled. But 15 degrees below zero—with a wind chill “real feel” of 40 below—requires a full scale tactical retreat. Unless, of course, you happen to be a polar bear at Lincoln Park Zoo, in which case, it feels just like home. Or it should. It’s a bit of the North Pole come to visit.

In weather-speak, the polar vortex is a hurricane of frigid air that swirls around the arctic circle. For yet undetermined reasons, it weakened, flinging off a huge plume of coldness (or, as the Weather Channel’s Mike Seidel put it, “a big blob of bitter”) that will soon cover half of North America. Despite the obvious irony, many suspect global warming probably played a role in this. . 

It is certainly to blame for the record-breaking heat currently roasting  Australia where temperatures in the 120s (F) have become all too common.

"…The week-long heatwave that has gripped central Australia has ensured 2014 has started where 2013 left off.

In its annual climate statement yesterday, the weather bureau reported that Australia experienced its hottest year on record last year, with average mean temperatures 1.2C above the long-term average of 21.8C. Last year also recorded the hottest day on record, the warmest winter day and the warmest January and September since records began more than 100 years ago. Sydney and Hobart both recorded their hottest days on record…”

— “Brisbane braces for scorching heatwave” / The Australian, 1/4/2014

Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, looks at longer range patterns for climate trends. 

"What matters is this decade is warmer than the last decade, and that decade was warmer than the decade before. The planet is warming. The reason it’s warming is because we are pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."

—More Extreme Weather Events Forecast / NASA 

The result is record-smashing weather. While England has been battered this winter by a series of storms whose high winds and torrential downpours have led to catastrophic flooding and the Philippines is still in shock from its brush with the largest typhoon to make landfall in recorded history, California, number one for agriculture in the US, is entering its fourth year of drought.

Too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry, too much. Today’s high in Chicago is predicted to be the lowest ever: 10 degrees below zero. In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, north of the arctic circle, it will be a balmy 5 degrees above. What’s wrong with this picture?


Whipped into a preparedness frenzy by wall-to-wall weather coverage, most area schools have extended the winter break by at least a day and those who can are working from home or taking the day off. For the next day and a half, I will mostly be in the cozy cocoon of my kitchen. As long as the wifi holds, I am in business. 

A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses from Michigan to Toronto to Maine weren’t so lucky when a record-breaking ice storm made hash of the power grid. Tree limbs snapped cables and transformers shorted out. It took over a week to make repairs, with crews  from all over the country coming to the rescue. Repair costs are still being tallied but will likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, which at least in Maine, will likely be passed along to consumers. Vermont is angling for some federal aid. No matter who covers that bill, it doesn’t include the cost to businesses that were forced to close, or property damage from frozen water pipes, or the expense of having to buy generators or move to a temporary shelter. 

The kicker is that it could happen again. The repaired grid is just a vulnerable as ever. Not only ice, but fire, heat (see Australia), lightning, wind and heavy rains can bring down a grid. So can a good solar storm. Or terrorists. 

…“We are woefully unprepared for any large-scale geographic outage that might take place over an extended period of time,” explained Joel Gordes, research director for the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, an independent group that assesses the danger of such attacks and what it would take to thwart them.  He said that while some generators and transmission lines probably would survive such an attack, they might not be able to muster enough juice to reboot the grid, which experts call a “black start.”  And if critical equipment is damaged beyond repair, it might be necessary to transport replacement units long distances—an undertaking that would be difficult, if communications systems were also seriously damaged by the attack….

— "American Blackout": Four Major Real-Life Threats to the Electric Grid / National Geographic

It seems impossible, but it gets worse. Beyond the vulnerability and inefficiency of the grid (an estimated 7% of electricity is literally lost in transmission), it is in poor repair. Most of the transformers in the US were installed 20 to 30 years ago and need to be replaced, but the pool of transformer-savvy workers is shrinking fast: 

"…It is a fact that technical and skilled workers that truly understand the ins and outs of power transformers are approaching retirement. Their important skills and talents are fading from the work force. This diminishing resource includes electrical engineers who in past decades had selected this field of study in college, but now are pursuing more alluring careers in new fields like smart-grid automation and computer science.

Concerning manufacturing and repair, designing and fabricating transformers is a labor-intensive activity requiring special skills acquired from years and years of hands-on experience. There are simply too few mentors providing the necessary apprenticeships. Training costs have also risen.

The labor force committed to maintaining and servicing these transformers is experiencing the same labor and skills shortages as the fabricators working in the shops. This includes special skills in fluid processing, electrical testing, vacuum filling, and oil testing – skills that can take years to develop including rigid safety requirements.

"The Perfect Storm in Transformer Maintenance" /  Bob Rasor, SD Myers, Inc. / Electric Energy Online

Why keep pouring good money after bad? 


Later this year, when the ratepayers of Maine find themselves on the hook paying for a power outage that has already cost them so much, some will look to California for a better idea—one that could literally change the balance of power. The key piece of the puzzle turns out to be a car battery.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, also happens to be Chairman of SolarCity, a company that leases solar panels. Adding a Tesla S battery to the lease package allows customers to store power generated on their rooftops during the day to be used at night. By the time all the subsidies are accounted for, the customer gets more reliable power for less money and the SolarCity can still make a profit over the life the lease. 

There are still a few hurdles when it comes to hooking up the main power grid: 

"…PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – California three big utilities – however, have argued to regulators that such subsidized storage systems would saddle other customers with the cost of maintaining the power grid and thus they should be charged connection fees. In California, homeowners already receive a credit for the solar electricity they send to the grid that is used to pay for the power they use when the sun isn’t shining. If homeowners can hook up batteries to their solar arrays, the utilities asked, what’s to stop them gaming the grid by storing electricity from the transmission system when rates are low and then selling it back to the utilities when rates are high?…"

—”Why You Might Buy Electricity From Elon Musk Some Day”  / Todd Woody / The Atlantic

Never mind that electric companies have already gamed the system by charging more for energy when demand is high no matter what it costs to procure. Given the massive upgrades required for the grid, it would simply be a smarter move to “pivot,” as they say in tech, and rethink the business model altogether. The shift to distributed generation not only reduces the need for large central power plants, but also the need for massive regional grids to distribute the power that is no longer generated by those plants. Instead, microgrids could be configured for a building or a street or a neighborhood, boosting efficiency, cutting costs, decreasing vulnerability and increasing resilience. What’s not to love? 

For the time being, the California Public Utilities Commission is recommending that connection fees only be applied when a battery system can store more power than can be produced by a solar array (otherwise, the battery could be charged up when grid electricity rates are low and the  power sold back when rates are high). 

The bottom line is that no one can afford the old way of doing things. It’s too expensive and it’s wrecking the climate. Renewable energy plus battery storage plus microgrids equals lower bills and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And, if we are lucky, a future where the polar vortex knows where it belongs. 

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


Ice storm most ‘devastating’ event to hit Toronto’s trees, climatologist says / Tim Alamenciak / Toronto Star

U.S. Electrical Grid on the Edge of Failure / Jeff Tollefson and Nature magazine  / Scientific American

Separating Fact from Fiction In Accounts of Germany’s Renewables Revolution / Amory Lovins / RMI

Europe’s Fossil Fuel Exit — 30% Of Fossil Fuel Power Capacity To Close By 2017, UBS Analysts Project  / CleanTechnica

How Microgrids are Bolstering the Nation’s Power Infrastructure / Justin Gerdes / Smithsonian magazine

Elon Musk: A Giga Factory For Electric Vehicle Batteries Needs To Be Built /  Dana Hull / San Jose Mercury News

When Bad Things Happen to Good Content: Form(at), Function, Perspective and Possibilities


On the surface, MOOCs—Massive Online Open Courses—look like such a good idea. A year ago, startups Udacity and Coursera were Silicon Valley darlings and every major university was rushing to be part of a movement promising to level an educational playing field distorted by spiraling costs and limited access. By digitally repackaging top tier college courses for free online distribution, the pendulum was supposed to swing toward a true meritocracy defined by hard work and talent. 

That remains a worthy goal, despite recent studies revealing Massive Online Drop-out Rates. Beyond technical and logistical glitches, it was probably folly to think that almost any topic could be MOOCicized. Like all new formats, there is a learning curve. This one for MOOCs just happened to be a little steeper than tech-giddy investors and promoters first thought. 

Over the last few months, I have tried three MOOCs, two through Coursera (Northwestern’s "Understanding Media by Understanding Google" and University of Pennsylvania’s "An Introduction to Marketing") and one from Udacity (The Design of Everyday Things”). All three were a bust and largely for the same reason: There were better ways for me to learn the material on my own.

Features such as discussion forums promoted as a way to provide a social dimension to learning often ended up doing just the opposite. In a recent NPR story, Tracy Wheeler, an educational consultant who tried five MOOCs (and completed three) talked of disappointment and frustration:  

…She had read the professor’s book and was excited and upbeat.

"I thought I’d go in deeper and come out wanting to move to India and help her with one of her experiments," she says.

…(S)he says she hated being chained to the computer screen and found the entire MOOC experience mechanistic, dreary and ineffectual.

"I’m a very social person. There was nothing to grasp on to," she says. "There were no people; there was no professor. In a sense you’re just learning in this void. … I would come away from my computer just kind of despondent and feeling really reduced somehow."

She says the courses’ online forums — the key support structure for many MOOCs — were isolating and largely absent of meaningful back-and-forth — or joy.

"It was like going up and scrawling your name on a graffiti wall. You know, there was no sense of community…"

—The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course / NPR

It turns out that it is not easy to digitally recreate a real life learning experience. It also risks recreating the flaws. 


University courses are designed to fit university schedules, so a MOOC can stretch for weeks on end even if the material doesn’t support it. The Coursera classes were an all too accurate flashback to my college days, where I quickly learned to avoid large quiz-addled survey courses (the MOOCs of their day) at all costs. They were almost always bloated and boring, designed to knock the stuffing out even the most interesting subjects. Clearly, if I was going to make it though to graduation, I needed another approach. By the time I was a senior, I had maneuvered my way into several graduate seminars by finding good teachers, then semester after semester signing up for their increasingly higher level courses. It was basically “Jeopardy: The University Edition” (I’ll take Soviet Geography for $800!”)—and how I ended up with a degree in East European history and a minor in fine art photography. A gifted teacher can bring depth to almost any subject and in the process also teach how to learn.

By nature and profession journalists are lifelong learners. They ask questions, do research and try to make sense of things. The big perk is what you get to discover along the way. I had no idea, for example, that I would become so deeply interested in microbiology or energy until I was assigned stories on those beats. My experience in print (newspapers, magazines, books), broadcast, digital and exhibitions, also taught me something about packaging information.

Content is clay. Almost anything can be translated into or out of a digital format and endlessly reused, remixed, recut, recombined  and repackaged. The challenge, then, becomes one of matching format(s) to needs. 


So why have MOOCs largely flopped while TED talksInstructables and Khan Academy videos flourished? It is the same reason YouTube has become my go-to resource for everything from “How do I make a GIF?” to “How do I install batteries in a Swiffer WetJet?” They get right to the point, delivering useful and compelling information in a readily accessible format. MOOCs on the other hand, tend to get leggy and lose focus over the weeks and months it takes to complete a course..

The technical glitches plaguing MOOCs will eventually be worked out, but equally pressing is the need to develop metrics for determining what subjects are best suited the format and identifying the characteristics of a well-produced MOOC. Udacity is already pivoting from its original model, taking on corporate partners, shifting focus toward training and charging tuition. 

A few thoughts:

1) Make sure the format adds value:  Ironically, the Udacity course on user-friendly product design was presented through very confusing user interface. After a few hours or fiddling around, I gave up, figuring it would be faster to read the suggested text by designer Don Norman and scout YouTube for some of his lectures. Indeed, I would have much preferred seeing Norman, the Sir David Attenborough of his field, share his insights in a BBC-style documentary. Similarly, I didn’t have the patience for the Google course where questions such as “Can you imagine your life without Google?” filled the discussion board. There are plenty of articles, books and videos covering the same material. Just Google Google.

2) More teaching, less dazzling: MOOCs often present a checklist for each class consisting of several short videos, podcasts and article links. That’s a lot of jumping around. It is usually more effective to use one or two formats (a video lecture, a narrated slide set or a text excerpt) to cover key material. Teaching is a kind of storytelling and clarity counts. Everything extra belongs in the reference bibliography. 

3) Design the course to fit the material: If the content can be presented in one or two lectures rather than ten, don’t pad it. A MOOC doesn’t have to be semester-long or a quarter-long or a half-semester-long. It can be as short or long as it needs to be. The design course with Don Norman was set up as a two-week sampler to test out the format. Here is hoping the bugs can be fixed. 

4) Cut anything that isn’t essential or contributing value:  Discussion forums have developed a spotty record so may not always be necessary. 

5) Consider other ways to package the information: For example, create a course-specific digital textbook containing the same content. Off-the-shelf digital platforms such as Inkling or MAZ can accommodate weblinks as well as video embeds and graphics. Students would still need to go to the course site to upload homework and take exams, but the digital book format could make it easier to search for specific information, review material and see the arc of the course. Students could bookmark and highlight content and write notes in the digital margins. This is an “and” not an “or,” so there could be small fee ($10 to $20) for students who would prefer this format. 


The brilliance of digital media is its endless flexibility. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, content naturally wants to nest, so a blog post can be…

  • linked in an article…
  • that’s quoted in a digital book…
  • that’s printed out as a physical book…
  • that’s scanned and turned into a 3D print of a book
  • that’s photographed and photoshopped and turned into an art element…
  • that’s used in a video…
  • that’s discussed in a podcast
  • that’s embedded in yet another blog post…

Around and around it goes, one big glorious ever-evolving mesh of information. Which is why it so baffling that the translational quality of digital information is so often overlooked. Content can become a kind of stranded asset, frozen into a single format, its potential value never fully realized.

Consider the conference video. In the wake of TED, every conference now deploys squadrons of videographers to capture every precious talk and break-out session. Yet unless the conference is as heavily promoted and networked as TED, the number of viewers for any single video typically tops out between a few dozen to a few hundred. When videos are uploaded to a proprietary player on a conference website rather than to YouTube, it can difficult, if not impossible, to embed them in articles and blogs. They are less likely to be shared. On YouTube, new content is added at an astonishing rate of 100 hours per minute, so videos can easily get lost in the shuffle there without some smart tagging promotion  The upshot: thousands of dollars invested in content production for paltry results. 

The picture can change dramatically when digital content is seen and valued as a mutable asset.

1) Provide multiple ways to access content: Videos require a time commitment and tethering to a computer. It is easy for viewers to get distracted, flipping through email, checking social media, web surfing and doing actual work. Anything more than a few minutes long is unlikely to watched all the way through. Most conference videos, however, can also function brilliantly as audio podcasts, which can be listened to on a train, in a car, while working out, etc. Strip off an audio track, repackage it as a podcast and voíla! two digital assets for nearly the price of one. 

2) The more urls, the better: Each video or audio podcast should have its own url. MIT’s Emtech 2013 conference did not do this, which was really unfortunate. Videos were uploaded as two batches, one for each day of the conference, each batch given a collective url. The videos were also uploaded to a proprietary player so it was impossible to share an individual talk or embed a video. Per TED, sharing content after an event can help brand and promote the event, so it was a fumbled opportunity. 

3) Mine and repackage content as a value add: Every  conference and trade show is a gusher of information that can be repackaged in a variety of ways, including a digital reference book—designed as a must-have for anyone interested in a particular industry. The basic recipe is simple: Start by asking each speaker to provide a short digital bibliography (links and pdfs) along with the standard bio submitted for the event program. Pair this content with video recorded during the conference (embed video and audio versions and also provide links for easy sharing). Include a 300 word summary of each talk and provide a linked list of related talks from the conference. Add a table of contents, an index and an intro overview essay or two. The cost can be wrapped into the conference fee. The digital reference book can also be made available for a separate fee. Indeed, such a timely industry-focused reference would make a good supplement to a university course or a MOOC. Additional revenue can be generated through trade show vendor content, created as a separate “advertorial” section.  


…it is nearly impossible not to see the potential to mine and reconfigure content everywhere. I see a lavishly produced coffee table book and want to deconstruct it for a series of digital reference books. Each format plays to a different strength: The heft and gloss of the book are designed to make a statement while the digital content can make a difference.

Similarly, the Smithsonian is currently reimagining its museum collections through the use of 3D scans. A museum is itself a format with physical objects as content. The scans make it possible to transcend the original package,  liberating the content so it can be used, shared and distributed in entirely new ways:  


The grand MOOC vision of a world where anyone with a desire to learn can learn about anything, undeterred by barriers of cost and access, may still be off in the distance. But it is getting closer. We have the tools. It is just a matter of figuring out how better to use them.  

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


It Takes an Economist: Tallying Natural Capital


From the Archives: This post was originally published on July 5, 2011, on a platform called webdoc, which is no longer in operation

A little advice for governments, NGO’s social entrepreneurs and anyone else hoping to help the “bottom billion” live better lives: Unless and until ecosystems services are taken into account, all efforts at poverty reduction will fail.

That’s the blunt, sobering message banker Pavan Sukhdev delivered in an address to the London School of Economics last April:

"Half to 90% of the livelihood incomes of the poor…are actually coming to them from nature. So if you are careless about managing these resources, or indeed the access of the poor to those resources, then you are, in fact, cutting at the very root of the livelihoods of the poor."

Protecting what has been called natural capital—the services nature provides—can be as direct as safeguarding a watershed, or as abstract as defending a rainforest. The value of the forest extends far beyond its trees and atomospheric carbon-absorbing capabilities. Above the forest, an “aerial river” forms that cycles freshwater critical to the survival of subtropical grain belt farms downwind. 

Over a billion people in the developing world rely on fish as their main source of animal protein, so ailing oceans and faililng fisheries are at once a natural tragedy and a human calamity. Decades of industrial-scale ocean trawler-fishing, clear-cutting mangroves for shrimp farms and the loss of coral reefs from pollution, disease, a warming climate and acidifying oceans have left millions of people hungry and out of work.

Their options are limited. They cannot survive where they are and often have nowhere else to go. 

The  economic gains of such rapacious fishing and shrimp farming tend to be short-lived and, once government subsidies are figured in, a financial wash, or worse, for local and regional economies. 

GDP as a measure of economic health is simply too narrow and flawed a tool, says Sukhdev. A full accounting—one that includes ecosystems services in the mix—tells a very different story.

In other words, the books are as cooked as the climate.

Assigning a value to what has always been free is not easy, so the G8+5 commissioned TEEB, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, naming Sukdev, a Deutsch Bank veteran, as its Study Leader. Its mission: to describe, quantify and propose mechanisms for capturing the worth of nature’s largesse.

Over the last four years, TEEB, which is hosted by the United Nations Environmental Program, has produced a series of reports aimed at a key players: national and local policymakers, the business sector and private citizens through its Bank of Natural Capital website.

Connecting the dots between environmental and economic health is about shifting incentives—the “enabling conditions—into better balance.”The sheer waste from wrong-headed development schemes and business-as-usual practices is staggering,” notes Sukdev. 

Each year, the top 3,000 global companies use an estimated $2.2 trillion worth of ecosystems services. Add in private and public sector consumption and “…you end up with something like upwards of $6 trillion per annum in social costs imposed by business-as-usual. That’s like 1/10 of the global economy,” says Sukdhev.

Atlhough the economist strongly believes in policy-driven solutions, changing course quickly will require a strong buy-in from the private sector, which accounts for 70% of the global economy and nearly 80% of employment. It would be in their best interests. The “free” stuff is running out.

Ecosystems & Epidemiology

TEEB’s list of ecosystems services is a long one, from double-duty mangroves that serve as fish nurseries and storm protection and double-duty rainforests that soak up carbon and regulate local climate, to plant compounds with medical potential, waste water-filtering swamps and soil microorganisms essential for crops health

Pathogen containment is another, often overlooked, benefit.

According to a study published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has triggered an increase in malaria cases. Presented with acres upon acres of puddle-prone habitat in which to lay eggs, the malarial mosquito population did just that and their blood-sucking numbers exploded. The economy took a hit as well from people who were either too sick to work, or preoccupied with taking care of family members.

A warmer climate has also provied a boon for all sorts of insect vectors, including ticks. More survive through the winter and ranges have expanded. 

If you happen to be a moose in North America, this is potentially fatal news. In the old days, a single animal could easily pick up 30,000 “winter” ticks in the fall. But istead of falling off and dying in the snow come spring, ticks are landing on bare ground and surviving. Earlier thaws have also meant a longer tick breeding season. Now, some moose have been found with as many as 160,000 ticks. They literally are having the blood sucked right out them.

Back on the human medical beat, the tick that carries Lyme Disease also carries babesia and the Powassan virus and the incidence of all three diseases is on the rise. 

Babesia, a parasite causing an illness similar to malaria, is particularly worrisome because asymptomatic blood donors can contaminate the blood supply.

If that were not enough bad news, a single tick can deliver multiple pathogens, causing simultaneous illnesses, making diagnosis and treatment tricky.

Other strains of babesia affect cattle. In fact, babesiosis is among the most serious diseases threatening livestock all over the world and there is no vaccine.

Babesia was eradicated in the US during the 1940s, but veterinarians say it could easily stage a comeback. Ticks are starts to show resistance to the chemicals used to protect cows.The cost for managing for the first year of an outbreak is estimated $1.3 billion.

Just add it to the natural captial tally…

— J A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


Pavan Suhkdev’s website

• Global Climate Change and Infectious Diseases / NEJM, Emily K. Shuman, M.D.

• Deforestation and Malaria in Mâncio Lima County, Brazil / CDC, Sarah H. Olson, Ronald Gangnon, Guilherme Abbad Silveira, and Jonathan A. Patz

Riders of the River / Texas Tick Riders (video) 

Beyond Measure: da Vinci’s Genius, Peripheral Vision, the Prepared Mind, Metric Traps and Hacking the Filter Bubble


…Leonardo da Vinci was the first in long line of scientists who focused on the patterns interconnecting basic structures and processes of living systems. Today, this approach is called ‘systemic thinking.’ This, in my eyes, is the essence of what Leonardo meant by farsi universale. Freely translating his statement into modern scientific language, I would rephrase it this way: ‘For someone who can perceive interconnecting patterns, it is easy to be a systemic thinker.

— Fritjoj Capra, author, The Science of Leonardo

While the best—which is to say the most privileged—minds of his generation were drilled into complacent conformity, studying for tests to prove they had interpreted the classics “correctly,” Leonardo, a bastard offspring denied entrance to university, was left to think for himself. 

Wandering the Tuscan hills, he learned about nature from nature. And when it was time to get a job, he took a position as a sculptor’s apprentice in Florence. Long before anyone had heard of STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)—much less STEAM (just add Art)—Leonardo’s self-directed education was steeped in it. He was Maker’s maker, an imaginative inventor, a visionary artist. 

Centuries later, we still marvel at da Vinci’s brilliance—and that of his polymath kindred spirits, from Ben Franklin to Buckminster Fuller to Steve Jobs. All intuitively understood the importance and serendipity of peripheral vision: an awareness of what’s happening at the edges. Theirs were the kind of “prepared minds” that chance so famously favors.  

You would think we would want to do everything we possibly could to follow in such fortunate footsteps. Instead, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, led by ever-more powerful—and profitable—analytical tools designed to filter, slot, slice, dice, separate and blinder. Everything that can possibly be scored and ranked, including "Klout," has been. The metrics too often become the mission: the tail wagging the dog.

Peripheral vision, by its nature, is metric-defiant, specializing in kismet connections, collections of stray facts, flashes of insight and epiphanies that can be years in the making. It is the how and the why a college dropout—Jobs—could sit in on an obscure calligraphy class and, years later, draw on the experience to spark a revolution in digital publishing. 

Peripheral vision is also the key to solving the nine-dot puzzle which inspired the term, “thinking outside the box.” It is the essence of "think different." 



"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," famously noted former Facebook data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher in a 2011 BusinessWeek interview. “That sucks.” 

Well, yes, it does. It may be a slight step up, perhaps, from the the test-cramming so prevalent in Leonardo’s day, but still a rather disappointing, though lucrative, use of talent.  

"Search Engine Optimization"—SEO—has become a multi-bazillion dollar industry, a never-ending keyword-and-ad-based competition to capture the top, most-clickable spots on a Google search page. 

Each click online contributes to our individual profiles, analyzed constantly by social media sites and search engines for targeting ad sales. Bizarrely, so detailed has the profiling become that two people using the same identical search terms are likely to pull up two different lists of links. We have become trapped in "filter bubbles" of an algorithm’s making. 

Quite literally—and scarily—we are no longer on the same page, nor are we free to see all there is to see. A wall of metrics has blocked the view. 


A few years ago, I developed a news aggregator as a demo project for a small, independent spin-off of called InSTEDD (named for Dr. Larry Brilliant’s TED wish—a double pun on TED and Early Disease Detection). 

The TrackerNews Project’s beat covered health issues (microbial to planetary), humanitarian response and technologies relevant to both. Its mission was to bring a multidisciplinary perspective. For example, since most infectious diseases are zoonotic (affecting multiple species, including humans), most public health crises have a veterinary component. A country’s demographic profile has huge implications for its economy. Extreme weather affects food supplies. And, of course, climate change affects everything. 

Working with a small budget as a side project to the organization’s main mission—developing digital tools to improve public health and disaster response—TrackerNews was perfectly positioned to experiment. In the era of Digg, we didn’t care how many hits a particular link tallied. Popularity wasn’t our guiding metric: context and connection were. 

The site was loosely modeled after one of the first major news aggregators, The Drudge Report: three columns with news stories snaking up and down as they cycled through. Instead of singleton articles, suites of related links would cycle through together. A breaking news story might be paired with research papers, videos, archival articles, interviews, relevant technology websites and book links. 

Long before Pinterest, we included small photos and short content descriptions with each link. Each link tagged for a searchable database. Later, we added overview blog posts to provide another way to access the information.


We also experimented with a personal aggregation tool, where it was possible to generate as many categories and sub-categories as needed; move elements by drag’n’drop anywhere on the page; and clone individual links for slotting into multiple categories.

While TrackerNews was focused on bridging silos, the personal aggregation tool was designed  for special projects and collaborations: a kind of public bookmarking, providing context, in a format designed to maximize at-a-glance utility. 


TrackerNews put the human algorithm back into the mix. Search engines are programmed to skew toward content that either new, popular, cleverly tagged for SEO or flat out paid for. That doesn’t always line up with what may be the most relevant and useful information. Unless or until Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy-champion computer, comes online, it takes human insight to bring contextual value. There is still a filter bubble, but the metrics are determined by human users, rather than calculated for them by machines. 

Although TrackerNews developed a loyal following of UN’ers, NGOs and energy wonks—and I developed a bit of a reputation as a general “go to” reference—the project was more proof-of-concept than a game-changer. I kept the twitter feed going after we closed down the demo, and shifted the blog into this tumblr, which is now more of a personal blog. 


I have never really stopped thinking about the issues that TrackerNews tried to address: contextual utility, bridging disciplines, the human algorithm, collaboration, peripheral vision, poking holes in search engine filter bubbles. 

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I created a spin-off blog—For the filesas a kind of TrackerNews Lite to try make  some sense of all the stray links piling up in my Pocket account. Daily forays through aggregators Zite and Flipboard, various social media, news sites and searches had left me with digital ADD. This, I thought, would be a way to connect some dots: each post a mini-bibliography of two to five links. 

For the files posts are really quite fun to write, a daily wander among the peripheral in all its non sequitur serendipitous glory. So far, it’s covered everything from a climate-changing Pleistocene asteroid, Chinese language apps, a Robot-a-looza and Woody Allen’s prescient take on the Internet of things.

But the limitations of the format, a tumblr blog, quickly made me long for the TrackerNews aggregation tool that never made it beyond prototype.

Sure, few of us will ever match Leonardo’s gifts as a great systems thinker, but with the right tools to help organize information, it would be at least a little easier to see patterns and bask in the glitters of insight. 

Pinterest, Evernote and my much adored Pocket all have their charms for gathering, organizing and sharing digital treasure, but there is still room for improvement. My specs wish list for an aggregation tool:

• generates as many categories and sub-categories as required, each with its own shareable url within a master template

• accommodates all types of digital data  

• Individual links, sub-categories and categories can be moved by drag’n’drop

• individual links can be cloned for inclusion in multiple categories

• no limit for descriptive copy 

• discussion threads

• maximum at-a-glance utility 

• content scraping for a Flipboard / Zite-style presentation on tablets

• public and private options 

• ???


The above quote has been cited so often, it has become a meme. From Google to Twitter to Facebook to Tumblr, personal data are regularly traded for services. The fairness of the deal, however, can become murky when data are used to determine access to content and opportunities. The line between the convenience of personalization and unfairness of segregation can be a fine one.

Machine learning tools are designed to tailor content to an individual’s interests. Past choices determine future selections. Incremental changes, however, can quickly add up to distortions. For example, the Zite account on my iPhone delivers more tech news than the one on my iPad, which “thinks” I am more interested in renewable energy stories. It is a daily reminder that people identifying the same set of interests don’t always access the same information. 

Metrics, of course, can only measure what they have been designed to measure. There is much that is simply beyond measure. Yet the relentless competition for “clicks,” combined with data mining and the linearity of machine learning have led us down a narrow path where focus trumps vision.

Anatomically, the area of focus is just 3% of the visual field. The other 97% is peripheral vision, providing both awareness and context. Why would limit ourselves to such thin slice of all there is to see and know? 

To quote Leonardo: 

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

— J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews


RELATED: (since text embedded videos do not appear on the tumblr dashboard or iOS app, links have also been provided) 

• Leonardo da Vinci: Eco Designer and Systems Thinker / Fritjof Capra (video) 

• When in Roma…On the Way to the Piazza Navona: China, Africa & The Lessons of Leonardo / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog

STEM TO STEAM / RISD (website)

• 'You've got to find what you love,' Jobs says / text of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address

“Think Different” / Steve Jobs narrates “The Crazy Ones” commerical / (video)

• Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles” / TED talk  (video)

• The Information Diet: You Are What You Read…Really (so read this) / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog

Clay Johnson, “Is SEO Killing America?” / Tools of Change conference (video)

Who Owns the Future? / Jaron Lanier (book) 

• Who Owns The Future? | Keen On… / TechCrunch interview with Jaron Lanier (video)

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