Category: technology

Fun with 3D Printing

When we were in Chicago, I took Tomas and DC to a special 3D Printing session, where you got the basics of how to design something in 3D and then made a thing of your own and printed it. It was a lot of fun, and we all had a good time. Tomas really liked it, and he’s taken time since then to teach himself how to use Blender. He started by following some tutorials on YouTube, and he’s branched out into animation now, as well.

For his art project, he decided he’d like to create a lightsaber in Blender and then 3D print it. We have a 3D printer at the university, and we’ve been looking into potentially having one at the library, so this seemed like an excellent opportunity to test one out. It’s one thing to go to a demo on 3D printing. How hard would it be when there wasn’t someone there holding my hand?

Pretty darn easy, it turns out.

I don’t know how people did things before the internet. I mean, I know (having lived pre-internet), but I’m continually reminded how the internet has changed our lives. When I go driving to a new place, I never worry about getting lost or remembering directions. I’ve got Google Maps on my phone to keep track of all of that for me. And when I have a 3D printer I’ve never used before, there are tons of guides online for how to do just about anything with it. And when I wonder what I can print, there’s websites like Thingiverse with a slew of models, all read and waiting.

We printed Tomas’s lightsaber. It went off without a hitch. We’ve printed other things we found on Thingiverse. Models and puzzle boxes. There’s something really strange and exhilarating to see an item online, want it, and be able to print it out as soon as you’d like. I try to remember what life was like when I was 14. Early 90s. That was in the early days of AOL. Dial up modems. Seeing a single picture online took a long time. Compare that with today, and it makes me wonder what things will look like when Tomas is around 40.

Crazy.

In any case, I now have some experience with a Flashforge Finder. By no means a high-end printer, but definitely enough to learn the ropes and take one out for a test spin. Would I want to own one? Not yet, I don’t think. There are a lot of cool things to print out, but I haven’t seen so many that makes me think I’d want to keep churning them out all the time. Especially not if there were a printer in the area where I knew I could go to print something when I wanted to. (Which, obviously, there is.)

If I wanted to design models and test them out, or prototype things, however? This would definitely be appealing. And it’s only going to get more refined from here.

Exciting times indeed.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

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Your Data Goes Way Beyond Facebook

One of the big stories this morning is that Cambridge Analytica, the firm behind the Facebook data scandal around the 2016 election, is going bankrupt. The company has issued a statement, claiming they did nothing illegal:

“Despite Cambridge Analytica’s unwavering confidence that its employees have acted ethically and lawfully, which view is now fully supported by [a third-party audit], the siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the Company’s customers and suppliers,” states the release. “As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business, which left Cambridge Analytica with no realistic alternative to placing the Company into administration.”

Of course, there’s a difference between something being lawful and ethical, and something being the right thing to do. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs behind Cambridge Analytica’s case, because in the end, it just doesn’t matter.

Why does it not matter? For one thing, the damage (whatever it was) has already been done. Even if what the firm did was illegal, it’s not like it’s going to change anything. There’s no big “Do Over” button for elections, so that ship has sailed.

But more important than that is the fact that all that data that Analytica may or may not have abused is still out there. Still being used and abused, and shuttering one firm might make the public feel better, but it does nothing for actually solving the problem.

This all makes perfect sense as soon as anyone stops to think about it. Every time you use Google, the company’s knowledge of you grows. It knows what you’re interested in. What you’re afraid of. What you search when no one’s around. Amazon knows what you shop for. What you search but don’t buy. Uber knows where you travel and when and how often. FitBit knows where you run and how you sleep. Your Echo is listening to every conversation you have around it, all the time.

Each of these things come with conveniences that make consumers tolerate them. It’s handy to just be able to ask your Echo a question and have it respond. And when you think of the normal things companies might do with the data (sell you more stuff, or at least market more stuff to you), it doesn’t seem so sinister on the surface.

But when data gets together, it starts to enable surprising things. For example, analysts can study the behavior of people on a large scale, and they begin to note predictors that indicate how someone will behave in any particular situation. They might see that people who like geckos are much more inclined to vote Republican than not. Or perhaps owners of Ford Mustangs have a propensity to like McDonald’s. At first, that seems quite innocent. It lets advertisers target their audience much more closely. McDonald’s can buy ads that go out just to Mustang owners. But as you think of the implications, you get a clearer picture of what can happen.

Future behavior of individuals at a large scale can be predicted by current behavior. And you don’t even need any data on the individual in question. You can build a character profile for a variety of types, and then ask a random person a few questions (“Do you own a Mustang?” “Do you like geckos?”) that seem unrelated to anything. But once you have those key indicators in place, you suddenly have a very good idea who that person is and how they would behave.

Even if Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple aren’t selling any of this information to anyone, the data is still there. Still waiting to be sifted through and applied. And sure, Google’s old motto is “don’t be evil,” but when you’re talking about data on this scale, sometimes it’s hard not to let a little evil creep into your business practices.

I’m not trying to say we should all go around with tin foil on our heads. I still use Siri and Alexa. I search using Google. I shop on Amazon. But I’ve been very relieved to see the public outcry over what went on with Cambridge Analytica. It’s great to see people take a stand on how data can and can’t be used. My worry is that this will be a single blip, and people will stop paying attention, brushing their hands off and thinking “Mission Accomplished” now that Analytica is gone.

Just because one company has gone under doesn’t mean the data is no longer there, waiting to be used. Continuing to press for laws that govern what data can and can’t be used for, and how it should and shouldn’t be stored, is important.

As if we needed one more thing to be worried about . . .

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Upgrading Technology: Making the Leap

I had several conversations this week about technology in various forms. I found myself bemoaning how slowly “some people” can be to adapt to a chance, and how reluctant they are to commit to doing anything new, even if it is ultimately an improvement.

Funnily enough, I then found myself trying to use unfamiliar websites as I searched for hotels, and I fell into the same trap I’d criticized the general public for falling into.

I’m used to using Hotels.com. I’m familiar with the tool, and it made sense. My sister mentioned how she liked to use Booking.com. I took a look at it for a few minutes, but I moved on, since it was harder to use than Hotels.com. “It’s pretty much the same thing,” I said to myself to excuse the speed with which I dismissed it. But what it really was was different and unfamiliar. I had asked for recommendations on new tools, and then I had dismissed those recommendations when they didn’t like up with my pre-existing experience.

Except as I tried to keep searching, I was still struggling. Hotels.com wasn’t giving me the results I wanted, and so I eventually went back to Booking.com and forced myself to give it another shot. To learn how it works and how to get good results with it. And after I’d put in the proper amount of time, I discovered that yes, it was very useful. The irony was not lost on me.

In a separate conversation, I discussed how websites are constantly changing and evolving. Each time they do, the user base often complains. It’s different. It’s harder to find things anymore. But it’s not really the fact that it’s harder. It’s that it was improved, and sometimes (often) improvement means shaking things up. Taking a new perspective on things. And if you go back and look at how websites used to look in the 90s or early 2000s, (or even 2010), it’s easy to see how far web design has come, and how grateful we should all be.

So that’s my thought for you today. It’s important to keep an open mind to new experiences, especially where technology is involved. Because it all changes fast enough that it’s important we learn from past mistakes and open the door to new capabilities.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $6/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

A Knee-Jerk Review of the Oculus Rift

I posted this on Facebook during my hiatus, but one of the presents received Christmas morning was an Oculus Rift. (Technically, the present was the Rift and a fast enough desktop to run it. Tomas has been wanting to build a computer for the past year or so. He was dreaming of a low end machine capable of running some games. I’ve been wanting to get a new machine to use as my primary computer for writing for some time now, and I thought this year seemed like an excellent time to do it, since I’ve made a bit of money selling books. Yay business expenses. So after all presents had been opened, there was one final present that took the kids on a twenty step treasure hunt, taking them from computer component to computer component, culminating with the Rift.)

So after Tomas and I had built the computer (much easier now than it seemed to be the last time I did it, ten years ago), I got the Rift up and running on it, and gave it a whirl. (Thankfully, the research I’d done that indicated it would fit over my glasses was confirmed. Otherwise I would have been going virtually nowhere. It actually works perfectly fine with glasses.)

I did not expect to be seriously blown away by virtual reality. I’ve been gaming for years, after all, and I knew that the resolution on the Rift wasn’t high enough to make the pixels go away. So I thought I’d constantly be reminded that I was standing in the middle of my office with a headset on, looking like an idiot.

Except I massively underestimated the ability of sight and sound to override the rest of my brain. Slipping on that headset, I really felt like I was transported to another place. There’s a demo that takes you to the top of a skyscraper. It really felt like I was about to fall off, and it made me actually scared. That scene is followed by a T Rex coming to roar in front of you. Again, I was far more intimidated by this virtual thing than I would have ever expected.

Since that demo, we’ve installed some other games. (It comes with about 6 or 7 available to download right away for free.) There’s one that pits you against rogue robots, and it’s up to you to shoot them all down before the city is overwhelmed. There’s a 3D drawing game. We bought a climbing simulator, and a game that puts you in the shoes of James Bond. You can get Google Earth for free, and it interfaces with Google Street View, so you can stand on pretty much any street in the world and see what it looks like to be there. It’s much more impressive than normal Street View. It’s amazing.

When I mentioned the Rift on Facebook, it was with the explanation that I got to the point where I realized 14 year old me would be so incredibly disappointed in current me if he were to find out VR was available, I could afford it, and yet I didn’t have it. And so I bowed to 14 year old me’s wishes (not always a great idea). But really, I’m very pleased I did. Beyond the cool factor and the amazing experiences, I love watching my 13 year old and 9 year old children use the device. Yes, you could dismiss the Rift as just another toy, but I don’t see things that way. When I see them using it, I see them getting in on the ground floor of a new way of interacting with technology, one which might well prepare them for new innovations in the future.

When I was young, I had the opportunity to use desktop computers at home earlier than many other kids did. That familiarity with the technology helped me, as I taught myself graphic design basics (with the old PageMaker) as well as learned the ins and outs of music composition software. I sincerely believe that playing with technology leads you to using technology more intuitively. I have no idea what innovations might lie in wait, but standing there in my office, using virtual weapons to defend a city from rogue robots, it’s easy for me to see that this is something which will only grow in popularity and importance.

The Rift is a steal at $400. The controllers are terrific, the games are immersive, and there are plenty of experiences to choose from. The only thing that should hold you back from buying one is that you need a workhorse of a PC to run the games well. I have no idea how it will run on a lower end machine. The one I bought has an almost top-of-the-line graphics card, new processor, and plenty of RAM to back it up. Then again, we’ve found out it can run a VR game and a second game on the computer screen at the same time, so perhaps an older, less advanced model would still be fine.

Oh yeah. One more thing. I get motion sick playing for too long. Saturday I was in Google Earth for a half hour, then did the climbing simulator for another half hour, and after that, I was feeling pretty lousy for an hour or so. It was the climbing that got to me. My eyes were telling me I was moving all over the place, and my body was just plain confused. But not all games do that. It’s just something  to be aware of, and it hasn’t turned me off VR at all.

If you have any questions about the Rift, I’m happy to answer them. Very pleased with the gift.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $2/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

Netflix Has Ditched the Star System

(“Netflix has ditched the solar system” would have sounded cooler, but what can you do?) Either which way, the days of rating movies from 1-5 stars on Netflix seem to be over. It’s reduced its user rating system to a very simple thumbs up or thumbs down decision. Did you like the movie or dislike it?

Part of me is bummed about the switch. I had been very dutiful about rating movies on Netflix, and I felt like the algorithm had me down pretty well. I could look at a movie I hadn’t heard about and have a good idea whether I would like it or not based on the anticipated rating Netflix assigned to it. I understood that sometimes that rating might be lower than usual, based on the genre. I didn’t give out many 5 star reviews to action movies, for example, just because many of them don’t warrant it. But I knew when I wanted to watch an action movie and the algorithm gave it around 4 stars, then it would be a really good one for me.

That’s all gone now. Netflix has replaced it with a new algorithm that estimates how good of a “match” a movie or TV show is to your tastes. It’s a percent score, so if they’re really sure you’ll like something, they’ll list it as 98%. That kind of thing. You can indicate what you think of a show by rating it thumbs up or thumbs down, but Netflix has decided it has something far more reliable to judge you on:

Your actual viewing habits.

It makes sense, in a very big-brothery way. Netflix has full knowledge of which shows you watch, when, on which devices. It knows the shows you start but don’t finish. It knows your secret penchant for My Little Pony binges in the middle of the night. It knows your tastes the best way that’s really possible. By keeping track of how you vote with your eyeballs.

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, it makes sense for Netflix to do it. It’s in the entertainment business, and it wants to make sure you’re happy with what you’re watching. It realized that often people wouldn’t give the shows and movies they liked best the highest ratings. Like me, other people sometimes like to watch a movie just for kicks, even if it’s not the best movie in the world. They’ll give it three stars, but they had a great time watching it. But the thing is, sometimes I want a movie that’s going to challenge me. That I’m not necessarily going to love, but which I’ll be very happy that I watched it. It’s not a popcorn flick. It’s a real piece of art.

How will Netflix manage that one? I worry it’ll keep parading the same kinds of shows and movies I often watch, instead. It’ll want to keep me happy on a steady diet of sugars and carbs, when what I really need is a fine dinner now and then. See my point?

It’s also troubling that even with the new system, when I go to “Top Picks for Bryce,” it continues to provide me with suggestions that are far less than ideal. Matches that are just 70% or 56%, leading me to believe those “top picks” are nothing more than paid ads by the content creators. Seriously–why not have the section filled with the content that’s the closest match? It seems like a no brainer.

Anyway. We’ll see how it plays out in practice. Maybe it’ll grow on me. If any of you get experience with it, chime in to let me know what you think.

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