Fine Print

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the movie, Jurassic Park. I’d read the Michael Crichton novel so I already knew the story, but I still couldn’t wrap my mind around that first dino scene, where a brachiosaurus casually munches on the uppermost leaves of a forty-foot tree.  The gigantic creature was so lifelike I thought, “Where’d Steven Spielberg get a dinosaur?” In my defense, computer-generated imagery (CGI) was brand-spankin’ new back then.  A ferocious T-Rex looking and moving like the real thing was still jaw-dropping in the 1990s. And I’m having the same reaction to the stuff rolling off 3D printers right now.

A “printed” toy tugboat

If you’re like me you haven’t paid much attention to 3D printing.  You see some of the items a 3D printer can generate and they seem like child’s play.  In fact, 3D printing reminds me of a 1970s toy called “Creepy Crawlers”.  You had these tubes of colored goop you squeezed into metal molds, and then the molds went into an electric oven.  The goop would grow from flat to 3D with heat, and suddenly the oven was spilling out all kinds of bugs and spiders you could drop on your friends.  (There was also consumable goop called “Incredible Edibles”; products to compete with whatever the girls were making in their Easy-Bake ovens).

But I digress.  Here’s my 3D printing naivete in a nutshell: I still think my 2D printer is the more impressive technology, cranking out high-resolution photos and perfectly addressed envelopes.  I mean, whatever would I need a third dimension for?

Yep, I am seriously naive about 3D printing.  The scope of this topic is mind-boggling if you really take the time to understand its potential. Here’s a good example.  Picture a printer as big as your living room.  Picture a printer cartridge of concrete instead of ink.  Now watch the printer build your living room, one horizontal layer at a time.  The printer can also build the rest of your house.  Just add plumbing and electric when it’s done.

“Printed” storage crates

Without getting too far into the weeds, let’s define 3D printing for what it really is: additive manufacturing (AM).  Here’s an easy way to picture the AM process.  When you build a log cabin you lay out the entire foundation of logs for the house – with breaks for the doors – before you add the next layer of logs.  You work your way up a layer of logs at a time, keeping those breaks for the doors, adding breaks for windows, pipes, and such, completing the structure with a sloping roof on top.  Perhaps you add a fireplace in the process; again, layering bricks on top of bricks until you’ve reached the top of the chimney.

That’s pretty much how a 3D printer works.  It “pictures” an object in horizontal layers and “prints” it from the ground up.  3D printing has been around longer than you think.  3D printers were developed as early as the 1970s (preceding your inkjet 2D printer!).  The early versions just had to be manually programmed.  Once we attached a computer and software, 3D printing really came into its own.

Watch the following video of a 3D printer confidently layering a basket weave – it’s mesmerizing:

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/transcoded/5/5d/Hyperboloid_Print.ogv/Hyperboloid_Print.ogv.360p.vp9.webm

The products speak for themselves, of course.  A shortlist of the more cutting-edge printed creations gives you an idea of where our world is heading:

  • Cakes and pastries – The “ink” is baked goods in one nozzle and frosting in another.  Design it on your computer screen and then “print”.  It’s like the Easy-Bake Oven on steroids.  Only you don’t need the oven.
    3D-printed confectionery from Ukrainian chef/architect Dinara Kasko
  • Bones – No, not some plastic or other polymer designed to replicate bones, actual bones.  It’s called bioprinting – the fabrication of natural tissue using cells and other building blocks, and it’s coming soon to a clinic near you.  Don’t worry how long a broken bone will take to heal; just replace it!
  • Buildings – Forget about building that log cabin one layer at a time.  Your 3D printer will do the whole job for you (and it’ll still look like a log cabin).  Your printer can also build sturdier houses out of concrete.  This one’s on the market in Riverhead, New York, for $300K.
  • Vehicles – 3D printers have already created boats, kayaks, and most of the makeup of cars and trucks.  Long ago I was impressed with the robotics of the Ford Motor Company, employed on a long assembly line to build cars one part at a time.  A 3D printer can essentially do the same job standing still, no assembly line required.
  • You – I could speculate on the potential for a full bioprint but let’s avoid that scary future for now and just say, a 3D printer can create a figurine to look exactly like you.  Think of it as printing a 3-D photograph.

If your mind is not blown by what you’ve just read, consider this: 3D is already passe.  That’s right, we’ve already moved on to 4D printing.  4D – at least with printing – refers to materials that can change shape with time, temperature, or some other type of stimulation.  A good example would be a printed window shade, sitting tight and virtually unnoticed at the top of the window in daylight but expanding to full cover as darkness falls.

Don’t know about you but this level of technology makes my head hurt.  When I’m done with this post I’m gonna push “print” and generate a nice 2D copy for my files.  Oh, and maybe watch Jurassic Park again.

Some content sourced from the 7/24/2020 Forbes article, “What Can 3D Printing Be Used For?”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Let’s Do the Twist!

My Amazon order history says a lot about my purchasing habits. I am a buyer of needs vs. wants. Pet food. Printer ink. Humidifier filters. But every now and then, a little something nostalgic sneaks into My Shopping Cart. Favorite childhood books for my one-year-old granddaughter.  A balloon-launching catapult to make a Thanksgiving turkey fly (it didn’t).  Italian chocolates from Perugia, also discovered during a year abroad in college.  And just today – on total impulse – a Rubik’s Cube.

Rubik’s Cube – adding a few wrinkles to us baby boomers – celebrates its forty-fifth birthday this year.  Back in 1974 when it was invented (and originally dubbed “Magic Cube”), the 3x3x3 trinket earned our attention for its mechanical magic as well as its almost-impossible-to-memorize solution.

To be precise, there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 (that’s “quintillion”) possible positions of Rubik’s colorful squares.  The Cube comes with neither instructions nor answers.  Already solved in its packaging, you can’t help twisting it up into a mess of color.  In our pre-Internet world, Rubik’s Cube required endless gyrations in search of the answer (instead of just, “Hey Alexa”).  But there was something immensely satisfying about the resulting nine squares of single color on each of its six sides.  There was also something tempting about peeling off the colored stickers and rearranging them instead.

Erno Rubik (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Erno Rubik, a Hungarian inventor, was an architect and architecture professor “searching to find a good task for his students” when he completed the Cube’s first working prototype – a mess of wood blocks and rubber bands.  A small plastics company took a chance on its manufacture and the rest is history.  In the first four years alone, two hundred million Cubes were produced and sold.

I was in college (and also an architecture student) when Rubik’s Cube first hit the shelves.  Its perfect symmetry and twisting ability to reinvent its colorful look went hand-in-hand with my interest in building design.  I remember keeping a Cube on my dorm room desk – at first for mindless manipulation; later for successful solving.  Not that I could solve it quickly, mind you.  The world record – an average of five solves – is six seconds.  The world record with one hand (???) is nine seconds.  The world record using only your feet (again, ???) is twenty-two seconds.  My solve is expressed in minutes, if not hours.

               

Few puzzles compete with Rubik’s Cube for sheer “can’t put it down”.  But there are a few.  One of my favorites was the wooden double maze, the box-like puzzle with the Etch-A-Sketch dials on the side, maneuvering the steel ball through the walled maze without dropping it through one of several holes.  I devoted hours and hours to that puzzle, always sweating those final tricky turns to the finish.  Another favorite: Marble Solitaire, where you hop-eliminated marbles in search of the perfect solution: a single marble standing proudly in the board’s center divot.  Finally (courtesy of Cracker Barrel restaurants), how about “Triangle Peg Solitaire”, the hop-elimination puzzle with the colored golf tees?  Thanks to that little game, my kids were supremely patient after the dinner order was placed.

With somewhere near four hundred million sold, Rubik’s Cube is considered the best-selling toy of all time.  Its inventive design landed the Cube in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1982.  The Cube also garnered “Toy of the Year” in eight countries, including Germany, France, and the U.S.

GoCube

Inevitably, there were attempts to advance Rubik’s design, such as a 4x4x4 version (“Rubik’s Revenge”), or pyramid, dodecahedron, and hexahedron shapes.  But going completely off the rails, look no further than GoCube – a thoroughly high-tech update to Rubik’s.  GoCube is also 3x3x3, but rimmed with LED lights, and contains wireless smart sensors, an embedded gyro, and an accelerometer.  Download the GoCube app to your phone (of course there’s an app), and watch your twists on-screen instead of on the cube itself.  The app guides you to the solution (if you so choose), creates alternative mosaic-looking puzzles, and run reports on solving speed and efficiency.  You can even wage virtual head-to-head competitions.  All for “only” $119.

“The Pursuit of Happyness” (courtesy of Warner Brothers)

I’m sure Erno Rubik (and Will Smith) would pooh-pooh GoCube as too much of a good thing.  I would agree.  The app-driven, light-up, hundred-dollar GoCube is over the top, with zero nostalgia to boot.  On the other hand, Rubik’s Cube cost me $4.59 on Amazon.  That’s a sweet deal, and a cheap way to learn how to do the twist all over again.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Wall Street Journal article, “Never Solved the Rubik’s Cube?…”

Loose Lips Sink Sips

Twenty years from now, my granddaughter will wander into my home office as a young adult, just for a look around.  She won’t find much of interest on the desk or the cabinets (if we still need desks or cabinets twenty years from now), so she’ll direct her attention to the things on my shelves.  Besides photos and books, she’ll find mementos from times and places past: greeting cards, concert programs, sports tickets, autographed items, and so on.  She’ll also find items no longer necessary in her world, like a newspaper (from the day I was born), a paperweight (will anything be on paper anymore?), and a few music CD’s I can’t seem to part with.  To this last group of items, perhaps I should add a drinking straw.

“Grandpa?”, she’ll say when she spies it, “What’s the narrow little tube with the colored stripes?”  “Oh”, I’ll smile and say, “That’s a straw. People used them back in the old days to suck drinks out of their glasses.”  She’ll ponder that for a bit and then ask, “Why wouldn’t they just drink straight from the glass like we do today?” Good question, granddaughter.  Then I’d pull up a chair, and explain the tragic tale of the drinking straw – the humble roots as a durable replacement for rye grass; the evolution into kid-friendly varieties like bendy, Crazy, candy, and spoon-ended (for slush drinks); the proliferation into seemingly-essential varieties like miniature (cocktails), “extend-o” (juice boxes), extra-wide (bubble-tea), and trendy doubles-as-a-stirrer (Starbucks).  Finally, I’d talk about the straw’s fade into obsolescence – the promoted shame over “one-time-use” products, the YouTube-sensationalized horrors of polypropylene impacts to the environment, and the headlines and bans and laws which would ultimately exterminate the little suckers.

Perhaps my granddaughter would pose another question: “Why the fuss over a little piece of plastic, when so much else in the world deserved equal-if-not-more attention?”  Exactly.  I asked myself the same question when I sat down to write this piece.

No matter where you stand on the drinking straw debate, it’s a great example of the power of social media to elevate a topic to a level of importance beyond what it might deserve.  According to those in the know, straws account for a tiny portion of the plastic waste in landfills and oceans.  But they have our attention, don’t they?  As Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen puts it, “We look at straws as one of the gateway issues to help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem.”  “Gateway issue” – I like that.  The straw is simply the catalyst, easing people into an awareness of a much more significant problem.

As for the demise of drinking straws, we’ve moved from opinion to discussion to debate, and finally to laws and bans to discourage their use, yet we’ve hardly reached a resolution.  An effective replacement for the plastic straw simply doesn’t exist.  Paper straws durable enough to last the life of the drink don’t decompose much faster than plastic.  Paper straws cost five times as much, so the restaurant industry will have to swallow hard.  Reusable straws have their merits (ex. metal, glass), but unless restaurants budget them to the bottom line, we’re facing a massive change in behavior.  You’re already leaving the house with your car keys and your phone, but hey, don’t forget that reusable straw.

More likely, straws will simply disappear altogether.  As we speak, we’re in that awkward middle-ground where straws are still an option in restaurants, but more and more establishments (and entire states) mandate the customer must ask for one. From there, you can make the easy leap to guilt-by-association – as in, sure you can have a straw, but do you really want to be seen using one?  The only resolution in my mind is to do without, like we do hot coffee, beer, and wine.  Time to drink everything straight from the glass.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and articles from Business Insider, Eater, and Sprudge.

Disc Chalky

Woodstock Candy (“Let Sweet Flashbacks Sprinkle Down”) assembles collections of vintage candy and sells them on Amazon.  The “nostalgic retro mixes” tailor to the buyer’s age, as in “30th Birthday Box” or “65th Birthday Box”.  For those in my decade, Woodstock tosses in classics like Chuckles, Red Hots, Sugar Daddy’s and Smarties. Also, a few Pixy Stix, a Candy Necklace, and a long strip of those colorful Candy Buttons. Finally, buried quietly in the back of the box: one small roll of Necco wafers.

Four months ago, the Wall Street Journal alerted those of us with nostalgic sweet teeth of the fate of Necco wafers.  More correctly, NECCO – the New England Confectionery Company – would shutter if it didn’t secure a buyer.  Apparently, no one came to the candy counter, because the factory closed its doors late last month.  The consumer reaction was immediate – on the order of the Hostess Twinkies frenzy.  Rolls of Necco wafers flew off the shelves.  Frantic calls to candy stores demanded entire boxes be placed on hold.  One Necco devotee offered his 2003 Honda Accord in exchange for the company’s remaining product.  You might call it “disc(o) fever”.

The Necco wafer/disc is an underappreciated candy of years gone by, though admittedly my affection for the confection is not what it used to be.  Necco’s are packaged in rolls of about thirty, in an assortment of eight flavors, including clove.  Clove.  Even the flavors sound dated.  A Necco wafer looks and tastes like a disc of chalk (drywall?), with a hint of flavoring to make it seem like food.  Eat a dozen wafers and your hands and clothes are covered with edible dust.  Eat a dozen more and the flavors all start to taste the same.  What used to be a satisfying crunch now feels like a threat to my dental work.

Why was I drawn to Necco wafers, when my back-in-the-day 7-Eleven store included an entire aisle of more appealing candy?  Maybe I just like little discs.  My father used to drive my brothers and I to some of his building sites, and I quickly discovered the concrete littered with dozens of metal coins.  These were “slugs” – today called KO’s or “knockouts”; the quarter-sized remains of partially-stamped openings in electrical junction boxes.  I collected hundreds of them – God knows why (but I was a kid, so I didn’t need a reason).

I also collected coins – more specifically quarters, because quarters were big money in my day, and translated into just about everything in that 7-Eleven aisle.  Quarters could also be stacked into paper wrappers; perhaps my precursor to a roll of Necco wafers.

At the same time in life, I had what was probably the coolest toy around.  It was called a “Rapid-Fire Tracer Gun” (if you were really cool you had the Star Trek version).  The Tracer fired little round plastic discs, spinning them out of the barrel so fast they hurt when they hit skin.  They even made a Tracer Rifle for more accurate shots.  The Tracer had a spring-driven magazine, so you could queue up a whole pile of plastic discs.  Or Necco wafers.

Necco wafers aren’t nearly as appealing as some of the stories behind them.  A hundred years ago Necco’s were carried by Arctic explorers and handed out to Eskimo children.  Their “suspiciously long” shelf life (Necco’s are sugar, corn syrup, and not much else) allowed them to be stored for months; then consumed by Union soldiers during America’s Civil War.  And therein lies the significance of the NECCO factory closing: the wafers have been around since 1847.

If I still don’t have your attention, consider this: NECCO also manufactures Sweethearts, the heart-shaped romantic-message-stamped equivalent of the Necco wafer, distributed by the billions on Valentine’s Day.  Think about that: no more candy hearts bearing “Kiss Me” or “Love You” or “Be Mine”.  Instead, just inedible greeting cards and meh grocery-store chocolates.  But don’t despair – I think the factory closing is just a hiatus.  The Hostess Twinkie came back and so will the Necco wafer.  It’s already underway, so join the movement: #SaveNecco.