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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,500 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Today was the first day of the World Maker Faire held at the New York Hall of Science, and Norma and I were there the whole day and still didn’t see everything. But we will go tomorrow as well. Once we get back to Chicago I’ll post a more detailed report with photos of some of the more amazing things we saw.

The 3D printer world continues to grow. Dremel (the popular maker of hand tools) showed their $1000 printer. While it is not as feature rich as other printers on the market, they have arranged to sell the device through Home Depot stores – starting with 100 stores and expanding from there. Needless to say, other vendors of 3D printers are paying close attention to Dremel.

Kickstarter had a region of the massive exhibit where (among many other things) M3D showed their $350 3D printer that self adjusts as it is making parts. The print space is not very big, but my guess is this will become a starter printer for many folks. Right now they are filling their first 11,000 orders.

NASA has an interesting exhibit, but was unable to get one of the special 3D printers planned to be launched to the ISS Sunday morning.

As regular readers of this blog know, Norma and I are focused on additive fabrication in which parts are built layer by layer in a 3D printer. Another fabrication process known for many more years is subtractive. You start with a block of material from which material is milled away to leave the final shape. Several vendors of these computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines were showing their products, but the one that really caught our attention was the Fabtotum from Italy. This machine functions as a traditional 3D printer, a CNC milling machine, and a 3D scanner. The system sells for about $1500. Needless to say we will be looking at this in more depth as we help schools think through the design of Maker Spaces where numerous kinds of tools are needed.

Later we’ll give our wrap-up of the entire event with pictures of some of the cooler things we saw.

As 3D printers come into homes and schools, you will be looking for tools that let you make your own designs.  Here are a few free titles that I think should be on your list:

Inkscape is primarily a drawing program for two-dimensional designs. It is an amazingly powerful tool that even automates the process of drawing complex objects like gears.  Drawings created in Inkscape can be saved in the SVG (scalable vector graphic) format so they look great at any magnification.  You can also export images in traditional graphics formats like PNG (portable network graphic) that looks great when used on websites, etc. But the real power of Inkscape as a 3D drawing tool comes when you install the support plug-in for 3D extrusion to an OpenSCAD file (described later)  that can be rendered and exported as an STL file for the printer to use.  The way this works is that you select the part of the drawing you want to extrude into a three-dimensional shape.  When you choose the extrusion option, you just indicate how many millimeters you want the extrusion to be, and a 3D file for OpenSCAD is generated automatically.  To get this shape to your printer, the next step is to open it in OpenSCAD, compile the image, and save it as an STL file.  STL (Stereolithography) files are the format your printer expects to see when it starts the process of getting your model ready to print. This sounds laborious, but it is easy to get the hang of it, and the whole process goes very quickly.

You may be wondering why I would mention a (primarily) two-dimensional drawing tool in the context of 3D printing.  The reason is that, while building 3D objects on the computer screen is likely a new task to students, they probably use two-dimensional art programs all the time.  Our goal is to build from this strength on the path to (later) creating designs with 3D drawing tools.

While I will largely use OpenSCAD as an extrusion tool for Inkscape, it is, in fact, a full 3D modeling program that builds models from text commands.  It has its own programming language that might be appropriate for high-schoolers to play with.  An advantage of building geometric models in OpenSCAD is that they can be “parameterized” – expressed in a way that lets one design make several related shapes by changing the values of a few variables.  For example, a propeller can be designed in OpenSCAD in a way that lets the end user change the number and size of the blades.  This is a real feature, and quite a few Thingiverse models include OpenSCAD files for just that reason.  Used in this way, students can tinker with existing models to create a custom part for their construction.  The final model is displayed on the screen to be sure it is what you want before saving it as an STL file.

Sketchup is a professional 3D modeling tool that is super for creating geometric structures from scratch (architectural designs, for example).  The free version (Sketchup Make) has all the features that students might need to build models of the parts they want to print.  If your model can be built from boxes, cylinders, and balls, it is a great tool.  It is not what I would choose for more organic shapes, though.  The Sketchup Extension Warehouse has a free plug-in that lets you export your finished part as an STL file directly.  My only caution about this tool is that it is not the best program for editing completed STL files.  They show up as a mass of dots and triangles, and I haven’t found a way to render the surfaces as nicely as you can from models made in Sketchup in the first place.  This is a shame, because older versions of Sketchup handled imported STL files much better.  The good news is that there are many other alternatives for you to use.

This program also lets you create projects from scratch using a library of geometric shapes.  My experience is that it is easier to align parts in 3DTin than it is in Tinkercad (another cloud-based design tool).  3DTin lets you download your drawing as an STL file ready to print!

Autodesk is one of the premiere publishers on computer-aided design software.  Their products are found in design firms and architects offices all over the world.

They decided to support the beginning 3D designer with a rich suite of tools that covers the gamut from parts designed from geometric pieces, to the more organic designs suitable for modeling living organisms.  In fact, Clark Barnett, a teacher in  the Conejo Valley Unified School District  in California does a project with his kids using one of the Autodesk applications on the iPad – 123D Creature.  With this tool, students design their own insects that could live in the ecosystem of their classroom.  Once printed, these “insects” are mounted in a display tray and students explain why their insect is likely to survive on its own in the classroom ecosystem.

While not geared specifically for “creature” creation, Autodesk has a wonderful free product called Meshmixer that is perfect for creating organic, rather than geometric shapes.

This tool lets you sculpt by hand as if you were working with clay.  Anyone who has worked with modeling clay will know how to use the tools in this program, and there is a great manual to show exactly how to get the most from this program.  Tools like this bring 3D printing into the life sciences classroom.

This amazing tool is a great next step for Meshmixer users.  It was designed for sculptors (and would-be sculptors), instead of a blank screen you are presented with a round ball of “clay” that can be shaped into just about anything you want.  While not geared toward the creation of geometric objects, it is a perfect tool for building models of various creatures – both real and imagined.  Finished projects are exported as OBJ files that can be easily converted to STL files by Meshlab (see below).  Once you start working with this tool, hours happily go by as you build amazing things, all of which can be built on your 3D printer.  This software comes with good documentation and links to some video tutorials I highly recommend for anyone interested in this tool.

This program lets you build mathematical knots of all kinds.  While created for math geeks, knots are pretty to look at, and students can use this program to explore this branch of mathematics – a worthwhile activity in itself.  One great feature of this program is that it lets you export your finished knot as an OBJ file if you want to tweak it in Meshlab (see below).  You can also export your image as an STL file directly and send it to your printer software with no further work required.  Finished knots can be sent out for metal plating in case you want to make your own jewelry. (You probably have some service providers in your area that will do this inexpensively.)

Other tools:

Sometimes (as with Sculptris) your 3D images will be exported as OBJ files that need to be converted to STL files so they can be printed.  Meshlab does this job beautifully and even lets you adjust the mesh from which the model is defined to optimize it for printing.  This optimization process lets you clean up your model so it will print perfectly.

This is the plug-in you need to allow Inkscape to create extrusions for OpenSCAD.  All the instructions are provided in the web link shown above.

And there are more good programs coming out all the time, so keep your eyes open and let us know what you find (!

In 2010 I was quite enamored in the idea of “netbook” computers – low-powered laptops that not only had low price tags and long battery life, but also performed most tasks quite well, especially if the user was taking advantage of open source software ranging from Unix as the operating system, to as the office suite. To prove the point, I wrote an entire book (When the Best is Free) on a netbook without any problems at all. It was so clear to me that this was the next big device that I predicted that every student would soon have a netbook, especially since they were cheaper than textbooks. In fact, since the introduction of this device, the cost of an average collection of textbooks was far greater than the cost of a netbook computer. The future of this new device was clear (at least to me.)

I was wrong – very wrong. The revolution did not unfold as I foresaw it. Netbooks became (and remain) a niche market and I think this is because of the emergence of a truly disruptive technology – the tablet. Led by the and famously successful release of the Apple iPad, and followed by Android-based devices from many other vendors (e.g., Samsung, Lenovo, Toshiba, Sony, Asus, Acer and others) tablets have caused netbooks to fade from view.

This phenomenon is quite interesting. First, as with most disruptive technologies, the tablet was not as powerful as the netbook. Furthermore, it generally cost more to buy, had less storage, and operated on a completely different premise. While the netbook had a clear evolutionary path from traditional laptops, the tablet did not. Devoid of traditional keyboards, the tablet operated with “soft keys” displayed on a multi-touch display. Gestures (pinches, swipes, etc.) previously seen in science fiction (e.g., Minority Report, Star Trek, Next Generation) became commonplace. These new ways of interacting with computer displays were readily adapted and traditional mouse movements were no longer needed.

So where did tablet computers come from? The origins of tablets had more to do with the evolution of advanced MP3 players (the Apple iTouch as an example) than with the evolution of computers. At the time of its introduction, the tablet had the potential to be a high-tech fad – like the Apple Newton from 1993. Instead, even with its limitations, the tablet became an overnight success. One could argue that this was a logical outgrowth of the popularity of smartphones (such as those based on the Android and iOS operating systems) but I think the tablet is generally seen in a different light. With screens ranging from 7” to 10”, tablets provide enough real estate to support web browsing and some limited text editing. While many people may find the light weight and long battery life of tablets to be compelling, and web-based tools (plus a few downloaded apps) to meet their day-to-day needs, most will find that they will still need a powerful laptop for the creation of documents, and rely on tablets for casual work on the road. The long battery life is one clear advantage, but another advantage of tablets is rarely mentioned. Because traditional clamshell laptops use a separate keyboard, users have to be sitting down, typically at a desk or table, in order to use the device. Tablets, on the other hand, can be used while standing. By holding the tablet in one hand, the other can provide the gestures needed to navigate applications. This plus reduced weight are quite compelling for some. Personally, if I had all my presentations running from my tablet, I would leave my laptop at home when I travel for speaking engagements.  My tablet computer fits in the seat back of an airplane, and allows me to watch several movies with enough power left over to run a 60-minute presentation without recharging.

Tablets also seem to meet the needs of a large number of people who never need the power of a real laptop  For them the tablet makes a great deal of sense, even though many high-end tablets cost as much as fully featured laptops. Of course, as tablets evolve, the prices will drop and the capabilities will increase, further cementing their role in creating a true disruption in personal computing.

All of which raises the question of what happens next. As tablets continue their evolutionary path, there will someday be another technology introduced that will have the same impact on tablets as tablets had on netbooks. Such is the nature of technological development.

Tablets have largely eclipsed the netbook market and some (myself included) have argued that this format of device will disrupt education profoundly.  In saying this, I in no way am suggesting that radically new technologies will not emerge.  In fact, they already have – even if they are not commercially available yet.

For example, in 2009, MIT Grad Student Pranav Mistry gave  TED presentation in which he showed his sixth-sense technology with which a special necklace held a camera and a projector to facilitate augmented reality explorations of really neat things.  For example, if you picked up a book and looked at the cover, information about that book, including reviews, would appear projected on the book itself.  His video is a whirlwind tour of amazingly cool stuff that seemed like science fiction at the time – only he made it work in the laboratory in preparation for becoming products.

Fast forward a year or so and the focus shifts to Google.  While the public face of Google Labs has been closed down, Google is continuing to explore cutting edge ideas.  One shot over the bow was a free app called Google Goggles that lets you use your smartphone to do many of the things dome by Panav Mistry’s system.  Take a photo of a book cover, for example, and it not only recognizes the book, but provides links to reviews and even a link to Amazon in case you want to get your own copy.  Stand in front of a landmark building, take a picture, and get links to information about the building.  Take a snapshot of a Sudoku puzzle, and it recognizes it as a puzzle and asks if you would like the solution.

Last year buzz started to build around the idea that the Google Goggles software was going to get its own dedicated hardware – a pair of glasses with a built-in heads-up display.  For example, a recent article in the New York Times blog describes some of the possible features such a device would have.  This would be a truly hand’s free device using head gestures to send commands to the system.  While this format probably tops out on the nerd scale – which is probably why I think it is cool – it may in fact represent the new face of computing.

Only it isn’t new.

In July, 1945, President Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush, wrote an article for the Atlantic in which he described his vision for the future.  One of his ideas was the following:

“Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice. The lens is of universal focus, down to any distance accommodated by the unaided eye, simply because it is of short focal length. There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with two spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.”

Of course he was thinking in terms of the photography of the time  which was film-based.  He was aware of photocells and even speculated about their use in photographic elements.  Instead of Bush’s “walnut” Google is opting (it seems) to use glasses – something well accepted in our society.

No matter how it all shapes up, it seems the time is ripe for wearable computing.  And it would be foolish to think Google is alone.  Apple’s iPod nano comes with wrist straps, using arms instead of noses as the support for wearable technology.

Of course these technologies are not going to replace computers any more than tablets have – they will be additional tools that open new opportunities for creativity and productivity – and may even have a place in education.

Only time will tell.

Brazilians love their technology.  I remember decades ago when I first visited the country to see that people would mark their seat at a buffet by leaving their cell phone on the table.  In fact, Brazil was probably among the first country to have cell phones outnumber wired lines, although that was largely due to the difficulty of getting a new wired phone line at the time.

But technological romance remains quite high.  Our local shopping center’s Apple store is full of people.  Samsung’s store in the same center is also quite busy.  Even Nokia, whose future remains uncertain, gets some traffic – and this is not just window shopping!  The number of iPhones, Galaxy tablets, and iPads coming out the door is amazing to see.  In fact, a recent study by Accenture shows that Brazilians are three times more likely than the global average to be purchasing a tablet in 2012.

This caught me by surprise given the explosive growth of this sector worldwide.

While tablets are coming into US schools at a fairly good pace, some Brazilian schools are listing them as back to school accessories along with crayons and paper notebooks.  The explosion is not restricted to the private schools.  In Pernambuco (the state where I am in the northeast of the country) the government is purchasing 170,000 tablets in a pilot with second and third year high school students.  Nationwide, other pilots in the public sector are adding 350,000 more tablets to the mix, with the goal to bring these devices to every student in the country.

Now if tablets were cheap devices, this would be one thing, but they are not.  The duty on imported electronics is so high that, for example, Apple products are nearly twice as expensive in Brazil compared with their price in the US.  Of course, with the rapid growth in sales volume, Toshiba and other major players are opening Brazilian factories to avoid duties and thus bring the price down.

The alpha-geek in me loves to see all this activity.  I’m an avid and active tablet user myself.  But when it comes to education, huge projects are taking a big risk if they are not thought out in advance.  For example, what is the wireless telecommunications infrastructure of the school?  Can it handle a thousand kids online at the same time?  How will the tablets be used?  If they are just glorified textbooks, much cheaper alternatives exist.  If the uses are more in support of creativity and inquiry, what tools will the tablets have?  Most importantly, how (and when) will teachers be provided not just with the mechanics of tablet use, but with the pedagogical support to transform education in rich ways?

Without thinking these questions through, the huge influx of tablets will likely fail to effect permanent change.  With the right support, though, we may see that the consumer driven romance with technology (especially among the young) will produce benefits that far exceed the cost of these devices, and this is a result worth seeking.

Today Apple unveiled a free iBooks 2 application for the iPad that brings interactive textbooks to the popular tablet computer.  According to Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, “Education is deep in Apple’s DNA,” which is confusing to me since texbooks are a major component of an education that has been flawed since the late Middle Ages, and one would think that Apple’s DNA would recognize that schooling and education are sometimes at odds with each other.

“With iBooks 2 for iPad, students have a more dynamic, engaging and truly interactive way to read and learn.”  This quote is pure and utter garbage.  What is new about canned content from Pearson and the other companies drooling at the prospects of finding new ways to view children as bodies with wallets, and education as the memorization of mindless material that, most likely, can be found in better form in ten minutes with a well-crafted Google search?

He said the iPad is “rapidly being adopted by schools across the US and around the world” and 1.5 million iPads are already being used in educational institutions.  This should make us cry.  Apple has clearly lost its soul.

Back in the early days when Apple really cared about education, a variety of creative ideas were encouraged both inside and outside the company all centered on the idea that computers let us do things we simply couldn’t do before at all.  Languages like Logo were supported, along with other creative tools such as Hyperstudio, and some internal projects as well (especially Cocoa which spun off and became Stagecast Creator).

Then along comes the iPad – a potential game changer being driven into schools by the students themselves.  Scratch, an amazing programming environment for kids (and grownups) developed by Mitch Resnick’s group at the MIT Medialab, was REMOVED from the iTunes store.  And now, the offerings of the old guard publishers will be featured.  The message is clear – “school is fine the way it has always been – now buy some new toys that require no changes in the system at all.”

This didn’t happen by accident.  Careful thought went into Apple’s perspective on how tablets should be used by children.  Today they decided that the iPad should be a costly version of the Amazon Kindle Fire.  while this may be a lucrative move on Apple’s part, it destroys any semblance of Apple caring one whit about real learning.  It is as if Dewey, Piaget, Papert and other giants in the field had never been born.

The bright spot is that the MIT folks are currently working on bringing some of their creative projects for kids to the Android platform, so this is not a condemnation of tablet strategies in general, only of Apple’s astounding march to the 19th century (as so aptly put by my friend and colleague, Gary Stager).

I bear no ill will toward Apple, only sadness in their decision to sell out the nation’s youth to curry favor with the very publishers that have done everything in their power to hold education to the past – at any cost.

This is a sad day indeed.

Internet Censorship

I live off my copyrights, so the protection of intellectual property is important to me.  But the pendulum is swinging so far towards restriction that the the Senate is poised to vote on a bill that would end the internet as we know it.

If it passes, the “Protect IP Act” (and its companion bill in the House, “SOPA”) could put people in jail for uploading a video to YouTube and would severely limit our right to free speech.   Copyright infringement is already illegal, so adding more stringent laws seems ill-advised.

This bill has been rushed through Congress because big corporate interests like Comcast, Pfizer, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent millions of dollars lobbying for this censoring legislation.

I told my senators to protect our free and open internet and oppose the Protect IP Act. You should do the same. You can sign the petition at the link below.

The Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show opens on January 10, and there are rumbles that this show will feature lots of ultrathin laptops similar to the Macintosh Air.  Last year was supposedly the year of the tablet, but the rollout didn’t take place until months later, leaving Apple with the market pretty much to itself.  Of course that has changed, with everyone from Toshiba to Samsung offering quite powerful tablets at reasonable prices.  Schools, in particular, seem eager to jump on the tablet bandwagon and, while a good case can be made for this, my guess is that much of the early enthusiasm was generated by the freshness of the product category.

And some of these tablet installations are huge!  The Brazilian State of Pernambuco is placing an order for 130,000 tablets as a trial run for high school students to use!  Other projects on the drawing board are larger than that.  Everyone who can create code is getting up to speed on the Android OS and educational apps of all kinds are in various states of preparation – apps that go way beyond e-books or other applications reflective of the outmoded educational practices found today.

So, if the tablet is just now starting to emerge as a big seller (and it is), what is the rush to create a new class of ultrathin laptops that will cost a bundle, and do nothing you can’t do with the laptops we already have?  My guess is that this move is just to embrace an idea and hope it becomes a trend.

We saw this with Netbooks – a technology I endorsed when it came out.  Netbooks never achieved their potential because the price differential was not big enough to keep people from buying full-sized laptops.  The death blow, though, was the tablet – a truly portable device that can be used while walking around.

And that brings me to an important point.  I was an early fan of the Netbook, and it didn’t take off.  I am a current fan of tablets, so what are the chances I will get this one right?  I think my chances are pretty good.  The relationship kids have with tablets is different from the one they have with laptops of any kind.  That is true for adults as well.  Yes, tablets do not currently offer the rich variety of software found on laptops, but that is starting to change.

CES may be where the dreams of Ultrabook designers get shared, but I’m sticking with tablets as a dominant platform for the foreseeable future.