Sunday, February 24, 2013

3D Printing: Backbone of the New Industrial Revolution or Expensive Dud?

Since the unlikely duo of Barack Obama and Glenn Beck have both lauded it as the future of American innovation, 3D printing is poised to make significant ripples through global society - not just here, but even in China:
Chinese researchers are currently working on 3D printing technology to produce large, complicated components for aircrafts, according to a report from Caixin Online. The team of Chinese researches is led by Wang Huaming, a professor in materials science engineering who won the National Award for State Council in Technological Achievement.
Professor Wang said their existing 3D printing technology is can only supplement traditional manufacturing. According to him, “it’s too early to say” if the technology will pave the way to revolutionize manufacturing.
The technology - also known as "additive manufacturing" - has gotten so advanced that scientists can now print stem cells:
The cells were floating in a “bio-ink,” to use the terminology of the researchers who developed this technique. They were able to squeeze out tiny droplets, containing five cells or fewer per droplet, in a variety of shapes and sizes. To produce clumps of cells, the team printed out cells first and then overlaid those with cell-free bio-ink, resulting in larger droplets or spheroids of cells. The cells would group together inside these spheroids. Spheroid size is key, because stem cells need certain conditions to work properly. This is why very precisely controlled 3-D printing could be so valuable for stem cell research.
After being squeezed out of a thin valve, the cells were still alive and viable, and able to transform into any other cell in the body, the researchers say. It’s the first time anyone has printed human embyronic stem cells, said lead researcher Will Wenmiao Shu, a professor at Heriot-Watt. But ... why?
Meanwhile, 3D printers could allow people to eventually make their own guns:
In a spare bedroom, where an AR-15 rifle leans against the wall, Lerol is using a 3-D printer no larger than an espresso machine to make plastic rifle parts and ammunition magazines in between tea sets and chess pieces. The parts print, layer over layer, creating objects like an ink-jet printer etches words.

The 30-year-old software engineer said he has no plans to print anything outlawed by the government. But like many other gun owners, he is nervous that the push for gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre will infringe on his Second Amendment rights.
To some, 3D printing will herald a new Industrial Revolution:
The third industrial revolution is in full swing. At Inventables it is our mission to simplify the process of going from idea to finished product. We believe this will further ignite this revolution. We believe this movement will be the primary driver of growth in our economy in the next decade.
To others, it may cause more harm than good:
We don't want things enough to support the time, labor, and community structures necessary to create them, but we still kind of want them. We have invented machinery to split the difference, giving us versions of what once was, to do with as we please. Meanwhile, creation is driven a step further into abstraction, occurring in software, carried out by self-directed machinery who'll need us to pick a size, color, and click "OK" in the print dialog, an effort so minimal and diffuse that it's worth almost nothing at all.
Regardless, 3D printing is on the verge of being a transformative technology...assuming it can get past all the looming legal battles:
Formlabs will be dealing with a patent infringement lawsuit brought against them by 3D Systems, one of the biggest players in the industry. The hobbyist segment of the industry has been built on the back of expired patents, but as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, many patents that will be required to advance the state of the art will not expire for years or even a decade.
However, patents may benefit at least one in-demand 3D printed toys:
Standard Innovation CEO Danny Osadca told BusinessWeek that its in-house R&D capabilities give it a distinct competitive advantage. Osadca attributes the company’s success to the ability to evolve products based on customer feedback and frequent testing, even earning itself some patents in the process.
All of this, of course, assumes 3D printing isn't already becoming an investment bubble:
Citron Research, run by California-based investor and notable short-seller Andrew Left, issued a report on Thursday accusing 3D Systems' Chief Executive Abe Reichental of exaggerating advances in 3D printing and contributing to a bubble in the shares of 3D printing companies.

"Appearances have become completely unhinged from reality when it comes to the mania created in so-called '3D Printing' stocks, and 3D Systems in particular," Citron Research said. "Behind every good bubble there is a good promoter, in this case we have the best in Abe Reichental."

Shares of 3D Systems Corporation, the biggest listed U.S. 3D printer maker, fell. So did shares of Stratasys and ExOne.
Will 3D printing end up a paradigm shift or a glorified hobby for creative-types with expendable income and niche interests?

The jury is still out, but as you can see, there are a variety of interesting future possibilities at play.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Chris Dorner, Falling Down, and Life Imitating Art Imitating Archetypes

I thought about writing some quick thoughts concerning Obama's State of the Union speech earlier.

Instead, I just read the online manifesto of the ex-LAPD and naval officer on the run for killing three people and wounding two others.

This Guardian article makes a very good point about the seemingly fictional circumstances at play:
The weather turned and a storm closed in, wrapping a story which already felt elemental: Dorner was pursuing a vendetta against authority, believing himself a victim of injustice, and the biggest posse in living memory was after him. 
Revenge, blood, pursuit, ingredients of countless westerns and action films from Hollywood, on the other side of the mountains, and a story trending on Twitter buzzed with film references: Cape Fear, Rambo, The Deer Hunter, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Fugitive.  
In reality Dorner was probably suffering from mental illness and three families were mourning the death of innocents but already, in some minds, he was becoming legend. Facebook pages sprouted in support, hailing him a rebel, and media commentators hyped his martial skills as if the navy reserves really did breed Rambos.
Another movie came to mind that I'm surprised this article didn't mention: 1993's Joel Schumacher-directed "Falling Down".

The Michael Douglas-Robert Duvall vehicle isn't an exact match - "Falling Down" is considered to be a film representing the id of the proverbial angry white man, not a black, disgraced ex-cop seeking revenge.

However, there are still several interesting parallels between Dorner and Douglas' character from the 20-year-old film:

  • Both are divorced, frustrated, unemployed men formerly recruited in national security-related jobs.
  • Both are the subject of a manhunt by the Los Angeles Police Department. 
  • Both are vocally anti-racist and violently opposed to the expression thereof.
  • Both have a sweeping sense of self-justification for their actions.
  • If reports tonight are to be believed, both men finally get backed into corners by the police before the inevitable climax.
  • And as seen below, both share the ability to conjure up a detailed rant a moment's notice:

Recently, I also read about the rise and fall of the spec script market in Hollywood, and how the film industry currently wants to make safe bets by throwing money at recognizable subject matter.

Considering the depressingly quick turnaround between Osama Bin Laden's death and "Zero Dark Thirty" - and incidentally, Dorner's own background in national security clearances and references to using the same asymmetrical warfare tactics as al-Qaeda - we can reasonably expect Kathryn Bigelow's take on this whole saga by Summer 2014.

...unless Joel Schumacher isn't opposed to filming a script that looks awfully familiar.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Public-Private Partnerships and the CTA

My latest piece for Gapers Block examines Chicago's upcoming Public-Private Partnerships to upgrade the city's public transportation infrastructure.
So far, there's no word on whether CTA or Pace fare structures will change as a result of the switch to Ventra, or what sort of potentially controversial funding schemes will have to take place in order for an investor to back the Red and Purple Line projects. However, this hasn't stopped Cubic's own blog from proclaiming P3s (and specifically, Chicago's CTA projects) as "The Future of Transportation Funding."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Bloody Valentine: An Unintentional Music Industry Cautionary Tale

Last night, My Bloody Valentine released a new record for the first time in over two decades.

The news that the record was available to order through their website soon turned into reports of the website crashing, followed by waves of complaints (including ones from yours truly) that the website couldn't process their online order.

Thankfully, the band simultaneously uploaded the new tracks on their official YouTube account for the world to hear.

If you're a fan, I would highly recommend listening to the new record yourself before the inevitable deluge of MBV commentary that will hit the internet in the coming days. I'm sure most of it will focus on their musical legacy, the comparisons to "Loveless", the supposed quirkiness of lead songwriter/visionary Kevin Shields, the parameters of the "shoegaze" genre, how "mbv" sounds too different/not different enough from their last release, etc.

The angle I hope music writers pay attention to, however, is the band's contentious history with the music industry - one that, on multiple occasions, almost completely sabotaged their ability to release their best work the way it was meant to be heard.

After all, if you read through relatively recent interviews with Shields, a cautionary and all-too-familiar music industry tale emerges.

Basically, you have a band of Dublin-based, drug and party-fueled squatters in the late 80's who start to get buzz over their new sonic and musical direction. What follows (at various points) is the band rejecting offers from two major labels; recording a seminal record over two years and purportedly bankrupting their label and pissing off numerous engineers in the process; having their recordings and tapes confiscated due to debts and lack of money; band tensions and near break-ups; their label being purchased by a major label; an aborted drum 'n' bass-influenced record, Shields leaving the band for legal reasons; signing to a different label and battling over access over the original analog tapes (in which the label denies their existence until threat of legal action); years and years of promising a new record; reuniting for a handful of live appearances that reaffirm their mythic reputation; more promises of a new record to the point of it becoming a running joke in certain music circles; finally calling everyone's bluff on the eve of a string of live appearances in Japan.

Granted, we do live in an age of endless reunion tours. But just a fraction of the My Bloody Valentine legal story would destroy most bands beyond reconciliation. Given this historical context, it's incredible that "mbv" was ever released to begin with, and that Shields even bothered to continue work on a record he started recording when he was nearly half his age.

In a Pitchfork interview, Shields sums up his thoughts about the music industry:
I'm no victim here-- this is just the way it is for everybody. It's a bit like being in the middle of a battlefield and getting shot in the arm and going, "Why me?" I mean, to put it very, very, very simply: The corporate system is fully psychopathic, and any creative people who enter into business with any of these organizations come up against a lifetime of issues. You just deal with it as you go along. It'll keep on happening until people reorganize the organizations.
And in regards to his seemingly unusual productivity gap, Shields told Quietus:
If for some reason I can't make a great record, I won't make a record at all. Because all you get is a little bit of money, which goes really fast anyway. It's easier to do nothing and live on nothing than it is to do something and live on something when you're running around compromising.


It's like, being on the dole is better than being in a shit job, so long as you've got an interest in your life. Because if you're in a shit job you don't really have that much more money, and then after a few years your will to live begins to dissipate. The idea that it's good to do stuff just for the sake of doing it, it's a myth, I think. It's a lie. It's a very 80s concept – everything, everything being about productivity. The whole underground was about that too: groups were always saying "do stuff, do stuff, don't just sit around!" Well, I don't believe in that. Even though I know it feels brilliant and I love it. I just... don't believe in it.
I don't know who technically owns the publishing and distribution rights to "mbv" right now. But for all of last night's flack about their website issues, going through Sunshine HQ and YouTube may have been the band's best option for controlling the distribution of their new work, while adapting to the current internet-free-for-all era of the music industry.

Even aspiring musicians who lack the status and mythology of a band like My Bloody Valentine can (and really should) learn a few things about what got them where they are now - and where to avoid music industry exploitation wherever possible.

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