Paper Powers Fantastic Future? Storing Electricity in a Page

Paper Powers Fantastic Future? Storing Electricity in a Page

Moore’s Law — the projection that digital performance and capacity can be expected to double every 18 months — is always exciting to think about. But each new technological breakthrough and refinement we’re sure to cook up will also have a more mundane flip side: we will also have to dream up equally innovative ways to make them “go.”

Researchers at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University, Sweden, have dreamed up such an energy storage device, and it’s pretty exciting on its own merits. They call it “power papers:” made of easily sourced materials, and both thin and strong enough to be folded into an origami swan (!), it can hold up to 1 F, and can be used in challenging storage situations:

The structural foundation of the material is nanocellulose, which is cellulose fibres which, using high-pressure water, are broken down into fibres as thin as 20 nm in diameter. With the cellulose fibres in a solution of water, an electrically charged polymer (PEDOT:PSS), also in a water solution, is added. […]

The new cellulose-polymer material has set a new world record in simultaneous conductivity for ions and electrons, which explains its exceptional capacity for energy storage. It also opens the door to continued development toward even higher capacity. […]It is light in weight, it requires no dangerous chemicals or heavy metals and it is waterproof.”

The next step for development is to create an industrial production process, to begin churning out power paper for innovations that require a sustainable, flexible, and efficient source of power. I can already think of a handful of applications for power paper – but I suppose the most exciting ones lie in the future, and our minds can’t even conceive of them yet. I can’t wait!

Re-Imagining a Less Addictive Internet

As any of us who’ve been sucked into a YouTube fugue know, it’s hard to escape the self-recrimination cycle of online overuse. We blame ourselves for our lack of self-control – and the many lifehacking tips and even hilarious cartoons on the subject support that sense of personal failure.

But, Michael Schulson argues (in his recent article “User Behaviour” in Aeon), it’s becoming more apparent that people get addicted to the Internet because of the nature of the experience itself, and not because they’re weak. Moreover, that addictive nature is engineered to hook as many users as hard as possible, all in aid of upping page views and increasing ad revenue. We are living in a digital world where having an item for sale in a website’s “room” is less lucrative than monetizing entry through its “door”:

“They equip them with sensors. Each time you go through one, someone gets paid. Immediately, some people will start adding a lot of new doors. Other people will build rooms that are largely empty, but that function as waystations, designed to get as many people as possible to enter and leave. […]

We call these doors ‘advertisements’. This architecture creates a rather strange effect, because while the ostensible goal of Slate is to get people into its rooms to read fine journalism, it actually gets paid by attracting people and then quickly sending them out – either to an advertiser’s website, or to another article. […]

At some point, you no longer make money by building excellent rooms. You make money by figuring out how to get people to pass through as many doors as possible – to have them scanning across the web, that scrolling hallway of doors, in a state of constant motion, click-click-clicking away.”

Schulson’s ultimate recommendation is to acknowledge the true cause of Internet addiction, and require websites and companies to assist users in not falling into the dopamine trap – if that’s not what they came to say, Wikipedia, to do. This could range from mandating a “distraction dashboard,” where users could set their own limits and reminder times before they start surfing; to a self-reporting function, where time spent (or wasted) is quantified clearly for a user – after all, Twitter, Facebook, and gaming sites already generate that info for themselves.

In short, he advises regulation. That sounds scary, but it could actually open the Internet experience up to more functionality for its users – if we could just end the judgmental culture surrounding us.

The Great Hoverboard Turnover

You may call them “hoverboards,” or “smart balance wheels,” or another catchy name – whatever they are, on my last foray into downtown Toronto I witnessed a flock of people wheeling up the sidewalk on these colourful, seemingly physics-defying things as though they had been born wearing them.  I was so astonished at the futuristic sight I stopped dead!

At the time, I attributed my lack of familiarity with these hoverboards to my simple country living. But, as this report from Cory Doctorow indicates, even in jaded urban centres folks are gobsmacked at this technology’s overnight appearance — and subsequently diving into purchases, especially for the holidays. Doctorow theorizes that hoverboards — popular with Chinese youth and Vine and Youtube celebrities worldwide — are an early real-world example of a brand new manufacturing model: one that we are going to see a lot more of in the developing economic climate.

Tech reporter Joseph Bernstein dubs the process “memeufacturing,” which speaks to the almost biological propagation of these items and the idea behind them. The manufacturing infrastructure and social network in southern China (and mostly in Shenzhen) is so responsive that, as soon as a new media star features a novel piece of technology on, say, Instagram, thousands of factories can convert almost instantly to produce that item, using components of the products they used to make. And, most interestingly to Doctorow, they are using the format of “copying” — without an original to copy. This leads to infinite variation, and a quick overwhelming of the market:

“ I remember visiting China in 2007 and seeing a million bizarre variants on Ipods, which were the hot category at the time. That story was easy to understand: Apple spent a fortune opening a market for music players of a certain size and shape. China’s entrepreneurs, living in a bubble where Apple’s patents and trademarks were largely unenforceable, set to copying that design, and (this is the important part) varying it. […]

But hoverboards are different: they are knockoffs without an original. The copies of the ‘original’ hoverboard (if anyone can ever agree on what that was) created the market, and they were already varied and mutated. There was never a moment at which all the bus-shelters and billboards touted an ideal, original hoverboard that the bottom-feeders started to nibble away at. […]

They’re part of a new category of hyperspeed gadgets — like ecigs and LED lightbulbs — that have no authoritative version. Products that start life as commodities.

A fun science fiction exercise is to imagine things that are hard and formalized and regulated being replaced with things that are fluid and bottom up. Imagine what a car would look like if it were made this way. Imagine prefab buildings.



It’s a funny old, new, world.”

Over the course of the last six months the supply chain in China has completely flooded; and with hoverboards that retail in North America, Australia, and Europe for the equivalent of $1000 per unit, who knows how long the demand will last? But, it is central to Doctorow’s and Bernstein’s arguments that this method of trade is not going away. When the new hot item makes itself known, the infrastructure will turn on a dime again, and the hoverboard will be left in. I’ll be keeping that in mind this shopping season!

Walking Distracted Thanks to Tech: Or, Th— LOOK OUT!

Those of you who are longtime readers know the saga of my most recent walking injury (saga here). When it happened, I consoled myself with the knowledge that it was an accident, the result of a perfect storm of uneven terrain and the actions of two huge and incredibly exuberant dogs.  Now that I’m recovered, I realize I’ve been made very aware of how quickly something can go wrong while just walking around. Sometimes I’m even upset by the actions of other pedestrians I see, texting or otherwise interacting with personal tech when they should be watching where they’re going! “Don’t they know that’s a bad idea?!”  I think, mentally shaking my fist at someone so absorbed in Twitter they nearly strolled straight into a lamppost after crossing a busy intersection without even looking. The thing is — says a new study on distracted walking — they may not; or, if they do, they more readily acknowledge the maddening behaviour in others before themselves.

The study was done by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (the folks who have to clean up after you when you text yourself off a curb), and pulled statistics on self-reported and observed incidents in major American urban centres.  Participants said they have witnessed various acts of distracted walking at a higher rate (an average of 40% higher) than they felt they themselves committed. Participants were also divided generationally in their belief of how serious distracted walking is: 81% of those older than 35 were convinced, compared to 70% of Millennials. (Millennials were also more inclined to think distracted walking mishaps to be “funny” and “embarrassing,” the whippersnappers.) Still, both rates are comparatively high – so why do we still do it?

“One of challenges in combatting distracted walking may be that Americans are overly confident in their ability to multitask. When asked why they walk distracted, 48 percent of respondents say ‘they just don’t think about it,’ 28 percent feel ‘they can walk and do other things,’ and 22 percent ‘are busy and want to use their time productively.’
Among distracted walking behaviors, 75 percent of respondents say they themselves ‘usually/always’ or ‘sometimes’ have ‘active conversations’ with another person they are walking with, making this the most common distracted walking behavior people admit to doing themselves.”

So, over-confidence and friendliness will result in broken bones…  Kidding!:  We just need to keep consequences in mind when we deal with our devices on the go.  Distraction can result in a tumble, and, in my experience a tumble can mean trouble. Dear readers, as the sidewalks begin to ice over and our lives get busier – do be careful out there!

A new use for packing tape

With recent advancements in the field, it seems we can 3D-print basically anything: art, arms, even food! This is true as long as said anything is small. But what if you need to visualize a (much) larger object, and a 3D-printed scale model doesn’t fit the bill?

Researchers out of the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, have devised a solution to this problem, by inventing a kind of 3D printer of their own. Called the Protopiper, this handheld system “sketches” room-sized objects out of simple packing tape, allowing for a quick and intuitive visualization of say, what type of Ikea couch will best fit in your weirdly laid-out living room.

The Protopiper works as a tiny assembly line, in which cogs pull tape from a roll, form it into a cylinder, seal the edges, and then cut the ends into sticky wings that can then be securely applied to surfaces — including other “pipes.” The pipes can be bent to form hinges, and extruded to exact lengths, making the sketching of boxes straightforward. Pipes can also be extruded freehand, allowing for the kind of unbridled creativity the creators initially tested for. From their fascinating whitepaper:

“Participants’ task was to create physical to-scale designs. Participants were given the following instructions: ‘You are throwing a party at your house with the motto “beach party”. Build objects to transform your house for the party.’ Participants were given approximately 60 minutes. […]

All participants succeeded at creating objects using protopiper. Throughout the experiment, participants repeatedly used their bodies and/or the room for reference. One participant, for example, created a sunhat directly on the head of another participant. […]Yet another team created a beach bar; again by sketching at actual scale they were able to get all dimensions right, such as the height of the bar. The shortboard of this participant, in contrast, did not come out at the right scale—this, however, might be more indicative of the participant’s (lack of) experience surfing as our lab is located 1000 miles off the next surfable coast.”

Shenanigans aside, the Protopiper lets users create simple mechanisms and model objects in a fast and cost-effective way, while learning about the basic rules of construction. The resulting models can then be scanned with a mobile app, and enough of their geometry extracted to effectively manufacture a final, real-world version!

I admire the spirit and attitude of the researchers involved: it takes a set of unusual minds to see the potential for a tiki bar in a roll of packing tape. I personally can’t wait for Protopiper to exit the, um, proto-type phase — I feel there’s a life-sized model of the Eiffel Tower somewhere in my future.

A New Tractor Beam at the Speed of Sound

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in this space before, I’m quite fond of pointing out all the ways we are now living in the future Star Trek predicted. From our handheld communicators (cellphones), to PADDs (tablets), to heck, warp drive, we’re reaping the real-world results Gene Roddenberry’s imagination sowed.

And now, we may actually be developing a practical tractor beam! A team out of Spain’s Public University of Navarre and the University of Bristol has published the results of their experiment, in which they arranged tiny transducers to emit inaudible sound waves in several different patterns, called “traps.” The most effective traps created sound waves that actually lifted Styrofoam beads off the experimental surface.

The experiment is a game-changer in that

“‘[a]ll previous levitators had to surround the particle with acoustic elements, which was cumbersome for some kind of manipulations,’ says study leader Asier Marzo. […]‘Our technique, however, only requires sound waves from one side. It’s like a laser—you can levitate particles, but with a single beam.’[…]

‘Basically we copied the principle of light holograms to create these acoustic holograms,’ says Marzo.”

With this easier-to-manipulate (and, let’s face it, a smaller and therefore less expensive) set up, we could soon see the tractor beam applied to laboratory contexts, or even medicine and space travel. But for the latter, we definitely need to get on that warp drive first.

Work & effort are not the same, it’s all about balance

A few weeks ago I eluded to a new section on our website introducing a new initiative. And then a couple weeks ago we launched our new website with the new Lifestyle Workplace or TLW for short. It seems that we are (as usual) ahead of the curve and have just defined a product that more & more are writing about. For instance:

Outwitting the “Effort Trap” in your work

I found Oliver Burkeman’s article “No One Cares How Hard You Work” via the excellent finance blog The Billfold but its ideas resonate way beyond the money aspect of work. I think the attitude of Burkeman’s article is very much in the air, as many of us right now are searching for that elusive work-life balance.

Burkeman presents an interesting premise: Socialization has led us to believe that tired feeling as you sink gratefully into that bus seat at the end of a long day at the office signals a job well done. But it may simply signal energy lost — most likely frittered away — on busywork.

“Call it the ‘Effort Trap:’ it’s dangerously easy to feel as though a 10-hour day spent plowing through your inbox, or catching up on calls, was much more worthwhile than two hours spent in deep concentration on hard thinking, followed by a leisurely afternoon off. Yet any writer, designer or web developer will tell you it’s the two focused hours that pay most—both in terms of money and fulfillment. […]

Indeed, meaningful work doesn’t always lead to exhaustion at all: a few hours of absorption in it can be actively energizing—so if you’re judging your output by your tiredness, you’re sure to be misled.”

We are hardwired to find this sense of false accomplishment rewarding, and we reward others in our lives for it. (Burkeman cites Dan Ariely’s tale of a locksmith who as he got better — and therefore more efficient — at his job, started getting smaller tips, because his clients associated his speedier calls with doing less “work.”

It will take a lot of (wait for it) work to stop thinking about work in terms of effort expended. Experts like Burkeman and Ariely believe that, if we can, the sense of reward we will reap will be even greater.

The Uphill Battle of Women in the Sciences

Woman technologist

I recently communicated with one of my connections within LinkedIn, “catching up” and commiserating with her on the direction in which our preferred software platform (Lotus Notes, or whatever they call it, that we both program in) is going in the ever changing marketplace. What’s really interesting is how we originally “met” on LinkedIn – we are both nerd girls that like to program and we agreed to “stick together”!

As a former chemist, I’m always interested in hearing about other women in science and technology. Still to this day, I am in the minority, if not the only woman, in the room of a technical session. If the feminist movement of the 20th century has taught us anything, it’s that “the personal is political”; I often find that the best illumination of field-wide trends to be women’s ground level experiences.

Eileen Pollack’s (via The New York Times) is particularly illustrative, especially of the fact that bias against women in tech-y fields has not abated since her own school days in the early ‘70’s. (link)

The one-time student of physics at Yale, and now novelist and professor of creative writing, tells the story of the dearth of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) from her perspective. She felt unprepared for physics at Yale from the get-go, having had to rely on her own auto-didactic efforts when her high school teachers refused to let her into higher science classes, because “girls never go on in science and math.” Through her own efforts she graduated summa cum laude, but was not encouraged to pursue graduate studies, and was so demoralized by her experience that she never returned to the field.

Though there are more support systems for young women studying sciences today, Pollack still uncovers a “slow drumbeat of being under-appreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success” that chases many scholars away. (The quote is from Meg Urry, astrophysicist and current chair of the Yale physics department.) Pollack continues:

I was dismayed to find that the cultural and psychological factors that I experienced in the ’70’s not only persist but also seem all the more pernicious in a society in which women are told that nothing is preventing them from succeeding in any field. If anything, the pressures to be conventionally feminine seem even more intense now than when I was young.

I can think of many instances in my life where I had to fight others’ assumptions about my chemistry and technical talent, because of my gender, but I’d hoped things had changed for the new generation. Here’s hoping the field soon learns to appreciate women in science — the more minds at work, the better for all of us!

Hands-Free Driving May Not Be So Distraction-Free

In an effort to curb accidents due to distracted driving, many jurisdictions — DFC’s home province of Ontario included — have created laws penalizing the use of hand-held devices while on the road. This has led to a plethora of “smart” vehicle interfaces, like Uconnect and MyLink, and smartphone link-ups like Siri and Google Now, that help you do all the things you need to (program your GPS, update your Facebook, text your dining companions that you’re going to be late) by voice command. This development is based on the assumption that hands-free means less distracted, and therefore safer.

The assumption may need reexamining in light of the latest two studies (in a series of six) out of the University of Utah, funded by AAA: in-car voice command systems are proving distracting in their own way, sometimes causing a driver’s attention to take up to 27 (!) seconds to come back to the road. This is due to the fact that most of the interfaces aren’t sophisticated enough for their intended uses, and have trouble processing verbal commands. This forces drivers into longer, clunkier, and more frustrating interactions with them.

The studies investigated the relationships between drivers and vehicle interfaces, assigning points based on the complexity of the task,

“[… a] lower number for using voice commands only to make calls or change music when driving — the same tasks done with the in-car systems — and a higher number that also included using smartphones to send texts by voice commands.

Google Now rated highly distracting (3.0, 3.3), as did Apple Siri (3.4, 3.7), while Microsoft Cortana rated highly to very highly distracting (3.8, 4.1).

[Senior author Professor David] Strayer says of both in-car information systems and smartphone personal assistants: ‘These systems are often very difficult to use, especially if you’re just trying to entertain yourself. … The vast majority of people we tested ended up being frustrated by the complexity and error-prone nature of the systems.’”

The studies also found that older drivers, whose attention spans are perhaps less used to the incursions of technology, are more distracted than younger drivers by their cars’ “infotainment” systems. The reactions of both age groups point to the need to reverse the trend of maximum connectivity to “fun” while driving. Eliminating texting, music selection, Facebook updating and other unnecessary actions will allow systems to become better at supporting the driving experience — and allowing drivers to pay attention to what’s in front of them.

The Trials of Telepresence

We at DFC chuckled along with most of the audience of Community’s “Laws of Robotics & Party Rights” episode, in which the inherent hilarity of telepresence robots is exploited by h aving a convicted felon attend Greendale Community College via “an iPad on a stick,” and ineffectually try to murder Jeff Winger.(Seriously, convict Willy’s facial expression as his gentle bumps fail to send Jeff flying down the stairs is worth the price of admission!)

But, now that the idea has had the chance to mellow, some actual early adopters are reporting back from the real-world, showing us what may be the new new way of going to work.

These fearless folks include Emily Dreyfuss, who has documented her remote working experience from her desk in Boston, into a telepresence robot at her employer Wired’s headquarters in San Francisco. Dreyfuss’ avatar, which she dubs “EmBot,” is a Double, the model of telepresence robot sold by Apple and used in the above Community episode.

At first, things go well. Dreyfuss is struck by how in the office she feels: closer to brainstorming sessions, impulsive visits with her editor, and behind the scenes chats. But there are also benefits to the distance: in particular, since the attached iPad shows only her face, no one she works with is visibly presented with the fact she is very pregnant — a physical state she has seen change relationships between coworkers before.

But then, spotty Wi-Fi and a malfunctioning unit conspire against her. One day at work, EmBot begins shaking violently:

“ ‘What is happening?’ Davey cried from her desk.

‘EmBot is having a seizure!’ I screamed into the computer. ‘I don’t know what to do!’ […]

I turned her off on my end, but Davey reported that she was still seizing on her own, face blank. She was like the body of a chicken, walking bloody around the yard after the chef cuts its head off. I implored Davey to find a button to turn her off. She did. She docked her. She’s docked now.

My heart won’t stop beating. Maybe EmBot is corrupted and corroded and my time with her is over. Maybe EmBot is a monster. I feel like I just had a seizure.’”

Dreyfuss’ physical connection with EmBot, so positive when first created, is a source of anxiety when EmBot fails. Like all human connections with technology, hers has a bright side and a dark side; and I wonder, if we are to have a seamless telepresence experience in the workplaces of the future, who needs to evolve more — the human or the robot?

June 2016 update: The folks who make Double have informed me that their first iteration, has been discontinued and Double 2 has taken its place. Here is an updated link to Apple for the iteration, Double 2.