416-479-0074

How Much Do You Love Tortillas?

How Much Do You Love Tortillas?

tortillas

It took me a good couple days to believe this in-development appliance was real, and not from The Onion – but once I did, I was staggered by it. The tubby little box follows a proven kitchen appliance formula: it lives on your counter, accepts single-use pods into its top, and in a few seconds, dispenses a fresh, hot … tortilla?
Dubbed the Flatev, the tortilla maker was developed by Carlos Ruiz, who was confronted by a dearth of authentic Mexican cuisine when he moved to Switzerland. He attempted to make tortillas by hand with his mother’s recipe, with Infomercial-Fail-like results. A fan of the Keurig, Carlos envisioned a tortilla maker that would take the mess and labour out of the whole process, much like the revolutionary coffeemaker. 
Unlike the Keurig, the Flatev’s website assures us, the used dough pods will be recyclable. In addition, the dough inside the pods will be organic and preservative-free – which, the developers enthuse, produces a significant difference in flavor from pre-made supermarket tortillas.
Gee-whiz factor aside, I have a bit of a mental block about this. This is a gadget for a very specific sub-set of the population: people who a) eat lots of tortillas, b) are hung up about the freshness of said tortillas, and c) have enough money to not just purchase this one-purpose machine, but to afford a home with a kitchen big enough that it doesn’t take up all the counter space! (I may be biased, I also loathe Keurigs.)
But I also think of what users of the Flatev might miss out on by letting a machine take over. Progress is great. But it’s one thing to have your weekly trip to the creek with a washboard and lump of soap replaced by a washing machine; it’s another entirely to miss out on the fascination of trying a new skill, and the pride when your unbalanced, weird looking tortillas start getting better and better!
However, I would not turn down a tortilla, whether hand- or machine-made. Here’s hoping the Flatev crew gets lots of pre-orders: It would be worth seeing if this little guy lives up to the dream.

The Strandbeest — A New Form of Life

strandbeest life form

Dutch artist Theo Jansen has created what he posits is a new group of living creatures through his art: the Strandbeests, walking sculptures of lightweight plastic tubing, that “feed” off windpower and spend their natural lives frolicking in the tidelines of northern beaches! 
 
Strandbeests can be quite complicated in structure, but their operation is straightforward: wind caught in the sail-like fins on the sculptures’ backs oscillates their (many!) legs and allows for side-to-side movement. The Strandbeests live on the damp sand of beaches; intake pipes detect when they venture too far into dunes or water, causing them to careen the other way to keep themselves safe.
 
The creations really need to be seen in action: check out the artist’s website here for video evidence. They do look very much alive — and that is what intrigues me most about this project. Jansen envisions creating whole herds of these sculptures, and setting them free on beaches where they will live out their natural “lifespans” feeding and journeying. He also considers them to have a primitive “brain:” the step counter that helps a Strandbeest remember where it last encountered water. Could these sculptures actually be considered living things, by this definition? It would be a different kind of artificial life than that which we are used to contemplating — and perhaps dreading — more peaceful, and environmentally attuned, perhaps?  It’s interesting to contemplate, and life-form or no, admire as sculptural art.

The Great Hoverboard Turnover

Hoverboard


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.

Cranes.

Airplanes.

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!

A New Tractor Beam at the Speed of Sound

Tractor beam

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.

Ways to focus

focus

Dear readers, I have a confession to make: these weekly missives in which I expound upon the latest tech-related news of the weird that has caught my eye, and that I think you might find just as diverting, sometimes do not come easy. More often than not, I am sometimeWays to focuss less-than-inspired: the right words elude me; the empty word processing page sits brightly in mockery. I try to write an introductory paragraph three times over, then have to take a break for a coffee or possibly a sandwich lest I become overwhelmed by existential despair.

Which is why I was very interested to see this article out of Psychology Today, which breaks down the actual, physical steps one can take to more easily enter that mental sweet spot — the state of maximum concentration and minimum effort that you may have heard athletes call “the Zone,” or psychologists “flow.” Practical-minded me appreciates that, though the state itself seems magical, the three steps require casting no spells.

My personal favourite step is charming in its direct permissiveness: “build yourself a fortress against interruption.” Our working lives often require such endless interruptibility (see our recent article about multitasking) that taking the time to physically shut the world out seem like sacrilege. But author Christine L. Carter exhorts us to take care of:

“Anything that might distract or tempt you away from your task […] before you drop into The Zone. Think of yourself as going on a road trip: What will make you pull over before you reach your destination? Will you need to plug your computer in? Get a tissue? Adjust the thermostat? Something as small as an itchy tag on the back of your shirt can weaken your focus if you are tempted to go to the bathroom to cut it off. Here is what I have to do before I find flow: Clear my desk of anything that might distract me. Remove yesterday’s coffee cup, close books, put pens away, stack papers into a deceptively neat pile. As I do this, I note anything on my task list that will need attention later, and make a time when I will attend to it.”

The other two (only two!) steps also offer great tips for finding your elusive flow, allowing you to work at your peak efficiency, while actually having fun doing it. This, I believe, is a state we workers deserve to be in, and I look forward to trying the tips extensively. How about you?