For Your Consideration: VR Repeat of the 90’s, Carbon-Fiber Spider-Silk, Photoshop Beauty, Sir Ken on Education Reform

The goal is twice weekly. However, life often conspires against my ability to read and distill enough information to crank out this newsletter. I will pick up and carry on as life allows and I hope you’ll still take a look when it shows up, however infrequently.

1. The VR resurgence is making the same mistakes it did in the 1990’s
Personally I’m way more interested in the near-term applications for augmented reality than I am for immersive virtual reality. I’ve been a VR booster since the 90’s when REND 386 and a Nintendo Power Glove were the pinnacle of DIY virtual reality.

Don’t let VR go wrong again!” is a blog post you should read right now, because it’s by Jacquelyn “Jacki” Morie, a VR pioneer who sees the same mistakes being made by Oculus Rift and other leaders of the VR industry that caused the technology to hit a trough of disillusionment in the early 90s. Part of the problem is a resurgence of breathless headlines like “Could Oculus Rift bring people back from the dead?” (yes, really) which inevitably lead to disaster:

“What sensational headlines like these do is create extremely unreasonable expectations for VR – the same thing that happened towards the end of the 1990s in VR’s first popularization,” she writes. “When those promises don’t pan out, then people are disappointed and things start to falter.”

Another part of the problem is a generation gap, because many of today’s VR industry leaders were barely around for VR’s first wave. (Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey was born in 1992.)

“That’s a big part of it,” Jacki tells me, “but the other part is people with a long history in film and related media who want to take what they know and ride the VR wave. That is why we have Cinematic VR – which is not really interactive, immersive VR as VR can really be experienced.”

Another problem is that the tech press is focused too much on covering venture funding of VR, as opposed to VR innovators: “I’d like to see more people really pushing the envelope on what VR could be. And I’d like the press to follow those people and their work, rather than just reporting on who got the latest big round of VC financing. VCs are not really investing in the full potential of VR – but on what today’s media consumers know and feel comfortable with – just put into a sexy HMD. I don’t have high hopes for the press doing that though.”

2. Feed Spiders Carbon Nanotubes and Graphene to get super-silk
And what if we feed the same to Silkworms? No more dry-clean only?

Spider silk is one of the more extraordinary materials known to science. The protein fiber, spun by spiders to make webs, is stronger than almost anything that humans can make.

The dragline silk spiders use to make a web’s outer rim and spokes is amazing stuff. It matches high-grade alloy steel for tensile strength but is about a sixth as dense. It is also highly ductile, sometimes capable of stretching to five times its length.

This combination of strength and ductility makes spider silk extremely tough, matching the toughness of state-of-the-art carbon fibers such as Kevlar.

So it goes without saying that the ability to make spider silk even stronger and tougher would be a significant scientific coup. Which is why the work of Emiliano Lepore at the University of Trento in Italy and a few pals is something of a jaw-dropper.

These guys have found a way to incorporate carbon nanotubes and graphene into spider silk and increase its strength and toughness beyond anything that has been possible before. The resulting material has properties such as fracture strength, Young’s modulus, and toughness modulus higher than anything ever measured.

The team’s approach is relatively straightforward. They started with 15 Pholcidae spiders, collected from the Italian countryside, which they kept in controlled conditions in their lab. They collected samples of dragline silk produced by these spiders as a reference.

The team then used a neat trick to introduce carbon nanotubes and graphene flakes into the spider silk. They simply sprayed the spiders with water containing the nanotubes or flakes and then measured the mechanical properties of the silk that the spiders produced.

For each strand of silk, they fixed the fiber between two C-shaped cardboard holders and placed it in a device that can measure the load on a fiber with a resolution of 15 nano-newtons and any fiber displacement with a resolution of 0.1 nanometers.

The results make for impressive reading. “We measure a fracture strength up to 5.4 GPa, a Young’s modulus up to 47.8 GPa and a toughness modulus up to 2.1 GPa,” say Lepore and co. “This is the highest toughness modulus for a fibre, surpassing synthetic polymeric high performance fibres (e.g. Kelvar49) and even the current toughest knotted fibers,” they say.

In other words, giving spiders water that is infused with carbon nanotubes makes them weave silk stronger than any known fiber.

3. Time-Lapse View of Creating Impossible Beauty Standards

Photoshop celebrated its 25th anniversary recently with a video showing off its positive contributions to the world, such as hobbit-effects. The reason we need to be reminded of the technology’s airbrushing benefits is because Photoshop is also frequently used to create impossible standards of beauty—specifically in women. A new series of video has just showed up online to provide an in-depth look at what goes ion in the upper echelon of imperfection-elimination.

Elizabeth Moss (nope, not that Elisabeth Moss) is a professional retouch wizard who has worked with magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, and she recently created a behind-the-scenes video showing off what goes into the craft at her level. Over the course of three time-lapse videos, made with her studio RARE Digital Art, Moss distills hours and hours of meticulous detail work down to a matter of minutes. Some of the differences are subtler than what we’ve seen before.

4. Sir Ken Robinson on Education Reform

Q: What kind of education are you talking about?

A: It’s to make education more personalized for students and more customized to the communities in which they are part of. The reason I say that is that education has become, over the past 20 years particularly, increasingly seen as kind of a strategic issue for governments. Years ago, countries didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in other countries in terms of education. People in France weren’t much interested in what was happening in Germany and Italy …. Nowadays people compare the systems like they are defense policies or economic policies, and it is because people all around the world recognize that education is absolutely fundamental to economic growth. In fact, it is fundamental to the social fabric, fundamental to cultural development and so on. And the interest in all of these things has been driven very hard by the publication of these league tables by the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] and PISA [the international test]. You now, seriously, have secretaries of state in America wringing their hands that we are 17th or 18th or 20th, whatever it is this time around [on PISA] in science and math and so on. Education has become a big strategic issue.

Secondly, therefore, governments at the state and federal level have taken the reins of education in a very significant sort of way. It began in this country with the report in the Reagan administration, “A Nation at Risk,” when there was this massive concern that, as they put it, schools in this country were “drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.” No Child Left Behind was part of that, too. So everyone knows education is important and governments have got deeply involved in trying to fix it. My argument is that it is important to fix it, it is important for not only economic reasons and all the other reasons. But strategies the governments around the world have adopted for the most part, including this one, have been completely back to front, and have been actually entirely counterproductive.

If you look at measures that No Child Left Behind was intended to be judged by … this whole standards movement has been at best a very partial success but in other ways a catastrophic [failure]… We have got and have had appalling high levels of non-graduation, terrible rates of turnovers and resignations  among teachers and principals, and a profession that has been in many ways demoralized by the whole process. … And what lies behind that is the standards movement. It’s well intentioned to raise standards, but the mistake it makes is that it fails to recognize that education is not a mechanical impersonal process that can improved by tweaking standards and regularly testing. … It’s a human process. It’s real people going through the system and whether the system takes into account who they are, what engages them, isn’t incidental. It is the core of what education is.

“Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.” -Earl Nightingale


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