Gift Idea From 1969: A Kitchen Computer

The end of the year is often a time for people to exchange presents and — of course — the rich want to buy each other the best presents. The Neiman Marcus company was famous for having a catalog of gift ideas. Many were what you’d consider normal gifts, but there were usually extreme ones, like a tank trunk filled with 100,000 gallons of cologne. One year, the strange gift was an authentic Chinese junk complete with sails and teak decks. They apparently sold three at $11,500 (in 1962 money, no less). Over the top? In 1969, they featured a kitchen computer.

Wait a minute! In 1969, computers were the purview of big companies, universities, and NASA, right? Well, not really. By that time, some industrial minicomputers were not millions of dollars but were still many thousands of dollars. The price in the catalog for the kitchen computer was $10,600. That’s about $86,000 in today’s money. The actual machine was a Honeywell 316, based on one of the computers that helped run the early Internet.

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VR Sickness: A New, Old Problem

Have you ever experienced dizziness, vertigo, or nausea while in a virtual reality experience? That’s VR sickness, and it’s a form of motion sickness. It is not a completely solved problem, and it affects people differently, but it all comes from the same root cause, and there are better and worse ways of dealing with it.

If you’ve experienced a sudden onset of VR sickness, it was most likely triggered by flying, sliding, or some other kind of movement in VR that caused a strong and sudden feeling of vertigo or dizziness. Or perhaps it was not sudden, and was more like a vague unease that crept up, leaving you nauseated and unwell.

Just like car sickness or sea sickness, people are differently sensitive. But the reason it happens is not a mystery; it all comes down to how the human body interprets and reacts to a particular kind of sensory mismatch.

Why Does It Happen?

The human body’s vestibular system is responsible for our sense of balance. It is in turn responsible for many boring, but important, tasks such as not falling over. To fulfill this responsibility, the brain interprets a mix of sensory information and uses it to build a sense of the body, its movements, and how it fits in to the world around it.

These sensory inputs come from the inner ear, the body, and the eyes. Usually these inputs are in agreement, or they disagree so politely that the brain can confidently make a ruling and carry on without bothering anyone. But what if there is a nontrivial conflict between those inputs, and the brain cannot make sense of whether it is moving or not? For example, if the eyes say the body is moving, but the joints and muscles and inner ear disagree? The result of that kind of conflict is to feel sick.

Common symptoms are dizziness, nausea, sweating, headache, and vomiting. These messy symptoms are purposeful, for the human body’s response to this particular kind of sensory mismatch is to assume it has ingested something poisonous, and go into a failure mode of “throw up, go lie down”. This is what is happening — to a greater or lesser degree — by those experiencing VR sickness.

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Spoofing LIDAR Could Blind Autonomous Vehicles To Obstacles

Humans manage to drive in an acceptable fashion using just two eyes and two ears to sense the world around them. Autonomous vehicles are kitted out with sensor packages altogether more complex. They typically rely on radar, lidar, ultrasonic sensors, or cameras all working in concert to detect the road conditions ahead.

While humans are pretty wily and difficult to fool, our robot driving friends are less robust. Some researchers are concerned that LiDAR sensors could be spoofed, hiding obstacles and tricking driverless cars into crashes, or worse.

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FDA’s Approval Of Cell Culture Chicken: The Rise Of Fresh Meat Without The Animal?

On November 14th of this year, the FDA cleared the path for Upside Foods to sell its cell-culture-based chicken products within the US. This is the first product of its kind to be cleared for commercial sale within the Americas, with only Singapore having previously cleared a similar product for sale, back in December of 2020. This latter product comes courtesy of another California start-up called Eat Just.

Since that initial approval in Singapore, Eat Just has begun to set up a 2,800 square meter (~30,000 square feet) production facility in Singapore that is scheduled to begin producing thousands of kilograms of slaughter-free meat starting in the first quarter of 2023. This would make it the top-runner in the cultured meat industry, which to this point has seen dozens of start-ups, but precious few actual products for sale.

With CEO Josh Tetrick of Eat Just projecting price equality between their cultured meat and meat from animals by 2030, could the FDA’s approval herald the dawn of slaughter-free meat? There are obviously still hurdles, but as we’ll see, the idea is not nearly as far-fetched as one might think.

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TV Repair By Mail

I don’t think there was ever a correspondence school called the “Close Cover Before Striking School” but since book matches — which used to be a thing when most people smoked — always had that text on them anyway perhaps there should have been. There was a time when electronic magazines, billboards, and even book matches were constantly bombarding us with ads to have a career in electronics. Or computers. Or TV repair. So while we think of distance learning as a new idea, really it is just the evolution of these old correspondence schools which date back quite some time.

How far exactly? Hard to say. There’s evidence of some distance learning going back as far as 1728. In 1837, there was a correspondence course to learn shorthand. By 1858, the University of London started its external program for correspondence work and the University of Chicago had a home study division in 1892.  Radio was an early choice of topic, too. In the United States, the United Wireless Telegraph company started a training school — later the Marconi Institute — in 1909. However, it is doubtful that there was any correspondence training going on there until much later.

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Interview: Stuart Semple On Pantone, Freetone, Colour, And Open Source

We recently covered the removal of Pantone colour support from the Adobe cloud products, with the two companies now expecting artists and designers to pay an extra subscription for a Pantone plugin or face losing their Pantone-coloured work to a sea of black blocks. Our coverage focused on our community, and on how the absurdity of a commercial entity attempting to assert ownership over colours would have no effect on us with our triple-byte RGB values.

Interview With An Artist And Pigment Activist

Freetone, 1280 liberated colours, Stuart Semple
The palette that could start a revolution.

It’s fair to say though that in our focus on hardware hackers and open source enthusiasts, we missed its effect on artists and designers. To rectify this omission we needed to step outside our field and talk to an artist, and in that context there’s an obvious person to interview.

Stuart Semple is probably one of the more famous contemporary British artists, but in relation to this story it’s his activism over the issue of colours and intellectual property that makes him an authority. He’s drawn attention to the issue by releasing his own art materials in colours that directly challenge those which companies have tried to claim for themselves, and is perhaps best known in our community for challenging Anish Kapoor’s exclusive licence for VantaBlack, the so-called “world’s blackest pigment”.

Most recently in response to the Adobe/Pantone controversy he’s released Freetone, a free plugin for the Adobe suite that in the words from its web page contains “1280 Liberated colours are extremely Pantoneish and reminiscent of those found in the most iconic colour book of all time. In fact it’s been argued that they are indistinguishable from those behind the Adobe paywall”. I had a phone conversation with him, in which he explained why Freetone had come into being.

Hackaday I understand Pantone is something used by designers, so I’ve worked for companies in the past where the designer would specify a Pantone index and it would appear on the screen, on the printed box, and on everything else identically. But why why do you as an artist use Pantone?

A rack of test tubes of blood-red paint
Art, activism, and a very red pigment.

Stuart Well, I use it in lots of ways. So I make a lot of screen prints as part of my art. So you know, if I’m working with a screen printer, I want to know that the print that they make of my work is the colour that I want it to be, so Pantone’s really useful for me for that.

But also, even with within the paints, so I just did a thing where I made some paints, which actually uses the blood of gay men. It was really important to me that the colour of the paint matched the colour of actual blood. So I was working with a lot of people, we’ve been collaborating, and I was working with some friends in New York on it, and we needed a common language.

The red I was talking about was the red they were talking about, and Pantone is super useful for that. In fact, it’s the go-to for that. I just did a record cover for Placebo, the band, that was produced for me by someone that prints, so I had to tell them what spot colours I wanted. So I had to tell them Pantone references, it’s the language they understand.

Hackaday So my next question relates to Freetone. Obviously, as as you’ve distributed it, it’s a Adobe plugin. How does it solve the problem? Because obviously, I can specify a Freetone colour, and anybody else with Freetone can tell yes, that’s that colour. But how do I then go to a printer who buys his inks with Pantone specifications and map one to the other?

An open Pantone swatch book in a fan
The Pantone swatch book which you’ll see in the hands of artists and designers everywhere. Céréales Killer CC BY-SA 3.0.

Stuart How it works is, if you download Freetone, you’ll find colours in there, and one of them will be called Sempletone 648C. Well, it’s exactly the same as Pantone 648C. If you do your work on the screen, use the Freetones, and then when you send it to the printer, it’s actually blatantly obvious to anyone that 648C is clearly apparent. If you’ve got the Pantone fan book and you look at the colours, it’s the same. 846C in mine is the same as 846C in the fan, in the Pantone book. I’d like to see them try and argue that they own it, but I don’t think they do in the name or the Pantone trademark, but these are Sempletones with a number. So I think it’s gonna be hard.

Hackaday My next question is probably getting more into the technology of it all. Do you think it will be possible to replace Pantone’s service completely? So if you took every Sempletone colour and threw it at a spectrometer and published the spectrum, would you then be able to say to an ink manufacturer or similar, here are the full technical details rather than just a colour, and does your paint correspond to this spectrum? I’m curious how far you could push open source in this line.

PySpectrometer version 2, showing mini spectroscope, 4 inch display and hand for scale
The PySpectrometer project, something for anyone with an interest in colour.

Stuart That’s really cool. I love it. Like, if you could just give them that spectral data, and if they’ve got a spectrometer they could measure it a their end. But there’s nothing that advanced at the moment, a lot of action is done by eye still. My answer is, I don’t see why not if there was a cool enough device. I don’t know if the spectrometer would be good enough to match it. I don’t see why not, I don’t see why you couldn’t publish the data. But it would have to be the whole spectral information and not just like an RGB value.

(At this point the interview digressed for a moment into a discussion of open-source spectrometers such as the Raspberry Pi project we featured recently, as Stuart’s lament was that a spectrometer can be an extremely expensive instrument. It isn’t the job of an interviewer to lead their interviewee so we’re skipping this part of the transcript, however I think we can all look forward to whatever uses Stuart makes of an affordable spectrometer. We’ll pick up the interview at the next question.)

Photoshop Pantone warning popup.
This widely shared screenshot represents the destruction of past work.

Hackaday One of the real problems with the whole Adobe suite, and this has happened in world as well with for instance the Autodesk CAD packages, is that they have gone into the cloud and become software as a subscription. So I understand completely, the frustration of artists at suddenly being told they have to pay an extra subscription to keep their Pantone support, and I’m particularly shocked to find that Photoshop isn’t just displaying black pixels over Pantone colours, I’m told it’s wiping out the Pantone information on saving. Do you think that anything in the open source software ecosystem comes close to replacing proprietary products like the Adobe suite for you as an artist?

Stuart Yes, 100%, there’s loads of stuff. I think open source is just the answer, I believe in freedom. And freedom means freedom to express yourself and freedom to own the thing and tweet the thing and change the thing and all the rest of it. So yeah, 100%. I think there’s actually better things than Photoshop, the problem we’ve got is that Adobe have the industry stranglehold. And if you want to work with someone, you have to be talking that language. And that’s still the problem. It’s like an operating system, but it’s got the monopoly.

So there are other things, for instance, on a Mac, there’s something called Pixelmator, which is as good as Photoshop in my opinion, I use it every day. It’s not free, but you buy it once, and that’s it, free updates. Like software used to be. And there are other things, like GIMP is amazing. It’s awesome, but it doesn’t really replace Photoshop.

A screenshot of GIMP
We all like using GIMP, perhaps other people could learn to love it too. (gimp.org)

Hackaday Here at Hackaday we can make noises about how wouldn’t it be great if the developers of GIMP or other software could stick Freetone into their products, because they don’t have Pantone as it’s licensed?

Stuart Yeah, that’d be a dream, wouldn’t it? I mean, why not? I made it for everybody. As far as I’m concerned, it’s out there, use it, change it. incorporate it, the more people the better, I think.

A lot of people use GIMP, and it’s good. Really good open source stuff that always has been. We know the future is in the open source stuff, proprietary stuff just won’t last, it’s just not adaptable. It’s putting greed and profits above the user, it can’t work. There’s no freedom in it.

Hackaday To me the most egregious thing is that as I understand it they will delete the Pantone information from your PSD.  This really shocked me.

Stuart They’re literally holding it hostage. It’s like 20 quid, or delete from your work, which is, wow. They’re not giving me anything, anyway. I’m renting the software, paying to use the software every month, it’s not free. And the licence fee is a lot. We’re already spending hundreds and hundreds a year on this software, probably about 800 quid a year. Another 20 quid, just to pen the work we make before. I mean, it’s our work! It’s pure corporate greed, isn’t it.

Hackaday Thank you very much for the interview.

As we wrapped up, I asked him about his Black 3.0 pigment, produced as a reaction to VantaBlack and Anish Kapoor. I was curious whether it might have a specially good infra-red response for headsinks or solar collectors, but sadly he informed me that it’s primarily a visual colour for artists. It’s very cool stuff, incredibly black, and I really want to get some to play with, but probably no better than a rattle can for heat purposes. Never mind, an engineer’s curiosity satisfied.

What’s Next, For Both Artists And Engineers?

Swatchbooker screenshot
Could SwatchBooker hold the answer?

Following the interview, it’s worth looking at the Freetone project from our side of the table as well as his. If we as a community would like to ensure that colours do not become ever more proprietary, then it is probably on us to ensure that where appropriate it is supported within our sphere. GIMP support for instance would at a stroke make open source software an easier choice for millions of artists and designers, and could I think be done relatively easily through its existing palette support. There’s SwatchBooker which appears to perform the necessary interchange, and I found the ASE2GIMP project which imports Adobe palettes into GIMP, but sadly I couldn’t make it work here. If GIMP shipped with a Freetone palette built-in, would that be too much of a development task to contemplate?

From Stuart’s side, having sat down and played with Freetone, if there’s one thing I could ask him it would be to release it as more than just an Adobe plugin, and to give it an open source licence. As it stands it’s a binary available for no charge through his web shop, I think that releasing it as a straightforward list, perhaps even as simple as a CSV file, would make it so much more accessible to developers. And coupled with an open source licence that allowed them to include it within their software, I think it would be unstopable. We’re not open source licence nerds here at Hackaday, but I’m guessing something that does the same for a palette as a library licence such as the LGPL does for libraries would be appropriate.

In our world we’re wrapped up in electronics and code, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that the work we do reaches way beyond our workbenches. If you’ve spent enough time in a hackerspace you’ll know that art and engineering are almost the two sides of the same coin, so it’s pleasing to find such a moment of crossover. Let’s hope Freetone support can find its way into the open source movement, and together we can keep the tentacles of yet another IP land grab at bay.

The Blood Factory: New Research May Open The Door To Artificial Blood

There were news stories afoot this week with somewhat breathless headlines that suggested a medical breakthrough was at hand: “In a 1st, two people receive transfusions of lab-grown blood cells.” A headline like that certainly catches the eye, especially as the holidays approach and the inevitable calls for increased blood donations that always seem to happen this time of year as the supply gets pinched. Does a headline like that mean that someone is working on completely artificial blood?

As always with this sort of thing, the answer is a mixed bag. Yes, a team in the UK has transfused two patients with a small amount of lab-grown red blood cells, and it’s the first time that particular procedure has been performed. But while the headline is technically correct, the amount transfused was very small, so the day when lab-grown whole blood transfusions replace donated blood isn’t exactly here yet. But the details of what was done and why it was attempted are the really interesting part here, and it’s worth a deep dive because it does potentially point the way to a future where totally synthetic blood may be a real thing.

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