Archive for 2015

Forty Years of the Utah Teapot

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

UtahTeapotPoster

A couple of weeks ago, after dropping my kid off at a Laser Quest birthday party, I ventured across the street to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It’s a marvelous place, the Computer History Museum, and if you’re ever in the Bay Area and have any interest in computers, I urge you to visit. Their exhibits span the range from slide rules to robots to modern day computers, with many pit stops in diverse topics such as punch cards for weaving Jacquard, guided missile systems, and video games. While other museums may have ‘a’ something-or-other, such as ‘a’ key punch machine or ‘a’ Babbage Difference Engine sandwiched in with other science exhibits, the Computer History Museum has a broad range of ‘a’s and ‘the’s. As in “Wow. That’s the original Pong Machine that Al Alcorn stuck in a bar in Sunnyvale, complete with crooked name plate.” Or: “Wow. That’s a chunk from the ENIAC.” Plus there’s a neat gift shop with nerdy stuff.

One of the museum’s ‘the’s is the Utah teapot, the one digitized by Martin Newell back in 1975. Holy cow! Has it really been forty years? Well now, that’s something worth celebrating, so I did. I came home and whipped up the graphic above, which is based on Martin Newell’s original pencil sketch of dimensions and a rendering of the resulting model. Oh, and I may have used some artistic license as far as aging the paper and so forth; I wanted to call to mind da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. In reality, Newell’s sketch is very tidy, executed on decidedly unstained quadrille paper.

Happy birthday, Utah teapot, and a big thank you to Martin Newell for sharing his work with the world.

The Utah teapot is something of an icon to those who work with 3D graphics. As the story goes, back in 1975 when Martin Newell was “a member of the pioneering graphics program at the University of Utah”, he needed a “moderately simple mathematical model of a familiar object for his work.” He was having tea with his wife at the time, and she suggested modeling their tea service. He did and, in addition to using the teapot for his own work, shared the data set with others. The rest, as they say, is history.

HomerTeapot

Since then, the teapot has become a beloved icon to many of us and something of an inside joke. It has appeared everywhere from test renders to papers submitted to SIGGRAPH to films such as Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Even Homer J. Simpson has had his teapot moment! Not bad for a humble white teapot purchased from a department store.

ToyStoryTeapot

The teapot is of course not Newell’s only accomplishment, just the one most familiar to many of us. He’s had a long and productive career. However, it’s a bittersweet fact of life that we don’t get to choose the manner in which we’re remembered, if we’re remembered at all. Per Tom Sito’s Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation, “When Newell spoke at a SIGGRAPH conference in the late 1980s, he jokingly confessed that of all the things he has done for the world of 3D graphics, the only thing he will be remembered for is ‘that damned teapot’”.

I think I could make my peace with that.

Pinewood Derby II

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Trophy

This happened yesterday. The boy’s witch’s shoe car, which I wrote about in the previous entry, picked up an award at the district Pinewood Derby. “Best Design That Is Not A Car”.

We were incredibly proud of him. Of course, I just had to sermonize on the way home. “See? If you work hard and you’re persistent, sometimes it pays off.” Then, about two minutes in, I thought better of it. Let the kid enjoy his trophy in peace. Not every darned thing has to have a moral.

The hardest thing, though, was keeping my blasted mouth clamped shut before the awards were handed out. You see, I saw a fellow take cars up to the announcer. One of them was the boy’s. Five cars – five awards. Hmmm. Perhaps I was mistaken? Perhaps the man was taking all the cars up so they could be handed out and admired one at a time, regardless of whether they’d won? Best to keep my observation to myself.

The boy’s prize was the last style award handed out. He was ricocheting around with tension by then, desperately hoping to win. Everyone wants to win. I reminded him of that fact, that all the boys there had worked hard and wanted to win, and we needed to applaud their efforts. Probably I sounded like a parrot in a bad pirate movie. “SQUAWK! CLAP AND SMILE FOR OTHERS! MOMMY WANT A CRACKER! SQUAWK!”

But then his car number and name were called, and he did win, and for just a few minutes he had the world by its tail. And I got to be there and see it.

PinewoodCars

Here’s a big thank you to Pack 492 of Cupertino, which hosted the event. It’s a big darned deal putting on a function like that, involving everything from finding a space to run it to setting up an immense aluminum track and having staff on hand to check car specifications as they’re brought in. It’s no simple matter of throwing up a few lengths of Hot Wheels track and sailing the cars down, either. Today’s tracks are, I don’t know, maybe 30-45 feet long and employ electronic timers and computers for data collection. The setup can be finicky and precise, measuring times down to a thousandth of a second.

Pack 492 did a great job, and as a result all the kids and onlookers had a wonderful afternoon.

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“Why Knot” plus Pinewood Derby

Monday, January 26th, 2015

WhyKnot

I’m happy to say that “Why Knot?” will be at AQS Lancaster this March. I wish I could be there as well, but I hope that at least visitors will enjoy the piece. This is my first fiber piece which veers into using computer-assisted imagery rather than purely painting on fabric, and I used the opportunity to plant a few jokes in the background.

We’ve just finished up the Pinewood Derby here, an annual Cub Scout event in which boys prepare and race cars cobbled together out of blocks of wood. I always enjoy it because, since I don’t yet feel comfortable turning my son loose with a band saw, it’s an excuse to collaborate with him and work in a medium other than fabric or CG. (Whether he enjoys my working with him is quite another question!)

The Pinewood Derby began in 1953, held by Don Murphy, a Manhattan Beach Cub Master who wanted an “activity he could do with his 10 year old son who was too young to race in the Soap Box Derby”.

It was a clever idea, one which has evolved and endured. Today when one buys an official B.S.A. Pinewood Derby kit, one gets a block of wood about 7” x 1.75” x 1.25”, four plastic wheels, and four nails to use as axles. One can do whatever one likes to the block of wood  provided that the finished car weighs five ounces or less, is three inches tall or less, and conforms to a few other specifications.

The Derby is a nice opportunity to do a design and construction project with one’s kid, a project which has set specifications but which is also a bit free form. Thus, a few weeks ago, I corralled the boy and said words to the effect of “The Derby is x weeks away. What do you want to make this year?” He hemmed and hawed, then allowed as how he’d enjoyed getting a style award last year and he wanted to try for one again this year. He was thinking of doing something which wasn’t traditional, maybe a shape like a shoe.

Okay, a shoe. What kind of shoe? Whose shoe was it? Maybe he could sketch his idea out on paper? I gave him a piece of paper with the dimensions of the wood block outlined, and had him sketch his idea.

Pinewood1

The shoe started as a nondescript garden clog affair. Over the course of a few more discussions and drawing sessions, it evolved into a fantasy design, a witch’s shoe.

Pinewood2

Clog

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Heel added

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More pronounced witchiness

Print

Final pattern for sawing

This would prove to be an interesting design to execute since the provided block of Pinewood Derby wood was too shallow. We would have to laminate another chunk of wood on top, which meant digging through my wood pile and doing some cutting and gluing.

Since I’m paranoid about the boy having an accident – he’s a little too interested in things like axes and chain saws for my taste – I made the cuts with the table saw and band saw myself. Maybe next year he can make a car with the scroll saw. Although bandsaw accidents can happen in the blink of an eye, one has to work pretty hard to lose a finger with a scroll saw.

There was plenty of other work for him to do, though, sanding and puttying and painting. Provided that one’s Scout has patience and perhaps a parent to nag them into working a bit each day, some fairly decent results can be achieved. It also really helps if one has a spray booth, even if it’s just a cardboard box, which we do.

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Here’s the shoe in its primed state, adding weights. The goal is to get one’s finished car as close to five ounces as possible without going over. Sometimes that means adding weights;  hiding them can get to be a challenge. Our plan was to cement the weights in place inside drilled holes, then putty and sand over them. As a side note, if one uses Revell’s round chassis weights, they can be cut in a matter of seconds using a bolt cutter. It’s far, far less taxing than trying to hacksaw the blasted things!

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Here we’re testing and weighing potential accents before adding wheels. Note that the holes where the weights were inserted are all but invisible. I guess I should be ashamed to admit that I had all of this stuff, the ribbon and flies and pumpkins, on hand. However, my philosophy is that you never can tell when you’ll need a glow-in-the-dark plastic fly.

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The finished shoe. We unfortunately didn’t tune the car up before the race, doing things like insuring the axles were in straight, so it placed in the middle of the pack. However, it did receive a style award for best workmanship, which is what the boy had really wanted. He even had a back story for the shoe, something about a bunch of flies using it to smuggle pumpkins for making pumpkin stew. There were also tons of other fun entries made by other boys, including a sailing ship, a pencil, and a box of french fries.

Here are our entries from last year, the boy’s Gravedigger and my ant car, Mandiblur, for the family competition. We seem to have a black theme going. I can hardly wait for next year’s Pinewood Derby!

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