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The Late Movies: The Secret Life of Machines

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I love The Secret Life of Machines, a late-1980s series about how everyday machines work. Presented primarily by engineer/cartoonist/artist Tim Hunkin, it's understated, funny, and deeply smart -- a gently curious investigation of how things go. Hunkin wrote about the first series:

The two sides of my life - researching stuff in books for the cartoon strip and making things, had made me realise just how much clever human activity in the world can not be explained in words or suit the format of a book, let alone fit with the publishing fashion of the day. The examples of this which seemed most immediate to me were the everyday machines around the home that everyone takes for granted. I’ve always enjoyed taking machines to bits and trying to mend them. It was always frustrating doing my cartoon strip about this sort of machine – it would be so much better if people could actually watch the machine working.

Hunkin has made loads of machines, as well as the flying pigs and sheep for Pink Floyd's Animals tour. He currently makes coin-operated machines for the Under the Pier Show in Suffolk -- which makes me really, really want to go to Suffolk. But for tonight, enjoy a few of my favorite episodes of The Secret Life of Machines. If you like these, they're all available for free online. (They're also on YouTube and various other spots, with Hunkin's permission.)

The Fax Machine

The first fax machine was patented way back in 1843 by Alexander Bain. In this 24-minute episode, Hunkin and copresenter Rex Garrod explain how the fax machine works.

The Vacuum Cleaner

The very first episode, this explains how vacuum cleaners work, with extensive animation by Hunkin. Hunkin writes:

The vacuum cleaner film was made before Dyson’s cleaners were introduced. These use an old industrial idea of sucking the air and dirt through spiral vanes. This spins the dirt and flings it to the outside of the chamber. Dyson’s version has several stages of vanes and needs no dust bag. Unfortunately the finest particles still get through so filter pads are needed over the outlet. These reduce the suction power of the machines, so I’m not sure they are any real improvement, despite the hype. There is also more awareness of the link between asthma and house dust, so all manufacturers have put more effort into the outlet filters.

The Refrigerator

The most dramatic part is around 2:45 when Hunkin blasts himself in the face with carbon dioxide.

Refrigerators are basically unchanged, but the disposal of scrap fridges is completely different. When I made the film, alternative refrigerant gases were starting to be introduced that are supposed to do less damage to the ozone layer of the atmosphere. Since then though, it has been decided that the gas trapped in the bubbles of the polyurethane foam insulation is also a problem, so now fridges have to be sent for specialist recycling, and every household waste tip has a mini fridge mountain.

Lots and Lots More

Nine of the full programs are available on this YouTube channel, the rest are easily found (in segments) by searching. You may also wish to consult Hunkin's pages on Series 1, Series 2, and Series 3 (The Secret Life of the Office). Hunkin's pages also have links to (legal) downloads of all the episodes.

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IKEA
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Design
IKEA’s New Augmented Reality App Lets You Test Out Virtual Furniture in Your Home
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IKEA

No matter how much measuring and research you do beforehand, buying a piece of furniture without knowing what it will look like in your home is always a gamble. With its new augmented reality app, IKEA hopes to take some of the guesswork out of the process. IKEA Place features more than 2000 items in the Swedish retailer's inventory, and visualizing them in the space where you live is as easy as tapping a button.

As WIRED reports, IKEA Place is among the first apps to take advantage of Apple's ARKit, an augmented reality platform that debuted as part of iOS 11. iPhone and iPad owners with the latest update can download IKEA's new app for free and start browsing through home goods right away.

To use the tool, you must first select the product you wish to test out, whether it's a loveseat, a kitchen table, or a dresser. Then, with the camera activated, you can point your device at whichever space you want the item to fill and watch it appear on the screen in front of you.

According to IKEA, the 3D models are scaled with 98 percent accuracy. Factors that are hard to analyze from photos online, like shadows, lighting, and textures, are also depicted as they would appear in real life. So if a sofa that looks great under the lights of a store looks drab in your living room, or if a desk that seems tiny online doesn't fit inside your office, the app will let you know. It's the closest you can get to seeing how a piece of furniture complements a room without lugging it through the doorway.

IKEA isn't the first company to improve interior design with computerized images. Several hardware stores and furniture outlets offer their own AR apps. Other services like Modsy let customers pay to create full virtual models of their homes before populating them with 3D furniture. Even IKEA had a basic AR app prior to this one, but it was glitchy and not always accurate. This newest iteration aims to provide a more seamless shopping experience. And with the latest iOS update placing a greater emphasis on AR, you can expect to see more apps using the technology in the near future.

[h/t WIRED]

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Art
The Library of Congress Wants Your Help Identifying World War I-Era Political Cartoons
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. government’s official library wants your help. And it involves cartoons.

The Library of Congress just debuted its new digital innovation lab, an initiative that aims to improve upon its massive archives and use them in creative ways. Its first project is Beyond Words, a digitization effort designed to make the research library’s historical newspaper collection more search-friendly. It aims to classify and tag historical images from World War I-era newspapers, identifying political cartoons, comics, illustrations, and photos within old news archives. The images come from newspapers included in Chronicling America, the library’s existing newspaper digitization project.

The tasks involved in Beyond Words are simple, even if you know nothing about the illustrations involved going into it. The Library of Congress just needs people to help mark all the illustrations and cartoons in the scanned newspaper pages, a task that only involves drawing boxes to differentiate the image from the articles around it.

Then there’s transcription, involving typing in the title of the image, the caption, the author, and whether it’s an editorial cartoon, an illustration, a photo, a map, or a comic. The library also needs people to verify the work of others, since it’s a crowd-sourced effort—you just need to make sure the images have been transcribed consistently and accurately.

A pop-up window below an early 20th century newspaper illustration prompts the user to pick the most accurate caption.

Screenshot via labs.loc.gov

The data will eventually be available for download by researchers, and you can explore the already-transcribed images on the Beyond Words site. Everything is in the public domain, so you can remix and use it however you want.

With the new labs.loc.gov, “we are inviting explorers to help crack open digital discoveries and share the collections in new and innovative ways,” Carla Hayden, the library’s head, said in a press release.

Other government archives regularly look to ordinary people to help with the monstrous task of digitizing and categorizing their collections. The National Archives and Records Administration, for instance, has recently crowd-sourced data entry and transcription for vintage photos of life on Native American reservations and declassified government documents to help make their collections more accessible online.

Want to contribute to the Library of Congress’s latest effort? Visit labs.loc.gov.

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