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Go Back in Time with a Laser Cut Wood 3D Printer Kit

Go Back in Time with a Laser Cut Wood 3D Printer Kit

About a decade ago, the only way the average hacker was getting their hands on a desktop 3D printer was by building it themselves from a kit. Even then, to keep costs down, many of these kits were made out of laser cut wood. For a few years, wooden printers from companies like MakerBot and PrintrBot were a common sight in particularly well equipped hackerspaces. But as the market expanded and production went up, companies could afford to bend metal and get parts injection molded; the era of the wooden 3D printer was over nearly as soon as it had started.

But [Luke Wallace] thinks there’s still some life left in the idea. For his entry into the 2019 Hackaday Prize, he’s proposing a revival of the classic laser cut 3D printer kit. But this time, things are a bit different. Today, laser cutters are cheap enough that these kits could conceivably be manufactured at your local hackerspace. With a total bill of materials under $100 USD, these kits could be pumped out for less than the cheapest imports, potentially driving adoption in areas where the current options are too expensive or unavailable.

Of course, just a laser cut wood frame wouldn’t be enough to break the fabled $100 barrier. To drive the cost down even farther, [Luke] has redesigned essentially every component so it could be made out of wood. If its not electronic, there’s a good chance its going to be cut out of the same material the frame is made out of. Probably the biggest change is that the traditional belt and pulley system has been replaced with rack and pinion arrangements.

After cutting all the pieces, essentially all you need to provide is the stepper motors, a RAMPS controller, the hotend, and the extruder. He’s even got a design for a laser cut wood extruder if you want to go back to the real olden days and save yourself another few bucks. Or skip the LCD controller and just run it over USB.

But what do the prints look like? [Luke] has posted a few pictures of early test pieces on the project’s Hackaday.io page, and to be honest, they’re pretty rough. But they don’t look entirely unlike the kind of prints you’d get on one of those early printers before you really got it dialed in, so we’re interested in seeing how the results improve with further refinements and calibration. (Editor’s note: Since writing this, he got backlash compensation up and running, and it looks a ton better already. Very impressive for something running on wooden gears!)

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Will Transparent Wood Become a Viable Construction Material?

Will Transparent Wood Become a Viable Construction Material?

One of the world’s oldest building materials may soon be getting a makeover. Wood is celebrated for being a good insulator, durable, and renewable, but despite its best qualities it’s still opaque, and we need natural light—not only for our sanity but also to decrease our use of artificial light. Glass, however, is a really bad insulator and not energy-efficient. Looking for an alternative to drafty windows, a team of researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden have developed a process of chemically treating wood to make it both transparent and capable of storing and releasing heat.

“We prepared a material that is multifunctional—it can transmit light very well and also it can store heat. We combined these two functions in a single material,” expained Céline Montanari, one of the researchers on the project, when she presented their work at the American Chemical Society last month.

Since one-third of the world’s energy consumption currently comes from the building sector—and largely due to our heating, cooling, and lighting systems—the material is being touted as a potential game-changer for energy-efficient construction.

The two-step process begins with removing the lignin—a polymer that makes wood rigid—from a piece of wood, which leaves behind a lot of porous space in the sample. This idea is not new and the resulting piece remains structurally sound and looks like frosted glass. The team took it a step further by filling the new microscopic holes they created with polyethylene glycol, a “phase-change material” that can be either solid or liquid depending on the temperature. As the temperature rises it takes in heat and melts to a liquid, and as it cools down it releases heat and becomes solid. The cell walls of the wood provide structure for the polymer so that it stays put even in its liquid form. As it undergoes this process it goes between different levels of opacity, from a more frosted look to almost fully clear.

During her presentation, Montanari showed a sample of the transparency that can be achieved (that’s her very on-brand business card!).

This characteristic makes it a less-than-ideal window substitute, but it could easily be applied as a skylight or to increase the amount of natural light in a building. As Montanari says, the more you can incorporate into a design, the more it would reduce the energy footprint of the building.

“If you take 100g of this transparent wood material with the [polyethylene glycol] inside, it can absorb up to 8,000J of heat, which corresponds to basically what a 1W [bulb] could produce in two hours,” said Montanari. Since different polymers melt at different temperatures, they would have to use different polymers depending on the application—a sheet being installed in Canada, for example, would have to work within a very different range of temperatures than one installed in Morocco.

Another pro is that it retains the mechanical strength of wood and wouldn’t shatter on impact, so it’s safer a safer option than glass.

Montanari and her team are currently looking at increasing the heat storage capacity of the transparent wood for greater energy savings. They’re also working with a partner to figure out production at an industrial scale. They’ve already filed a patent and hope to have a commercially viable product within five years.

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Hawks’ anticipation building for crucial NBA draft lottery

Hawks’ anticipation building for crucial NBA draft lottery

AP
Published 3:05 p.m. ET May 6, 2019

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ATLANTA (AP) — No team has more riding on next week’s NBA draft lottery than the Atlanta Hawks.

If the pingpong balls fall Atlanta’s way, the Hawks could be the only team to end up with two of the top nine picks.

The last two drafts have set the foundation for the Hawks’ makeover. John Collins and Trae Young are the new faces of the franchise .

More help is needed following 29 wins this season. General manager Travis Schlenk dares to dream of hitting the jackpot in the May 14 lottery and having the first and ninth picks in the June 20 draft. That best-case scenario would add significant momentum to an already promising rebuilding process.

“We like the position we’re in,” Schlenk said Friday following a workout with draft hopefuls at the Hawks’ practice facility. “We all know right now we’re sitting with the fifth odds and potentially the ninth odds, so it’d be real exciting. The best-case scenario would put us at one and nine. That would be great for the franchise.”

Schlenk said building a strong base with young players will help the team attract top free agents.

“There’s a buzz around the league about our young core,” he said. “Once we show that we’re in contention and playoff contending, that’s when free agents are going to look at this group and say I want to go there and we can take it to the next level.”

The draft spotlight is on Duke’s Zion Williamson, the probable reward for the team landing the No. 1 draft pick. Schlenk smiled when asked about Williamson and said it’d be premature to talk about the powerful forward.

“We’ll worry about that after the lottery,” he said.

Then the GM couldn’t resist.

“Obviously the player himself was phenomenal in college,” Schlenk said of Williamson. “Just his size and athleticism. All the stuff I’ve heard about the person is off the charts, too.”

Schlenk took a huge gamble in last year’s draft. He traded Luka Doncic , the No. 3 selection, to Dallas for Young and a top-five protected draft pick. That pick belongs to the Hawks this year unless Dallas, currently slotted ninth, moves into the top five. Otherwise, it shifts to Atlanta in 2020, again as a top-five protected pick.

The Hawks had three first-round picks last year. Shooting guard Kevin Huerter joined Young in the all-rookie backcourt. The third first-rounder, forward Omari Spellman, started 11 games.

Taurean Prince, who had a strong finish to his third season, also looks to be part of the long-term plans for Schlenk and coach Lloyd Pierce.

Pierce said after the season the Hawks established an “identity” in his first season “where we compete and play hard. Our guys play for each other. They play with a lot of energy and a lot of passion and that was really the goal.”

Now the coach wants this year’s draft class to fall in line with Young, Collins and others.

“That’s what I’m hoping whoever we get walks into,” Pierce said. “I hope it’s not chaos they’re walking into and we have to start the process.”

The Hawks have three second-round picks but may not have room for that many rookies next season. Schlenk could be looking to package picks in another trade.

It may be difficult for even a No. 1 pick to top Young’s impact on the team. The exciting point guard was a double-double machine with a flair for game-winning floaters and a Stephen Curry-like knack for extra-long 3-pointers.

Schlenk and Pierce already are happy with the Doncic-Young trade. But they know final judgment on the deal awaits the Hawks receiving the added first-round pick.

With a little lottery luck for Atlanta, the wait will soon end.

___

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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The Notre-Dame fire’s ashes could be used to 3D-print its new gargoyles

The Notre-Dame fire’s ashes could be used to 3D-print its new gargoyles

By Jesus Diaz2 minute Read

When Notre-Dame was partially destroyed during a fire this month, the world mourned not just the loss of the building, but the ornate stone details that didn’t survive. Architecture firms are already racing to propose plans to rebuild the cathedral’s roof, but one company is proposing a plan to resuscitate its fallen gargoyles and chimeras–by transforming the rubble and ashes into material that can be 3D-printed into exact replicas.

Notre Dame’s gargoyles don’t just spiritually guard the cathedral and the city of Paris. They also serve a real function purpose, as well, protecting the building against water erosion by channeling the rain and spouting it onto the ground. In fact, that–more than the inferno–is the more common reason for their demise. Before the blaze, many of the gargoyles had already been replaced by ugly PVC elements.

Concr3De, a Dutch company that specializes in stone 3D printing for construction, claims it has the perfect recipe to bring all of those broken monsters back to life using their remains. The company says that it can grind the limestone rubble and the fire ashes and combine the mixture with other materials to create a fine powder to feed its stone printers. The printers will then follow highly precise 3D models of the Notre-Dame stonework, captured back in 2000. The models, created by the late Belgian-American art professor Andrew Tallon, are stunningly detailed:

In a 2015 interview, Tallon described how he scanned the building over five days of work using a Leica ScanStation C10, looking for new answers about its nature. With the help of Columbia University’s computer science professor Paul Blaer, he produced a 1-billion-point model that offers millimetric precision. So, at least in theory, Concr3De’s final printed copies could be exactly like the originals–with the added bonus of being made from some of the very same material.

Concr3De’s cofounder, Eric Geboers, told Dezeen that he believes this method of reconstruction could reconcile some of the philosophical problems with reconstruction: “Isn’t a copy just a fake? Simply copying, pretending there never was a fire, would be a historical forgery.”

The French government, however, will reportedly go literally medieval on the cathedral restoration, using sculptors and artisans to make reproductions with the same techniques and materials employed in the 13th century. Of course, that will require a lot more time and money. And there’s an honesty to using the existing material that creating new copies can’t match–gargoyles rising from their ashes even has a poetic significance worthy of a 21st century Victor Hugo novel.

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Why Heated Concrete Can Explode Like Popcorn

Why Heated Concrete Can Explode Like Popcorn

Unlike wood, insulation, and other building materials, concrete doesn’t burn. Modern civilization has practically built its infrastructure on it, from stairs to floors to office towers. While not bursting into flames is a good thing, concrete does have vulnerability—exposed to high temperatures, it can explode like a bag of microwaved popcorn. And scientists are getting better at understanding why.

A recent paper published in the journal Cement and Concrete Research offered some insight into this unusual phenomenon. Researchers at Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology; the University of Grenoble, and Institut Laue-Langevin conducted an experiment using blocks of concrete, which typically consists of cement, sand, water, and other additives to increase strength or reduce permeability. Heated to 1112°F, portions of the block exploded.

Using neutron tomography, researchers were able to visualize the accumulation of water as the block heats up.

The principle behind it is largely the same as popping popcorn kernels. In both instances, heated water vaporizes and becomes trapped. With nowhere to go, the built-up energy is released, with the concrete becoming pressurized and breaking apart.

Part of the reason the vapor becomes trapped is because water moves away from the heat source—say, a fire in an interior room—and toward the cooler portion of the concrete. In doing so, the water acts as a moisture barrier, preventing vapor from coming through pores. High-performance concrete, which is often used in commercial applications, has few pores, which makes the pressure from the vapor more concentrated. The water in the mix can turn to vapor when temperatures reach 392°F.

Why is understanding this process important? By exploring how and why concrete can burst, additives can be developed to reduce or eliminate the effect. The result will be safer, more fire-resistant buildings.

[h/t Live Science]

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Google’s Translatotron tries to make phone translation a bit less awkward

Google’s Translatotron tries to make phone translation a bit less awkward

The ability to communicate with each other all over the world has been paramount to building our society. From exchanging ideas to trading goods and more, language is at the center of everything we do.

The problem is, we don’t all speak the same language, and that’s where translators have made themselves invaluable over the years. With each new generation, translators are becoming smarter and faster, and Google has just made a new stride in the field with something it calls Translatotron.

Currently, when translating the model that is used requires three steps: hearing the source material and converting it to text, translating the text into the target language, and finally turning that text back into speech.

Using Translatotron Google is able to cut out the transcribing of text and go straight to speech-to-speech translation. One of the benefits of this system is that it can be faster than the system we use now. By skipping the step of converting speech to text it also allows for more accurate translations, avoiding some of the typical errors found during the conversion.

However, the most impressive feature of Translatotron is that it will be able to retain some of the characteristics of the original speaker’s voice and cadence.

That is something the old method was never able to achieve and will make the translation sound more human and less robotic. After all, it’s not only important what we say, but how we say it.

Google has included some samples in its blog post and even more on its GitHub page. It is definitely worth checking out if you want to see how Translatotron is able to retain aspects of the original speaker’s voice. While it is far from perfect, and it still sounds robotic, the results are a big improvement over what we have today.

Google’s making phones more accessible to people with speech and hearing impairments

This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure policy for more details.

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This gorgeous office is like working in a forest

This gorgeous office is like working in a forest

Offices are terrible places, if for no other reason than they pull us from the sunlight and greenery that’s proven to make us happier and healthier. A new, 11-story building in Tokyo called Kojimachi Terrace wants to change that by bringing the outside in, and the inside out.

[Photo: Takumi Ota/courtesy Nendo]

With both an interior and exterior crafted by the Japanese design firm Nendo, Kojimachi Terrace is a corporate-leasable space that features the liberal use of a simulated wood finish and planted greenery throughout. All lighting is indirect, bouncing from the floor and ceiling to create a refreshing glow instead of baking you under top-down fluorescent lighting. The walls and ceilings were plastered by hand rather than machines, so they have an uneven, organic-feeling finish.

Balconies were built on most floors and can be exposed to open air or closed off with glass doors. The safety rails on the terraces, which would generally be some metallic eyesore, are camouflaged, because they’ve been built in the same durable, faux wood material and proportions as the inner and outer facade. Through these simple design decisions, the rails look like frames instead of fences.

[Photo: Takumi Ota/courtesy Nendo]

The pièce de résistance, however, is the office’s Sky Forest. It’s a three-story nature escape for the building’s employees, a place where people can take their “nature pill” without ever going outside. That’s particularly valuable in a city like Tokyo, which features roughly a third of the green space of New York City when averaged by landmass.

Kojimachi Terrace is not the biggest or best funded building opening in the next year. But as we continue to break down the walls of cubicles and debase the merits of open floor plans, it’s a good reminder that there’s a lot more to being happy, healthy, and productive at work than where or if we sit. The best office is one that resembles nature (albeit with better snacks, proper teleconferencing equipment, and just the right amount of shade to read a screen).

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Clutter has picked up Omni’s storage business; Omni to focus on rentals

Clutter has picked up Omni’s storage business; Omni to focus on rentals

On the heels of Clutter announcing a large growth round of $200 million earlier this year, the storage startup is cleaning up the competitive field. TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Clutter has purchased the storage business of erstwhile rival Omni.

Omni will remain an independent company, which will now instead focus on rentals of personal items. That business was originally built around renting out items that you had stored with Omni itself. In recent months, however, the company had been transitioning that model to one where you used local businesses as the hub for handing over or picking up rented items. (It’s also been dabbling in cryptocurrency, offering to pay users in XRP instead of cash for renting out items.)

The companies had been working on the acquisition for the past two months, and Ari Mir, CEO and co-founder of Clutter, told TechCrunch it closed today.

While we were writing this story, Omni also posted a short note announcing the deal. “This deal allows us to double down on our rentals business and focus 100 percent of our efforts on empowering everyone to access the items they need when they need them,” it notes.

Mir said the two are not discussing the financial terms of the acquisition, which will give Omni customers 90 days under their current plans before being offered alternatives from Clutter, or a free delivery of their items elsewhere.

That free delivery might be to a company that rents out those possessions — such as bikes or furniture — that owners are not currently using but still want to keep. That’s because unlike Omni, Clutter will not be offering those customers the option to rent out items through Clutter itself. It’s an area that Mir said the company does want to move into one day, but it’s focussing on expanding the storage business first.

Clutter was last valued at around $600 million in its most recent deal, with backers including Softbank, Sequoia, Atomico and GV.  Omni has raised around $33 million.

The acquisition and spinning out of the service underscores a wider shaking out of startups that had emerged over the last several years to disrupt the incumbent storage market.

Tapping into a changing tide of how we live today — smaller dwellings, and more movement especially for younger working people — many startups saw an opportunity to provide more flexible solutions to modern consumers built on the on-demand model.

For Clutter, Omni and a number of competitors, their target users are consumers based in urban areas who live in smaller spaces with less storage options; have the disposable income not only to buy stuff but to pay to keep it somewhere else; and likely already use of other app-based on-demand services for food, transport, work-space and so on, making them familiar and ready to work with startups offering the same services to manage their material possessions.

But as we have noted before, the business of storage on demand is nothing short of, well, cluttered.

The wide array of rivals include incumbents like Public Storage, U-Haul and other older businesses that offer services to clear away your possessions and/or store them in lockers. Newer startups still active in storage include MakeSpace, Livible, and Closetbox.

But there is now also a growing list of companies that have tried to build storage businesses, and have thrown in the towel. They include Trove (which was acquired by Nextdoor and has transferred its storage business to “trusted partners”), Handy (which was acquired by ANGI Home Services), and now Omni.

One of the reasons it’s been difficult to build startups in this space is because storage is a little bit like logistics: it requires scale for the economic and operational models to be more viable, and so if the business isn’t growing fast enough, it can be too hard to sustain it.

If some businesses haven’t been scaling fast enough, it seems that Clutter is emerging as a consolidator that has: in addition to buying Omni’s storage business, it had also acquired Handy’s storage business. (Mir described the two acquisitions as “very similar” in how they were structured.) Clutter had been offered Trove’s business as well, he added, but declined to take it.

“Our business has the capital and operational intensity of an Amazon,” Mir said. “We’re consumer-facing, but we also are building a big backend, complete with trucks and warehouses. It requires lots of capital and being good at operations. Not a lot of teams have the appetite for it. It’s incredibly challenging.”

The parallel with logistics is not one to be ignored. Like logistics, storage involves three key elements: the building of smart platforms to optimise the routing of goods, pricing of services and other features; the use of warehouses as start, middle and endpoints in the movement of goods, spaces where items can be both kept and moved; and a network of reliable people to operate the delivery and distribution aspects of the business.

From what we understand, the second of those — the physical storage spaces — is an area that Clutter will be looking to develop more in the coming months, with its next funding round likely to be structured to help it start to take on more property of its own to build out its operations.

Additional reporting Josh Constine

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SoFar Sounds house concerts raises $25M, but bands get just $100

SoFar Sounds house concerts raises $25M, but bands get just $100

Tired of noisy music venues where you can hardly see the stage? Sofar Sounds puts on concerts in people’s living rooms where fans pay $15 to $30 to sit silently on the floor and truly listen. Nearly 1 million guests have attended Sofar’s more than 20,000 gigs. Having attended a half dozen of the shows, I can say they’re blissful… unless you’re a musician trying to make a living. In some cases, Sofar pays just $100 per band for a 25 minute set, which can work out to just $8 per musician per hour or less. Hosts get nothing, and Sofar keeps the rest, which can range from $1,100 to $1,600 or more per gig — many times what each performer takes home. The argument was that bands got exposure, and it was a tiny startup far from profitability.

Today, Sofar Sounds announced it’s raised a $25 million round led by Battery Ventures and Union Square Ventures, building on the previous $6 million it’d scored from Octopus Ventures and Virgin Group. The goal is expansion — to become the de facto way emerging artists play outside of traditional venues. The 10-year-old startup was born in London out of frustration with pub-goers talking over the bands. Now it’s throwing 600 shows per month across 430 cities around the world, and more than 40 of the 25,000 artists who’ve played its gigs have gone on to be nominated for or win Grammys. The startup has enriched culture by offering an alternative to late-night, dark and dirty club shows that don’t appeal to hard-working professionals or older listeners.

But it’s also entrenching a long-standing problem: the underpayment of musicians. With streaming replacing higher-priced CDs, musicians depend on live performances to earn a living. Sofar is now institutionalizing that they should be paid less than what gas and dinner costs a band. And if Sofar sucks in attendees that might otherwise attend normal venues or independently organized house shows, it could make it tougher for artists to get paid enough there too. That doesn’t seem fair, given how small Sofar’s overhead is.

By comparison, Sofar makes Uber look downright generous. A source who’s worked with Sofar tells me the company keeps a lean team of full-time employees who focus on reserving venues, booking artists and promotion. All the volunteers who actually put on the shows aren’t paid, and neither are the venue hosts, though at least Sofar pays for insurance. The startup has previously declined to pay first-time Sofar performers, instead providing them a “high-quality” video recording of their gig. When it does pay $100 per act, that often amounts to a tiny shred of the total ticket sales.

“Sofar, however, seems to be just fine with leaving out the most integral part: paying the musicians,” writes musician Joshua McClain. “This is where they willingly step onto the same stage as companies like Uber or Lyft — savvy middle-men tech start-ups, with powerful marketing muscle, not-so-delicately wedging themselves in-between the customer and merchant (audience and musician in this case). In this model, everything but the service-provider is put first: growth, profitability, share-holders, marketers, convenience, and audience members — all at the cost of the hardworking people that actually provide the service.” He’s urged people to #BoycottSofarSounds

A deeply reported KQED expose by Emma Silvers found many bands were disappointed with the payouts, and didn’t even know Sofar was a for-profit company. “I think they talk a lot about supporting local artists, but what they’re actually doing is perpetuating the idea that it’s okay for musicians to get paid shit,” Oakland singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney told KQED.

Sofar CEO Jim Lucchese, who previously ran Spotify’s Creator division after selling it his music data startup The Echo Nest, and has played Sofar shows himself, declares that “$100 for a showcase slot is definitely fair,” but admits that “I don’t think playing a Sofar right now is the right move for every type of artist.” He stresses that some Sofar shows, especially in international markets, are pay-what-you-want and artists keep “the majority of the money.” The rare sponsored shows with outside corporate funding like one for the Bohemian Rhapsody film premiere can see artists earn up to $1,500, but these are a tiny fraction of Sofar’s concerts.

Otherwise, Lucchese says, “the ability to convert fans is one of the most magical things about Sofar,” referencing how artists rely on asking attendees to buy their merchandise or tickets for their full shows and follow them on social media to earn money. He claims that if you pull out what Sofar pays for venue insurance, performing rights organizations and its full-time labor, “a little over half the take goes to the artists.” Unfortunately that makes it sound like Sofar’s few costs of operation are the musicians’ concern. As McClain wrote, “First off, your profitability isn’t my problem.”

Now that it has ample funding, I hope to see Sofar double down on paying artists a fair rate for their time and expenses. Luckily, Lucchese says that’s part of the plan for the funding. Beyond building tools to help local teams organize more shows to meet rampant demand, he says “Am I satisfied that this is the only revenue we make artists right now? Absolutely not. We want to invest more on the artist side.” That includes better ways for bands to connect with attendees and turn them into monetizable fans. Even just a better followup email with Instagram handles and upcoming tour dates could help.

We don’t expect most craftspeople to work for “exposure.” Interjecting a middleman like Sofar shouldn’t change that. The company has a chance to increase live music listening worldwide. But it must treat artists as partners, not just some raw material they can burn through even if there’s always another act desperate for attention. Otherwise musicians and the empathetic fans who follow them might leave Sofar’s living rooms empty.

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Brazil National Museum: ‘Little surprises’ salvaged from the ashes

Brazil National Museum: ‘Little surprises’ salvaged from the ashes

Close up of a hand holding a fragment of a stele

Image copyright
Douglas Engle

Image caption

A fragment of a damaged stone slab recording the deceased

Many Brazilians wept after their 200-year-old National Museum was destroyed in a devastating fire last September. Twenty million objects, many of them irreplaceable, were thought to have been lost. But eight months later, staff have salvaged more treasures than they expected, and there are hopes that one of the great museums of the world can be brought back to life.

Suddenly, a shout echoes round the blackened, roofless shell of the once-elegant room.

A tall young man in white helmet and black gloves is standing triumphantly on a pile of smashed tiles and plaster. Cradled in his palm is a small piece of carved stone with ancient hieroglyphics.

Archeologist Pedro Luiz von Seehausen searches through the rubble for Egyptian steles at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro

Image copyright
Douglas Engle

Image caption

Pedro Luiz von Seehausen searches through the rubble

Pedro Luiz von Seehausen is an archaeologist, an expert on ancient Egyptian funerary monuments, who travels regularly to the Nile Valley to help excavate millennia-old pharaonic tombs.

Ironically – tragically – von Seehausen is wielding his trowel, using his archaeological training, to excavate his own workplace – to re-uncover ancient treasures that had already been uncovered by archaeologists in Egypt two centuries ago, but which were buried again when their new home, the National Museum of Brazil, went up in flames.

And what von Seehausen has just found in the debris is a fragment of a stele, a stone slab recording the deceased. It’s part of a collection brought from Egypt by Brazil’s imperial family, who did much to build up the museum, and who lived in the palace where it is now housed.

Presentational grey line

Find out more

Crossing Continents: Restoring Brazil’s National Treasure

Presentational grey line

“Usually we have 52 steles here, and we’ve found 500 pieces,” Pedro says.

“We have a moral obligation to collect the pieces, even if they are broken in a million pieces,” he says. “Some days I am pretty sad and I feel that I am just dragging myself to work here. But then I usually find one piece is in good condition and I am like, ‘Well, it’s worth it.'”

Dinosaur fossil on display inside the National Museum

Image copyright
Alamy

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The 13m-long (44ft) reconstructed skeleton of a Maxakalisaurus was the biggest dinosaur on display at the museum

The National Museum, founded in 1818 just before Brazil won its independence from Portugal, contained collections not just of archaeology, but of zoology, ethnography, geology and palaeontology – everything from dried beetles and dinosaur bones to meteorites, Pre-Columbian ceramics and recordings of native American languages.

Many items were contributed by the two emperors who ruled Brazil after independence: Pedro I and his son Pedro II, and their consorts Maria Leopoldina of Austria and Teresa Cristina of the Two Sicilies. The imperial family were enthusiastic collectors of antiquities – including valuable ancient Egyptian and Graeco-Roman treasures, and specimens of natural history. They did much to encourage the development of Brazilian science.

After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1889, the museum, formerly housed in another building, moved to its present home in the former imperial palace.

National Museum

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Alamy

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The museum before the fire

On the night of 2 September, flames lit up the sky over Rio, and burnt fragments of paper – many of them pages of irreplaceable historic books and documents – drifted over the city.

“It was a kind of picture of hell,” says ichthyologist (fish expert) Prof Paulo Buckup, who arrived at the museum just as the blaze was taking hold. “There were Greek statues decorating the top of the building, and the fire would come behind them. It was a very horrible thing to see.”

By the light of the fire, Buckup and colleagues broke down a locked door and formed a human chain to rescue thousands of specimens of molluscs – clams, squids, snails – from drawers and cabinets.

The next day, after the fire had finally gone out, staff held hands in a ring around the ruins of the building in a form of symbolic embrace.

“Everybody was crying. It was like a funeral – a funeral for our museum,” says ethnographer Prof Aparecida Vilaça.

A worker rescues items during a fire at the National Museum

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Reuters

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Staff hurried to rescue items on the night of the fire

Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro's National Museum after a fire

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AFP

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The building, which once served as the residence for the Portuguese royal family, was gutted by the blaze

Nearly eight months on, there’s a new spirit among many staff.

“It’s very hard to know exactly how much we lost, but I believe we have way more than we thought before,” says bio-archaeologist Murilo Bastos.

Bastos, an expert in human bones, made a remarkable rediscovery amid the rubble. He found that the museum’s most famous treasure – the skeletal remains of “Luzia”, a woman who died nearly 12,000 years ago – had survived the fire relatively unscathed.

Fragments of human skeleton

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AFP

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The human remains were viewed as the jewel of the museum’s collection

When Luzia was first uncovered in a cave in Brazil in 1974, she was the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas.

“Luzia was very fragile. So we thought she would not survive the fire,” Bastos says. “But she was inside an iron cabinet. I don’t know why. That’s amazing for us. Maybe she’s more powerful than we thought.”

Luzia’s skull had shattered into about 30 fragments, and Bastos had to collect them very carefully.

“I was scared,” he says, “because I knew that if anything happened with Luzia, it would be my fault. But then when I finished, I felt: ‘Well, we could save Luzia today.'”

Reconstruction of the head of Luzia

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A clay reconstruction of Luzia, created by forensic artist Dr Richard Neave of the University of Manchester

For the first few months after the fire, a full salvage operation was delayed while the ruins were made safe from possible further collapse. Digging in the roofless shell has also been hampered by the tropical downpours of Rio’s rainy season. But now a metal canopy is being erected over the building, and work can proceed more systematically.

Archaeologists have been gradually working their way through the debris on the three floors of the museum.

A worker guards artefacts found among the debris inside Brazil's National Museum

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AFP

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Artefacts found among the debris

“We are seeing that a lot survived. There’s hope that we can bring it back from the ashes,” says bio-archaeologist Victor Bittar.

“The geological samples are coming out in batches. Maybe they have the highest rate of recovery. Rocks do well with fire. And we keep getting stuff even from rooms where we thought nothing would come out, such as animals that were preserved in glass jars, in alcohol or formaldehyde. No-one expected that. So we have little surprises all the time.”

Researchers clean artefacts found amid the debris

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AFP

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Researchers clean newly recovered artefacts

Other collections have not fared so well. Prof Pedro Dias is a young entomologist (insect expert) who was appointed last year as the museum’s first specialist curator of orthoptera – crickets and grasshoppers. He was due to start on 3 September, but when he arrived for his first day, there was nothing left to curate. The entire collection of up to 45,000 specimens had been destroyed. Nearly 300 were type specimens – the examples scientists around the world use to define a species.

“[There was] one of the most important grasshopper collections in the world, the result of 100 years of collecting specimens. Now we have to rebuild,” he says.

Prof Dias is beginning by leading some of his students on collecting expeditions to the Tijuca National Park on the edge of Rio. Near the top of a mountain, there is a cave where he previously found a new species of cricket.

Pedro Dias on a hunt for crickets in the Tijuca National Forest in Rio de Janeiro

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Douglas Engle

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Prof Pedro Dias on an expedition.

On the first expedition – crawling around on his hands and knees on the floor of the cave with a jam jar – he eventually traps two specimens to take back to his laboratory for further examination.

“My goal is to reach 40,000 specimens – but I don’t know if I can do this in a lifetime,” says Dias. He fears that many of the species in the collection will now be extinct because their habitats will have disappeared since they were originally collected.

“We are losing the history of this country because the forests are being cut down and species are becoming extinct,” he says.

Pedro Dias on a hunt for crickets in the Tijuca National Forest in Rio de Janeiro

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Douglas Engle

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Hunting for crickets to replace lost specimens

Irreplaceable information about the human history of Brazil has been lost, too. Ethnographer Aparecida Vilaça stored all of her field notes and voice recordings – the results of 30 years’ work on the indigenous Warí tribe – at her flat, not at the museum. But colleagues whose material was only in their offices have lost everything.

That includes records of now extinct languages – and the myths and stories of the people who spoke them.

“No-one can have these narratives any more,” Vilaça says.

She says young indigenous people often used to visit the museum to learn about their own native cultures. They called it their “maloca” – the name for an ancestral long-house where several families lived and celebrations were held.

“Now, they say they have lost their maloca,” Vilaça says.

Rubble in the gutted interior of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro

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Douglas Engle

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Rubble in the gutted interior

Brazil’s national development bank has promised 21.7m reais (US$5.6m) for the reconstruction of the museum, and director Alexander Kellner says rebuilding will start this year.

“I hope in three years from now we will be able to have part of the museum open to the public,” he says. That’s our timescale – and it’s feasible. We will keep the outside façade, but inside we are going to be a new museum, a modern museum.”

But Kellner says replacing the collections will be impossible without the help of other leading museums around the world.

“A lot of institutions, from Brazil and outside of Brazil, are willing to make donations of artefacts and original specimens,” he says.

He specifically hopes there will be donations of mummies and fossils, to replace what was lost.

But isn’t it embarrassing for a large, important country such as Brazil to have to go cap-in-hand to foreign museums to ask for their second- or third-best – material?

“I don’t see it that way,” Kellner replies spiritedly. “I wish I could do the same for another museum; I wish it wasn’t us who had suffered. Believe me, if the British Museum caught fire, we would give them some original material of ours.”

Aerial view of Brazil's National Museum

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AFP

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Aerial view of the museum

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