Laser-etched glass with hand coloring

Red heart with black wingsI made this artwork by laser-etching glass and then applying color by hand.

I used a laser cutter at TechShop, a phenomenal resource for artists, builders and craftspeople of all kinds. They have workshops in several US locations with tools and space for woodwork, metalwork, industrial sewing, electronics, arduino, and more.

[Note: Since I wrote this, TechShop filed for bankruptcy and has been reborn as Same space, same apparatus. I haven’t been there yet but I plan to.]

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The Color of Fire: How Palette Choice Impacts Maps of Yosemite’s Rim Fire

Rim Fire progression map

By Betsy Mason from

Last week we posted a map of the Rim fire’s progression into Yosemite National Park from Inciweb. That map (see below) uses random, qualitative colors to represent the area burned by the fire each day. The result is colorful, and as the headline says, frightening. The wild colors make the fire look chaotic. Once it reaches a certain size, it becomes really hard to see the progression. You can see clearly what has burned each day, but the time sequence is disguised in a random color palette.

Many of you commented on this, including Robert Simmon, Lead Data Visualizer and Information Designer at NASA’s Earth Observatory. But Simmon took it a step further and made the new map above with a sequential color scale. This makes the order of the progression much more clear — and a lot more elegant too, while managing to remain scary. The apt color choice makes the burned area look like it is one big flame.

The Inciweb map grew incrementally and is being used to follow the fire on specific days, so using vastly different bright colors that easily stand out from each other was probably a conscious decision. But Simmon’s map gives people like us who are not on the front lines a much better grasp of the life of this fire.

“I prefer a sequential palette because dates are ordered,” Simmon told me in an email. “The Inciweb palette is suited for categorical data — data which is qualitative, not quantitative. In principle you can find the date by looking at the map, then the key, then back at the map, but that’s a difficult cognitive task. It’s made more difficult because there’s more than 10 categories, which is over the limit of readily perceptible colors.”

Simmon has a ton of great information about this sort of thing on his Elegant Figures blog, including posts on this very issue of qualitative versus sequential color scales, and a whole series on the subtleties of color.

“The palette I used is ordered, like the data,” Simmon said. “You can see the overall pattern instantaneously, with the fire progressing in two directions from the starting point. In general graphics are better at showing patterns than specific quantities, so I like to play to that strength.”

There are tradeoffs, however. Simmon notes that on his map, it’s harder to see distinct days.

“Another design decision was which side of the scale to emphasize,” Simmon said. “I chose to make the later dates more intense and more saturated, since those are most current and presumably relevant. I think the map would look better with earlier dates more intense, but be less informative.”

I don’t know which I think would look better. I suppose whichever looks more like an actual flame — so, the way it is now.

Smart syringe turns bright red to warn of prior use

ABC Syringe


The ABC Syringe is embedded with ink that turns color when exposed to air as a way to warn caregivers that the syringe has been used.
The tech adds just 1 percent to the retail price, according to UK inventor David Swann. (Credit: Index Awards)

First, the bad news: As much as 40 percent of the world’s 40 billion injections administered every year are with unsterile, reused syringes, according to the World Health Organization.

Fortunately, people are working on better, tamper-proof syringes, and one of those — the ABC Syringe — holds such promise that it is a finalist at this year’s Index Awards in Denmark.

The syringe, designed by Dr. David Swann of Huddersfield University in England, comes in a nitrogen-filled pack, which ensures that the syringe is clear. But when exposed to air, the special ink in the syringe’s barrel absorbs the carbon dioxide and, after 60 seconds of exposure, turns the barrel of the syringe a bright red to warn that it is now “used.”

Unsafe injections causes 5 percent of all new HIV cases, 32 percent of all Hepatitis B cases, and 40 percent of Hepatitis C cases, according to WHO. And this isn’t purely the result of IV drug users sharing needles; so-called syringe scavengers in places like India scrape out a living selling used syringes to hospitals that are desperate to cut costs when giving vaccinations, blood transfusions, and other medical services that require syringes.

“When you compare a sterile syringe just out of its packaging with a syringe that’s been washed, how do you determine the difference?” Swann recently said in a CNN interview. “We conceived an intelligent ink that, if exposed to air by taking it out of the package or if the package is breached, would activate it and turn it red.”

While Swann acknowledges that the concept would require a public information campaign — “don’t use the red syringe” ought to do it — the ABC has a serious advantage over previous “safety syringe” iterations in that it adds only 1 percent to the retail cost instead of 200 percent.

Swann’s work is already paying off in India, where he recently tested the syringe. (Of the four to five billion injections administered every year in India, at least 2.5 billion are considered unsafe.) Not only did 100 percent of those involved accurately identify red syringes as dangerous, but that cohort included both literate and illiterate men, women, and children.

Swann estimates that within five years of widespread use his syringe should help prevent 700,000 unsafe injections and save $130 million in medical costs, not to mention reduce the 1.3 million deaths that result every year from unsafe injection practices.