September 18, 2014

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What began as a quick presscheck turned into spending the day with Elias Roustom, the Master Printer of EM Letterpress, who is making our new business cards.

Stepping into the shop, the smell of ink brought me right back to my days in the printshop at art school. EM has four Original Heidelbergs, as well as a Vandercook for large format jobs like posters.

Elias pulls a print from a Heidelberg to see how the paper captured the ink.

Service gaps in the commuter rail schedule “prevented me” from leaving the shop. I learned how some of the mechanics function in the Heidelberg presses, which are really amazing machines. The first Heidelberg debuted in 1913 and many are still running today.

It was also neat to see an experienced printer work through the whole process of a run. It was a stark contrast to when I was in school, and we spent the day messing around with different printing techniques.

If you are asking yourself, “why a whole blog post for just a business card?” (or even if you aren’t) let’s see what Christian Bale has to say.

For more letterpress photos check out EM’s flickr account.

September 11, 2014

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I had some early experience with the problems of a well-tempered scale. Within a few months of learning guitar, it seemed some chords just didn’t sound good unless the guitar was tuned especially for them. This got me interested in the way harmonies and scales are constructed from pitches and frequencies.

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Pitch fever allows you to visually compare the frequencies used in different tunings, and then hear the difference. On bottom is an octave divided into even sixths with a just intonation scale above it. The dots and bars show which notes are currently playing, and their combined waveform is shown at the top.

Briefly, harmonies are groups of notes that sound good together, and they are often based on simple fractions. Scales can be built with simple fractions too, by either applying the math to a single root note, or by repeatedly using the same fraction. However, scales built from the repeated fraction (called “just intonation”) end up with combinations where the notes collide and don’t sound as nice.

A well-tempered scale solves this problem by using a single rule for every interval between notes. This compromises the purity of the harmony, but avoids the nastiest collisions of just intonation.

But what does a well-tempered scale really sound like? I’ve heard various recordings using both kinds of scales, but didn’t have a feel for how bad the dissonances could get with just intonation, or how far away an even-tempered interval could be from a true harmony. I was curious about how simple fractions build into scales, and also wanted to know the fractions that are not used.

To answer these questions, we now have pitch fever. It’s a little HTML5 tool that explores the fundamentals of harmony while comparing some basic scales and the tunings behind them.

September 09, 2014

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Continuing our fascination with color naming across cultures, we set our summer intern, Malika Khurana, on a journey to discover new colors. Color naming, no matter your language, is a verbal process. So one of the driving interests was to see how this could be integrated into a mobile app using speech recognition. In this post, Malika retells her adventure.

The World Color Survey (WCS) was an anthropological study conducted in the 1970s that used color to study the effect that culture may have on language. Field workers surveyed 2,696 native speakers, representing 110 unwritten languages, by asking them to name each carefully chosen set of color chips (many of which are difficult to categorize into our basic colors in English).

Terrence and I took the 330-question survey and found the results compelling. We expected that some colors would be closer in comparison to others, but didn’t expect to have different words for the same colors.

Comparison of my and Terrence’s detailed color profile.
Malika and Terrence’s survey results show on the left comparisons of color blocks that were given the same name, and on the right similar colors that had different names.

For the most part, my colors are consistently darker than his, possibly because I didn’t name a single color “black”. The two of us have very different ideas of what teal and violet are. After some investigation, my “teal” is closer to the dictionary definition of teal, but violet is more loosely defined as anything between purple and blue on the color wheel. No one here supports color brainwashing though — teal is whatever you want it to be!

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We both made up our own names for the unappealing range of greenish yellows (“badness” and “gross”), and when it comes to light blues Terrence uses the the sky as a reference while I reference the water. This may be because I was a competitive swimmer for ten years so I’ve always felt some innate connection to water.

Malika’s complete results after taking the survey.
Malika’s complete survey results.
Terrence’s complete results after taking the survey.
Terrence’s complete survey results.
An example of one of the languages from the World Color Survey where the participant collectively used only three color terms to describe the entire color spectrum.
This graphic is a sample of the results from the World Color Survey. The three color blocks highlighted are results from one language in which the people used only three color terms to name the same colors Malika and Terrence were shown.
These are the 330 Munsell color chips that participants were asked to name in the World Color Survey and in our Colorful Language app. Courtesy of the WCS.
These are the 330 Munsell color chips that participants are asked to name in our Colorful Language app. Image courtesy of the World Color Survey.

Building the app

When I arrived at Fathom, Ben and Terrence approached me with an idea to take the WCS one step further. They wanted to create an app that would make it easy for anyone to take the World Color Survey. The main difference from the WCS is that our app focuses on how people name colors differently within the English language. For example, what I call teal is different from Terrence’s definition of teal.

I built the app in Processing for Android, along with some Android and Java libraries, as it seemed like the easiest route given my previous experience with Java. It was convenient to be able to pull from any of the libraries and implement the same thing at least two different ways, but at times it was tricky to figure out which of those ways was best.

We chose to implement the survey using Android’s built-in speech recognition. Speaking your responses makes the survey easier to complete, and it doesn’t limit users to those who know how to spell. It is also closer to how the original WCS was administered, verbally and in person. Besides, it’s fun to make people think you’re crazy when you’re on the train enthusiastically shouting colors into your phone.




I found a handy example for using Android’s speech API, and then I was off! When you speak a color into the speech recognizer, the app suggests up to three possible words it thinks you said. The WCS looked for single word responses, so I coded the speech recognizer to return up to three possible words and then omit compound words or capitalized duplicates (the speech recognizer counts “blue” and “Blue” as different words). The app then displays the top three remaining results so one can be confirmed.

The app flow for naming a color

Aside from the obvious motivation to name 330 colors in the survey as a way to help us better understand human perception and culture, we considered ways to encourage users to complete the entire survey we created a live updating “color profile” that grows as you name more colors and acts as a UI element.

Visualizations of your color profile data update every time you name a new color.

Each block of color in the detailed color profile is a pixel-by-pixel composite of each of the colors that were given the same name. From far away you can see what your average “peach” looks like, while close up you can see each of the different colors you’ve named “peach”.

From far away, your eyes adjust and average the colors, kind of like a pointillist painting.

To create the color profile I had to regenerate and render a mini data visualization every time the user names a new color, essentially on every page. I very quickly learned the importance of efficient for-loops, especially when rendering such heavy images. To further improve efficiency, the app only downloads a user’s color profile from the server when it is first launched. Once the app is running, it stores and updates that information locally as the user continues to name subsequent colors, and only sends updates to the server to keep it in sync.

A few years ago, webcomic xkcd conducted their own survey to see how people name colors differently.

We have more hypothesis we’d like to test so please, if you have an Android, download the app here and read our other posts about the color kit and the color “grue”.

September 04, 2014

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This is a post by Lee Cusack, our summer intern and recent graduate of Lesley University’s College of Art and Design. We’ve had an awesome time working on a project with him that sheds light on making face-to-face *conversation* universally accessible. (Photo captions by Terrence)

I was born with Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, a brain paralysis that causes stiff muscle movement and exaggerated reflexes, which apart from the rest of my body, makes it difficult to move my tongue and touch my lips together when speaking. This impairs my ability to communicate with anybody that hasn’t spent a lot of time learning my vocalizations. Needless to say, navigating the workplace, where face-to-face interaction is essential for learning and productivity, can be daunting.

The Let’s Chat! mobile app is a tool for teaching other people how to converse with me. It compels me to speak more often, thereby keeping my mouth moving to prevent muscle atrophy, and where other communication aids use pre-programmed phrases to simulate fluid conversation, the Let’s Chat! app allows me to freely articulate my thoughts and express myself.

It works by instructing the listener to follow three personalized steps:

  • Step 1, I speak a word and you say it back to me. If I nod yes, then we repeat Step 1.
  • If you don’t understand, then continue to Step 2 by asking me to spell it. If you don’t understand a letter continue to Step 3.
  • In Step 3 the letters of the alphabet are arranged and grouped by their frequency of usage in the American-English language and further tailored to suit my linguistic habits.

When conversing for the first time we typically spend more time on Step 3. As you begin to grasp the nuances of my voice and the rhythm of my speech we use the first two steps more often.

Lee's tattoo
Here’s Lee getting a tattoo in 2011. In case you were wondering about how sure he is that the letters are grouped and ordered to his habits, he got them tattooed on his arm.

The Lets Chat! design has been evolving over the past few years. It began as a simple business card, but as an app, it will soon offer those with similar speech impairments the ability to create profiles to customize their own unique letter groups and personalized instructions. It helps keep my personal life and business world alive, making it easier to freely engage with other people and create equal ownership of conversations.

Human interaction allows one to see outside themselves, share knowledge, gather ideas, reflect inward, reorganize concepts, and imagine new paradigms. This process is necessary for well-being and individual growth, but with my impairment, having to rely on computer-based touch-to-speak devices can severely filter the exchange of communication and become a detriment to my health.


Having used computer based touch-to-speak devices, I find them to be clunky, difficult to operate, complicated to program, outdated, and extremely expensive. They limit self-expression by utilizing generic pre-programmed phrases to communicate for an individual, robbing them of the attention and articulation we all deserve when expressing ourselves. My education in design and programming has given me the tools I need to envision a new mode of communication aid that works better for me and those I converse with.

During the prototype stage, we decided to build a web app (instead of a native mobile app) to make design iterations easier, and so the app would be usable on both iOS and Android devices.

The app in action at Step 3… James asks “Is is a vowel?” Lee nods yes. James asks “Is it A? E? I? O? U?” Lee nods yes after U. James taps the letter U and guesses “Is it purple?” Lee nods yes.

After developing an initial prototype with input from the Fathom team, we did user testing with others in the studio. For the test, people used the Let’s Chat! app to help me complete the Color Survey. The informal sessions shed light on areas to be improved around wording and usability. For instance, the instructions on the business card need to be refined further for the mobile environment. What’s the right length? Where and when should they appear in the process? In addition, people sometimes misunderstood or skipped steps entirely. Overall, the sessions went well, and these insights will help me further develop the app. For the first time in a long time, I was able to speak one-on-one with people who had never before been introduced to my vocalizations.

Now that a solid framework of the Let’s Chat! system is functioning, the next step is to test ways of guiding users through the process. Tightening up ambiguities in the instructional language will make the system less confusing. Further iterations of the UI will improve how one navigates through the letter groups, allowing for more eye contact. Since I’m not able to physically interact with the app, I’ll pursue more user testing as I make iterations on the design.

If you’d like to follow along or contribute to this project please check it out on Github.

August 29, 2014

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This year we held a mini-conference in Portland, Maine with local friends and neighbors Sosolimited and  Design I/O for an opportunity to review projects, exchange ideas, and share working methods.

Our first glimpse of Maine

Portland, Maine became our destination because of its two hour separation from Boston, its small town atmosphere, and its many gastronomic choices. Besides, co-founder of Sosolimited, J-roth, a.k.a. John Rothenberg, has some good friends up there, and these good friends had great recommendations on where to go to enjoy the best of Portland.

When we arrived at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, we dove right into our agenda.

Fathom’s Terrence and Alex discussed the recently released, an application created in conjunction with the City of Boston that provides zoning information on where urban commercial farms can be developed.  The app’s release coincided with the groundbreaking of the city’s first commercial urban farm, the Garrison-Trotter Farm in Roxbury.

Next up, Sosolimited presented Project Ara, a collaborative effort with Google to create a holistic approach to personal cell phones. The project reimagines the current one-piece model, and revamps it for a more intuitive approach with several pieces that can be customized for the user.

Lastly, Design I/O discussed their work on John Lennon: The Bermuda Tapes, an immersive app that tells of John Lennon’s sailing journey to Bermuda, which allowed him to fully realize his artistic vision with the help of written letters from his wife, Yoko Ono.

Group lunch at Congress Squared

After the long day we spent inside a dark hotel conference room, we were excited to hit the town and partake in some of Portland’s bar and restaurant offerings.

The overall vibe of this retreat was lighthearted, fun, and engaging. Moreover, we had the opportunity to enjoy mouthwatering food at Congress Squared, some exquisite wood roasted espresso at the Speckled Ax, delightful cocktails and snacks at Alpine & Hunt, and superb Sicilian food at Slab. We were also lucky to have been able to fit this trip into all of our busy schedules, and to have had the chance to be in the company of our talented and multifaceted friends.

No dumping into the city’s drain system as it could affect the availability and taste of the lobsters


August 20, 2014

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In June we released Mirador, a tool for visually exploring complex datasets, enabling users to infer new hypotheses from data and discover correlation patterns. Mirador is a collaboration between Fathom and the Sabeti Lab, which is part of the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University.

This past month, a group of infectious disease researchers from Nigeria and Senegal have been working with the Sabeti Lab, as part of the ACEGID Genomics Training Program in genomics and pedagogy. Andrés introduced Mirador to them and led a workshop to have the scientists start interacting with the tool. I had a great time assisting in the workshop; listening and observing for ways in which we could further tailor Mirador to help the team in their work.

Andrés shows the researches that Mirador is available for them to visualize data from epiSampler, a tool they are already using in the field to collect data from patients with infectious diseases. epiSampler was also developed by the Sabeti Lab and has been used to track samples back to their lab in Cambridge, MA.

photos courtesy of the Sabeti Lab

The Sabeti Lab studies infectious diseases, and has initiatives focused on hemorrhagic fevers like Lassa and Ebola. Colleagues at facilities they have established in Sierra Leone and Nigeria have given them a jump start in caring for Ebola victims. Currently, no ideal treatment exists for Ebola and sterile and contained environments for taking care of people are difficult to come by. One of their labs, at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, is able to collect samples and deactivate the virus before shipping it to the Sabeti Lab where they carry out full-length genome sequencing. The data is then made available in an effort to create more collaboration.

After the workshop, Dr. Pardis Sabeti gave a talk titled “Genomic Surveillance of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak,” which was an overview of her lab’s ongoing work with Ebola that they have been tirelessly combating this summer.

Pardis modestly reminds us that her lab is playing a small part, which would not be possible without the collaboration with colleagues on the ground in West Africa who are risking their lives to care for their families, friends, and neighbors.

At the last minute Pardis’ presentation had to be moved into a larger auditorium to accommodate the turn out. There was a lot of interest and excitement, and many words of praise from the audience as they asked questions afterwords.

While the Ebola outbreak is a tragic story, we are enthusiastic about the research the Sabeti Lab is doing. In the coming months we will be working to visualize the spread of disease and navigating the many variables that could be affecting its reach.

August 08, 2014

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There is a core pedagogical foundation here at Fathom. Whether it be through our fascination to learn new coding languages, adapt the ones we know, or critically reflect on our design work or that of others. We also love learning from our fellow colleagues in the field, as we did recently on a creative retreat with sosolimited and design I/O — more on that soon. This summer things got a bit more formal in terms of teaching and learning, for myself, and for the studio.


This summer we started a Fathom code workshop on Friday mornings. The first session was designed for those of us who are a bit more novice; we have been learning the beauty of python and it’s new mode in Processing. This class has been led by James Gilles (aka High School Genius) who is working at Fathom on the development of with Jonathan Feinberg. James is also preparing for his first year at MIT in the fall so keep an eye out for that kid. It’s been really great working in the Processing environment with the Python syntax. I’m also reading Learn Python the Hard Way by Zed Shaw, to supplement my learning. Things are going really well and we’re all excited to continue with the workshop this fall. I know many of us would love to start using the recent release of p5.js and are jockeying to get Lauren or Dan in the office to teach more workshops.
Dan Shiffman –

While a student in the Fathom code workshop, I also experienced the other side of the classroom. For the past six weeks I have been teaching an Interactive Design course at Boston University. This class met on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6-9pm, and it focused on interactive design methodologies, design thinking, authorship and prototyping. Here is a caption from the syllabus:

This course — Interactive Design — explores interactivity between people and designed objects. Projects address how to create conditional experiences, responses, and/or exchanges that rely on a user’s input. Solutions will be pragmatic and speculative.

BU Interactive Design class photo
BU Interactive Design class photo

This course has been incredibly rewarding and challenging. It has helped me understand my own process and has helped others articulate their design process. It’s been a delight to see formal and intellectual progress in an accelerated 6 week class. Students ranged from having little to no experience with design principals, to students who are heading into their senior year in the design program and thinking about their thesis. I was thrilled to see the learning trajectory in each of the students’ final presentations. They showcased self-authored content that reconceptualized the mobile operating system on phone and tablet devices and then translated those concepts into a large scale interactive installation. I saw great breakthroughs in design thinking beyond traditional models of interactivity. Students explored themes from contextual awareness to object detection to multi-sensor computer vision.

I am looking forward to more teaching and learning opportunities at Fathom and beyond. Keep an eye out for new workshops at Fathom — there are also rumors of us expanding workshops to the public or in some type of MOOC format. Stay tuned…

July 23, 2014

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Despite unprecedented economic growth over the last fifty years, India is still home to one-third of the world’s poor. Our latest project with the World Bank Group explores the Country Partnership Strategy for India (CPS) — a multi-billion dollar investment aimed at ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity in one of the world’s most populous countries over the next five years.

India’s economic and social growth have been strong for many decades, but the nation still faces a number of development challenges. The economic infrastructure can’t yet support the growth needed to lift the population out of poverty. City and municipal services are strained as India experiences one of largest rural-to-urban migrations in history. Many states still face challenges related to health and nutrition, education, social protection, and skills development.

The original CPS strategy was published as a book

The CPS began life in the form of a book. Our task was to create an experience that highlights the progress and obstacles facing the nation as it seeks to lift one-third of the world’s poor out of poverty. We were excited to take on the challenge of navigating the strategy’s complex structure, and finding a way for users to understand the progress that has been made, and the goals the country still faces.

Open India on iPad

The CPS is organized around three areas of engagement — integration, transformation, and inclusion. Nineteen country-level outcomes are grouped loosely within these areas, and represent high-level objectives within the World Bank Group’s strategy. Each outcome is measured by one or more results indicators, and the app is designed to change over time to reflect progress in each of these metrics. These outcomes and indicators help the World Bank Group track the progress of  hundreds of projects and knowledge activities taking place across India.

The tool enables users to measure progress by exploring the number of projects, the amount of funding, and the set of states influenced within each engagement area, outcome, or indicator. Further, the site contextualizes the World Bank Group’s goals through the lens of existing challenge areas, focus states, gender equality, and urbanization.

July 11, 2014

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Lo and behold, on the first official Urban Agriculture Day in the City of Boston, we are excited to release our latest project, The tool enables users to find locations where they can pursue different urban agriculture activities around the city. By selecting a specific location, you can see which farming opportunities are available, and which actions you’ll need to take to start a commercial farm in Boston. 

Thanks to the Knight Prototype Fund, today we announced the release of our latest site,, alongside the Groundbreaking celebration of Boston’s first commercial urban farm.

Whether you’d like to keep honey bees on the roof, hens on the ground, or a freight container garden, the site describes the steps needed to start any type of commercial agriculture activity. Here at Fathom, we’re seeing what we can do to start a rooftop hydroponics system (though we’ll have to run this by the Boston Landmarks Commission because we’re located in a historic district, and probably by our landlord because we’re not especially wily).

By toggling between roof and ground levels, selecting different structures, and choosing various activities– soil plants, aquaponics, aquaculture, hydroponics, beekeeping, hen keeping, and composting– you can see the zoning considerations that apply to each lot, the permitting applications you’ll need to complete, and the commissions you’ll need to contact to get the ball rolling.

We celebrated the site’s release today alongside Urban Agriculture Day, and the groundbreaking of the city’s first commercial urban farm, the Garrison-Trotter Farm in Roxbury. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was there to celebrate and announce the occasion.

The project actually began with a tweet from former Boston mayor, Tom Menino a year ago. Terrence, our in-house farmer/ professional pickle maker, shared the tweet with the rest of the team, and we decided that the legislative changes taking place opened a tremendous opportunity to improve local engagement with urban farming. We partnered up with the Mayor’s Office of Food Initiatives, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and other folks from the City of Boston to integrate municipal zoning code with the recent legislation, Article 89. After receiving support from the Knight Prototype Fund, we set out to make the legislation more navigable and transparent to those interested in urban farming.

Grab your phone, tablet, or open up a (narrow) screen on your browser to find the nearest location to start a commercial farm. We’ve optimized the tool for mobile and tablet devices, which forced us to prioritize the information that ‘s most important for users. Try it out, and get growing!


June 25, 2014

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We have been very busy lately in preparation for the upcoming Tau Day. Last week, the whole office gathered around two pies to honor our favorite mathematical constant!


No matter your numerical orientation, at Fathom we are open to all kinds of mathematical beliefs and points of view.

During the development of Peek in Pi, I pointed out the ongoing debate about the circle constant. The current standard relates the circle’s circumference to its diameter (which is what π stands for), though many people claim that it would be more convenient to relate the circle’s circumference to its radius (also referred to as τ). When I discovered that TAU was already a constant in the Processing ecosystem, though, the nerd in me couldn’t have been any happier.

Last week (or half tau months after the Peek in Pi release), we hosted a FiesTau party in our office to prepare for the advent of Tau Day, and to honor the enlightenment of this constancy with the same rejoicing and delight we embrace it with.

Mark and his wife Kim were kind enough to provide us with two whole pies for the event, because we simply couldn’t have a Tau party without lavish food and libations. Fortunately they didn’t use a certain pie pan they own that has an imprint of the digits of half tau…

Two pies for a full tau day
Mark seemingly confused by the math…

We took this opportunity to release the latest creation from the Fathom foundry: Peep in Tau, a new take on searching numbers within the digits of well-known mathematical constants.

Official release of our new Peep in Tau app
Peep in Tau on Google Play
Peep in Tau on an Android tablet

But the climax of this soirée began when we started playing Taupardy!

Main Taupardy! panel, with categories: “Digitaus”, “Geometrau”, “Dusting off the books”, “Rationalitau”, “Feynman point” and “Popular culture”
“Alex, ‘Feynman point’ for $1000 please!”
The correct answer, now OEIS sequence A243955

We took one of the questions (or answers), “The sequence of positions of consecutive 9′s in Tau’s decimals”, as an opportunity to play around with our new app, learn more about the Feynman Point, and submit the sequence as an entry to the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. After an exhaustive review process, the sequence was accepted, though sadly it was stripped of most references to Tau as an independent constant.

The evening finished with a mandatory team photo shoot, with everyone properly attired in brand new Tau-shirts gracefully designed by James. Yes, this is how we roll.

The Fathom team
A new 3*Tau constant…?

I have to say it was a memorable evening, full of joy, fun facts, gracious tau-puns, and lovely geekiness.

Just remember, it is never too late to reconsider which dimension of the circle you advocate for.

Happy Tau Day from the Fathom team!