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January 06 2014

Four short links: 6 January 2014

  1. 4043-byte 8086 Emulator manages to implement most of the hardware in a 1980’s era IBM-PC using a few hundred fewer bits than the total number of transistors used to implement the original 8086 CPU. Entry in the obfuscated C contest.
  2. Hacking the CES Scavenger HuntAt which point—now you have your own iBeacon hardware—you can just go ahead and set the UUID, Major and Minor numbers of your beacon to each of the CES scavenger hunt beacon identities in turn, and then bring your beacon into range of your cell phone running which should be running the CES mobile app. Once you’ve shown the app all of the beacons, you’ll have “finished” the scavenger hunt and can claim your prize. Of course doing that isn’t legal. It’s called fraud and will probably land you in serious trouble. iBeacons have great possibilities, but with great possibilities come easy hacks when they’re misused.
  3. Filtering: Seven Principles — JP Rangaswami laying down some basic principles on which filters should be built. 1. Filters should be built such that they are selectable by subscriber, not publisher. I think the basic is: 0: Customers should be able to run their own filters across the information you’re showing them.
  4. Tremor-Correcting Steadicam — brilliant use of technology. Sensors + microcontrollers + actuators = a genuinely better life. Beats figuring out better algorithms to pimp eyeballs to Brands You Love. (via BoingBoing)

November 15 2013

November 14 2013

October 14 2013

Four short links: 15 October 2013

  1. BF Skinner’s Baby Make Project (BoingBoing) — I got to read some of Skinner’s original writing on the Air-Crib recently and couple of things stuck out to me. First, it cracked me up. The article, published in 1959 in Cumulative Record, is written in the kind of extra-enthusiastic voice you’re used to hearing Makers use to describe particularly exciting DIY projects.
  2. Wikiseat — awesome Maker education project. (via Claire Amos)
  3. Redecentralize — project highlighting developers and software that disintermediates the ad-serving parasites preying on our human communication.
  4. The Internet Will Suck All Creative Content Out of the World (David Byrne) — persuasively argued that labels are making all the money from streaming services like Spotify, et al. Musicians are increasingly suspicious of the money and equity changing hands between these services and record labels – both money and equity has been exchanged based on content and assets that artists produced but seem to have no say over. Spotify gave $500m in advances to major labels in the US for the right to license their catalogues.

April 26 2013

Glowing Plants

I just invested in BioCurious’ Glowing Plants project on Kickstarter. I don’t watch Kickstarter closely, but this is about as fast as I’ve ever seen a project get funded. It went live on Wednesday; in the afternoon, I was backer #170 (more or less), but could see the number of backers ticking upwards constantly as I watched. It was fully funded for $65,000 Thursday; and now sits at 1340 backers (more by the time you read this), with about $84,000 in funding. And there’s a new “stretch” goal: if they make $400,000, they will work on bigger plants, and attempt to create a glowing rose.

Glowing plants are a curiosity; I don’t take seriously the idea that trees will be an alternative to streetlights any time in the near future. But that’s not the point. What’s exciting is that an important and serious biology project can take place in a biohacking lab, rather than in a university or an industrial facility. It’s exciting that this project could potentially become a business; I’m sure there’s a boutique market for glowing roses and living nightlights, if not for biological street lighting. And it’s exciting that we can make new things out of biological parts.

In a conversation last year, Drew Endy said that he wanted synthetic biology to “stay weird,” and that if in ten years, all we had accomplished was create bacteria that made oil from cellulose, we will have failed. Glowing plants are weird. And beautiful. Take a look at their project, fund it, and be the first on your block to have a self-illuminating garden.

February 21 2013

3D printing from your fingertips

The 3Doodler is a 3D printer, but it’s a pen. This takes 3D printing and turns it on its head …

In fact the 3Doodler rejects quite a lot of what most people would consider necessary for it to be called a 3D printer. There is no three-axis control. There is no software. You can’t download a design and print an object. It strips 3D printing back to basics.

What there is, what it allows you to do, is make things. This is the history of printing going in reverse. It’s as if Gutenberg’s press was invented first, and then somebody came along afterwards and invented the fountain pen.

While the 3Doodler looks simple, the creators have obviously overcome some serious technological difficulties to get it working. One of the things that’s hard to do on 3D printers, at least hard to do well, is unsupported structures.

As anyone that owns a 3D printer will tell you, the cooling time for the plastic as it leaves the print head is crucial to allow you to print unsupported structures. Too hot and it doesn’t work, the structure sags and runs. Too cold and it just plain doesn’t work at all. From their videos, the 3Doodler inventors seem to have cracked the problem. Building a free-standing structure appears to be easy and well within the capabilities of the pen.

It also takes 3mm ABS and PLA as its “ink,” the same stuff used by most hobbyist 3D printers. I’ve got spools of this stuff hanging around my house, which I use in my own printer. But unlike my printer, which cost just under a thousand dollars, the 3Doodler costs just $75.

It doesn’t have the same capabilities, but that’s the difference between a printing press and a pen. It has different capabilities, ones a “normal” 3D printer doesn’t have. It’s not a cheap alternative, it’s a different thing entirely.

I’m currently watching the 3Doodler climb past its first million dollars on Kickstarter. When I say its “first” million I mean that. The project has more than 30 days left on its campaign and already it’s gone viral. This is the next Pebble. The next Kickstarter success story.

The creators have tapped into a previously untappable market: People who wanted a 3D printer but couldn’t afford one, and people who see the obvious potential of a fountain pen over a printing press, for both art and engineering.

The guys behind the 3Doodler made $60,000 dollars while I wrote this post. My hat is off to them. It’s not often someone comes up with an idea this good.

I’m going to be writing a series of posts on hardware startups over the course of the next few months, and rest assured I’ll come back to the 3Doodler. But not until they can type faster than they can make money.

January 22 2013

Four short links: 22 January 2013

  1. Design Like Nobody’s Patenting Anything (Wired) — profile of Maker favourites Sparkfun. Instead of relying on patents for protection, the team prefers to outrace other entrants in the field. “The open source model just forces us to innovate,” says Boudreaux. “When we release something, we’ve got to be thinking about the next rev. We’re doing engineering and innovating and it’s what we wanna be doing and what we do well.”
  2. Agree to Agree — why I respect my friend David Wheeler: his Design Scene app, which features daily design inspiration, obtains prior written permission to feature the sites because doing so is not only making things legally crystal clear, but also makes his intentions clear to the sites he’s linking to. He’s shared the simple license they request.
  3. The Coming Fight Between Druids and Engineers (The Edge) — We live in a time when the loneliest place in any debate is the middle, and the argument over technology’s role in our future is no exception. The relentless onslaught of novelties technological and otherwise is tilting individuals and institutions alike towards becoming Engineers or Druids. It is a pressure we must resist, for to be either a Druid or an Engineer is to be a fool. Druids can’t revive the past, and Engineers cannot build technologies that do not carry hidden trouble. (via Beta Knowledge)
  4. Reimagining Math Textbooks (Dan Meyer) — love this outline of how a textbook could meaningfully interact with students, rather than being recorded lectures or PDF versions of cyclostyled notes and multichoice tests. Rather than using a generic example to illustrate a mathematical concept, we use the example you created. We talk about its perimeter. We talk about its area. The diagrams in the margins change. The text in the textbook changes. Check it out — they actually built it!

December 31 2012

Four short links: 31 December 2012

  1. Wireless Substitution (BoingBoing, CDC) — very nice graph showing the decline in landlines/growth in wireless.
  2. Maker’s RowOur mission is to make the manufacturing process simple to understand and easy to access. From large corporations to first time designers, we are providing unparalleled access to industry-specific factories and suppliers across the United States.
  3. mySight (GitHub) — myspectral.com Spectruino analyzer for light spectra in UV/VIS/NIR.
  4. State of the World (Bruce Sterling, John Lebkowsky) — always a delight. Come 2013, I think it’s time for people in and around the “music industry” to stop blaming themselves, and thinking their situation is somehow special. Whatever happens to musicians will eventually happen to everybody. Nobody was or is really much better at “digital transition” than musicians were and are. If you’re superb at digitalization, that’s no great solution either. You just have to auto-disrupt and re-invent yourself over and over and over again.

December 27 2012

Four short links: 27 December 2012

  1. Improving the Security Posture of Industrial Control Systems (NSA) — common-sense that owners of ICS should already be doing, but which (because it comes from the NSA) hopefully they’ll listen to. See also Wired article on NSA targeting domestic SCADA systems.
  2. Geographic Pricing Online (Wall Street) — Staples, Discover Financial Services, Rosetta Stone, and Home Depot offer discounts if you’re close to a competitor, higher prices otherwise. [U]sing geography as a pricing tool can also reinforce patterns that e-commerce had promised to erase: prices that are higher in areas with less competition, including rural or poor areas. It diminishes the Internet’s role as an equalizer.
  3. Hacker Scouting (NPR) — teaching kids to be safe and competent in the world of technology, just as traditional scouting teaches them to be safe and competent in the world of nature.
  4. pressureNET Data Visualization — open source barometric data-gathering software which runs on Android devices. Source is on GitHub.

December 26 2012

Four short links: 28 December 2012

  1. Kenyan Women Create Their Own Geek Culture (NPR) — Oguya started spending some Saturday mornings with Colaco and other women, snipping code and poring through hacker cookbooks. These informal gatherings became the Akirachix. Oguya graduated and turned her mobile phone idea into a company called M-Farm. At 25 years old, she now has a staff of 18. And 7,000 African farmers use her app.
  2. Ozone Widget Framework (Github) — open source webapp integrator. The Ozone Widget Framework is released to the public as Open Source Software, because it’s the Right Thing To Do. Also, it was required by Section 924 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Spook-made, citizen played.
  3. gtypist — open source universal typing tutor. You can learn correct typing and improve your skills by practising its exercises on a regular basis.
  4. Open Source Hardware Bagpipes — to practice your fingerings without actually killing the neighbours. (via Hacked Gadgets)

December 20 2012

The industrial Internet from a startup perspective

I don’t remember when I first met Todd Huffman, but for the longest time I seemed to run into him in all kinds of odd places, but mostly in airport waiting areas as our nomadic paths intersected randomly and with surprising frequency. We don’t run into each other in airports anymore because Todd has settled in San Francisco to build 3Scan, his startup at the nexus of professional maker, science as a service, and the industrial Internet. My colleague Jon Bruner has been talking to airlines, automobile manufacturers, and railroads to get their industrial Internet stories. I recently caught up with Todd to see what the industrial Internet looks like from the perspective of an innovative startup.

First off, I’m sure he wouldn’t use the words “industrial Internet” to describe what he and his team are doing, and it might be a little bit of a stretch to categorize 3Scan that way. But I think they are an exemplar of many of the core principles of the meme and it’s interesting to think about them in that frame. They are building a device that produces massive amounts of data; a platform to support its complex analysis, distribution, and interoperation; and APIs to observe its operation and remotely control it.

Do a Google image search for “pathologist” and you’ll find lots and lots of pictures of people in white lab coats sitting in front of microscopes. This is a field whose primary user interface hasn’t changed in 200 years. This is equally true for a wide range of scientific research. 3Scan is setting out to change that by simplifying the researcher’s life while making 3D visualization and numerical analysis of the features of whole tissue samples readily available.

At the heart of the system is an illuminated diamond knife blade capable of making one-micron-thick tissue slices coupled with a scanning objective. A cubic inch of tissue, such as a mouse brain, sliced into one-micron slices will take seven hours to scan and will produce about a terabyte of data. The design of the knife is licensed from Texas A&M brain networks lab where Todd spent some of his graduate student years, and 3Scan is building it into a cost effective platform by taking advantage of technologies from other industries. For example, the tissue stage was adapted from an aerospace application, and the first version of their sample viewer is based on OpenLayers, an open source geo-spatial platform. Also, the cost to store and process the data has dropped by multiple orders of magnitude since Todd first started working on it in 2005.

Mouse brain vascular networkMouse brain vascular network

Mouse brain vascular network

What makes this interesting from an industrial Internet perspective is the way they are combining an instrumented machine (the microscope) with powerful data analytics and remote access to enable a service. The samples are volumetric and high resolution (1 cubic micron) instead of the traditional 2D slides prepared for microscopy, and because they are digital they are available for 3D viewing, algorithmic inspection, categorization, and analysis as well as traditional 2D viewing. This is a very complex “thing” that is getting on the Internet in a meaningful way, producing data, exposing APIs, and allowing for remote interaction and control.

Researchers will be able to follow their sample through the entire process from receipt to scan to the application of analytical algorithms. They won’t have to develop the competencies to run a machine that would otherwise have to be dumbed down for grad student deployment, and they will be able to add their own algorithms into the processing pipeline without having to manage the analytical infrastructure.

Longer term one can imagine the data and analytical pipeline breaking away from this single device and serving as a general analytical platform for a range of machines that provide different forms of volumetric imaging. Or, a single sample might be processed by different machines across different scientific service providers (i.e. imaging, DNA sequencing, etc.) and because each of them is operating as a network service rather than as a standalone device, the range of analytical methods can continue to grow.

Talking to Todd I felt like I was getting a glimpse here at the future of connected instruments.


This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

Related:

December 10 2012

Four short links: 10 December 2012

  1. RE2: A Principled Approach to Regular Expressions — a regular expression engine without backtracking, so without the potential for exponential pathological runtimes.
  2. Mobile is Entertainment (Luke Wroblewski) — 79% of mobile app time is spent on fun, even as desktop web use is declining.
  3. Five UX Research Pitfalls (Elaine Wherry) — I live this every day: Sometimes someone will propose an idea that doesn’t seem to make sense. While your initial reaction may be to be defensive or to point out the flaws in the proposed A/B study, you should consider that your buddy is responding to something outside your view and that you don’t have all of the data.
  4. Building a Keyboard: Part 1 (Jesse Vincent) — and Part 2 and general musings on the topic of keyboards. Jesse built his own. Yeah, he’s that badass.

August 03 2012

They promised us flying cars

We may be living in the future, but it hasn’t entirely worked out how we were promised. I remember the predictions clearly: the 21st century was supposed to be full of self-driving cars, personal communicators, replicators and private space ships.

Except, of course, all that has come true. Google just got the first license to drive their cars entirely autonomously on public highways. Apple came along with the iPhone and changed everything. Three-dimensional printers have come out of the laboratories and into the home. And in a few short years, and from a standing start, Elon Musk and SpaceX has achieved what might otherwise have been thought impossible: late last year, SpaceX launched a spacecraft and returned it to Earth safely. Then they launched another, successfully docked it with the International Space Station, and then again returned it to Earth.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule is grappled and berthed to the Earth-facing port of the International Space Station’s Harmony module at 12:02 p.m. EDT, May 25, 2012. Credit: NASA/SpaceX


Right now there is a generation of high-tech tinkerers breaking the seals on proprietary technology and prototyping new ideas, which is leading to a rapid growth in innovation. The members of this generation, who are building open hardware instead of writing open software, seem to have come out of nowhere. Except, of course, they haven’t. Promised a future they couldn’t have, they’ve started to build it. The only difference between them and Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Steve Jobs is that those guys got to build bigger toys than the rest of us.

The dotcom billionaires are regular geeks just like us. They might be the best of us, or sometimes just the luckiest, but they grew up with the same dreams, and they’ve finally given up waiting for governments to build the future they were promised when they were kids. They’re going to build it for themselves.

The thing that’s driving the Maker movement is the same thing that’s driving bigger shifts, like the next space race. Unlike the old space race, pushed by national pride and the hope that we could run fast enough in place so that we didn’t have to start a nuclear war, this new space race is being driven by personal pride, ambition and childhood dreams.

But there are some who don’t see what’s happening, and they’re about to miss out. Case in point: a lot of big businesses are confused by the open hardware movement. They don’t understand it, don’t think it’s worth their while to make exceptions and cater to it. Even the so-called “smart money” doesn’t seem to get it. I’ve heard moderately successful venture capitalists from the Valley say that they “… don’t do hardware.” Those guys are about to lose their shirts.

Makers are geeks like you and me who have decided to go ahead and build the future themselves because the big corporations and the major governments have so singularly failed to do it for us. Is it any surprise that dotcom billionaires are doing the same? Is it any surprise that the future we build is going to look a lot like the future we were promised and not so much like the future we were heading toward?

Related:

August 02 2012

On co-creation, contests and crowdsourcing

I had decided to update the branding at one of my companies, and that meant re-thinking my logo.

Here’s the old logo:

Original Middleband Group logo

The creative exercise started with a logo design contest posting at 99designs, an online marketplace for crowdsourced graphic design.

When it was all done, I had been enveloped by an epic wave of 200 designs from 38 different designers.

It was a flash mob, a virtual meetup constructed for the express purpose of creating a new logo. The system itself was relatively lean, providing just enough “framing” to facilitate rapid iteration, where lots of derivative ideas could be presented, shaped and then re-shaped again.

The bottom line is that based on the primary goal of designing a new logo, I can say without hesitation that the model works.

Not only did the end product manifest as I hoped it would (see below), but the goodness of real-time engagement was intensely stimulating and richly illuminating. At one point, I was maintaining 10 separate conversations with designers spread across the Americas, Asia and Europe. Talk about parallelizing the creative process.

In the end, the project yielded eight worthy logo designs and not one but two contest winners! It was the creative equivalent of a Chakra experience: cathartic, artistic and outcome-driven at the same time.

Co-creation, crowdsourcing and the Maker movement

Part of my draw to try out this crowdsourced model is that I consider myself a Maker and am a serious devotee of co-creation types of projects, where the line between creator, consumer, customer and service provider is inherently gray.

Why do I like this model? Because it facilitates a rich exchange of ideas and skill sets, and is highly collaborative. It’s part of the larger trend of melding of online, offline, events and exchanges into new types of value chains.

It’s a bucket that includes Kickstarter (funding platform for creative projects), Foo Camp (the wiki of conferences), Maker Faire (festival and celebration of the Maker movement) and X PRIZE (radical breakthroughs through contests), to name a few.

Plus, there’s an authenticity to that which is grass roots — that which opens a new economic domain for direct-to-consumer connections, a new modality for handcrafted, and customized offerings, even more so in a world that is tuned for mass-production.

One only has to scan the project listings at Kickstarter or the exhibitor lists at Maker Faire to see the catalytic role this wave is playing for robot makers, artisan bakers, knitted goods purveyors, sculptors, app makers, device builders and do-it-yourself kit creators. In times of stagnant economic growth, it is heartening to see how much leverage there is when you can integrate discovery, engagement, personalization and monetization, as this model does.

It’s the yin to the yang of homogenization, and as such, has promise to ignite real, durable growth across many different market segments in the years ahead.

The good, bad and ugly of crowdsourced design

With crowdsourced design, I experienced two primary pitfalls and one indirect one.

The two primary ones were:

  1. You run the risk that a designer is modifying someone else’s design. In fact, one of the designers of the 38 who submitted designs got kicked out of the competition for just that reason (i.e., non-original work).
  2. Since it’s an all-or-nothing outcome for the participants, some of the designers will diss each other, which led one designer to pull a design that I actually liked.

The indirect pitfall was the cost dynamic. Namely, given the low cost, a lot of the designers are outside the U.S., which means you could be losing out on senior, higher-dollar U.S. designers, unless you materially up the award that you want to commit to (99designs gives you tools so you can guarantee winners, increase award levels, etc.).

That stated, it’s the 80/20 rule in action: 80% of the designs that captivated me the most came from 20% of the designers. Because of the competitive nature of the format, the back-and-forth process was highly iterative.

Choosing a logo (or two …)

Meanwhile, as we got to the last hours of my logo design project, I faced a dilemma.

When I got down to the final 4-5 candidates, there were two designs that really got under my skin, each from a different designer.

Plus, as Middleband is my “umbrella” company through which a bunch of my different ventures get seeded (before being spun off as separate entities), I could see a scenario where having a second logo path in hand would be a great option to have.

Now, the cool thing about a model like 99designs is that I could affordably acquire two designs (the cost was an incremental $245 to award a second contest winner), and it was push-button easy for all parties.

So that’s what I did. Here are the two winners:

Middleband Group winning logos

Related:

April 06 2012

Announcing Make's Hardware Innovation Workshop

Hardware Innovation Workshop

The maker movement is a remarkable new source of innovation. We are starting to see what results from a powerful combination of open hardware + personal fabrication tools + connected makers. Sometimes this innovation is hard to identify in the excitement that surrounds Maker Faire. Yet at Maker Faire, you can find new products and new startups at various stages of development that you will see almost nowhere else. Business people tell me they come to Maker Faire expecting to have a good time with their family but unexpectedly walk away impressed by the creativity and innovation they find there. As the song says, "there's something happening here." Even now, the pace of development is quickening and the number of hardware startups is rapidly growing.

Tim O'Reilly has been urging that the opportunity is now to showcase makers as professionals who are starting new businesses and developing new products. So, I'm happy to announce a new business conference during the week of Maker Faire, taking advantage of the makers who are already coming to Maker Faire. Presented by Make, the Hardware Innovation Workshop will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, May 15-16, at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, California. (I'm excited to have PARC host us and this event because of its long history as a source of technology innovation.)

The Hardware Innovation Conference will present a number of hardware-related startups and review the major platforms and the new toolset for prototyping and personal fabrication. It's an intimate setting to meet the leaders of the maker movement and understand how makers are changing the technology landscape, in much the same way that enthusiasts once helped to create the personal computer industry.

Our presenters will include:

  • Massimo Banzi of Arduino, an Italian interaction designer and engineer who created this open source micro controller. The Arduino platform has become the Linux of open source hardware and it is found at the heart of many maker projects.


  • Carl Bass of Autodesk, a maker himself whose new consumer division, which acquired Instructables, is exploring the software and services needed by this emerging maker market.

  • Jay Rogers of Local Motors is creating an open source car through collaborative design and he's built a micro factory for assembly of these cars by the owners themselves.
  • Ayah Bdeir of Little Bits is one of those non-traditional product designers who has developed a new educational product.
  • Allan Chochinov of Core 77 is starting a new program called Products of Design at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, which is reshaping product design around what makers are able to do.
  • Nathan Seidle of Sparkfun Electronics runs one of the major suppliers for maker projects. He's also a partner for makers who have the idea but not the factory to build a new product.
  • Bre Pettis of MakerBot will explore the 3D printing opportunity in consumer markets. MakerBot is the Apple II of the personal fabrication revolution. Brad Feld of Foundry Group will tell us why he's invested in Makerbot.
  • Mark Hatch of TechShop, whose membership model for a community workshop has become a hub for hardware innovators. i>
  • Bunnie Huang of Chumby and author of "Hacking the Xbox," who understands how Asia's manufacturing capacity might be tapped by makers.

  • Check our event website for full program details.

    The lesson for us from makers is that hardware isn't as hard as it used to be. It's benefiting from the same forces that allowed open source to reshape the software industry and create the web economy. Makers are part of a prototyping revolution that is inviting a new audience to design and develop products. Open technologies and new collaborative processes just might change the face of manufacturing by making it much more personal and more automated. Unlike traditional manufacturers, makers are able to pivot easily to serve niche markets. In addition, larger companies are hiring makers and maker advocates to infuse their own teams with creative ideas and keep track of these new market opportunities.

    The conventional wisdom is that Silicon Valley investors don't like hardware startups, but that's not stopping makers. We even see hardware startups raising capital from non-traditional sources such as Kickstarter. (Twine raised over $850,000.) This is causing some investors to pay attention. As an angel investor said to me recently: "Everybody's just looking at mobile/social. I want to look at things outside that well-developed space and that's why I'm looking at makers."

    Please join me along with Tim O'Reilly and the creative team of Make Magazine and Maker Faire for a program focused on maker-led innovation at a historic location in the Silicon Valley. Due to the venue, we are limited to 300 participants. If you're coming from outside the Bay Area, you can stay for the weekend of fun at Maker Faire, May 19-20th.

    Event: Hardware Innovation Workshop
    Dates: May 15-16
    Location: Xerox PARC, Palo Alto, CA

    February 27 2012

    Creating Maker-friendly cities

    Freeside hackerspace in Atlanta
    Freeside hackerspace in Atlanta.

    In an article in Slate, "What Beer Can Teach Us About Emerging Technologies," Dave Conz writes that many DIY activities can be illegal in some towns:

    "Home brewing is part of a broad spectrum of DIY activities including amateur astronomy, backyard biodiesel brewing, experimental architecture, open-source 3-D printing, even urban farming. (My pet chickens Pepper and Fanny eat my spent beer grains and, in turn, feed me breakfast.) Many of these pastimes can lead to new ideas, processes, and apparatus that might not otherwise exist. Depending on your hobby and your town, these activities can be officially encouraged, discouraged, unregulated, or illegal. For example, it's illegal to make biodiesel fuel at home in the city of Phoenix (a simple process in which waste vegetable oil is mixed with methyl alcohol into which lye has been dissolved) but not regulated in the bordering towns of Scottsdale, Chandler, or Tempe (where I make mine). Based on its zoning laws, Phoenix considers the process 'industrial' and therefore prohibited in residential areas while the other cities do not. If making biodiesel were legal and encouraged, the reduction in exhaust emissions and diversion of grease from sewers and landfills could help clean up the 'brown cloud' of smog in the Valley of the Sun.

    "We need more sensible policy like the legalization of home brewing beer. It's unlikely that we'll be able to successfully shop and consume our way into the best future, but we can make it brighter by encouraging DIY."

    I agree that governments, particularly local governments, need to do more to understand and adapt to what might be called DIY citizenship. Cities need to re-examine their industrial policy and zoning laws, redefining what light-industrial means and relaxing regulations that were meant for the industrial age when production was housed in factories. We need cities to become maker-friendly and welcome makerspaces, foster new maker businesses and support individuals who are now doing things that lawmakers of yesteryear didn't expect them to be doing for themselves. It's re-inventing what you can do in and around a city, even what you can do in your backyard and garage.

    One consequence of not getting this right is that a city shuts down a makerspace, which happened in Nashua, New Hampshire earlier this year, even as it funds economic development efforts to attract entrepreneurs. Cities should encourage this kind of "homebrew" innovation and inspiration, which is a healthy form of growth.

    Studying the emergence of makers and makerspaces in cities would be a great urban planning research project, developing a set of policy guidelines for cities to implement if they want to foster the kind of innovation and social change found in the Maker Movement.

    Note: I will be speaking at the FutureTense - Tinkering with Tomorrow event this Wednesday in DC.

    January 23 2012

    Four short links: 23 January 2012

    1. Adafruit Flora -- wearable electronics and accessories platform. (via Tim O'Reilly)
    2. Killed by Code -- paper on software vulnerabilities in implantable medical devices. Discovered via Karen Sandler's wow-generating keynote at linux.conf.au (covered here). (via Selena Deckelmann)
    3. DIY London -- fun little Budget-Hero game to make apparent the trade-offs facing politicians. Kids should play Sim* and Civilization games: you get a sense of tradeoffs and consequences from these that you don't from insubstantial activities. More City Hall games, please! (via David Eaves)
    4. Lessig on How Money Corrupts Congress (Rolling Stone) -- glad to see Larry's profile rising. This is key: I lay out my own voucher program that tries to do that, but the challenge isn’t as much to imagine the solution as much as it is to imagine the process to bring about the solution, given how entrenched the cancer is and how much the very people we need to reform the system depend upon the existing system. (see also an excerpt from Lessig's new book) (via Long Now)

    November 04 2011

    The maker movement's potential for education, jobs and innovation is growing

    Dale DoughertyDale Dougherty (@dalepd), one of the co-founders of O'Reilly Media, was honored at the White House yesterday as a "Champion of Change." This White House initiative profiles Americans who are helping their fellow citizens "meet the challenges of the 21st century." The recognition came as part of what the White House is calling "Make it in America," which convenes people from around the country to discuss American manufacturing and jobs.

    "This is so completely deserved," wrote Tim O'Reilly on Google+. "When you see kids at Maker Faire suddenly turned on to science and math because they want to make things, when you see them dragging their parents around with eyes shining, you realize just how dull our education system has made some of the most exciting and interesting stuff in the world. Dale has taken a huge step towards changing that. I'm honored to have worked with Dale now for more than 25 years, making big ideas happen. He's a genius."

    The event was streamed online at WhiteHouse.gov/live. Video of the event is up on YouTube, where you can watch Dougherty's comments, beginning at 58:18. Most of the other speakers focused on energy, transportation or other economic issues. Dougherty went in a different direction. "You're sort of the anti-Washington message, in that you guys just hang out and do great stuff," said U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra when introducing Dougherty.

    "I started this magazine called 'MAKE'," Dougherty said. "It's sort of a 21st-century 'Popular Mechanics,' and it really meant to describe how to make things for fun and play. [We] started an event called MakerFaire, just bringing people together to see what they make in their basements, their garages, and what they're doing with technology. It really kind of came from the technology side into what you might call manufacturing, but people are building robots, people are building new forms of lighting, people are building … new forms of things that are just in their heads," he said.

    "You mentioned tinkering," said Dougherty, responding to an earlier comment by Chopra. "Tinkering was once a solid middle-class skill. It was how you made your life better. You got a better home, you fixed your car, you did a lot of things. We've kind of lost some of that, and tinkering is on the fringe instead of in the middle today.

    The software community is influencing manufacturing today, said Dougherty, including new ways of thinking about it. "It's a culture. I think when you look at 'MAKE' and MakerFaire, this is a new culture, and it is a way to kind of redefine what this means." It's about seeing manufacturing as a "creative enterprise," not something "where you're told to do something but where you're invited to solve a problem or figure things out."

    This emergent culture is one in which makers create because of passion and personal interest. "People are building robots because they want to," Dougherty said. "It's an expression of who they are and what they love to do. When you get these people together, they really turn each other on, and they turn on other people."

    I caught up with Dougherty and talked with him about the White House event and what's happening more broadly in the maker space. Our interview follows.

    What does this recognition mean to you?

    Dale Dougherty: I see it as a recognition for the maker movement and the can-do spirit of makers. I'm proud of what makers are doing, so I appreciated the opportunity to tell this story to business and government leaders. Makers are the champions of change.

    How fast is the maker community growing?

    Dale Dougherty: It's hard to put a number on the spread of an idea. The key thing is that it continues to spread and more people are getting connected. I know that the maker audience is getting younger every year, which is a good sign. That means we've involved more families and young people.

    What's particularly exciting to you in the maker movement right now?

    Dale Dougherty: Kits. We just wrapped up a special issue of "MAKE" on kits. Kits are a very interesting alternative to packaged consumer products. They provide parts and instructions for you to make something yourself. There's such a broad range of kits available that I wanted to bring them together in one issue. We have a great lead article by MIT researcher and economist, Michael Schrage, on how kits drive innovation. I didn't know, for example, that the first steam engine was sold as a kit. So were the first personal computers. Today we're looking at 3-D printers such as the Makerbot. We're also looking at the RallyFighter, a kit car from Local Motors, which you can build in their new microfactory in Arizona. Also, Jose Gomez-Marquez of MIT writes about DIY medical devices and how they can be hacked by medical practitioners in third-world countries to produce custom solutions.

    What does making mean for education?

    Dale Dougherty: Making is learning. Remember John Dewey's phrase "learn by doing." It's a hundred-year-old educational philosophy based on experiential learning that seems forgotten, if not forbidden, today. I see a huge opportunity to change the nature of our educational system.

    How is the maker movement currently influencing government?

    Dale Dougherty: The DIY mindset seems essential for a democratic society, especially one that is undergoing constant change. Think of Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay, "Self-Reliance." Taking responsibility for yourself and your community is critical. You can't have a democracy without participation. Everything we can do for ourselves we should do and not wait or expect others to do it for us. If you want things to change, step up and make it happen.

    The theme of the Washington meeting was "Make It in America." America is the leading manufacturing economy, but that lead is shrinking. As one speaker said, we have to refute the idea that manufacturing is "dirty, dangerous and disappearing."

    Do we want to remain a country that makes things? There are obvious reasons many would like that answer to be 'yes,' but the biggest reason is that manufacturing has historically been a source of middle class jobs.

    Some folks asked how to influence people so that they value manufacturing in American and how to get young kids interested in careers in manufacturing. One answer I have is that you have to get more people participating, to think of manufacturing as something that we all do, not just a few. We want to get people to see themselves as makers. This is the broad democratic invitation of the maker movement.

    Flipping this a bit, how should the maker movement influence government?

    Dale Dougherty: I see four things that the maker movement can bring:

    1. Openness — Once you get started doing something, you find others doing similar things. This creates opportunities for sharing and learning together. Collaboration just seems baked into the maker movement. Let's work together.
    2. Willingness to take risks — Let's not avoid risks. Let's not fear failure. Let's move ahead and learn from what experiences we have. The most important thing is iterating, making things better, learning new ways of doing things.
    3. Creativity — What excites many people is the opportunity to do creative work. If we can't define work as creative, maybe it won't get done.
    4. Personal — Technology has become personal. It's something we can use and shape to our own goals. Making is personal; what you make is an expression of who you are. It means something and that meaning can be shared in public.

    What lies ahead in the space? DIY solar, bioreactors, hacking cars?

    Dale Dougherty: That's what we'd all like to know. I don't spend too much time thinking about the future. There's so much going on right now.

    July 06 2010

    The manufacturing future

    Harold Meyerson writes about China and Germany's ability to ride through the current economic conditions in a relatively good position:

    What sets them apart from the world's other major powers, purely and simply, is manufacturing. Their predominantly industrial economies meet their own needs and those of other nations, and have made them flourish while others flounder.

    At Foo Camp 2010, I caught up with Liam Casey of PCH International, an Irishman living in China who runs a supply-chain business, helping mostly American tech companies manufacture things in China. Casey offers his insight into why China has become the place to make things. China has the infrastructure, the expertise and the labor force to be the world's leader in manufacturing.

    Casey's view is that manufacturing has become a commodity; fewer large companies own their own factories. In a sense, they rent rather than own, and the cheapest places to rent are those in China. As China begins to create web interfaces to its manufacturing capacity, the rest of the world will find it even easier to make things in China.

    As John Keefe writes, we may find it surprising that the U.S. is still the leader in making things: "The U.S. still manufactures more stuff than anyone else -- $1.7 trillion in manufacturing value added in 2009, compared to $1.3 trillion from China." But he points out that the lead won't last for long and China may surpass the U.S. by 2013.

    I want to know what we can learn from China. Can the U.S. become more competitive as a maker of things? What will happen to our manufacturing base in cities like Detroit? (I'm organizing Maker Faire Detroit, July 31-Aug 1.)

    Here's video from my conversation with Casey:

    Harold Meyerson holds up Germany as an example of a country that successfully competes against China by producing high quality products with a skilled workforce. Most Americans assume, Meyerson says, that we can't compete "against cheap Chinese labor" yet Germany manages to do so with a unionized workforce that receives better pay than American workers. He also notes that when we lose manufacturing, we're not just losing blue collar jobs; we're also losing science and engineering jobs.

    A few weeks ago, I was at Ford Motor Company's R&D facility. When we think of the auto industry, we think of assembly line workers. What amazed me at Ford was the number of advanced research labs, filled with scientists developing and testing new processes and new materials. In a sustainability lab, a team of five women scientists are refining a process for making the foam for seat cushions from a biodegradable material derived from soybeans. Manufacturing involves a lot more than assembly; it creates the need for investing in research and development.

    Meyerson believes that one secret to Germany's success is that their financial system is designed to support manufacturing businesses. "Its financial sector serves the larger economy, not just itself," he writes.

    I recently read Andrew Ross Sorkin's "Too Big To Fail." One of the great ironies in the book is to hear executives from Lehman Brothers justify a government bailout because it will save jobs in the financial sector. These are the banks that made deals that were good for themselves but which eliminated jobs and moved some industries out of America.

    Meyerson writes:

    So even as Germany and China have been busily building, and selling us, high-speed trains, photovoltaic cells and lithium-ion batteries, we've spent the past decade, at the direction of our CEOs and bankers, shuttering 50,000 factories and springing credit-default swaps on an unsuspecting world.

    The tech industry as well has served its own interests in eliminating jobs either through automation or by sending them overseas. Sometimes the justification that is given is that the tech industry is creating high-value jobs to replace low-value jobs. Yet, should we be asking how can technology create jobs?

    Andy Grove, former CEO and Chairman of Intel, in a recent Bloomberg article, asks "what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work -- and masses of unemployed?"

    Grove calls for "rebuilding our industrial commons":

    Long term, we need a job-centric economic theory -- and job-centric political leadership -- to guide our plans and actions. In the meantime, consider some basic thoughts from a onetime factory guy.

    Silicon Valley is a community with a strong tradition of engineering, and engineers are a peculiar breed. They are eager to solve whatever problems they encounter. If profit margins are the problem, we go to work on margins, with exquisite focus. Each company, ruggedly individualistic, does its best to expand efficiently and improve its own profitability. However, our pursuit of our individual businesses, which often involves transferring manufacturing and a great deal of engineering out of the country, has hindered our ability to bring innovations to scale at home. Without scaling, we don't just lose jobs -- we lose our hold on new technologies. Losing the ability to scale will ultimately damage our capacity to innovate.

    Grove makes a pretty good argument for not thinking of manufacturing as a thing of the past, but rather a vital part of re-building for the future.

    May 20 2010

    Make-offs: DIY indie innovations

    DIY, or Do-It-Yourself, is not something that everyone thinks they can do but more people are doing it than you might think.

    The DIY movement in science and technology is demonstrating that it can do inexpensively what large companies and even Big Science have spent millions doing. I call them "make-offs," low-budget knock-offs of scientific and industrial technology built with off-the-shelf components. It is a version of what China has been doing to America, benefiting from the R&D that goes into refining the specifications, developing prototypes and building a finished product. Only now, with new digital fabrication techniques and open source hardware and software, individuals and small companies are in a position to compete globally with a distinctly DIY approach to innovation. It's a new independent source of creative work, similar to what indie films are to Hollywood films developed in-house. It's open, collaborative and done on the cheap. And almost anyone can play, as you can see this weekend at the 5th Annual Maker Faire Bay Area.

    In Mountain View, Calif. last September, Greg Klein, who was about to go off to college, designed and built a high-altitude space balloon with two other students. Like a lot of Silicon Valley startups, the idea was first sketched out on a napkin. Named Apteryx, the balloon was launched with a 4-lb. payload consisting of sensors, an open-source microcontroller called Arduino and consumer-grade cameras. After about five hours, the balloon had reach 90,000 feet, which is considered near-space. The team used an amateur radio to send telemetry data and later tried using a prepaid cellphone as a tracking device. They were successful in locating the payload when it returned to earth. The bill for the project's materials was about $800, a bit high for college students but a lot less than you might expect for something so amazing.

    Here's a picture taken from Apteryx of the Monterey Bay, which shows the curvature of the earth.

    monterey-bay-from-space

    The team's website, hibal.org, shares the results of their mission. The students are not that unusual, although it's not what every student is doing at winter or summer break. Yet, they are showing us what it is possible to do.

    This spring, the Spacebridge project, organized at a San Francisco hackerspace called Noisebridge, succeeded in their third attempt to launch a high-altitude balloon. Even before them, NYC Resistor, a hackerspace in Brooklyn, launched a high-altitude balloon as well. (Hackerspaces, which are sprouting up around the country and around the world, are shared workspaces where hackers and makers come together to share tools, knowledge and community.) NASA is beginning to look to DIY communities to participate in the development of "SmallSats," which use available components like smart phones and legos, making it possible to build satellites for close to $1,000.

    makerbot.jpgThe NYC Resistor hackerspace gave birth to Makerbot Industries, a company that produces a 3D printer kit called MakerBot that sells for under $1,000. Featured on the cover of Make Magazine (Volume #21), Bre Pettis and his team used open-source software, the Arduino microcontroller and digital fabrication techniques to create a low-cost competitor to high-end 3D printers that sell at $20,000 and above. Makerbot won't necessarily displace its more established competitors; it's not as fast nor the same quality. However, Makerbot will expand the market for 3D printers, making them affordable to small businesses and home hobbyists. As a consequence, Makerbot will help accelerate the growth of a 3D printer community that is open to anyone. The Thingiverse website, also developed by Bre Pettis, is a shared collection of designs that can be used to create objects on any 3D printer. With more people playing with 3D printers, new expertise and new ideas will develop.

    Two University of Michigan postdoc students, one with a background in electrical engineering and the other in neurophysiology, formed a company called Backyard Brains to develop the SpikerBox, a kit that "provides a great way to learn about how the brain works by letting you hear and even see the electrical impulses of neurons!" They call it DIY Neuroscience. At a demo of the Spikerbox, Timothy Marzullo, one of the two co-founders, detached a discoid cockroach's leg and placed two electrodes on it. The electrodes picked up the flow of electrical impulses and sent the signal through a speaker, which made a scratching, popcorn sound. He showed me the neural “spikes,” or action potentials, as waves on an iPhone running an oscilloscope app. Marzullo told me that the demonstration I saw was something that he had not seen until he was allowed to use a $20,000 machine in the lab in his first year of graduate school in neurophysiology. The Spikerbox kit, which is open-source and uses four chips from the 70’s, sells for just under $100 from their website backyardbrains.com, making it affordable for high school labs and amateur scientists. What happens when you can do real science instead of just reading about it in school?

    Tito Jankowski is one of the organizers of the DIY Bio community and he's trying to make the field of biotechnology accessible to amateurs as well. He thinks anyone should be able to look at their DNA. You can start by swabbing saliva from inside your mouth and then look at it in a small, home-based lab. His small San Francisco-based company, Pearl Biotech, is starting to develop some of the equipment you'd need. The Pearl Gel Box, a gel electrophoresis system, is based on an open-source hardware design, like many of these projects, which means that the specifications are open and shared publicly. Anyone could use these specifications to build their own version of this equipment and customize it for a specific application. Or you can buy the Pearl Gel box in versions from $189 to $500, depending on how much assembly you're willing to do yourself. Commercial versions cost more than $1,000 but most importantly, their producers don't expect anyone but scientists or technicians to be using them.

    home_pearl_gel_box.jpg

    Who would have thought that there were people like Eri Gentry anxious to join the DIY Bio community? Admittedly, she has no formal training as a scientist, having studied economics at college. When a friend of hers died of cancer, she became determined to participate in cancer research. She discovered how much she enjoyed doing the work so she built a low-cost biotech lab in her garage. Knowing that there's only so much that she could do herself, she organized meetups and connected with others who were doing similar work around the world. A person she met online came from Ecuador to stay and work several weeks in her lab. She seeks to create a biotech hackerspace in the Bay Area called BioCurious where "professional scientists and the merely curious" can collaborate. Who would have thought it was even possible to do biotech in a garage, let alone that others were interested in doing the same thing?

    archer-robot.jpgAndrew Archer, who grew up in Duluth, Minn., was unhappy and unchallenged in high school, but his mother noticed how he would bring things home from yard sales and go into the garage and take them apart. She encouraged him to participate in robotics programs outside of school and he found something he loved -- building robots that could do complex tasks. His experience solving challenges for robotics competitions led him to start a robotics company when he was 17. Today, Andrew is 22 and Robotics-Redefined is building customized robots using off-the-shelf components to transport inventory on factory floors. Last year, he moved to Detroit because he had begun selling his robots to the auto companies. In Detroit, he found hackers who were interested in helping him build robots. He began training hackers himself to do what he needed. At a demonstration, I saw his autonomous orange robot move around a test track and approach a heavy item, pick it up and relocate it. Archer told me his robot was a more sophisticated version of a Lego Mindstorms robot.

    One of the upgrades is a vision system using a webcam to detect if people are in the path of the robot. If the robot is bumped or pushed off its path, it can reorient itself and get back on track. It could also communicate with other robots doing the same work. All the while the robot was busy, it played a chiptune from one of Andrew's favorite Nintendo-64 games. This industrial robot was a serious piece of work, built for a harsh environment, but its goofy 8-bit music showed that a really geeky kid was its maker.

    As Andrew and other young makers become more familiar with the equipment used in industry and science, they will see new opportunities to build "knock-offs" using cheaper, reusable components that are open and adaptable to customization. We shouldn't consider them "knock-offs" as we talk about what's produced in China. As "make-offs," they stand-out as examples of creative DIY innovation and collaboration. Make-offs are open platforms for doing new things, enabling more people to participate and develop the expertise to solve new and more challenging problems together.


    Maker Faire Bay Area opens Saturday and runs through Sunday (May 22-23) at the San Mateo Expo Center. Meet makers young and old, talk with the hackers from Noisebridge and NYC Resistor and see demonstrations from the balloonists at Hibal.org, Bre Pettis at Makerbot Industries, Tito Jankowski of Pearl Biotech and Eri Gentry of Biocurious.org. You'll find more than a thousand makers who possess the wherewithal for doing amazing things. While it's fun being a part of Maker Faire, you'll find yourself inspired by the creativity, intelligence and conviction of your fellow makers.

    Tags: diy edu20 maker
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