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August 27 2013

Four short links: 28 August 2013

  1. Juju — Canonical’s cloud orchestration software, intended to be a peer of chef and puppet. (via svrn)
  2. Cultural Heritage Symbols — workshopped icons to indicate interactives, big data, makerspaces, etc. (via Courtney Johnston)
  3. Quinn Norton: Students as Hackers (EdTalks) — if you really want to understand the future, don’t look at how people are looking at technology, look at how they are misusing technology.
  4. noflo.js — visual flow controls for Javascript.

September 17 2012

Four short links: 17 September 2012

  1. Aaron Swartz Defense Fund — American computer systems are under attack every day of the week from foreign governments, and the idiot prosecutor is wasting resources doubling down on this vindictive nonsense.
  2. Baghdad Community Hackerspace Workshops (Kickstarter) — Makerspace in Baghdad, built by people who know how to do this stuff in that country. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Teaching Web Development in AfricaI used the resources that Pamela Fox helpfully compiled at teaching-materials.org to mentor twelve students who all built their own websites, such as websites for their karate club, fashion club, and traditional dance troupe. One student made a website to teach others about the hardware components of computers, and another website discussing the merits of a common currency in the East African Community. The two most advanced students began programming their own computer game to help others practice touch typing, and it allows players to compete across the network with WebSockets.
  4. Transient Faces (Jeff Howard) — only displaying the unchanging parts of a scene, effectively removing people using computer vision. Disconcerting and elegant. (via Greg Borenstein)

November 11 2011

Four short links: 11 November 2011

  1. Nudge Policies Are Another Name for Coercion (New Scientist) -- This points to the key problem with "nudge" style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats' prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable. Take heed, all you Gov 2.0 wouldbe-hackers. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Country Selector -- turns a dropdown into an autocomplete field where available. Very nice! (via Chris Shiflett)
  3. Ebook Users Wanted -- Pew Internet & American Life project looking at ebooks, looking for people who use ebooks and tablet readers in libraries.
  4. The Public Library, Complete Reimagined (KQED) -- the Fayetteville public library is putting in a fab lab. [L]ibraries aren’t just about books. They are about free access to information and to technology — and not just to reading books or using computers, but actually building and making things. (via BoingBoing)

October 16 2011

BioCurious opens its lab in Sunnyvale, CA

When I got to the BioCurious lab yesterday evening, they were just cleaning up some old coffee makers. These, I learned, had been turned into sous vide cookers in that day's class.

New lab at BioCurious
New lab at BioCurious

Sous vide cookers are sort of the gourmet rage at the moment. One normally costs several hundred dollars, but BioCurious offered a class for $117 where seventeen participants learned to build their own cookers and took them home at the end. They actually cooked steak during the class--and I'm told that it come out very good--but of course, sous vide cookers are also useful for biological experiments because they hold temperatures very steady.

The class used Arduinos to provide the temperature control for the coffee pots and other basic hardware, so the lesson was more about electronics than biology. But it's a great illustration of several aspects of what BioCurious is doing: a mission of involving ordinary people off the street in biological experiments, using hands-on learning, and promoting open source hardware and software.

Other classes have taught people to insert dyes into cells (in order to teach basic skills such as pipetting), to run tests on food for genetically modified ingredients, and to run computer analyses on people's personal DNA sequences. The latter class involved interesting philosophical discussions about how much to trust their amateur analyses and how to handle potentially disturbing revelations about their genetic make-up. All the participants in that class got their sequencing done at 23andme first, so they had sequences to work with and could compare their own work with what the professionals turned up.

Experiments at BioCurious are not just about health. Synthetic biologists, for instance, are trying a lot of different ways to create eco-friendly synthetic fuels.


BioCurious is not a substitute for formal training in biochemistry, biology, and genetics. But it is a place for people to get a feel for what biologists do and for real biologists without access to expensive equipment to do research of their dreams.

In a back room (where I was allowed to go after being strenuously warned not to touch anything--BioCurious is an official BSL 1 facility, and they're lucky the city of Sunnyvale allowed them to open), one of the staff showed a traditional polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, which costs several thousand dollars and is critical for sequencing DNA.

Traditional commercial PCR
Traditional commercial PCR

A couple BioCurious founders analyzed the functions of a PCR and, out of plywood and off-the-shelf parts, built an OpenPCR with open hardware specs. At $599, OpenPCR opens up genetic research to a far greater audience.

BioCurious staffer with OpenPCR
BioCurious staffer with OpenPCR

How low-budget is BioCurious? After meeting for a year in somebody's garage, they finally opened this space three weeks ago with funds raised through Kickstarter. All the staff and instructors are volunteers. They keep such a tight rein on spending that a staffer told me they could keep the place open by teaching one class per week. Of the $117 students spent today for their five-hour class, $80 went to hardware.

BioCurious isn't unique (a similar space has been set up in New York City, and some movements such as synthetic biology promote open information), but it's got a rare knack for making people comfortable with processes and ideas that normally put them off. When executive director Eri Gentry introduces the idea to many people, they react with alarm and put up their hands, as if they're afraid of being overwhelmed by technobabble. (I interviewed Gentry (MP3) before a talk she gave at this year's O'Reilly Open Source Convention.)

Founder and executive director Eri Gentry
Founder and executive director Eri Gentry

BioCurious attacks that fear and miscomprehension. Like Hacker Dojo, another Silicon Valley stalwart whose happy hour I attended Friday night, they wants an open space for open-minded people. Hacker Dojo and BioCurious will banish forever the stereotype of the scientist or engineer as a socially maladroit loner. The attendees are stringently welcoming and interested in talking about what they do in says that make it understandable.

I thought of my two children, both of whom pursued musical careers. I wondered how they would have felt about music if kids weren't exposed to music until junior high school, whereupon they were sat down and forced to learn the circle of fifths and first species counterpoint. That's sort of how we present biology to the public--and then, even those who do show an interest are denied access to affordable equipment. BioCurious is on the cusp of a new scientific revolution.

Eri Gentry with Andy Oram in lab
Eri Gentry with Andy Oram in lab

March 29 2011

Ignite Education

During Global Ignite Week, I participated in Ignite Petaluma, which took place at St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma, Calif. I didn't quite know what to expect when I walked into the school's auditorium. There was popcorn and soda but no beer. The audience was filled with families, including squirming kids, and other members of the community.

What surprised me when I looked at the program was that many participants were faculty and students. The principal, John Walker, gave an Ignite talk on how to survive a bear attack. I gave a talk on "Creating Makerspaces in Education."

The presentations by students were remarkable. They seemed to grasp the Ignite format and take full advantage of it. I was particularly impressed by Kara Flageollet and her talk "How Joe Kincheloe Changed My Life." I was glad I didn't follow her.

A speech and debate team member, Kara was so comfortable on stage and discussed how the ideas she was learning made her see the world and interact with it in new ways. Afterwards, I told her that her talk should be her college application. Anyone seeing it would recognize her passion and see evidence of the capabilities she demonstrates so well. I believe that education should increasingly focus on giving students the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, and share that online with a broader community.

Ignite is a great format to bring together students, faculty and members of the community and connect the school to the community by sharing what we do and what we know. I would expect to see Ignite take place at more schools in the future.

You can watch other talks from Ignite Petaluma here.

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