Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book review podcast: The Hardware Hacker by Andrew "bunnie" Huang

For my second maker-oriented book, I read The Hardware Hacker by Andrew "bunnie" Huang, published by No Starch Press. You can find the podcast here (as a .wav file).

I give this book a solid 5/5 stars, two thumbs up, or whatever positive rating you'd like. I've been a bunnie fan since Hacking the Xbox (also from No Starch Press, and released for free in 2013 in honor of Aaron Swartz), and this was an exciting chance to hear about bunnie's adventures in his own words.

Below I've included the notes I made before recording the podcast, and if you find them helpful they are available for browsing (in Markdown formatting).

# Podcast notes
## Who is bunnie?
- bunnie is a hardware hacker (see book title) and academic
- bunnie has a lot of experience with projects inside and outside academia
-- he's kind of like Henry Jenkins that way
-- major projects include chumby, Novena, and Chibitronics
-- studied at the MIT Media Lab, has taught there too
- runs a "name that 'ware" monthly project on his blog
- a giant nerd (see nerd references throughout)

## What is The Hardware Hacker about?
- bunnie's journey through manufacturing in Shenzhen
- bunnie's thoughts on free culture and the shanzhai/gongkai
- bunnie's thoughts on how to start manufacturing
- ends with his forays into bio sciences and applications of CS tools/principles

### A few notes on the book as an artifact
- published by No Starch Press, known for publishing stuff by hackers
- I'm a little disappointed that Chibitronics didn't make it an electronic cover
-- that gets explained implicitly later in the book. it turns out that's really hard!
- includes an EFF membership ad in the back

## What is the book's purpose?
1. to share bunnie's experiences
2. to demystify Shenzhen and its people
3. to provide practical guidance to people on a similar path

## What's cool about the book?
- moves through four parts:
-- general manufacturing in China (and anywhere)
-- IP in China (authenticity)
-- open hardware through three projects
-- hacker's perspective on bio sciences
- bunnie's sense of wonder and excitement are real and palpable
-- it's inspiring! I ordered a replacement Kindle screen while reading the book because I was so inspired to fix things.
- at this point, he's been doing a decade of manufacturing in Shenzhen. that's a lot of experience!
- the factory workers are really people to bunnie, and he goes out of his way to humanize them
- bunnie has a unique perspective on life. he's really living his principles, and it shows.
- all of his writing surfaces the behind-the-scenes work he and the other people involved in manufacturing put into a product
-- he puts his money where his mouth is by consistently releasing open hardware even when it gets ripped off

## The Hardware Hacker has a global scale
- capitalism, ewaste, and IP have global consequences
- bunnie envisions a better world for all of us

## What is authenticity?
- the somewhat nebulous idea of authenticity plays a major role in the book
- as a producer, bunnie has to be wary of low-quality or substituted parts
- but what is authentic really? many "fakes" were produced on the same equipment by the same people
- regulation of ewaste would help, since it is a major source of low-quality parts
- he induces a certain amount of paranoia because a lot of fakes are only detectable if you have serious experience

## What are the shanzhai and what is gongkai?
- the shanzhai are a tight-knit community looked down on by some
-- if you betray the shanzhai, you aren't welcomed back
- gongkai is actually integrated with manufacturing, since sharing designs is a way to promote your factory
- gongkai is not the same as open source in the US
-- gongkai uses community standards in place of lawyers
-- support (in the sense of a help line) is minimal, but then same for FLOSS
- US/western open source relies on licensing terms
-- incompatible with gongkai in some ways since licensing has strict requirements and legal recourse

## Takeaway

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Maker interview: Mark Hopkins

Introduction

For my maker interview, I decided to interview my dad, Mark Hopkins. As someone who taught me and participated in much of my early making, I wanted to learn about his perspective on our family making, as well as to investigate his process as a maker. Now retired, he is working on exciting new projects that put making center stage.

I also want to note I think this interview largely leaves out an important figure in our family making: my mom. Because such an omission isn’t intentional, it’s all the more important to call it out. She taught me baking and early sewing, did the physical and emotional labor of taking me to events, and made art a constant presence in our household. I think an interview with her would be equally interesting and illuminating, and I hope to do one for my own purposes after the semester.

Reflection

One of my earliest memories is of seeing my dad’s face on a billboard. I believe we were driving to the airport to fly to Spain, where we’d live for the next few months while he worked on setting up a new factory. As we drove up I-95, we saw his face staring down at us. At the airport, we saw him again, staring at us from an ad. Around the same time, a TV crew interviewed him at our house for a PBS special on inventors. To me, my dad has always been a bigshot inventor.

IMG_1078.JPG

Equally early memories include riding in antique cars with him, shooting model rockets into the sky, and riding our bikes everywhere. Throughout my childhood, my dad helped me with Science Olympiad, where we built bridges and trebuchets, and taught me how to apply science to rocket-building. But his story of making goes farther back.

In the summer of 1963, dad learned to ride a bike. Not far from where my parents live now in Newark, DE, he started by coasting down a hill at the old farm with his cousins and uncle. Despite how fraught with disaster learning to ride a bike usually is, he doesn’t remember falling over (though he admits he may simply have forgotten). Later, in 1970, he was living in Kitchner, Ontario and got his first ride on a ten-speed bike. “I remember the street lights and the wind in my hair,” he says. That ride helped set the course of his life.

My dad doesn’t know much about the maker movement, but it’s still a label he’s comfortable claiming for himself and he’s interested in learning more about the larger movement. “I just started reading Free to Make, and I’ve heard the term, certainly. My initial impression is that it’s about getting people to see themselves as people who can build things...There’s something valuable in building - commercially, or because it’s new, or just to practice something. My mom knitted, and she did it because she liked to. She was a maker.”

My grandparents were major influences in my dad’s childhood making. My grandmother spun yarn, knitted, sewed, and quilted. She was also an avid gardener who would have been fascinated by the possibilities of Arduino soil sensors. My grandfather actually assembled an entire antique car in his basement in Lansing, only to disassemble it, take it outside, and re-build it when the weather turned fair.

My grandfather often took my dad and uncle to model rocketry meets. My dad initially started building kits, but quickly got into competitions in which he had to design and build the rocket himself from scratch. The competitions would often have very specific competitions, such as carrying a payload, so the rockets would need to be purpose-built.

The rocketry meets were ideal for a child raised in the burgeoning space age. Many of the participants worked for NASA, and the meets were often held at NASA or military sites. My dad would never miss an actual NASA launch, either. He watched on TV or listened on the radio whenever possible.

Rocketry meets were major undertakings, but they were organized before the Internet (though some participants were likely using ARPANET, given the heavy NASA and military presence). Enthusiasts read rocketry magazines and joined local clubs, much like the science clubs of Onion’s Innocent Experiments, through which they were connected to the larger rocketry community.

Shortly after he learned to ride a bike, my dad started making his own bike wheels. With the benefit of Richard’s Bicycle Book and a class at a conference in Carlisle, PA, he began making and replacing his own spokes and rims as necessary. While studying engineering at the University of Delaware, he and a group of fellow cyclists decided to make a human powered vehicle to enter a land speed competition.

The team was sponsored by Campangolo, still a major bicycle parts manufacturer, and they learned the technical skills they needed from a local bicycle store called Two Wheeled Cycle. The vehicle reached 52 mph with three riders powering it. They competed against companies like General Dynamics, which actually hired professional riders to power the vehicle.

Later, as a young engineer in DuPont’s field program, he joined the composites business. DuPont had bought Exxon’s satellite parts division, and wanted to start making their own parts. After visiting a bicycling trade show in 1987, my dad convinced his manager that the bike industry was ripe for a new parts manufacturer. Specifically, he decided to try making a new bicycle wheel. He and his collaborators had some ideas for a more aerodynamic design that used three spokes and looked like an airplane propeller.

Initially, no one could understand how the wheel was supposed to work. They couldn’t visualize how it would work, or how the force would be distributed. So one night, my dad and his collaborators sketched a design on his plywood workbench and cut it into what would become their prototype (he still has it). When I asked him how long it would have taken to produce a more traditional prototype, he reminded me that they didn’t have the institutional support at that point to actually produce a prototype. They were able to fabricate one out of wood, when a full prototype would have taken weeks once it was approved.

The wooden prototype was key to the project’s success. With the prototype, made by hand out of a table, my dad and his team could excite their managers about the project and bring it to fruition. The wheel is still in use today in time trials in the Tour de France and other major races.

My dad described the wheel’s manufacturing process to me, and one thing in particular reminded me of bunnie Huang’s experiences in Shenzhen. When the wheel business was sold to a company in Spain, my dad was responsible for configuring their plant and getting it into production. The Spanish plant had a newer, better process than what had been available in Delaware, but it meant that he had to do a significant amount of debugging as they translated the process (linguistically and logistically). He had to learn from the plant workers as much as he was teaching them. It reminded me of how bunnie needed to learn from the factory workers how they assembled components so that he could design the process to work for them.

Now, almost thirty years later, my dad is returning to making bicycles. He started working for a company called 3T about 18 months ago, and about 15 months ago started laying out a new plant for them to begin making bicycle frames and parts. In the intervening years, he’s learned new skills, like supply chain optimization, and he’s hoping to achieve something called slow manufacturing with this new plant. It reduces waste, has a smooth single-directional flow, and raw materials go in one end with finished parts coming out the other.

Beyond bikes, my dad also makes household items that he needs, like re-covering kitchen chairs, and parts for antique cars. The cars, originally built in 1914 by the Overland company, don’t have parts you can pick up at a dealership. The wheels are wooden and the driver’s seat cushion has to be lifted up to fill the gas tank beneath it. Actually driving the vehicles requires brute physical strength due to the lack of power brakes or steering. If something breaks, as often happens, it has to be repaired or fabricated with what’s on hand.

I asked my dad specifically about the making that he taught me as a child. He said he never really thought of it that way. He was just playing with me, teaching me some of the things that he learned and enjoyed during his own childhood. My LEGO sets might be a little different (I still build Star Wars LEGO today) but at their core they are still the same imaginative construction sets my dad built with.

My dad has always been the quintessential maker, to me. I feel fortunate I’m able to interview him and interrogate our shared history of making.

Monday, March 27, 2017

11. Blog post: class and reading discussion

Class

Fashion hacking was a great experience. For one, I loved the chance to sew more. For another, I had time to work through a couple of different ideas before settling on one that I thought actually worked out well. In the end, I had three pocket squares from a $1 button down shirt and some ideas for what to do in the future.

Now, "three pocket squares" is being a bit generous. I made one 10" square that I messed up the stitching on, one 17" square that's a bit too big for most men, and an 8" square with a pocket on it that I didn't have time to finish stitching. If there's time this week, I hope to finish those projects off. Life is too short not to have pocket squares in pocket squares.

The discussion was fascinating, but I admit I was a bit wrapped up in the pocket squares. The sense that I'd created my own fashion item was intoxicating. Equally exciting was seeing the final products my classmates had come up with, after discussing some of their early ideas. The creative re-imagining of a jacket as a making utility belt was really incredible.

As for last week's readings, the class overall seemed to come down on the side of Leah Buechley, agreeing that in general Make: needed to follow through on its promises of diversity, and that representation on covers matters. The class also honed in on the thread of subjugation to authority: much of the science discussed in Innocent Experiments was intended to put children in the industry pipeline from an early age.

Reading

This week had a lot to digest in the readings. I was particularly interested in a theme that emerged in both chapters: intellectualism (or anti-intellectualism) and science fiction and education.

Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys were a big part of my childhood. October Sky really resonated with my family, since my dad grew up building rockets himself and introduced me to rocketeering at an early age. Rockets were a fusion of creativity (painting and design) and science (geometry, trigonometry, and aerodynamics), and were seen as a gateway to formal scientific study followed by a career in engineering. Things didn't really turn out that way for me, but that context was extra fascinating for the readings.

Asimov took a strong stance that science fiction was essential in the fight against anti-intellectualism. On the other hand, Heinlein took a somewhat opposite view: that science fiction could "save" young men from the feminizing influences of formalized education. Onion spends considerably more time on Heinlein, so there may be some bias based purely on availability, but Heinlein's commentary shows an incredible willingness to take himself and his own experiences as an authority. Heinlein reminded me of a certain political figure who embodies the very anti-intellectualism that Asimov was fighting against.

I saw similar threads in the chapter on the Exploratorium, though not actually about the Exploratorium itself. Rather, the chapter closed by highlighting the tension between science as play and science as hard educational work. As with Asimov and science fiction, Oppenheimer was concerned about making science exciting and accessible for children. He was more of a rule-breaker than Heinlein, but his model of teen guides and formal exhibits (even if loose ones) probably drove Heinlein crazy.

Science fiction predicting the future, or rather charting a possible way through, remains a hot topic today. NPR just produced a piece about when science fiction actually does predict the future. Science fiction authors like Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow write about how science fiction is essential for conquering coming challenges like global climate change (link pending). Especially in the context of the 2016 election, the potential defunding of the EPA, NASA, and other groups, and the current president, I am curious if there's an analogue to Heinlein to be found.

As an interesting aside: my grandfather edited some of Asimov's work for science fiction publications.

Monday, March 20, 2017

10. Blog post: class and reading reflections

Class

Let's talk about sewing! I haven't sewn anything in years. When I got holes in my jeans, I either got a tailor to patch them or just threw them out. It was a grim experience that sent me in search of the world's most durable jeans (for the price, you can't beat the Levi's Commuter line). But now I actually might have the werewithal to fix my own pants!

The activity of the week was exciting. I stitched a little beanbag out of some neon shamrock fabric and rice. I only messed it up once when I forgot the cardinal rule: I will always lower my presser foot. It was a thrilling experience. I see clothing and stitches up close every single day, and the feeling of agency gained from understanding a little more about how they're made is hard to describe.

Even better was talking with my classmates about sewing. I helped Lindsay with some setup for her microcontroller, and she gave me a huge amount of help with sewing patterns for the dancewear I'm going to try to make. By now I've ordered my fabric from Spoonflower and was able to gain much more confidence in the project thanks to my classmates' help.

Our classroom discussion was also interesting (though I was really itching to sew more). The piece by President Obama from Wired certainly provoked discussion. I was particularly intrigued by the commentary on his tone. The word "naiveté" came up on more than one occasion, which I don't think is incorrect but is also a necessary part of the role. Obama in particular often took the role of being the big brother - he was active at science fairs, read to kids, and generally tried to be an encouraging presence that made science fun. George W. Bush did the same (he drove my robot in the East Wing), but in part thanks to photographer Pete Souza's work it was highlighted more frequently. I think the same approach shows in his introduction, where he works to get the reader excited above all else.

Similarly important in the discussion was science mentorship. I spent a lot of time talking about robots and the uncanny valley, but science mentorship is frankly more interesting. Silicon Valley does a lot of handwringing about diversity with little measurable impact, but accessible science mentorship is one definite way to improve outcomes. I'm curious if mentorship by white cis-male mentors is as effective as mentorship from within a marginalized community (since they're the ones dominating the field, they are the most available mentors), and if not how can that be overcome? I hope to revisit this as it relates more broadly to making with the rest of the group in the classes remaining.

Readings

There's so much to unpack in this week's readings. Major themes that jumped out at me include:
  • Representation
  • Gendered marketing
  • Environmental intersections
  • Handmade aesthetics
  • Historical groundwork
I don't think I can effectively cover everything, so I'm going to focus myself on gender and representation, particularly in the two films, with a bit of Innocent Experiments (I confess I read it a bit late in the process, but I did read it!). The Next Black grabbed my attention most of all, partly due to its polish but also  due to the excitement factor. The film made me excited to get back to sewing and fashion hacking this week, and the creative work showcased there resonated with me at a deep level.

The gender elements of The Next Black are particularly interesting. It's primarily concerned with fashion, which is heavily gendered (a woman just became the first ever head at Givenchi last week), and unsurprisingly most of the interviewees are women except for the the men from Adidas (sports) and iFixit (electronics). But at the same time, each interviewee was blending traditionally male-gendered interests (like brewing or hacking) with the more "feminine" aspects of fashion. At the same time, the women are showcased in control of their businesses, which is all too rare in haute couture, and there were a number of men in the background helping out. I can't help but interpret some deliberate direction and editing here to showcase women innovating.

A brief aside on iFixit: I was so happy to see them included. I am really interested in the right to repair (see my broken sewing machine) and see a strong need for repair skills in the near future. I loved that repair was cast in terms of fashion in particular, since there's hardly anything more practical or universally applicable.

Dr. Leah Buechley's talk was equally engaging. I was so impressed with how she took on Make: even though they were right there in the room, and I think she made extremely valid points. While some of the commentators in the room also shed helpful light on some of the differences between the magazine and the educational initiative, Buechley made a very valid point. I think much of our classroom discussion this semester has been arguing along a similar tack. For Make: to take hold of the term "making" and to set lofty goals also brings along responsibilities that haven't yet been fulfilled (and can only be fulfilled through hard work). As with Silicon Valley's diversity efforts, progress has been made but that's no reason not to keep pushing harder.

Innocent Experiments was particularly relevant as historical context around gender and race in both play and making. The note (sorry, no page numbers due to Kindle) about science materials reinforcing race relations in the US was particularly striking to me. It underscored the intersectional issues of representation in making, and like most of our readings so far is especially interesting with the current president. I'll be interested to hear what the class makes of it.

Marginalia

The Next Black

"Fashion passes. Style remains." ~Coco Chanel
Antique Singer
Film about the people behind the scenes
"Making science fiction science fact." ~Nancy Tillbury, Studio XO
Active clothing: "a garment with a factory inside"
Close-ups on circuits as we move into wearables and "smart clothes"
Are sports clothes too boutique? How profitable is it?
How secure are smart clothes?
Organic style - brewing!
An eco theme in bio fashion
Fashion is very concerned with the now
Massive increase in consumption
Climate change (Patagonia)
Dry dye
Sustainable use
Patagonia makes repair kits!
iFixit!!!
This handmade or hand-customized aesthetic really appeals to me
Shoutouts to remix culture, Tumblr

Leah Buechley

Artifacts!
Helping other people make artifacts, too
Lilypad! They're very interested in the educational uses
Intrigued by consumer electronics, looked for control over them
Students creating buildable consumer electronics - http://diy-devices.com/devices/cellphone/
Coding garments (DressCode lol puns)
Love for Make: but with caveats - they have a responsibility to do better
Lots of robots, very electronics-focused
Lack of POC, example of Afro-Caribbean art
Legit critiques of the lack of intersectionality
Make:'s desired scope is problematic for their actual representation
Make: isn't the sole arbiter of making
Big pushback from Make: in the room, and it's a legit division from Maker Ed

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Self portrait: conté crayons on cardboard


Artist Statement

Self-portraits don't come naturally to me. They are vulnerable, sometimes intensely so, but that vulnerability can also be an invitation to the viewer to sit with me as the artist.

My art is a meditation. When I create, usually by sketching, I am trying to be fully present in that moment. The work I create isn't intended to freeze the moment or somehow preserve it beyond its time, but rather to be a trace remnant of it, one ephemeral facet.

Inspired by plein air painters, Buddhist writers, and concept artists, my art attempts to challenge mind/body dualism and unify my self while I create. I am drawn to materials like cardboard boxes and chalk because they aren't precious. I want my creation to take place in the present moment, so whatever is easily at hand becomes repurposed as a part of the work.

Book review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers is the quintessential Cory Doctorow novel. It’s incredibly long. It’s Doctorow’s manifesto on everything from capitalism to law to America to pop culture to techno innovation. It’s the love story of two or three friends, and the boom-and-bust cycle of whole economies, and the epic story of the do-gooder David taking on Goliath.

Published serially starting in 2009 before being fully novelized (only the first fifty thousand words were serialized), Makers is very much of a time and place. It feels oddly dated almost eight years on, like it foresaw coming changes but didn’t get them quite right. The novel is written in an almost post-apocalyptic America. It makes a few references to bursting bubbles and crashes of one form or another, and while the overall political landscape seems more or less intact, it’s a deeply dysfunctional nation.

It’s hard not to view the novel differently after the 2016 election, too. I first read Makers live as Doctorow published it chapter by chapter. I didn’t make it through the first major narrative turn, and at the time it seemed like an incredibly hopeful tale. Having finished it today, it’s hard not to view the story through the lens of Trump’s kleptocracy, with no small amount of apprehension. The core of the later story is about scrappy makers fighting suits, lawyers, and vested interests willing to do anything for a buck.

Beware...here be spoilers!

Makers begins by introducing us to Suzanne Church, a journalist for traditional print media covering the tech sector, at a press conference for a newly-formed conglomerate called Kodacell (so-called by Rat-Toothed Freddy, Suzanne’s soon-to-be nemesis). Landon Kettlewell, the new CEO, is excited to tell the press that Kodacell, formed from the hulks of Kodak and DuraCell, will be sponsoring small teams of innovators around the country. They will have resources free of corporate cruft and be able to innovate at a pace never seen before. Kettlewell shows off a pocket projector/translator from just such a lab, and Church uses it to humiliate Freddy in short order.

Church gets hand-picked by Kettlewell to cover Kodacell, and meets Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, Kettlewell’s shiniest stars, in a defunct mall in Hollywood, Florida. The duo have created a car driven by a horde of networked Boogie Woogie Elmo toys. The two innovators throw off great ideas frequently, though they’re not really interested in business. Church dubs the movement “New Work”, and it captures the national imagination. Kodacell can’t replicate the innovation sustainably across each lab, though. Another crash ensues, and New Work wraps up.

A few years down the line, Gibbons and Banks have built The Ride in their abandoned mall. The Ride is an homage to New Work and the people that imagined it into existence. Riders become participants, voting on items to include, and The Ride soon grows a protocol that other rides can use to connect to it from around the country, sharing and pruning The Story in real-time. Gibbons and Banks build an entire community of the local homeless, who build a nearby shantytown and low-volume economy all their own.

Of course, rides in Florida are the strict purview of Disney, and before long The Ride runs afoul of Disney’s competitive intelligence guru Sammy Page. Page masterminded a rebranding of Fantasyland as a goth haven, and he takes aim at Gibbons, Banks, and everyone involved with The Ride. The remainder of the novel plays out the conflict between Disney, the corporate conglomerate with every institution on its side, and The Ride, which has few assets in corporate America but plenty of community support.

Of the characters in Makers, I would only qualify two as makers, insofar as the book defines them. Gibbons and Banks are Doctorow’s ideal makers - driven by creativity and not profit, they experience creative differences but ultimately live to make things together. They don’t even really want to build a movement. Their greatest disputes come from feeling tied down to something that’s outlived its moment. At the end, when science and business have failed them, the makers still have each other and their imagination.

The world of Makers is certainly populated with a vigorous community of makers that Gibbons and Banks frequently refer to as doing incredible work. They’re barely visible in the novel, though. A brief foray to Madison, Wisconsin, introduces us to Gibbons’ love interest Hilda and the rest of the Madison ride, but beyond that brief introduction they barely register. For someone intrigued by the movement represented here, they are a tantalizing snippet of a broader narrative.

One figure barely worth mentioning in the plot summary but nonetheless important is Rat-Toothed Freddy. Freddy is Suzanne Church’s nemesis - rebuffed early on, he lives to thwart others. I got the sense that Freddy represents a person or group of people with whom Doctorow has some major beef. Church describes Freddy’s breath as “gargling turds”, and the novel culminates in The Ride and Disney teaming up to embarrass him on live TV. Freddy seems to represent what Doctorow hates most - the anti-maker, someone who cannot create on their own and gains joy from fouling the works of others.

New Work is an intriguing concept. I can’t help but see echoes throughout popular science writing of the last decade or so. It feels reminiscent of Dale Dougherty’s Free to Make - a vision of a brave new manufacturing economy unbounded by corporate inertia, literally free to make whatever it needs. Crucially, though, Doctorow isn’t a cheerleader. Makers plays through several ways such a movement might go sour. Simple economics kill New Work the first time around, and lawyers for vested interests make a serious attempt to kill The Ride.

Ultimately, though, Gibbons and Banks can’t fight the limitations of working for a megacorporation. Banks ends up working for Disney, surrounded by legions of well-meaning innovators who just can’t seem to get anything new and exciting to happen. Gibbons roams the country incognito, helping fix broken manufacturing. Only when working together, just the two of them, are they able to really be makers.

One of the most dated aspects of Makers is its technology. 3D printers are pretty common in Doctorow’s America, though they don’t reach household ubiquity until the latter third of the novel. Still, they are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. In the real world, though, 3D printers haven’t advanced much farther than 2009. They can be bought for a few hundred dollars, but extruder tips are notoriously finicky and such printers have yet to find a widespread use case.

On the other hand, the Raspberry Pi’s emergence in 2012 was scarcely imagined in Makers but arguably has done more to fulfill Doctorow’s vision than 3D printing. The Raspberry Pi has put the Internet of Things (a phrase that would be very comfortable in Makers) into every home and encouraged people of all ages to learn how to program computers and work with hardware. While it hasn’t exactly played out like in Makers (thank goodness), the maker community’s emotional response to the Raspberry Pi has been very similar to The Ride’s community.

Network connectivity for Doctorow’s makers is virtually ubiquitous. Characters have no trouble video conferencing around the globe. Even the shantytown has no trouble providing wifi, though the details are somewhat sketchy. It’s interesting to note that even with all their attempts to crush The Ride, Disney never actually tries to cut off its network access. Without the Internet, The Ride couldn’t coordinate itself across its sites, and it’s unclear how an abandoned mall has broadband.

The network of Makers is well beyond what was practical at the time of publication (I remember, I was there) but it’s interesting to examine this underlying assumption and requirement of Doctorow’s utopian makerverse - ubiquitous broadband Internet. The UN Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution in 2016 declaring broadband access to be a basic human right, something that remains out of reach in much of America, let alone the rest of the world. Still, as everything from tractors to phones becomes irrevocably network-connected, the Internet truly is a necessity and not a luxury.

Makers remains highly relevant today. Disney’s DiaB (Disney in a Box) is a free 3D printer that Gibbons and Banks end up hacking to print their own, non-proprietary items - even 90% of a new DiaB. Throughout the novel, the makers are hacking things to make them work in new ways they weren’t intended to, a complicated legal grey area that is Doctorow’s personal crusade.

The US is currently working through a related issue, the “right to repair”, at a state level, with some arguing that if you own an electronic device, you should be able to crack it open and change how it works. Others, mostly industry lobbying groups, claim such freedom would undermine the intellectual property licensed (meaning you don’t own it) along with such devices. The issue is very much undecided, and Makers doesn’t offer a utopian point of view here - Doctorow depicts the struggle between such interests continuing throughout the novel.

Finally, Makers touches on another highly relevant issue - healthcare. With the future of the Affordable Care Act in doubt, the metabolic modification movement Doctorow dubs “fatkins” is a fascinating glimpse of a possible future. Banks, originally an obese man reliant on a wheelchair (which he ultimately builds into The Ride), becomes one of the first pioneers of the fatkins. Originating in the darkest reaches of eastern Europe, the fatkins modifications change a patient’s metabolism so that they require about ten thousand calories a day but can remain incredibly thin and fit even so.

The fatkins, though, didn’t pursue traditional medicine. Though overwhelmingly popular, it seems the long-term consequences of the metabolic tweaks weren’t considered, or were ignored. Fifteen years later, Banks is dying slowly as his system gives out from the massive stress fatkins has put it through. Though not a primary part of the story, fatkins is a cautionary note in the idealistic world of just making things. Even the hackers cannot beat their biology in the end.

As a novel, Makers has some flaws, particularly with its characters and flow, but they coexist alongside masterful strokes. Each character has a strong sense of self-righteousness that goes beyond irritating very quickly by making them almost too real. Doctorow has seized on something here, consciously or not, that defines many movement founders (including, at times, himself).

The heroes of our story remain pretty consistent, but the villains are much less so. Initially there really is no villain. Freddy is a minor annoyance at best, really just there to harass Church, Gibbons, Banks, and their merry band. Page starts out somewhat ambiguous but his real motivation to be an antagonist remains unclear for quite a while. Perhaps he’s on a cocaine-fueled bender? It really isn’t well-communicated to the reader. Of course, the heroes’ greatest villains are often themselves, which is another element of all-too-real humanity Doctorow inserts.

The plot is particularly odd, and I have to wonder if the serialized publication played a role here. Around the 50,000 word mark (what was serialized on Tor) the plot seems to take a serious dog-leg. What is initially a very movement- and vision-heavy story becomes a love story, marking a sharp departure from what came before. Sure, Gibbons and Banks are still makers at heart, and Church is blogging about the whole thing, but the story’s scope has narrowed dramatically. Personally, I found the latter half of the novel harder to get through than the first bit, and the pacing was certainly slower.

Makers represents a possible future for the maker movement, but not necessarily a pleasant one. It feel very real (too real?) and its characters are hardly larger than life. Rather, they feel just like someone you’d meet on the street, full of flaws and raw humanity. Their adventures may be improbable, and Disney may play a much larger role than expected in their world, but real they remain. Their movement rises and falls, rises and falls, morphing into something altogether new along the way. If I don’t know quite what to make of it (and I don’t), neither do the characters and, I suspect, Doctorow himself. Let’s hope our own maker movement fares better, with fewer beatings and metabolic breakdowns, but with just as much humanity.

Monday, March 13, 2017

9. Blog post: class and reading reflections

Class

The 3D printing exercise proved fascinating. The Printrbots gave off an air of creative danger, open to the air as they were, and they were surprisingly challenging to work with. Even though I knew from prior experience that extruder tips were the bane of every printer's existence, I'd forgotten just how much could go wrong with a relatively simple machine.

The printer I used had two issues: the extruder and the print bed. The extruder continually dripped molten plastic and didn't adequately clean itself before print jobs, and the printer rafting never seemed to stay adequately stuck to the print bed. The extruder would catch on the rafting for any job longer than 10 minutes and slide the entire system out of whack.

With that said, it was fun. I loved creating my own design on TinkerCAD (see my previous post) and it was exciting to see it come to life. I was fascinated by how the printing software interpreted my .stl file - it laid the whole thing out in about 10 minutes easily because as a primarily vertical print my design could save a lot of time and material by honeycombing the interior. Though I didn't have time to get deep into the details, I was curious how much control I had over these intermediate steps, and how much of 3D printing was still a black box to consumers.

This was a particularly timely activity as I finished up Cory Doctorow's Makers. 3D printers feature heavily in the novel, in a way that hardly seemed realistic based on my experience in class. I could, though, see the value in a 3D printer beyond just printing tchotchkes - even if I don't intend to print the parts for massive mechanical computers, being able to print small prototypes for my electronics projects or replacement parts for defunct toys could be a powerful creative tool. One of the project tutorials I found even uses flexible filament to 3D print a watch bumper and strap for an Adafruit Circuit Playground!

Readings

I am nothing if not fascinated by this weeks' readings. To whit, from The World Columbian Exposition:
"California presented a 127 year-old palm, a fountain of red wine, and a statue of a medieval knight made entirely of prunes."
I admit, I grabbed that quote just to use the gif...

To be honest, I was not very familiar with the World's Columbian Exposition before now. I recall hearing something about it when visiting Chicago (the Midway, and all) but I hadn't read much about it or its context. I particularly appreciated the critique of the escapism of the Exposition, while also acknowledging the value of escapism. I can imagine the hustle and bustle of the Exposition in my mind's eye, but not with the same excitement and wonder.

Similarly with Innocent Experiments, I thought it offered a nuanced analysis of the social complexities of the Children's Museum. I'm interested in getting further into the nationalism/jingoism involved in science education, and I think the wireless operators are one way into that discussion. The middle class support necessary for the Museum (and the subsequent focus on middle class children) are inextricably tied to skills growing away from manual labor and warfare, both highly relevant to the Museum's time period.

These readings also remind me of a recent discussion taking place on BoingBoing and other venues: the value of science fiction in sparking interest in real science, and a better future. Science fiction can be escapist, but it also offers inspiration and a way to think through the philosophical dimensions of scientific progress.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Mission control, we have liftoff


Yesterday, I designed this little spaceship thingy in TinkerCAD and printed it at the AADL on a Printrbot! It was two parabolic cones on either side of a third, larger parabolic cone, with a ring going around. It also says NASA on the side, but the resolution of the printer wasn't quite high enough to work at that scale, so it mostly says "\AS/".

You can download my .stl file here. Use at your own risk, no warranty etc. etc.

Monday, March 6, 2017

8. Blog post: class and reading reflections

Class

Not for the first time, I lament my lack of effective note-taking in class discussions. It's easy to be caught up in the moment, but unless class recaps are written immediately following class they become vague and nebulous things.

I appreciated the chance to focus on our comrades' blog posts, and to engage with them. I found a lot that resonated with me; Nicco in particular hit a chord. There is a ceiling to the peculiar consumerism of the maker movement, and while we haven't really hit it yet, we will. It's a movement that may, as Dougherty hints, put thousands of workers out of a job, and so there needs to be a plan for when those that remain when the ceiling becomes a very real, imminent problem. I'll reflect more on this, and Dougherty's thoughts in particular, below in the Readings section.

That provokes the question: how can one build a movement independent (at least to some extent) of market forces? How can a movement sustain itself even if the market reaches a saturation point for low-volume "discretionary" goods (credit to Nicco for the excellent term)? What should the maker movement really be striving for on the whole?

Readings

The conclusion to Free to Make retraces some familiar ground while at the same time challenging some of Dougherty's own blind spots in a way that is both refreshing and somewhat surprising at this late stage. Not realizing that there were actually three chapters remaining, I ended up reading all of them instead of just the last two, but I think I got something out of it.

I found the idea of a "Making Is Caring" chapter simultaneously interesting and problematic. On the one hand, making as a tool for communities to empower themselves is (to me) the highest aspiration of the maker movement. Dougherty offered some great stories about people designing tools to meet their own needs (and some of the pitfalls encountered when marginalized people aren't involved in designing their own solutions). That contrast matters, because it's very easy to be a well-meaning but misguided person who acts condescendingly, and emphasizing the importance of listening is a great step.

At the same time, there's something problematic about lumping making in HBCUs, disabled communities, and regions afflicted by natural disasters into one chapter. Of course, a whole book could be devoted to each sub-topic, and I'm not arguing that Dougherty should have done so here. But there are clearly makers in these communities - couldn't they have been represented more evenly earlier in the book? Because so many of these makers are also part of marginalized communities, in some ways this separation perpetuates that marginalization.

In addition to my notes on "Making Is Caring", I think "Making Is Working" raises more questions than it answers. Some of the same themes arise for me here as they did in response to Nicco's writing earlier. Dougherty talks about a new future for Detroit (mostly created by people who moved there from other places, but who do legitimately invest in the community) but it's unclear if there's a clear plan for such a future. I don't think city management is really in Dougherty's wheelhouse and he'd be the first to admit it, but it's worth asking a few questions:
  1. Who will kickstart maker-scale manufacturing in Detroit?
  2. Who has the skills already, or who will be trained? And who will pay for the training?
  3. What kind of industries can makers support in Detroit? Are they long-term, or will they be fad-oriented?
Early in "Making Is Working" Dougherty discusses Plethora, the on-demand manufacturing startup that wants to make anything at all very quickly. It's a fascinating idea, but Dougherty points out that, if successful, Plethora could put thousands of machinists out of work. These machinists are generally employed at small businesses working locally, and probably should already be considered makers. He seems concerned by this possibility, but doesn't carry it forward.

As we leave Dougherty, I remain impressed with Free to Make. It's a good book, and a very interesting overview of the maker movement from the perspective of a co-founder. I think there are some important questions to be answered about the movement's future that Dougherty has begun to ask but not answer. I look forward to the classroom analysis of these final chapters.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Wearable comparison

Overview

Wearable electronics projects are incredibly popular. Adafruit lists 188 tutorials in their Wearables category, and there are many Arduino-compatible microcontroller boards aimed at wearable projects. Today we'll take a look at three of them (Gemma, LilyPad, and Flora) with a quick peek at a fourth (Adafruit's Circuit Playground).

Like most Arduino boards, the wearable boards emphasize simplicity and ease of use for specific functions. All three discussed below have the same round form factor and alternating outputs that can use alligator clips, conductive thread, or more traditional soldered connections. They don't offer the traditional GPIO outputs of the Arduino Uno, but instead supply a wearable-oriented platform. They also all use ATMega chips, the standard for Arduino.

Gemma

Image courtesy of WikiMedia under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
The Gemma is the smallest (in terms of both size and resources) of our microcontroller boards. With a mere 8 kB of memory, more than a quarter of which is taken up by the bootloader, Gemma programs must be small indeed. Of course, with only three output pins and relatively low power there isn't much to control, so you don't really need enormous programs. Fortunately, you don't need complex programming to make cool stuff...

You connect to the board with a micro USB connector, like the Flora. The Gemma can be powered over USB or via the battery connector (off-white plastic in the image above) for maximum wearable portability. The Arduino IDE can connect and upload programs to the Gemma, making it easy to get started for those already familiar with the interface. The lack of serial support can be a problem when debugging sensors, but the Gemma isn't really aimed at those sensor-intensive projects.

The Gemma has two pulse width modulation (PWM) ports and one analog port. Pulse width modulation uses digital outputs that are either on or off (a binary state) to mimic analog outputs by varying the amount of time the signal is on. In practical wearable terms, the Gemma has three pins it can use for fading LEDs, for instance (in addition to its power pins).

The Gemma has been used in some pretty cool wearable projects. I think my favorite might be the Iron Man arc reactor project, but I'm an equally big fan of the pixel heart (and I'm really a sucker for anything Becky Stern does). The common thread for Gemma projects is that they're almost exclusively centered on LEDs, with one sensor or an additional board. The Gemma is a minimal (and cheap) entry point, leading to equally minimal projects.

LilyPad

The LilyPad is the Gemma's big sibling, with a few key differences. The LilyPad has many more output pins (14 digital, 6 analog), twice as much memory, and is nearly twice as wide across. It is also somewhat less user-friendly from the outset, because unlike the Gemma it doesn't support a USB connector. Instead, you need to connect over a serial connection.
Courtesy of SparkFun Electronics under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license
Of course, the serial interface is preferable to some hackers working with a lot of sensors, as mentioned above. Personally, I have found serial connections to be vastly more intimidating for the new hacker.

Most interestingly, the LilyPad is washable. You read that right - you can hand wash your garment without removing the LilyPad (at your own risk). Obviously you have to remove the power supply, but being able to gently wash the garment with the board attached is a great boon to wearable projects. Clothing gets gross quickly, and it would be great if the project could last longer than a few wearings without requiring significant re-stitching.

Otherwise, the LilyPad offers similar capabilities to the Gemma. And like the Gemma, it has been used in many cool projects. SparkFun's Dungeons & Dragons dice roller gauntlet is pretty amazing, and is a good opportunity to learn both sewing and electronics.

Flora

The Flora is Adafruit's Arduino-compatible wearable development board. Adafruit also manufactures a line of compatible expansion boards, like a Bluetooth module. The Flora is quite a bit more powerful than either the Gemma or LilyPad, and is aimed at more advanced projects.

One of the major differences between the Flora and the Arduino boards is the availability of detailed technical information. While the Flora's schematics are available, they're nowhere near as readable as the straightforward tech specs provided for the Gemma and LilyPad. In addition, you need to use the Arduino IDE's board manager to add the Flora and make it compatible with the IDE. These slight usability hiccups highlight how much effort the Arduino team puts into making their boards an ideal starting point for people with minimal electronics experience.

Image courtesy of Becky Stern under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license
It's not all bad, of course. The Flora's built-in power regulator means that it's nearly impossible to fry by plugging a battery in the wrong way, a significant risk with the Gemma. As has been the theme, it's also well-supported by great tutorials and projects!

The Flora does have one particularly killer feature compared to the Gemma and LilyPad: a built-in RGB Neopixel LED, beyond the four indicator LEDs. For rapid prototyping or basic projects, that makes it an all-in-one solution. Otherwise, it's much the same as the LilyPad, albeit with a slightly more updated processor. It's even washable!

Circuit Playground

My addition to the wearables list is Adafruit's Circuit Playground. I picked one of these up a few weeks ago, and I LOVE it. It's based on the Flora and has the same form factor, but includes a host of integrated sensors, LEDs, and switches for only $5 more. The board has an accelerometer with tap detection, a microphone, a speaker, a thermistor, a photoresistor, 10 RGB Neopixel LEDs, two push buttons, and a toggle switch. It is GREAT. I recommend it for prototyping any wearable project (though it's out of stock at the moment).

video

Enjoy this video of me, courtesy of me, being really excited after testing out some code on the Circuit Playground. It makes a really cool Star Trek communicator badge!

Which one should you use?

  • Gemma: Ideal for super low power projects, usually involving LEDs. Plan to add just one sensor, if any.
  • LilyPad: Great for washable projects or more complex circuits needing a variety of I/O pins. Get going right away with the Arduino IDE.
  • Flora: The onboard Neopixel LED is great for rapid prototyping, and it opens up the Adafruit ecosystem. Requires more setup.
  • Circuit Playground: Just pick this one, as long as you don't need to wash it. The onboard sensors and outputs mean you can take on many, many projects and it's incredibly easy to get up and running.

Conclusion

There are some great microcontroller boards for use in wearable projects. They vary somewhat in terms of resources available and community support, but as Arduino-compatible boards there's no shortage of cool projects to make including sensors, LEDs, and switches.

Film review: Crafted

Crafted explores three groups of artisans who either make food or tools for making food. It highlights the artisans’ passion for their craft and their mutual focus on the human connections facilitated by their crafts. It also happens to be sponsored by Haagen Dazs.

Crafted is a fascinating film in many ways. First, it’s sponsored by Haagen Dazs and directed by Morgan Spurlock, a filmmaker most know from Supersize Me. Second, it’s brief. So brief, in fact, it could fit into a half-hour time slot on television with room for commercials. Third, it creates an unusual sense of temporality.

Spurlock is a natural choice for Crafted. His reputation is for relevant, timely films, and Supersize Me established him as a food-conscious filmmaker. Making a film focusing on the hand-crafted artisans behind food production is a perfect counterpoint to Supersize Me and the dangers of fast food for a company looking to position itself in the next big thing for food.

The makers profiled by Spurlock include Luke and David, the bladesmiths behind Bloodroot Blades in Georgia, Cortney and Nick from Bar Tartine in San Francisco (now closed in favor of MOTZE), and Yuji Nagatani of Nagatani-en in Iga, Japan. Cortney and Nick are the chefs of the group - while cooking features heavily in some of the scenes from Iga, Yuji Sensei is not himself a cook, though he is very clear that his business depends on making connections to those who cook.

The film opens and closes with forest scenes from Georgia, the home of Bloodroot Blades. Luke’s and David’s journey began as hobbyists making a limited batch of knives to support the costs of the hobby. After a serendipitous blog submission, their business exploded. Their knives contain recycled materials and items with personal value to the customer, assembled with a “hodgepodge of traditional and modern methods.”

Yuji Sensei, on the other hand, is the descendent of generations of potters in Japan. His kiln was built in the 19th century, and he still makes pottery in much the same way. Like Bloodroot Blades, Nagatani-en’s pottery is explicitly tied to history. Yuji Sensei says, “It is important to value what is good in the old but you also have to create value for today.”

Like both Bloodroot Blades and Nagatani-en, Nick and Cortney of Bar Tartine explicitly connect their business to a nebulous “past”. They describe their cuisine as fusion, searching for recipes “made by a grandmother” with “soul”. Their process, depicted in butchering and making feta cheese, can only be described as serendipitous. If you’re someone who wants your chef to cook with measurements or precision, you may find it concerning. Bar Tartine is full of aging and fermenting dishes, allowing Cortney and Nick to develop the restaurant’s signature flair.

While watching Crafted for the first time, not knowing that Haagen Dazs commissioned it, the food focus really stood out to me. When the “Commissioned by Haagen Dazs” message played before the credits, though, it certainly made sense. The film is a masterful piece of marketing by the ice cream company, even though the brand isn’t introduced until the very end. It also underscores the extent to which mass-produced enterprises are exploiting the obsession with handmade goods.

It’s important to note that each of the groups of artisans featured are also pursuing their craft as a full-time profession. David and Luke are the only ones to describe their transition from hobbyists to professional craftsman. By contrast, Yuji Sensei is the 7th master potter of Nagatani-en. Each also describes their work as more than just a vocation, of course. The craft is also a way of life.

Nick describes Bar Tartine as more their home than the place they sleep, and he and Cortney debate whether they “push themselves hard” or are merely busy, deciding ultimately that they push themselves. Their work is all-consuming, and they consider themselves lucky to be able to build their lives around it.

Crafted follows the structure of its artisans’ days, beginning and ending with soft light and relative quiet. David and Luke chop wood and light their equipment; Cortney and Nick run to Bar Tartine (the viewer wonders whether they shower on-site - checking the health inspection reports, one finds no violations); Yuji Sensei joins in the morning exercises with his workers. This morning time is the mise en place of the film, grounding the viewer in the artisans’ worlds. For David and Luke, it’s a very earthy feel, while Yuji Sensei lives and works in a multi-generational community. Cortney and Nick are part of a city waking up, the splashes of color and activity that define their food.

The film’s early grounding proves important for contextualizing how the artisans view themselves, and the time and place of their work. They all view themselves as nexuses - tradition and modernity come together through their work.

“Value what is good in the old but you also have to create value for today.” ~Yuji Sensei, Nagatani-en

Yuji Sensei is the culmination of generations of potters. When economic downturn struck and Nagatani-en struggled, he returned to traditional products to stay in business. Cortney and Nick search for recipes and ideas likely passed down through oral traditions, and David and Luke blend a mix of traditional smithing with new techniques and materials, like repurposed car parts. To each, the craft is something that exists beyond its practitioners. It connects them across space and time, and they feel empowered by its practice.

Of course, with such a short film there’s little time for actual community. David and Luke say they’re part of a community of artisans, such as the friend who made David’s cello, but none actually appear in the film. The employees of Nagatani-en are the closest we get - otherwise, the bulk of the other people in the film are customers. This remains the most interesting yet unfulfilled moment for me - I am left wondering what their communities are really like. How do they communicate? Where and when do they teach and learn? How does community shape the practice of the craft?

Crafted is incredibly well-made. It feels trim, with no useless elements, though I wouldn’t describe it as a film full of explanations. It leaves you wanting more, as any good piece of marketing (or food) should, but poses more questions than it answers. I would love to visit each of the artisans myself, watch them at work and spend a day in their shoes. Crafted is a window into a beautiful, relaxing world that I can’t help but want to be a part of.