Toronto DigiFest and more

Just got back from Toronto, where I attended events at Toronto Digifest and TIFF Nexus.  I was very impressed with all the interesting work happening there. I gave a presentation at DigiFest on Arduino, Physical Computing and Mass Participation (PDF, 25.9MB). At TIFF Nexus I was a commentator on the Peripherals Initiative along with Steve Daniels, John Bouchard, and Emilie McGinley. More details on the Arduino blog. Thanks to all who made the trip so great, including Steve Daniels, John Bouchard, Emilie McGinley, Kate Hartman, Lawrence at Creatron, Luigi Ferrara, Nick Crampton, Samantha Fraser and the rest of the Digifest TO team, Maria Grazia Mattei and Giulia Capodieci of Meet the Media Guru, Ramona Pringle, Jason Nolan, and everyone else who made me feel very welcome. Gotta go back to Toronto soon.
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The thing that made me cry today

This morning, Massimo sent me a link that popped up as part of a Google alert for the keyword “Arduino”. It was the story of Ahmed Bassiouny, beautifully eulogized by Kent Mensah of Bassiouny was one of the activists killed during the Egyptian protests that led to Mubarak’s resignation.  He was also an sound and video artist and a teaching assistant at  at the Faculty of Art Education, Painting and Drawing Department, Helwan University. He was married and had two children.

I wouldn’t have run across this particular story if it weren’t for Massimo’s news alert, and the story doesn’t have anything to do with Arduino or digital art, except for the fact that it was one of this guy’s passions.  Knowing that made the events of the past few weeks feel much more personal, to me. The photo below, of Ahmed and a colleague displaying one of his works, is a scene I’ve witnessed a thousand times before, of an excited artist trying out a new palette.  It’s the kind of moment that makes me excited about coming to work each day. Today, it’s a scene that made me cry.

It’s easy to forget in the course of daily life that the people we work with have lives and experiences much richer than we discuss on an everyday basis.  Often their experiences are far more profound than anything I’ve experienced ourselves.  I’m thinking of several past and present students and colleagues who’ve lived through events like those of the past few weeks. For them, it’s a part of who they are now. For me, I am in awe of their courage and passion. It’s both humbling and comforting to be reminded that the people who change the world aren’t carved out of granite or descended from the heavens.  They’re the ones you’re sitting next to.

Condolences to Ahmed Bassiouny’s family and friends. He seems like someone I’d have liked to meet.

Thanks to Massimo Banzi for the link and to Kent Mensah for writing the story.

Posted in art & performance, equity | 1 Comment

Open Source Hardware Definition v.1.0 released

Last year, along with other members of the Arduino team and colleagues from several other open source hardware makers, I attended the Open Hardware Summit in New York. We began working on a definition and statement of principles for producing open hardware.  The discussion was grounded in our experience running our businesses, and we aimed to capture both the pragmatic realities of open hardware and the best practices in a definition that could help guide companies and individuals trying to work this way.

We’re happy to announce that after several months of discussion, writing, and debate, version 1.0 of the open source hardware definition and statement of principles has been released. Though many people were involved, praise and credit has to go to Ayah Bdeir, who, along with Alicia Gibb, got the ball rolling, and wrangled a sometimes difficult and opinionated group into consensus. I admire Ayah’s spirit, and her ability to combine diplomacy and brute emotional force to get things done.

The definition is a good starting point to talk about what open source hardware is, what best practices are, and how the businesses making it work.  My hope is that it will lead to more mainstream adoption of open source hardware practices. Hopefully someday soon we’ll see a major consumer device that’s manufactured using these principles.

Ayah writes:

Now, to move forward, please HELP:

1. Endorse the definition, post your feedback on version 1.0 on the forum and the mailing list as we work towards a 1.1 update in the next few weeks / months.

2. Take a look at the logos we are considering for “open source hardware”, give feedback or submit your own logo on the forum, in the thread LOGO.

3. Show your support of the OSHW Definition by applying the definition to your work/project/website

This is a very important step in propelling our movement forward. PLEASE FORWARD FAR AND WIDE.

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Open Hardware Summit, Sept 23, 2010

So what exactly is open source hardware?  We’re getting closer to a consensus definition, thanks to Ayah Bdeir and Eyebeam.  A few months ago, she put together a workshop on open source hardware, and invited a group of people who are making businesses of it, along with some great legal practitioners working on open source issues. It wasn’t a comprehensive group, but there were a lot of smart and practical people there to get some good work done. We talked about our work and the practicalities of running open source businesses, we argued about what the limits of openness are, and we started working on a draft of a working definition. The discussion continued online, as did the writing and the arguing.

The result is this Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Draft Definition version 0.3. I think it’s a pretty realistic definition, and I’m proud to be counted among the folks who drafted it.  There are many whose thinking (and doing) I admire in the discussion.

But wait!  That’s not the best part!  Ayah’s not done!  She and Alicia Gibb have organized an Open Hardware Summit this fall to present these ideas, and continue the discussion. Here are the details, in Ayah’s words:

I started getting interested in Open Hardware as a vehicle for innovation and social change while a student at the CCG group at the MIT Media Lab, and got fully immersed in it while a senior fellow at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York. Now, I am a (crazy!) strong believer in the power of Open Hardware. When I started littleBits, I jumped into the many challenges of porting the Open Source Software movement to tangible objects.

As I worked closely on legal strategy with incredible advisor, John Wilbanks, VP of Science at Creative Commons (CC), we decided to create a venue for the community to interface with CC, and embark on a mission to help catalyze an Open Hardware license. The workshop, entitled “Opening Hardware: A workshop on Legal tools for open source hardware” took place at Eyebeam on March 17th and featured OH pioneers such as Arduino, Adafruit, Buglabs, MakerBot, Chumby as well as Jonathan Kuniholm (Open Prosthetics), Chris Anderson (Wired), Mako Hill (OLPC, Wikipedia), Becky Stern (Make), Jon Philips (Qi), Shigeru Kobayashi (Gainer), Thinh Nguyen and John Wilbanks (CC) and us (littleBits, Eyebeam). Since then we, and an incredible group of OH stars (Evil Mad Scientist, Parallax, Sparkfun, Lilypad), have started putting together a definition that today, we are very excited to release in version 0.3 for public comment.

Recently, I have been appointed as Creative Commons fellow – a very important step which shows CC’s commitment to our community.  And on September 23rd, Alicia Gibb (Buglabs) and myself are chairing the Open Hardware Summit as part of MakerFaire. We will be discussing the OH license, and hope to put version 1.0 out to the world!

So if you’re interested in open source hardware, it’s worth coming to New York in September. It should be an exciting event.

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Physicality, Conviviality, and Openness

Physicality, conviviality, and openness are the themes of a series of talks I gave last week to the HCI group at RWTH Aachen, thanks to Jan Borchers.  These three ideas run through most of the work I’ve been doing over the past few years, and they’ve cropped up in a number of my talks recently. Briefly:

Physicality: interaction is inherently physical because we have bodies.  Physical computing is a means of exploring how we can sense and respond to physical expression.

Conviviality: there’s been a lot of talk about the Internet of Things the past few years. I used to think it was a good idea, but now I see it as misleading.  Communications networks exist to facilitate the play of relationships. We should foreground the relationship rather than the thing that enables it.

Openness: open sharing of ideas can spur innovation and interconnection, that’s already known.  I think it can also spur innovation in how we close the loop from trash to raw materials.

The slideshows below are not proper essays on the topics, but they hopefully give an idea of where my thinking is on the topics at the moment.

Posted in environment, interaction design, open innovation, physical computing | Leave a comment

Practice, Practice, Practice

Ashlynn Dewey just sent me links to a new Nike+ ad that she ran across that reminded her of our physical computing class(thanks, Ash!). It’s a great video that shows a couple of supercool Japanese DJs making music on specially equipped Nike shoes. I really enjoyed it. Then I saw the “making of” video.

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Happy Ada Day, and thanks

Today being Ada Lovelace Day (though I’d like to see Grace Hopper day too), it seems a good time to say thank you to three women without whom I wouldn’t be doing what I do.

Stacy Horn, founder of Echo Communications. Echo was a successful online community before anyone had heard about social media, thanks to Stacy. Stacy literally changed the direction of my life one day by asking if I’d ever thought about going to grad school.  Then she told me about ITP, and that maybe I should apply. That was the best advice I ever got.

Red Burns, chair of the Interactive Telecommunications Program. No one I know has done more to teach both women and men that they can and should have a voice in how technologies are used. The word that usually comes to my mind when I think of her is empowerment. She has a way of making you realize that you have the power to change anything you want to.  You could say that she’s done a lot for getting more women involved in technology, but Red is more inclusive than that. She’s passionate about seeing to that everyone whose life is affected by tech has a voice in its use.  What I admire about Red is that she has no fear, nor any hesitation about telling you what she thinks.

Marianne Petit, my colleague, thesis advisor, and friend. One of the things I love about Marianne is that she’s gifted at using a whole range of technologies, and focuses on none.  Many of the people I know talk about how technology is just a tool to achieve greater ends. Marianne actually lives her life that way. She makes things that are personal, often funny, usually dark, and oddly happy; things that make you think that people are really messed up, but you feel good about them at the same time. A lot of artists make digital technology-driven art that never escapes the tools. Marianne just makes art, and happens to use digital technology in the process sometimes. She’s also involved in countless efforts aimed at making people’s lives better through the tools we work with.  And she apparently never sleeps.  She’s got a set of ideals that I greatly admire and try to live up to.

Stacy, Red, Marianne: thank you.  I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without you. And I wouldn’t be as happy.

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Random thoughts on consciousness and physical experience, coming together

I just had one of those wonderful moments where a bunch of ideas that had been floating around in my head for a number of years came together and made sense, thanks to a section of Alva Noë’s book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. In Chapter 4, he challenges the common metaphor for the brain as the “Mission Control”  of the body — the place where all stimulation comes in and is noted, processed, and responded to. Instead, he says, our perception, and even our reaction, is distributed throughout our body and even through our environment.  To counter this, he offers the example of a snail’s response to being touched. At first touch, the snail will recoil, but with repeated touches, the snail becomes habituated to the touch, and doesn’t recoil. The sensory neurons in the snail’s nervous system are linked to the motor neurons, and the response to the initial touch is to cue the motor neurons to move the snail away.  As repeated touches occur, the snail’s nervous system learns the pattern as “normal” and the connection between the motor neurons and the sensory stimulus is lessened over time.  There’s no central brain managing this — the change is a result of the connection between the neurons and the patterns of action in the environment in which the snail is embedded, argues Noë. It’s not just about the changing in the coupling between the sensory neurons and the motor neurons, because that change would not occur without the repeated pattern of touch that the snail encounters.  It all happens without a “mission control” brain to process it.

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Posted in books, interaction design, physical computing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

MAKE: Electronics: I love this book!

Make: Electronics, Charles Platt.  © 2009 Make Books, Sebastapol, CA; 1st edition ISBN: 0596153740

Just go buy it. It’s the best introductory book I’ve read on electronics.

To start with, the book is gorgeous.  Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you sure can by browsing its pages.  This book is filled with clear photos and color illustrations (makes it so much easier to read the color-coded wires!) and big, clear circuit drawings and diagrams.  It’s a pleasure to look at, so you want to read more.

Charles Platt writes in a tone, and with a philosophy that I thoroughly agree with:  learn by doing it.  I love the fact that he not only gives exercises, but gives some that he knows are going to fail, and tells you so.  He shows you what can go wrong, and makes you do it, so you’ve already experienced the failure and don’t fear it. Exercises like licking a 9V battery, or measuring the resistance of your tongue seem scary at first, but are safer than they seem, and valuable learning exercises.

Platt doesn’t hide his mistakes, either. He uses them as stories to illustrate his lessons. Reading  — and seeing in pictures — how he blew up a capacitor, for example, is fascinating, and lets you know that when you make mistakes, you’ll survive too.  The stories of his mistakes are very reassuring.

There is plenty of electrical theory in this book, but you don’t feel like it’s being shoved down your throat.  Platt explains conversationally in examples, pictures, and short biographical sketches of some of the big names in electrical history. By the end of each chapter, you’ve absorbed a lot of material, without the feeling of exhaustion that comes from reading most textbooks.

Platt includes shopping lists of all the parts you need, suggests sources, and tells you what acceptable substitutes will do the job.  He makes it as easy as possible for you to get what you need. Even better, he includes directions for cleanup and recycling of your parts too, letting you know what can go in the trash and what needs to be recycled responsibly.  It’s great to see an author treating the whole life cycle of a project as a matter of habit you should learn.  I’ll be taking that away as a lesson for my own writing in the future.

The whole production team on this book deserve praise for this one.  It’s well written, well edited and well designed. It’s a great learning guide, and will be a staple on my shelf.

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Traceroute Fun

The students in my Understanding Networks class had a short assignment this past week, to run a couple dozen traceroutes, and do visualizations with the results.  A few interesting points came out of it.

Alejandro Kaufmann did traces mostly on Asian sites, and noticed that many of the traces followed old colonial lines: traces to Hong Kong and India tended to go through British routers, and traces to Vietnam tended to go through French, for example. Not sure if this is coincidence or a result of their telcos still working together, but it was an interesting trend.

Zach Taylor did two maps of traces to the top 50 internet sites. He ran the same traces from home and from the network at NYU, and not surprisingly, there’s a lot of clustering at the outset, as the traces went outward from his provider or NYU. In the NYU map, you can see some load balancing as the traces split across NYU’s various gateway routers, then clear rivers of traffic as they head out through the tier 1 providers, AT&T and Level3.

Zach’s map of the top 500 sites (warning: it’s big) is the most interesting though. More data reveals more patterns, and you can clearly see the AT&T and Level3 rivers of traffic in the 500 trace. I’m surprised at how much of the traffic is along the Level3 river, because I didn’t think they owned as much wire and fiber infrastructure as AT&T, Sprint, or some of the other tier 1 providers.  But I guess owning the crossroads can be more valuable than owning the roads.

Now I want to see the same 500-trace exercise done from several points, and aggregated in one big map!

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