Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why open source?

Here's a neat explanation by Bre Pettis from MakerBot (who speaks on the Al Jazeera link I posted yesterday).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I've been ruminating for a few years on the best way to go about increasing the economic resilience of our corner of the world. For a time I focused on a scheme to build business incubators, and spoke to various people including our local shire's business representative, the Department of Planning & Community Development and to Regional Development Victoria, trying to drum up support. My theory: build it and they will come! I even had spaces in mind to locate the two sections, which were the retail part (in Foster, our throbbing, pulsating commercial centre!) and the manufacturing part (to be in the abandoned factory in Toora). If I could persuade the Shire to buy the Toora factory and finance the purchase of a CNC milling machine, and then somehow get a shop in Foster which could be split up into a series of little retail spaces…but my scheme never seemed to get any legs. The factory in Toora sold to someone in Sydney for what sounds like a pie-in-the-sky scheme to set up plastic recycling (and it looks more derelict and sadly overgrown by the day) and Foster also seemed like a closed door with no suitable spaces available. Plus no-one showed any enthusiasm for dropping serious money and effort into my proposal.

It all got too hard, and if something's too hard then the time or the idea isn't right. In the meantime, doodling around on other projects lead me to the Arduino processor and I started teaching my self to program it and dream vaguely of the commercial possibilities. And suddenly the world seemed to open up with lots of people talking about the new world made possible by the sudden miniaturisation and cheapness of this new generation of microprocessors. John Robb over at Global Guerrillas has been on a tear, with lots of posts on drones, drone warfare and his big push for resilient communities. And I was re-reading all my blog posts (for the first time since I started it!) when I clicked on the name of a commenter, leading me to the man himself, Mitch Davis, and his Hackvana site. Suddenly I saw the time was right! Mitch made a comment about electronics which chimed in with what I'd been thinking for a few years: to quote him
How lucky am I to be alive at this moment, when the hackerspace movement is taking off. Five years ago our "electronics" shops had ditched their components, and the world looked set to be slave to the consumerist mindset: We buy it, it fails, we throw it away, we buy it again. But a funny thing has happened in the past three years: The advent of inexpensive microprocessors, of open source hardware and software (I'm thinking in particular of the Arduino, that incredible gateway enabler) and the manufacturing power of China means that now anyone can get into electronics. And come to think of it, electronics isn't even the main point - it's just the vehicle. The main point is that we don't have to consume, we can realise how satisfying it is to create, to repurpose, to collaborate and share.
 So true: I did a big job up at Renmark in South Australia a few years ago and discovered getting bits from an electronics shop was a real battle in Mildura. At that time it seemed make-it-yourself was dying.

That was then, this is now! I contacted Mitch and he gave me some valuable pointers: to Hack Melbourne and to Little Bird Electronics amongst other things. Checking out Hack Melbourne I saw that one of the members was an old workmate of mine, Michael Borthwick, with whom I'd worked on a science museum in Malaysia back in the nineties, and he was into some wild stuff (check the Lunar Numbat Project!). Plus the Hack Melbourne seemed to be full of all the things I'd been idly kicking around: 3-D printing, electronic controls and monitoring, even DNA analysis. It seemed to be full of my kind of people. So following Mitch's advice I contacted Andy Gelme, the man behind it all, who replied to me in the middle of writing this post with an invitation to visit Hack Melbourne. Yay!

My plan is to hold a meeting in a couple of weeks (after my Hack Melbourne visit), advertising to all interested parties plus the Shire's people and get something moving. I have one schoolkid on the bus I drive who's really interested and another who might be. That's one eighth of my small sample. One in eight of the three hundred and sixty or so kids at the secondary college would be forty-five, plus a few maybe from the primary school, plus who knows how many out in the general community.

Before with the business incubators, it was a big up-front investment to get it off the ground. This is scaled way back on the financial front. Getting a space to operate in is still a problem, but I do have an interest in a factory at the bottom of the town where I'm sharing with my mate Scotty. Plus another mate Gunnar said the place he's renting in the middle of the town might be available soon. Hmm!

This time I feel like I'm in tune with the zeitgeist. Check out this item from Al Jazeeras The Stream all about hackerspaces in Africa. Cheers!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Stoneleigh & Ilargi in South Gippsland!

We had our public lecture with Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh from The Automatic Earth) the end of last month. It was organised as part of her Australian tour, and Malcolm McKelvie of Baw Baw Sustainability Network and I co-operated to put it on in Leongatha. Malcolm did a great job, whereas I was a bit behind the eight-ball for the weeks leading up to it as I had a heart attack on New Years day (my first, but a minor one fortunately) so I didn't get on top of the publicity as I'd hoped to. But it didn't matter: we had around eighty people turn up which was much better than I expected. South Gippsland Shire in the shape of Christine Hamilton from their Sustainability department was completely wonderful, organising the venue and arranging a donation to make it happen as well as cleaning up afterwards. Baw Baw Shire has also kicked in a substantial donation. So it was all good!

The lecture went well and Nicole was in fine form, especially with the Q & A afterwards. My friend Ross turned up just as the lecture was about to start and acted as moderator for the Q & A which was great. After the show we went back to our place in Foster where I was putting Nicole and Ilargi (he's a great guy!) up and we drank red wine, putting the world to rights until 12:30 or so. I mentioned to Nicole I was driving the Mount Best school bus and that if she, Ilargi and Trevor, the friend who had driven them down to the lecture, wanted to they could come with me in the morning for a spectacular tour of the hills of South Gippsland. So I woke Nicole up at 6:30, we picked up Trevor (Ilargi had elected to sleep in) and off we went. It was a perfect day, the views were superb and the kids on the bus didn't riot! After we sat around drinking coffee and talking about life, the universe and everything until just before midday when they headed off for the next lecture in Geelong. Whereupon I had to have a little lie down! It took me a couple of days to recover: I hope Nicole wasn't as exhausted as I was!