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Oct 21 10

Hackerspaces, innovation, and growth

by kevin

A friend of mine just tipped me off to a blog post on over at adafruit industries that fits nicely in line with the education and innovation posts I’ve made this week. The post cites a talk given in Tokyo on Hackerspaces and Technology.

My favorite part:

As a designer, I can see that real product design is becoming more of a multi-domain task that requires a lot of different skills. There is also the whole tech industry complaining about the lack of innovation which is simply not true. If you look at the technology underground of today which includes open source hardware, open source software, and hackerspaces, there’s a convergence of technology with art, music, cooking, fashion, and many other domains. Combining diverse fields like this is leading to many interesting projects and I believe they’re providing the seeds for many innovative ideas and new spins on old products. Hackerspaces are central to this since they provide a project space, tools, a pool of knowledge, and a constant flow of ideas.

One of the most important things about hackerspaces, and an area that differentiates it from other areas in the tech industry, is that most of the ideas and projects aren’t designed for any type of financial return. And unlike academic research labs, hackerspaces are usually very hands-on and focused on practical implementation. In Tokyo Hackerspace, we have a lot of projects or project ideas that revolve around environmental or humanitarian applications of technology as well as art. These types of projects would rarely see the light of day in corporate scenarios (without government subisidies) but are often the types of projects that, when further refined, may turn into something that is financially viable or lay the groundwork for something much bigger.

As you may have inferred from yesterday’s post, I’m a member of CrashSpace here in LA, and based on my experiences there so far, this is pretty much on the money. We thrive on interdisciplinary skill sets, and by working on projects that distinctly aren’t financially motivated, we learn and discover new things that will help us in those projects that are.

So, if you’re in LA and interested in learning something new, come by CrashSpace this Saturday afternoon, where I’ll be teaching an informal workshop on PCB design using EAGLE.

Oct 20 10

Videos. Tons of videos.

by kevin

Yesterday I had the chance to catch up on a couple of videos that Jerry from Maui Makers (and formerly CrashSpace) linked me to in response to my open letter to Thomas Kalil.

The short version:

The long version:

In this talk, Sir Ken Robinson references a paper called “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” that provides an insightful look into how education should be evolving for the 21st century. The startling thing is that this paper was written 9 years ago. I wonder how much has changed since then…

Entirely unrelated to the education system, but entirely related to the maker movement I posted about on Monday, the CrashSpace episodes of the VIMBY/Scion hackerspace challenge called Take On the Machine were posted yesterday. Head over to the CrashSpace blog to check them out. This was the project I spent most of my free time in August working on. Build details, source codes, and other design documents will be posted to Crash blog soon.

Oct 18 10

In Response to “Innovation, education, and Makers”

by kevin

The following is an open letter I’ve written to Thomas Kalil in response to his opening speech of the NSF‘s “Innovation, Education, and the Maker Movement” workshop.

If you agree with the sentiments presented here, please share this with your friends. Your thoughts and contributions are welcome in the comments section.

Dear Mr. Kalil,

I cannot tell you how overjoyed I am that our Nation’s leaders have finally opened an intrigued eye to the blossoming Maker movement.  Your speech following the Maker Faire in New York was encouraging, exciting, and promising. It put a well deserved spotlight on the achievements of garage tinkerers and hackers around the country (and let’s be honest, the world).  That our leaders are paying attention to these atypical, underground activities and interested in turning them into mainstream, common American values is incredibly motivating to me as a maker.

There is, however, one facet of this movement that was overlooked in your speech, and as far as I can tell, is unfortunately overlooked everywhere STEM is championed.  It is an undeniable aspect of humanity as valuable to Captain Picard as it was to Albert Einstein.  It has been a driving force, technologically and economically, in the multi-billion dollar video game industry (and thus, the personal computer and home entertainment industries).  It is introduced to Americans before Kindergarten, but somewhere along the path to high school, it is hopelessly abandoned as impractical and unproductive. But, it is also how we stop fragmenting ourselves into STEMs; it is how we come together to pick up STEAM for the renaissance (and yes, the ice cream was its idea).

Of course I am talking about art.

While art is a broad word that is dangerously all-encompasing (there is indeed an art to routing a circuit board, and a quite different art to designing a state machine), the art I am talking about here is fine art — that which Wikipedia defines as “developed primarily for aesthetics and/or concept rather than practical application.” Fine art is no longer just painting on a canvas, drawing musical notes on a stave, or spinning clay into a pot.  Fine art, in addition to everything it used to be, is electrical, dynamic, and algorithmic now, and to borrow from Oscar Wilde, as “quite useless” as it ever was. Take as an example, Syyn Labs‘ recent contribution to GLOW.

I wasn’t at the Maker Faire in New York, but I have been to two in San Mateo, and many of the projects I saw there not practically useful, but were quite inspiring. Many of the useful projects I did see had one thing in common with the beloved MakerBots and DIYDrones: They were based on an Arduino, the open-source microcontroller and programming environment designed by artists for everyone.

Yes, the Arduino does fall under the blanket category of Technology, but it would be naive to think that its developers were trained only as technologists and engineers.  Their training in art, sociology, and community is doubtlessly and inextricably linked to the platform’s success across its diverse applications. Their desire to create something useful for artists is what drove them to simplify the user interface and lower the barrier to entry.

As I mentioned above, art also has a crucial role in the video game industry.  Visual arts in video games are the reason why many of my friends own HDTVs.  They are also the reason that companies like nVidia and ATi have had a thriving market in which to sell graphics cards and innovate parallel processing.  By and large, people want the latest GeForce and Radeon cards for artistic reasons: they want their games to look good. It wasn’t until very recently that using these massively parallel architectures for anything else was even reasonable.

I could go on about other examples of influences of fine arts on technology, like “Daisy” and the Altair 8800, but your time is valuable, and so is mine, so I’ll cut to the point.  This letter is to ask you to take a step back, have a look at the immense discrepancy between grant opportunities from the NSF and those from the NEA, and think about what we can do to pick up STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Educating and encouraging our children to embrace artistic expression is just as important as teaching them calculus and the periodic table.  Let’s encourage our engineers to design new Most Useless Machines.  Let’s inspire our mathematicians to devise new mind-boggling N-dimensional fractal animations.  Let’s teach our artists to write programs and draw schematics so that they might create an electronic Mona Lisa.  And let’s show our children how fun and intertwined all of these fields are, so that they may form communities that flourish as they grow older and spread the joy to their children, and so on.

The train is headed in the right direction, we just need to invite everyone aboard.


Kevin Nelson
Computer Engineer, Electronic Musician, Crasher

Aug 27 10

welcome to blog

by kevin

yep, there’ll even be a soundcyst blog