Thursday, March 12, 2009

ETech: Closing Keynote

I'm sitting in the closing keynote from this year's ETech. We've got "Freedom and Control: Lessons from China for the World" with Rebecca MacKinnon, "How the Magic Circle Transforms the Commons: Games, Communities, and Civic Participation with Kati London, The End of Free Space with Jane McGonigal and finally Viral Forecasting with Nathan Wolfe.

Rebecca MacKinnon

First up is Rebecca MacKinnon talking about China, the Internet, and what it means for the future...

River crab wears three watches

She's talking how, while heavily censored, the Chinese web contains a great deal of political commentary which is arising virally where people are using stories, pictures and language to get around the censorship. The problem is that there is a opaque layer building up between the government and the citizens.

Kati London

The next speaker is Kati London talking about civic participation, and how we might be able to use games to engage people.

Our penultimate speaker is Jane McGonigal with the results of Free Space, the 3 day massively-multiplayer thought experiment which has been going on at ETech, kicked off earlier in the week at Ignite ETech on Monday.

Nathan Wolfe

The final speaker of the conference is Nathan Wolfe talking about what we can do with all the infrastructure we're building right now...

How is it possible that a virus as devastating as AIDS sat in the human population since the 20's, spread around the world, and wasn't really detected until the 1980's. However the real question is, how do we avoid something like this happening again? How do we avoid something worse? We need to look at how viruses are entering the human population well before they become more than only weakly adapted to living in humans.

...we're done. Time to head to the bar.

ETech: ...meets Free Tech

I'm in the Free Tech un-conference hanging off the edge of ETech. I'm listening to Rose White from NYC Resistor talking about Hacker Spaces. Last year there was a huge increase in the number of hacker spaces, both in the US and worldwide...

A hacker space is a self-organized space where people share the rent, bring tools, and do different types of hacking. Until recently hacker spaces in the US were places where people lived, as well as worked, and there were negative connotations placed on them by the media. O'Reilly have been part of the drive to take back the word 'hacker', partly by associating the word hacker with the word maker.

ETech: Robot Cars Solve Everything

I'm in "Robot Cars Solve Everything. Well, Almost" given by Brad Templeton. Thanks to DARPA’s Grand Challenge contests held in 2004, 2005, and 2007, autonomous vehicles on ordinary city streets are moving from science fiction to a technology within our grasp...

Google TechTalk, given in 2006 by Sebastian Thrun

What are robotic cars? An autonomous vehicle that can drive on ordinary roads. They offer comfortable workspace, face-to-face, and they bring Moore's law to transportation, as soon as transportation becomes a software problem the pace of change will rapidly increase. They park, deliver and refuel themselves. Three new terms: robo-taxi, whistlecar and deliver-bot.

The DARPA grand challenge competitions was surprising, teams with very small budgets came up with amazing results, despite the almost total failure of the first competition.

When? Some technology is already here, many predict as early as 2020. But barrier may be more legal and social than technically. It does require breakthroughs, but noting compared to general AI. Needs cheaper hardware and heavily parallel hardware.

Why is it such a great thing? Accidents, human drivers kill 45,000 people a year, over a million people worldwide are killed in traffic accidents, and far more people are injured. We also don't realise how much infastructure we've given over to cars, there are six car parking places for every car in the US.

Self-delivery is almost as self-driving. Here we come to the robo-taxi (and the whistlecar which self-delivers but doesn't self-drive), which you summon and then takes you on the trip. The advantage is that you get the right vehicle for the trip. A 10-mile range electric trike allows you to pickup a truck or a van.

Energy is today's hot-button issue, so lets look at the electric car. Who killed the electric car? Conspiracy theories aside, the battery killed it. People won't tolerate the cost, limited range, long recharge times and poor availability of fast recharge. We can make an efficient short-range cars, but people don't want them.

Robots don't care how convenient recharging is, a robot car refuels/recharges itself and stations don't need to be on-route or close. This enables experimental fuels. You don't care about the range of your taxi, just that it will get your where you are going.

A lot of suggestions for futurist transport have actually been around for 40 years, unlike a lot of these robot cars use the existing infrastructure and can be bought be private individuals, and crucially by early adopters and alpha geeks. No matter how attractive the centrally planned system sounds, it won't out compete a system that grows from the bottom.

More advantages. No parking, no congestion, you can read and work in transit. You don't need a license and you don't need to own a car. It's cheaper and safer for accidents. That's by definition by the way, we' shouldn't allow them on the streets until they're safer for accidents than human driven cars.

You can already buy a lot of this technology off the shelf, self-parking, auto-spacing cruise control, lane departure prevention, road side reading, auto-braking and coming soon from VW; lane following, passing and parking.

We have to apply the School of Fish test, put a whole bunch of cars on a track and challenge people to drive amoungst them and crash into one. If the robot cars pass the test, people shouldn't be able to able to touch them, they'll just get out of the way.

Who will be behind the move to robot cars? The companies that want to sell them, accident victim, the alcohol companies, the environmentalist (once they see the advantages)...

What will stand in the way? The law, fear of the unknown, liability, terrorists, the technological challenges. What about software recalls? What happens when your car gets disabled when the manufacturer issues a safety advisory on the current firmware.

...and we're done.

ETech: All the Ways To Find You

I'm in "All The Ways to Find You: GPS and other Wireless Signals" with Nick Brachet from Skyhook Wireless the people that do that sort of thing...

Nick Brachet

Nick is going to talk today about all the ways to find and locate a phone, laptop or desktop at any time. First, the easiest and most fun location technology, where is the storm

Count the seconds between the time you see a lightning strike, and the time you hear thunder, divide by 3. The result is the distance to the storm in kilometers...

A lot of location systems work this way, they know the location of a fixed point, and they measure your distance to that point.

To unambiguously locate you you need at least three reference point, the more points you have the more accurate your location can be pinned down. In practice of course you never know anything exactly, so even with multiple references point you always have a error.

A GPS receiver measures the distance to a satellite by calculating the time it takes for a signal to travel from the satellite to the receiver. But what is the satellite's time? what is my time? A fourth satellite is needed for time synchronisation. But where are the satellites, precisely? As well as a time stamp each navigational message includes the position of the satellite and its path in its orbit, and a subset of the almanac - data about the other satellites in orbit, including a rough position. However the ephemeris (and the almanac) may be delivered via other mechanisms, e.g. backhaul via the cell phone network.

For location technology there are many metrics, one of these is how long it takes to get a location fix. With GPS on a cold start it takes on average 23 seconds, with a warm start, where the time and ephemeris is still valid the time-to-fix is much less, around 4.2 seconds on average. Faint signals (-135dBm and lower) complicate decoding process and may cause the receiver to drop frames, increasing the time-to-fix.

Typical GPS receivers need -140dBm or better, and cannot decode below -145dBm. Outside you normally get a signal from -125 to -130dBM. Inside in your home you get a signal from between -135 to -145dBM, however in a high-rise building the signal will go down to typically between -135 to -160dBm.

Accuracy is very important, and there are many factors contribute to error, the most important is timing inaccuracy. One of the biggest problems is multi-path signals, the satellite signals bouncing off surfaces (building, planes, etc). End-user accuracy is typically 10-30m in a good area. That's not generally good enough, onboard navigation systems generally fix your position by assuming your car is actually on a road.

Moving on to Wi-Fi positioning. There are hundreds of millions of access-points around, so it's easy to determine your location? Okay, but we need to trilaterate. We need the distance to at least 3 access-points and the exact position of the access-points. It turns out there is a quadratic relationship between the signal strength you receive and the distance to the access point. So in practice, distance to an access-point can be estimated by measuring received signal strength. The second problem is solved by driving, and walking around neighbourhoods, malls, campuses and collecting Wi-Fi signal fingerprints, then calculate each access-point's position by (reverse) trilateration.

Conventional wisdom for the range of an access point is about 500ft, but some times they have much larger coverage, some over a kilometer wide. This can happen for many reasons, perhaps the signal is boosted, but perhaps the signal is just bouncing off water, or there was just nothing in the way to prevent the signal propagating. The access point might be in a high-rise building.

The time-to-fix in network mode, where the client collects the Wi-Fi fingerprints, but the location is calculated remotely. However in tiling mode, where the client has a small portion of the database cached locally, and your location is calculated locally the time-to-fix can be sub-second.

Coverage in Europe

So Wi-Fi positioning an GPS positioning complement each other very well...

Accuracy, distance to access-points is only an estimate and we have unmanaged reference points, and access points do move. But many readings compensate. The end-user accuracy is typically 20 to 30m in good coverage areas.

...and we're done.

ETech: Tales from Technomadia

Next up is "Tales from Technomadia" with Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard.

Tales from Technomadia

Chris and Cherie are talking about lifestyle hacking and

The one thing the Prius is useless for is towing anything...

If you take an infinite number of very light things and put them together, they become infinitely heavy. - Robert's Law of Applied Mobile Gizmology, Steve Roberts

The basic trailer model they're using is from Oilver Trailers, who have taken some of their modifications and are now selling them as standard packages to other customers.

They run with 2×100W solar panels backed up by a propane generator. This supports two MacBook Pros, a 24-incg monitor, a Mac mini set up as a media server and a 1TB of NAS. The tech is pretty standard, but it's all crammed into the trailer.

More critical is connectivity, onboard is a "Mobile Command Center" signal booster and a EVDO to WiFi router, looks like the US equivalent to Three's Wireless Router back home. Other connectivity options: Satellite, Long Range WiFi and Internet Cafes.

There are lots of options for home selection: RV, boat, train, backpack, airship(?) and cubesats(?).

What ties people to a place? Debt is the biggest anchor that ties people to location, mortgage or rent, credit card debt, student loans. People are often surprised about how affordable a nomadic lifestyle can be...

Family. You can take them with you, or you can have extended visits with them, and if you want to you can get really far away from them. Pets. A nomadic lifestyle isn't necessarily a bar to having pets.

Stuff. The most common thing people say is "...I could never give up my books". It's incredibly hard but you can shed your stuff.

Other excuses; job or career. There are jobs that can't be done remotely. But if you're a geek, you can probably do your job anywhere. So why are you commuting 40 or 50 minutes a day?

It's not ecologically sound? They're arguing that they're using so little electricity and water now their footprint is much less than when they were living in Silicon Valley.

Practicalities and legalities, you need a state of residence, and a physical address for mail forwarding (or scanning). Use online banking...

If there is something you want to do, the best advice is just go. This isn't for everyone, but if it's for you, get over your excuses and go do it.

ETech: Bug Finding by Solving Constraints in the Cloud

The last day of most O'Reilly conferences always seem a lot quieter. Possibly because they run at such a pace that most people are physically exhausted by the end of them. In any case, both OSCON and ETech tend to have a slower feel to them on the final day. This ETech doesn't seem to be the exception to the general rule, there are fewer people about, and many fewer people in the talks...

I'm kicking off my day with "Bug Finding by Solving Constraints in the Cloud" given by David Molnar.

Security bugs are costly, and there is a bug cycle...

Classic technique fro finding bugs is Fuzz Testing where you feed malformed files, strings and commands to your application and see whether it crashes. Interestingly, despite this being a fairly basic technique, it finds lots of bugs. But fuzz testing doesn't work well with unlikely paths, the edge cases. The fix being talking about today is fuzz testing plus dynamic test generation.

Trace the dynamic execution of the program, capture the symbolic path conditions, create symbolic formula for new path, solve new oath conditions and generate a new test case from solution.

Does this scale? The first generation of tools, like EGT, were exciting but only tested cases where the program was less than 2KLOC of code.

He's now talking about two tools. SAGE, which he worked on at Microsoft and is still internal, and SmartFuzz. You can actually get SmartFuzz, and it scales to larger code by running it in the cloud on Amazon EC2 instances.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ETech: Smart Energy and What Lies Ahead

I'm in "Smart Energy and What Lies Ahead" with Rob Faludi. We have energy problems, but whose problem are you talking about?

The planet has problems, energy causes pollution, which leads to melting ice caps, mass extinctions, mass migrations and change we don't know.

The utilities have problems, structured for one way energy flow, forecasts use historical models. The grid has issues, the grid is built for peaks, high cost load smoothing, carbon emergency, renewables and needs storage.

Although the utilities don't want to spend money, they'd love to have more customer information. Faced with their problems somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps they want to lower usage, shift load throughout the day to even out the peaks, and have communicating pricing and two way energy flow.

People have problems, they get a (moderate) bill once a month, very occasionally there is a power outage, we're concerned about the planet's problems, we're interested in smart energy (it sounds neat), but we're (generally) all thumbs.

What's really going on here? A lot of things don't use much power, and the cost of energy is actually pre low right now. Economically 'smart' energy generates only 5 to 20% savings, maybe $15 per month? We treat power like air, it's available everywhere...

But there is a real carbon emergency, and energy independence has obvious benefits, both political and economic...

We're going to run out of oil, the dinosaurs aren't going to make any more...

While it's important to measure your power consumption, that isn't very useful unless this data is visible to the consumer, and it has to pass the 'Grandma Test'. You have to ask whether your grandmother can use it?

There is also the problem of capital expenses to fix longer term problems have a problem, consumers like things the pay for things in a year, not ten years...

Demand response and management is the utilities' version of just-in-time inventory, you try and even out the peaks and reduce the needed capital expenditure needed to service those peaks.

ETech: Enabling Citizen Science

I'm in "Enabling Citizen Science" with Eric Paulos...

Eric Paulos

In the early 60's Kennedy challenged the world to put a man on the Moon, and peopled rallied behind it, but it was scientists that went out and did it. You can argue about that the big issues are right now, but certainly one of biggest is the environment. In this challenge, of course scientists are going to play a role, but the solution is going to be much more driven by people.

When you given people sensors strange things happen. Everyone wants to set the sensor off, and people become possessed with an aura of authority, they start wandering into people's houses for instance...

Eric is arguing that while we should be doing projects that can be provocative, or playful, but should be purposeful.

We want our tools to sing of not just productivity but of our love of curiosity the joy of wonderment, and the freshness of the unknown

We need to set our computing free, we talk about designing for disassembly, but what about designing for activism?

Citizen science has a long history, well over 100 years, one of the longest running projects is the citizen bird count. Even though most people are pretty bad at this, wisdom of crowds tends to apply and remove the outliers, and the data actually turns out to be good on average.

How hot is it in this room? Which direction is the wind blowing? Which direction am I facing? Is that water safe safe to drink? Is the carpeting treated with chemicals? Are my children's toys free of lead? There is clearly a motivation to have sensor-rich tools, mostly to improve the mobile interface, but the other phenomenon driving this is citizen driven content creation.

Sensing is coming to your phone, and it's not just accelerometers anymore...

Pollution maps from citizen scientists

We want to engage people to do street science that results in practical action, and motivate people to gather, analyze, share and act upon information...

Tell me, I forget.
Show me, I remember.
Involve me, I understand. - Chinese Proverb

ETech: Urban Homesteading

I'm in "Urban Homesteading: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Making" with Mark Frauenfelder of Make Magazine.

Mark Frauenfelder

Making can be used to improve your family home life by taking an active roll in the things that feed, clothe, educate, maintain and entertain us...

The seven guiding principles for successful urban farming is to grow only useful things, region matters (a lot), build your soil, water deeply and less frequently (watering frequently encourages weeds), work makes work, failure is part of the game and pay attention (and keep notes).

ETech: Cookie Scale Computing

I'm in "Cookie Scale Computing" with Jeevan Kalanithi and David Merrill...

Jeevan and David talking about Siftables at TED

The computing element that is at the cutting edge right now is about the size of a chocolate bar, but following Moor's Law what happens when that gets down to a cookie. Thinking about the way we interact with things, what's actually good about this?

There is a real problem with the way we interact with computers these days, we have to be pulled out of the physical world we live in and into a small box. Mobile phones make this problem worse, not better, we're pulled out of our environment and into an even smaller screen. How do we design an interface that better merges the physical and virtual worlds?

What are the sort of things we use computers to do? Basically it boils down to problem solving, in the old days of punched cards the feedback loop when running a program was very long, these days it's shorter. However the way we interact with the problem is important. Objects that build the problem into their physical shape make it easier to solve the problem.

Tangible computing, ubiquitous computing and gestural computing as well as table top computing and sensor networks are the major research trends that are important when we're considering how to interact with objects when the technology start getting smaller and smaller.

Siftables are small cookie sized computing devices that has a screen, the ability to sense its neighbours, can communicate wirelessly and can sense how its being manipulated via an accelerometer. They can also sense the surface they are on...

This work has led to some work on multi-gestural interfaces. For instance grouping, Putting everything in the same group means that these are the same. Then there is gathering, you can't represent infinite amount of stuff with a limited number of physical items, so if you have a number of items that are grouped together you can pull them all into one siftables using a sucking gesture, and free up the other siftables to represent new stuff.

Other gestures could include inclining, angling the two siftables towards each other to create and strengthen a link between them; angle them away from each other to weaken the link. Pouring, sending an attribute from one item to another. Queuing, place siftables in a line to create ordered list. Stacking is a similar thing.

Thumping, slap the surface that the siftables rest on to save their state and swap to a new set of data, or slap the surface on which they rest to rest them....

Tangible computing is of interest precisely because it is not purely physical, it is a physical realization of a symbolic reality. - Paul Dourish

Real hardware...

Siftables key features include a multi-person, information-centric collaboration around collections on a tabletop with three-day interaction. The siftables can come up off the table and be gesture sensitive. Finally we can offload working memory and mental computation onto the tool.

ETech: Wednesday morning keynotes

I'm back in the main room for the Tuesday morning keynotes. We've got Chris Luebkeman talking about Urban Futures, Joichi Ito talking about Creative Commons: Creating Legal and Technical Interoperability and Christa Hockensmith talking about Jackhammers, Polymers, and Diamonds: New Applications in Explosives. Hoping they'll be a demo on that last one, and with ETech you never know...

...and here's Brady Forrest

Brady kicks us off, and this morning we've got an eclectic programme...

Chris Luebkeman talking about Urban Futures

First up is Chris Luebkeman who is reminding us that cities are for people and everything there is supposed to help people thrive. In Japan they're reaching peak urbanism, and they're facing the problem of what you disassemble in your urban environment when it's no longer needed.

The population is also aging, you need to design your city to reflect aging urbanism. If older generations cannot cycle, what type of vehicle can they use to increase their reach and access? How do you create systems to allow you to be mobile for as long as possible. What should you e designing for ages 0 to 100?

Cities are not designed for the abandonment of downtown, this has happened in Johannesburg where the centre of the city has been almost entirely abandoned because it was no longer safe to be there. Everyone has moved out to the suburbs.

The modern bread line, how can you increase the resilience of our urban areas? Fuel is necessary for cities. While many of us, the digital elite, could continue to work if we couldn't drive. This isn't true for most people.

If we're going to move towards an eco-friendly world, what are the things we should be doing. What should we not be doing? In the end of the day eco-cities are about reducing our impact, both as individuals, but also as a community.

How do we turn today's cities into ecological cities, 100 years ago the were only 8,000 cars in the USA, only 144 miles of paved road and it had a 10mph speed limit in the cities. Studebaker offered both an electric, for in city, and gasoline, for long distance touring, engine options in their horse-less carriages. In some ways we need to go backwards...

I confess that in 1901 I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for 50 years... ever since I have distrusted myself and avoided all predications - Wilbur Wright, 1908

The future is always over sold and under imagined. Nobody imagined 100 years ago that the Northwest Passage would be open due to something we have done...

Urban ecology

So the city of tomorrow, what is that? Well in the 1950's it was sky scrapers, and we did that. But we have to look and see what the drivers for change are now. If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars, if you plan cities for people you get people.

If you could cut and paste anything in and out of your community, what would it be?

Joichi Ito talking about Creative Commons

Next up is Joichi Ito talking about the Creative Commons license...

The core 6 licenses

...and amoungst much other good stuff he announced CC0 which is a license which tries to make it easier to put things into the public domain. Because oddly putting things into the public domain is actually quite hard.

CC0 gives people who want to give up those rights a way to do so, to the fullest extent allowed by law. Once the creator or a subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to a work, the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful legal sense. Anyone can then use the work in any way and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, subject to rights others may have in the work or how the work is used. Think of CC0 as the "no rights reserved" option.

Christa Hockensmith talking about explosives

Only possibly the last keynote of the morning, apparently there might be a surprise talk, is Christa Hockensmith who is talking about new uses for explosives.

The usual uses for explosives; munitions, bombs. fireworks, explosive materials for the military, mining excavations, roads and demolitions. But there are more unusual uses; power tools, diamonds, polymeric tools and some more untested and off-the-wall ideas.

Explosive assisted tools. Many tools are powered with hydraulic fluids or compressed air. Therefore compressors and fluid lines must be available at the site where the tools are used. Small explosive cartridges could be used instead.

This particular tool is not in use, because I just made it up two weeks ago...

Although this tool is not in use, other similar tools are in use. We can use this idea for nail guns, spray guns, chipping tools and various other tools ordinarily powered with air or fluids. Explosive powered tools can also be used to give easier access to inaccessible recreation or search sites. An explosive-powered pin insertion tool could be used in rock climbing or rescue operations.

Synthesizing diamonds...

The production of industrial diamonds. Each year there are almost 220,000 lbs of industrial diamonds synthesized. This is done by explosion...

Explosive-aided polymers. Polymeric materials are used as a coating around other chemicals that are to be delivered during a manufacturing processi. Small explosive charge ruptures the polymeric exterior coating freeing the chemicals for delivery at the appropriate place and time. Polymeric coating protects the deliverables and increases shelf life during storage.

Untried and untested. A large explosive can create industrial diamonds, what about very small explosions? Very small detonations that implode rather than explode the tumor may prevent uncontrolled bleeding and the body will clear the debris. Even smaller detonation may clear plugged arteries and blood vessels without running balloons through those vessels.

Aaron Koblin

Finally a surprise talk from Aaron Koblin about using Amazon Mechanical Turk to synthesize music, how utterly and delightfully odd...

...and we're done.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

ETech: High-Tech Chocolate

I'm in "High-Tech Chocolate: Reinventing the Path from Pod to Plate" with Timothy Childs and Maribeth Back who are talking about what happens when high-tech chocolate company meets high-tech research lab.

Timothy Childs talking about High-tech Chocolate

THCO is the only chocolate maker in San Francisco, with a killer location between Pier 39 and the Ferry Building. They're an innovation machine, with beta chocolate, try the chocolate before it's ready...

The flavour wheel

...they've also come up with the flavour lab, not flavouring the chocolate, but coaxing flavour out of the raw beans.

They're also encouraging the farmers to cook beans better, and dry them properly, and letting them charge THCO more for it. But they get better beans and better chocolate as a result. They've investigating in remote sensor networks and they're able to monitor conditions in Perudirectly, they know how the beans are fermenting, and they're starting to build models based on this data and the taste of the resulting chocolate.

The THCO iPhone remote managment app

Timothy is demo'ing the iPhone application developed for them by FX PAL which allows them to monitor and control the factory in real time from their phones. Interesting stuff, and oddly the UI they've developed for the application mirrors some of the interface stuff I've been doing for controlling autonomous telescopes networks from the iPhone for the eSTAR Project.

Similar control problems, similar solutions perhaps? In any case, we just remotely controlled a chocolate laboratory from an iPhone. That's pretty cool, now it's time for more chocolate...

...and we're done.

ETech: Open Fabrication and the Environment

I'm in "Open Fabrication and the Environment or Taking Spime Apart" given by Tom Igoe. He's talking about how we're making a mess, and as people that are actually making things, we need to help close the loop. If we have left over stuff, it should get reused...

Tom is arguing that energy is a good place to start, purely because it's easy to measure...
If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it. - Lord Kelvin

Interestingly it turns out that improving the efficiency of out devices actually increases our use of energy on the macro scale, so we need not only energy efficiency, but energy literacy.

But we also need other forms of literacy. Material literacy, what materials are you using? What are they composed of, and how toxic are they? But you need to think about not only what's in your product, but what it takes to produce it.

Production literacy, where is your product produced, how is it produced, who makes it and how far does it get transported? We need to think about whether we need to make a product before we make it.

Beyond that we get into resource literacy. Geeks love systems, and this is a system that's yet to be explored. The USGS has estimated that e-waste with have between 40 and 100 times the amount of gold in it than ore dug out of a gold mine. People are starting to get interested in this...

In order to close the loop with recycling, the people that un-make things need to know how we made them in the first place.

Finally there is 'legacy literacy'. We inherit a lot from industrial design, and its a profession that developed partially in response to American overproduction in the early 20th century. Gillette selling razors at a loss, and selling you a life time supply of razor blades for a healthy profit, is the obvious example.

Reduce, reuse and research. The idea of reusing tools, before building your own. Don't build a distributed sensor network, use cell phones, the network already exists. Just hook your sensors up to the cell network.

ETech: The End of Obsolescence

I'm in "The End of Obsolescence " with Lane Beckerand Thor Muller....

Lane Becker and Thor Muller

Companies sell stuff, in order to do so they hire people, they become employees, get paid, and they go off and buy stuff, but they want mores stuff, so they borrow money, banks lend to them, China lends to lenders, shareholders cash in, the media sells ads and the politicians represent their constituents, or cash in?... and that's consumerism. But,

Things getting better precisely because things are getting worse...

During a time when people have less money in their pocket, they taper off their spending, and go out and get things fixed rather than buying new ones. The question is will this continue? There are signs that this time round, perhaps, it might.

They're talking about design patterns for post-consumerism. The world simplifies down into two kinds of people; back to basics and and the progressives. They argue that the back to basics days are behind us, there isn't any way to drag the world back to the days before the plough.

Design Pattern 1 is free. It's gotten a lot of press. This is free as in speech and as in beer. This isn't giving away the razor to sell the razor blades. If we can create an economic and cultural value around free that's more than the economic value again they that's interesting, and open source culture is pointing us in that direction. Obviously capitalism isn't going away, but it is shrinking.

Design Pattern 2 is the repair culture. Things should be built to last, and when they are, oddly enough people actually want them to last. People take care of them. If you build objects that are built to be disposable, people want to do just that. We've shed a lot of the repair culture in our pursuit of innovation. But we can innovate by extending the lifespan of our products.

Design Pattern 3 is reputation scaled. You can argue that reputation is the fertile ground that civilization comes from, but the problem is that this worked best at the level of the village. The transformation event from the village, to the global economy to the global village, where reputation is traded on and important once again is really important.

Design Pattern 4 is the loaner-ship society. The question about whether you can get more use out of something is not just about repairing it when it breaks. Why does everyone have a cheap power drill? They're arguing fewer, better made, repairable power drills, that will actually last is a better thing? This doesn't mean you can't make money, you only have to look at Netflix to see that...

Design Pattern 5 is virtual production. This is where stuff gets made, and stuff gets sold, but it's all digital. Digital goods are replacing physical goods. Our interfaces are getting so good these days that we can replace physical products, you only have to look at virtual spirit level applications for the iPhone.

They've talked about five design patterns here, but there are many more, and they argue that we have to change the incentives that drive continued growth and consumerism in our economy...

...and we're done.

ETech: Real hackers Program DNA

I'm in "Real Hackers Program DNA" given by Reshma Shetty and Barry Canton...

They're talking about synthetic biology, and why we don’t we have open source wetware. Why can’t you programme cells as readily as you can programme computers? This is the idea that you can engineer bacteria to fuel your car, or produce an anti-malarial drug...

This is really cool, we're going to actually get to bio-engineer some bacteria, from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, during the talk. We're in a mini-workshop...

Update: Well that was so cool! I've now got some cells warming in my pocket and will be adding them to an agar+amp solution after lunch. Real science getting done at ETech.

Update: My medium has now been transfered to an agar solution and I'm culturing it overnight, hopefully by tomorrow I'll have some red coloured cells. I'll report tomorrow to tell how it got on...

Update (+1 day): No obvious red tinge on the petri dish that would show my culture is growing, but I've not really been keeping it warm enough, so it might take another day os so...

Update (+3 days): Success! It lives...

Definitely red...

ETech: Your Energy Identity, and Why You Should Care

I'm in "Your Energy Identity and Why You Should Care" given by Gavin Starks...

For a 2.5kg Mac laptop, you have a 460kg CO2e.

He's started off talking at the macro level and talking about peak oil, peak finance, peak water, peak uranium and peak copper...

The medium surface warming in 2091 to 2010 is 5.1C compared to 2.4C in the 2003 study - MIT

Moving on to possible future scenarios, the most optimistic is efficiency + technology where we have rapid innovation in energy efficiency technology to create a consumerist, low carbon world. here society is increasingly dependent on technology and is delicately balanced. Next is the service transformation, here high-carbon prices mean business sell services, not products. The next is redefining progress, people have to rethink what a fulfilling life means. Meaningful jobs are valued and stronger links with local communities are cultivated. The next step is slightly darker, we've left it too late, this is the environmental war economy. Governments are forced to rationalize whole sectors and take control of citizen's lives. Environmental refugees must find countries willing to accommodate them. Finally, where we actually just end up in a projectionist world. Countries wage war over resources.

The cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90%. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less - Lovelock
If we burn all the coal, we might kick in a runaway greenhouse effect... if we burn all the tar shale wan tar sands we definitely will, leading to a Venus Syndrome - Hansen, NASA

He's arguing that we need to move to a post-capitalist society. The so called triple bottom line economy...

Gavin is discussing the EU policy stack and the carbon reduction commitment; including 30 minute monitoring and mandatory offsetting, and how it's coming to the US...

We're moving to an economic age where we need to start obeying the first law of thermodynamics

The 20 largest cities in the world use 75% of the world's energy, and 500 million more people are predicted to move into cities over the next five years. The current prediction is that the future population is going to be concentrated in many, but smaller, cities.

We need I/O models of everything at the device level. If we're going down the route of micro-generation we're going to have a new sense of democratization of energy, it's a fundamental shift, much like the early days of the web was a democratization of information. Measurement is the key to your energy identity. He seems to be arguing that if you can't measure something, you can't control it. As a physicist I can certainly sympathise with that...

But the amount of data you're going to generate from the new generation of smart meters about you at the device level; the make, the model, the time you switch it on, the time you switch it off is going to tell people a lot about both you and your life style. How do we protect this? We're struggling with you digital identity, what about your energy identity? Whole owns your data? The utilities themselves, you? Everyone else assumes they own your data...

ETech: Tuesday morning keynotes

I'm back in the main room for the Tuesday morning keynotes. We've got Alex Steffen talking about Sustaining the American Family, Sameer Padania talking about WITENESS: Capturing Crisis and Mary Lou Jepsen talking about Low-cost, Low-power Computing.

...and here's Brady Forrest and a $20 computer

Brady kicks us off , and this morning we're going to be talking about sustainability. Right now we're moving away from a period of abundance into a period of constrains...

Alex Steffen talking about sustainability

First up is Alex Steffen talking about the developing world and the potential to see peak population in our lifetime, along with our historic carbon. He's arguing our current lifestyle is a massive inter-generational ponzi scheme.

The poor's job is to get rich. Our job is to reinvent what rich means...

If poor people follow our, the western world's, route to wealth we will ruin the world.

We're the brittle rich...

We're utterly depending on the rest of the world doing the right thing for us to continue to enjoy any sort of lifestyle. We need for them to agree to make changes, and for that to happen they have to see us make changes. We're going to have change an awful lot of things...

Energy meters reduce energy usage

That's an interesting statistic, apparently studies have shown that bringing an energy meter into the house reduced energy usage by between 10 and 15%, without doing anything else, just by showing people the energy they are using...

He's arguing that one day you won't be able to throw things away, because there won't be anywhere to throw it. We're moving towards closed loops are reuse. The more you take the long view, the more it's obvious we're all in this together. If we're only concerned about our own prosperity, we're going to loose that prosperity.

Sameer Padania talking about capturing crisis

Next up is Sameer Padania from WITNESS, a human rights organization, who is talking about one of their projects called The Hub a social media project, and the affect of technology on how complicated it is to get footage and reports of human rights violations out of crisis zones and out to the world.

However although activists are using these new technology to capture abuses, the perpetrators are starting to use the same technologies to distribute videos and pictures of abuses to intimidate the local communities.

People are risking their lives to film the content, but with the growing amount of content, how do we aggregate and analysis the content so that important information isn't lost and it's the material is properly put into context in real time?

Mary Lou Jepsen talking about low-cost computing

The final talk of the keynote is by Mary Lou Jepsen who is talking about low-cost, low-power computing and giving computing to the other five billion people on the planet. Today, 97% of adolescents alive today live in the developing world, if you want to change the world the future is there.

Mary is talking about the one laptop per child project which she co-founded, and she's pointing out that despite the controversy surround the project there is now a million kids in the developing world that have laptops that wouldn't otherwise.

But that's not the only affect, the entire small inexpensive laptop market has grown out of this project. Not just in the developing world, but also first world, where the netbook form factor has taken off. The landscape is changing in the laptop industry, last year more than double the number of netbook units shipped than was initially predicted. Next year, it'll be more again...

People are starting to innovate at the bottom of the technical pyramid, high-end, high-tech research is all about trickle down economics. Why not work at the bottom of the pyramid and people get access to the new technology now?

...and we're done.

ETech: Ignite ETech

After a quick break we're back for Ignite ETech.

If you had 5 minutes on stage what would you say? What if you only got 20 slides and they rotated automatically after 15 seconds?

Brady is back and introducing Ignite. We've got nine speakers, and at least one t-shirt that's going to be fired from a cannon. Ignite talks are 20 slides for 15 seconds a slide for a five minute.

Jan McGonigal

The first speaker is Jane McGonigal who is speaking about Free Space, a new forecasting game to be played this week at ETech.

The year is 2019. Personal satellites are cheap and accessible at $100. What would you use yours for?

Tom Gomez

Next up is Tom Gomez, deputy editor of wired, who is talking about a writing his book, the Decision Tree. Medicine as an algorithm...

Molly Steenson

Next up is Molly Steenson, who is talking about the history of pneumatic tubes for sending messages and packages in the 19th century. Interesting, Ted Stevens was right, just 100 years late.

Niall Kennedy

The next speaker Niall Kennedy is talking about measuring cloud efficiency.

Rose White

A change of pace, Rose White talking about knitting, and knitting as graffiti...

It's not your grandmother's knitting!

Knitting was once proprietary, reserved for the nobility, and was reverse engineered and made available to everyone.

Tom Igoe

An Arduino interlude by Tom Igoe and what's going on with the Arduino today. Most of what has been going on has been incremental improvements. There are not enough pins, memory, or serial ports.

The new Arduino MEGA

He's announcing the release of the Arduino MEGA, with a lot more capability. It should be available sometime next week.

Tariq Korula

Our next speaker is Tariq Korula, talking about the Ybike - the solar powered, Flickr uploading, geo-tagging photo bike. That's 20 bikes, 11 cites, 5 continents, 63,718+ photos. Search for the ybike tag on Flickr. Ghosts in the machine, or a million monkeys?

Brad Templeton

Our penultimate speaker is Brad Templeton from the EFF, talking on evil. We started with time sharing, moved to personal computers, and now we're back to time sharing. Your data is our of your hands, again. Ease of use can be a bug, if you make it easy to do, people will do it more.

Bill Gurstelle

Our final speaker of the evening was Bill Gurstelle who talked about the art of living dangerously. It's not a good thing to blow up things, but you should live dangerously...

Bill Gurstelle and his t-shirt cannon

...and we're done!

ETech: Monday evening keynote

After a very quick dinner I'm sitting in the Monday evening keynote waiting for Tim O'Reilly's to give his annual O'Reilly Radar...

Brady Forrest introducing Tim O'Reilly

Brady Forrest opened the show and introduced Tim, who is here to talk about the pilosophy that drives O'Reilly and stuff that matters...

Tim O'Reilly and stuff that matters...

These are pretty tough times... some things are being preserved, while some things are falling into ruin...

But what are our best and brightest doing? Throwing sheep on Facebook. Last year at the Web 2.0 conference Tim told people to work on stuff that matters,

Alot of people thought I was saying to work on non-profits, or maybe social ventures... I'm actually sauing that the world's great challenges is also the world's greatest opportunities.

But he's pointing to Better Place who are attempting the pioneer an new business model for electric cars,

Some of the things we think are so important today, are actually getting in our way...

He's talking about other power and energy companies like his son-in-law's company that's just come out of stealth, Makani Power working on high-altitude wind power systems. We have to get rid of about 8 terrawatts of fossil fuel energy and replace with renewables. Just because it's worthwhile, doesn't mean it isn't going to make money.

This attitude has started to bubble up form small companies to larger companies and agencies, like Google, and the NASA-Cisco climate project to flash the "planetary skin'. IBM has made it a center point of their new advertising campaign, a smarter planet, and instrumented, interconnected planet.

The idea of tackling big challenges, and bringing people along with us is what we have to do...

Talking about "big hairy audacious goals" Tim is now talking about public access to government data and has announced a new conference called the gov2.0 Summit which will be in Washington DC in September.

If you're not paying attention to what's happening to open government data, we have an opportunity that is unprecedented. We have a great challenge, but also a great opportunity. We have about 2 years to make a difference in the current administration...

He's talking about long term goals and the Long Now Foundation and scenarios for future planning, and the idea that there can be discontinuities, and we're in the middle of one just now. Both a financial one, and an environmental one.

The core of scenario planning is to develop a strategy that will be robust against any of the extreme strategy. Tim is urging us to think that way, think about what are the extremes in our lives, our business and figure out what are things that will be worth doing in the face of any of those extremes.

We're entering an era of choose your own adventure...

We're being told to find a place where you can make a difference, but make it count, like the $100 house...

Work on something that matters to you more than money. That's in the realm of things that matter.

Like deliberately unsustainable business models. If you're thinking about startups, stop thinking about whether it's going to succeed or not, and start thinking about what you're going to do instead. You need to create more value than you capture.

You guys are inventing the future, and what we want to do is help you spread the world, take on those giant challenges and eventually change the world.

Be minimal, leave places for other people to do things, and be friendly to people that extend you.

Update: Slides from Tim's keynote talk are now up on

Monday, March 09, 2009

ETech: Hands-on RFID for Makers

My afternoon tutorial is Hands-on RFID for Makers given by Tom Igoe and Brian Jepson. We've been given, well purchased, but you know what I mean, an Arduino mini pro, a bread board and a SonMicro SM-130 module to allow us to read and write to the Mifare RFID tags that O'Reilly are using here at ETech.

The finished tag readers

We kicked off by accessing the card reader directly from our laptops using Processing and Tom's SonMicro library, first to just read from the card and then to write to it...

Once we got that working we moved to an Arduino-based reader that reads Mifare tags and stores them. From there we moved on to the hooking our RFID readers up to the to web and the O'Reilly conference database, with Processing providing a GUI interface to the Arduino code.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have some, lets call it philosophical problems, with some of the proposed uses of RFID technology. But that said, there are some really interesting things you can do with tags, and while I approached this tutorial in a "know your enemy" frame of mind it was really fun, and I'm probably going to try and play with tags some more when I get back home. For instance, I can see some uses for the technology in the distributed sensors stuff I'm working on these days...

...of course that was all probably helped by the fact that Tom ran one of the clearest, well documented, hands-on tutorials I've seen. If you've got the opportunity to take a course with him, do it, you'll enjoy yourself.

Update: Pat was also blogging this one...

ETech: The LilyPad Sweatshop

I'm sitting in Leah Buechley's Lilypad Electronic Fashion tutorial. Where we'll be playing with Lilypad Arduino kits, a collection of sewable electronic pieces that lets you build soft electronic devices. Essentially it's a specially packaged Arduino, a sewable computer.

The materials are strange and hard to work with... - Leah Buechley

Hacking (and sewing) electronics

The aim for the workshop was to produce a "soundie", a garment which produes a sound when touched in a certain place, or different sounds when touched in different ways. Issued with a SparkFun LilyPad Pro Kit, some conductive thread, conductive material for the touch sensors, and of course a needle, we set to work. Well after the obligatory jokes about how this was going to look on our expense reports obviously...

The LilyPad t-shirt

Despite my awful stitching I actually managed to get my garment working, and if you see me around ETech wearing my conference t-shirt, slap me on the shoulder. The t-shirt will scream for me, so I don't have to...