Monthly Archives: February 2009

Makers and Hackers, London

I’m having a fab time at Makers and Hakers today – basically a one day hack-day bringing together crafts people and techies, and the brief is to ‘build a household item of the future’. Watching people pull out all sorts of kit from their bag – really excited to see the appearance of a sewing machine alongside arduino, soldering and electronics kit!

10:30am After Alex’s welcome and we introduce ourselves, people tentatively split into 4 teams. We chatted about what we fancied doing and after uniting our ideas, we came up with a name for our groups. Our four teams are:

* Fragile (formerly BOB)
* Nigel and the Craft Girls
* 2 Men 5 Legs
* Creatorz of Crazyness

11:00am I’m in team Creatorz of Crazyness with Omer, Andrew, Craig (from O’Reilly) and Tim. We chat about the ideas we came with, Tim wants to build a clock and Andrew wants to build some ickwl tiny bots – he’s brought loads of kit and also tons of brightly coloured felt.

12:00pm I’ve downloaded the Processing interface for arduino and Omer and I are looking through libraries for scripts. Andrew and Craig are soldering away.

13:00 Lunch. There’s a Tinker.it arduino weekend workshop going on and my colleague Nicky and others join us. There’s some nice introductions and chat about arduino going on.

14:00pm We’re consolidating ideas to build an arduino clock. Omer and I have spent about 3 hours so far trying to write a clock, we had some initial problems getting the Processing interface for arduino to work, so have ditched that. We’ve gone back to using the original arduino programming interface and have got some compilled code working as clock.

15:00pm Andrew gets a tiny sound out of his robot, but it’s barely audible, so he’s thinking about how to improve it.

15:10pm Eureka – Andrew adds a plastic cup to the robot and the tiny buzz is amplified!

15:17pm Epiphany – we got an alarm to work and we sit and watch the numbers ticking over in the arduino interface!

15:30pm Omer gets the servo to work with arduino and Tim gets the *rotating_bit* of the clock working

15:32pm Alex gives us a bonus half hour because we’re crafting/hacking carefully (slowly)!

15:52pm Craig has built a box! Now do we give it a felt coat? Andrew’s bot is attached to the servo and box so it acts as an audible alarm for the clock and the cup will doubles as a tipper.

16:15pm Last minute fiddling and yay our servo moves properly and distributes felt flowers by tipping them when the alarm goes off!

16:30 It’s time to stop working on our creations and set them up for judging on the designated area. Teams are hastily fiddling and arranging.

16:35 The people from the arduino workshop come out to vote. Teams describe their appliances to everyone, much clapping ensues.

16:50pm Everyone has one vote for their favourite creation. There are two prizes of £50 – one is an expert panel vote, the other is a peoples vote for their favourite.

17:00pm votes are counted and the expert panel goes away, to deliberate over their winner.

17:05pm The two team prize winners are announced:
* Experts panel award of £50 goes to Fragile (formerly BOB) for the LED arduino
bracelet from the Fragile team – which lit up when a new Tweet or email was recieved.

* Public vote goes to Nigel and the Craft Girls for their sound key rings. They attached an arduino to a Yamaha sound module to play individual MIDI tunes. An RFID tag on their key fobs triggered the tunes which could be played individually or together as a mix, reflecting who was in the building.

Alex is going to take the two winning creations to Maker Faire on the 14-15 March to show.

The other great projects were:
* 2 Men 5 Legs – who created a chair spin counter, ie it counted how many times you spun round on your office chair, although sadly ran out of time before completion.

* Tim Hutt – created an arduino driven tactile clock proof of concept device that would tell you the time in the dark using textured surfaces.

17:10pm Tidy-up time, wires, arduinos, soldering irons, a sewing machine, beads and ribbons are put away.

17:10pm Everyone is leaving and I’m blogging on the floor so will write up more detailed account later – byeeeee!

17:15pm Pub!

What a fantastic day, I’ve had so much fun and made some lovely new friends. Well done to Alex, James (tinker.it & Folksy) and all for putting this on. Looking forward to Maker Faire in Newcastle :-D Shout to sponsors BBC Backstage, O’Reilly Maker Faire and 4IP.

BeeBCamp 2 = woohoo!

Yesterday, some of us peeps who enjoyed the inaugural BeeBCamp, in October last year, got together again but with more people (about 80 of us in total) and even some brave friends from the outside world to enjoy BeeBCamp 2. There was an open invite across the BBC for anyone to rock up and join in the fun.

It was run along the same lines as the previous unconference style event, with a few simple rules:
* Absolutely no powerpoint (or similar) presentations
* No pre-prepared or repeated presentations from elsewhere
* Keep it simple. No overly complicated ideas.
* No pitching to commissioners. Meet them for a coffee instead.
* Discuss, interrupt, ask questions.
* Everything is on the record and bloggable
* Anything non-bloggable will be flagged up during the sessions
* You must have fun. People who don’t will be defenestrated

Talks covered subjects as diverse as gaming, UGC, open source, Twitter, blogging, pirates, narratives, Backstage, mobile, ceefax, innovation and more. Here’s a few notes from two of the presentations I went to:

Alex Murray – the future of handheld video devices:

This was the first and my favourite discussion of the day as I’m presently working with off the shelf video technology and touched on a lot of issues that are relevant to me right now.

Firstly we declared our gadgets – various image capturing devices appeared out of bags and pockets like a confessional – I happened to be packing 4 video capturing items on my personage – hmm!

We discussed various attitudes to this technology, such as:

* How small cameras are more intimate and less likely to put people off, Hugh Garry told a story about a radio presenter who went behind the scenes of a well known festival and got some great footage because her small camera seemed less intrusive.

* The general public are used to seeing shaky or lower quality footage these days, so its not such a big deal about the quality if it tells a story – the recent footage used globally of the airliner that crashed into the Hudson River in New York was cited as such an example.

* How the military are using helmet and other small cameras to track war zones for their own purposes.

* Robin Moore brought up the subject of what is judged to be ‘good and worthy’. The BBC is certainly known for best practice, quality and expertise, but if you consider being creative outside the period drama, studio, or traditional framework isn’t it okay to forgo some of the more fastidious aspects of quality for the advantages of quick reporting and capturing the moment? I certainly think so, especially for online use. I really feel its about telling the story, rather than worrying about some/all of the aesthetics/getting it perfect rules. This certainly makes sense if you’re a self-shooter or part of a small team working on as small/no budget (Disclaimer: before I get any concerned comments, I’m not – repeat not – suggesting we do away with any of the brilliant craft heritage/talent we already have and use on a daily basis – it’s about different strokes for different folks).

* I liked Hugh Garry’s observation that ‘people have an editorial mind’ – in this context meaning that people who previously don’t have any camera / scripting experience use this technology actively think about what they’re filming and how it’s going to come together as they’re shooting.

* Claire, who worked on Video Nation, told us about how you get people to talk about tangible things – i.e. a season subject – certainly an interesting way to get people thinking/chatting.

* Audiences are using video to construct stories from topics such as the weather and travel news.

* I talked about that I really like how fast it is to turn things around – ie the tiny cams I use record straight to SD as MP4, so no need for hours of digitising from tape and I can top and tail in QuickTime Pro. You can also get a good hour’s recording from the battery and depending on which quality mode you select, you can get an hour’s fairly good ‘HD’ quality for the web on a 4GB SD card. All the stuff I use is available over the counter or off the interwebs.

* Ian Forrester – shot this discussion on a Xacti and so it should be up sometime soon!

All in all I found this a most reassuring and supportive discussion as I discovered from various people from all over the BBC that they had similar thoughts and experiences to me. I’m still learning about how I can use this technology – the good, the bad and the ugly – finding out through experience what works and what doesn’t. I feel less of a misfit and less crap/nervous/unconfident about what I’m doing, especially when confronted by naysayers and those who might doubt my ability – power to the handheld video device and those who use it – I’m really excited for the future! I now want to set up a Handheld Devices Anonymous club for us strays to get together on a regular basis, talk, show and share our work and enthusiasm – anyone want to come out of the closet with me? :-D

Steve Bowbrick – making your ‘THING’ more open!

Steve told us a bit about his experiences of being the BBC’s first blogger in residence: the ups and downs (mentioning no names) of meeting and having great n interesting talks with people from around the BBC – he’s thinking of putting together an album of unpublished content – please do Steve :-D

He’s got about 7 projects in his head around open source and openness at the BBC – here’s 4 of them:

* Rights Lab – Steve put to us ‘why don’t you share more of what you make?’ He gave us some thoughts on rights from the BBC’s perspective vs those of the ‘geekier mindset’. How rights can get in the way of releasing content, but a lot more stuff could be released if you removed some obvious things like music or sports clips – which have some of the most trickiest rights to clear.

* Map of Openness – visualising the BBC’s output by things it makes and buys, and what’s open and what’s not!

* An event – ‘BBC Open Mike’ an event at a non BBC building that combines a mixture of inside BBC and external talking about what they think about open source.

* New Charter Review – get the BBC looked at from the bottom up! Get people talking about the ‘New World’, so not just TV, but Online, Radio, etc too: style guides, Policy, docs, everything! Steve is collating production checklists as he want to have the most comprehensive collection. He would like to add something to these that he thinks is vitally missing and it’s ‘sharing’ or ‘a sharing line’ for example sharing a programme script on a wiki.

I like all of these ideas because I’m dead keen to get more people looking at, thinking about and talking to each other about open source, openness and generally sharing and problem solving some of the issues around rights and licensing. There’s still lots of confusion and fear concerning openness in the world generally, so it would be great to demystify some worries and questions.

—-

BeeBCamp 2 was great day all round and congrats to Phil Trippenbach and David Hayward for all their hard work, here’s a couple of ideas for making the next BeeBCamp even better :-D

* Poke the conference faculty managers till they install wifi in our conference centre ;-) (I felt a bit silly wearing my ‘I’m tweeting this’ t-shirt when I couldn’t till I got home).

* Maybe have sessions in rooms or use screens so Phil doesn’t have to shhh me for talking excitedly to Steve Bowbrick and unwittingly getting on the nerves of a lady at a nearby talk ;-)

* Be upfront about attendees being expected to participate as many of the same people lead the discussions and there were a few gaps on the schedule.

* Some vegan food – I know you requested for some, Phil (so don’t feel bad), but I need to go and chat with faculties management upfront so they’re clear what the requirements of vegans are!

* More hot refreshments – I started flagging in the afternoon, always happens ;-)

* I’d set up a projector with the interwebs so people could show some online stuff – just for examples – e.g. I’m really curious about Hugh Garry’s film!

* It would be nice to do the ‘3 tags’ introduction at the start of the next BeeBCamp – then I’d be spared a few embarrassing moments asking people what they do!

Looking forward to the next one already!

Here comes… Clay Shirky at the LSE

Last week I went to the LSE to hear a talk by Clay Shirky, author of ‘Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together’.

He started by telling us that a 5 word précis of his above-mentioned book were: group action just got easier.

Clay’s talk focused on a few important examples of how the internet helped crowds of people get their message across:

Facebook takes a lot of the hassle out of organizing an event and gives people a platform for action – such as the students who took on HSBC with their group called ‘Stop the Great HSBC graduate rip off’ and publicized an easy step-by-step process to change your bank account for those who were frustrated with HSBC for changing the rules of their overdraft penalty.

He also talked about the power of the internet in terms of connecting people – during the China earthquake on 12th May 2008, people used the tools on the internet to communicate with each other with news of loved ones and collect donations. Although the authorities didn’t take well to a one retired school teacher for criticising the shoddy construction of buildings in terms of contributing to the 7000 casualty toll and detained them, but overall the government couldn’t control the story getting out of China because it had already been reported before they could stop it.

The topic of politics also brought Clay onto the Obama campaign describing him as the ‘first platform candidate’. This was another very current example of how online media makes a difference – user created media became a huge influence in getting positive messages across – the ‘Yes We Can’ music video was watched by millions, it wasn’t commissioned by Obama, but was perfect for a campaign.

To counterbalance this positive example, Clay talked about the music video created by a singing teacher in the US who created a song for Obama and filmed her conducting the class singing it. This didn’t look so good as it appeared to be her putting words into the mouths of kids who were too young to understand exactly what they were singing about. Obama didn’t suffer too much over this as people were generally savvy enough to realize that although his name was on it he wasn’t behind it.

Crowdsourcing sites are currently very popular and one that harnesses the power of public vote to float ideas up to the top of lists is change.gov, which Obama set up to keep the conversation going after the success of his online campaign. Though the one that the public voted for as the most important wasn’t a reflection on war, credit crunch or global warming, but was the legalization of marijuana – voted for by an anti-drugs law group – an interesting case as this example shows how a voting site can be hijacked for political or other gain.

So if the social net is a new force in politics Clay asks: how are we going to use it and how do we counterbalance ideas and what are the checks and balances?
Clay finished his talk by saying that he feels in the current financial crisis, the depth that we are going to adopt new tools will be surprising, he stated “I think this is the year that we make momentous decisions about the checks and balances”.

He gave the example of workers in the UK at Sellafield who can structure their own strike action and don’t need the unions or institutional interfaces. He thinks it’s more a question of legitimacy of voting sites than scale – “we need an algorithm that works”.

A few extra nuggets from my talk notes and the Q&A session:

• Real time apps are now playing more of a part in reportage – such as Twitter
• When there’s a disaster Wikipedia is used to coordinate news events
• On controlling campaigns – “If you give up some control – then someone has control over you!”
• On doing stuff for free: “Sometimes money isn’t the thing – i.e. if you had a good date it’s okay to send flowers but not money! Is there some value you can create that isn’t money?”
• “I wouldn’t concentrate on large moves or the wisdom of crowds. I’d be worrying about getting ideas from small groups as historically this has been a big source of change.”
• On the threat of citizen journalists to newspapers “Journalists are like kept women – I don’t think that the gap that is left by the paid for journos is going to be filled by the bloggers because the buzz of the newsroom isn’t replicated”
• “I don’t think the technology is ready for large moves in politics – i.e. if it’s just a load of potheads trying to influence the system then I’m not interested.”

Although there weren’t any earth-shatteringly new revelations from Clay, it was a good talk with some witty insights especially in the Q&A that seemed genuinely thoughtful, especially in terms of how he/we are adapting our opinions in response to cultural changes to internet usage and the questions this poses. It was interesting to hear the Obama media examples as I hadn’t heard about all of them and good to hear some UK examples in the mix. There were also some good soundbite nuggets, especially the ones that made me laugh out loud!

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