Our visit to Maker Station (by )

As a member of two hack spaces (and co-founder, secretary, and treasurer of one), I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit a local hack space during our visit to South Africa. A quick web search later and I found that Cape Town's hackspace is called Maker Station. I dropped them a message asking if I could drop by and say hi as an ambassador from the UK, and asking them to suggest a time - UK hack spaces tend to have an open evening sometime in the week when random people can turn up to look around and meet people; so I was expecting something like that, but didn't see a time advertised on the Web site. But they suggested I suggest a time, so I did.

If we'd planned this a bit better, we'd have brought stickers (a traditional hack space give-away gift) from Bristol and Cheltenham Hack Spaces, but we didn't - so, instead, Sarah painted a picture from each hack space:

Bristol Hackspace picture Cheltenham Hackspace picture

For those not familiar with them, UK hack spaces tend to be run like a club or society - a constitution document of some kind sets out rules for people to become members, and for members to vote on a board who are in charge of making sure the space meets its legal obligations and controls the flow of money. Usually, members get unlimited access to the space and voting rights in exchange for a monthly membership fee (with some tools that use expensive consumables requiring extra usage fees on top to cover that). The monthly memberships go into a bank account, and the elected board choose to spend that on rent, insurance, electricity, broadband, consumables, and so on, and the money left over each month piles up until it's enough to buy a fancy new tool requested by the members. Most members have day jobs and hack on projects in their spare time, so hack spaces tend to be quiet during the day and busy in evenings and at weekends; and, as I mention above, there's usually an open evening every week for potential new members to come along and visit, which is also the day members come along to socialise, thereby ensuring there's a good population present to welcome new people. There are no paid staff; the board are all volunteers, and members are expected to unlock and lock up if they visit at a time when nobody else is around.

So I was quite interested to find out that Maker Station was different. We were met inside the entrance by Felix, one of the founders. The entrance led directly to a cafe area, with leaflets of hackerly interest lying around, and a range of drinks and crisps and stuff (including Maker Station logo biscuits they'd made in their own rocket oven!) for sale. The space is staffed and open during business hours; the two founders are there during the day as it's actually their day job, and they have two employees to help (the cost of living in South Africa is much lower than in the UK, which is what makes this practical).

Maker Station cafe area

Chatting with Felix in the cafe

Beyond the cafe was the hack space itself. Much of the space is divided into benches (or larger studios), which are either rented by the day in a sort of hot-desking arrangement:

Somebody making things on a Maker Station

...or dedicated to a single user who pays regularly for it, so has extensive tool and work-in-progress storage dedicated to them:

One of the Maker Station studios

People normally used it during the day, but if people were still hacking when 6pm came, they'd keep it open in the evening as well. One user I spoke to there was making a commission for a client, suggesting that the member demographic was more people hacking on stuff for a living than evening hobbyists. Felix and his brother (the other founder) don't quite make enough to run the place from memberships alone; the shortfall is made up by them working on paid commissions of their own in the space. Felix showed us some current projects they were working on, an exhibit for a local science centre and a small wind tunnel for somebody experimenting with wind turbine designs:

Felix shows off a current project

I didn't get the impression there was quite the sense of community that UK hackspaces have, with their busy open evenings and highly decentralised governance; Felix said that he often found himself acting as a "broker" between people who wanted some skill and people who had it or who a good supplier was for something, while in the UK, such connections usually arise organically on the open evening, so I suggested he might like to set up a weekly social slot in the cafe (and maybe a wiki for sharing information like supplier lists, like we have at Cheltenham Hackspace).

I was very impressed by their facilities. A proper cafe! Lots of space! Many, many, tools, including a decent metal lathe, forge, foundry, and welding gear!

Welding stuff Assorted metalworking stuff Big metalworking lathe

Interestingly, they didn't tend to go in for the stock UK hack space tools of laser cutters and 3D printers. It turns out that in Cape Town there are several suppliers who will do small-job CNC cutting and lasering and 3D printing at a reasonable price using high-end equipment, within easy travel of Maker Station. As far as I can tell, it's prohibitively expensive to get that sort of thing done in the UK other than in industrial quantities, which is why UK hack spaces end up buying their own equipment!

Felix seems to be really good at community outreach and education - something we're looking to expand at Cheltenham Hackspace, not to mention a speciality of Sarah's, so we were interested to hear about that. Here's a video of Felix giving a talk to students about prototyping. One thing that impressed me was that he runs things he calls "disassembly workshops"; take a pile of unwanted appliances, and unleash a bunch of children on them with screwdrivers (and some expert help) to tear them apart. This is fun in itself, and provides an opportunity to learn how the things you're taking apart work, as well as building skills in using the tools and working out how to get things to bits.

Once you have a pile of bits, depending on the age range and abilities, you can let the kids stick the bits together to make art to take home - or teach them electronics by wiring them up to do new things, maybe even so far as building robots out of the mechanical and electronic parts.

Here's some photos from a recent disassembly workshop they did: 1 2 3 4 5.

We enjoyed our visit to Maker Station. It was refreshing to see a different take on the usual hack space financial model, and interesting to see how the differing economics of South Africa affected what a hack space needed to be and could do. And Felix was inspiring as an educator and speaker! I'm keeping a close eye on his Twitter feed for good ideas to use in my own sci/tech outreach activities :-)

Public perceptions (by )

Let us consider two arguments.

  1. Immigration drives the UK economy, creating more and better-paid jobs, and cheaper products and services. This is supported by actual data obtained from tax records and other reputable sources; immigrants have tended to come here in pursuit of work, to fill demand that is not being met locally, so have provided a valuable workforce for industry to grow upon, and consumed less benefits than native people. Growing industry creates more jobs and provides cheaper products and services, and a growing population creates more demand for products and services, which also stimulates industry.
  2. People are poor, due to unemployment or having to work for low-paid jobs as it's all they can get, and benefit cuts because there's not enough money to go round. So why are we letting foreigners in to compete for our jobs and benefits?

Clearly, the former is a more correct argument, as it's backed by facts; the latter does note cite its sources at all (Are people really poor? Compared to what? If so, is that really why people are poor? Are the "foreigners" actually competing for a fixed pool of jobs and benefits? Are there enough of them that it would actually make any difference if they weren't "competing", or are there much bigger issues we should worry about?)

Yet recent events suggest that the latter argument has swayed the public opinion better than the former.

Why is that? Why is my opinion of the two arguments so different to what the majority of my fellow Brits make of them?

I come from a culture (nerdy, educated) that values arguments backed up by data and mathematics. This seems self-evident to us: "But it's measurement of the actual world, processed through well-tested statistical techniques! What higher standard of generalisation about the world can we have than the Scientific Method?"

But what if you're not from our nerdy, educated culture, who've sat in classrooms and been shown the wonderful things the scientific method has given us?

Imagine yourself being presented with two arguments. One is given by a person who's not like you (they're all nerdy and they talk posh). It appeals to mathematics and science, which you found boring and irrelevant at school; you much preferred English, French and Art. That doesn't mean your stupid; you have applied your skills as a signwriter, and your work is highly respected, leading you to now run a thriving small business. But the nerdy woman saying that her maths show immigration is great reminds you of the kids who liked science and maths at school, and you didn't get on with them well.

The nerd is upset you don't seem to respect her viewpoint, and starts to explain that the evidence is all valid, but it's just a sea of numbers. She says the maths show a correlation with a great confidence level, and when you ask what that means, it quickly becomes apparent that you'll need to sit through maths lessons to actually have it all explained, and you had quite enough of that at school.

Meanwhile, somebody else gives you a short quip. "People are poor" (yeah, you can see that) "due to unemployment or having to work for low-paid jobs as it's all they can get, and benefit cuts because there's not enough money to go round" (yep, that the sort of thing you've heard from friends and family, and seen in the papers) "So why are we letting foreigners in to compete for our jobs and benefits?" Hell yeah!

The nerd might start complaining about the problems with that statement, but it makes perfect sense. The sort of person who comes up with sensible observations like that is clever, but not brainy. They're somebody who's cut through the bullshit and spotted the simple truth at the heart of a problem; not somebody who's built up a complicated argument with maths and abstract theories. You can respect that sort of cleverness, and want to hear what they think about other problems people face. They offer simple common-sense solutions.

And that, I think, is the problem us nerdy types have with public perception. Our methods produce correct answers, but the way we justify those answers to the majority of people who don't have backgrounds in the scientific method and statistical analysis is way off the mark. And while understanding this stuff suggests intelligence, not understanding it does not suggest absence of intelligence - yet the implication that it does is embedded into our culture, making us sigh and shake our heads at people who don't understand. "Oh, just trust us," we say. "We've worked it all out."

We need to keep using science and maths to find the truths of the world; and those scientific arguments are the best way of justifying our conclusions to each other. But having done so, we need to find better ways to explain and justify those truths to the world.

Brexit (by )

I think the best analysis of the possible consequences, whichever way the referendum went, was this: Martin Lewis' guide to voting in the EU referendum.

In other words, nobody really had any good arguments as to which was better - in or out. The EU has costs and benefits. The problem is, the referendum wasn't about whether Britain would be better in or out; it was about whether Britain should remain or leave, which is a slightly different point. The differences is: the cost of change also enters the equation. Given that the consequences of being in or out are unclear, the question becomes: Is it worth the costs of leaving?

Personally, I don't think so: Even though the consequences either way were unclear, I suspect that the average outcomes are probably slightly better if we'd stayed in. All the talk of immigration (we still need immigration to afford to look after our ageing population), sovereignty (the British parliament is hardly more accountable to us than the European one), and £350m a week were largely red herrings, spectres summoned to try and mislead the population; the real issues were far subtler and more pedestrian.

But that difference between the best predictions of the impacts of staying or leaving on our quality of live are small compared to the cost of change. Today's drop in the value of the pound and British shares is not a measure of the predicted economic weakness of a non-EU UK; it's a measure of the uncertainty as to how effective British business will be, and how easy it will be for multinational corporations to operate in Britain. The world cannot predict how fiscal and commercial relationships with Britain will be in five years, let alone ten or more, and those are the kinds of periods over which major investments are planned; so that investment will be directed to safer places. Maybe Britain will become a new economic powerhouse without EU regulations - or maybe it will become a dingy backwater. The world doesn't know, so it's moving its money elsewhere. Funnily enough, that reduces the chances of Britain being able to become an economic powerhouse, because we're poorer to begin with.

Another effect that's far larger than any predictions of the effects of being in or out is the effect of the referendum process. We are now in a situation where half the country is furious with the other half for having ruined their country, and possibly the world. Meanwhile, that half is furious with the first half for having nearly prevented them from saving their country, and possibly the world. This is a rather toxic and explosive situation to now be attempting to plan what's going to happen over the next five years. Many decisions will be made based on personal grudges rather than rational consideration. Meanwhile, in the populace at large, a lot of resentment is simmering; if living conditions drop in ways that are attributable to our leaving Europe, the half of the population that voted for it will be considered personally responsible for ruined lives. That could get nasty.

Another effect of the Leave result that probably dwarfs the actual cost of not being in the EU is that the result has emboldened the more right-wing figures in British politics. Folks who have traditionally acted in the interests of big business and the rich, while cynically appealing to the fears of the masses in order to get their way. I'm concerned that their influence - previously more rhetorical than actual - will grow in the political changes coming, which could have negative long-term consequences.

So, I'm sad on many levels about how this referendum turned out; but I wouldn't have been very much happier if we'd voted to remain.

Towards the Family Mainframe (by )

Last September, I posted progress on the construction of our domestic mainframe. To recap, the intent is to build a dedicated home server that's as awesome as possible - meaning it's reliable, safe, and easy to maintain. That rules out "desktop tower PC in a cupboard" (accumulates dust bunnies, gets too hot, easily stolen, prone to children poking it); "put a 19" rack somewhere in your house" is better, but consumes a lot of floor footprint and doesn't fix the dust bunny problem. So I've made my own custom steel chassis; fed cold air at pressure via a filter, incorporating a dedicated battery backup system, locked and anchored to the wall, and with lots of room inside for expansion and maintenance.

Since that blog post, I've finished the metalwork, painted it with automotive paint using a spray gun (which was a massive job in itself!), fixed it to the wall, and fitted nearly all of the electronics into it.

A significant delay was caused by the motherboard not working. I sent it back to the shop, and they said it was fine; so I sent the CPU back, and they said THAT was fine; so I sent both back together and it turned out that the two of them weren't compatible in some way that was solved by the motherboard manufacturer re-flashing my BIOS. That's now up and running; I was able to use the HDMI and USB ports on the outside of the chassis to connect up and install NetBSD from a USB stick, then connected it to the network and installed Xen so I can run all my services in virtual machines. It's now running fine and everything else can be done via SSH, but the HDMI and USB ports are there so I can do console administration in future without having to open the case (unless I need to press the reset button, which is inside).

The one thing it's lacking is the management microprocessor. I've prototype this thing on a breadboard and written the software, but need to finish off the PCB and cabling: but it will have an AVR controlling three 10mm RGB LEDs on the front panel, and three temperature/humidity sensors in the inlet and outlet air (and one spare for more advanced air management in future). But the idea is that the three LEDs on the front panel will display useful system status, and the environment sensor data will be logged.

Here's what it looks like from the outside; note the air inlet hose at the top left:

Family mainframe

The socket panel on the left hand side worked out pretty well - 240v inlet at the bottom, then on the aluminium panel, three Ethernets, HDMI, and USB (my console cable is still plugged into the HDMI and USB in the photo, which won't usually be the case):

I/O sockets panel and the power inlet

And here's the inside, with lots of space for more disks or other extra hardware; the big black box at the bottom is the battery backup system:

Innards of the family mainframe

Now I have Xen installed, I'm working on a means of building VMs from scripts, so any VM's disk image can be rebuilt on demand. This will make it easy for me to upgrade; any data that needs keeping will be mounted from a separate disk partition, so the boot disk images of the VMs themselves are "disposable" and entirely created by the script (the one slightly tricky thing being the password file in /etc/). This will make upgrades safe and easy - I can tinker with a build script for a new version of a VM, testing it out and destroying the VMs when I'm done, and then when it's good, remount the live data partition onto it and then point the relevant IP address at it. If the upgrade goes bad, I can roll it back by resurrecting the old VM, which I'll only delete when I'm happy with its replacement. This is the kind of thing NixOS does; but that's for Linux rather than NetBSD, so I'm rolling my own that's a little more basic (in that it builds entire VM filesystems from a script, rather than individual packages, with all the complexities of coupling them together nicely).

I'm using NetBSD's excellent logical volume manager to make it easy to manage those partitions across the four disks. There are two volume groups, each containing two physical disks, so I can arrange for important data to be mirrored across different physical disks (not in the RAID sense, which the LVM can do for me, but in the sense of having a live nightly snapshot of things on separate disks, ready to be hot-swapped in if required). I still have SATA ports and physical bays free for more disks, and the LVM will allow me to add them to the volume groups as required, so I can expand the disk space without major downtime.

So for now it's just a matter of making VMs and migrating existing services onto them, then I can take down the noisy, struggling, cranky old servers in the lounge! This project has been a lot of work - but when I ssh into it from inside the house (over the cabling I put in between the house and the workshop) and see all that disk space free in the LVM and all the RAM waiting to be assigned to domU VMs that I can migrate my current services to, it's all worth it!

Kids in my workshop (by )

Kids are fascinated by my workshop. It's a separate building, at the end of the garden. Through the window, you can make out the shape of shelves full of strange tools. Half-finished projects loom on the workbench (and all over the floor, alas). It's clearly a place where something happens.

But it's also a place of danger; our kids are firmly instructed never to go into it without an adult. Even Mary, who has little respect for boundaries and rules, lurks nervously on the threshold and calls out to me if she needs me while I'm in there. She has been in here, but usually only when carried in my arms. Jean gets to come in on her own two feet, but only when accompanied, and she asks if it's safe first, if I'm already in there and she comes to join me.

But kids love the process of making things (and the related process of taking things apart to fix or improve them). They love seeing inside things that are normally firmly in one piece with No User Servicable Parts. My welding, nailing, screwing, brazing and gluing is a much more awesome form of them making stuff out of Lego.

I've been teaching Jean TIG welding. Many years ago, I promised her I'd teach her to solder when she was seven, and to weld when she was ten (both conditional on her being responsible enough to be trusted with the tools involved by that stage). She did some soldering, and enjoyed making electronic circuits work, but it didn't seem to really grab her that seriously. Welding, however, has been a different matter; after I taught her the basics, she got her own welding gloves and mask for Christmas (thanks to a really lovely local welding supplies company who were inspired by seeing her in my oversized gear on Twitter). So far, she's made a shoe rack for her school and made two boot scrapers out of horseshoes; we're really limited on me having time to sit and help her design and implement stuff (she's a bit scared of the angle grinder, plasma cutter and chop saw, so I need to do all the cutting for her to weld together), as she has plans for things to do with the rest of the big box of horseshoes she has under the workbench...

I consider it my workshop, because I am responsible for it, and I am the biggest user of it. It's set out the way I like with the tools I want in it, but the rest of my family is in no way excluded from using it. I made a little footstool for the TIG welder's control pedal so it's at a good height for Jean; I was fine with it on the floor because I have long legs, but it's set up so that we can both use it, because that's a part of the workshop that she shares (along with the space her box of horseshoes sits in, and the section of shelf set aside for her welding equipment). And I really love that I share part of it with her. She's a lot neater at welding than I was at her stage (and I couldn't weld at all at her AGE); combined with the kinds of interests she has, I think she has a future in making sculptures and practical things that look nice, the kinds of things a modern blacksmith does. Mary, at age 5 as I write this, is far too young to have an argon plasma hotter than the Sun at her fingertips, but she's really enthusiastic about building things out of Lego, and she's obsessed with tools and "fixing things". From her interests and mentality, I have a hunch she's going to be quite interested in mechanical engineering; cogs, pistons, motors, that sort of thing. I wish I had a metal lathe I could teach her how to use (not that we have space for one); I'll just have to hope that Cheltenham Hackspace manages to get one at some point, because I think turning metal will blow her mind. I'm hoping electronics might catch that complex-system-building spark I see within her, because that's something I do have the tools and skills to help her with.

But do you know what breaks my heart? People saying it's a shame I don't have a son to share the workshop stuff with. As if Jean's enthusiasm for fusing metal into interesting and useful shapes is somehow insufficient, a pale imitation of the true appreciation of metalwork that somebody with a penis could have. How do the people saying things like that think it makes my daughters or my wife feel about their interests in technology?

I'm sick of the sexism about this kind of thing. I've never seen one shred of evidence that gender differences in interests are anything other than people reflecting what they've been told they should like; in my experience (as a parent and as a Cub leader), kids' interests have little to do with their gender, but they're very sensitive to social pressures, and end up denying their interests (or trying to turn them into "gender-approved" forms in some way). That's such a waste, and I've seen it cause a lot of pain.

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