DIY satellites to lift off soon

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2010

Just a quick update for hardcore spacegeeks and aspiring Bond villains: remember TubeSat, the company that would sell you a build-your-own-satellite kit with your launch-to-orbit fee included in the ticket price? Well, they’re doing their first suborbital test flights next month, and business seems to be good. Here’s a satisfied customer justifying the financial layout:

“$8,000? That’s just the price of a cool midlife crisis,” says Alex “Sandy” Antunes, who bought one of the kits for a project that will launch on one of earliest flights. “You could buy a motorcycle or you could launch a satellite. What would you rather do?”

It’s a tough decision, but I think the satellite gets my vote. So book your TubeSat kit now to avoid the rush… after all, you’ll want to get your bird aloft before Warren Ellis’ death-ray sat scours the planet of all life larger than the common housefly. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


Lo-fi wi-fi network springing up from junk in Jalalabad

Paul Raven @ 03-03-2010

Jalalabad FabLab wi-fi reflectorOffered here as an extension of the arguments made by the Prospect Magazine piece I linked to the other week about the lessons to be learned from the last-minute low-cost solutions of slum residents and other disadvantaged social groups, Free Range International hosts a report from an MIT team working in Jalalabad, Afghanistan that describes how an injection of knowledge and expertise can accelerate local progress far more effectively than an injection of externally-managed aid money:

… the irony of the graphic above is particularly acute when one considers that an 18-month World Bank funded infrastructure project to bring internet connectivity to Afghanistan began more than SEVEN YEARS ago and only made its first international link this June. That project, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, is still far from being complete while FabLabbers are building useful infrastructure for pennies on the dollar out of their garbage.

People are smart, adaptable; show them where they need to go, and they’ll find a way. What’s that old saw about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day?

The post goes on to highlight the patient and painstaking work of showing the Afghanis that they need to work together to overcome their differences; a carrot and stick operation it may well be, but I’m guessing it’ll do more good than training up and arming local militias, and then expecting them not to fall back into old habits once your back is turned. All depends on whether you want to give these people their freedom or to take control of it yourself, I guess.


Garage ribofunk redux – DIY biohacking gaining popularity

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2010

While we’re on the subject of garage industries, here’s a piece at pop-transhumanist organ H+ Magazine on the expanding field of garage biotech [via GlobalGuerrillas; image by mknowles]. We’ve covered DIY biohackers and ribofunkers here before, but the H+ writer has a cautious optimism about the scene’s potential once the dabblers have fallen by the wayside:

It‘s not just enhancement technology that can benefit from DIYbiology. As the popular distrust of doctors grows, people will want to understand and monitor their own body. Likewise, as personalized medicine becomes a reality, we will probably see a rise in the number of hobbyists who treat their own bodies as machines to be worked on — like a radio or a car — branching out from personalized genomics to things like DIY stem cell extraction and manipulation, DIY prosthetics, DIY neural prosthetics and sensory enhancements (infrared vision, anyone?), immune system testing, and general tweaking of whatever system strikes the hobbyist‘s fancy. This hacker‘s paradise has not yet come to pass, but it is, perhaps, our exciting future.

[Given that most distrust of doctors that I’m aware of is based in religious beliefs, I’m not sure the demographics are going to overlap quite that much… though the idea of the First Church Of Jesus Christ Geneticist is an appealing story hook.]

The road to true DIYbiology will not be easy. It‘s not a magic bullet. It will probably not produce the next Bill Gates, at least not for a long time. Biology is hard, messy, and failure is more common than success. The knowledge required takes time and effort to acquire, and even then, so-called textbook knowledge is being revised almost daily. Many are attracted by the glamour of it all. They‘re drawn to the romance of being a wetware hacker — the existential thrill of tweaking life itself. They tend to become quickly disappointed by the slow, tedious, difficult path they face.

I’m struck again by the similarity between DIY biotech and Chris Anderson’s recently-mooted maker-manufacturer revolution; the latter is much closer to reaching some sort of real economic escape velocity, granted, but the essential concepts and culture behind both movements are very alike.

Personally, I’m all for the ability to mess with my meat-machine, but I think I’ll wait until the field is a little more mature before getting my wetware tweaked. After all, if a hack-mod of my computer or car goes wrong, I can always switch off and try again, or – if the worst comes to the worst – replace the broken device; to the best of my knowledge, that facility doesn’t yet exist for the human body.

However, that’s not going to stop people more desperate than myself from turning to black clinics in the hope of fixing problems that the medical establishment won’t mess with. Hell, people already fly to Eastern Europe for cheap no-questions-asked cosmetic surgery… so when some back-street lock-up in Chiba City starts promising a fix for a congenital illness, a failed organ, a missing limb or just the ravages of ageing itself, the customers will come.


DIY junk lathe

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2009

building a DIY latheThere are some mighty resourceful and inventive people out there, and arguably the best thing about the intermatubes (at least in my humble opinion) is that it’s easier than ever before to learn from them. Example: say you wanted a lathe, so as to teach yourself woodturning or some such similar craft. Now, lathes are pretty pricey pieces of hardware, even if you find one second hand – so why not just build one from scratch using readily available junk? [image from Instructables]

Time is money, as the old saying goes, but it seems to me that time is becoming more valuable than money, at least for those of us in the West – in that, if you’ve got the time and the motivation, you can build yourself affordable versions of technologies that would otherwise be way out of your reach. Mash that up with the rise of garage fabbing enterprises, and you’ve got the potential for a very different form of post-industrial economy on the horizon.


Garage ribofunk – the rise of homebrew genetic engineering

Paul Raven @ 15-05-2009

digital rendering of DNAHere’s another story that keeps bouncing back… and receiving progressively more paranoid coverage the closer it gets to mainstream news sources, too. That said, a certain amount of concern about biohacking or DIY genetic engineering is probably sensible – as much as most of the hobbyists brewing up weird bugs in their broom-closets are the sort of cheery can-do geeks who want to help, the ever-lowering barriers to entry of these technologies mean that it wouldn’t take much for someone with more nefarious purposes in mind to get themselves started:

… some researchers and law-enforcement officials have raised red flags. In a paper published in Nature Biotechnology in 2007, a group of scientists and FBI officials called for better oversight of so-called synthetic DNA, an ingredient widely used by professional biologists and hobbyists, saying it could theoretically lead to the creation of harmful viruses like Ebola or smallpox, since their genomes are available online. “Current government oversight of the DNA-synthesis industry falls short of addressing this unfortunate reality,” the paper said.

Ms. Aull, who lives with a cat and three roommates who are “a little bit weirded out” by her experiments, says the worries are overblown. DIY biologists are trying to “build a slingshot,” she says, “and there are people out there talking about, oh, no, what happens if they move on to nuclear weapons?”

Other biohackers argue that Mother Nature is more likely than any home hobbyist to create dangerous new pathogens. They cite the current A/H1N1 “swine flu” virus, which is a made-in-the-wild brew of human, bird and pig influenzas. Mackenzie Cowell, a founder of DIY Bio, says members aim to do good and are committed to working safely.

Frankly, I’m quite surprised that this movement hasn’t been stamped on more thoroughly and quickly; the post-9/11 world hasn’t exactly been kind to anything that can raise a pulse (and sell newspapers) simply by having the word ‘terrorism’ bolted on to it. Perhaps the DHS see themselves in a future alliance with the Shapers against those pesky Mechanist kids from cyberspace[via PosthumanBlues; image by ynse]


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