The printer, which I should really have named by now (I’m not very good at naming things), is almost finished, and I ordered the very last parts I think I’ll need from a local hobby robotics supplier today. It’s taken a lot longer than originally planned, mainly because I’ve been scared of doing the electronics.
I wanted to build the printer myself, from scratch, and feel like I’d done as much as possible myself by the end of it. Partly through some sort of misplaced pride, partly because I wanted to learn some of the mechanical stuff, and mostly because I wanted to really understand the process so I can write about it in the future.
But I have a mild phobia-like response to soldering. So the large bag of circuit boards, ICs, resistors, capacitors, LEDs and thermistors that I ordered as a kit from Open Hardware has been sat in a bag under my desk for months. Literally. I’ve put off getting started on putting them together because, quite frankly, I’ve been scared.
I’ve only weilded a soldering iron once – as far as I can remember – since I left school. I think I used to own one, but I can’t find it any where. The reason is pretty simple – when I was 15 and doing my GCSEs, I tried a few simple electronics projects in the CDT class (Creative Design and Technology, as it was then) and really screwed it up. I was cack-handed with a warm brand, to say the least. The project I chose for my primary coursework piece – a noble attempt to create a radio distress beacon for windsurfers – was an unmitigated failure largely because the piece of circuit board I built for the transmitter had an entirely silver rear, with cold, hard solder smeared all over the tracks of the bread board, ruining ever component thanks to the fact it was just one giant short circuit.
The more I tried to fix it, with more solder, application of another iron and eventually a razer blade, hacking away at the tracks, the worse it got. Electrical engineering, I decided, probably wasn’t for me. And although I’ve built and taken apart countless numbers of PCs, laptops and other computers since then, I’ve always shied away from anything which required actual soldering. I’ve missed out – so far – on the Arduino revolution mainly because I fear a kit in my hands would turn into a soggy mess of plastic and metal, worse than an 80s popstar back on the road after a little too much time in surgery.
With the RepRap electronics, I decided I’d like to try again. Even though my eyes can barely see the holes in the board, I am – depressingly – well off enough that I know if I mess it up I can always buy a pre-assembled kit, hide my shame and just cut down on Food Lover’s take away sushi for a month to pay for it.
So I’m rather happy to report that while progress so far is slow, it’s also not looking too bad. I think I may have written the board off with my very first tap of the iron, and there’s some disturbing smoke trails which have stained the back of the board (which I think – hope – are more to do with the quality of solder than my misuse of the iron) But the actual quality of the soldering itself is, I think, not to bad for someone who is technically a novice.
Who knows, perhaps I missed my calling? Perhaps not. Still, it will make me a bit more comfortable next time I visit the awesome guys at House4Hack.
So here’s something pretty amazing. I was browsing around on Google Maps the other day (as you do), and I noticed that the satellite imagery for the area of southern Zambia around Kalomo has been updated with some more recent pictures. Why is this important? Because it includes aerial photos of the new school at Simakakata, which I first visited in 2009 and have stayed in touch with since.
It’s pretty incredible, the fact that you can watch the progress being made there by the teachers and parents – who are essentially building it themselves. In the map above, the original school is the one labelled Simakakata community school. This is where 200-odd children were being taught in a collapsing farmhouse with barely any materials except the will power of the teachers to help them. The new school, which as been built with financial assistance from Care and LearnAsOne, is where the green arrow is. You can see it more clearly below.
The small buildings to the left, on the path to the two school buildings, is the toilet block. The path heading south leads to a small handpump for water. There’s no electricity there, yet, but there are power lines near the main road to the south that they’ll be able to tap into soon.
Even these images are a little out of date, though. The foundations for another classroom which can be seen next to the smaller of the two buildings are now another building, and LearnAsOne has just paid for materials for yet another classroom which is now being built.
You can see what the area used to look like, up until 2010, below. Thanks to Mark Jeronimus for a great API that lets you access historical mapping data.
It may not look like much when you compare it to – say – the building of The Shard in a similar period of time, but the amount of good that comes from those few small buildings is immeasurable in my opinion. Nothing is more important than a good education, which is what the kids of Simakakata can now look forward to.
Forget turn-by-turn directions and the whole Apple iOS6 Maps debacle: to me, being able to see this kind of change happening from thousands of miles away is what makes online maps so magical.
I realise this feature is a few weeks old - From Kenya to Madagascar: The African tech-hub boom - but since it’s written by someone who’s a bit of a hero of mine, I thought I’d link to it anyway. This has been an interesting weekend in terms of Oxford family’s future plans. It looks very much like we’ll be relocating to Johannesburg sooner than planned. The lure of the tech hubs Hersman writes about here is very much part of the reason we’re going, and it looks like I may just have been offered a job.
An interesting morning today at the Eco Technology Show and Smart Business Conference, which are taking place at Falmer Stadium in Brighton this weekend. The highlight was a debate between MPs Caroline Lucas (leader of the Green Party), Greg Barker (Minister for Climate Change, Con) and Norman Baker (Undersecretary of State for Transport, Lib) titled ” The conundrum of economic growth in a resource constrained world”.
A heated debate, to be sure (sample early quote “This government is not about an austerity agenda,” which set the general tone), but one in which no-one mentioned the fact that ‘sustainable growth’ has come to mean so many different things it’s meaningless. When the new planning laws went through, a key criticism is that by defining sustainable growth as continually growing in financial terms – with no environmental considerations at all – you could get around most of the core provisions with a few clever semantics.
More critical to this particular discussion, however, was the issue of the Green Deal – details of which were released earlier this week. Barker put forward the idea (that he’s made elsewhere) that it’s one of the most significant investments in infrastructure since the war. Lucas shot back with criticism that it’s likely to benefit big businesses rather than the environment or small, local firms.
These two arguments are well enough documented elsewhere on the web, but on the show floor it was the latter one that I heard repeated most often. Several firms told me that they’d given up trying to get Green Deal Certified – which entitles them to certain subsidies and preferential loan rates, as well as work through energy suppliers – because they felt the terms were simply skewed against them.
Depressing, yes. But it shouldn’t detract from the cool stuff on the show floor. Notably cheap EV mopeds, which look a bit like Lambrettas, that cost less than £2000. I would absolutely buy one if it wasn’t for the fact my commute to work is only 200 yards. Also, it was the first time I’ve seen lithium batteries for storing energy from domestic solar arrays which are almost – but not entirely – reasonably priced (around £3000 on top of the cost of the solar array).
Oh yeah – one final thing. Birmingham is doing some really interesting stuff when it comes to smart city technology. It’s spent a fortune on working out how it can save money in the long run using something like the Rio de Janerio model – and at this stage it looks very promising.
I meant to write a long blog about what I got up to on Jubilee weekend (my views are staunchly republican) but ended up taking a bit of time off instead. Which was long overdue and, I hope, deserved. Here’s an interesting thing that few have pointed out, though. The official Republic protest by the Thames was pretty well disrupted by being split in two. Anyone arriving after around 12 o’clock couldn’t get into the protest site, underneath City Hall. Not even press were allowed in unless they’d registered beforehand.
A lot of people blamed the police who managed to extinguish the protest so successfully – but as far as I could tell it was nothing to do with the Met. Rather it was these guys, More London, who own the development near Tower Bridge. Republic liaised with them before the event, but weren’t warned of the restrictions on numbers until the gates were closed on the day. It might seem like a dirty tactic to break one modestly sized demo into two tiny and ignorable ones, but the thing is, everyone was banned from the area. There were thousands of people out to support the Queen looking for a way down to the waterfront, walking up and Tooley Street and far more annoyed than the protesters.
So rather than being a shadowy conspiracy to neuter a democratic protest, it looks more like it was a horrible and indiscriminate example of the evils inherent in corporate ownership of public space. Nice.