The Pocket Factory was a trip across the country investigating the business models behind the low cost hobby 3D printers that were becoming popular.
Baghdad – October 29 2012
The GEMSI team split up after Beirut for both safety and visa concerns. Yet a car bomb in Beirut made it clear that neither Baghdad nor Beirut were safe places. We can either ignore the violence and live with it as most others do in these regions, or work through it.
Something that the world might not know is that in the same week the car bomb went off in Beirut three car bombs went off in Baghdad. Three guards in front of my neighborhoods checkpoint (yes, every neighborhood has armed guards at their only entrance) were killed, and bombs were left as booby traps for those who come to rescue them. My uncle’s house where I was staying was suddenly my prison as the streets filled with military men in dust colored bullet proof vests preventing anyone in the neighborhood from coming and going. Six of those men came into our house and searched for weapons, thankfully my clothes were covering my giant box of scary looking electronics.
The funny thing about this is that it’s not considered abnormal. In fact a few hours later Salih, our Iraqi GEMSI team member, picked me up in a cab and we went out to a copper etching workshop run by Laith one of the Baghdad Hackerspace crew.Even though this trip was a week long, there were enough examples of destruction within normal everyday life for me to begin to see it as normal too.
Iraq finds itself in an extremely complex situation and I certainly don’t understand all the nuances. From my experience I see it as a country filled with money from oil, an infrastructure demolished by war, a people set back by years of sanctions, and a dysfunctional government creating a free for all who can grab resources. Starting Hackerspaces in Baghdad might sound like the least of their worries, but after arriving a week ago I found what I hoped to be true.
Hope that GEMSI would discover creative people that are driven to make, that long for real work that is innovation based, that want to connect Iraq with its long history of discovery, and that want to find friends with goals set out to improve the country and themselves through building a collaborative community space. Jabor, Laith, Layth, Salih, Muhammed, Aly, Ali, Mujtaba, Nouf, Taha and everyone else who came to our meetings were so full of ideas and excitement. In a single week we met up for projects every single day, for tea every night, and we consistently had a full room of over 20 people. We connected to share what we knew with each other, but also who we are with each other. And in a country where knowing who you can trust is often based on their last name, calling ourselves Baghdad Hackerspace and showing love for one another is a serious and beautiful thing.
I’m proud to be a member of the upcoming Baghdad Hackerspace, no matter what they wind up calling themselves :). I hope they know that they have a network of over a thousand hackerspaces globally and hundreds of people through these spaces, and Kickstarter, that are supporting them and their efforts. And I can’t wait to see what they can and will do to take people’s flat impression of a country which only produces violence and fold it up into a beautiful origami bird that will soar into the future like an egress over the tigress.
It was once the jewel of the Muslim empire and epicenter of knowledge in the Eastern world. Now it is best known for corrupt governance, bombings, and dust storms. It was also my parents’ home. After visiting once in 1991 as a child the few memories I have of Iraq seemed to be shouting matches as my parents yelled over the phone making overseas calls. Names of Uncles I had never met were mentioned and a phone was handed to me and I was left to nervously fend for myself with my weak Iraqi slang and an Uncle who apparently knew all about me while I knew nothing of him. The country was an impenetrable black box to me that would spit out another refugee somewhere in the world every few years or so.
Sixteen years later the first wall between Iraq and me was broken. In 2007 my nuclear family had traveled to Syria and for the first time I met family members who still lived in Baghdad. I knew them now. My uncles and cousins grew flesh and blood. I could feel their prickly faces as we greeted with the traditional Iraqi 4 sided cheek kiss. They could graciously give me their dishdashas as gifts. Names finally had faces, but those faces were deep, sunken and afraid. 2007 was a bad year of sectarian war in Iraq, which is why the Damascas district of Harasta was flooded with Iraqis. The sound of construction continued through the night to keep up with the massive (ab)use of the “tourist” visas. I saw something in the Iraqis in Syria that I hadn’t seen before; something that scared me. I saw hopelessness. It was then I settled on a long-term project to return to the country and share something that I had just discovered around the same time: the future doesn’t come prepared — we make the future. The do-it-yourself attitude that was growing in America was being combined with the culture of sharing that you find in hackerspaces, at instructables.com and in open source technology. This atmosphere made anything possible. You want to build a vertical generator without any spinning parts? Sure! How about a walking quadraped robot with a sofa? Do you want to quit your job, write zines and sell them in the crafting circle? Sure! Start a business! Write a novel! Organize a benefit concert! Sure – sure – sure! “Make your own future” was the message. It was a message of hope – it was the message that I wanted to share in the Middle East, and especially in Iraq.
In 2011 the opportunity to work on sharing this beautiful message in the Middle East presented itself to me, so I quit my robotics job and took it (sorry Andrew). A few friends and I started a tiny organization called GEMSI – The Global Entrepreneurship and Maker Space Initiative. We funded ourselves through Kickstarter and our first project was a Three-Day Maker Space hosted at Makerfaire Africa. We were hoping to let people experience the feeling of the Maker Movement first-hand. We collaborated with Emeka and the team from MFA, Cairo Hackerspace, along with many amazing egyptians from all over the country. We had a successful first attempt at sharing the message of “Yes you can!” It was a great start, but Iraq was still an impenetrable fortress to me.
It took till 2012 and a chance encounter with friends in Cambridge, MA for me to find my first avenue back into Iraq. Via my friends, I met someone who’s friend was affiliated with TEDxBaghdad. A few steps removed, sure, but when I heard about TEDxBaghdad I knew I had found my way in. I knew TEDx and the types of programs they hosted; I knew they were hopeful, inspired, and shared a vision for a brighter tomorrow. I started communicating with Emeka from MFA, who also works with TED, and he put me in touch with Yahay. After my first skype call with Yahay I knew I was going. Someone else had done it – someone broke that barrier, did amazing work in the country, and survived. It wasn’t the death trap my family was telling me it was. There was a new narrative being woven and I knew what I needed to do. I booked my flights before I even finalized any workshops. I needed to meet the TEDxBaghdad team.
Later, I called my parents and told them I was going to Baghdad and they said, “Shinu?! Inta Makhabal?!” That probably means exactly what you think it does. Needless to say, they had their concerns, but I was going regardless. Now that the tickets were bought, we started planning. Yahay put me in touch with Abdal Ghany, one of the Iraqi organizers living in Baghdad. He coordinated everything. It was amazing. These guys kick some serious planning butt! Ghany basically told me, “Show up and give your workshop. We’ll take care of the rest.” This was a welcome change from the hours of facebooking, planning, and coordination I usually have to go through to schedule events. It really seemed like this was possible. I was going to give an Arduino and 3D printing workshop in Baghdad and I was really excited!
I sent an email to Sparkfun and Makezine asking them for open source electronics donations since I knew bringing my electronics box through the airport wouldn’t be a good idea. They sent me a nice goodie-bag of beautifully packaged Maker products. These two organizations have given me a tremendous amount of help throughout the years, for which I am extremely thankful. I packed a suitcase filled with 2 3D printers, 25 Arduinos, an assortment of other open source hardware and sensors and headed out looking a bit like a bomb development lab. Yeesh! Somehow I made it through China, Saudi, and Turkey without any serious interrogation. Mostly just really quizzical looks from my unzipped bag up back to me… “You’re a teacher?” they ask. “Yes,” I say, “yes I am.”
Turkey was the stop before Iraq. Turkey was brilliant, sunny, lush, and seemed to be comprised of mostly happy smiling people walking by the sea. Coming from the deserts of Mecca, this was a welcome sight. I let the green of Turkey wash away the dust of Saudi Arabia. The mishmash of cultures, sounds, foods, religions gave me a great feeling of liberation. This was a lively place and the two hackerspaces I met up with there, Base Istanbul and Istanbul Hackerspace were fantastic hosts. Furkan and I spent a lovely day together chatting about Maker culture as it spreads through the Middle East and then in the end we had a potluck BBQ with members from both hackerspaces by the rocks of the sea. It was great to see these two Turkish hackerspaces and to be reminded that this movement is truly global. My dream of hackerspaces empowering people globally is really possible – and it’s great to know that it is a dream that is shared by others. I left them full of enthusiasm and flew directly to Baghdad.
Landing in Baghdad was strange and a bit concerning. Looking out of the window all I could see was a brown cloud. We were landing in a dust storm. I had heard about the turab (dust) of Iraq, but this was the first time I saw it in person, and it would be one of the things most often on my mind. Getting a visa for me was surprisingly easy, except for the fact I forgot my passport on the plane and two guards had to escort me one to each side back to the airplane to retrieve it. But once I had my passport, I told them my laqab, which is the full name that includes ancestry. Showed them a copy of my dad’s passport and my Iraqi birth certificate and I was in. I was hoping for a nice stamp, perhaps with some Iraqi relic on it. But they took my passport and wrote in it: “Originally Iraqi”, so there it goes, it’s official.
Ahmed, my cousin, was not at the airport when I took my paper work and headed out to the lobby. The airport was sparsely populated and heavily regulated. I barely managed to snap a picture before a guard came up to me and had me delete them from my phone. In the lobby I met a man just released from a Swiss prison. The Swiss had given him the option to be sent back home to Iraq, or be jailed. He chose to leave and come back to Iraq. This becomes a theme later as I see more and more people, all of whom desire to leave the country to become refugees elsewhere. It seems that when hope runs out for the country you live in, the only option is to find a new one. This story is one of a million various stories of struggling to find a new life. Each varies in its details, but all have survival at their core.
Ahmed arrives 30 minutes late, apologizing. He’s wearing jeans and a polo. His hair seemed freshly cut and his face was serious. We had never met before. The only thing I knew of him was that he thought I was reckless for coming. He had been spending hours on Skype with me attempting to convince me that coming would be a bad idea: “You have no idea how bad the bugs are. Just wait till you see the dust storms. The heat will kill you… etc” But once I saw him in person it all changed. I didn’t think I’d grow to like Ahmed, but I grew to appreciate his ways and he became like a brother to me before I left.
He took me to Mansour, a neighborhood in Baghdad, telling me stories about Iraq as we travelled. This is the neighborhood where the house my dad designed and family built stands. On the ride home we had our car checked for bombs at least 4 times by what Iraqi’s call Saytarat, which is the equivalent of a checkpoint and, to me, seemed a total nuciance. They were the reason he was late. What would normally be a 20 minute drive can become three hours long because every car is checked for bombs. They are everywhere; throughout the city, on every road. We passed the guard who watches over my family’s neighborhood, and he takes his hand off his machine gun to wave at Ahmed, and I begin to recognize that weapons, car inspections and burned out cars are normal here, so they don’t think to comment on it – like an empty lot in Detroit, or the homeless in San Francisco. We got to my family home with no time to rest. I had to leave to meet up with Abdul Ghany and the crew at a Cafe in an hour and then conduct the workshop in two. Ahmed comes with me – he doesn’t trust people we’d never met before and won’t let me out of his sight. I trust first till proven otherwise, he has learned to do the opposite. It’s a telling sign of how different our lives are on a day-to-day basis.
As soon as I met the TEDxBaghdad crew, I felt at ease. MNA, Abdul Ghany and the entire crew were thoughtful, hardworking, and inspiring people. I was really happy to have intersected with them and they helped me in more ways than I could count. We first met up at Everyday,
a local Mansour café. Everyday cafe was hyper airconditioned and everyone seemed to think it was hotter than it was. The crew was awesome, they were really a great first introduction to the excited young people of Baghdad and they certainly have the famed Iraqi hospitality. But here’s a tip: do not order a fajita in Baghdad ;D. Mohammed Al-Samarraie pulled out their iPads and started showing me video production work he was doing for TEDx. Abdul Ghany comes a little late and we have head out to the workshop.
The workshop was held in a two story office building surrounded by palm trees. Looking out the the tinted back window we could see the muddy river run past, winding and dark. Slowly the TEDx people started trickling in. Then I started to get nervous. The checkpoints didn’t bother me, the tanks in the streets were not an issue, but here were these people coming to learn something from me. What could I share that would really matter to them when they had so much to deal with daily? What could I share that could be relevant to people who see bombings as I experience lightning storms? I have been to other places in the world to share this kind of information, and some of those places have had political problems and ongoing revolutions. But Iraq was the first country I had been to that really seemed like a war zone.
I decided that first I needed to learn from them! What were their projects? What did they hope for? I hoped they would learn from each other and get excited about their projects and I wanted to be able to share things that were relevant to them. Thus, everyone was encouraged to talk about who they are, how they learned about TEDxBaghdad and to share their project, share with us their mission, or share an inspiring story. I was amazed to hear about all the incredible initiatives the crew was doing. From intercultural exchange programs, to street clean ups, to historical artifact preservation, each of them shared and I started realizing something. They were not as interested in new technology as they were interested in arts and culture and after hearing about a few of their projects I started realizing why.
Learning about culture and paying attention to the arts gives people the ability to pay attention to details. They can look at another human being and see all the subtleties that make us who we are. We each fall in love, we struggle, we question, and have doubts. Arts give depth to a black and white world. Sectarianism is difficult when we pay attention to the commonalities that tie us all together. What would the world be like if anyone who wanted a weapons license was required to have visited India, could pass an art history exam and could play stairway to heaven on the guitar?
We were in a sort of office building near the river which ran by dark and muddy looking through the tinted windows. One by one, they stood up in front and gave their short presentations. There were doctors, engineers, and designers in the crew. They each stood up and told the story of how they found out about TEDxBaghdad and it was incredible. Each of them had a friend recommend it to them, and it was mostly done through Facebook. Some people’s projects were related to health, culture, antiquity preservation, and connecting Iraqis with the rest of the world. While they spoke I made a graph of the things that connected all of their ideas together. It was a beautiful thing to see. The common themes were to help Iraq as a country through the integration of new ideas and how to bring a new face of Iraq and present it to the world. To have the news about Iraq be about amazing things, inspiring things, rather than explosions. Being in that room with that energy made me feel like we were already on our way.
I pulled out the boxes of donations given to us by Sparkfun and The Makershed and now it was my turn. I told them about my story coming into contact with my friend Alex through instructables.com, how being in San Francisco and Cambridge opened my eyes to a new way of entrepreneurship using communities and open source technology. And how they could make anything they could imagine if they got together to do it. We discussed how sharing and collaboration was a common value that held the entire system together. I used the concept of the LED throwie,
which is a simple idea by Graffiti Research Labs to connect an LED to a coin battery and a magnet. They used it to throw at ferrous buildings as a form of electronic graffiti but once they uploaded it to instructables the idea was out there and people were inspired to take it and derive many other projects. You can never know what will happen when you share something or when you create a tool and share it. People created outlined throwies, LED floaties in balloons and finally we start seeing LED floaties which are sequenced to act like a light show at a fish concert. Hahaha!
We then talked about the Arduino an easy to use microcontroller designed for artists. It’s a bit of technology that is a simple and easy to use platform to build interactive projects. We talked about how the open nature of the project people can use the Arduino and then use shields to add features like being able to connect to the internet or play MP3s. Open source tools make building new products a lot like using legos. We were in the middle of using some of the sensors The Maker Shed had sent us to make a DIY heart rate monitor when the power went out and all went dark except for the LED throwies we had made.
It suddenly felt very intimate. We put all the LED throwies in the center of the room and huddled around it for story time. The feeling of connection was palpable for me. Sure the lack of power meant that we were not going to be able to 3D print, but being in the dark with TEDxBaghdad was one of my favorite memories of this trip.
The lights went on and we had a long question and answer session / photo shoot. Some of the doctors were interested to use the Arduino based heart rate monitors to replace the broken ones in the hospital. I heard about this and was flabbergast that the most basic and cheap tools I had brought with me might have a direct impact and may even save lives. Technology might not solve the political problems of the country but it seems that there was a lot of room for development and that the crew I was with was creative and excited to make use of it. I passed out 20 Arduino kits that day, including the Lillypad which is a version of the Arduino intended to be sewn into clothing. Although there were very few engineers in the audience, everyone seemed to be buzzing with ideas and ways to use the Arduinos.
What a great workshop! I was super excited because not only had they understood the message, they seem to have been infected with the feeling of capability! Now to seal the deal, we were all going to go out and eat a classic Iraqi dish Simach Masguf. Ahmed has been calling me hourly making sure that I was OK, but I felt safe enough with my new friends so we all headed out to a fish spot by the river. Hours go by, lots of fish is eaten, and lots of juice is drunk. Some of the crew smoke some sheesha. It was like I was with new old friends. My Iraqi slang was improving hourly and although we had just met I knew me and TEDxBaghdad we’re going to be working together again very soon. I would have stayed all night eating and chatting about future projects and the problems to solve in Iraq, but the curfew was about to set in and we had to jet.
Yeah, there is still a curfew. On the ride home my head is filled with contradictions. Hope and confusion mix in my head as my family rings 4 more times. I get home safe and decide that the only way to deal with the complicated situation in Iraq was to act with irrational hope and optimism. That’s the way TEDxBaghdad seemed to work. And that’s going to be mine as well.
The next day there were five explosions in Baghdad so TEDxBaghdad and I decided against going out to the Iraqi National Museum even though we had to request permission to go. We meet instead back at Everyday and there we solidify our commitment to working for a more beautiful Baghdad and a country which will become a producing nation once again. Sharing with the world it’s art, science and literature like it once did years ago.
Pictures of Iraq:
This post documents the birth of my current project. You can read about it here in this grant proposal to USAID.
Last Wednesday I had the privilege of attending a meeting between Arab American business and representatives from the White House, including people from USAID and the U.S. Small Business Administration. It really seems like the current administration appreciates the value that the business community and especially the Arab American business community can provide when it comes to their goals in the Middle East.
The last time I was there it was mentioned that one of their overarching goals of all their programs was to support stable countries. The reasoning behind which is that they will be less prone to violence and a better economic partner. Also, the tactic of supporting the countries economically makes sense as a way towards these goals. Thus, the Arab American Business Council took place to investigate ways the government can support these business people in developing the MENA (Middle East and Africa) region.
Thinking hard about what I had to offer this august crowd I considered my perspectives on the middle east. Remembering the fear in my cousins eyes in Syria, the lack of hope and self determination. Contrasting that with the attitudes I found around the country with my project The Two Hands Project, a documentary tour of maker spaces throughout North America. Those people were proactive, concerned about their community, building these spaces of empowerment for themselves and others. They were sharing tools, collaborating on projects, and changing their world by building it. It seemed strange to me that of all places in the world MENA was lacking maker spaces when they have the right ingredients. Watching the twitter feed of passionate egyptians setting up a physical space at Tahrir Square within which they organize, support the movement I was inspired.
Recalling Nick Farr’s project Hackers on a Plane trip and the massive impact it had on the hacker space / maker space community in the United States I started to plan in that inspirational route. When he left in 2007 there were a handfull of spaces, but that first crew of three interested people going to see with their own eyes the spaces in Europe inspired the group which included, Mitch Altman of Noisebridge, Bre Pettis of NYC Resistor, and Nick Farr of HacDC to start their respective spaces.
Knowing that these spaces existed for more than 30 years in Europe before having a sudden growth in popularity in the US makes really shows the power of a few inspired individuals and the open sourced manner in which how they started the spaces were published. You can see an early manual here: Hacker Space Design Patterns. This manual helped propel the growth of hacker spaces to over 50 when I decided to tour them in 2009 (two years later we’re over 500). We used this guide for the space we started in Ann Arbor MI called All Hands Active.
The last piece of the puzzel for this project fell into place when I called Willow Burgh a Seattle based organizer of the non profit organization The School Factory. The School Factory’s program The Space Federation’s mission is “to provide financial and organizational support to open communities in shared physical spaces who use innovative methods and technology in hands-on education.” And to this end they are hosting a Space Camp summit in Milwaukee. The objective of Space Camp is to distill the knowledge gained from 4 years of rapid growth of these collaborative community building spaces and to share it with those doing the same. This will be an unprecedented gathering of organizers of maker spaces and would be the perfect introduction to an inspiring movement.
I thought about Maker Faire Africa happening in Cairo in October 2011 and all the makers that would be there. Knowing that the only hackerspace in Cairo on the Hackerspaces.org list is virtual I thought that it would be ideal to go to Maker Faire Africa, survey Cairo and Alexandria for interested people, compile a twitter list of interesting hackers in the area and if possible bring them to see what is possible by touring maker spaces in the US, starting with Space Camp in early 2012.
That my friends is how I started my USAID grant proposal. Please read it here and give me comments on this shared doc. While I was in the Eisenhower Building I was introduced to two USAID representatives who were interested in my concept. I’ve submitted my pre-proposal (they normally don’t take unsolicited proposals) and am currently waiting for a response. Judging from the US Department of State’s Global Entrepreneurship Program I think that this is a project that would certianly be of interest to the United States and their current policies of encouraging entrepreneurhsip.
If you are interested in this project I’m looking for help in any way you can think of. Let me know how you can help us bring the empowering maker space concept to Cairo first, then the rest of MENA.
Sputnik is my new laser cutter! He arrived at my doorstep and I couldn’t but take it in. I’m pretty excited and have been experimenting with it fairly non stop. Sputnik is a 40 Watt laser cutter from Full Spectrum Engineering, I won it in a recent competition of theirs. I must say, for the price, it’s an amazing bit of equipment.
Sputnik is a beauty enhancing product. Things that look beautiful are often greatly enhanced with some laser etching. So I took a Brooks Saddle and etched it. I think it came out beautifully. What do you think?
Wrecklab / Makelab is project which is an effort to create more awareness about how the products we use every day work, to inspire creativity, and to have fun taking stuff apart! During Wrecklab we take things apart with any tool available and investigate the core of the gadgets of yesteryear. Makelab is the opposite, during this session participants are encouraged is to put the destroyed objects back together again in a novel way. The idea is to empower people with the knowledge of everyday objects they may mistake for magic. Cell phone: magic. Refrigerators… magic. Printers: sorcery!! Having the knowledge of the inner workings of their thingsgives people more ownership over the stuff they buy. If your watch breaks, you’re not out all the parts, you can use that stuff! Also there’s the potential for fixing it yourself.
I hope that more happens, that through this destructive and constructive play people find themselves inspired to experiment, to realize that science is done by people solving their own problems. That a playful experimenting mind is a fun thing to cultivate, and who knows what fun hacks we’ll develop along the way!
All Hands Active is the Hackerspace in Ann Arbor MI. AHA started as a series of brainstorming sessions in fall 2009. Initially floating from chocolate house to coffee shop we soon teamed up with DigitalOps and a beautiful flower bloomed. A flower filled with all the stuff you’d find in the corner of your garage. The concept was based on the examples of Hacker Spaces from around the country I found during The Two Hands Project. With membership growing AHA is coming to it’s own as a collaborative community space for tinkerers, makers and beautiful people in Ann Arbor.
Events are hosted by members who are excited about what they know love to share! Here’s a knitting class held by Katie and Alex:
But what is AHA really about? Maybe this stick can help clear things up:
Working in conjunction with Right Brain Fabrication we built an animatronic robot face to interact with Kosmo’s customers. Two Peggy‘s act as Kosmobot’s eyes while four servo’s manipulate his aluminum eyebrows. This gives him some serious flexibility and a good range of expressions. We also had a script running so the operator could type in the words Kosmo would say and it would use the TTS from the Mac Kosmo lives in to speak. Right Brain Fabrication built the mechanics and I did the electronics interfacing and programming.
This video by Bob Stack from Right Brain Fabrication shows some of the available expressions Kosmo has:
After hearing about the Iowa Gambling Task experiment in which subjects are given decks of cards and are asked to pick between them. Each choice either wins them money or loses them a certain amount depending on the value of the card. A healthy individual will begin picking the deck that offers him the highest running values after picking approximately 50 choices. But amazingly after 10 choices the individual’s galvanic skin response jumps. Here’s a Google Books link to the paper by Dr. Damásio: Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex.
It seemed likely that by getting closer insight into our emotional states we could make better decisions. So I made these glasses that tinted your peripheral vision depending on your galvanic skin response. Using a simple voltage divider circuit, an arduino, RGB LED’s, safety glasses and diffusers I was able to make glasses that related information from my subconcious and displayed it to a sense that I was very aware of… vision. Here’s a video me and a friend Anand Atreya going through some GSR tests and the goggles in action:
While working with tactile displays I continued to consider what types of senses I could send to my body. Thinking about birds and my own lack of city sense I picked compass heading. I believe the less processing you need to do to understand consciously the sensations you feel, the more rapidly it will become background knowledge so the most direct analog to compass sense would be to vibrate my head north. Since my head has a full 360 degrees. I used the HMC6343, an arduino, 14 pager motors and a decoder/driver circuit I devised to run it.
Here are some pictures of the construction and the final headband:
Here’s the code used to communicate between the decoder and the compass: compassaccess.pde