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San Diego Space Society, Reuben H. Fleet, and the hacker in the alley off Adams Ave.

Fuzzy-headed and inquisitive after a long night of sleep, I levitate a morning news screen to eye level.

The glowing hover-display shows little icons indicating rain; damn, I forgot an umbrella. With a slight gesture of the fingers, I slide the graphics to the left, and icons representing traffic congestion replace the weather icons, blinking yellow and red triangles that indicate how long it will take my theoretical, driver-less car to carry me to work. I rub sleep from my eyes and punch up the mood-generator screen, passing the settings for downers and relaxation. Eventually, I choose “Excited about work!”

This is the world I live in. It’s not the “real” world but a fantasy, one I have a hard time escaping. In reality, the scene above was me thumbing through my iPhone for weather and traffic information while waiting in line for a large coffee-to-go at a quick-stop coffee shop; but in my mind I live in a fantasy of science fiction, layering a dreamed-up life on top of the real life I wobble through daily. I’ve lived in this fantasy world since seeing Star Wars for the first time on VHS at my friend Ryan’s house, and wishing (oh, God, please!) that someone would invent a light saber.

Thank God no one invented a light saber. I would’ve bought one, probably wasting months of income on something entirely impractical: I’m rarely in space-adventure sword fights, and given my propensity toward clumsiness, I’d probably sizzle off a toe or open the damn thing up in my pants pocket before ever getting a chance to defend myself and a lovely space damsel against galactic evil.

The light saber is still a dream, but so much amazing technology has been invented in the past 30 years, things that fuel my sci-fi fantasy life: smart phones, scanners, flat-screen monitors and televisions, high-definition and digital cameras, portable tablet computers, music players no bigger than a pinky finger that hold every song I’ve ever heard.

Also, just up the road, in woolly Kern County, a brilliant machine, the private spaceship, is being built by a dumbly named corporation, The Spaceship Company. At this stage, space tourism is a bit of a hairball scheme dreamt up by a bit of a hairball billionaire, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame, and priced for other hairball billionaires’ fancies — estimated prices start at $200,000 per flight. But they’re making it: a spaceship tourism industry.

Technology is going bananas.

The guts of these slick doodads that we play with and draw information from each day — the parts, the electronic insides — are trickling down from the corporate-research and development level and becoming available for us common citizens to play around with.

When I was a kid, waiting for the next Star Wars movie to debut, science and technology was something other people did in far off places. Innovations were born in laboratories or electrical workshops then offered to regular folks for purchase. We had no idea wireless home phones or video games were being developed until we saw them displayed in the pages of the Sears Catalog and on TV commercials between segments of Knight Rider.

But now homespun technology is accessible to you and me, and it’s beginning to spread, becoming (dare I say it) a revolution. A groundswell of tinkerers, hackers, and makers is creating gadgets to automate, entertain, or beautify some part of daily life. They’re taking the tinkering of the past — small engines, electrical wiring, woodworking, and the like — and bringing it up to date, dragging the 20th-century hobby of monkeying around with gadgets into the 21st Century, the digital age, our time, now.

I was introduced to this technological tinkering and amateur tech research by my friend, Al. Last year, he and a small group of others developed a game in which the player slaps one of several tiny pods when the pods randomly light up. Think of it as a cross between Whac-A-Mole and the old memory game Simon: you set the little pods in front of you, they light up, play an electronic note, then you try to whack ’em with your palm. There’s a scoreboard, and the whole thing looks like it was created to captivate the attention of children living in the movie world of The Fifth Element. This game made by regular (but pretty smart) folks.

Al explained how. “It’s a lot of wiring,” he said. “It runs our software, those pods are ergonomic buttons that we designed and created, and we used an Arduino.” (Al lives in Sweden, so this conversation didn’t take place in person. Rather, I saw a video of the game in action that Al had posted to his Facebook page. Afterward, we video-chatted about it. He used to live here in San Diego, working at the telecom giant Qualcomm, and since he’s moved away, we’ve kept in contact through social networking and email.)

“What the hell is an Arduino?” I asked.

“An Arduino is a microcontroller,” he explained. “Y’know, you can hook up input to it and it’ll run specific tasks. It’s the tiny computer running our game here. It’s basically ‘the brain.’”

After Al and I said goodbye, I dug around on the web for more information on microcontrollers and to learn how this technology was running Al’s game.

A confession: I’ve always been a complete dork and hoped (beyond hoped) that I could someday be acquainted with an avant-garde, alternative subculture. Oh, how I wished I’d discovered Fugazi or the Pixies or Black Flag while they were still underground. But no, I was happily snapping my fingers along with a hit single from Huey Lewis and the News, “Hip to Be Square.” I wish I could say I heard Mudhoney, Green River, or even Nirvana when they were scruffy teenagers, playing a gig at the Casbah before returning to rainy Seattle, but I was content to play my Mötley Crüe Dr. Feelgood cassette so often that the magnetic tape eventually stretched and refused even one more listening. To my lament, I am a total mainstream doofus.

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Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 8:04 a.m.

Guess you never heard of HeathKit

Also, you said “but now homespun technology is accessible to you and me, and it’s beginning to spread, becoming (dare I say it) a revolution.”

Um, homespun technology was spreading in the 50’s and 60’s with Amateur radio (Ham) operators building their own stations and computer tinkerers like Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak building homemade computers in the 70’s.

Software is also technology an dmost of the first software was done in the homes of hobbyists beginning in the 70’s

Homespun technology is NOT beginning to spread, it’s been here since Marconi and Tesla


Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 8:31 a.m.

"or light up in different colors according to different aspects of the music: for example, blue lights come on for bass and red ones spark when a treble note hits."

They had these in the 60's

"There’s a guy who starts his coffee pot by sending it a text message from his phone: at-home electronics development"

Really!? Ever heard of BSR X-10? Yep, been there, done that. Remote control technology even easier than using a cell phone; from the 70's


Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 9:06 a.m.

“Think about it: technology and its cost effectiveness “increase exponentially.”An example: We’ve all noticed, or heard, that 30 years ago computers were the size of living rooms, cost millions of dollars, were only available to a handful of nerds, and were nowhere near as capable as today’s $1000 laptop. That’s advancement.”

That’s also called “Moore’s Law.”

That’s why some people are wiring washing machines to send them a text message when their whites are done. Technology is now so cheap, we regular folk can afford to fool around with it.

There’s a technology for that now. It’s a communications protocol called Zigbee.

Soon many appliances will come with Zigbee technology that will allow people to monitor and control home appliances from anywhere in the world. They also may be controlled (shut off) by the local electric company on home that have Smart Meters.

In the future, people will pay less if they schedule their dishwashing and clothes cleaning tasks at low-peak-use times like midnight to 4 am.

“I hope this is more like the sputtering beginnings of the internet, instead of the underdeveloped fad of CB radios.”

Well actually the CB radio phenonmonen was going pretty strong until something nobody had any control over made CB virtually useless. The 11 Year Solar (Sun) Cycle. It came along and wreaked havoc on the CB frequencies making them little more than static boxes. Serious users left low-band and used VHF and UHF radios. But they were expensive. Many CB radios users became licensed Ham operators and used 2 meter radio. Then in the early 1980’s came cell phones.

Yes, I am a nerd too. :)~


Oxenfree March 15, 2011 @ 11:07 a.m.

Ponzi, excellent! Happy to meet an alpha nerd. You're right that tinkering with electronics is nothing new, but I was trying to draw a distinction between a few very smart people (sounds like yourself) making electronic gadgets to a simplified version for the masses. If this trend continues, and software to program the microcontrollers gets easier to code (etc) it could be that everyone can pick up a microcontroller and wire it almost anything they can think of. So, I still say it's beginning to spread.

Zigbee sounds cool. I'm assuming that'll be standard on new appliances. If you don't want to buy a new appliance and you'd like to control the appliances you already have, or receive feedback when they're working or have completed a task, microcontrollers and sms protocol can already work with your cell phone and, say, dishwasher.

Thanks for commenting, Ponzi. Nice to see there are other tinkerers around town. From what I could find, San Diego isn't a haven of hackers and makers that other cities are, like LA and San Francisco.


Oxenfree March 15, 2011 @ 11:27 a.m.

Ponzi, as somebody who seems pretty familiar with DIY tech, you probably witnessed its contraction of popularity. When I was a kid, my dad had Popular Science magazines, woodworking, metal working, amateur radio and tech magazines that had a lot of do-it-yourself articles. The past few Popular Science issues I've thumbed through have done away with how-to articles.

Also, a lot of the current craft magazines focus on interior design, fancy meals, and decorations for festivities: see Martha Stewart's franchise and other home craft magazines. In short, they're for bored women who throw parties and want a handmade pilgrim on the Thanksgiving table. (Hint: that ain't me.)

What was my point?

Oh, that there just isn't as much technology or "men's" handicraft material out there. I think that should change.


Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 12:57 p.m.


I get your point. You are right about the controllers coming into a hobbyist domain. The coalescence of micro-electronics, small servos, microcomputers and software into smaller packages is making a new revolution happen.

The loss of hobby electronics, in my opinion, is tied to the cost. When the Japanese began mass producing electronics; T.V.’s and other things, it became impractical to build a T.V. or radio at home. The cost ratios changed. At one time you could buy a TV kit for less than the cost of a TV and build your own. When the Hitachi, Toshiba and others came along, they made them for less money than a kit. So the kit building stopped.

But then people began building home computers beginning with the S-100 card bus. The Altai and Imsai computers featured in Popular Electronics began a computer hobbyist explosion in the late 70’s. Apple came along and with the help of an Intel executive, Mark Markula, had a spiffy plastic enclosure made and the Apple II was born.

As computers became mass produced, the hobbyist became fewer. They went from hardware to software. Most of the first personal computer software was written by hacks and hobbyists or ported (or modeled) from mainframe systems. Then “professional software” like C+ and other languages pushed out the software hobbyists. The thing that will make robotics and controllers take off is a leading consumer product. Then hobbyist will jump in and dominate the market for a while until commercial leaders emerge and establish large brands.

You could be one of those people who invent a sensational product!

Japan is a leader in robotics research and production. If you really want to have your mind blown, visit some research facilities and academic campuses in Japan. Maybe not this week though. :(

As far as the woodworking and other trades or DIY stuff, I think many schools just don’t have those programs. So people don’t learn to work with wood, metal or plastic. Nor do they learn electronics or auto shop.

I did. I took woodshop, electronics, metal and plastic. I am fortunate that I know how to work with tools. I can just about fix anything around the house and rarely call any company for help. I do the electrical, plumbing, phone and cable lines, install windows, doors, sheetrock, paint, pour cement, build fences, and everything else. I have even re-roofed my home and helped friends. Just this past week I built three 4’ x 8’ redwood planter boxes for my backyard garden. Not bragging, just saying how my early exposure to industrial arts has help me. Then I also can build or fix electronics, know how to solder and how to program a computer in Java and who knows how many other languages. I don’t do any of it for a living.


Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 12:59 p.m.

So I think the removal of industrial arts from our public schools has been a major setback. Most people don’t know how to fix or do anything. The have to call a plumber, electrician, hire a carpenter, etc. I do sometimes, when I am too lazy to do-it-myself! The other thing is why would you buy all the shop equipment needed to build furniture when you can buy it at Ikea? Then again, many people can’t even figure out how to assemble Ikea stuff!

Things are also more complicated. Like cars. People used to fix their own. I did. I replaced brakes, clutches, alternators, flywheels, spark plugs, pumps, belts, hoses, and filters. I adjusted valves and had heads machined. Now engine are more plumbing and look like a jet engine. They are packed into the engine well. I don’t do much on my car anymore because they are so computerized.

Amateur radio is still popular. There is a lot of Slow-scan TV, computer and satellite hobbying going on. Some hams talk to the crew on International Space Station. Hams like to talk and tinker. Many are employed in high tech work, other do it for the community aide aspect in case of a disaster. There are hams in Japan talking with other hams sharing information and coordinating search and rescue and relief efforts.

I’m looking into ZigBee. Anything new like this is filled with opportunity if a good idea comes up. I think ZigBee will be used by SDG&E. For example, ZigBee appliances can be distinguished from other electrical devices. It is conceivable that SDG&E would give rebates to customers using a ZigBee equipped (or retrofitted) appliance when they operate them at off-peak hours. ZigBee could also diagnose its own problems and send an email for a repair appointment. LG, the Korean appliance maker, has a washing machine with ZigBee Model: F4754NCBZLook up Ember Corporation's EM250 ZigBee chip.

I thought of ZigBee when I saw the title of your story. Washing machines will be sending emails or texting soon. It’s a very good story and you covered a lot of interesting things, especially about the groups that meet and events.


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