What is the Year of Open Source?

A little bit more about this project and how it works

[UPDATE] Year of Open Source ran from August 1st 2012-August 1st 2013.

Read the end-of-project wrap-up here.

The project kicked off a number of adventures further into this ever-expanding field: these days I spend my time applying the open source approach to video, to the circular economy, and, well, everything else.

What is the Year of Open Source?

Year of Open Source is a year-long investigative process and life experiment, documented in video, writing, and other media. I’m a filmmaker from New Zealand, based in Berlin. Until August 2013, I’m trying to live Open Source for a year – avoiding traditionally copyrighted products, using products released under open licenses, or adapting or developing my own. In every aspect of my life, from the clothes I wear to the film equipment and appliances I use, I will be looking for and switching to open source alternatives, in hardware, software and services.

Confused? Here’s how I explained it to my mum.

The goal is to investigate how free / libre / open source ideas have spread to other areas outside of software – to test out the theory and see how feasible an ‘open source life’ may be. The other core part of the project is to spread the idea of open source, to get people to understand what it is and how it works, and to consider using open source options and methods.

For more details, please read the FAQ.

All the while I will be gaining knowledge and perspective on core concepts and examples of free/libre/open culture and the best methods of communicating these ideas. The lessons and experience of this year will also go into a libre-licensed creative video work which will start production in August 2013. Keep coming back for updates, blog posts and videos throughout the year!

Sam Muirhead


The End of a Year of Open Source

An open letter to supporters, friends, and passersby, one year after starting my project:

CC-BY Bayasaa (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bayasaa/2693171833/)
CC-BY Bayasaa (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bayasaa/2693171833/)



Today is the end of the Year of Open Source. A year of research, challenges, fascinating conversations, and much trial and error. My adventure took me in so many new directions, learning new skills, meeting new people… it will have a lasting effect on me and my work, and hopefully other people will also be able to learn from my experience.

It was only through the help of others that it was possible to take on this project in the first place – the crowdfunding support provided materials, parts, and most importantly took some of the pressure off chasing rent, enabling me to dedicate as much time as possible to the project. Throughout the year I’ve also benefited greatly from technical help, suggestions, introductions, and the time and patience of many highly talented people.

My original ideas about the project had been focused on copyright and technical issues, but my approach evolved as I learned new information, and found ways to improve my methods. Within the first month I came to the conclusion that living without all-rights-reserved copyright and patents was a much less interesting approach than I expected – you could avoid most patents or copyright simply by not buying new products or media, but you wouldn’t have said anything interesting about open source hardware or free culture. Very quickly my approach became focused not on what I may be ‘missing out on’ but rather on the positives and peculiarities of the open source approach – how and why people build on others’ ideas – why businesses would choose to share their designs and secrets with ‘the competition’.

The most exciting aspect has certainly been meeting hundreds of people from different communities and backgrounds, who are all contributing to the commons, fostering collaboration and allowing others to build on their work. Here in Berlin I’ve discovered rich networks of hackers, artists, activists, and makers – at the new Fab Lab, at OpenTechSchool, through newthinking. In conferences and events like OuiShare Fest and the Open Knowledge Festival I found inspiration and like-minded people in the international community.

Over the course of the year I researched many more subjects than I have been able to document so far– and many projects are still unfinished. My programmable camera slider is still a scattered pile of electronics and 3D printed parts, and my parametric underwear design needs its code tidied up and the video properly edited (the boxer shorts themselves are very comfortable indeed).

I had intended to catch everything on camera. However, working as a one-man camera team and trying to simultaneously film myself proved rather tricky, sometimes affecting the quality and speed of production – it’s not something I would do again or suggest to others! It took a couple of months to adapt to free software video editing, but I’ve now settled into a good routine with Kdenlive, and I’m trying to help improve the software with feedback as well as bringing in more users through workshops. I have no need or desire to go back to a proprietary workflow, and will be continuing with free software and libre licenses, as well as investigating other areas within film and video where open source collaboration techniques could work.

Some experiences didn’t work out so wonderfully – the OpenPhoenux open hardware phone became a black hole of time as I grappled with bootloaders and operating systems, trawled email lists and forums for experimental solutions before discovering a hardware fault which made it unusable. It’s an interesting developer’s tool with a great team behind it, but is not yet ready for a larger audience. I will not be continuing with this device and instead, come October/November, will be running free software on the FairPhone – an ethically and sustainably motivated, hackable smartphone with long-term support, choice of operating systems, and the fairest possible supply chain. It’s a very, very exciting initiative.

Although the year has finished, this process will continue. There are a number of complex and abstract ideas (mobile and mesh networks, open source electricity etc) which I have researched in-depth but haven’t had time to present as projects or interviews yet, so I will try to fit them in in the coming months.

Next up, though, is completing and publishing the in-progress projects, and then pulling the experience of the whole year into a video and a written piece. In the meantime, for some more preliminary results from the year, you can read an article I wrote for CNN about the experience, or watch a presentation (bad audio, unfortunately) that I gave last month at the Open Design/Shared Creativity conference in Barcelona.

In my day-to-day life I’ll continue making videos for and about people and organisations within the maker and open knowledge movements. I’ll be doing more development in open hardware and systems, specifically for video production – scratching my own itches in a field where there’s plenty of opportunity for open practices. Soon I’ll hopefully be collaborating on an open hardware documentary, and in the mid-to-long term there’s a fiction project brewing, which deals with some of the themes I’ve been working on this year.

But first, tonight, after a year away from the movies, I’m going to an old Woody Allen film at the open air cinema.


Extra thanks go out to the many people who offered support, collaboration and advice over the year – this is by no means an exhaustive list: Fabienne Serriere, Swantje Wendt, Bram de Vries, Morris Winkler, Wolf Jeschonnek, Zoe Romano, Juergen Neumann, Michelle Thorne, Jay Cousins, Massimo Menichinelli, Martin Keane, Alastair Parvin, Claudia Brückner, Andreas Gebhard, Chris Covington, Benjamin Kampmann, Neal Gorenflo, Beatrice Martini, Uwe Lübberman, Adam Hyde, and so many other supporters, well-wishers and friends. Most of all, thanks to my partner Judith Carnaby, for supporting, illustrating, proof-reading, master-planning, carefully criticising, motivating,and generally putting up with this experiment for a whole year.


My Year of Open Source (CNN)

This article was originally published on CNN.com and is here published under my usual CC-BY-SA licence.


(CNN) — It started a few years ago, as I was spiraling down one of Wikipedia’s endless information rabbit holes.

I already had as many trains of thought as I had tabs open, and yet, somewhere between the fall of the Roman Empire and the chemical properties of copper, another little thought managed to burrow a space for itself: I started to consider the process by which all this information had been amassed, ordered, published and argued over — the massive collaborative effort shared amongst so many contributors, and the exponential benefit such a resource provided.

Sam Muirhead wearing his open-source woolly hat.

Sam Muirhead wearing his open-source woolly hat.

Over time that initial little moment of wonder grew into a fascination with the culture around shared information – code and designs that can be studied, modified, and redistributed by anyone, for any purpose.

But no matter how many documentaries I watched, books I read, and blogs I followed, I remained a spectator. The conversation about remix culture and self-replicating machines was between hackers, engineers and Harvard professors, and I didn’t feel I could contribute. I made music videos, not circuit boards.

Before this year I had never used a 3D printer, never written a line of code, and about the only thing I could make myself was an omelette. But in this inexperience I saw an opportunity to share the story and the struggles of a complete beginner, trying everything for the first time.

Since August 1 2012 I’ve been living a “Year of Open Source,” exploring how the systems and culture of free and open-source software work in other areas.

For a year, I’m using or developing products and projects that are shared under open licenses, made to be copied or built upon by others — which also means not buying any traditionally copyrighted or patented products. I’ve been applying this concept to as many areas of my life as possible and documenting the results in blogs and videos.


Some lifestyle changes have been welcome — swapping Mac software for Linux was much easier than I expected, and I’m never going back. “Researching” open source beer is also a pleasuree.

People often ask me what I miss. Without any hesitation, it’s cinema! Open-source, remix-friendly films aren’t too common. I haven’t been to the movies in 10 months and it takes just the faintest murmur from the nearby open air cinema before I find myself anxiously wiping phantom popcorn grease from my fingers.

Similarly, avoiding “all rights reserved” music has left me with a hollowed-out collection: some dusty public domain blues, and a sparse selection of new music under certain Creative Commons licenses. If you were to compare my music library before, and my music library now, you could never claim it was an improvement.

But this project is not about what I’m missing out on. The value of my new music is that it’s truly mine to use however I like.

When you’re expressly given permission to use something, it starts a creative process. I use open-source photos, video and music freely in the videos I make, promoting the original artists while allowing my work to be remixed and reused by others in the same way. Using the commons means I never have to start from zero. I’m currently creating an open educational curriculum for teaching video editing, but I can use existing ideas, resources and examples as a framework.

My DIY skills have come a long way — making scarves, wine, soap and toothpaste, though it seems like whittling sticks when compared to the possibilities of open hardware and digital manufacturing.

The online sharing of 3D files allows people around the world to collaborate and create intricate physical objects using laser cutters, 3D printers and CNC mills. It’s not as easy as clicking “print” but I’ve been able to develop projects that would be impossible using traditional techniques.

Thanks to the help from Fabienne Serriere and her hacked knitting machine I was able to survive the Berlin winter with an open source woolly hat. Its pattern draws on public-domain snowflake images, and a knitted QR code leads to the hat’s source files.

Although 3D-printed underwear is a long way off (plastic chain mail, anyone?) I thought computers could still take some of the difficulty out of making your own clothes. People don’t all fit neatly into small, medium and large, and patterns should reflect that. At my local co-sewing space I met a talented tailor and designer who helped me make a parametric underwear pattern — you type in your waist measurement, and the pattern adjusts its shape to fit.

This community is growing fast. Berlin’s first Fab Lab is just starting to plug in the 3D printers and warm up the soldering irons, already attracting a diverse collection of people who are exploring digital manufacturing for the first time.

With each step there are technical challenges, and other difficulties along the way — a lack of budget, as well as the time spent researching and organizing collaborations. Progress is slow. I haven’t yet tackled big issues like an open-source approach to electricity, internet service or land access, and I’m running out of time.

On August 1 2013, the restrictions will stop and, yes, I’m heading straight to the movies. But now, I need no impetus to look for open-source solutions wherever possible — it’s automatic. The year might be ending, but this process is not.

The main lesson I’ve learned is that if you want to make things yourself, if you want to help others, or express yourself creatively, you don’t need any special skills or background to get started. There is an ever-growing wealth of information, tools and designs in the commons, which you already have permission to use. Share and share alike.


There’s plenty of interesting discussion in the comments on the original article!

Snowflake Hat

This winter has been the longest and darkest in Berlin since 1951, so last month I paid another visit to Fabienne Serrière (FBZ) who you might recall from my earlier video as a hardware hacker and machine knitter extraordinaire. This time I had something of my own I wanted to knit. Inspired by Fabienne and Becky Stern and everybody else involved in hacking these machines, who built upon the work of others and then put their own improvements into the commons, I decided to draw on the commons to create an open source hat.

One of the best places to explore our cultural commons is of course the Public Domain Review, where I found just the right images to fit both my hat and the Berlin weather. Check out the video above to see how the hat came together!

One of many images from Snowflakes: a Chapter from the Book of Nature (1863) on the Public Domain Review

These images are certainly beautiful, but that was 1863, we’ve moved on a bit since then. Now, thanks to the aid of modern technology, we can finally present these snowflakes as the artist would have envisioned them, in glorious 1-bit duocolor:

So they may have lost a little subtlety, but hey, they’re on a hat.

You can see (and download) many more of these great snowflake drawings from the Public Domain Review. And while you’re there, have a look around, their collection is a fascinating, expertly curated look into our cultural history. Check out images of the Krakatoa Sunsets from 1883 (good name for a surf band, that). Cheseldon’s osteographical images of lively skeletons, and read the back story of the Brothers Grimm. Public domain content belongs to all of us – so you can browse the collection for inspiration, and feel free to re-use and remix. Why not screenprint your favourite Kamekichi Tsunajima woodcut on a t-shirt?

my choice: WILD HOG!

Need some material for your surrealist erotica? Look no further than the toothy vaginas of Emanuel Swedeborg’s erotic dreams. Dive into the back catalogue of the Elvis of the early 1900s, Enrico Caruso and you just might find inspiration for something truly marvellous:

What I really love about browsing the public domain or other free cultural works (such as those under Creative Commons Attribution or Attribution-ShareAlike licenses) is that there is always the possibility to just grab something and experiment. You don’t have to ask, you don’t have to explain yourself, or decide whether you may end up using something commercially, you can just go ahead and play. You already have permission to use these works for whatever you like.

You also have permission to make, alter, improve or sell this hat, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license.

The Adafruit tutorial on machine knitting with hacked Brother machines: http://learn.adafruit.com/electroknit/overview

The instructions for machine knitting this hat: snowflake hat instructions.txt (also written up here)

My GIMP file: snowflake hat.xcf (The GNU Image Manipulation Program is an excellent free software program that is similar to Photoshop. Highly recommended, once you get used to the shortcuts being different! Also runs on MacOS X and Windows)

Building the RepRap Prusa i3 3D printer

A couple of weeks ago I attended Open 3D Engineering‘s first ‘Build Your Own 3D Printer’ workshop at Fab Lab Berlin to find out a little more about the process of 3D printing in general and the RepRap project in particular. I didn’t have the money nor the need to actually make my own printer, but there are a handful of things I would like to 3D print, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more. While the 11 participants were untangling cables and programming microcontrollers, I was sticking a camera in their faces and asking stupid questions, mostly along the lines of ‘what does this button do?’ or ‘is that meant to snap in two like that?’

Occasionally I did actually get some hands-on experience, wielding big dangerous tools like hex keys or tweezers, but mostly I was there to watch and learn. I am currently building a machine of my very own though. As I said, personally I don’t have much interest in owning my own 3D printer just yet, but something slightly more suited to my lifestyle is a programmable open hardware camera slider. There’s also only one axis to worry about…

So I’m starting to put it together and 3D printing the custom parts with Bram, I’ll keep you posted – hopefully there will be some nice fluid time-lapse / stop motion / motion-controlled video footage in the next few months.

just waiting on a few more parts…


In the meantime, here are a few thoughts, theories and questions on the RepRap project:

To me, and many others, what is truly fascinating about RepRap is not just the sci-fi nature of converting bits to atoms. It’s not even the decentralised open source collaboration of the project. It’s the process of evolution in action and the exponential growth which can only come from a self-replicating machine.

To understand the thoughts behind the project, read Adrian Bowyer’s ‘Wealth Without Money‘, a short manifesto of sorts originally published in 2004, which lead to Bowyer creating the first RepRap printer in 2008.

In addition to founding RepRap, Adrian Bowyer’s other great life achievement has been making it into the 2013 Open Source Swimsuit Calendar


Further reading on a different aspect of the RepRap project: developer Erik De Bruijn’s Master’s thesis “On the viability of the open source development model for the design of physical objects – Lessons learned from the RepRap project“[pdf]

You might wonder how anyone has time to develop 3D printers and earn a living at the same time – contributors aren’t paid to improve RepRap machines, and as the designs are open source, nobody can claim a commerical monopoly on their designs. So how do they make a buck? Is Adrian Bowyer flipping burgers part-time?

There’s no commercial company pulling the strings behind RepRap, although many of the people deeply invoved in the project have ended up using their expertise to start their own companies or otherwise work professionally around the project, providing an interesting look at the business models which arise without a commercial monopoly.

Adrian Bowyer’s company RepRap Pro, for example, makes and sells RepRap kits and provides training in 3D printing, benefiting from his experience and status within the RepRap community. Josef Prusa, designer and namesake of the Prusa i3 we were building, has written a book called  ‘Getting Started with RepRap‘ in addition to running workshops and offering 3D printing consulting. Erik De Bruijn’s commercial project, the Ultimaker 3D printer, is one of the most popular domestic 3D printers and was recently rated ‘Most Accurate’, ‘Fastest’, and ‘Best Open Hardware’ in Make Magazine’s in-depth test of 15 3D printers. There’s also a growing ecosystem of parts, electronics and filament supply specialists around the project.

One interesting point in de Bruijn’s paper is that the RepRap community is doubling in size every 6 months (or was, in 2010 – have any further surveys been made?). It made me wonder about the diversity of people getting involved. In his survey de Bruijn looked into demographics based on education, age and background, but one thing you may notice from the workshop video is that all participants were male. I’ve tried to find information on the level of participation by women in RepRap or 3D printing, but haven’t come across much. RepRap is basically at the intersection of two very male-dominated fields, mechanical engineering and free software, so perhaps it’s not surprising that (to an outsider, anyway) there isn’t much visibility of women in the project. Are there many high-profile women in this area? Has there been much discussion of the subject? Got any links to articles?

Wer will Open Source Unterhosen mitnähen?


Wer will Open Source Unterhosen mitnähen?
Ich habe mit Swantje Wendt von Nadelwald einen Parametrischen Boxershort Schnitt entwurfen – wir möchten den am Montag 11. Marz testen, also machen wir einen kleinen Mini-Workshop bei Nadelwald. (irgendwann am Tag, wahrscheinlich gegen 11 Uhr oder so, es wird einige Stunden dauern…)
Ich und ein Freund von mir sind dabei, und es gibt Platz für noch 2 andere Männer –  keine Sorge, ich habe auch keine Näherfahrung, Swantje bringt uns mit viel Geduld bei!
Den Workshop wird gefilmt, kostenlos, und auf Deutsch. Also wer Lust hat, nähen zu lernen und sein eigene Open Source Unterhosen zu machen, kann mir einfach eine email schicken, sam at namemeinerwebseite. Aber beeil sich!


TG;DR (Too German, Didn’t Read): there’s a workshop happening next week but there’s only two spare places and it’s auf Deutsch, sorry! the video will have subtitles though…

Siri, Print Me A Chair


This post originally appeared on my blog at Shareable.net

In the future, should we ever bore of our jetpacks and decide to come back down to earth, sit at the hovertable and eat our 3D-printed bacon and eggs, we’ll need something to sit on. With today’s open design tools, it seems the future of furniture is already upon us (or are we upon it?). When you combine 3D software with digital fabrication equipment like CNC mills and laser cutters, you’re just a few mouse clicks and the push of a button away from your own quasi-futuristic space furniture. That’s the theory, anyway. This week I’ve been experimenting with creating my own open source chairs and there’s a little more to it than just hitting Ctrl+P.

I’ve been using a simple free software program called SketchChair which avoids some of the usual complications of computer aided design (CAD).

3D CAD software is often expensive, and difficult for beginners – there can be quite a learning curve just to make a simple mock-up. When trying to make a physical object like a chair there’s even more to think about – how much weight can your design handle? How about joining your parts together – do you know your dovetail from your dado? What materials and construction techniques will you use? Will you mill it from solid wood, or slot it together from lasercut 2D sections?

Even once you’ve designed a 3D model with all this in mind, you need to communicate this design to your fabrication machine in a way it understands – with the right settings and file formats. Then comes prototyping, testing and adjustment. And I’m assuming you’re doing all this work without anything to sit on.

One way to reduce this confusion is to use a simplified, very specialized tool which can be as basic or as in-depth as the user requires. SketchChair, for example, has one main function: it allows you to design a chair in 3 dimensions, and have it ready to be cut out in minutes. But allow plenty more time for tinkering…

You draw your chair in profile, and the software instantly adapts it with perpendicular slats, turning your quick doodle into a digital blueprint of pieces which can be cut from a flat sheet and slotted together in a 3D form.

It solves many of the usual CAD issues simply by making decisions for the user. You can go deeper and fiddle with details and settings, but the standard settings allow the user to focus on their design without getting stuck on joints and angle calculations.

One unexpected problem I had wasn’t a software issue – it was inspiration. Most people don’t spend their lives fretting about the angle of a chair’s back – sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it in front of you, in context. I’m no chair expert, and once I started drawing, I realised that my ‘original ideas’ were all just sad copies of the Panton or Barcelona chair….

Not all my designs worked out so well for my poor test subject

Not all my designs worked out so well for my poor test subject

It took a day or two, but I got there in the end – making a chair with SketchChair is indeed much faster than learning joinery and manufacturing by hand, but it’s not quite instant.

First of all, it’s beta software – it’s still buggy and best left to the intrepid, or at least, the very patient. It takes time to explore and understand the scope of what can and can’t be achieved.

To make a physical model you can test out your prototype with cardboard and scissors, but a full-size wooden version is trickier. I don’t have a laser cutter or CNC mill, so the choice is either sending the design files to a manufacturing service like Ponoko or Shapeways (takes a few weeks) or hunting down someone in your local area who can make the chair for you. Depending on where you are, it might take a while to find someone – try 100k Garages or a FabLab – but you’ll meet a friendly local and it should be done in an afternoon.

I found a CNC guru down at Open Design City, my local makerspace. We still haven’t found time to cut the chair out, but hopefully I’ll be sitting on my very own SketchChair in a week or two. I guess that’s one of the issues with dealing with people rather than factories – they still have to eat, work and sleep. Once I figure out how to upload my design to the SketchChair design library, it’ll be available for anyone to download, adapt or improve, under an open source license.

At this stage SketchChair users can only ‘like’ a design in the online library, but in the future I can see something more akin to the Thingiverse model, which is an online repository of designs, mostly for 3D printing.

Thingiverse has an active community of users posting designs under open licenses, commenting, rating, reviewing and offering suggestions, and has grown into a supportive digital fabrication community. When people remix designs, they link back to the original. The site serves as inspiration, a place to learn, and a channel for feedback.

As you browse a repository of designs you also begin to understand the capabilities of a manufacturing technique and just what can be achieved – in SketchChair’s case, the bowls and tables created with the software show you a much broader range of possibilities than the name implies.

IKEA’s not going to be toppled any time soon, but if personal design and digital fabrication is going to become a bigger part our lives, it’s online communities like Thingiverse and specialized tools like SketchChair which will enable beginners to get the most out of their ideas. I think we’ll see many more examples in the coming years – SketchChair is a great start, but why not SketchHouse? SketchBike? SketchShoe?

Meet New People! Learn to Code! Eat Snacks!


As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve started attending OpenTechSchool workshops to get a better understanding of computers, and to meet other people starting out in this field. It has been wonderful and I’d recommend anyone else to give it a go as well. Check out the video above to find out some more about the workshops and how OTS operates.


My experience with OpenTechSchool also got me thinking. Could their techniques work in other subject areas? Why not OpenScienceSchool or OpenMusicSchool, for example?

It doesn’t appear immediately plausible. Programming seems uniquely ideal for this kind of environment- the programming tradition stems from self-taught programmers offering their advice and experience (and occasionally their brutal smackdowns) to newbies who are also learning through books, websites, forums, and good old-fashioned ‘trying things out’.

CC-BY toolmantim on Flickr

On the other hand it seems to me that OpenTechSchool works, not because of its subject matter, but because it makes the best use out of both technology and people. There’s less pressure on a single teacher to create their own materials, and there’s no need for expensive textbooks. The curriculum is developed collaboratively and shared online. Once the initial core curriculum is written, coaches can spend more time focusing on the learner. Online version control means it’s easy to collaborate, adapt and improve the material, and the open license (CC-BY-SA) means it can be used by anyone, anywhere, sparing redundant creation of similar material.


Allowing each student to choose their own pace also seems an important aspect to this approach. In a traditional teaching environment, the teacher’s pace may be just right for some students, but others may be bored, confused or lost. With OpenTechSchool, the learner sets the pace and the coaches are proactive in offering support where needed.

Surely for any subject area, it would be worthwhile getting as much one-on-one teaching contact as possible, for the student’s confidence and comprehension and for the teacher to get a better understanding of each student’s progress and the effectiveness of the material.


The first prospective subject to enter my mind was language learning- my parents were both English language teachers and they speak multiple languages, so growing up, my house was always full of dictionaries and languages, and I’ve picked up some along the way. My Spanish is rusty, but I’ve hacked away at German for long enough that it will finally behave. What high school French I have left sounds like an offensive impression of a Frenchman choking on a baguette. My language abilities are nothing compared to a real European, but by now I’ve at least got a good feel for the learning process, and I think an OpenLanguageSchool could definitely work.


The social environment of these workshops is a great advantage for learning programming languages, and it’s also an absolute necessity for spoken languages. You can’t learn a language in isolation. Like programming, it’s through practical application (SPEAKING) that you really learn – the theory is good for filling in gaps, improving technique and expanding your understanding.

I told you there were snacks. CC-BY toolmantim on Flickr

It’s already common for people to meet up in the real world to learn and teach languages together, via language exchange or tandems. Mostly this is an entirely offline activity (though sometimes facilitated through online sites).

Where I see an opportunity is in the enhancement of this offline community by working together with online tools and activities, by using open educational resources like video, audio, texts, lessons or software together.


There are certainly many people who would be interested in such an idea, and there is a huge wealth of language-learning resources online already. The real work and the real opportunity is in curating and managing such resources, and building a structure for this kind of learning. Organisations like P2PU and Wikiotics or the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning are all interesting initiatives to watch for the future, or better yet, get involved with now. As the number of language learning resources grows, and the organisation of these resources improves, the opportunity for more effective mixing of on- and offline learning becomes greater.


Language learning is just one of many areas where this approach could be effective. It would be wonderful to see the OpenTechSchool-style learning environment ‘go mainstream’ and become a regular part of the learning experience in many different fields. Not as something that replaces schools, university or independent study, but a way to enhance the learning experience and provide support and encouragement to learners of all backgrounds, income and interests.

Having no cost or barrier to entry makes it as easy as possible for people to join in. It brings education to people who would never normally have sought out or signed up for an evening class or traditional course. And it encourages people to continue educating themselves throughout their lives, not just for their career’s sake but for their own enjoyment and empowerment.


On that topic, If you want to improve your language learning with useful online tools and free software, check out this intro to Learning With Texts and Anki, or contribute to the Tatoeba translation project. Or if you want to help out the free and open source software community, you can contribute translations with Zanata.

Getting Technical with Open Education

This post originally appeared on my blog at Shareable.net

My open source smartphone is still causing me grief, I don’t know what kind of voodoo controls my internet router, and I’m constantly finding myself stuck in boring, repetitive tasks on my computer, thinking ‘there must be a way to automate this.’ The smugly insubordinate part of my mind tends to reply with a snide ‘Yes, there most certainly is. And it’s WONDERFUL. Such a time-saver. Pity you don’t know how…’

I’ve started to get the feeling that many things might be easier if I were a bit more tech-savvy.

We interact constantly with electronic devices and complex software and it’s very easy to feel daunted, to want to ignore what’s going on ‘under the hood’ and leave that to the experts. This does have the effect of penning people in as consumers of technology, rather than empowering them to use or adapt technology to their needs.

But what if, like me, you’re just not the techy type? I’m not at school any more, surely it’s too late to learn all that? This week, I decided that no, it’s never too late. I’m not usually one to give aspirational quotes from venture capitalists, but Fred Wilson does have one good line which I particularly like:

A young man asked me for advice for “those who aren’t technical”.
I said he should try to get technical.

Now I’m trying to use open source hardware and open educational resources to help me get digitally literate. First, something hands-on – the classic open hardware device, the Arduino microcontroller. As well as serving as the brain of 3D printers, radio controlled lawnmowers and sex toys, Arduino is a very practical way to learn both electronics and programming. The board is open hardware, so you can make one yourself if you like, and there are plenty of tutorials and crazy projects all over the net for learning and inspiration.

For people like me who don’t know their cathode from their anode and can’t even program a thermostat, the official Arduino starter kit is a great introduction. It comprises a 15-project handbook, the Arduino itself, and various electronic components. There are also sensors which convert heat, light, and sound into electrical energy, and actuators like motors and LEDs which covert electrical energy into whizzy spinny flashbang energy (I believe that’s the technical term).

You’re guided through building each electronic circuit before you’re shown how to control its behaviour using the Arduino programming environment. So far I’ve put together a simple colour-mixing lamp, a light-controlled theremin and a 4-note keyboard, and there’s still many more projects to go… there’s great motivation to program, because your code has to be right if you want it to do anything! The working project is then a well-earned treat. Good dog.

Believe it or not, this is a working 4-note keyboard...

Believe it or not, this is a working 4-note keyboard…

But what works for me and works for your spaniel might not necessarily work for you. There is no one ‘best way’ to teach – some people are visual learners, some are verbal learners, some prefer a mix of different methods. There’s huge potential in free online education – using text, video and other tools to offer a quality education to anybody with an internet connection.

The idea has taken off in many ways, but amongst the swarm of lecture videos and merit badges, it’s difficult to know where to start, how to stay motivated and where to ask for help. That’s where the word of the moment, the MOOC, comes in. A Massive, Open Online Course – thousands of people taking a free online course simultaneously – going through the same material, and getting together in study groups and online forums, helping each other out with homework and problems. Usually these MOOCs are organised by one or two core lecturers who provide structure, feedback and guidance, but I’m throwing myself into a more experimental course: ‘A Gentle Introduction to Programming’ with the Python language, taught by the ‘Mechanical MOOC‘.

This is a learning lab of Peer to Peer University (P2PU), and the material for this course is gathered from other online providers – primarily MIT, Codecademy, and a textbook called ‘How to Think Like a Computer Scientist‘.

John Guttag's Introduction to Computer Science CC-BY-NC-SA MIT OpenCourseWare

John Guttag’s Introduction to Computer Science CC-BY-NC-SA MIT OpenCourseWare

As opposed to other MOOCs, the Mechanical MOOC is designed to run automatically – it’s now in its second intake of students. I’ve been receiving emails from ‘The Machine’ who seems a most amicable robot, having introduced me to my study group and recommended that I watch a Monty Python movie as preparation for the course. So far it’s hard to know what to expect – I’ve completed the first week’s reading, coding and writing activities, and watched the first online lectures. It has been 8 years since I last sat in a university lecture, but it’s remarkable how quickly the same feeling returns… my eyelids start drooping, my attention begins to wander, I start focusing on unusual details on the ceiling. At least this time around it’s socially acceptable for me to attend lectures in my pyjamas. I am still learning – but probably advancing more thanks to the textbook and Codecademy content. The course runs for 8 weeks so I’ll keep you posted on my progress!

One issue raised recently by Timothy Vollmer of Creative Commons is that the first O in MOOC originally signified ‘open access’ (free and unlimited entry) and ‘open material’ – but now organisers seem to be forgetting the open material. That’s partly the case with this MOOC too. The resources are available without cost but are not truly free-as-in-speech – their licenses include ‘Non-Commercial’ or other restrictions which prevent someone from reusing, remixing or translating a work and using it in a lesson if they are being paid, which rules out a huge amount of use cases.

So it’s great to see the approach of OpenTechSchool, an recent initiative started here in Kreuzberg, whose approach includes both free access and open materials. Every week in a local co-working space, they offer workshops, meetups and classes, focused on bringing new people (particularly more women) into programming, and supporting them in their learning.

Their whole curriculum is on github, and under a Creative Commons-Attribution-ShareAlike license, meaning that anyone can submit improvements or download, remix and reuse material (as long as they share their changes too). This means simple improvements and fixes can be added on the fly, and difficult areas that might need a re-write can be flagged to be dealt with before the next class is given.

Students go at their own pace and learn from practical experience, and all the organisers and tutors are volunteering their time to develop lessons and help out at workshops. So far they’ve offered courses in Python, JavaScript, Github, Django, and coming up are workshops on Arduino and user interface design. It’s not just the curriculum that can be used and adapted by others, but actually the school itself – you can take their model as inspiration, use the code and materials, get some tech-friendly people together and start your own local OpenTechSchool.

I’m going to continue with my Arduino adventures, jump into some workshops at OpenTechSchool, and in 8 weeks’ time I’ll report back on my experiences with the Mechanical MOOC. In the meantime, I’m interested in finding out more about what’s out there. I’ve found plenty of free-as-in-beer educational resources online, but I’d like to hunt out more free-as-in-speech options. Any other suggestions for the best way to ‘get technical’?

My first play with the Arduino

[Video] I’m learning electronics and programming, one stupid mistake at a time

This is just a quick little look at my first play with the Arduino starter kit – I’ll follow up soon with more on open hardware, my development with the open source microcontroller and how this kind of tool can fit into my Year of Open Source.

If you want to try the projects yourself or find out more, check out the 10 new video tutorials with Arduino founder Massimo Banzi.

I doubt I’ll have use for a fire-breathing animatronic pony,  but there’s the possibility of using it for motion control to make time-lapse or stop-motion videos, it could become a internet-connected automatic printer, help me monitor my electricity usage, or control an automated greenhouse,
But right now, I have to go do my homework – in the meantime, check out my post on using open tools to learn programming and electronics.

The Wonderful, Wooly World of Hacked Knitting Machines

[Video] Check out what Fabienne Serrière (and others) are creating on their ’80s knitting machines

Once upon a time, there was a warm, fuzzy hack. It was 2010 – Becky Stern and Lada Ada (Limor Fried) built on Steve Conklin’s disk emulator and knitting machine resources to allow their modern computers to work with the ancient microcontroller of a 1980s knitting machine. This meant that they could now knit designs made with modern tools, too complex or tedious to easily knit by hand. They shared their work with the world and since then, following an open hardware model, they and many others have contributed hardware and software improvements, smoothed the workflow, and allowed other models of knitting machine to be hacked. I went for a beautiful autumnal bike ride over to Wedding and caught up with Fabienne Serrière (FBZ), who has contributed a number of improvements to the original hack and has the wonderful woolens to show for it. We talked about the history of knitting machines, this hack, open hardware and Fabienne’s various projects, and started plotting to make an open source sweater to keep me warm in the winter months. We covered so many different things that I can only show you a brief introduction to her projects now, but there will be more to come!

EDIT: as promised, a second video: we made a hat!

There’s also an open source knitting machine in the works, thanks to Varvara Guljajeva & Mar Canet – it’s called Knitic.

Info related to the Brother knitting machine hacks can be found here. Check out Lady Ada & Becky Stern’s original tutorial, here’s the video:

Andrew Salomone is an artist who does amazing things with this technology, an infinite Cosby sweater, a drum’n’bass loop scarf…

At the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki I saw a talk on knitting machines and personal fabrication by Estonian artist Varvara Guljajeva – (from the Knitic project – she was in fact the one who put me in touch with Fabienne). Varvara makes wonderful things with knitting machines (spam poetry, anyone?) and during her talk she showed this little gem from 1988: a charming lady showing how she programs her knitting on a commodore 64.


I don’t think it’s open source, but while we’re on the subject…

So, suggestions for open source sweaters are very much welcome, and if you’re in town, come say hi to me and Fabienne at the summit, tomorrow and Friday! This is not the last you shall hear of knitting machines…