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:

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?

Siri, Print Me A Chair


This post originally appeared on my blog at

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?

Getting Technical with Open Education

This post originally appeared on my blog at

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’?

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…

Speaking at the Summit of Newthinking, 15th November

[Video] Checking in with Claudia and Andreas to see how the summit preparations are going

Next Thursday the Summit of Newthinking kicks off, and I’m going to be giving a talk about my first 100 days of trying to live open source – some of the successes and struggles, and my plan for the rest of the year. It’s also a great opportunity to tell some of the stories which I have experienced but haven’t had a chance to publish yet. I’ll be discussing the various different ways in which free / libre / open ideas are spreading into different areas, and some inspiring projects, some bizarre ideas, and some unusual approaches I’ve come across. Come by and say hi!

Newthinking has been around in the Berlin open source scene for almost 10 years, so over the last few months Andreas and Claudia have been introducing me to people with cool projects – and they’ve been extremely busy organising the summit as well! I went down to Newthinking HQ to talk to them about how all the preparations have been going and what to expect from the event next week.

There will be plenty of presentations, in both English and German. Check out the full schedule and speaker list here, and hopefully see you at the summit!

Keeps Your Whites Whiter and Your Skin Itchier

Somebody left me alone with dangerous chemicals. I made soap!

This post originally appeared on my blog at

In attempting my Year of Open Source, I’m dealing with some very complicated, hi-tech issues. My open hardware smartphone arrives tomorrow, I’m trying to build a microphone pre-amp, & I’m about to learn how to program a microcontroller. But how do the ideas of open hardware and free software apply to lo-tech products? Laundry powder, for example? You don’t see detergent brands taking each other to court over patent breaches, the products have hardly changed in decades, and the manufacturing process is not protected. No problem there. But at the same time you don’t get the recipe on the back of the box, you’re not encouraged to try to make laundry powder yourself, and to most people, that strange white powder with the blue flecks and the lilac scent is a complete mystery. Even if it does have oxi-action, enzymes and a freshness blast.


Time to start investigating. I had seen an alternative to laundry powder at the local organic store – soapnuts, the fruit of the soapberry tree, which you throw in your machine and somehow, apparently, your clothes come out clean. I assumed it was some kind of homeopathic magic beans scam.


I did some serious research before buying. Sure, there’s some pseudoscience and misleading claims about soapnuts around the place- did you know “there is evidence they were used to cure hysteria”? But for washing clothes, they’re legit. Soapnuts contain saponins, a chemical compound whose structure, like soap, has a fat-loving end and a water-loving end, allowing oil and grease to be surrounded by water molecules, breaking them apart and allowing water to better penetrate material. Saponins effectively break up the surface tension of water and allow clothes to get ‘wetter,’ making it easier to rinse off dirt when agitated.

Great! Soapnuts! No recipe required! Open source, right? Well… I can’t grow soapnuts here in Berlin, I’m still at the mercy of the market – there’s only one type of soapnut available, and I can’t change them to suit my preferences or the water in my area. Nor have soapnuts taught me what laundry detergent actually is or how it’s made. In order to address these issues, I decided to make my own washing powder as well.


A quick online search will tell you that you need three ingredients: washing soda, borax, and soap. An in-depth search will tell you that as of 2010, borax is a restricted chemical in the EU, prolonged exposure can cause reproductive problems, and it is no longer sold to the general public. Baking soda is a good replacement.

Here I needed to set myself some limits – just how DIY should I go? Do I want to collect a bucket of seawater, dig my own limestone, and make washing soda at home? To keep it simple I thought I’d stick to making the soap. But what is soap? Where does it come from? Is it dug from the lavender-scented soap mines of central Africa? I knew there was some kind of oil involved, but I’d never really given much thought to how it’s made or what it contains. Back to Wikipedia!


As it turns out, there are many different fats and oils you can use. Olive oil, tallow, lard, seed oils – and in the past, soap was made from all kinds of animal fats – whale oil, penguin oil, seal oil, you name it – if it’s cuddly, it can be turned into soap. An advantage of making your own soap is that you can use whatever fats happen to be locally abundant – in Greenland you could whip up a pungent walrus blubber soap, in Samoa coconut fat would do nicely, and here in Berlin I guess you’d go for pig fat and rapeseed oil. But for now I’m just using a generic recipe to learn the process.

The core idea behind soap making is mixing fatty acids with a strong alkaline solution, lye, which react to form a salt: soap. Lye is made from water and sodium hydroxide, a highly caustic compound used as drain cleaner, and bizarrely, also used for glazing pretzels.

My local chemist told me that yes, they had sodium hydroxide, but no, they would not sell it to me. It was “too dangerous”, and I was likely to injure myself. I explained that I had protective equipment, an understanding of the dangers, and a reasonably sane mind, but it was no use. Luckily, online sellers asked no questions about my mental state and were quite happy to ignore any threat to my well-being. Excellent.

When making soap, safety comes second only to style.

When making soap, safety comes second only to style.

I found a simple recipe online, dressed myself handsomely in apron, gloves and safety goggles, and got mixing. It’s a fascinating process – the furious heat of the chemical reactions, the choking, lung-burning lye fumes (hold your breath), the slow transformation from oily liquid to a bubbling gloop. As it turns out, it’s much easier than I expected – it only took 15 minutes or so, and I somehow avoided searing my flesh with chemicals.


Soap-making is a little cheaper than buying commercial soap, and now I’ve found out how easy it is, I can start to have some fun with it. I’m keen to try different recipes – a hot-process version that you can use without weeks of curing, something using locally available oils, experiments with different fragrances. Who says soap must smell like potpourri? Now I’m free to make any fragrance I like. Maybe I could make my millions selling authentic Berlin soap to tourists – with the delicate aroma of cheap beer, cigarettes and currywurst. Look out for an open-sourced recipe soon…

Even if you don’t want to go through all the excitement of making soap, you can still save yourself a few bucks and have some fun making your own laundry powder. Grate a bar of laundry soap, add a cup of washing soda, half a cup of baking soda, and voila. It does look a lot like freshly grated parmesan, so maybe label the container to avoid any foamy pasta mix-ups.

Serve Cold, with a Heated Licensing Discussion

 This post originally appeared on my blog on

A few weeks ago I was thirstily on the hunt for open source beer – and I’m pleased to report that I’ve found one! Two, even.

One was right under my nose here in Berlin, and the other, a little further afield: My brother came to visit this week, bringing a bottle of Yeastie Boys Digital IPA all the way from New Zealand – it’s a craft beer which provides the link to the recipe on the bottle. It’s also notoriously tasty. Knowing my brother’s penchant for hoppy brews, I do suspect that he may have originally set off with a 6-pack, and lightened the load en route.

I also went to see Fabricio Do Canto at the Meta Mate Bar across town, where they sell their Mier, a beer with the caffeine buzz of Yerba Mate brewed into it. Once again, the beer label includes a QR code leading to the recipe.

What I find interesting, and what distinguishes a recipe for Mier or Digital IPA from normal online recipes (or from the open source Free Beer project) is that it is the recipe for an actual commercial product. You can buy a beer, enjoy it and inspect the recipe used to make it. It’s an element of transparency which gives the user a clear understanding of the product. Wondering how they add the Mate to the beer? What kind of barley Yeastie Boys used? Read the recipe. If you’re a brew guru, and you want to change or improve the recipe, then by all means, do whatever you like. Or if you’re a novice brewer and just want to see how close you can get to ‘the real thing’ then it’s a great project to try out.

These beers are basically open source, in that a recipe process can’t be copyrighted. The actual writing of a flowery, wordy recipe could be copyrighted. But the bare-bones formula is free for any use you like – a brewer could adjust these online recipes to her own taste, and sell the beer as her own, as long as it was not branded as ‘Mier’ or ‘Digital IPA’.

One interesting conversation I had on Twitter* with Edmunds Sulzanoks covered the issue of Mier’s Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike-Non Commercial license, which is proudly stated on the bottle.

Creative Commons has a range of licenses available which provide a ‘some rights reserved’ copyright, and these allow books, films, music, and products to be remixed, adapted, or built upon by others. For example, my videos are available for anyone to use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

I saw Mier’s choice of their license as being a statement of intent – encouraging people to make and modify the beer themselves, and call it Mier. The Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license means that anyone can produce Mier according to the recipe, and use the Mier branding for non-commercial use. They just have to attribute Mier to its creators and release any modified version under the same license.

But Edmunds’ point was this: what is the difference between releasing a brandname under a Non-Commercial license, and a normal licensed franchise? What is non-commercial use of a brand? Why would you need branding if you’re giving the beer away?

Certainly Mier’s intentions are good, and their franchising method is very much hands-off, allowing others to change the recipe and create a very different product, but this example is exactly the kind of situation which makes the Non Commercial license difficult to work with, and a little vague.

There are considerable differences of opinion as to whether Non Commercial means ‘no monetary transactions involved’ or simply ‘not-for-profit’. What if I wanted to sell my homebrewed, branded Mier at a bake sale, raising money for a non-profit charity? Donating the proceeds to cure malaria, perhaps? Or raising money for the deportation of Simon Cowell and the world’s wasp population to an island in the mid-Atlantic? It wouldn’t be for profit, but rather the benefit of all humankind. Is that non-commercial?

I promised myself when I started this project I would try not to get embroiled in pedantic licensing discussions, but look at me now…

The reason I’m interested in the Non Commercial license is that, even if it still restricts use of a product or artistic material, it often acts as first step away from traditional copyright. There are areas where it makes a significant difference – using Non-Commercial licensed music in an educational video, for example, rather than having to officially license the use of each track.

Depending on your point of view, the Non Commercial license is either the methadone that can wean copyright junkies off their all-rights-reserved habit, or it is a gateway drug to the psychedelic and dangerously addictive world of open source and free culture.

This week there’s been an awful lot of talk about it: the Students for Free Culture made a call for Creative Commons to drop the license altogether, and Creative Commons themselves made the very difficult decision to retain it. It’s a turbulent debate but if you’ve got opinions on this issue, read the discussions, jump in and share your ideas with the Creative Commons community.

So I guess that means for now, I’ll just be brewing these beers for my own purposes. No bake sales for me.

UPDATE: Yeastie Boys have now stated that Digital IPA (name & recipe) is Attribution-Sharealike! Brew away!

Unknown ObjectCheck out the video of my visit to the MetaMate Bar.

*what? Twitter’s not open source! For personal use, I’ve jumped from Facebook to Diaspora. But there is still a Year of Open Source Facebook page and @YrOfOpenSource Twitter to spread the word to people outside of the more niche open source networks.

Sharing some wisdom (teeth)

This post originally appeared on my blog at

How would the collaborative techniques, freedom, flexibility and transparency of free and open source software apply to dentistry? These questions, and a high-powered drill, were going through my head this week as I cut my teeth as a Linux user and encountered my first difficult situations in my Year of Open Source.

It’s been an odd few weeks getting used to my new open source life – some areas have hardly changed. I’m still sleeping on my left side. Still drooling on my pillow. Still riding my patent-free old-style bike (for now).

I’ve been looking into open source clothing – check out the first ideas for personalized clothing and our subsequent brainstorm session – there will be a practical workshop in the next couple of weeks when we’re actually going to make some open source boxer shorts.

Software is one area that has totally changed. No more Mac OS. Although my year is mostly about the ideas that have spread from free software to other areas, switching to Linux is still a very important first step in an open source life.Although the install was an exasperating process, the experience of actually using Ubuntu (as a first-time Linux user) has been wonderfully simple. All the programs work nicely, there’s huge amounts of support in online forums, the Software Center makes installing programs a little too easy. The tiny size of free software applications makes it very tempting to go on a wild free shopping spree, downloading every possible program. Who knows when I might need that Mandelbrot fractal generator? Or a rocket simulator? Maybe this verb conjugation program will magically bring back all my high school French? bien sûr.

The one area where I’ve really struggled is video editing software.

I already knew it was going to be tricky making videos without proprietary software, but so far I’ve got the feeling I’d be better off hand-drawing flipbooks. I’ve been trying OpenShot, KdenLive, and Cinelerra, and I’ve struggled constantly with converting and importing files – I merely threaten a clip with the cut tool and the whole program faints dramatically.

There is definitely potential – Cinelerra seems very in-depth, there are video editing options within the incredible world of Blender, and there are good things on the horizon: Novacut‘s new take on collaborative editing, or the long-promised second-coming of the NLE old-timer Lightworks… still waiting on that source code though

Trying out Novacut - still VERY early days, but I'm hopeful...

However, my current problems have a lot more to do with me being a newbie rather than any inate impossibility of editing on free software. Many people do it, and do it well. It’ll be a necessary learning curve for me & I’m sure that with plenty of help, I’ll untangle this mess of codecs and file containers.

I had hoped be able to anticipate any tricky problems in my project before they arrived, and deal with them through discussion and collaboration, but a few days ago I had my first significant failure. I had decided to calm down a wee bit of tooth pain with the clearly public domain (somewhat victorian) method of a hot salt gargle and an iced flannel (I was fresh out of leeches). But the next morning what had been a slightly sore tooth turned into a huge swell of a mound – two possibilities came to mind: either my face is pregnant, or I have a nasty infection.*

I’ll admit I felt a little helpless, holding an ice pack to the new continent forming on my face as I typed the words ‘open source dentistry?’ into a search engine with my free hand.

Not much to report, except a couple of free software programs and some plans to 3D print fake teeth. It was hardly the time to call a hack session, and with a heavy heart and a bulging cheek, I dragged myself to the traditional dentist. Normally I would say that German efficiency is a myth, but not this time. My wisdom tooth was raus before they could even say Achtung.

So other than asking for generic drugs, there wasn’t much I could do in such a situation.

Over the last few days as my face has contorted to all sorts of new shapes, there’s been little breakthrough work done on the open source front. The only project developing was my girlfriend Judith’s experiments with smoothies and other mushy blended meals, while also thinking up suitable names for the newly jowly man in her life. Orson Swells was a favourite.

Judith captured my natural beauty in her work 'Half-man, half-blimp'

By now I’ve mostly deflated – the only ‘upside’ to my failure in properly investigating the idea of open source dentistry is that I still have 3 more wisdom teeth which need to be removed. Plenty of opportunity for experimentation. Oh good.

So what would a more transparent, democratic, decentralized, open dentistry system be like?

How about a peer production voting system for amateurs? Based upon this dental photo, please select your preferred action: a) let it fester b) yank it out

Some kind of online distributed dental education system where people can learn all the skills they need to take a hand-drill to Auntie’s molars?

Arduino-controlled open hardware dental lights which can also feed your cat and control the Roomba?

As you can see, I need a little help. Suggestions?

*said infection has no relation to my recent switch to open source toothpaste. No relation, I tell you.


 Shareable’s content is licensed as Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial, so incompatible with free licenses. Therefore this post is also Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial rather than my usual Attribution-Sharealike.

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