Saturday, April 17, 2010

Amy on NPR and the Fabfi Team

I'm a little late reporting this one, but Amy talked about Fabfi on NPR this Monday. Yeah national news!

It's easy to forget that there are a whole pile of people behind Fabfi besides Amy and Myself. For lack of anything better to say today while the SSF comms team debugs their new setup at the Taj, here are some of the biggest players. They deserve huge props for keeping the boat afloat:

- Hameed Tsal (installer, beta tester)
- Rahmat Sadat (installer, accountant)
- Smari McCarthy (apps development, server admin, European Publicity)
- Andreas Gu├░mundsson (scary, low-level linux hacker-magic)
- Jesse Krembs (Training, Wireless Network Engineering)
- Kerry Lynn (Hardware Hacking, field testing, sage advice)
- Kenny Cheung (reflectors that work [new version coming soon?])
- Logan Lynch (Fab-guru)
- Tim Lynch (Logistics, pecan pie, coffee)
- Dr. Dave, Ken K, Team SSF (internet comms uplink)
- Fabfi users (suggestions, learning to diagnose and fix stuff on their own)

Keep the good stuff coming!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Coalition of the Willing 2.0

Today an article about Fabfi was Printed in the in the Sunday edition of the Boston Herald. I was initially very surprised at the paper's interest in the issue. The subject matter is a little outside I would typically associate with the publication, and I wasn't really sure it would resonate with the readership in a way I would be comfortable with. But any publicity is good publicity, right?

As expected, there was some push-back in the comments of the online article of the type "what if this gets into the hands of terrorists?". I could dedicate 10 pages of text to why this fear is an unfounded construction of the mainstream media, but there's not enough time in the day to get on such a big soapbox...

The internet is the most democratic medium the world has ever known. It is the easiest way for individuals to participate in social communities, allows every user to speak his or her mind and knows few national boundaries. Trust and collaboration begins with personal relationships. Personal relationships start with communication. The internet is the medium for that communication. This year Facebook surpassed Google in the amount of traffic it funnels to major news and information sites. Our friends are the most powerful influences in our lives on what we think, how we act, and what we're passionate about. They support us in times of need, and join with us to create the movements that create social change. Why would we not want to make friends in the places we are most worried about?

"Coalition of the Willing" was a common phrase in post-1990 political rhetoric aimed at popularly legitimizing Military or Military-"humanitarian" operations that lacked widespread global support (Iraq being a well-known example). The rhetoric played to the belief that there is power an legitimacy in numbers--a belief well-founded in empirical truth, and one that is the foundation of democratic ethos. However, the original Coalition wasn't much of a coalition, and was definitely not of the "willing" in the traditional sense. The historical record shows that the list of members was retroactively edited and that significant financial coercion was at play in the acquisition of members--as a result it garnered widespread criticism and arguably had little political of operational value.

In the wake of nearly a decade of at-best marginally successful military and development organization attempts at solving the problems of security, infrastructure, governance and civil society, there is a new "Coalition of the Willing" forming. This coalition is made up of young people around the world interested in finding solutions to the problems that the big players have yet to solve. Their efforts are multiplied by digital media. SMS messages have been used to monitor elections. Cell-phone video has exposed brutal acts of extremist groups, and there is a growing interest in digital communication to address the challenges of government accountability (to name only a few applications). The sharing of technological skills between coalition members of different nations creates trust and builds multi-national personal relationships, and the solutions that result are applicable both at home and abroad.

It is a fallacy to believe that it's possible to prevent information access, and an even greater one to believe that such access is a negative force. If it wasn't, totalitarian nations such as China and Iran wouldn't go so far to limit digital communications. Instead of arguing about who might be using digital information to do harm, we should accept the inevitability of ubiquitous information access and focus on how to use that access to teach, organize and create global communities of people who want to do something about the problems they face. End. Rant.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fabfi 3.0!

At long last, fabfi 3.0 is out in the wild. It's 4am, so I'm gonna keep this short. You can read all the details on the wiki and on the updated website:

New features:
  • Complete flash images (no more tarballs, yay!)
  • Remote flashing feature with rudimentary configuration-persistence functionality
  • Splash page pulls content from central location
  • Client wiring for Fabfi Dashboard
  • OLSR Extensions are fully enabled
I do want to harp on one feature, however: the Dashboard.

On the occasions when I'm not developing the-Fi I often go to class. [Part of] Today's topic was "Innovation Climate". In a sentence, an innovation climate is a set of circumstances, policies, resources and industries that together create an environment that encourages innovation. While today Fabfi is largely an internet infrastructure, I [am not alone in] believe[ing] that its real niche is as an active (as opposed to passive) facilitator of learning, innovation, communication and commerce. It is the weather machine of innovation climate creation (ICC).

To me the dashboard is the missing cog in the Fabfi ICC weather machine. It is a means to serve applications and targeted content to users every time they use the network. Applications could be as simple as a network-local "craigslist" or an archive of video tutorials on various topics; or as complex as simplified web publishing services and aggregated local web directories. In either case, the dashboard drives local content and promotes valuable use-modes for the network beyond simply surfing the web. In a places where most people are just learning what the web is, a little packaging goes a long way.

As you may have noticed, the screenshot of the dashboard is remarkably empty as of April 7. If you have a good idea for something to add or some time to lend a web-developing hand please email us (or just send us money so we can eat while we code... ;) )

...and I leave you this morning with a little bit of shameless GIF animation from the website update. It's so shameless it doesn't even fit on the page! (click for big)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The value of failure...

The following is a Guest Post by fellow Fabfi developer Jesse Krembs:

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
Thomas A. Edison

We as a society don't admire failure. We celebrate success and achievement, the overcoming of adversity and challenge. Yet we rarely, if ever, talk about what doesn't work, or how learning from these failures helps us toward success, and why this is a useful life lesson. In science and in engineering there is a lot of what doesn't work. From the LHC, to the Titanic, to learning the skills and values of a trade, stuff doesn’t work all the time.

So here's one from the Fablab and FabFi project. One of the goals of the project is to develop simple, low cost and easy to create antennas. One of the ways we know we can improve the performance of the Fabfi parabolic antenna is to replace the existing omni with a patch antenna.

Keith made two beautiful antennas' using the Fab Labs laser cutter from acrylic and some stick on copper sheeting. They are really nice looking. We haven't tested them but they probably work really well too! But they require that the builder has a couple of things that not everyone has; namely acrylic sheeting, a laser cutter and stick on copper sheeting. I decided to try and make the same basic thing but with items commonly found.

I managed to dig up some scraps of tinfoil, cardboard, and some white glue. I cut everything out by hand and assembled it. At this point I was thinking “Wow, this looks pretty good so far”
That's when Kerry said
“I don't think you'll be able to solder to that aluminum foil”

But being ever the optimist I tried. And tried, and tried

It really can't be done and lord knows I tried, but what I did learn was amazing:
· The proper website to figure the antenna measurements.

· A bunch of ways to figure out dielectric constants, or where to find a table of them.
· How to put it all together.
· That white glue really does work.
· That you could do the cutting work with hand tools.
· Some of the original designed considerations and characteristics.

What does all that mean? Well for one thing I get to do it again, but this time I get to do it better. Because I learned a bunch of awesome stuff in the first go around. Stay tuned for the next version.

All the way up the pole!

When you hear of a good thing, you'll go a long way to get it. When I saw this, my first question was naturally, how do you aim it once it's already up there?

The answer is move the pole. This one was aimed by tilting and rotating the pole until the signal was peaked and then tied down in the right spot.