SolidCon notes (part 2)

SolidCon 2015, day 2.

Below, for future reference and largely unsorted & unedited, some notes & links. This is the quick & dirty version, I’m paraphrasing roughly, proceed at your own risk.

(Notes from day 1.)

The new hardware movement

Conference chair Jon Bruner drew the parallel between ubiquitous, powerful, easy to use computing that we saw emerge over the last few decades and that enabled the internet and lots of other powerful tools, businesses, cultural artefacts; and how the new hardware movement is on a similar trajectory. Hardware is also getting easier, faster, more accessible.

A key element is playful exploration:

The trouble with computers is you play with them. — Richard Feynmann

Hardware is at that point now. Here’s a photo of a skull-shaped phone from Shenzen. Besides being a phone, you can also press a button and it’ll run an animation of an exploding skull and start blinking & blaring – it’s hilariously unnecessary and extravagant:

Jon calls it the GeoCities phone: The beginning of a movement that allows to play and explore so easily and cheaply that these kind of things can be built.

Now where does that lead us? To lots of innovation, sure. But also it means we should try to figure out some of the terminology we use to describe all of these things. Namely, market analysts predict to grow into something like as trillion dollar per year market, that’s one oend of the spectrum. Then there’s the maker movement of tinkerers and hobbyists.

Maybe the most interesting stuff happens at the intersection of both:

(This mapping seems very useful to me, works well.)

Street Bio: Synthetic Biology Meets Community

David Kong from the Media Lab

The space we’re looking at:

Hardware + Virtual Space + Wetware + Physical Space

Biological Procesing Unit (BPU) allows to convert bits into bio into bits.

Arduinos are used in bio synth & genetic circuit assembly? Awesome.

These genetic circuits can be programmed (maybe to detect a certain type of cancer) and produced at scale.

Gut engineering is a thing now. David jokes: Open Biome is “the first public stool bank”, and harder to get into than the MIT. Also, simple 3D gut models to grow cultures in are (of course) now 3D printed on desktop 3D printers.

Speaking of 3D printing: DNA assembly now works increasingly through fluid 3D printers (or are they called 3D fluid printers?).

Check out iGEM:

“iGEM runs three main programs: the iGEM Competition – an international competition for students interested in the field of synthetic biology; the Labs Program – a program for academic labs to use the same resources as the competition teams; and the Registry of Standard Biological Parts – a growing collection of genetic parts use for building biological devices and systems.”

“We’re in the biological mainframe era.”

It’s early days. Soon we’ll be talking about the Internet of Living Things.

Cory Doctorow

Cory’s talks are too intense and fast for me to follow in writing; I’ll include the video once it’s available; for now, just a few bullet points, paraphrased even more roughly than the other talks.

  • Current IoT business models are the equivalent to inkjet printer cartridges.
  • DRM in IoT appliances is screwing everyone
  • the current IoT marketplace we see isn’t like other markets because the DMCA doesn’t allow users to remove software locks, which is a tremendously bad idea, esp. in IoT.
  • DRM and proprietary systems that don’t allow us to open our devices, plus the DMCA, is a dangerous mix because it enables huge security risks that we cannot fix.
  • Failure modes in IoT, especially through DRM, are plenty; some are obvious, some are more subtle and complex. All of them are bad, bad, bad.
  • IoT means we keep our bodies inside computers just about all the time (cars, houses, planes). The security models are fundamentally broken in many of these contexts.
  • 40% of implanted medical devices have never been audited by third parties (largely because of DMCA-related issues and DRM). Ridiculous security risks.
  • EFF is working on this topic.

Innovation Nation

Fireside between Tim O’Reilly and Megan Smith, CTO, United States Government.

The tech team in the US gov has grown and diversified tremendously. Lots of great talent from the tech scene (including Megan Smith herself) has been joining the gov. That’s good news.

Challenge: get gov IT up to industry standards and make website as accessible and great as consumer service sites often are. Here’s an internal dashboard for some gov metrics:

Research shows that for every tech job you add in a city, another 5 jobs emerge (3 white collar, 2 blue collar).

Collaboration between gov/administration and tech scene is key. There’S lots of potential to be unlocked.

Also, hacker spaces/maker spaces/Tech Shop like platforms for making, education and skill development are powerful.

Thinking it There, Doing it Here: Networked Playscapes

Edwina Portocarrero, MIT Media Lab

Edwina talks about the role of playgrounds in the context of urban development and smart cities. She stresses her perspective is shaped by her origin in Mexico City, even though she hasn’t lived there in a while.

The city is a resource pool: “The city as a public good, detonator of citizen talent.”

People in Mexico City appropriate the sreets (photo of dancers), processes are very open and accessible (photo of butcher openly, well, butchering).

Separation between work and public space isn’t as strict (photos of working in cafés, etc., and engagement between workers & public happens frequently. Lots of building materials are also very present, visible all the time which can be inspiring (photos of pipes, plumbing, textiles).

So what would “networked playscapes” be in the context of Mexico City? Mapping of city and city scars (interstitial zones that separate distinctly different areas & hyper local cultures).

They’ve been creating urban interventions in Mexico City, like a vibrating tree you’d put your ear against. Very playful. Videos of people hugging trees, by themselves or in groups.

Will Planned Obsolescence Kill Silicon Valley?

Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures)

Critical takedown of planned obsolescence in product design we see all the time in current products. His examples trace planned obsolescence (PO for short) back to early cars by adding tail fins that were modeled for short-term fashion cycles, or start designing for early hardware failures, and/or stopped supplying repair parts. In other words, they stopped serving customers.

PO might have been what killed Detroit in many ways.

Pan to Silicon Valley, and the iPhone.

What’s different this time?

  1. Moore’s Law
  2. Universal cloud connectivity
  3. Constant threat of overnight global competition

So there’s tougher competition, and planning for obsolescence is practically the default for products in this environment.

Apple’s product playbook:

Rob draws up a matrix of LIFETIME (short/long) v PRICE (low/high)

  • Apple products: SHORT LIFE / HIGH PRICE
  • many wearables (fitbit, gopro, beats): WHORT LIFE / LOW PRICE
  • “Land & Expand” quadrant, like Home IoT (NEXT, SONOS): relatively LONG LIFE / relatively LOW PRICE
  • “Detroit” quadrant: TVs, cars, kitchen appliances, DSLR cameras: LONG LIFE / HIGH PRICE

Is Apple trying to move from the SHORT LIFE to the LONG LIFE quadrant?

Advice for hardware companies: Don’t plan obsolescence, but do plan FOR obsolescence by recognizing it.

Note: Definitively a talk checking out the slides for. Lots of useful stuff.

Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project: Adventures in Technoarchaeology, Lunar Orbiter and ISEE-3

Dennis Wingo, CEO and Founder of Skycorp Incorporated

Space talk! Rather, talk about the challenges of original space imagery getting lost because of formats. Original Apollo mission videos were on… tapes. And there was no machine to read them anymore.

They had to figure out where to find old machines, or how to read them anyway. Then imagery was cleaned up digitally to make up for image loss.

This isn’t just important for historical/archival reasons; they’ve been extracting LOTS of meaning from these digitally restored/enhanced photos, like recovery of rovers.

(Turns out, NASA occasionally tossed out old hardware…)

At some point, when NASA had run out of funding, his company worked with a big crowdsourcing effort and managed to command a spacecraft collaboratively within 6 weeks (with what looks like a mix of super high end hardware and lots of jury-rigged off the shelf stuff like, well, Skype calls and the like).

(Wait, did a Google Creative Labs slide just fly by? This presentation is getting fast…)

How we taste: A brain teaser

Gwendolyn Graff (Wrigley)

Food stuffs! The talk comes prepared with a bag full of colorful things we’ll eat:

  • Turns out gum base (green vial) tastes like nothing. Which I find surprisingly disgusting.
  • Our bodies think that sour=bad, spoilt.
  • Sample for bitter: instant coffee. As gross dry as it is with water. Yum!
  • Wrigley’s Extra Spearmint tastes not like spearmint at all, but sweet. Flavor is an aroma, not a taste. Think of flavor as food perfume.
  • Taste is about survival, our body’s reaction not to let bad stuff in. Aroma (mints, fruits, herbals…)
  • Demo: eat a skittle with nose closed, there’s a bit of sweet and sour; once air flows again, it “tastes” (really: smells) of something.


Misc startups/sites/projects/links to check out

Also, lots of slides are online at

Props and a big thank you to the whole team around Jon Bruner and Joi Ito!

SolidCon will be back in 2016: April 20-22.

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