Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On 3D Printed Guns

Dear Rachel Maddow and Staff:

Tonight's story about gun control, and the 3D printer component in particular, were interesting, but I have a lot of questions that perhaps you can explore in future discussions on the subject.

First, a correction: only the 3D printer you showed, a Makerbot Replicator 2, costs thousands of dollars. Saying they cost thousands of dollars or more is misleading. You can buy fully assembled and ready-to-use 3D printers for as little as $500. Most models on the market today, kit-wise at least, cost somewhere between $800 and $1,200. I can build a RepRap, which is a printer that makes most of the parts you need to make another printer, for around $400. And it's not like it was hard to do--I just followed the recipe there on the Internet, free to all.

I'm a teacher at an art school who teaches 3D printing and design, and so a lot of people--including my mother-in-law--have been talking to me lately about 3D printed guns, as you might imagine, so I've been giving it a lot of thought. So far I've tended to react in these discussions with my own questions, which I do sincerely wish will soon get some public consideration. They nibble around the edges of the BIG question, which is, how should society respond to the progress of technology itself?

1) Do you know that a 14 year old built a nuclear reactor in his garage? And if it's possible for a 14 year old genius to teach himself to do that, and do it without institutional resources, how much dumber can a 20 year old be and still get the same result? How about at 30?

2) Did you know there are hundreds of amateur bio-labs in the U.S.? Those are just the registered ones.

3) Do you have any idea what people are doing with home-built autonomous flying drones? How long until someone hooks a pipe bomb up to one (or a dozen) of those and flies them into a crowd five kilometers away?

4) So, if we're worried about crazy people using powerful weapons to commit heinous crimes, what do we do about the crazy people who will be building their own robotic, chemical, biological or even nuclear (dirty or thermonuclear, you pick) weapons in their basements?

Isn't the real problem not the availability of any particular technology or machine, but rather the availability and free exchange of information? To quote a favorite movie, "You can't stop the signal, Mel." The kid could build a nuclear reactor in his garage because of the Internet. Aspiring bio-engineers can learn just about everything they need to cook up lethal bacteria on YouTube. People with a common interest can find each other and collaborate from opposite sides of the globe, whether that interest is baseball cards or DIY rocket guidance systems. And you can't stop the signal.

The central thesis of your show's introductory essay tonight was, if I understood correctly, that people who think that a problem like gun control is impossible to address--even given a sticky wicket like 3D printed guns--are wrong because circumstances change and where there's a will there's a way. Perhaps that's true in the limited sense that for any single given societal problem there will eventually be a policy solution. That philosophy, however, neglects entirely one hell of a big paradox. 

It can take just one person to make a thing. It takes at least two people to have a culture of making a thing. It takes at least three people to make a law about the thing. The more people you have in the system, the slower the response. Information technology increases productivity in inverse proportion to the size of the system, so individuals can make bigger and better things, and spread the culture of making those things faster than a society can devise rules to govern the things individuals are making, and are being propagated by culture. By the time you have a rule for one thing, a dozen new things have popped up and need rules, and the knowledge of the things are already out there, being shared, multiplied, mutated.

As Ray Kurzweil (who was just hired by Google to build the world's first artificial intelligence, by the way) says, the pace of technology's progress is accelerating exponentially. If I'm right in my previous formulation, that means that the gap between innovation and effective societal response is growing exponentially too.

In short, we're fucked.

Because it's just a matter of time before it becomes trivial for an amateur to cook up some nerve gas in their basement and set off the canisters in some subways. Meanwhile we may have finally come up with some way to keep crazy people from printing up their own guns and going on a killing spree. Yay us!


If that seems kind of out there then let's address the problem of 3D printed guns directly:

How do you even approach regulation to prevent it? Are there any conceivable ways to get in at the issue at all? Isn't 3D printing a gun a different kind of problem altogether from any other problem we've had, not just in scope, but as an entirely different paradigm? Consider the following issues:

1) Short of a true AI, can you create a computer algorithm that will recognize the shape of all objects--however novel--that could be used as components to make a weapon? Ask a computer scientist. 

2) Even if there were such a program, how would you require all computers to analyze all potential 3D models to filter and recognize such objects? How do you prevent programmers from creating and surreptitiously sharing programs that circumvent the filter, or hobbyists who engineer computers from components or first principals so they don't obey the regulation at all? You'd have to hard-wire the filter into every computer chip allowed into the country, wouldn't you? Can we do that? Even so, won't we eventually have the capacity to personally design and manufacture our own chips?

3) Is it possible to prevent amateurs from creating their own designs (of whatever,) allowing only professionally produced and regulated models printed on 3D printers? How? Perhaps more importantly, do we want to, since it will come at the cost of so much innovation and progress?

4) Do we limit the sale and possession of 3D printers only to select, authorized, industrial, and regulated/monitored users? 

5) What is a practical, effective method or mechanism for preventing hobbyists from engineering and building their own 3D printers, which are after all, built using readily available consumer goods as materials.

I understand that 3D printed guns are a salacious, irresistible topic. It's a very sexy story. Beyond the gratuitousness, though, what is there really? Why worry about "weapons" instead of the "crazy" part of "crazy people using weapons" problem? Not to put too fine a point on it, but where does it take us--whom does it benefit. 

Considering the response of the music industry to the invention of the MP3, it is not too conspiratorial to suggest that patent holders are clear beneficiaries of stories that stoke fears about 3D printed guns. 3D printers break 600 years of patent law--they overturn the whole idea of the patent as a mechanism for the preservation and cultivation of wealth. 3D printers, and the whole micro-manufacturing movement in fact, threaten the last relatively safe domain of intellectual property, the making of physical goods. If you look deeply enough you see that the technology coming on line now challenges nothing less than…well...all of commerce. They disrupt scarcity itself. How can any economy function without scarcity. It can't. That freaks some people out.

Personally, I can't wait.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Three Little RPi, All in a Row

My 3 Pi + 0.14159265 for the case.

element14 delivered my third and last --for now-- Raspberry Pi. Now it's time to get down and dirty with the experiments.

What I've learned so far is that the audio is a challenge to set up. Some HDMI displays need a little help, and that when it comes to video, the hardware is willing, but the software is weak.

As you can see I found a case I could print on the RepRap, though it took me a few tries with adjustments to the scad file to get it to fit right.

The Raspberry Pi community is coming through with some awesome support, notably a fan magazine called MagPi. They're working on their third issue already.

My next objective is to do something with the GPIO pins. The MagPi is going to help out there since its the subject of a lengthy article in the 2nd issue.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Thoughts for ArtServe Interview

Computer interface in a shoe box.

Today I had an interview with Jennifer Baum, a writer for ArtServe Michigan. They're doing an article on the Kalamazoo Makers Guild meetup group. In preparation for our discussion Jennifer was kind enough to supply me with some topics we might discuss and I jotted down some notes while I thought about what I would say. Here are those notes and roughly what I said.
About Kalamazoo Makers Guild...

The Kalamazoo Maker's Guild is a group of people interested in DIY technology, science and design. We more or less pattern ourselves after the Homebrew Computer Club that founded Silicon Valley. Like them, our members tend to have some background in a related profession, but that's by no means a prerequisite. This group is about the things we do for fun, because they interest us, and anybody can be interested in making stuff. We meet every couple of months, report on the status of our various projects and sometimes listen to a presentation or hold an ad hoc roundtable on a topic that catches our interest. "Probably the most useful aspect of the group is that you start to feel accountable to the other members of the group and you're motivated to make progress on your project before the next meeting."

How did it get started...

When I gave up my web design business I ended the professional graphic design association I'd formed on Meetup.com, and then I had room on the service to start another group. MAKE magazine had really caught my attention. I did a few projects from the magazine and thought it would be fun and helpful to know other people who were working on the same kinds of things. The group didn't get going, though, until about 8 months ago when Al Hollaway from the       posted to an online forum about RepRap 3D printers at the same time I was building one. He wanted to meet and talk about RepRap. I told him about my Meetup group. We joined forces and here we are.


Meetup.com is a great web site because it's a web service that's all about meeting people nearby in person to share a common interest.

About membership and kinds of projects ...

The group is growing steadily now. We have twenty something members and we're seeing membership tick up at an increasing rate month to month. We have a high school student who is working designing assistive devices for the blind using sonic rangefinders, one member who last meeting showed off a prototype of computer interface built into a shoe box, and another member is on the verge of completing a working DIY Segway (the self-balancing scooter) made using a pair of battery-powered drills for motors. Al should be done with his RepRap 3D printer and I've just finished my 2nd. At least two other members are in some stage of building their own 3D printers. I'm building both a laser etcher and a 3D scanner right now, and I'm excited to start playing with the products of a couple Kickstarter projects I've backed. There are a few of us about to start building CNC milling machines, and there's been a lot of excitement in the group around the brand new, hard-to-get Raspberry Pi (a $25 computer.) Almost all the members so far have dabbled in a bit of Arduino hacking. One member is designing a flame thrower for Burning Man. Another is making a calibration device for voltage meters. So, there's a range of things going on.

Where do I see this headed....

Our approach to this group has been to learn from the mistakes other groups have made. All of the other groups I've seen in Kalamazoo start out with facilities and try to bring in members to support and justify it. Getting people to work on actual projects that interest them is something that comes later down the road. It's the, "if you build it they will come" approach. Those groups quickly get into trouble managing the building and funding, and they go away. We're coming at it from the opposite direction. We're gathering together a community of makers first, people who are already doing things on their own. Once we reach a tipping point then we'll worry about the next step, like getting a hackerspace put together. That kind of bottom-up approach is, I think, much more sustainable and durable, and it fits in with our modern culture (particularly in the maker subculture.)  It was good enough for Homebrew, so it's good enough for us.

About impact...

Silicon Valley came out of a group like this, so the potential is there for us to have a big impact on the community. Being a college town we have access to a lot of smart people, and Kalamazoo has a strong progressive, energetic, entrepreneurial vibe going on. I think what's more likely, though, is that we will have an impact in aggregate with all the other makers--groups and individuals--around the globe.

"Makers aren't just hacking new technologies, we're hacking a new economy. We're trying to figure out how to live in a world without scarcity."

The unsung official slogan of the RepRap project is, "wealth without money."

I don't know that another story like Apple is likely to happen again. Steve Jobs relied on a very traditional, very closed model for his business, as did most of the people of that era who went on to make a name for themselves in technology. The ethos of that time was centered around coming up with a big idea and capitalizing on that idea to the exclusion of the competition. It's interesting that even then this view was at odds with that of his partner, Steve Wozniak, who was content to build computers in his garage and share what he learned with his friends at Homebrew. In this way Wozniak was much more like the modern maker/hacker and is probably one of this hobby's forefathers.

Makers/hackers today are all about open-ness and sharing -- not in a hippy, touchy-feely kind of way, but in a calculated way that weighs the costs and benefits of being open verses closed. The success of Linux and the ever increasing number of open source software, and now hardware, projects has proven that there's enormous power in being open. "We tend to think that's the way to change the world."

About the Maker Movement....

I know there are a lot of people who are keen to talk about the "maker movement" but I'm not so sure that I would characterize it as a movement. If it is, then it started in the 60's with people like my dad who were HAM radio enthusiasts and tinkered around with making their own radios and antennas. I think that what we're observing and calling a movement is really an artifact of reaching the steep part of Moore's Law. Ray Kurzweil is famous for talking about this phenomenon. The pace of advances in technology is itself accelerating, it's exponential, and moving so fast now that if you're not paying close attention things seem to pop out of nowhere. For makers, technology has reached a point where Moore's Law has forced down prices and increased the availability of things that just a few years ago were far out of reach. We're just taking those things and running with it. In effect, we're just the people paying close attention.

About me...

I started college in the engineering program at WMU, but I couldn't hack it and dropped out. I went back to community college and got a degree in graphic design. In my professional life I've been paid to be a web designer, photographer, videographer, IT manager, technical document writer, photo lab manager, artist, and I've even been paid to be a poet. For fun I do all those things and also play guitar, peck at a piano, and watch physics and math lectures from the MIT OpenCourseWare web site, do exercises on Khan Academy, play board games and roleplaying games, and commit acts of crafting -- woodworking and model making. For work, I now teach at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. I've taught web design, digital illustration and this fall I'll be teaching classes in 3D modeling and 3D printing with the RepRap 3D printer I have on loan there. I live near downtown Kalamazoo with my wife and many pets, including a 23 year old African Grey parrot named KoKo.

Post interview notes...

I mentioned SoliDoodle, the fully assembled, $500 3D printer. The big hackerspace in Detroit is called i3detroit. Also, Chicago has Pumping Station: One. I'm on the forums for both and will be visiting each this summer. The presentation about 3D scanning we had was from Mike Spray of Laser Abilities. You can actually see the entire presentation on my YouTube channel. Thingiverse was the web site that I kept going on about where you can find 3D designs for printing.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Raspberry Pi First Impressions

It's my Pi!
The long wait is over and I finally have my hands on an actual Raspberry Pi. Initial impressions was that I'm really nervous about getting this protected and supported in a case. It's no more vulnerable to abuse than any other PCB, but a case will give me some peace of mind.
Getting the SD card was easier than I thought it would be, and the instructions at http;//raspberrypi.org/downloads were clear and easy to follow. One caveat, however: they don't explain that the partitions need to be adjusted after you dd (the command for copying the image onto the SD card) the image onto the card. It gives you a filesystem partition of about 1.7 GB and if you have a 4GB card, a bunch of it is going unused if you don't fix it. I used gparted on an Ubuntu computer to move the swap partition to the end of the unallocated space and then grow the filesystem partition to fit. I'm pretty sure it would be a bad idea to change the start point of the filesystem partition, and I didn't. 
It was a little dicey on first boot. I was a little dissapointed because it didn't sync up with my plasma TV via HDMI right away. I got some horizontal lines going across the screen. Information to help me troubleshoot this issue is hard to find, and the search function on the Raspberry Pi forums is, as one element14 user put it, "about as useful as a fish on a bicycle." I punted and switched over to the RCA output and that was no problem. Then I tried HDMI on the presentation projector, and that was fine too. 
Getting the audio to work was a small saga, which I can not now relate because the file containing my notes are on the Raspberry Pi.
I have two more units on order with element14, which I'm happy to see both have delivery dates now. This first one was from England through RS Components. I'll have it a whole month before the first one from Newark element14 gets here. I registered interest with RS in the first hour of the announcement, and at element14 about 9 hours later. Not sure how that 9 hours really accounts for a month's worth of delay. I suspect things are just especially slow at element14. 

This is a repost of my article on WixsonIT. Follow updates there.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Enclosure Dissaster!

The Hains printer in the semi-finished enclosure at the Makers Guild Meeting.

The the enclosure for the Hains /was/ in final stages, needing just windows, front door(s) and lots of work on attaining the piano finish that I want for the case exterior. The rough edges of the particle board, especially around the openings for the windows, is giving me fits. And I am a bit stuck about what to do about the front door. Fourteen inches is too wide for a door, I think, but dividing the door into two seven inch doors means that there will be an obstructed view from the front when the doors are closed. Plus, figuring out how to lock the doors when they close in the middle like that is challenging. I've decided to use t-nuts instead of printed trapped nuts for the screws that hold the case on to the base. T-nuts are awesome, and will give a nicer, cleaner profile on the inside of the case. They will also be less hassle than would be designing then printing up the bits I need for the trapped nuts.

Note: I said /was/ in its final stages.

I was in such a rush to get the enclosure finished before the expo at the KIA that I was slapping layers of paint on it right up until the night before. The paint wasn't completely dry, so the case got stuck to the base. In short, I busted the top of the case hammering on the underside to get it unstuck.

In my rush to repair it I fail to think things through sufficiently and break the case in two more places.

Yeah, so.... I think it's salvageable, but it's going to take some thinking.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

RepRap SitRep

The Hains is due for a rebuild, adding longer leadscrews and the MakerGear Z-axis stabilizer clamp (a.k.a., lower-z-bar-clamp, right and left), and replacing the fender washer pulleys with printed ones. Before I dare tear down the Hains I have to first get the Desmonda working. For the Desmonda the rods are all cut, parts are all gathered, the heat core just needs it's final cook to be ready for assembly into the hot end, and construction of the frame has begun. I still think that if it weren't for the fact that I'm trying to figure out the exact length the rods need to be to use acorn nuts on the ends I could get it done in a day.

By the way, so far I've figured out that the triangle frame pieces for a Prusa should be exactly 370mm long, the x/z axis crossbars at the top need to be exactly 440mm long, and the x-axis crossbars (4) need to be exactly 282mm long. Still working on the lower z-axis bar, lead screws and drill rod. I'll be posting an updated instruction set for cutting the bars when I get them all sorted.

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Location:Glenwood Dr,Kalamazoo Township,United States