September 17th, 2013

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At this institute of technology, hacking does not have the same definition as in the Hackers movie where Angelina Jolie says RISC is going to change everything (nice call, Angelina). Legally interpreted, hacking here generally would be defined as breaking and entering with vandalism, although damaging property is never intentionally part of the hack. Hacks are generally meticulously planned, stealthily executed, part of a large coordinated team effort, and technically elegant, impressive, and robust.

This image is really irrelevant for the first 1000 words of this post, but I’m putting it here anyway.

Hackathons in contrast seem to mostly to be events where corporate sponsors provide space/beer/pizza to participates who then ‘hack’ together demos usually using the aforementioned sponsor’s API/service/product/stuff. The often seem to be more about a state of non-sleep, excess BO, and a careful monitoring of blood alcohol and caffeine levels, than about making interesting or useful technology or technological interventions. That, and of course the house of narcissist/voyeur mirrors so easily constructed by defining the event’s twitter hashtag. After all, being a hacker gives you internet cred so you should make as many people as possible on the internet know that you attend hackathons.

There’s not really anything wrong with the corporation fanbody coproduction model, I often gladly accept both beer and pizza in exchange for cursory glancing at random company’s efforts to include a ‘developer community’. I do wish companies would stop giving out free t-shirts though, because 1: t-shirts are basically for boys jeez no fair don’t act like you know any self-respecting women that wear ‘girly’ shirts and 2: those boys would be so much easier for me to objectify if they didn’t dress like shit all the time, e.g. in facebook t-shirts. And we all know that the true future of feminism is counter-objectification.

One actual problem with hackathons becoming more common practice is the organisations that think they can use them instead of actual work to get actual work done. See in this category events like ‘hacking health’ or ‘hacking government’ or ‘hacking with open data’ or ‘hacking your education’.

Developing devices for health diagnostics and rehabilitation is indeed normally very slow, very expensive, and not always that good. There are endless certifications medical devices generally have to go through, but these don’t necessarily exist in developing world contexts. I don’t agree with something is better than nothing in the health context (as having bad devices that make patients lose faith in health interventions are much worse than nothing), and having hackathons that produce mediocre device prototypes without a clear future timeline for how patients are going to get access to the technology, as well as continued support and care is not helpful. One way to improve health hackathons would be to make a clear path for interested participants to continue their work beyond the hackathon.

The open-gov-government-transparency-big-data-better-government-bla movement is one of the biggest offenders of lots of pomp and hackathon circumstance without outcome. Vivek Kundra’s high-profile “Apps for Democracy” White House hackathon produced a lot of projects that lived on for less than few months after the event. Using a hackathon to create awareness for a new open dataset assumes that civic hackers should take the data at face value, as a unbiased slurry of information for which the interpretation and analysis only could elucidate The Truth about how government/society works, instead of as a calculated release of a particular kind of information that has affordances built in for a certain kind of interpretation, by a certain kind of participant, in a particular context.

From http://opendataday.org/:

It’s a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments

Read: we’ve elevated the discourse about public policy and society change to a level where you have to understand API calls and hidden Markov models to be allowed to participate, so if you’re not a technocrat then your opinion probably doesn’t matter.

We need computer cowboys and cowgirls like yourself to wrangle data into something useful. That means visualization, notification, integration, etc., all in the name of doing something crazy and fantastic.

Read: the main purpose of open government hackathons is to make pretty graphs from supposedly apolitical data you can put on your website which will make you a more attractive candidate for data visualisation consultant gigs. Also, it’s the government, so even if you already do this as a consultant, you should do it for free now to be a good citizen or else we won’t listen to your opinions.

Bah. Big data. Another argument I resent goes along the lines of ‘hackathons make the bored and blasé apolitical youngsters participate in political discourse’. You know what makes people not participate in any kind of discourse? UTTER LACK OF AGENCY.

Here’s a nice piece on the promise of SMALL data.

Well, last weekend I participated in a hackathon at the media lab on a japanese vision of the future despite all my hackathon reservations. Besides other famous Japanese designers and media artists, the organisers invited Novumichi Tosa of Maywa Denki nonsense machines and Otamatone musical instruments to come and build stuff, and seeing as my latest self-declared hobby is making musical instruments to start bands with my friends with, and then to declare all time band practice time, this seemed like it might actually be fun.


I missed the initial brainstorm because it was on Friday afternoon and counter to what the previous post may indicate I do actually do my job during working hours, typically, so I came in at a point where the instrument and its intended interactions had already been decided. So I participated in making the initial sketches into a product prototype, by CNC machining custom googly eyes and designing/fabricating/programming circuit boards to do sound synthesis with that would fit in the enclosures. The instrument is called EYEEYE and it’s a hand held character that can make a variety of pesky noises depending on how you twist its eyes. Your hands form the resonant chamber, so you can reshape the sound and its character that way too. It’s fun to make a prototype that quickly, but the focus on making a polished final product did detract from playing around with instrument interactions early on and perhaps coming up with a more compelling instrument.

Here are my 3 iterations of circuit board design:

Rev 1 had a button, and pads to hook up random sensors to as we hadn’t decided on what the sensors would be yet.

Rev 2 had a potentiometer, but I read the wrong datasheet and didn’t place it quite in the centre of the board.

Rev 3 has the correct potentiometer, and a heart. Woo.

So anyway, my conclusion has been that I should stop trying to make things look finished and instead play around more with what to finish. What’s fun? What’s playful? I decided that the bread and butter of brainstorming (post-its and drawings) aren’t enough to evaluate interesting interaction, and I should try harder to play first and prototype later. Similarly, maybe I should go back to using breadboards for circuit design– even though most of the chips I use aren’t breadboardable, when I was in Russia I saw a lot of those chip socket breadboard breakout things so maybe I should get some. Explode shit more! Read datasheets less! haha

Tosa-san post-hackathon…

One way you can try to pretend to work with others in the hypothetical future is by sharing, so here are the source files for the eyeeye: hacktar.gz, you should make one.

Addendum rant:

We used this clear 3mm acrylic to make the eyeeye eyes with:

Notice how I milled acrylic here without cutting through the protective paper on the bottom? You know how I can do that? I USE CALIPERS WHEN I MEASURE MATERIAL THICKNESS. All you people that cut 10mm into the sacrificial layer are annoying, and I hope all your parts are ever warped.

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