Coding in Shanghai: Javascript Hackathon

One Friday night, googling (or, baidu-ing?) for “things to do in Shanghai,” I found out about a hackathon being held the next day: 24 hours using MeteorJS to build a web app. Perfect! I’d built a dirt simple sign-in sheet with NodeJS and Javascript, but my code was already getting messy so I shelved it until I was ready to rewrite it from scratch. The hackathon was just the excuse I needed to try a modern framework (i.e. someone else’s code that does most of the work for you) to rewrite my sign-in sheet for the FabLab’s many machines. And hey, if it’s polished enough, maybe other FabLabs would want to use it, too.

I was finally getting used to Shanghai’s metro system and found the Agora Co-working space without any trouble. It’s a beautiful office with a garden out back and the wifi was the fastest I’d gotten anywhere in China. I liked the place right away.

This was my second hackathon (after the People’s Music School Hack Music) so I was a little more proactive about introducing myself and what I wanted to do. Pretty quickly, a small team assembled around my laser-sign-in sheet project, but it was a bit every-man-for-himself as far as learning MeteorJS goes. We were all there for the same reason, to try out the new framework, but without any kind of guided introduction / classroom situation, we were left to read the docs and getting starter guides, which isn’t really a group project.

But after a couple hours, I felt like I was learning a lot and my teammembers felt they had worked through enough of the tutorials that were ready to work on something together, but then we were all new at collaborative coding, too! Especially for a one-page app, it’s difficult to divvy up the work. We didn’t figure that out until after an hour of learning to use github (another good learning experience, though, cloning and committing and all that, that’s definitely a good thing to work through with other people in the same room instead of just reading a getting started guide.) Once we could finally push and clone each other’s code we arrived at the question of how to split up the work. We all took a stab at creating a good foundation to work up from, but were all using our own preferred approaches and stepped on each others feet when we tried to merge our ideas together, so when were getting settled in after dinner and my team members asked what we should work on, I said:

“I want to suggest that we all do whatever we want to”

And that worked out pretty well. A sign in sheet is a simple enough app that we could all write it from scratch, and this way we could experiment with the approach that interested us instead of trying to come to agreement on what tools to use together. So from then on out we worked on our own thing, snacked in the kitchen on occasion, and put on our headphones to focus whenever we wanted, and I think we all had a good time. I stayed up late and slept on that giant beanbag in the first picture.

In the morning I showed my progress to a few guys (it works, but it doesn’t have a way of saving the data or reseting each day, yet), but had to bid them farewell before the end of the Hackathon to get across town for the Shanghai Maker Carnival. It was great to find some friends in such a big city and feel like I was on a programming team (however dysfunctional) for a day.

Pictures posted on their Meetup by Julian:

Shanghai Maker Carnival: A Poem of Optimism and Pessimism

All my cameras’ batteries died, so I drew a picture instead.

Really great 1930s era stadium built from stone filled with exhibitors’ tents surrounded by high-rises from every decade. Old tenements and new glass skyscrapers.

A booth where people assembled a kitted ukulele.

Mothers looking proud as their young sons soldered electronic kits.

Women my age exhibiting their hand dyed indigo fabrics and basket weaving skills, holding workshops to teach traditional crafts. People being just as enthusiastic to try basket weaving as LED blinking.

Superb LEGO sculptures.

A girl who was super stoked that I paid 20 yuan (~3USD) for their orange juice. (I was super confused, they were a coffee / juice bar, so all their bottled products said coffee/juice, and I was trying to ask if this coffee has juice in it, or does this juice have coffee in it)

Neat products. Super simple robot kits. A sweet dirt cheap LIDAR module for autonomous vehicles. Nixie tube clocks: a whole niche market fueled by soviet vacuum tubes.

Little kids operating tiny machining tools. A lathe just a foot long, a table saw that was 4 inches square. I can’t find the company that was representing there, but I found the product on alibaba. Parents were letting their kids cut and lathe and grind stuff with no safety gear and I was actually super concerned but nobody else was. Sam told a parent, ‘OK hope no one cuts their finger off’ and the dad just laughed. I’m like, ya’ll gotta tie your hair back what are you doing.

Lots of DIY laser cutters. Even little 2W lasers can blind you instantly why didn’t you build an enclosure you really should be wearing eye protection it’s not hard.

A long line of people waiting to step inside a giant safety net to pilot a quadcopter for a few minutes. A couple of quadcopters flying around outside this cage, videoing the event.

A young boy pointing up excitedly a the surveilling quadcopter in amazement. It occurs to me that if quadcopters eventually become omnipresent annoyances he might look back on the first time he saw one here.

Entrepreneurs getting to introduce hundreds of people to what their product can do. CNC machines, autonomous robots, and cute windmills all made from makerblock, pretty cool.

Entrepreneurs unable to attract a crowd to their demonstration of their variation on circuit lessons, puzzle games, or construction blocks. How they must have felt to have invested so much time to make a product and have everyone walk by to the crowded table neighboring theirs.

There’s a lot of people encouraged to make 10,000 of something to see if it will sell. So many ideas that only increase the demand for resource extraction for plastics, computer chips, and electricity.

But the air feels clean (pollution here, at least, is carried away by the breeze) and kids are building toy wind farms out of LEGOs.

Xin Che Jian in Shanghai

“New World Shopping Center”

Shanghai has always had a place in my imagination, from some mixture of movies and cartoons. “I think maybe because of Jackie Chan?” “Jackie Chan?! Jackie Chan is from Hong Kong!” “Yeah but some of his movies are in Shanghai probably, right?” So yeah I don’t know why, but I’ve always wanted to come here, and since the hacker-tour-group was moving onto Beijing the day after I arrived, I decided to stick it out with some new friends at Xin Che Jian.

It is an extremely active and welcoming community at Xin Che Jian: within hours of ■■■■■ getting in touch via IRC, we were let into the space and shown around. A couple hours after that, ■■■■■ got a commission to work on the space’s security features (name redacted due to maybe-his-visa-doesn’t-allow-commissions). So the members there are always looking for ways to improve the space and come up with new workshops: I hear they do workshops every weekend bringing in dozens of kids or adults— workshops every week is AMAZING for an ad-hoc organized community group.

They are tucked in a co-working space among design studios and probably tech-consulting firms (Wild guess, maybe I’ll ask next time I’m there). The kind of office where all the walls are made of glass and people seem to do business without a scrap of paper. There’s a nice hydroponics setup with a fat tilapia fish named Henry. There’s water-jugs converted to RGB LED lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Actually now that I look up at the ceiling I see all kinds of things hanging up: an RC helicopter, a model fighter plane, a bag of large sheets of styrofoam, and the wooden frame of an ultimaker 3D printer (lol). It reminds me of Makerspace Urbana, really, just big tables to spread out, and lots of boxes of old projects residing on shelves. Also you have to walk through a backalley to get in and you’re not sure if you’re in the right place until you see gears and LED strips.

Shanghai is an incredible place to have a hackerspace. Head east on Beijing road to the electronics markets: outdoor stalls in addition to a multi-story mall dedicated to selling electronics components. You can point to the one you want, haggle a price, head back to your hackerspace to see if it works, and come back and buy 1,000 of them if you want. My friend and I recalled all the times a project was slowed down to wait 2 weeks for a part (always faced with the dilemma, get it in 2 days, or get it cheap, I had the realization yesterday that all those parts I buy off eBay are available at the Chinese price, but I can get it today. Cause I’m in China. Mind blown.)

Linear rails, articulated arms, and motor couples, oh my!

The Artistic Side of Shenzhen

Imagine my surprise when I learned of a 2-week international jazz festival happening in this city, with artists from Italy, Russia, China, all over, and just my luck it was only the second day! I ended up only catching this one show, “Second Approach”, before leaving the city — a Russian trio of piano, upright bass, and singer. It was exciting to be in this kind of music venue all of a sudden, full of young Chinese jazz fans shouting for an encore.

This whole neighborhood, OCT, really surprised me after staying in the middle of the overcrowded concrete center of Shenzhen. “Overseas-born Chinese Town” is basically a reverse Chinatown, a place where people from all over the world have settled in China but brought international culture back with them. So there are patisseries and cafes and art galleries nestled among some of the most creatively-repurposed warehouses I’ve seen — giant wooden structures that let you slide down from the 2nd to the sidewalk framed by impressive and modern murals. I was pleasantly reminded of Arcosanti — a city whose architecture encourages you to climb onto roofs.

With graphic design firms and art galleries sharing renovated warehouses with shops of creative, handmade one-off goods, it reminded me of the parts of the American rust-belt whose economies are reinvigorated by the ‘creative industry’ — software, design, and technology firms, where money is made with ideas and services instead of physical goods. Many of these new businesses occupy the old warehouses of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and so on, and is often referred to as a post-industrial economy.

Well in OCT, these renovated warehouses are neighboring factories and shipping warehouses where business couldn’t be better. A large part of everything the world consumes is manufactured here. Foxconn is just up the road. With that, OCT struck me as a strange post-industrial utopia surrounded by the ultra-industrial reality of the world’s factories. (I expressed this while walking with some new friends, so I had to explain the notion of being “post industrial” to some people who lived in the most industrious city I’ve ever seen).

Oh my god that astronaut is fixing his flying saucer I love this place.

Being Treated to Shenzhen

Shenzhen has been a pretty wacky experience. As soon as we got out of the subway station, we were literally greeted by a dance troupe. At first it seemed like maybe they were just street performers or just practicing for some cheerleading competition, who knows, big city, right? Except it was a pretty empty part of town and we were the only audience. And after they finished dancing they took a picture with us and walked away. It was super bizarre and disorienting and at the same time effective at welcoming us to the everything-will-happen attitude of Shenzhen.

The luxury tour bus provided by Tsinghua university was a big step up from taking the subway everywhere in Hong Kong, although it was always a little unnerving having little information on what the plan was, where we were going, how long we were going to be on the bus, that was always a mystery.

Basically, a cheerful woman meets us at the subway station and says she has a bus for us outside, and we gladly duck into the air conditioning. She welcomes us to China and introduces us to her co-workers (tho at this point we don’t know anything about her company) and one of her coworkers sings a song a capella over the bus’s PA. OK. We spend an hour driving on the highway through the city and the scale of this place become apparent. Unlike every other city I’ve been in where you drive out of the city center and the building get shorter, it seems that pretty much any residence here is required to be 40 stories high. Just endless high rises, with new ones being constructed right beside them. The only way you know you’re ‘downtown’ is when the high rises are covered in animated LED displays.

So we make it to Harbor School after weaving our way through a construction site with big signs for ‘special economic zone’ and I’ve written a separate blog about it cause it was awesome:

And afterwards we had dinner at a great hot pot place, all paid for by our hosts (again, still unclear at this point on why they were treating us so well and who they were. Like I’m sure it was mentioned but I don’t know the name of any of the companies so it didn’t stick.) The next day it became more clear who are hosts were as we toured their factories that are owned by a company that has a partnership with the university. I’ll blog more about the factories separately, but after a few factory tours we ended up at this place:

It’s the showroom for this company 3Nod, and it took a while to figure out what the company did. The 3D room sized screen intro video communicated that they were all about creating a better future (implication: for wealthy people who live in spaceships). But the showroom was full of bluetooth speakers and headphones. Their vision of a smart home was just projector walls (a la Fahrenheit 451, surrounded by TVs…) I liked the style of the furniture, though one of my compatriots pointed out that they’d be pretty useless in practice, unless you can do all of your work via touchscreen.

Also the lights kinda clicked on and off without warning, the screens seemed to react to your gestures but didn’t do a great job (cause it’s Kinect based and it’s unreliable and everyone moved on from arm-wavey-HCI decades ago) so it seemed like their vision of the future was full of glitches and really needless technology stacks. There’s four projectors for that one wall. That’s like 2kW to have a bamboo forest by your couch. It would literally take less energy to just grow bamboo in your living room.

I really liked the couch tho.

Anyway we briefly met with Richard up in his office full of cigars and brandy. Very hollywood personality and attire. He kind of just pitched his company and his personal story to us without any context of why he’d invited a bunch of hackers/makers for a tour. He wanted to meet with Mitch and suggested the rest of us continue a tour of the building and hang out in his office on the top floor where he entertains. So there we were, a dozen idealists walking around gawking at this guy that makes his millions selling headphones with Alex took on entertaining us with piano and Jona performed a Chinese tea ceremony.

I noted that even surrounded by ostentatious wealth, sitting on plush couches, people still turn to their smartphones when they’re bored. Nothing all that exciting about it.

Ah, but no one is checking their phones in this last photo — we caught a ride to ShenzhenDIY. Well, the bus got us to the neighborhood but didn’t want to go onto the skinnier streets, so it was a nice walk. First past bustling markets with flashing LED and neon signage, electric bikes and mopeds weaving through people crossing the street, then through a dark alley with unfinished pavement such that a flashlight was necessary not to trip. Up a few flights of stairs in an old concrete building that I later learned housed a clothing factory and a Japanese sword factory (wait what?) we made it to the first real hackerspace of China, a tight community of people excited to meet visitors and share projects and passions. A DIY car chassis sat behind a comfy couch. Guitars and mixing boards sat against the wall. People passed around the microchips they were excited to write programs for. We went in a circle introducing ourselves and an expat member of the space announced in surprise that he is also from San Antonio, and he has never been in a room with so many Texans in China (two people in our tour group in the same room, pretty easy record to beat!)

A couple of friends and I went back the next day thanks to Yuheng opening the space for us to take advantage of the wifi and air conditioning. Here’s his github. He told us he’s writing a programming language with formal syntax to prove logical theorems (it won’t but the first, but it’s still an awesome project to write your own language). He was also interested in the design of spoken languages and introduce me to Toki Pona, an invented language of 120 words. He told us this was the first time he had a conversation with people speaking English which really surprised us and we asked how he learned, he said just talking along with American TV and movies. He also played a pretty mean Nirvana cover with one of the hackerspace’s guitars. Very inspiring dude.

Oh and this is the hackerspace that opened a second space at Harbor School, so they’re reaching out to the wider community and just being awesome.