Botanic Gardens & Cat Café

Spent all day being a tourist. Took the ferry to the city, walked up the staircase — since the escalators go down during morning rush hour — to an American Diner called the Flying Pan (it totally didn’t occur to me that it’s a stupid racial pun until it was pointed out to me later, I just thought frying pans flying across the diner was a good image.)

Wandered around the botanic gardens, established in 1864! It’s incredible to think how much growth happened around these gardens.

Took the Peak Tramway up the mountain.

Walked down the mountain. It was a slow realization that the entire mountain was encased in concrete to prevent erosion. Most of it is covered in lichen and ferns, so I doubted myself until I saw fresh concrete slathered on (third picture). Lots of little streams built in as well.

Later in the day, Mitch and I stopped by a Cat Cafe 🙂

BBQ at Dim Sum Labs

Our last night in Hong Kong was spent with great food and tons of people. Conversation varied from the legality of weather balloons to the relationship between the color of LEDs and the color of stars (got my answer: of course it has to do with the electron band gap, even though LEDs produce light in a completely different way than the black box radiation of stars.)

People worked together to create a web server to control the color of the room’s lighting and brainstormed how to track the position of a flexible mesh of LEDs with OpenCV. We ate mango mochi (made in Kowloon!) and politely argued about the glycemic index of sugar vs flour and tried to recall why corn was ever subsidized in the first place. We found things around the space that connected us back home (Super sweet corn invented at UIUC, aerosol manufactured in Somerset xD).

The Dim Sum Labs Fridge. Taping the wifi-controlled MOSFETs to the ceiling.

The BBQ, if there was any doubt, was cooked on the shell of a PowerMac G5. We consulted each other about whether anodized aluminum was okay to burn under our food (we’re pretty sure it is, unless Apple dyed it a slightly shinier gray or something).

We learned about each other’s projects: an activist group collating tweets of UK police kettling into a compass telling protesters how to avoid the police lines. A helium balloon lost at sea. A CNC machine that performs micro-pipetting. Running a web server on the ESP2866 (a surprisingly powerful programmable wifi microchip for under $2).

Lots of hacking, lots of fun.

Day Two in Hong Kong

Today was a lot of walking. We met up with a local event organizer for lunch in the hilly Mid Levels of Hong Kong — but the restaurant was a tight fit for 18 people (and more trickling in…) so a few of us decided to walk back to central station. Half way there we intercepted a couple others from our group and joined up with them. It was a long walk for lunch in a subway station but it was nice to see more of the center of the city, with all of its elevated pedestrian walkways.

On the way back we took the escalators through the city, which seems like a really neat way to commute. Elevated moving sidewalks, pretty futuristic you know? The video might be boring but you can see what it’s like, anyway.

We arrived at a very cool destination called PMQ: a mixed use historic building that’s a lot of fun to explore the balconies and shops to the mixture of pianists practicing or improvising on the public pianos.

There were some nice exhibits about its history: it was originally a government school (British Colonial government, that is) in the 19th century sitting right between a neighborhood full of western foreigners and a neighborhood full of Chinese. The road that runs through both neighborhoods is called “Hollywood Road” (so named before Hollywood, California existed) and this school brought people from both neighborhoods together to study. Chinese students enrolled in English and westerners enrolled in Chinese classics (OK now I’m just reading the wiki article 🙂

A video playing in an exhibit also covered the building’s brief stint as a family dormitory for policemen. A man being interviewed recalled that each of the balconies was a shared dining area for two families, and from one balcony and you could look around to see who was having dinner and what they were cooking, and that it was a festive atmosphere every night with families all eating together. I could picture it standing there, and it seems like a really good design for a family residence. However, it was abandoned in 2000 and since renovated into this big mix of start ups, art studios, and craft shops (I bet a few of these shops have Etsy stores, I’ll put it that way).

Click to zoom and check out the smiley face balloon just chilling out.

Eventually we met up with some guys at Brinc, an “internet of things accelerator” with an office on the top floor of the building. I learned what an accelerator does! I had always lumped them into the same category as shared work spaces and incubators, just as something mysterious where people spend a lot of other people’s money. But it made sense that there’s a lot of people with an idea that they want to bring to market, but without experience working with manufacturers they risk bankrupting themselves without ever getting a finished product out of a factory.

So these guys make their experience getting new technology made at existing factories available to newbies, as well as marketing and business consulting like “Does your product have any desirability to the consumer?”, “How does your product stack up against its competition”, you know, value proposition stuff. [Insert guy’s name when I find his business card again] told us a lot of engineers think they have a good product just because they made something and it works. They hadn’t really gone through the rest of the process of whether it’s marketable, or even manufacturable. So the accelerators work with these startups to make sure they have a good product before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars approaching factories.

Imagining a group of guys building something and thinking they could just kickstart it and then order 1,000 of their widgets made me wonder, do any of these teams even have a friend that went to business school? Did anyone raise these questions before they moved to San Francisco looking for investors? So I asked [guy from Brinc] if the teams that come to him are mixes of business people and tech people, and he confirmed that it’s not too often they find a team that already has a balance of expertise, so that’s why they often serve to connect these startups with whatever talent they’re missing.

This made me realize that CUCFabLab working with the business school at U of I is a really unique, very positive partnership if it can encourage tech folks to mingle with the business minded, just so that if either of them has a good idea, they have a wider perspective of what the process of bringing hardware to market entails.

I thought it was very interesting to learn that this Brinc accelerator would bring start up teams out to live in Hong Kong, with the idea that if you’re going to be paying thousands of dollars for consultants and so on, you better be paying people that work directly with the factories that will make your product. We heard stories of start ups that burn through millions of dollars of funds by hiring teams and lawyers and talent to start a business without even making it across the pacific to start building their thing.

Afterwards, most of the group went on to the MakerBay hackerspace but I was feeling drained of energy, tired of being wet and a little sick, so I made my way back to Kowloon in search of a good Ramen shop. Found “Butao” and got a very spicy pork belly ramen and had myself a good sinus-clearing cry.

Hacker Trip To China

Hong Kong

That’s Innovation Tower! Looks like a cruise ship from the year 2070, right? Possibly interplanetary space-worthy? It houses the school of design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and was the first stop of Noisebridge’s Hacker Trip To China 2015.

We toured three separate spaces just today: the workshops at PolyTech, DimSubLabs, and LAB by Dimension+.

Sewing Studio & Ceramic Studio at PolyTech

We met with William of Dim Sum Labs outside our hotel who took us on a tour of the PolyTechnic University, pointing our the tight grouping of the Business School, Design School, and Textiles School. We interrupted a couple of classes, where students were happy to explain what they were working on. I met one guy doing a papercraft mech (you know, those giant flying fighting robots) which he designed in CAD and broke out all kinds of engineering drawings of how to fold this complex origami. A girl was working on a chair made of bamboo and cord, taking advantage of its tension. Always something being cut in two (I think I saw some chiseling going on) and folded into shape.

So it’s a very well equipped university lab, open only to design students. Reminded me that I wish I had access to ceramics wheels again. The thing that attracted my attention the most was the excellent signage! Maybe a boring thing but it’s a topic of constant discussion at CUCFabLab — how to make the signs better, how to make sigs that express rules and expectations and capabilities. So when I saw the wall-sized page-turning displays of materials, I said to myself “Duh!” and when I saw a big poster listing all the tools available at the lab with a key connecting it to its picture, I said to myself, “duh!” There was even a big poster by the laser cutters describing what line weight and file format to use.

So I got organizationally inspired. After concluding our tour, we had a big lunch (I’ve been impressed so far with Hong Kong restaurant’s capacity to cater to a group of 18 people without warning) and headed to Dim Sum Labs, but not before topping off our ‘Octupus Cards’ — which is the tap to pay card for all the public transit systems as well as convenience stores. I forget who it was, but somebody had an app on their phone that could read any NFC chip and dump all of its information on the screen, so with one tap we found out the model # of the microchip and the software version running on these featureless plastic cards. Neat stuff — we joked about editing the information (chiefly, the current balance), but there’s some pretty tight encryption running on those little plastic cards, too.

“Do you think I can edit the balance of this without putting cash on it?”

“Put money on it without paying money? Yeah I’d like to know, too.”

Workshop at Polytech, Dim Sum Labs, and Architecture Model Lab at Polytech

Dim Sum Labs is a one room affair (I think I heard 400 sq ft), which they pay about $1,500 USD/month for. They’ve got some great self-screen-printed tshirts (William is wearing one in the pics) and a great RGB LED lighting system — kind of looks like christmas lights in the picture. One of the members was working on an upgrade: to make the color of the whole room programmable (switching a few amps on and off is a little tougher than blinking one LED).

I was reminded of my dream-classroom for teaching intro to programming: individually addressable LEDs covering the ceiling such that each student in a classroom could start by controlling just the one LED, getting to know how to blink it and effect its color. Then each student could work their way up to controlling larger arrangements: perhaps a row of 5 LEDs, then a grid of 5 x 5 LEDs, until the students’ combined work is creating undulating colors across the whole ceiling.

The benefit of this is twofold:

  1. basic programming is a lot more interesting if you get to control something not on your computer screen (I learned by manipulating strings in a command line, but I see people blinking LEDs are a lot more enthusiastic about a few lines of code.)
  2. As a teacher / mentor, you don’t have to squint and bend down to someone’s screen to see how they’re doing. You can see the progress of the whole class at once. Better yet, the students can see the results of each others work, too, leading to un-plannable “how did you do that?!” learning moments.

So I was going on about how I wanted to build a room like that, and the guy I was talking to (I’ll learn everyone’s names soon enough…) said “Oh, we got a ceiling you could do that with at our hackerspace in Chico (California)”


Then a guy across the table says “What? You live in Chico? I grew up in Chico!” The bigger the city, the smaller the world.

The rooftop at Dim Sum Labs.

After hanging out a Dim Sum Labs for an hour or two, and we connected to an acquaintance that was told “We’d like to visit Dim Subs Labs and other places of Geek Interest” by Mitch so we ended up at a very cool espresso bar / third wave coffee shop (that’s the kind where they roast the beans behind the counter and let you pick out which farm you want to try the flavor of) that had local art for sale, the majority of which was laser cut upstairs.

Laser Cut Stuff + Quick-and-Dirty Ceramic 3D Printer at “Labs by Dimension+”

Again, I was inspired and surprised by dioramas that communicated the capabilities of the space. Just a general feeling of “why didn’t I think of that?” all day. So they’ve got these products they sell, both as little assemble-it-yourself kits like the bud vase and as assembled products which you can inspect all of the parts. I’d love to build some of these at my home FabLab as well, just to get people’s minds going on what you can do with these tools.

Afterwards we wandered an electronics market, tho it was late enough that most booths were closed. A few people were figuring out SIM cards and international power adapters. Mitch was testing the charge rate of different USB cables which is a shocking discovery that merits further investigation: some USB cables charged his phone at a piddling 80mAH and others charged at 10 times that rate. Like, what? It’s four wires, there’s nothing in there, how can one cable charge so much faster than another? Hmm…

Anyway, I need to buy an umbrella. It’s going to be a rainy week.