Hackerspace on Treasure Hill

Visiting FabLab Taipei and OpenLab Taipei

Though I griped about Chinese internet censorship, FabLab Taipei was the real reason I hopped on a plane for a detour the last few days of my trip. Their facebook group is always sharing amazing projects and a video I saw at Fab11 of their Maker Faire showed a big, active, and creative community. I messaged the group the day before I arrived but didn’t hear back, so I got in touch the old fashioned way and showed up at their door.

I was greeted by a man named Sega Liu, who was working on his iteration of a fold-up 3D printer. He gave me a tour of the multi-room facility, which was punctuated by a number of surprising projects: incredible corrugated cardboard & resin surfboard (Ah cardboard, always reminds me of home), intricate laser cut wood paneling and an impressive cardboard-folded giant frog mask. The lab was stocked with capable machines, including an assortment of 3D printers, the familiar Roland circuitboard milling machine, and a very heavy duty CNC machine that doesn’t get much use (it runs the unfortunate Roland software, though it accepts plain text serial data not so different from GCode, so perhaps the more modern & open source ChiliPeppr could be modified to control it.) There’s a sizable laser cutter, lots of electronics equipment, and in the basement: a comprehensive wood-shop.

I felt immediately at home in the space, which had a lot in common with CUCFabLab: it is open to the community relatively late at night (every day 6–10PM), has every machine you could possibly need to make awesome stuff, and a lot of the furniture, well, has a hand-me-down feel (which I like better than the try-not-to-scratch-the-table newness of some places. Gives it character 😉

I chatted with Sega about my work back at CUCFabLab. It always surprises people to think FabLabbing could be a full time job. FabLab Taipei, like many hackerspaces, is all volunteer. I told Sega about how CUCFabLab has grown from an all volunteer staff to employing a dozen people at times (though I’ll write another time about the trade-offs in establishing a paid staff among volunteers). At some point in all this he decided that Ted, the main benefactor of the lab, would want to meet me and called him back to the lab (I guess I had just missed him).

Ted told me about the history of the lab, and how they use to have membership fees but eventually switched to free membership after establishing that it was a hard sell and wasn’t helping much with rent anyway. Apparently, Taipei is awash with low-cost designers and prototypers to the point where even university students don’t design things for themselves, they can hire someone to work for them for the price of a typical hackerspace membership. It is an interesting problem in Taiwan as in China, when building things is seen as something of a lower-class occupation: how do you catch people’s interest with the prospect of “Do It Yourself!”

Of course, the premise of a FabLab is to create something new, and in my experience learning to use a machine gives you a lot of ideas about what can be created with it — so if you want to design something (even to have someone else build it), if you want to be innovative, you could start by learning the various styles of fabrication. I think as people’s interest is piqued by the surprising inventions exhibited at Maker Faires and workshops, they will be enticed to try it themselves.

After telling Ted that I was interested in learning about as many maker communities as possible, he said “We better get over to OpenLab then, you can come to FabLab any night but OpenLab is Wednesdays, lets go.”

Exterior of FabLab Taipei, Interior of cab across town.

Ted hailed a cab to take us across town to OpenLab Taipei, past a temple and through narrow corridors. I had just read about this neighborhood earlier that day: an illegal settlement of improvised architecture that the city chose to preserve and transform into a collective of artist studios called Treasure Hill. I was surprised to find out that a hackerspace was nestled among the concrete cubes stacked up here, but it certainly fit in among the artist studios.

The most striking project sitting on the shelf was a 3D printed Immorton Joe mask complete with ribbon cable hairdo. A very DIY shortwave radio built with point-to-point soldering on a copper board was being tuned into Chinese music. Scattered on the table were other projects in progress including a recycled CD drive pen plotter. A pile of vintage diagnostics gear completed the hackerspace aesthetic, and an impressive laser-etched stamp stood ready to print more banners for promoting the space.

We were just here for an hour before people were packing up. Ted and I took the metro one stop to the Shida night market to keep chatting about maker communities. There was some fantastic barbeque chicken (was that cinnamon? Five spice?) and instead of bars in this area there are convenience stores with barstools in a sitting area — kind of neat, you pay convenience store prices for a bar experience. We talked about 3Nod underwriting Fab12 and how Fab Academy would work for a Chinese student body (the material will be translated on a rolling basis and Chinese fab labs will work a few weeks behind English language labs).

The next day I visited the Treasure Hill artist village again, this time in the daylight. It has fantastic art scattered around the open areas and on top of roofs. I peaked into a small cafe called Tadpole Point and saw they had burgers with fried egg on the menu so I put in an order and browsed the art books lining the wall. The room had a great view out the screen door overlooking the interstate and the valley. According to wiki this location was originally fortified for anti-aircraft defense, but it’s a good place to enjoy the scenery, too. With a great burger served on a solid wood butcher block and a breeze through a window of the poured concrete room, I reflected on how cheap materials can be arranged so elegantly, in the case of architecture and for food.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to find out more about the Conductive Ink Experiment nor the More Than Useful Detective Lab.

Sleeping In at Dragon Burn

Camping in Anji (安吉县) at the regional Burning Man

So that happened. A surprise opportunity to see what the Chinese interpretation of Burning Man would look like, for less than 100USD, tent & bus ticket included. Duh.

My friend had basically been camping at Xin Che Jian anyway, and he jumped at the opportunity to take the early bus out to volunteer and set up, which I’m a little jealous of, cause he got to build stuff. I woke up early the next day to make my way downtown to catch a bus. Unfortunately, I was feeling groggy when I descended to the subway platform during morning rush hour, and saw people stuffing themselves like sardines onto the southbound train and I thought to myself “Whoa. Good thing I don’t have to get on that train.” and took the path of least resistance onto the nearly empty northbound train. I took me 2 stops to realize I was going away from downtown when I had the opportunity to transfer to another equally stuffed train. I didn’t see how I would squeeze my full pack of luggage on and calculated that I probably wouldn’t make it in time anyway. The end of the line was called “Meilan Lake” and I thought that sounded nice so I just stayed on the roomy, quiet, wrong train.

Luckily I looked at a map (for once) to see that there wasn’t actually a lake anywhere near the Meilan Lake stop and got off at one of the University stops instead. I wandered around campus, trying to enjoy the streams and the sun and hoping I would run into something interesting, but ended up just heading back to Xin Che Jian after a half hour. The whole time I had a backup plan, of course: there would be a 7pm bus, and I had the feeling they would honor my bus ticket regardless.

Woman in native American headdress in Shanghai, telling people “Get the fuck on the bus” at once playfully and sternly. Chinese twenty-something in what I called “that hat people wear in rice fields” and she called “yeah, an asian hat.” carrying 40L of water. Sycamore trees in the French Concession.

Later in the afternoon, after killing time installing a different linux on my laptop (hooray! everything works on debian right away! ❤ debian) I decided to walk the mile and a half to the bus pickup spot, strangely enough an Australian sports bar. I later eavesdropped “there’s just not that many places in Shanghai to park a bus.”

So I meet my fellow burners. I shouldn’t have been too surprised but it was about 80% expats. People working in Shanghai from Copenhagen, Ireland, Canada, U.K. and so on. We shared some food, stood around while the luggage was loaded onto the buses. The ticket-taker couldn’t find my name on the list (since I bought a ticket for a different time) so she made me pinky-swear that I didn’t counterfeit my ticket and let me on the bus.

I picked a seat to myself, only now remembering that I have a hard time starting a conversation with someone without already having a reason.

I hadn’t slept much, and having just walked 2 miles with 30 pounds of stuff, I submitted to my exhaustion and closed my eyes for the first half hour of being on the bus. I tried to nap, ignoring the noise and the music of a bus on its way to a party in the forest, but eventually I opened my eyes to see the Chinese billboards and illuminated LED skyscrapers and was struck by the improbability and novelty of my rolling through Shanghai to the soundtrack of 1970s American Funk being played on a portable loudspeaker.

I decided that maybe it was a good thing I wasn’t talking to anyone, I could focus on the strange scenery out the window — the sprawling city and far off, inexplicable bright lights. At one point there was what looked like a half of a donut sticking out of the ground on the horizon, lit up like a televsion. I still have no idea what it was. Maybe it was just a giant, donut-shaped televison, maybe they have those here.

Eventually, though, the Canadian girl sitting by herself behind me tapped my shoulder, asking if I was travelling alone, and I traded in my excess legroom for a conversation partner. I told her about my work at FabLab and she told me about how she got a teaching job in Tripoli right out of college, owing to her double degree in History and Psychology. She says the job market wasn’t looking good for people who could only teach one thing, so she buckled down and double majored. She taught in Libya during a relatively peaceful period a year ago, but was evacuated soon after she started hearing gunshots at night aimed at her apartment bloc. Luckily, her contract was up soon anyway and she lined up a teaching job at one of the international (a.k.a. private) schools in Shanghai. I asked her about the curriculum difference between public schools and private schools, how China’s role in WWII was represented differently and the kids in private school were taught from U.K. textbooks. I wondered what conversations about history looked like between kids who had different educations, but she wasn’t around for that.

So of course I knew this bus was full of interesting people to talk to, you don’t get on a bus from Shanghai to a Burning Man by sitting at home all day, but still I couldn’t help but keep to myself. I tell myself that I have enough ideas I haven’t done anything about, and meeting people will just fill my head with new ideas before I’m done with any old ones. I know that’s dumb, I’m just rationalizing my introversion.

Anyway, this happened:

Pulled over in the middle of nowhere.

“Why did we stop? Did we lose the other bus?”

A few minutes go by.

“Does anyone know how to get to the campground?”

“Oh nooo, we’re the lost bus.”

“While we’re at it, does anyone on board know how to fly a plane? And also know how to get to the campground?”

My ‘VIP’ tent on the left, the more communal tent city on the right. There was food getting cooked in the tent city. You live, you learn.

But we made it, rolling up to a forest glowing bright green at half past midnight. People lined up to check in, renting tents and accepting the garbage bags being handed to each person. I opted to pay the extra ten bucks to rent a tent that was already set up on a platform so I could get right to dancing. That ended up being just a so-so decision, tho, since these ‘VIP’ tents were on a different part of the campground than everyone else. Not only was it removed from the easy community that comes with having a dozen people living a couple meters away from you, it was a lot closer to the main stage and the loudspeakers, which is pretty VIP until you want to sleep. In the morning when I was looking for a water kettle to cook my cup of noodles, I saw campers gathered in the walkways with propane hot plates and lots of finger food and again kicked myself for paying extra to stay at the top of the hill. I suppose I could have joined them, but I didn’t think I had much to offer and in general feel like I’m being rude if I insert myself into someone else’s situation.

Before I found out that I was going to be an introvert for the whole weekend, though, I did dance my butt off til 4am. I started recording the music just after that before crawling into my tent, too bad the recorder died after 7 minutes, the music played until noon. That was the most surreal part of the whole thing, waking up to gray light and looking out my tent to see a foggy forest at what I guessed was about 7am with like 8 people still dancing. Actually being able to lounge in my tent and watch the dance field was pretty cool, though.

I went back to bed, no longer phased by nonstop bass arpeggios. Actually I think it had an airplane-jet-engine-drone effect on me, where just the constant loudness lulls me to sleep. I’m pretty sure I woke up the second time when the music stopped, out of a confused “something’s different, what’s going on” kind of reaction to the quiet.

With the sun back in the sky, a few people stretching turned into an impromptu yoga class as people woke up and copied what the especially-stretchy guy was doing. We would follow him from one stretch to another, everyone laughing at themselves for not getting half as far into the stretch as our accidental class-leader.

More buses of people showed up, bringing the campground total to somewhere between 100–150 burners. People made art, offered their juggling clubs to people who wanted to try, and talked to each other during the quiet afternoon before the next DJ was scheduled. There was an awful lot of smoke circles that I didn’t want to participate in, so I felt put off from making friends, though in retrospect there were enough people sitting out that it wasn’t a good reason to keep to myself. I think what’s really happening with me is that I feel bad about not maintaining my existing relationships better, I know I leave people hanging a lot, maybe say ‘see you soon’ and never make plans. I imagine I’m doing a disservice to someone to introduce myself and make new friends knowing I won’t answer their messages either. It takes energy to reach out to people, and maybe I’m greedy with whatever energy I have, taking it for myself. I’m still trying to figure out how much I want to change that.

When I did want to socialize, though, there was a really great sunlit cabin beside the tent city and the dance field. The elongated honeycomb framing the windows overlooking the lake was really beautiful. The table was a giant slab of a single tree, 20 feet long and 4 feet wide, mounted on sawed off tree trunks. Really nice place to sit and boil water and chat. The regional’s organizer told stories of Burning Man back in the 90s, before they had rules about firearms, for instance. His old photos from the playa were strewn about the table, along with his choice comic books and various revolutionary propaganda. I borrowed a copy of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and fell asleep in a hammock.

The next morning I noticed a ‘Moka Pot Coffee Workshop (free coffee)’ on the schedule and made sure to be back at the cabin at 10am sharp. Had a really pleasant time sitting with people from all over the world exchanging coffee rituals. The Italian running the ‘workshop’ showed us how his grandmother whipped sugar and a drop of coffee into a foam. We struggled to find cups and found out PET has a pretty low melting point. I figured out I have a much better time with people who are waking up on stimulants than people passing around narcotics.

That’s about all I have to report. It was loud, I slept a lot, the mountains are really pretty, I actually don’t have a lot of fun at parties. Had a great conversation concerning how you learn a lot about yourself when travelling just because you’re always putting yourself in new situations, and you get to see how you react to it. I react to lots of things by sleeping.

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.