Catching up with SYN Shop

January 10th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on December 5, 2013

SYN Shop, Las Vegas’ first open-membership hackerspace, has been active in its downtown Fourth St location for nearly a year. Led by Brian Munroe and a small group of dedicated volunteers, SYN Shop transitioned from a handful of tinkerers gathering monthly in a garage to an much larger number of tinkerers meeting at all hours in a sidewalk-facing space just outside the cacophony and glow of the Fremont Street Experience.

I wrote about SYN Shop shortly after its opening, and recently met with Brian to discuss both its development over the past year and what we can expect to see from the hackerspace as we head into 2014.

Interview time!

BEING DOWNTOWN

SYN Shop is nestled just a block away from the Fremont Street Experience. Has downtown treated you well? How has the neighborhood changed since first opening your doors?

I remember when we first took over the space, once you turned off the Fremont St Experience and started heading north on 4th, the street really took on a kind of creepy feel to it. There were hardly any tourists around and lots of dark shadows. I remember walking to SYN Shop with the CEO from 3rd Ward, a creative space in Brooklyn, and even he noticed that things got a bit ‘different’ once we turned off of the main drag.

Now days, with the opening of The Grand, The Gold Spike and Nacho Daddy, this area definitely feels safer and less lonely. Plenty of people walking by which really makes a huge difference. We get so much foot traffic from people just curious to find out what the heck SYN Shop really is.

In what ways has the arrival of Zappos and the growth of the downtown tech scene impacted SYN Shop? Are you seeing a corresponding increase in membership?

I think that the move has definitely helped our membership. I can think of a few people who moved into some of the surrounding high rises, but still would like to tinker as if they had a garage. SYN Shop gives them that ability, plus it is easy access for them since it is no more then a 5-10 minute walk.

Do new members tend to be downtown residents, or are they coming from all over the valley?

Members typically come from all over the valley. I figured we would get some downtowners, but most are suburbanites who drive at least a few miles to get to the Shop.

MAKING THINGS

Any new gear acquisitions recently? Are you still soliciting hardware donations, or is the hackerspace pretty much outfitted at this point?

3D printing is really hot right now! We started off with a single Makerbot Replicator 2, but it was being used so much we ended up buying two additional 3D printers. We have some rockstar 3D printer operators in our community and they do their best to keep them running and teach members the correct way to use the machines, from the software choices to the best way to post process the finish on a 3D print.

We are always looking for people wanting to donate equipment, but we have to be a little bit choosey because our space is very limited (and the space we had filled up way quicker then we imagined).

Classes on subjects such as soldering, basic electronics, and robotics have been held throughout the year. Are classes bringing in new members, or do attendees tend to be current members brushing up on skills? How has class attendance been?

Most of the people who take our classes don’t usually become members, but a lot of times they know someone who would be a perfect fit for SYN Shop, so they send them our way. Class attendance has been really good, usually when we offer a class it is filled almost immediately. We use Meetup.com as our scheduling system, so we get a pretty good network effect in doing so. Another amazing thing is that a lot of members are willing to teach classes on a wide variety of subjects, so we end up with a nice selection of classes being offered.

What kind of projects are members working on these days?

A whole broad range really. Lots of wood working projects – people are really interested in learning to use the Shopbot, our large format CNC router. All kinds of furniture: tables, desks, cabinets, etc have been designed and built using that machine. We also recently discovered a site called OpenDesk that shares the cut files from some pretty nice looking contemporary furniture. In a nutshell, you download the plans and then cut it out on the Shopbot. If you improve on the design, or come up with your own, you can share your modifications and everyone else can benefit. It is a great ecosystem that is kind of unique to a craft like woodworking.

We are of course doing plenty of electronics projects as well. We picked up a vending machine that a few members have been modifying to tie into our membership system. The goal is to stock the machine with items that you might need while working in the shop (little electronic components, machine bits, microprocessors, etc) and members can purchase these items without having to pump a bunch of quarters into the machine, it is just added onto your monthly membership fee.

THE FUTURE

SYN Shop has participated in area events ranging from First Friday to the Las Vegas Science Festival. What kind of role do you see the space playing in the local community?

What can folks expect to see from SYN Shop in 2014?

We definitely want to have another Mini-MakerFaire. That was a lot of fun and it really showed us that there are actually a lot of DIY / Makers in town that we never knew existed. We also want to hold a lot more classes!

The first year we were just trying to build out the space and figure out the best way to manage it. I think we’ve figured that out for the most part, so now we can focus on making some really awesome offerings for Las Vegas.

A brief guide to backing Kickstarter campaigns

January 8th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on November 21, 2013

Last week, a new startup called Coin began taking preorders for a product currently in development, a small device about the size and thickness of a credit card that stores the information from multiple credit cards, membership cards, gift cards, whatever. The clever bit is that from there the Coin device can itself be swiped on a cardreader – just like a credit card – with the owner able to select between stored cards prior to a purchase. It’s a neat idea (you can get in on the preorder at onlycoin.com), and not the topic of this week’s column, but it reminds me of a previous attention-garnering campaign for a similar device called the Geode.

The Geode, also a device that combined the convenience of a digital wallet with the usability of a swipeable card, was developed by a company called iCache and announced alongside a Kickstarter campaign in March of 2012. The campaign was a roaring success (with over seven times the $50,000 goal raised), but the final development and release of the Geode itself was a spectacular flop. Plagued by hardware problems, timing, and personnel issues, iCache delivered only a portion of the devices to campaign backers before disappearing entirely by the end of 2012. Considering the $159 price tag and no recourse for restitution, Kickstarter backers were livid, and many were turned off from Kickstarter altogether. That brings us to the subject of this week’s column.

Since starting in 2009, I’ve backed over 50 Kickstarter projects. Aside from one that nearly fell apart only to be rescued by a generous benefactor two years later, none of them have failed. A big part of the success has been luck, but I also research and watch a campaign closely before throwing in support. Over the last five years I’ve come across the following indicators (three weird tricks that drive Kickstarter leads crazy!), line items that when checked, more often than not lead to successful campaigns:

The project or product has a prototype. This applies equally to both hardware and software. Pitch documents, CAD diagrams, and witty intro videos are all well and good, but the single highest signifier (for me) is the existence of actual development. If it’s a game, does gameplay exist? If it’s hardware, is there a rough version of the widget that actually does what they say it’ll do? This shows that the creator believes in the project enough to progress when the money isn’t there. With luck, they’ll progress even faster once funding arrives.

The organizers update the campaign frequently. Come across a multiple-weeks-old Kickstarter project with only one or two updates? Don’t back it. As many a failed organizer has learned, running a Kickstarter is hard, and takes serious commitment and a lot of time. So does actually making a thing. If the organizer doesn’t have the dedication to keep new and prospective backers updated on the campaign as it progresses, chances are the organizer won’t have the dedication to follow through when the campaign’s over, either.

Don’t bank on nostalgia. Continuing from the staggering success of early game revival campaigns such as Shadowrun Returns and Wasteland II, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with a video game in the 1980s has appeared from the woodwork with a Kickstarter project of their own. Sure, the prospect of seeing thing-you-remember-as-a-kid revisited sounds like a lot of fun, but in this case especially, be diligent. How far along the development process is the project? Is it something that they’ve been actively working on, or is it a cash grab? Does the campaign pass the above guidelines? Why now? What the hell has the team been doing for the last 20 or 30 years, anyway?

One final tip. if you aren’t sure about backing, don’t; in most cases you’ll be able to simply buy whatever it is that’s being funding once it’s complete. If you want to back a project, but feel that you need more information, throw in $1. That dollar pledge will allow you to follow along, read backer-only updates, and then near the end, if you like what you see, you can raise your pledge accordingly.

There is always risk when backing a Kickstarter campaign. Pledges are not a preorder, backers are not investors, and there is no guarantee that the object or service or game that you’ve backed will ever exist, let along find itself packed neatly in a box on your doorstep. The road from concept to production can be a long one, and even the best-run Kickstarter campaigns can collapse in catastrophic failure once the time for fulfillment comes around.

And again, as a backer, sometimes you just have to be a bit lucky. Many seemingly well-managed campaigns have ended in disaster months after campaign completion, with little or no prior indication that the project had a chance of slipping from the rails. iCache’s Geode appeared well on its way to success. CLANG, a sword fighting game project led by author Neil Stephenson, met its $500,000 goal and seemed to be chugging along soundly until last month’s sudden announcement that the team had run out of money and that the project was being shelved.

Still, for every Geode or CLANG, there’s an Oculus Rift or Ouya, extremely successful projects that both surpassed expectations and shipped. And alongside all the while, thousands of other small-scale software and hardware projects that wouldn’t exist without the shared risk of crowdfunding.

Black Friday and the New Console Generation

January 6th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on November 07, 2013. Black Friday and the New Console Generation is my new band name.

In the early hours at the end of November, as many find themselves clustered around the front steps of big box electronics retailers and department stores, waiting wearily (and warily) in the dark for a tired and timid-eyed employee to finally unlatch the locks and swing open the doors while proclaiming “Slowly please. No running, no running,” to no one in particular and without enthusiasm as the pre-consumers press themselves into the opening with singular intent, hoping to score one of a handful of underpriced and understocked consumer goods, as birds begin to wake and the sun crosses over the horizon and brightens and warms the chill morning, the eighth generation of the Console Wars will have begun.

Assuming you’re not one of those sensible types who’s content to play your games on a perfectly reasonable (and increasingly cheaper) seventh generation Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii, or God forbid a PC, which one should you choose? Will it be worth it to wake up at Hell-only-knows o’clock on Black Friday in order to score hardware now that the majority of preorders have long been sold out?

Like its handheld 3DS sibling, the Wii U spent much of its first year questioned and maligned, but last month’s price cut (it now sells for $299) and a spate of well received releases has served as something of a course correction – while Nintendo still isn’t moving as many units as they’d prefer, sales of the Wii U have increased by 200%.

Spec-wise, the console is hardly a jump from the nearly decade-old releases by Microsoft and Sony, so if graphic fidelity is your thing, the Wii U is not. However, the Wii U does have two advantages over its competitors, both alluded to above: it sells for significantly less and it has notable first-party exclusives, including The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, Pikman 3, and the upcoming Super Mario 3D World. Additionally, unlike the Xbox One or PS4, the Wii U is backwards compatible with the console it succeeded, offering players a large library of existing titles to choose from.

I highlighted the Xbox One and PS4 during the Gamestop Expo column two months ago, and to be honest, not a whole lot has changed since then, aside from the delay of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs to early 2014. Let’s just talk about the bits that’ll be important for day one buyers.

Of the eighth generation powerhouse consoles, the PS4 will be both the most affordable and the first available, selling for $399 on its November 15 release day. While the PS4 will not feature native backwards compatibility, Sony’s 2012 purchase of streaming service Gaikai hints at support for not only PS3 games, but even PS2, PlayStation, and more down the road. Still, that doesn’t help us any on day one, and at launch the PS4 will offer 22 games in total, with only a handful of those being exclusive to the console.

The Kinect-enabled Xbox One, releasing a week later on November 22nd for $499, will fare slightly better in its launch lineup, with 23 games available on launch day, including exclusives Forza Motorsport 5, Ryse: Son of Rome, and a reboot of the fighting game Killer Instinct. The highly anticipated Titanfall, while recently announced as exclusive to Microsoft consoles, won’t be available until Spring 2014. The Xbox One will not be backwards compatible.

So, will it be worth it to face the chaos and snarling crowds following Thanksgiving just to get your hands on a new console?

No, it won’t be. In fact, purchasing a console at launch is almost never worth it: the hardware is unproven, the library out of the gates is lousy and typically rushed, things don’t work, and everything costs too much.

Then again, scoring a console at launch means that you get to be first, and that’s a hell of an incentive. I call it a wash. How about this: Forget Black Friday and stay up ‘til midnight for the Cyber Monday sales instead. Someone will have ‘em for sale.

CenturyLink introduces 1 gigabit fiber to Vegas

January 4th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on September 24, 2013

Earlier this month, CenturyLink announced their intention to bring 1 gigabit fiber Internet service to the Las Vegas valley. This move will add Las Vegas to the small list of cities in the United States with such access speeds, and I was super excited to talk to the fine folks at CenturyLink to learn all about gigabits and fibers and whatever else they were willing to say about Internets and Technologies.

Unfortunately, my questions to CenturyLink were intercepted by their public relations team, turning a potentially useful information mining session into an exercise of reading a lot of words that actually say as little as possible (kind of like this twice a month column, in fact). Still, I did manage to find out some useful bits and now I will share them, because hey, this is potentially a big deal among people who care about things like gigabit Internet in Las Vegas, ie me and maybe you too if you’re still here. Here’s what we do know:

To start, the service area will only include select northwest Las Vegas neighborhoods, but CenturyLink has not revealed particular street boundaries. When asked specifically about downtown neighborhoods (under the guise of the ‘tech boom’ but in reality because that is where this columnist lives), we were told “the downtown area is part of [CenturyLink’s] research for 2014 development of the 1 gigabit fiber service network, and we can consider a fiber build out in the area if there is enough demand.”

We should all consider that to be a enthusiastic “Yes!” to downtown fiber, right? I can’t wait!

The rollout will take place over the next few months, continuing into 2014 as initial customer demand is evaluated blah blah basically if people buy it they’ll keep rolling it out I guess.

Unlike with current CenturyLink Internet services, gigabit users will not be subjected to the company’s Excessive Use Policy, and no bandwidth limits will be enforced. When I asked about home server restrictions, an issue that has recently been brought to light by Google’s initial banning and subsequently allowance of non-commercial servers, I was offered the helpful “CenturyLink is still determining how server use on the gigabit network will be regulated.” Were I to guess, which I’m about to do, I’d guess this: CenturyLink will tacitly allow the use of servers on a gigabit account while maintaining the freedom of restriction in their terms of service. Google received a fair amount of flack over this, and I expect CenturyLink to attempt to make it as much of a nonissue as possible.

Pricing for CenturyLink gigabit access will range widely, depending on the additional bundled services the customer chooses to go with. For standalone Internet service, the cost will be $149.95 a month, double what Google Fiber is charging for the same access in other municipalities. Throw in another CenturyLink service such as Prism TV or unlimited calling and the cost goes down to a much more palatable $79.95, but then you’ve still got the costs of your bundled services to consider, which is odd because honestly I really don’t think there’s a lot of crossover between the sort of person in the market for a new landline and those who are planning to increase their Internet access speeds to 1 gigabit levels. Hell, even television service is less appealing these days, more so when one happens to have fiber optic Internet running to the house. Anyway, whatever, 1 gigabit access will range between $79.95 and $149.95 per month.

So, assuming the rollout happens as planned, would I recommend CenturyLink’s gigabit Internet service?

Consider this. Cox Communication’s $110 highest-end Ultimate tier was recently increased to 150 Mpbs down and 20 Mbps up. Assuming speeds are as advertised (yes, that’s a hell of an assumption from both of the involved parties), fiber to the home from CenturyLink would run ya only $40 more for over 6x the download speed and a whopping 50x increase in upload speed. That’s a lot of increase.

Would you use all this new bandwidth? Who knows. First of all, you’ll need to make sure that your home network can support the speed – that’ll mean new hardware if it’s been a few years since you’ve upgraded your network gear.

Second, bottlenecks along the way will prevent you from frequently seeing peak speeds for individual transfers, although with the high ceiling of gigabit, multiple heavy users in a single household will rarely interfere with each other. No matter what the rest of the family is doing in the other room, what with their Netflixes and Xboxes and all, your porn is gonna get to you blazing fast.

At this point I’ll give the service a hesitant yes. Partly because it’s new and shiny and fast Internet, and who doesn’t love new and shiny and fast Internet, but mostly because I need all of you living up there in the Southern Utah parts of Las Vegas to buy in and make the service successful so CenturyLink will actually expand and bring gigabit Internet down my way. Oh, and if you do pick up the service? Send me a note and let me know what you think.

Hackers of the highest water – exploring innovation in Africa

January 2nd, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on October 10, 2013

On the evening of September 24th, with only a day remaining in his crowdfunding campaign, Joshua Ellis met and then exceeded his $10,000 goal. Thanks to the support of nearly two hundred backers, Joshua will spend a month traveling across sub-Saharan Africa, where he’ll pen a travelogue (to be developed into a book upon his return) about the technological ingenuity of home-grown innovators throughout the region.

So out of curiosity, what do the contents of an African tech-writing trip bag look like? What hardware and gear will you be bringing along for the journey?

I’ll be taking a Panasonic Lumix GX1 camera, which one of my backers is sending me — it’s small, light and easy to carry. Apparently theft is a really big issue in some of the places I’m going, so I’m probably going to take a crappy little netbook to write on. I’ll be backing everything up onto SD cards which I keep in my pocket, and uploading it to the cloud whenever I have Net access. Also a paper notebook, a cheap Android phone with local SIM card, a solar charger, and a big-ass knife.

How abundant are internet cafes (or other places offering shared internet access) along your route? Any guesses as to how frequently you’ll be able to post travelogue entries or otherwise communicate with backers?

I don’t actually know. Probably pretty widespread in Nairobi and Lagos, elsewhere I’m not sure. I’m hoping to use my phone to tether and send stuff that way, but I’m not sure if I can even get data plans where I’ll be. I’m researching that now.

While a handful of the locations you’ve outlined are clustered together, there’s a fair amount of land to cross, too. How do you plan to travel between Nigeria and Kenya?

Funny story: originally, I was gonna try and do it over land. It’s almost 2400 miles, but I looked at Google Maps and it said it was a 50 hour drive. Sounds reasonable, right?

Turns out that there are two roads — and I’m using that word “roads” in the most conceptual sense — that can get you from Lagos to Nairobi. One of them runs through the middle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through the areas where the internal fighting has been most fierce. The other runs way north, through Darfur. So not comfy, mellow road trip driving.

Then I discovered that, basically, nobody will rent you a car for that trip. They’ll sell you one. Because they know that, one way or another, you’re not coming back. And the actual travel time is probably closer to six weeks, because much of the “road” is basically paths through the jungle. You will probably lose your car. You will pay thousands of dollars in bribes along the way at borders. You will probably die in one astonishing way or another.

So I’m flying.

Have you set up any specific encounters or agenda items yet, or are you planning to wing it and take advantage of opportunities as they arise?

A bit of both. I’m going to try and set up meetings with startup kids and tech people in each place I’m going, but I also rely a lot on serendipity, which has never failed me. I’m good at figuring out what’s interesting around me.

If there’s one thing the press is good at, it’s over-illuminating dangers to the degree that any place can look like a war zone. With that said, some parts of Africa are actually legitimate war zones. Now that the project is underway, are there any planned destinations that you’re particularly wary of?

Christ, yes: all of them. I was counting on Nairobi being the safest place I was going to be, until those al-Shabaab assholes decided to run amok in that mall and announce that foreigners in Kenya were “fair game” for targeting, which they did the day after the campaign tipped over the goal. And there are definitely some al-Qaida dudes in Lagos as well. Rwanda’s generally safe, except when it’s not. Thanks to America’s imbecilic War on Scary Brown People, it’s dangerous to go anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a Starbucks on every corner. It’s difficult for me to realistically evaluate the danger from here. I know what the State Department travel advisories say for the places I’m going, which is basically “What are you, an idiot?”

So I’m more than a little nervous. I don’t exactly blend in, right? I’m not a small target. I look like a giant aging record store clerk. I’m tattooed and pierced. Plus, let’s face it, it’s not like I’m Jason Bourne. Thanks to a car accident twenty years ago, my knees are absolutely shot, and I’m completely out of shape. My only particular skill is an ability to generate an astonishing amount of chaos and physical mayhem on command. So if somebody tries to jack me I’ll just start screaming and throwing things and hope somebody comes to my rescue.

Of course, after all my worrying, I’ll probably show up and it’ll be like a goddamn Paul Simon video — nice people, beautiful scenery, a certain amount of wry wordplay. That’s what I’m fervently hoping. But I’d rather be overly cautious than overly dead.

Your mother was an ardent supporter of the campaign, even going so far as to offer home-cooked meals to local backers, and you’ve spoken before on your travels as a child. Has she been involved in the planning, and are the risks of the project a concern for her?

She was so happy when I called her after the campaign reached 100% funding that she was crying. She hasn’t really been involved in the planning, other than offering meals to local backers, which I thought was very sweet of her. She’s definitely concerned for my safety, but I think she and my dad understand that this is a really important thing for me to do, both personally and professionally. She also knows, from thirty-five years of experience, that once I’ve committed to something, there’s no point in trying to change my mind.

And we’re a nomad family: my grandfather built oil refineries all around the world, from northern China to Venezuela to Saudi to Turkey, where I lived with him and my grandmother for a year as a kid. I’ve traveled overseas fairly extensively — mostly Western Europe, but also Egypt and Turkey.

My mom was the one who instilled in me a sense of wanderlust and a basic curiosity about the universe, because she’s an amazing woman. Mainly she’s just proud of me for pulling this off, and excited for me as I go out into the big world.