Learning about 3Dprinting at the @TorontoLibrary Innovation Hubs

Last evening, I attended a 3D printer certification course at one of my local library branches, which now qualifies me to use the printers in the lab (with the assistance of the staff) for my own projects. We have a great library system in Toronto, and I’ve been using it since I was a kid, eagerly heading there every week to get my maximum allotment of books to check out. In the past several years, TPL has become much more than a place for physical books, however: they offer a number of digital services including e-book loans using Overdrive, Safari technical and business books online, digital magazines through RBdigital, streaming video via Kanopy, Lynda.com video tutorials, and Mango languages. Best of all, this is all free with your library card, supported by our Toronto tax dollars. It’s a total deal, and I usually donate to TPL every year since it greatly reduces the number of books that I buy.

The innovation hubs are relatively new, starting at the main reference library and now available in five other branches. They include 3D design and printing equipment, green-screen recording studios, classes to learn how to use the tools, and friendly staff to help you out.

As a total newbie at 3D printing, here’s a bit of what I learned last night in our 90-minute certification course.

About the printers:

  • The Fort York branch, where I was, has five 3D printers: two Ultimaker 2+ (which is the standard now at most branches), one Ultimaker 2 Go (as a backup and to use for outreach events since it’s easier to carry),  one MakerBot Replicator 2 and one LulzBot TAZ 5. The latter two were acquired during earlier phases of the innovation labs but haven’t really met the library’s needs going forward, and are being replaced by the Ultimakers.
  • You can book a printer for up to two hours at a time, either by calling or dropping in at the branch. The printers require that you have your design on an SD card, so either prepare that at home or bring one along and have the local staff help you with that on a workstation in the lab. The older MakerBot and LulzBot printers at Fort York can actually be booked for longer than two hours if they are not otherwise booked, in case you want to do a bigger job.
  • Printing costs are $0.10/g of filament, plus tax. The printer preparation software (see below) will tell you how much filament will be consumed in your print job, but expect $1-2 for a small item that you would print in less than two hours.
  • No printing of weapons or sexually-explicit materials, and the library puts the onus on you for ensuring that you have the permission of any copyright owner.
  • All of the library’s printers use PLA filament, which is a thermoplastic made from cornstarch and sugarcane. This is less durable than other filament types, and will break down with high heat and moisture, but has the advantage of not giving off noxious fumes during printing. It can be sanded, primed and painted if you want a different look or colour: keep in mind that with printing from a filament, one printed object is all one colour.

What and how to print:

  • You can find a bunch of cool pre-made designs at Thingiverse, all available under a Creative Commons licence. Tupperware lid holder? Got it. Digital sundial? Yup. Hand-operated animated heart Valentine? You’re a bit late, but it’s there for next year. Just download the STL files directly from there, or upload your own if you want to share.
  • If you want to create your own design, Autodesk has a free browser-based designer called Tinkercad that lets you create models using 3D shapes to add and remove material. Sounds simple, but you can build some pretty complex designs with it.
  • For more organic shapes, Pixologic provides a free downloadable app called Sculptris: using it is more like digitally sculpting with clay rather than worrying about the explicit geometry.
  • If you want a model from a 3D object – including yourself – some of the branches have 3D scanning capabilities. At Fort York, they have Occipital’s Skanect, which uses a Microsoft Kinect input device: you scan the object by walking around it and scanning it with the Kinect.
  • Once you have a model in a standard STL, 3MF or OBJ format, you need to prepare it for printing. For the Ultimaker printers, download the free Cura software, load your design, tell it what type of printer and filament you’re using, set some parameters, and it will generate the gcode file required by the printer. Save that to an SD card and you’re all ready to print. Cura will also tell you how much material will be used, and how long the print job will take. The other two printer types have similar software available – I think that one of them uses a version of Cura, too – but check with the staff at your branch if you’re unsure how to do this, or just show up with your design and a blank SD card and they can help you.

In the future, I expect that a lot of small plastic replacement parts for consumer goods will be fulfilled using 3d printers: the plastic cover for your desk lamp switch breaks, and the manufacturer sends you the STL file and gives you the option to just print it yourself. In the meantime, I’m still looking for my first print project.

Why It’s Not Okay To Disenfranchise Women In A Technology Keynote

I’ve been at many technology conferences this year and heard a lot of different speakers, but one struck me in particular: a well-known analyst from a large analyst firm gave what was likely a very well-paid keynote. He’s known as being a “funny” speaker (a label that is up for debate), but he definitely crossed a line from maybe-funny to definitely-unfunny when he made references to his wife in jokes. In particular, he was talking about how he’s a big audiophile, and he started with the statement that “no man should have speakers smaller than his wife”. Okay, a bit cringe-worthy, but I would have let that pass. Not content with the first laugh, he followed with “If your speakers are smaller than your wife, you need to get rid of your wife”.

Aside from the veiled reference to how women are to be judged on their size – by a man who is well beyond the normal range of the BMI scale – there are two explicit problems with this line:

  1. The “wife” in his joke is a commodity; another piece of chattel like his stereo speakers.
  2. The line was specifically delivered to the men in the audience –  “if your wife…” – which sends the message that he considers the women in the audience to be invisible and unimportant.

This is not funny, it’s just misogynistic bullshit. It’s completely unacceptable from someone who is in a position of authority in the industry, and it’s completely unacceptable for companies to continue to hire a speaker who includes material like this unless they want to be considered to hold the same opinions. I’m pretty sure that customers of both the analyst firms and the vendors would hesitate to support this behavior, and might choose to spend their budgets with companies more aligned with their values.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident: in another keynote at another enterprise software conference, a senior executive from the host company used an analogy about children playing with bows and arrows, with the comment that that activity only pertained to boys. I had to double-check to see if I misheard that, it was so blatantly gender biased. How can we expect women to feel welcome in an industry that has “thought leaders” with those sorts of thoughts?

I suppose that it’s a small mercy that enterprise software vendors behave somewhat better than their startup tech counterparts, where there have been a number of gender discrimination scandals lately and this sort of crap has been going on for years. And enterprise software conferences don’t have the toxic environment of sexual harassment that many geek conferences do, I suspect because of the high number of women customers attending. But those are minor victories in the overall landscape of the treatment of women in the technology industry: it’s slowly shifting, but a few old dinosaurs still need to evolve or go extinct.

Internet Serendipity: NCIS And Wi-Fi SD Cards

I love the internet. I really don’t understand people who say that they need to get away from the internet in order to take some time off: my time off is enriched by online access to a wide variety of services and information, and I wouldn’t want to lose that even if I am not taking the time to respond to (or even read) business-related email. For me, the key is avoiding email and phone calls, not avoiding the internet: there are too many things on the internet that I use as part of my leisure activities to turn it off altogether.

Case in point: last night, we decided to watch an hour of TV. We both like NCIS, and since we cut the cord on cable TV over three years ago, I pulled up the latest episode on the GlobalTV iPhone app (Global syndicates CBS shows for Canadian broadcast) and sent it via AirPlay to the AppleTV. That’s right, nothing but an internet connection, an iPhone and an AppleTV, and we’re watching this week’s episode of NCIS on our own TV. If I bothered to set up a US proxy for the AppleTV, I probably could have done this without the iPhone app, but this works just fine. Without the internet: not possible.

But that’s not all. I’m planning a trip to visit some friends for a few days, and will take only my Nexus Android tablet (for reading), my iPhone and my Nikon Coolpix camera – no netbook. Although it’s a short trip, I was a bit concerned about uploading the photos during the trip: when I have my netbook with me, I copy photos from the camera SD card to the netbook daily as a backup, and upload them to Dropbox if I have internet access. If I fill the memory card, I can delete photos from it since they’re backed up, and if my camera (or even my netbook) were lost or stolen, ditto. You’re probably wondering what this has to do with watching TV on the internet, but in that particular episode of NCIS, the murder victim had a wi-fi memory card in his camera that was automatically transferring photos to his tablet in the back seat of his car; the killer wiped the memory card but didn’t find the tablet. “Wi-fi memory cards? OMG FTW!” I thought (thereby missing a few minor plot points), “Where do I get one of these?”. Since my iPhone was busy serving up the TV show, I grabbed my Nexus and searched around. Eye-Fi was apparently the first to offer these, but Transcend offers higher data transfer speeds (during photographing, not the wi-fi connection) and is putting them out at a lower price. I bookmarked a couple of sites for later, and went back to NCIS. After the show, I searched around, found the Eye-Fi cards on Amazon, then found a camera shop in New York selling the Transcend cards through their eBay storefront, with shipping to Canada. I ordered the Transcend 16GB card, scheduled to arrive before I leave for my trip, and downloaded their iPhone and Android apps in preparation. Product research, comparison and purchase within an hour of discovering that a particular product type even existed: again, not feasible without the internet.

Taking full advantage of on-demand internet (rather than the internet having you on-demand) is a bit like turning off your phone ringer, and only using it when you want to: it only controls your actions if you allow it to. Turn off your push notifications, and your ringer if you like, but don’t disconnect if the internet adds value to your leisure time.

Living the Mobile Life

This morning after I left the house, I checked the real-time streetcar tracking to see when the next car was coming by the end of my street, looked over a presentation that I’m working on, checked which subway car to board so that I would exit near the escalator at my destination, read a chapter of a book, checked in at my hairdresser’s, then told you all about it.

Thanks for this mobile productivity goes to the following iPhone apps: NextBus (actually a mobile site, not an app), DropBox, TTC Exit Guide, Kindle, FourSquare and WordPress.

Some of this might seem trivial, but these things enhance my life and make me more productive. Knowing when the next streetcar will really arrive tells me whether I need to take a taxi to avoid being late. Accessing active project documents allows me to some work done even thought I’m in the middle of a haircut. Knowing which subway car to board can save me battling through crowds on the platform, only to end up at the wrong exit. Even reading a book is business in this case: ironically, it’s “Empowered”, all about allowing people to use their own tools and methods for getting things done better.

In case you were wondering, the ringer is off: I take calls and read email on my schedule, not just because my device tell me to. Use your mobile device to work the way that you want to, not to turn you into a phone and email slave.

Special for Earth Hour: Solar PV at Tower Power Toronto

Tonight at 8:30pm we’ll celebrate Earth Hour, when we all turn out the lights for an hour. Although mostly symbolic, this should actually translate to reduced power consumption; in Ontario, you can track this on the IESO Earth Hour site which will show a graph of actual consumption against that of a typical Saturday night.

Being green is a trendy thing to do, but some people have been doing it long before it became fashionable: the members of Tower Power Toronto, for example, who focus on energy savings for multi-unit buildings such as condos and co-ops. I attended a meeting of the Tower Power group earlier this year to hear all about solar photovoltaic (that is, solar panels that make electricity directly rather than heating water) and some of the recent government initiatives to make this a reality for small condo buildings like mine. We met at the Windward Co-op, where they have already undertaken a number of green initiatives such as thermal solar (solar hot water heating as a pre-heat for domestic hot water) that has reduced their hot water costs by 40%.

My other half is an electrical engineer, and when I told him that I was attending a meeting about solar PV, he pooh-poohed it as inefficient and expensive, costing more per kWh than we could save. He’s right about that: the high cost (and relative inefficiency) of solar PV panels makes it infeasible for generating power for our building directly. Furthermore, even if we felt that it was a good thing to do, the condo reserve fund cannot be used for solar PV projects, meaning that we would have to create a special assessment such that the owners would pay the costs directly. In a building like ours, where the resale timeframe is fairly short, that just wouldn’t fly.

This is where the government incentives come in: the provincial government would really like us to start greening up, in part to reduce the load on current electricity infrastructure, increase the resiliency of the power grid, help phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2014, and reduce the cost of having to buy electricity from other provinces or states during time of peak loads. If you take a look at the ISEO website, which shows Ontario electricity demand and the price paid for external electricity during peaks, you’ll see that prices for buying electricity from outside the province can be as high as $1.50/kWh. This also has a social value as well as an economic value by promoting micro-generation and green thinking.

To that effect, the Ontario Power Authority started the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program whereby you can sell up to 10kW of electricity that you generate (e.g., using solar PV) back to your local power authority (in our case, Toronto Hydro) for $0.802 per kWh on a 20-year contract. Given the current cost of installing solar PV, and the fact that the panels are expected to have nearly zero maintenance costs during the 20-year period, the panels pay for themselves in about 13 years: in other words, that provides seven years of electricity revenue free and clear after the panels are paid off. Current domestic electricity costs in Ontario are around $0.012 per kWh, so OPA is willing to pay you over six times the current price of electricity in order to subsidize your solar PV installation, since they will eventually save the cost of having to build new power generating facilities.

As mentioned previously, condo reserve funds can’t be used to fund solar PV installations, so there needs to be some other form of financing. Alternatives include:

  • Work on getting the condo laws changed so that reserve funds can be used for projects like this. Our local MPP, Rosario Marchese, is working on this, but this could take some time and may never occur.
  • Sell debentures to raise the money for the initial costs, then use the electricity revenue to pay off the debenture with interest. Residents of the building may choose to buy debentures, or anyone who is looking for an investment with a decent interest rate. The risk is that electricity revenues are not sufficient to cover the debenture costs, or that unexpected maintenance costs reduce revenues.
  • Use PV venture, venture firms that specialize in solar PV installations. They effectively own the solar PV system, installing the panels and taking the electricity, then pay a percentage of the monthly revenue to the building on which the panels are placed.
  • Non-profit organizations (including co-ops, but not condos) can take advantage of 0% loans available from the city of Toronto’s Sustainable Energy Funds including the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which I heard about at a green energy panel that Olivia Chow hosted last year.
  • Live Green Toronto (another city initiative) has some limited grant funding for education and feasibility studies; condos are not eligible but could partner with a not-for-profit.

For buildings within the city of Toronto, you’d be selling power to Toronto Hydro, but the contract would be with the Ontario Power Authority, who are backing the FIT and microFIT programs. OurPower, part of the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative can perform assessments on a building to estimate the feasibility and costs: there needs to be a place with good sun exposure (usually the roof) to mount the panels, a method for connecting the panels to the electrical room, an inverter to convert the DC electricity generated by the panels to AC, and a metered connection from the inverter to the power grid. That means that you’d have two meters: one for inbound electricity at the usual market rate (e.g., $0.013/kWh), and one for the outbound electricity that you generate at $0.802/kWh. Ideally, installation would be coordinated with the building roof replacement schedule; otherwise, you’d have to remove and remount the panels during any roof repairs. In addition to the panels, costs include cabling to the electrical room, any modifications required to the roof membrane, insurance, and maintenance (considering a 20-year replacement cycle for the panels, but more frequently for the inverter). Solar PV panels are usually stationary; although panels that move to track the sun generate more electricity, they also have higher maintenance costs due to the moving parts. In order to qualify for the FIT/microFIT program, 50% of the equipment must be manufactured in Ontario, but that can include the framing, inverters and labour costs in addition to the panels. There are some local solar PV manufacturers, including Photowatt and SolGate, making it possible to put together a solution that pumps some money back into the local economy as well as providing green benefits.

How much energy could we really generate with this? Well, our building probably has 200-300 square metres of roof space that could be used; using the estimate of 1 square metre generating 150W in peak sun for a total of about 1kWh/day, that means 200-300 kWh/day, or $160-240/day in electricity revenue. I’m not sure if that 1kWh/day/square metre is an average over the year, or the value for a sunny summer day; assuming that that amount could be generated 1/3 of the time, that’s still $19.5k-29k per year in electricity revenue. As for costs, using a provided estimate of $10k/kW; I’m taking a leap in logic and assuming that’s equivalent to 1000/150 = 6.7 square metres of solar panel, which would be a cost of $300k-450k for the initial installation. That gives an ROI of just over 15 years; assume that my estimate of electricity generated is conservative, I can see how this works out to an average 13-year ROI.

At the end of the 20-year contract to deliver electricity to Toronto Hydro, you’d be in a position to renegotiate a contract with them to continue to provide power, or switch to providing power directly to your own building if then-current price of electricity makes that a better deal.

When you talk about residential solar power, many people think of thermal solar, but there are some fundamental differences:

Solar Photovoltaic Thermal Solar
Photovoltaic panels generate electricity directly from sunlight Water in pipes warmed by sun used as a pre-heat for domestic hot water (hot tap water or central building heat)
Generates revenue by creating electricity to sell back to Toronto Hydro Generates savings by reducing gas consumption for domestic hot water system
Panels connected by cabling to building electrical system Panels connected by (water) piping to building hot water system
All electricity sold to grid, hence no wasted capacity Hot water used only by building and can’t be shared
Peak capacity during summer when demands on power grid are at maximum Peak capacity during summer may be wasted if more hot water is generated than building requires
ROI can be calculated before project start ROI is based on actual gas costs over life of project

It used to be the case that thermal solar was the only economically feasible alternative for residential buildings; however, the FIT/microFIT program brings the cost-benefit calculations for thermal versus PV much closer together.

If you’re in Toronto and interested in learning more, come out to a Tower Power Toronto meeting. OurPower hosts a wiki page for Tower Power Toronto; it’s sadly out of date, since it shows the next meeting as the January meeting, but it contains contact information and I may take it on myself to update the page when I receive notice of the next meeting.

I’ll leave you with a video of Rob Hopkins from last year’s TED conference, on transitioning to a world without oil:

CrisisCampTO Planning Meeting

I spent this afternoon at the initial planning meeting of CrisisCampTO, the Toronto manifestation of Crisis Commons. Although this is happening here and now in response to the earthquake disaster in Haiti 12 days ago, Crisis Commons has a broader mandate:

We are an international volunteer network of professionals drawn together by a call to service. We create technological tools and resources for responders to use in mitigating disasters and crises around the world

We’re here today to work on anything that can be done to help, in collaboration with other Crisis Commons teams all over the world, on the various projects that have been defined by Crisis Commons based on requests from NGOs to fill a need that they have. The bulk of the projects fall under the category of software development, but there are also teams for social media, logistics and more general duties.

Our first goal today is to find a development project for the bulk of the Toronto team to get involved with, and learn how to plug into other Crisis Commons groups around the world. There is quite a bit of infrastructure already in place to connect up, including IRC channels (retro, I will definitely need a refresher course) and voice conference lines, plus a rapidly growing wiki.

I have a pretty broad range of skills to apply here: although I don’t really write code any more – unless I’m really inspired – I can do all the other stuff around development (requirements, testing, documentation). I also do a lot of social media stuff, and have attended more unconferences than you can shake a stick at, so can help with the local social media efforts such as wiki gardening, Facebook and Twitter updates, and more.

The main goal of today is to get ready for next Saturday’s CrisisCampTO (time and venue to be announced shortly), by getting some basic team structure in place and selecting one or more projects to which we will be contributing. That way, when newbies show up next week, they can start contributing immediately.

One of the things that we learned about today is Sahana, an open source disaster management system that was created in response to the Sri Lanka tsunami in 2004. There’s a Sahana instance set up just for Haiti, although it still needs a lot of content added, and possibly some development to add specific requested functionality. We also saw OpenMRS, an open source medical records system, and Ushahidi, an SMS-to-web service that accepts requests for assistance sent by text message to a specific shortcode, and makes them available to aid agencies. If you check the feed from Haiti, you can see requests for food, water and medical assistance that have been received, translated if required, and logged for followup. In summary, there are a ton of free, open source projects that can be applied to the Haiti disaster; some of them as is, others requiring some customization. This is were we all come in.

This is cross-posted from my business blog, since I couldn’t decide where it belonged.

Giving Technology Back to the Community

I’m a strong believer that technology can be a way up for those in financially disadvantaged circumstances: without some computer skills, kids can’t compete in school, and don’t meet the minimum requirements for many jobs. One way that I can help – and probably many of you reading this – is to donate to programs that provide access to computers and training to people who can’t afford to buy them. There are a number of ways to do this: you can give money, you can give used computer equipment, you can give your time, and you can promote the programs to others who might do the same.

This week, I replaced my mother’s old computer, and was left with a working (although underpowered, by today’s standards) computer with keyboard and mouse. I immediately thought of Little Geeks, a program that refurbishes old computers, provides them for free to kids in need, along with 12 months of internet access and some training on how to use it. They use reBOOT Canada as their drop-off depot; reBOOT is a charitable organization that “provides computer hardware, training and technical service to other charities, non-profit organizations and individuals with limited access to technology”. I headed off to reBOOT yesterday to drop off the computer, and had a chat with Nicholas (I believe this was Nicholas Brinckman, the Executive Director). He mentioned that they’re trying to get funding from the Aviva Community Fund to build 50 learning centres across Canada, in partnership with community centres and schools.

If you support this idea, go to the reBOOT project page on the Aviva Community Fund site and vote for their project (registration required). You can vote once per day until this round of voting ends in 11 days, and I encourage you to drop in there daily to cast your vote if you believe that this is an important initiative. They make it easy to link to the page on Twitter and Facebook, so use your social network for good. You can also help out by dropping off your old computer equipment – and encouraging your employer to do the same when they sunset old computers, printers and other equipment – or volunteering some of your time to help with computer refurbishment.

Cross-posted to my business blog.

Promoting a community market with social media

Last night, I was invited to give a presentation at Ignite! Toronto, part of O’Reilly’s Ignite! series, in which each presenter has 5 minutes to present their 20 slides, and the slides advance automatically every 15 seconds. In a complete left turn from my usual enterprise-y topics, I presented on how I am using social media to promote St. Andrew’s Market, our local farmers’ market that just started this year:

The slides may not make a lot of sense if you didn’t hear the presentation, although you will get the gist of it. Basically, I’m part of a local volunteer committee that’s charged with promoting the market within the neighborhood to help drive traffic to it, and I’m using various social media methods and some technology to tie them together as part of our campaign. All presentations last night were captured on video and hopefully will be posted online somewhere soon; I’ll link to that when I see it.

Via tweet from @ryancoleman

Since I’m pretty geeky, I used the technology in ways that non-techies may not: see slide 17 for what could best be described as a context diagram for my market message delivery framework. 🙂 One piece of this is based on some Python scripting that my other half did to help automate a list of Twitter messages each week, and the picture at the right is the point in the presentation where I said “…and this picture is why he’s not here tonight”, since it depicts him wearing a cardboard cone with the label “800 MHz” on his head. What I didn’t have time to explain is that the cone was part of a prototype of a discone antenna with a central frequency of 800 MHz, part of his home-built HD OTA project.

I had great feedback from audience members after the presentation, and I hope that I inspired a few people to take on projects like this in the future to help community projects that don’t have a big marketing budget. I also had a ton of fun, and look forward to my next Ignite! presentation.

Rogers Wireless’ website blows

The one good thing about Rogers Wireless’ really shitty customer service is that waiting on hold gives me time to take snapshots of their non-functioning website — the reason that I’m waiting on hold in the first place — and blog about it:

A contributor to Rogers' bad customer service: a non-functional website

I’ve been trying to change my price plan online for 3 days now, and keep getting the above error. After 20 minutes on hold, I got through to a CSR who changed my plan, but think about what that costs them in terms of that person’s time, not to mention the ill will from me because I couldn’t do this on the website?

I’ve moved to a month-to-month plan now that my contract is up, and will be waiting for the new GSM entrants into the Canadian wireless market in the spring to see if there’s one who can provide the wireless service that I want and have a decent self-service website.