Linux.conf.au (LCA) 2008

I have just returned from linux.conf.au 2008, in Melbourne. From the first day I realised I was in the presence of some damn clever people! Many interesting presentations, and everyone very geeky, friendly, and genuine. Very different from the trade-show type conferences I used to attend.

Surpsrisingly, there were many people from outside Australia. I was told later that LCA is one of the best Linux conferences in the world, which attracts many people to make the long trip.

I had a great chat with Jason White, about the expense of IT equipment for the blind. A 40 character braille display costs around $8,000 which is a crime and makes me quite mad. Jason showed me a bunch of blind IT equipment (Braille display and printer) in the Unversity Library which was very interesting, and he also presented on By Sound and by Touch: Using Linux with Speech and Braille Output Interfaces at LCA.

This sort of expense seems to be a common theme for people with different sensory and ambulatory mixes to the stock human. For example “Stephen Hawking” type talking boxes are also very expensive (also around $8k I understand). A wheelchair, $14k (as much as a new car!). This is simply not acceptable and must be fixed. With some simple hardware we can really make a difference to peoples lives, for example the Louder Router project I worked on last year – a router hacked to be a low cost PC for the blind.

Anyway I hope to work with Jason to help get the OLPC to a state useable for blind hackers, and have obtained an OLPC for that purpose.

Pia Waugh gave an inspiring talk on women in IT called “Heroes”, which was part of the LinuxChix mini-conf, describing some female hackers. I would love to get her to talk at my daughter’s school some time. My prediction is that IT will eventually be 60% women. They get an extra 10% for not being disabled by excessive testosterone. Useful for killing beasts in the wilderness but less so for 21st century society where emotional intelligence is the key.

The Reprap presentation was nicely delivered by Viktor. This awesome device has some very deep implications for society and requires some contemplation. Could this lead to the reversal of centralised production, e.g. the unwinding on the Industrial Revolution? One idea I have had with my open hardware work is that “hardware costs are driving asymptotically on $0”. This device extends that meme to any hardware (not just electronics). It’s early days but will be fascinating to see how it progresses.

I also spoke to Viktor and Jason about using the Reprap as a low cost Braille printer – just lay Braille dots rather than depositing 3D shapes.

I want to build a Reprap but would enjoy doing it with some one else in Adelaide (I do too many projects alone or with virtual people), so just ping me if you want to work on it together.

I was lucky to meet Bdale Garbee and his family, who had all flown over from the US to present on some model rocket hacking that the family has been working on (well the boys, mainly). Bdale is interested in open hardware and had been involved in developing the TAPR open hardware license – to my knowledge the first open license designed for hardware. You see many (legal) people view the GPL as unsuitable for hardware for a variety of reasons, e.g. it focuses on copyright (and copyleft) which doesn’t apply well to hardware. So the TAPR license is a useful addition to the open hardware scene.

One evening we had a function at the Melbourne Museum, in the vicinity of CSIRAC, the 4th and only remaining first generation computer. I think I need to build one.

My own presentation on How to Build an Embedded Asterisk IP-PBX was well received – standing room only and thunderous (well it sounded loud to me) applause! You can read the presentation and even see a video on the link above.

I was trying to excite people about the possibilities of open hardware and the fun that can be had hacking open hardware. I think this worked – when I asked who would be interested in kits nearly every hand shot up! So I will put some thought into producing kits for embedded Linux – perhaps a short form IP04. One problem is you really need a microscope for surface mount work. I will need to think about this some more.

I also talked to a few guys about a hardware hacking tutorial session for next year’s LCA – for example a three hour period where people can build some working hardware (maybe an AVR or PIC board).
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6 thoughts on “Linux.conf.au (LCA) 2008”

  1. The applause was definitely thunderous. It was a great presentation and it was great to chat to you about the open hardware, I really like your motivation behind the projects.

    Cheers,

    hads

  2. David,

    While I personally do 0402 and 19.7 mil pitch parts with a soldering iron and no microscope all the time (but then again, give me a heat gun a little flux and a .5mm pitch 256 ball bga, and I’ll happily put it down for you (I’m a masochist, I think) ), I can understand why a lot of people prefer to use a scope. If you’re interested in offering some kind of kit, may I simply reccomend having the fine pitch QFPs, bga’s, etc.. populated by a CM and then ship the kit with the discretes and larger pitch chips un-assembled.

    That is what I have done when I’ve taught classes and done lectures.

    Bill

  3. Wow – you must have some great eyes Bill!

    Yes, partial population is a great idea. Maybe leave a few parts so that people get a feel for SM, but make the jobs small enough to get a working Linux machine in a few hours.

  4. David,

    Exactly. I’ve always populated enough of the difficult stuff so that people don’t give up on the project, but not so much as to take away all of the challenge. 2 hours is about the limit that your ‘average’ person is willing to sit at a table with a soldering iron before they end up setting the project aside. Still, in two hours, one can populate an awful lot of parts if most of them are simple discreets and larger pitch compoents (SO8s, PLCCs, etc).

    My next dilema was always weather to suggest no-clean or water sol. flux to home experimentors. Water Sol is easier to solder with, because you can keep throwing flux at it when you get shorts and such… but then, most people don’t have the equipment to clean it well enough.. Always, though, if your going to partial populate the board, have the CM do it with water sol.. If you use No-Clean for the partial population, you can almost bet on someone trying to clean it afterward – ending up, of course, with a white, nasty, mess on all of the compoents that were soldered with No Clean.

    On that note, if you ever do need to ‘clean’ No Clean Flux, most electronic suppliers carry a product called “Hydrex SP”, which is great at cleaning No Clean, Water Sol and even RMA Based fluxes… You can use it with a tooth-brush and then follow up with some HOT water..

    Bill

  5. Unfortunately, your presentation is no longer available. Would you mind to put it in another place? 10X

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