You can help design open-source tractors.

The GVCS is an open-source design kit for 40 industrial and agricultural machines.

M

arcin Jakubowski, Ph.D, believes in open source. But not the software kind: the tractor kind.

Marcin has been working for some time to create inexpensive, open-source designs for agricultural tools like tractors. Designed to be cheaper than the commercial ones most big-scale farmers use—which would be affordable to people in lower-wealth areas—these designs are available right now and could increase productive of small-scale farmers.

That means tough-to-farm areas could produce more food, and support more people, which would allow for historically poorer areas to flourish and grow.

Check out this inspirational video:

Marcin sure knows how to wear a welding mask. And check out the awesome
home-made tank treads.

Oh, and because everything is open-source, it’s totally free of cost and can be improved by anyone who wants to help. You could even download it all, make whatever changes you want, and release your own version, based on the original.

We talked about this before, almost two years ago. Check out our post about Marcin’s TED talk, which is still interesting and relevant today.

Read on:

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How to live in the open world.

C

heck out this video about what the future of the world might be like, with an open internet. An open internet means open ideas, and the free sharing of ideas, with the intent of spreading knowledge to everyone.


Listening to his story starting at 9:54, about the Tunisian revolution,
and how the internet was creatively used by civilians,
shows the real power of the internet. 

We like to remind you that we don’t support breaking piracy, or breaking the law. At all. Illegal = bad, folks.

Here's what one version of Linux looks like. Pretty classy! Also remember that the Android smartphone OS is Linux-based.

But we strongly believe in the openness of information for the betterment of humankind. We believe in freedom, one of the principles the U.S. was founded on. Read about Ben Franklin’s stance on patents, the pieces of law which declare that someone ‘owns’ any given idea.

This is why GetReal so supports free and open software, such as the Linux operating system, and programming languages like Python. If you want to get connected with other people using Linux, or other people programming with Python, give Internet Relay Chat (IRC) a shot. And dive into the world of open-source programming…

…where any idea can be created by one, and then improved by anyone.

Connect with other computer scientists with IRC.

Note: You might notice that there are a lot of underlined words in this post. Scroll your mouse over them!


About IRC:

A

famous moniker that applies to all kinds of engineering is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And that’s true with Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which has been around since 1988.

This is what XChat, our favorite IRC client looks like. You can see it's all focused on the content, and not being super flashy.

IRC is a protocol  for live internet chatting, but unlike chat services like AIM, Google Talk, Skype, Facebook or Yahoo, it’s organized by topic rather than user. Functionality aside (and it is more functional than any other chat protocol) there are topics ranging from programming languages, school subjects, and language, all the way to anime, specific videogames, and just about anything else you can think of.

And the userbase tends to be the kinds of people who would go out of their way (read: download a unique chat client and setup a user) just to talk about their interests. Which means the people in any IRC chat channel are usually really interested in the channel’s topic, and are knowledgeable too. Those are the kinds of people you want to connect with.

How to get into IRC:

To use IRC, first you have to download a client. The most popular one is mIRC, which is shareware, but there are freeware versions like XChat (which we recommend), as well as others. They’re all essentially the same, so just pick which one you like the best.

After that, you need to join a server. Launch your client and pick a network to connect to. They’re usually in a really long list. To get you started, you can check out searchIRC, an IRC network search engine. We recommend checking out the freenode network for computer scientists, which focuses on free and open-source software programming projects but has a channel for just about any topic. If you’re using XChat like we recommended, just fill out your nick name choices (you can change those even after you register), any username you want (which stays the same once you register) and a maybe a real name (just do your first name), select freenode from the list, hit connect, and then close the window!

This is how a typical IRC network is organized. Green clients and blue bots connect to servers, sometimes through orange 'bouncers.'

Once you’re connected to the server, you can join any channel you want. There are usually several thousand channels, so see if your chat client has a channel search feature and search by subject. (Every IRC channel has a # before the channel name, by the way.) Channel names are usually really straightforward: #python if you want to meet other Python programmers, #linux for the Linux operating system, and so on.

You might have to register your nickname with your server’s “nickserv,” a secondary server they use to make sure nobody steals someone else’s nickname. Check out freenode’s how-to-register page, for example. It looks tricky, but if you follow the steps you’ll be ready to go!

Some extra tips for using IRC:

  • IRC uses /commands, just like a lot of chat clients do. The most common ones are /join, /part, /nick, /msg, /whois, and /quit. Check out this useful page of beginner IRC commands.
  • Don’t give out your personal information. Like, ever. This isn’t Facebook, where you’re generally safe as long as you set your privacy settings; there are no privacy settings on IRC. So be safe.
  • If you want to be accepted in any channel, it’s a good idea to lurk for a while. Listening to other peoples’ conversations is a great way to learn, too.
  • Try not to chime in unless you have something constructive to say. Joking around is cool and stuff, but most people on IRC like their chat to be pretty focused on the channel’s topic.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. But if you do, ask them directly. Usually someone will answer. But if they don’t, don’t repeat yourself so often you start to annoy other people.

Read on:

  • #Beginner, a great website for people who want to learn about IRC.
  • freenode, our favorite IRC network.
  • XChat, our favorite IRC client.
  • Search IRC, a great IRC network/channel search engine.
  • A bonus for any gamers out there: QuakeNet is about the biggest IRC network, and it’s almost all about gaming. Find your favorite game and join the channel!

An open-source… flashlight?

Relatively short post today, but an interesting one.

There’s a fantastic website called KickStarter, where groups looking to get their projects funded can go. The premise is pretty simple, and a lot of people are using it to start videogames, companies, movies, and several other cool things.

It's a USB flashlight. What why.

This one I found is HexBright. It’s an open-source flashlight, designed by a mechanical engineer. How can a website be open-source? Well, it’s fully programmable, and over 5 times as bright as a regular flashlight. You can program it to flash in different brightnesses, strobe, fade in or out, pulse, or anything you want. He’s got no idea what’s going to happen. No idea what people will do with it.

And the whole point of his project is to give people a new medium for creativity. The army could use it as a tactical light, police could use it for drug busts, civilians could use it for home defense, and anyone could use it for fun.

I think it’s a really good idea, albeit simple, because it will get people thinking. What sorts of ideas come to mind for you? Be creative!

Companies should open-source discontinued products [+100th post bonus]

There’s a new idea sweeping around on the internet, slowly gaining momentum. And it’s relevant. The fundamental canons of engineering are as follows:

  1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
  2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  5. Avoid deceptive acts.
  6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

Read number one carefully. Safety and health are pretty obvious. But welfare? The spirit of this law is that engineers should be dedicated to serving the good of ‘the public.’ From a professional standpoint, this includes not releasing designs unless your employer (the one who technically owns those designs) lets you.

But for the good of people, it would sure be good to try. Making knowledge more attainable, and not the property of the rich, is what has toppled nations and built great civilizations in the past. The printing press, the telephone and telegraph, televisions, and now the internet have all been milestones in making knowledge accessible to everyone.

One of the next big steps is to release designs.

We have almost seven billion people on this planet. And everyone has something to offer. If an amateur engineer wants to build a tractor or windmill, it would be hard without some research, or something to work with. Releasing the design of a discontinued product does just that.

Image says "If you're going to kill it, open-source it."

If you're under 25 you're the future of business and the world. And if you're going into design, engineering or programming, you're the ones who can make this happen. Image from the Make magazine article.

Say you had free access to the design of this phone. If you wanted to make your own, you could. It might not be super-modern, but it’s still a phone. And what’s more, you would be allowed to modify it in any way you wanted. That’s the beauty of it.

Read what I read:

PS: In similar news, Ubuntu version 11, called “Natty Narwhal” is being released. Ubuntu is one of the most popular open-source operating systems.


Finally, celebrating our 100th post, we’re going to have a short best-of, so you can survey some of our best material thus far:

Open Courseware is the next big thing.

With more and more people going to college, ordinary degrees mean less. In the ’60s, if you had a Bachelor’s degree you were pretty much guaranteed a job. But things have changed and, nowadays, you pretty much need a Master’s to have the same job security. Maybe even a PhD. Some might argue that it’s because college education is not as good. Some say that it’s because everyone has that education, so it’s not as special. If you want to hear more about this topic, watch this entertaining TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson. He’s a great speaker. 11:59 is where it starts to get really focused, but the whole talk is worth listening to.

But the point is that with ordinary degrees meaning less, us as student should spend (waste?) less time getting the basics down. Instead, college should be about using those basics to learn something complex.  Why throw money at a school to learn calculus for an engineering degree, when you can learn calc yourself? Can you? Are the resources even available?

Actually, they just might be. Check out this website: MIT Open Courseware (OCW)—here, MIT has uploaded a lot of educational material (even full-on lectures). And it’s all free. View and download it, and learn all the basics. That way, you can spend your tuition money and time in school learning the hard stuff.

The cool thing is that this is becoming a trend. A few big things have happened recently in America—US Stimulus spending and a lot of educational foundations—which have helped push more colleges to start releasing their own online education resources, and OCW resources. The Wikipedia  OCW article says that OCW only really got momentum when MIT released their OCW page, linked to above. But now it’s starting to spread.

Read this interesting news article the OCW trend for more info. Some cool links there!

A TED Talk — Open-sourced blueprints for civilization

Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to make the world better. Sometimes it just takes some hardcore DIY:

Marcin Jakubowski wants to design blueprints for an entire village,
costing less than $10,000.
Kamkwamba standing with the librarian who found the book "Using Energy," which he used to make a windmill.

It's a pretty inspiring story. And he definitely is decreasing the suck.

The work Jakubowski is doing is really interesting. The trick to open-source technology is that it legitimately makes knowledge free. Whereas everyone who owns a farm arguably knows the concept of a tractor, that doesn’t mean they know how to make a good one. With an open-source blueprint, someone who wants a tractor can simply make one—and experts can improve the blueprint.

It’s reminiscent of a guy named William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill to save his family from starvation. The difference is that Kamkwamba is a success story of someone climbing out of the bottom rung. Jakubowski came from a pretty comfortable life, and is doing work to help those people. One could say that Jakubowski is the middle-man between the textbooks Kamkwamba read to design and build his first windmill, and Kamkwamba himself. That is, Jakubowski’s working to make adaptations of technology that are already easy to build, and already made from cheap parts.

Read what I read: