Our deepest thoughts

my unconventional journey towards art

Aug 26, 2016   written by John Lamerand
I had thought that art students were not serious about making a difference in the world. By a strange twist of events I found myself “doing a 180”. I started a career in STEM and found myself in a career in STEAM.

At high school I’d dabbled with tech pens, entered the odd design competition and won a few, but it was nothing serious.


Earning real money from graphic design was so far from my mind that I enrolled in engineering and my first job, in 1987, was to redraw mine designs that were in imperial measurements into a metric format. I’d been toying with CAD for a couple of years by then but in 1985 just designing a printed circuit board was a big deal. Well, it was for a fifteen year old. When the board went into production and the mine maps were pressed into service the thrill of designing something practical set in.


Despite having Fortran shoved down my throat I knew that the way to create exciting graphics was through writing code. I taught myself Lisp on an Indigo and found a lab on campus that had Quark.


It was learning how to use Quark that really started to make a difference. Suddenly I no longer had to work out the maths in order to draw something. So engrossed was I in Quark that I started skipping lectures.


The slide continued as I changed courses so I could spend more time with crystallography. The studies in geology also required a trained imagination to join the dots in the available data. Back in the 80s geos used Derwents, with each Derwent colour having a specific geological meaning.


Before I completed my science studies I insisted that I be allowed to enrol in photography. The Discipline Head resisted but I kept pushing. The pushing was making waves but I did not care. Things were coming to a head. When the Head relented it was as though a floodgate had been breached. I spent night after night developing film, catching, photographing and releasing animals.


Then my photography lecturer told me that my work was “boring”. I met the challenge by going all out – doubling my efforts and really pushing some boundaries. I would not say that I got arrested because no charges were laid, but let’s just say the local police took a keen interest in a perceived threat to local koalas. Sadly the photographs from that session were confiscated as evidence.


But I did not back down. I got hold of a big lizard, chilled it in the fridge, starched some jeans and underwear and did a new shoot with a rather angry animal coming out of the clothing. When the photo was used nationally by a clothing brand the Head of Geology declared in the local rag that I was an example to other students who wanted to pursue their passions and become well-rounded scientists.


That image was the key to a career in commercial photography, illustration and web design.


From time to time I also picked up rocks for money. Sometimes I photographed them, but I was always grateful for the opportunity to “go bush” at someone else’s expense, with a 4WD, a camera, a fridge and a sometimes foolish desire to catch, chill, shoot and release the wild animals around me.

How we learned to stop worrying and love sharing

Aug 24, 2016   written by John Lamerand
The Internet is a free for all. Also it isn’t. Between the two extremes is a special kind of problem that usually revolves around funding our dreams. We spend time to create equipment, lessons, strategies and to curate what others have done. To simply give all of that effort away without any concern shown for how we sustain our lives would spell a quick death for the project. And yet, when we go online we see so much out there that is free. Typically the free stuff has a hidden cost and the companies that can afford to give things away have some very deep pockets. One way to approach the desire to give without expecting anything in return is to limit how much we toss to the wind. Hopefully the seed will land in fertile ground, but there is no real guarantee that this strategy will work. How much do we give away? Should we be like Hollywood, giving away a trailer in the hope that you will pay the cinema ticket to watch the whole movie? Given that trailers run for a minute or so and movies typically run 100 times that length we would be giving 1%. Another approach is to approach the 1% of the population who have deep pockets and appeal to their patronage. We could open source some of what we have done, as littlebits has, knowing, trusting that those who want to take advantage of our work will come to us regardless. We could provide you with teaser content and ask for feedback. For two years now this is essentially what we have been doing in our local area. We have not gained financially from this, but we have grown in our understanding of what works, and where we should direct our attention in the future. Some things will be free for all. Some things won’t. Where we draw that line will be part of our discussion with you, our stakeholders.

Le dernier cri

Aug 8, 2016   written by John Lamerand

Some people see STEM as the latest fashion in teaching. They are right and they are wrong.

“The last cry” in teaching should be balance and by focusing narrowly on STEM we run the risk of providing an incomplete education. The same goes for the so-called “common core”. 

So what to do about the latest fashion in science and maths education?

We should encourage students to see the creative aspects in science and maths, and for that reason we favour the use of STEAM (with Arts) over STEM. What we are wary of, however, is that in rushing onto the bandwagon every teacher is trying to incorporate STEAM or STEM in some way. The result is often little more than a nod in the direction of this trend. 

A policy analyst in our government sees a laptop and a SPRK and says “That’s it, that is what we will do to satisfy schools’ cravings for something new”. Of course, we understand at the school level, that the last thing we want is yet another set of guidelines and subject names to come to grips with. The last thing we want is massive spending on tools that are next to useless without professional training.

Toys look good in photo opportunities and it is comforting for newspapers to report on what our state is doing (read spending) to bring education into the 21st Century.

What we need, more than anything else, is an understanding that the subjects that we grew up with still matter. History, Geography, Biology, Physics, Geology, Maths, English, LOTE, Fine Art, Drama – these subjects still matter no matter what we call them.

The danger is, if we treat STEAM as a fashion trend, that we will miss a great opportunity to teach and enthuse our students and we may continue to experience declining enrolment in science courses at a tertiary level. There has been a steady decline over the last twenty years in science participation. We need more than just a catchy name for what we will do to reverse this trend.

Finally, the potential for STEAM is somewhat like the potential within a friendship;  it’s not about what one discipline can do for another, it’s what the two disciplines become in each other’s presence. The promise of STEAM education is that subjects that were once treated in separate silos might be allowed to mingle.

Reasons for Resourcefulness

Aug 8, 2016   written by John Lamerand
I could have gone to Ikea. It might have been the easy thing to do. I have nothing against Ikea, per se, but to be honest, doing the easy thing would have been a missed opportunity for finding a creative solution.

To begin with, phrasing the need to have a work bench in terms of a visit to Ikea means that we first budget for the trip to Ikea, kicking the project down the road and perhaps into the oblivion that is “we’ll do it in a month or so”. The other problem with going to Ikea is that it encourages a mindset where if you have a problem it is time to go shopping.

What are the alternatives, then? 

Idea-Logo

Well, here is what I knew:

There were some small palettes in town that were going begging behind a shop together with a little piece of second-rate plywood. While I don’t make a habit of scouting for scrap I do try to keep my eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary whether I am driving, planning a meal or taking a photo.

The other thing I knew is that there was some paint in the garage steadily becoming unusable. It is the usual story – you have an idea of how many square meters you need to paint, you go buy paint and you’ve overestimated the paint required. There are two problems with discarding leftovers: the first is that it cost you money in the first place, let’s face it, and the second is that liquid paint is an environmental hazard and at that point you are either faced with getting some paint hardening powder (another dreaded purchase) or storing the remnant in the shed, next to the exercise equipment that was part of last year’s new year’s resolution.

Finally, and this is the biggest question for me: by visiting Ikea you miss out on the chance to create a lesson for the children about resourcefulness. Children need to know that there is no shame in re-purposing leftovers and scrap.

Last weekend my eldest expressed the view that he wanted a bench or a desk to do some carpentry on. So one of the key criteria for the solution was that the bench had to be solid.

My wife told me that she did not want whatever we were building to provide too many splinters, especially if we imagined a future use for the table inside the house.

With a sledge hammer I dismantled one palette and pulled the nails out of the boards that did not split in the process. Then within an hour I’d screwed the bench together and started painting the result. The children watched and took part where it was safe for them to do so. While it might not be the prettiest work bench it was part of a very valuable lesson for my children.

resourcefulness

They learned that it is worth going the extra mile to save some money, to save wood from going to the town tip and to create something meaningful by up-cycling materials.

We have the added benefit of an empty paint tin which can now be safely put in the trash.

The trick to the whole process was being prepared to think creatively, not costly, and to redesign materials that were available at a low price (and for free).

afterword:

The bench is still wet, so we cannot show it in action, but we will add some shots of it being used as soon as it stops raining here in Albany and the paint dries completely.

Here is a photo of a cubby-house that I made out of discarded palettes… proof that the results don’t always have to look “rustic”.

solange-in-cubby

Summary

  • Resourcefulness is a skill worth teaching by example.
  • Consumer culture is robbing our children the opportunity to express creativity.
  • To achieve a sustainable lifestyle we need to change how we think and act.
  • Shopping can cost more than just money; it might rob you of a chance to share a skill.

 

Tech that keeps giving

Aug 2, 2016   written by John Lamerand

 

When you offer someone a rose the fragrance will stay on your hands.

When you teach someone how to recycle, upcycle and hack you create makers. Makers don’t just tinker with toys, they create new economies.

One of the many reasons that Wayne and I “clicked” was that we both salvaged useful parts out of the things that most people throw away. With a computer shop Wayne had a constant supply of electronic goods that were brought in by customers who hoped that new life could be breathed into them. While the printer, computer, phone had “had it” there were parts that were still useful. Now, a consumer does not usually want one or two batteries or a few motors, they want a more complex solution, like a motor that drives a page through a printer.

While I did not have a computer shop I was a ravenous collector of discarded tech on large rubbish collection days and at garage sales. At one garage sale on the North Shore of Sydney I bought a slightly broken laser printer. The owner said that the paper did not feed well through the printer and he was almost apologetic when he asked $10 for it. I took it home, made the paper take up roller slightly sticky and got a year’s use out of it. And “why would I want someone else’s discarded inkjet printer?”, my wife asked. “I’m glad you asked, honey” I replied, “this printer has two wonderful stepper motors in it and each of them has a rotary encoder.”

If we lived in Shenzhen Wayne and I would probably buy what we needed from the thousands of entrepreneurs who dismantle pre-loved technology. Chances are we’d be living without the benefit of cavernous garages. We would also be able to pick and choose what we wanted and when we had chosen a part to go into a design we’d be able to get hundreds of identical recycled parts. While I may have dismantled many dozens of printers I might have half a dozen of any given part that is identical.

If we do start manufacturing our home-grown kits in large numbers we will probably get the work done where the parts are the best value: Shenzhen.

There is a lot to learn from a place like China. In the west we might have forgotten that when the Swiss first got into watches they were copycats and the French and German manufacturers were angry and snooty with the Swiss. What happened in Switzerland is curious: individual makers got very good at one particular task: one maker might be making hour hands and another might be winding springs. This method of building a watch business has a name: établissage.

In Shenzhen today they have an eastern version of établissage and it works really well. It sprang out of a supply chain movement called shanzai. As workers left big factories they brought their knowledge and a few blueprints with them and innovation without my concern for intellectual property gained pace. Because everyone realises that it is counter productive to be unpleasant to other members of your network strong relationships have been established. As a result a new, fast business model has sprung up. You don’t stay ahead by hoarding IP (intellectual property). Instead you keep innovating and hope to stay ahead of everyone else who wants a piece of the pie. If you want to develop a new thing it might take you 12 months in the West. The same task will take 3 months in Shenzhen and at the same time what you have developed will be modified and improved upon by others. In one sense everything in Shenzhen is open source and the trick is finding out how to stay nimble enough that you make money.

If the West wants to keep up with China perhaps we need to be more prepared to “offer flowers to others” and not rest on our laurels. We might also want to get better at upcycling, recycling, hacking and making.


afterword: this article in wired.com made perfect sense in light of the blog post
You Won’t Believe What Facebook Is Giving Away for Free Now

Wired article Summary: In a sense, open sourcing code offers the same potential benefit that publishing research in peer-reviewed journals does for scientists. In other words, Facebook is betting that giving away its AI tech will make for better software, because it too can benefit from the new ways others use it.

Frustration with formatting

Aug 2, 2016   written by John Lamerand
rant-open
I don’t know about you, my dear reader, but when a piece of software promises “what you see is what you get” then I am inclined to take them on their word. That is, until now. You see, I did not ask for the text in my blog to have a random text size. I specified the text size. Here is proof:

post-broken
But instead of formatting the way I want I find this instead:


formatting-error And that is enough to bring a perfectionist to tears.
rant-close

Move over Heston Marc Blumenthal!

Aug 2, 2016   written by John Lamerand

 





Years ago I bought a kitchen kit from a little company from Québec called Molécule-R. The kids loved it. They really, really loved it. This was before I’d had the idea to start steamkits so I bought it without thinking “great, a Christmas present that I can declare on my tax as a business sample.” Dear ATO, I am kidding, really, really, I am.

What got the kids so excited? As they put it they “did a Heston” and turned dinner on its head. The vinaigrette pearls, spinach gel “pasta” and mock raw egg dessert complete with liquid yolk in a gel sleeve was the talk of the neighbourhood, the playgroup, the classroom. It was a real buzz.

Well, since we first dipped our toes into molecular gastronomy we have seen the rise of Master Chef and sous vide cooking for the masses (thanks to the crowdfunded Nomiku circulator).

If you don’t know what I am talking about google Heston Blumenthal and you will quickly learn why your class will go absolutely wild for the Molécule-R kit.

Sadly there is a catch: you cannot buy the kits directly from Molécule-R any longer. Boo. 

The good news is that we are going to get some stock in so that you don’t have to resort to ebay. Of course, the added advantage of buying through steamkits is that we have identified where use of the  Molécule-R kit satisfies elements in the  Australian Curriculum – making lesson delivery that much easier.

So if you are looking for a chemistry or a food lesson that is safe and straightforward, think Molécule-R and Steamkits. Your students will love you.

molecule-R-no-shipping

This is what we found when we tried buying kits from the Molécule-R site today.

In praise of crowdfunding

Aug 1, 2016   written by John Lamerand

We love it and loathe it in equal measure. Crowdfunding, sometimes better known in terms of brands like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is here to stay because it does something that previous methods did not do well

1) You can go straight to the consumer for funding and in so doing avoid having to talk to bankers who have little imagination until is comes time to price perceived risk aggressively.

2) You can have an idea and test the consumer’s reaction to it without having to hire a focus group, a statistician and so on. The sequence might look like this:

have an idea, test it, fail, have another idea, test it, fail, realise that you need to tweak what it is that you are doing, relaunch, succeed.

3) The public who have put their money where their mouth is can comment on what you have created and in the case of Kickstarter, you can pledge and then later remove your pledge if the weight of evidence indicates that the product is a sham, or that it does not offer real value. Note: you have to be careful on Indiegogo because pledging can result in money coming out of your bank account right away.

4) You can get together with like-minded people through a platform like BackerClub and promote worthy products through the club. If you want to know more about BackerClub please feel free to email me at john@lamerand.com.au.

5) You can get product to market faster than it would take through conventional business models. I know, you might say “Kickstarters are notorious for not delivering on time”, and you would be mostly correct because every project will face unforeseen barriers. While you can plan for what seems logical not everything you come up against in launching a business will be obvious when you start out.

For example:
The factory that you have hired to do something does not meet the failure rate,
The packaging design looks great but it is costing a bomb, so you go back to the drawing board. 
There is a breakthrough in how you can build your thing and you realise that the result will be less expensive to make and better for the customer, so you let them know and you trust your judgement that it is better to be a little late than deliver a second-rate product.
(and I have just received a call from my child’s school saying that she fell and hurt her arm, and this was not foreseen, but if I were pushing a deadline it is clear that I would put my child’s interests over the delivery schedule, so I will sign off now and go collect her)

We will be bringing you news of the crowdfunded project that we feel offer real value to teachers. Stay tuned.