Printing the future: rapid prototyping and society

Open Source Ecology is a project which aims to provide blueprints for to build civilisations. Don’t worry — this isn’t flat-pack imperialism, nor is it woolly, idealist fantasy.

The project has set out a list of 50 machines — ranging from agriculture and building applications to laser cutters, automatic cow milkers and tractors — which the group has designed from the ground up and then shared its material lists, assembly directions and instruction manuals, all for free, online.

With these machines and a little graft, a settlement can establish itself as practically self-sufficient organism, complete with solar power, clean water and, crucially, the ability to repair equipment as it breaks and to fabricate more tools.

The key to this remarkable self-repairing ability is 3D printing and rapid prototyping. These are relatively new technologies — for the non-military public, that is — which take digital mock-ups and computer-aided design (CAD) drawings and accurately process them into physical objects.

3D printing is based on the principle of additive polymer layers — a digital, three-dimensional design is broken down into layers, much in the same way as a digital photograph is broken into row upon row of pixels, each containing a single piece of data which determines hue and luminosity. Combined in the correct order, these pixels form an image.

The 3D printing principle takes this one step further, adding another vertical dimension and extending colour and brightness information with material data — resin, metal and even glass.

A rapid prototyping machine then takes these layers of information and physically prints them, feeding the object powdered or pellet-sized materials from an infinitely feedable hopper and fusing them into a solid with a laser — sintering — or with glue binders, similar to traditional inkjet printers. This aspect also allows control of the cyan-magenta-yellow-black inks, meaning pieces can be made in full colour.

Currently the technology is at a point at which resin and metals can be used to produce simple objects, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision when this will be developed to produce high-precision artefacts with complex, interlocking parts which can be relied upon for critical applications.

Some companies are currently selling consumer units which come supplied with blueprints of the printers themselves, which means that you can build self-replicating versions of these machines.

You need only open up your computer to get an idea of where this could be headed. Printed circuit boards are made with 2D printers and acid baths on resin/metal plates, and the stunning complexity and power which such circuit boards offer us cannot be overstated.

Scaling this up into a third dimension affords possibilities which conventional fabrication can’t even come close to. Imagine, for a low-tech, boutique example, a ceramic coffee cup internally riddled with copper filaments and an RFID chip similiar to those found in passports and Oyster cards.

Such a cup would be able to intelligently inform a similiarly wired coffee maker when its contents are nearly consumed or approaching undrinkably cold, and thus requesting a fresh round of coffee be brewed, including selecting the correct brand of coffee and proportion of milk and sugar as ascertained by the smart cup.

Of course, making perfect coffee is not going to set the world alight, nor will it democratise manufacture and local economic control — a key factor in social empowerment — but enabling communities to replace critical machinery and components independently will.

Architects have been extensively exploring new ways to build cities. In the early days of rapid prototyping, some forward-thinking individuals envisaged entire buildings being printed in this fashion, with only raw materials needing to be fed into these enormous machines.

But to print a building in this way would require printers many times larger than the building itself — a clearly impractical approach in space-starved modern cities.

Rather than building from the outside in, a more innovative method is to establish tracks upon which nanobots can run, again only requiring raw materials.

These miniature, autonomous machines — approximately a millionth of a metre wide — would zip around the tracks assembling the building according to the nanobots’ built-in instructions, which is a blueprint of the entire building.

And much like our intelligent coffee cup, this building would be free of the constraints of traditional bricks and mortar construction. Such an edifice could be laced with circuitry to provide high-speed internet connectivity, light-sensitive windows, solar panels and much more.

From third-world villages to the most advanced cities in the world, rapid prototyping can democratise design and manufacture, putting control back in the hands of those who choose to sieze it.

Similar printing technologies are also preparing to reset the Big Pharma monopoly. Using basic chemical initiators and digital instructions, a properly modified printer can manufacture medicine free from the constraints profit-hungry drug corporations.

Once again, it’s simply the availability of instructions which flattens the arcane hierarchy of wealth equalling health.

One day a person in need of insulin would simply download a file from their doctor and within 20 minutes would have a week’s supply of the drug, freshly manufactured in their own home from basic raw ingredients. Make no mistake — this is life-saving, world-changing stuff.

But the incessant and desperate march of copyright owners to lock down the internet and the free passage of information is a threat to these emerging, powerful technologies.

The world is approaching a point at which it’s connected enough to start repairing and improving itself, but the monopolisation of information is one of the points which we need to defend most fiercely.

Projecting the future of human endeavour and its marriage to technology is famously perilous. With the benefit of hindsight, such predictions can be laughably off-key, but we can be certain that what’s to come is stranger than we’re yet ready to suppose.

Rubberhosing Assange

The unique saga of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s attempted extradition to the US via Sweden on two charges of sexual assault represent a modern retelling of the oldest smear techniques known to “the dark arts” of politics – character assassination via sexual techniques.

Since a European Arrest Warrant was issued against Assange for an alleged sexual assault in Sweden in 2010, a circuitous chase has ensued which has ultimately led to the tech activist taking up residence in the Ecuadoran embassy in London.

While it seemed that his back was truly against the wall following his rejected appeal against extradition, his plea for asylum in Ecuador is perhaps his shrewdest – and potentially most fruitful – move yet.

By officially pinning his colours to Ecuador’s mast he has taken a dubious charge – for which Britain-Sweden extradition wouldn’t usually even be considered – and pushed it into the domain of international diplomacy.

Since the Ecuadoran embassy is a guest of Britain, the US cannot technically intervene or capture Assange without exploding the situation into a full-blown diplomatic incident or, at worst, an act of war.

Since WikiLeaks released a large collection of classified US diplomatic cables in 2010 – provoking the ire of the US departments involved and setting in motion that country’s fervour to extradite him – the whistleblowing organisation has also published a swathe of internal emails from global intelligence firm Stratfor, which reveal in detail the callous and dangerously autonomous nature of this enormous meta-government.

Among myriad fascinating and damning snippets are instructions for how to handle and manipulate intelligence sources, including “you have to take control of him. Control means financial, sexual or psychological control.”

Sound familiar? Attempts have been made to manoeuvre Assange into physical and psychological control with a sexual blackmail flavour. An old and effective trick indeed.

In a flourish of poetic irony, Stratfor has also extensively analysed Assange’s ongoing business and it’s clear that it is not likely to be donating to the Wikileaks survival fund any time soon.

In one such message Stratfor’s Sydney watch officer Chris Farnham asks CEO George Friedman: “Is it possible to revoke someone’s citizenship on the grounds of them being a total dickhead? I don’t care about the other leaks but the ones he has made that potentially damage Australian interests upset me. If I thought I could switch this dickhead off without getting done I don’t think I’d have too much of a problem.”

The very fact that WikiLeaks has exposed information pertaining to an intelligence investigation of its own organisation speaks volumes about the web of far-reaching sources that Assange sits Moriarty-like in the middle of.

The cat and mouse game which has unfolded so unpredictably over the last two years has reached a crucial point which reveals the depth of Assange’s long-term planning.

One of the first elements of this rabbit hole story fell into place in the ’90s when the Wikileaks founder co-developed rubberhose cryptography (RC), a type of digital encryption specifically designed with holders of dangerous secrets in mind.

RC essentially enables more than one password to be used on a piece of encrypted data, so that one password will reveal a certain set of information – for example, classified material and sensitive data – and another password will yield another set of innocuous encrypted information – say, family photos or instructions for reassembling a Mini Cooper. The name rubberhose concerns a persuasion tool traditionally used during “interviews” with subjects who are inclined toward silence.

This is a hi-tech/low-tech hybrid which defeats both aggressive brute force password-cracking methods, as used by the CIA et al, as well as the more brutal methods of information extraction, including aggressive social engineering and torture – techniques also employed by similar groups.

Assange and WikiLeaks have employed this exact methodology in their “insurance file,” an encrypted 1.4GB file – released in 2010 and distributed globally many thousands of times via digital torrent networks, essentially the same infrastructure which operates the Pirate Bay, this file could contain over a million documents – forming another essential element in the long-term WikiLeaks strategy.

A handful of media outlets have erroneously reported that the encryption on this file has been broken. This is not the case, but rather a result of sloppy or even wilfully misleading journalism.

Do we need reminding of the stranglehold the corporate world and parties concerned with taking Wikileaks down have on public opinion via the media? I hope not.

This file provides the key to the terse, chess-like nature of Assange’s evasion of black imprisonment, outright rendition or plain old murder. Should any of these occur, a trusted third party, or parties, will release some or all of the keys associated with this file, making the plain text information within available for anyone who has downloaded it.

On February 22 2012 a second insurance file was released, again with military-grade encryption, but this time weighing in at an enormous 64GB.

Whether the keys to these documents will ever be made public is unclear. Such a release may not even be in the interest of WikiLeaks or Assange, but the important fact is that their enemies – the US Department of Defence, investment banks, intelligence agencies and who knows who else – are made aware that this digital carrot is very much being dangled.

If these US bodies, and others, have received the passwords from Wikileaks then they will be aware of what is at stake, and may well be enacting damage limitation measures as we wait for the ongoing rigmarole of Assange’s extradition, or otherwise, to run its course.

The idea that WikiLeaks may already have given these keys to US law enforcement is an interesting one – they already have the material as it was theirs in the first place. WikiLeaks need only demonstrate that they have and can release it at the drop of a hat in order to put their king in check.

Under US law there is no key disclosure legislation, which means that a person may legally hold encrypted material without being required to give up its passwords. Of course this doesn’t rule out the use of torture to gain access to these secrets.

What this information is exactly can only be speculated, but suffice to say that it will be explosive and damaging enough to the figures of global power that it’s better for them to keep Assange alive.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

Field Day 2012

Tweaky big beat pumps from an ad hoc sound system, beautiful people mosey around under post-modern sunglasses — permanently affixed to face regardless of weather — and clumps of hay spring from the spaces in between.

When I walk past three hours later, the music’s louder and it appears there’s a permanent cloud of dried grass hovering above the revellers.

This is Field Day, and it’s now six years old. It seems difficult to imagine the very first Eat Your Own Ears/Adventures in the Beetroot Field/Bugged Out all-dayer in 2007 — a well-intentioned event sorely plagued by planning and audio issues — sharing a lineage with the hipster calendar cornerstone that it is today.

To descend upon Hackney’s recently refurbished Victoria Park and see one of the best small festivals in Britain is a charming encouragement. This isn’t even a small festival any more.

Shrewdly spaced over most of the park, the layout perfectly isolates stage sound as well as giving each corner its own identity beyond the typical “main stage, alt stage, dance tent” setup.

First ear-grabbing act of the day was Andrew Bird, a US multi-instrumentalist whose latest album Break It Yourself is lush cut of quasi-classical modern folk whimsy fused with a country lilt, all backboned by Bird’s stunning drummer.

Rarely seen is such vocal crowd enthusiasm for a violinist — with band or otherwise — and I couldn’t help wondering if there was some link between the joyful, yielding abandon of the audience, their ever-mobile jaws and bared teeth and the highly sexed full-body dancing which I found myself an unwilling participant in. Perhaps I’m just getting old and that’s how kids dance these days.

Arguably the highlight of the weekend for many was space-funk dance outfit Metronomy, who made full use of the thankfully well-appointed sound system with staccato, intricate Prince-style synth lines and deep, macabre pop bass.

There’s a sinister magic surrounding this Devon four-piece.
Broody, wonky keys, catchy hooks and a sense of humour combine perfectly with songwriter Joe Mount’s personal maturity.

After coming off stage he seemed like he’d just had a bath rather than whipping up a crowd of thousands into a gurning orgy of music.

In what could easily be called a misjudgement in programming, following Metronomy’s devastatingly dancable set was Beirut, every self-respecting scenester’s favourite US post-gypsy mariachi chanson group.

While Beirut rarely disappoint with their sleazy ballads, one couldn’t help feeling that the jawgrinders in attendance would have been able to prolong their buzz a little longer had these bands swapped positions.

Closing proceedings were Franz Ferdinand, a band who I mistakenly presumed had long retired from public performance.

Despite being ignorant of running orders for the whole day — the mark of true, bleeding-edge hipness — I was queasily surprised to find such an anodyne group putting the festival to bed.

While clearly capable of writing the odd radio-saturating hit single, Franz’s musical and instrumental simplicity offers a prim reminder that their brash, angular pop is actually rather flimsy.

But where else can you find a 10-hour, no-questions-asked straw fight on a Saturday in east London?

Camille at the Barbican

Having seen Parisian singer Camille in the golden oven of the Hackney Empire last year I was prepared for this Barbican installment to be an intimate and classy show, most likely a two-set set encompassing a run-through of her latest album Ilo Veyou and her “plus grands succès.”

But I wasn’t prepared for the absolutely stunningly inventive, world-class minimalism of the staging and music. Nor could I have been adequately briefed on the flawless charm of Camille herself.

Self-effacing, pitch perfect and frankly beautiful, she commands the sparse set for nearly two hours while a single incandescent light bulb suspended from the roof acts as a delicate and powerful foil to the music, effortlessly embodying an embryo, a child, a lover, a star, a universe.

Using this most simple of theatrical devices, she distills the audience into the palm of her hand, their stunned attention saluting her originality and the auditorium swelling with the silent, spectral clatter of mouths falling open en masse.

Camille’s typically wry, play on words songwriting and demeanour was exercised to its full in everything from her patter, audience manipulation and good-humoured piss-taking of the French stereotype, subtly underscored by a tasteful push of a backlit tricolore and a comic vignette from a melodramatic, Anglophobic dance-instructing character.

This occasionally touring show is not a pop concert but an overwhelming piece of art, and absolutely without a doubt, Camille is a rare and vital creative force. Never lose sight of her.

‘Pancake Day bollocks’ says European court

Civil liberties campaigners celebrated today as the European Court of Human Rights declared making pancakes to be an inalienable freedom which can legally be indulged at any time of the year.

For centuries food lovers had only been able to cook pancakes on one day of the year, Shrove Tuesday, an arbitrarily defined date chosen in secret by top Cardinals in the Catholic church.

But today’s shock ruling has changed the way people will now consume eggs, flour and milk.

“I love pancakes but I always seem to have dialysis sessions booked for pancake day,” said Kelly Chubber of Essex. “But now  I can have them whenever I want, which is for every meal for the rest of my life,” the cretin excreted.

The Vatican has always been notoriously guarded about its confection policy, with some commentators going so far as to suggest that it has been involved at cover ups of clandestine non-Shrove pancake preparation.

Despite the law, many have chosen to ignore the age-old prohibition. Famous racist arsehole Jeremy Clarkson said: “If you let a bunch of paedos tell you when to eat then you deserve to be shot.”

‘I slipped and accidentally opened bank account,’ says Redknapp

Professional sport-rapist manager Harry Redknapp yesterday claimed that he accidentally opened the Monaco bank account into which hundreds of thousands of pounds were paid in a legal arrangment.

Giving evidence at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Redknapp insisted that he was attempting to help women and children off a sinking boat when he realised that he had somehow set up a clandestine bank account in an notorious tax haven.

While he accepted that what he had done was wrong, he denied any wrongdoing.

The veteran manager further demonstrated his humility by ripping three fingernails out of his fingers before going on to insist that he would only accept crucifixion as punishment for his crimes – which he insisted were legal, ethical and nonexistant.

The court heard that the money — which he acquired in an honourable manner — had nothing to do with trasnfer bribes, which are nearly always undertaken using cash or Western Union transfers.

The brave millionaire went on to explain that he had done nothing wrong, but would be prepared to face up to the consequences and the music and pay society back for the thing he did which wasn’t illegal.

The judge presiding over the case is believed to be speaking to the Vatican with a view to making Redknapp a saint.

New Variety’s New Act Of The Year Final – Stratford Circus, London E15

This year’s New Act of the Year final was held in the bizarre Olympic leisure farm which has taken over east London’s Stratford to accommodate the four weeks of industrial-level grotesquery which is drawing ever nearer.

The calibre of acts are surprisingly consistent, with a thicker than usual slab of the usually dreaded musical comedy.

The veteran tortoise that is stand-up Arthur Smith hosts this year’s event with his charming, road-worn patter which stays familiar and accessible while unthreateningly reminding those youngsters how the pros do it.

Precocious and affable Canadian Bobby Mair offers up some refreshingly old-school and sharply delivered material which softly rings the bell of the naive, McDonalds-eating MTV slacker generation of the early ’90s while being just a touch too young to have actually been there.

A delightfully dry Mark Stephenson shows no fear of losing an audience. His leftfield whimsy seems to draw them in further to his topsy-turvy world in which he approaches language obliquely and bravely to nervous laughter and strong effect.

Female double-act Adams and Rea bring the musical acts into line with a sweet chemistry.

Their litter rap very nearly brings the house down though their debt to the Flight of the Conchords can’t be dismissed.

Patrick Cahill provides a comic first in bringing along his own invisible mike stand before embarking on a genuinely ambitious monologue about how to truly live before dying – an existentialist experiment involving dog turds which is reminiscent of the freewheeling fire of Phil Kay.

The most bizarre turn of the evening by a long way was the frankly baffling Russela, a highly toned drag act who somehow manages to defy her teetering platforms to simply make a pancake from scratch on stage. A refreshing change at least.

An entirely unexpected twist came in the shape of a tiny dog named Eric, who held the audience firmly in his paw as he simply nudged a balloon with his nose for a full five minutes.

A talented fellow, even if he doesn’t know it.

Social saboteur Cahill deservedly took home the self-consciously crap but esteemed winner’s certificate – a spot-on decision on the part of the judges.

Watch out for him.

Better Living Through Comedy – The Green Note, Camden NW1

Fat Kitten improv group has gone through uncountable line-ups, a sweet Dadaism which reflects the ephemeral nature of their partiular comic beast and has served their structured lack of structure laudably in the past.

But it seems the hey day of the troupe has passed, or is at least waiting to return to its typical top form of previous years.

Gone is the wild-eyed bedlamite Sophie Buchan — who could always be relied upon for a solo stand-up turn of rare and genuine surrealism, or a unexpected bend in any group manouevres — to be replaced with a frankly disappointing Lydia Nicholas, a performer who seems, dare I say it, just too young and green to compete on so wintry a field.

The otherwise impeccable compering of the nocturnal James Ross — who recently managed to burn his own flat down — was brought into question by the sheer amount of time Nicholas held the stage for, despite corpsing, repetition and the high treason of just not being funny.

As was once insisted of Jaki Liebezeit in a defining moment: “You must play monotonous.”

Simplicity 101 is a class which Nicholas needs to attend in order to tread water with her fellow Kittens.

Tom Craine offered a refreshing 10ccs of adrenaline into the arm of an evening almost scuttled by its first third (avant-comic attempts of, dear reader, I’ll spare you details) with some good old-fashioned scripted and rehearsed material.

Headliners Jigsaw are a trio of highly-competent sketch comics, Dan Antopolski, Tom Craine and Nat Luurtsema, and their material is sharp, funny and expertly delivered with absolutely no fat.

The fire of their chemisty sloshes over the rim of the stage, their short set humbly redeeming every crime of the evening.

Antopolski expresses the archetype of the cheeky bastard, while Craine bring a collapsing levity to Luurtsema’s non-literal channeling of Lady Macbeth.

Definitely ones to look out for on a screen or stage somewhere soon.

Tell your friends.

Camille – Ilo Veyou

Parisian singer Camille’s fourth studio album further pushes her already unimpeachable song craft toward the songwriting hall of fame in which she rightly belongs.

Far away are the tongue in cheek disco pop slabs of Music Hole — Ilo Veyou is closer in tone to the more conceptually aligned Le Fil, and just as personal.
Having children often douses artists in saccharine fluid, leaving them unable to escape the cooing sentimentality which their offspring invoke. To quote alt rapper Sage Francis, “Don’t use kiddies as an excuse to make horrible music please.”
Camille has managed to side step this peril and tastefully embrace her womanhood through the organic heartbeat of Aujourd’hui, while retaining her inimitable wordplay whimsy in tracks like Mars Is No Fun.
Her recent European tour exhibited an astonishing level of ambition in its humble and imaginative theatricality.
Very few multiple platinum artists have the nerve to simply lie down on stage under a bare incandescent bulb or to render a suite of songs in silhouette. These aren’t cheap gimmicks. Rather they are testament to the singer’s attention to detail, harking back to the not-just-music ethos she picked up as an occasional vocalist for La Nouvelle Vague.
If you’ve not heard this utterly brilliant auteur, make it a priority.