Projects

TEDxBaghdad – Iraq – violence, arduinos and irrational hope

Baghdad Iraq.

river
It was once the jewel of the Muslim empire and epicenter of knowledge in the Eastern world. Now it is best known for corrupt governance, bombings, and dust storms. It was also my parents’ home. After visiting once in 1991 as a child the few memories I have of Iraq seemed to be shouting matches as my parents yelled over the phone making overseas calls. Names of Uncles I had never met were mentioned and a phone was handed to me and I was left to nervously fend for myself with my weak Iraqi slang and an Uncle who apparently knew all about me while I knew nothing of him. The country was an impenetrable black box to me that would spit out another refugee somewhere in the world every few years or so.

river

Sixteen years later the first wall between Iraq and me was broken. In 2007 my nuclear family had traveled to Syria and for the first time I met family members who still lived in Baghdad. I knew them now. My uncles and cousins grew flesh and blood. I could feel their prickly faces as we greeted with the traditional Iraqi 4 sided cheek kiss. They could graciously give me their dishdashas as gifts. Names finally had faces, but those faces were deep, sunken and afraid. 2007 was a bad year of sectarian war in Iraq, which is why the Damascas district of Harasta was flooded with Iraqis. The sound of construction continued through the night to keep up with the massive (ab)use of the “tourist” visas. I saw something in the Iraqis in Syria that I hadn’t seen before; something that scared me. I saw hopelessness. It was then I settled on a long-term project to return to the country and share something that I had just discovered around the same time: the future doesn’t come prepared — we make the future. The do-it-yourself attitude that was growing in America was being combined with the culture of sharing that you find in hackerspaces, at instructables.com and in open source technology. This atmosphere made anything possible. You want to build a vertical generator without any spinning parts? Sure! How about a walking quadraped robot with a sofa? Do you want to quit your job, write zines and sell them in the crafting circle? Sure! Start a business! Write a novel! Organize a benefit concert! Sure – sure – sure! “Make your own future” was the message. It was a message of hope – it was the message that I wanted to share in the Middle East, and especially in Iraq.

In 2011 the opportunity to work on sharing this beautiful message in the Middle East presented itself to me, so I quit my robotics job and took it (sorry Andrew). A few friends and I started a tiny organization called GEMSI – The Global Entrepreneurship and Maker Space Initiative. We funded ourselves through Kickstarter and our first project was a Three-Day Maker Space hosted at Makerfaire Africa. We were hoping to let people experience the feeling of the Maker Movement first-hand. We collaborated with Emeka and the team from MFA, Cairo Hackerspace, along with many amazing egyptians from all over the country. We had a successful first attempt at sharing the message of “Yes you can!” It was a great start, but Iraq was still an impenetrable fortress to me.

diy wiring

It took till 2012 and a chance encounter with friends in Cambridge, MA for me to find my first avenue back into Iraq. Via my friends, I met someone who’s friend was affiliated with TEDxBaghdad. A few steps removed, sure, but when I heard about TEDxBaghdad I knew I had found my way in. I knew TEDx and the types of programs they hosted; I knew they were hopeful, inspired, and shared a vision for a brighter tomorrow. I started communicating with Emeka from MFA, who also works with TED, and he put me in touch with Yahay. After my first skype call with Yahay I knew I was going. Someone else had done it – someone broke that barrier, did amazing work in the country, and survived. It wasn’t the death trap my family was telling me it was. There was a new narrative being woven and I knew what I needed to do. I booked my flights before I even finalized any workshops. I needed to meet the TEDxBaghdad team.

Later, I called my parents and told them I was going to Baghdad and they said, “Shinu?! Inta Makhabal?!” That probably means exactly what you think it does. Needless to say, they had their concerns, but I was going regardless. Now that the tickets were bought, we started planning. Yahay put me in touch with Abdal Ghany, one of the Iraqi organizers living in Baghdad. He coordinated everything. It was amazing. These guys kick some serious planning butt! Ghany basically told me, “Show up and give your workshop. We’ll take care of the rest.” This was a welcome change from the hours of facebooking, planning, and coordination I usually have to go through to schedule events. It really seemed like this was possible. I was going to give an Arduino and 3D printing workshop in Baghdad and I was really excited!

I sent an email to Sparkfun and Makezine asking them for open source electronics donations since I knew bringing my electronics box through the airport wouldn’t be a good idea. They sent me a nice goodie-bag of beautifully packaged Maker products. These two organizations have given me a tremendous amount of help throughout the years, for which I am extremely thankful. I packed a suitcase filled with 2 3D printers, 25 Arduinos, an assortment of other open source hardware and sensors and headed out looking a bit like a bomb development lab. Yeesh! Somehow I made it through China, Saudi, and Turkey without any serious interrogation. Mostly just really quizzical looks from my unzipped bag up back to me… “You’re a teacher?” they ask. “Yes,” I say, “yes I am.”
Arduino chat

Turkey was the stop before Iraq. Turkey was brilliant, sunny, lush, and seemed to be comprised of mostly happy smiling people walking by the sea. Coming from the deserts of Mecca, this was a welcome sight. I let the green of Turkey wash away the dust of Saudi Arabia. The mishmash of cultures, sounds, foods, religions gave me a great feeling of liberation. This was a lively place and the two hackerspaces I met up with there, Base Istanbul and Istanbul Hackerspace were fantastic hosts. Furkan and I spent a lovely day together chatting about Maker culture as it spreads through the Middle East and then in the end we had a potluck BBQ with members from both hackerspaces by the rocks of the sea. It was great to see these two Turkish hackerspaces and to be reminded that this movement is truly global. My dream of hackerspaces empowering people globally is really possible – and it’s great to know that it is a dream that is shared by others. I left them full of enthusiasm and flew directly to Baghdad.

landing in the baghdad dust

Only pic of the baghdad airport i could take

Landing in Baghdad was strange and a bit concerning. Looking out of the window all I could see was a brown cloud. We were landing in a dust storm. I had heard about the turab (dust) of Iraq, but this was the first time I saw it in person, and it would be one of the things most often on my mind. Getting a visa for me was surprisingly easy, except for the fact I forgot my passport on the plane and two guards had to escort me one to each side back to the airplane to retrieve it. But once I had my passport, I told them my laqab, which is the full name that includes ancestry. Showed them a copy of my dad’s passport and my Iraqi birth certificate and I was in. I was hoping for a nice stamp, perhaps with some Iraqi relic on it. But they took my passport and wrote in it: “Originally Iraqi”, so there it goes, it’s official.

Street with no dust

nearby street with dust

Ahmed, my cousin, was not at the airport when I took my paper work and headed out to the lobby. The airport was sparsely populated and heavily regulated. I barely managed to snap a picture before a guard came up to me and had me delete them from my phone. In the lobby I met a man just released from a Swiss prison. The Swiss had given him the option to be sent back home to Iraq, or be jailed. He chose to leave and come back to Iraq. This becomes a theme later as I see more and more people, all of whom desire to leave the country to become refugees elsewhere. It seems that when hope runs out for the country you live in, the only option is to find a new one. This story is one of a million various stories of struggling to find a new life. Each varies in its details, but all have survival at their core.

Ahmed arrives 30 minutes late, apologizing. He’s wearing jeans and a polo. His hair seemed freshly cut and his face was serious. We had never met before. The only thing I knew of him was that he thought I was reckless for coming. He had been spending hours on Skype with me attempting to convince me that coming would be a bad idea: “You have no idea how bad the bugs are. Just wait till you see the dust storms. The heat will kill you… etc” But once I saw him in person it all changed. I didn’t think I’d grow to like Ahmed, but I grew to appreciate his ways and he became like a brother to me before I left.

He took me to Mansour, a neighborhood in Baghdad, telling me stories about Iraq as we travelled. This is the neighborhood where the house my dad designed and family built stands. On the ride home we had our car checked for bombs at least 4 times by what Iraqi’s call Saytarat, which is the equivalent of a checkpoint and, to me, seemed a total nuciance. They were the reason he was late. What would normally be a 20 minute drive can become three hours long because every car is checked for bombs. They are everywhere; throughout the city, on every road. We passed the guard who watches over my family’s neighborhood, and he takes his hand off his machine gun to wave at Ahmed, and I begin to recognize that weapons, car inspections and burned out cars are normal here, so they don’t think to comment on it – like an empty lot in Detroit, or the homeless in San Francisco. We got to my family home with no time to rest. I had to leave to meet up with Abdul Ghany and the crew at a Cafe in an hour and then conduct the workshop in two. Ahmed comes with me – he doesn’t trust people we’d never met before and won’t let me out of his sight. I trust first till proven otherwise, he has learned to do the opposite. It’s a telling sign of how different our lives are on a day-to-day basis.

As soon as I met the TEDxBaghdad crew, I felt at ease. MNA, Abdul Ghany and the entire crew were thoughtful, hardworking, and inspiring people. I was really happy to have intersected with them and they helped me in more ways than I could count. We first met up at Everyday,
Mohammed with iPad showing me
a local Mansour café. Everyday cafe was hyper airconditioned and everyone seemed to think it was hotter than it was. The crew was awesome, they were really a great first introduction to the excited young people of Baghdad and they certainly have the famed Iraqi hospitality. But here’s a tip: do not order a fajita in Baghdad ;D. Mohammed Al-Samarraie pulled out their iPads and started showing me video production work he was doing for TEDx. Abdul Ghany comes a little late and we have head out to the workshop.

TEDxBaghdad crew at Everyday Cafe

The workshop was held in a two story office building surrounded by palm trees. Looking out the the tinted back window we could see the muddy river run past, winding and dark. Slowly the TEDx people started trickling in. event was held hereThen I started to get nervous. The checkpoints didn’t bother me, the tanks in the streets were not an issue, but here were these people coming to learn something from me. What could I share that would really matter to them when they had so much to deal with daily? What could I share that could be relevant to people who see bombings as I experience lightning storms? I have been to other places in the world to share this kind of information, and some of those places have had political problems and ongoing revolutions. But Iraq was the first country I had been to that really seemed like a war zone.
gather around adriana the 3d printer

I decided that first I needed to learn from them! What were their projects? What did they hope for? I hoped they would learn from each other and get excited about their projects and I wanted to be able to share things that were relevant to them. Thus, everyone was encouraged to talk about who they are, how they learned about TEDxBaghdad and to share their project, share with us their mission, or share an inspiring story. I was amazed to hear about all the incredible initiatives the crew was doing. From intercultural exchange programs, to street clean ups, to historical artifact preservation, each of them shared and I started realizing something. They were not as interested in new technology as they were interested in arts and culture and after hearing about a few of their projects I started realizing why.

Learning about culture and paying attention to the arts gives people the ability to pay attention to details. They can look at another human being and see all the subtleties that make us who we are. We each fall in love, we struggle, we question, and have doubts. Arts give depth to a black and white world. Sectarianism is difficult when we pay attention to the commonalities that tie us all together. What would the world be like if anyone who wanted a weapons license was required to have visited India, could pass an art history exam and could play stairway to heaven on the guitar?

We were in a sort of office building near the river which ran by dark and muddy looking through the tinted windows. One by one, they stood up in front and gave their short presentations. There were doctors, engineers, and designers in the crew. They each stood up and told the story of how they found out about TEDxBaghdad and it was incredible. Each of them had a friend recommend it to them, and it was mostly done through Facebook. Some people’s projects were related to health, culture, antiquity preservation, and connecting Iraqis with the rest of the world. While they spoke I made a graph of the things that connected all of their ideas together. It was a beautiful thing to see. The common themes were to help Iraq as a country through the integration of new ideas and how to bring a new face of Iraq and present it to the world. To have the news about Iraq be about amazing things, inspiring things, rather than explosions. Being in that room with that energy made me feel like we were already on our way.

I pulled out the boxes of donations given to us by Sparkfun and The Makershed and now it was my turn. I told them about my story coming into contact with my friend Alex through instructables.com, how being in San Francisco and Cambridge opened my eyes to a new way of entrepreneurship using communities and open source technology. And how they could make anything they could imagine if they got together to do it. We discussed how sharing and collaboration was a common value that held the entire system together. I used the concept of the LED throwie,

LED throwie

which is a simple idea by Graffiti Research Labs to connect an LED to a coin battery and a magnet. They used it to throw at ferrous buildings as a form of electronic graffiti but once they uploaded it to instructables the idea was out there and people were inspired to take it and derive many other projects. You can never know what will happen when you share something or when you create a tool and share it. People created outlined throwies, LED floaties in balloons and finally we start seeing LED floaties which are sequenced to act like a light show at a fish concert. Hahaha!
LED ladies

We then talked about the Arduino an easy to use microcontroller designed for artists. It’s a bit of technology that is a simple and easy to use platform to build interactive projects. We talked about how the open nature of the project people can use the Arduino and then use shields to add features like being able to connect to the internet or play MP3s. Open source tools make building new products a lot like using legos. We were in the middle of using some of the sensors The Maker Shed had sent us to make a DIY heart rate monitor when the power went out and all went dark except for the LED throwies we had made.
led throwie camp fire

It suddenly felt very intimate. We put all the LED throwies in the center of the room and huddled around it for story time. The feeling of connection was palpable for me. Sure the lack of power meant that we were not going to be able to 3D print, but being in the dark with TEDxBaghdad was one of my favorite memories of this trip.
123d catch of my foot

The lights went on and we had a long question and answer session / photo shoot. Some of the doctors were interested to use the Arduino based heart rate monitors to replace the broken ones in the hospital. I heard about this and was flabbergast that the most basic and cheap tools I had brought with me might have a direct impact and may even save lives. Technology might not solve the political problems of the country but it seems that there was a lot of room for development and that the crew I was with was creative and excited to make use of it. I passed out 20 Arduino kits that day, including the Lillypad which is a version of the Arduino intended to be sewn into clothing. Although there were very few engineers in the audience, everyone seemed to be buzzing with ideas and ways to use the Arduinos.

What a great workshop! I was super excited because not only had they understood the message, they seem to have been infected with the feeling of capability! Now to seal the deal, we were all going to go out and eat a classic Iraqi dish Simach Masguf. Ahmed has been calling me hourly making sure that I was OK, but I felt safe enough with my new friends so we all headed out to a fish spot by the river. Hours go by, lots of fish is eaten, and lots of juice is drunk. Some of the crew smoke some sheesha. It was like I was with new old friends. My Iraqi slang was improving hourly and although we had just met I knew me and TEDxBaghdad we’re going to be working together again very soon. I would have stayed all night eating and chatting about future projects and the problems to solve in Iraq, but the curfew was about to set in and we had to jet.

simach masgoof classic iraqi dish

Yeah, there is still a curfew. On the ride home my head is filled with contradictions. Hope and confusion mix in my head as my family rings 4 more times. I get home safe and decide that the only way to deal with the complicated situation in Iraq was to act with irrational hope and optimism. That’s the way TEDxBaghdad seemed to work. And that’s going to be mine as well.
TEDxBaghdad mission to clean the streets

The next day there were five explosions in Baghdad so TEDxBaghdad and I decided against going out to the Iraqi National Museum even though we had to request permission to go. We meet instead back at Everyday and there we solidify our commitment to working for a more beautiful Baghdad and a country which will become a producing nation once again. Sharing with the world it’s art, science and literature like it once did years ago.

+BG

Pictures of Iraq:
zeitun in the market

fish in the market

Everything gets covered with a layer of baghdad dust

Wrecklab Makelab

Make it Happen at the Ann Arbor public library

Wrecklab / Makelab is project which is an effort to create more awareness about how the products we use every day work, to inspire creativity, and to have fun taking stuff apart! During Wrecklab we take things apart with any tool available and investigate the core of the gadgets of yesteryear. Makelab is the opposite, during this session participants are encouraged is to put the destroyed objects back together again in a novel way. The idea is to empower people with the knowledge of everyday objects they may mistake for magic. Cell phone: magic. Refrigerators… magic. Printers: sorcery!! Having the knowledge of the inner workings of their thingsgives people more ownership over the stuff they buy. If your watch breaks, you’re not out all the parts, you can use that stuff! Also there’s the potential for fixing it yourself.

I hope that more happens, that through this destructive and constructive play people find themselves inspired to experiment, to realize that science is done by people solving their own problems. That a playful experimenting mind is a fun thing to cultivate, and who knows what fun hacks we’ll develop along the way!

Kosmobot

March 2010
Working in conjunction with Right Brain Fabrication we built an animatronic robot face to interact with Kosmo’s customers. Two Peggy‘s act as Kosmobot’s eyes while four servo’s manipulate his aluminum eyebrows. This gives him some serious flexibility and a good range of expressions. We also had a script running so the operator could type in the words Kosmo would say and it would use the TTS from the Mac Kosmo lives in to speak.  Right Brain Fabrication built the mechanics and I did the electronics interfacing and programming.

Kosmopic 

This video by Bob Stack from Right Brain Fabrication shows some of the available expressions Kosmo has:

If you’re ever in Ann arbor and you want to order food from a robot get yourself to Kosmo and order some Bi Bim Bop!

Compass Headband

While working with tactile displays I continued to consider what types of senses I could send to my body. Thinking about birds and my own lack of city sense I picked compass heading. I believe the less processing you need to do to understand consciously the sensations you feel, the more rapidly it will become background knowledge so the most direct analog to compass sense would be to vibrate my head north. Since my head has a full 360 degrees. I used the HMC6343, an arduino, 14 pager motors and a decoder/driver circuit I devised to run it.

Here are some pictures of the construction and the final headband:

Here’s the code used to communicate between the decoder and the compass: compassaccess.pde

Finalhat
Boardandcode
Finalhat

With Punch!

With Punch is a festival which focuses on celebrating life in is its wonderful beauty and promoting real, genuine connections between strangers over free pie and punch. We hold With Punch annually for free in public spaces in Ann Arbor. Watching people walk right by each other I thought that if I could find something common between two they may form a connection. So I started out by bringing art supplies, musical instruments, juggling toys, punch, hot chocolate and pie I leave all these out and encourage strangers to interact with each other in anyway they wish. Starting in 2005 with a few supplies and a desire to create an environment I wanted to be a part of, WithPunch has grown into a music festival with cook-offs and crayon art competitions. An article at the Michigan Journal describes it as:

“Improvisation was everywhere throughout the event. However, things fell together one by one as Ghalib achieved his goal for the third time: eclectic entertainment and living life with vigor – sans alcohol or other drugs. … One thing is certain: Variety show was an understatement as a description for With Punch”

We’ve had 7 with punches so far. I can’t wait to hold the 8th. Here are some photographs from previous WithPunch events!

Withpunch
Grafitti 2
Withpunchart
Twister 1Costume Winner

Modati Studios

Modati is a company that started operating early March 2006. The initial spark behind Modati was to take all the skill I knew my friends and I had and turn that into something that we could use to gain new skills, interact with people and make money doing things we cared about. Upset that most of my friends expected to work jobs that didn’t develop them in any way I also wanted an avenue to take the design company (Still Pondering Studios) I started in 12 grade and turn it into a design and print studio.

Starting with that idyllic perspective we grew very rapidly moving from one venue to another 3 times in 3 years. Here’s a short list of things we’ve done:

  1. We created a partnership with 10 bands doing an image trading gig where we’d appear at their shows selling merchandise, while they wore our line on stage.
  2. Working with local artists we put out dozens of designs and attended festivals all over the east coast.
  3. We rented out a storefront on Main St in Ann Arbor with our printing operations in the basement.
  4. Taught summer workshops and classes with the Ann Arbor Art Fair
  5. Through a partnership with the local teen center The Neutral Zone we teach silk screening every Friday during the school year.
  6. We run MATES (Make Awesome Tee Shirts and Enjoy Summer) a summer camp with the Neutral Zone for local kids interested in screen printing.
  7. Ran a Reform an event designed to raise awareness of the possibility of reuse in every day life. First in our studio, and in 2009 in The Gallery Project.

More recently we’ve become interested in developing interactive shirts and objects such as the twittering shirt:

And thermochormatic potholders that tell you when they’re hot:

Modati’s popular live screen printing events are a new means of both revenue and public interaction:

Four years after starting this company it’s still changing and growing. Watching it evolve I realize how important it’s been to my growth and development. Through this company I have been able to affect hundreds of peoples lives. I’ve been able to throw concerts, sponsor events, and be a part of a thriving artistic community. We’re currently directing the company to incorporate more of my sensory and engineering interests and I’m interested to see how far we can push the science of screen printing.

DSC 0598

Decoder Business Card

P1070433
A laser cut version of the decoder business card

By using a a QR code as an encoder and decoder we can have a secret message card that can be translated using digital decoders and analog ones as well!

DSCF3692
DSCF3691

Having a good business card can help you maintain contacts, promote yourself and your business, and make friends. By creating a personal business card that involves the recipient actively folding, manipulating and translating your card will make them more likely to remember you and share your card.

DSCF3686

Thinking back to the old school decoder rings and my fascination with secret messages I thought I could make an interesting business card that could not only tell a story, but give useful information on how to contact me. I did this first using just a block out grid stencil, and secondly with a QR code acting as the grid. I posted the project on instructables, you can check it out there, view the embedded version, or download the PDF below.

A decoder business card project I just posted to instructables.

Decoder Buisness Card – QR Coded Secret Message

Two Hands Project

Two Hands Project Logo

The Two Hands Project
A documentary tour of as many Hackerspaces we could possibly see in one month. I felt that Hackerspaces were at a tipping point last spring/summer and I wanted to capture the movement in the beginning stages to spread the concept and fan the flames of making. Currently in post production. We could use any help anyone can offer!

Here was our amazing flight plan:
Two Hands Project Flight Plan

The THP is also a hack in and of itself, it definitely brews from the same thrifty resourcefulness with an angle on how to make the most awesome project with limited resources. THP will be produced with two hands, like everything else ever made.