How Much Is DIY Worth To You?

It all started with an article about Wink Labs putting a monthly fee on their previously free service. It wasn’t so much the amount they were asking ($5 / month) that raised my hackles, but rather the fact that they would essentially render a device that you ostensibly bought worthless unless you paid up. I’ve ranted about this enough recently, and the quick summary is that IoT companies seem very bad at estimating their true costs, and the consumer ends up suffering for it.

So I started thinking about the price myself. Is $5 per month for a home automation service a lot or a little? On one hand, if you stretch that out to, say, 10 years, you end up with a net present value of something north of $400, plus $70 for the device. That’s a lot, right? Surely, I could DIY myself a solution for less? Or am I falling into the same IoT trap?

This isn’t hypothetical, because I already have a modest DIY home automation system. We run a bunch of switches, have temperature and humidity loggers in relevant rooms, and the washer and dryer notify us when they’re done. I also use the MQTT infrastructure for all sorts of fun projects, but that’s a bonus. Our hub is a $10 Orange Pi and a long-since depreciated WRT54g router, and it’s run for four years now, and probably will last another six. So that looks like $460 in my pocket.

On the other hand, it’s only really a bargain for me because I already knew what I was doing when I set the system up, and what I didn’t know I wanted to learn. Realistically, I probably spent around 20 hours on the system in total, but most of that has been adding in new devices and tweaking old ones. You’d have to do this sort of thing with any other system too, although my guess is that the professional systems are more streamlined at enrolling new gadgets: I have a whole directory full of Python scripts running as daemons and have to do a lot of hand editing. Still, assuming nothing else drastic happens to the system, I’m probably winning by DIYing here.

But imagine that I had little or no technical clue, and even flashing an image of a pre-configured home automation system to a Raspberry Pi were new. How much time does it take to learn how to do something like that? How much time to learn to administer even such a simple system on your home network? If it took the real me 20 hours, it could be easily twice that much for the hypothetical me. Let’s say 46 hours of time invested. $10 / hour is below minimum wage in many places, and this isn’t minimum wage labor, and that was fairly optimistic.

In the end, the $5 per month is probably pretty fair if the system works. Indeed, when I look around at all of the systems I’ve built, most all of them have taken more time to build than I thought when I was starting. Of course, I’ve enjoyed it most of the time, so maybe it’s not fair to apply my full consulting rates. (Which if I charged my father-in-law for tech support, I’d be rich!) But it’d probably be naive to say that everyone should just DIY themselves a home automation solution when the going gets tough.

So look around you and revel in the hours you’ve spent on your various DIY projects. Who knew that they were worth so much?

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Jen Costillo Explains Why Hackers Thrive In A Recession

If you haven’t noticed, this is an absolutely fantastic time to be a hacker. The components are cheap, the software is usually free, and there’s so much information floating around online about how to pull it all together that even beginners can produce incredible projects their first time out of the gate. It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re seeing projects today which would have been all but impossible for an individual to pull off ten years ago.

But how did we get here, and perhaps more importantly, where are we going next? While we might arguably be in the Golden Age of DIY, creative folks putting together their own hardware and software is certainly nothing new. As for looking ahead, the hacker and maker movement is showing no signs of slowing down. If anything, we’re just getting started. With a wider array of ever more powerful tools at our disposal, the future is very literally whatever we decide it is.

In her talk at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, The Future is Us: Why the Open Source And Hobbyist Community Drive Consumer Products, Jen Costillo not only presents us with an overview of hacker history thus far, but throws out a few predictions for how the DIY movement will impact the mainstream going forward. It’s always hard to see subtle changes over time, and it’s made even more difficult by the fact that most of us have our noses to the proverbial grindstone most of the time. Her presentation is an excellent way for those of us in the hacking community to take a big step back and look at the paradigm shifts that put such incredible power in the hands of so many.

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Romania’s 1980s Illicit DIY Computer Movement

In Western countries in the early 1980s, there was plenty of choice if you wanted an affordable computer: Apple, Atari, TRS-80, Commodore and Sinclair to name a few. But in communist-ruled Romania, mainly you’d find clones of the British Sinclair ZX Spectrum, an 8-bit computer built around the Zilog Z80A, using a CRT TV as display and a BASIC interpreter as UI. The Cobra was one such Romanian Sinclair clone. However, most people couldn’t afford even that, which lead to hackers building their own versions of the Cobra.

Making these clones was highly illegal. But that didn’t stop students at the Politehnica University of Bucharest. They made them for themselves, family and friends, and even sold them at well under market price. To keep people from building radio transmitters, the Communist government kept electronics prices high. So instead, parts smuggled from factories could be paid for with a pack of cigarettes.

Look inside an old Apple II and you’ll see a sea of chips accomplishing what can be done with only a few today. The Cobra clones looked much the same, but with even more chips. Using whatever they could get their hands on, the students would make 30 chips do the job of an elusive $10 chip. No two computers were necessarily alike. Even the keyboards were hacked together, sometimes using keys designed for mainframe computers but with faults from the molding process. These were cleaned up and new letters put on. The results are awesome hacks which fit right in here on Hackaday.

Sadly though, it often takes harsh necessity to make a culture where these inspiring hacks thrive in the mainstream. Another such country which we’ve reported on this happening in is Cuba, which found the necessity first when the U.S. left Cuba in the 60s and again when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s, reducing the availability of many factory produced items needed for daily life, and creating a DIY society.

Want To Create A FabLab In Your Garage? Start By Joining Your Hackerspace

For many hardware enthusiasts, it’s hard to stop imagining the possibilities of an almighty fablab in our garage — a glorious suite of machines that can make the widgets of our dreams. Over the years, many of us start to build just that, assembling marvelous workbenches for the rest of us to drool over. The question is: “how do we get there?”

Ok, let’s say we’ve got a blank garage. We might be able to pick up a couple of tools and just “roll with it,” teaching ourselves the basics as we go and learning from our mistakes. With enough endurance, we’ll wake up ten years later and realize that, among the CNC mill, lathe, o-scope, logic analyzer, and the graveyard of projects on the shelves–we’ve made it!

Image Credit: [Rupunzell] on EEVBlog
Image Credit: [Rupunzell] on EEVBlog

“Just rolling with it,” though, can squeeze the last bits of change out of our wallets–not to mention ten years being a long journey while flying solo the whole time.  Hardware costs money. Aimless experimentation, without understanding the space of “what expectations are realistic,” can cost lots of money when things break.

These days, the internet might do a great job of bringing people together with the same interest. But how does it fare in exchanging the technical know-how that’s tied directly to tools of the trade? Can we get the same experience from a chatroom as we might from a few minutes with the local ‘CNC Whisperer’ who can tell us the ins-and-outs about tuning the machine’s PID controllers?

I’d say that we just can’t. “Getting started” in any subject often seems daunting, but we’re at a compounded disadvantage in that the gurus on the forum have some shared implicit knowledge and jargon on the subject that we wont have if we truly are taking our first steps. (Not to fear, though; none of us were born with this stuff!)

Ruling out forums for taking our first baby steps, where can we find the “seasoned gurus” to give us that founding knowledge? It’s unlikely that any coffee shop would house the local hardware guru sippin’ a joe and taking questions. Fear not, though; there are places for hackers to get their sustenance.

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Cuba: A DIY Society?

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After the U.S. left Cuba back in the 60’s, most of the engineers went with them, so [Fidel Castro] told the citizens to learn how to make stuff themselves. They were called the National Association of Innovators and Rationalizers (ANIR), and that’s exactly what they did. This was the beginning of Cuba’s backyard innovation.

Fastforward a few decades and the 90’s were a very difficult time for Cuba. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a severe economic downturn almost crippled the country, and as a result a Cuban DIY culture began to flourish even more — out of absolute necessity. No money, no imports, only what they already had. Making and fixing things became a part of life, you couldn’t just go out and buy a solution to your problem, you had to do it yourself. This might be one of the greatest examples of what a full-flung maker/DIY society would be like — well, maybe minus the communist part.

The excellent video after the break is a short story about the designer [Ernesto Oroza], who started collecting examples of this DIY culture under his art project aptly called, Technological Disobedience. It’s worth the watch, so take a look.

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