Interview: Mitch Altman's Hacker Trip to China 2

13 minute read 16 May 2012

From April 3rd to May 3rd I visited China with Mitch Altman's second, hacker trip to China. We visited five hackerspaces, two Maker Faires, Seeed Studios, factories and lots more! I asked Mitch a series of questions about how the trip came about, what he saw, his thoughts on traveling to a country with a poor human rights record, and what madness he's up to next!

What is this China trip thing? Where did you go?

This is my second Hacker Trip To China. After hearing about a trip to China that Bunny Huang (of Chumby, and otherwise open source hardware guru) organized, and seeing how people involved loved it so much, I invited hackers from around the world to go with me on my (mostly) annual trip to China to visit my manufacturer. That was the end of 2009. At that point, there were no hackerspaces in China. When I went to China in April-2010, there were two hackerspaces. And, of course, I visited them. And met lots of way cool people. Which I connected. And got them excited to do their own Maker Faire type event in Beijing. And poked lots of people relentlessly to encourage them to start their own hackerspace. One year later, there are 6 hackerspaces in China, with more being planned. I invited 8 people to travel with me to again visit my manufacturer, but also to go to every city in China with a hackerspace (Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and two in Beijing), culminating with the big Maker Carnival in Beijing. But, a few months before our trip, Seeed Studio, who I visited last year, got their Shenzhen Mini Maker Faire going, and they scheduled it so that our Hacker Trip To China would be in Shenzhen during their Faire. We were shown around by local geeks everywhere we went. And we got to see some manufacturing in process so that we can get a feel for how many of the things we use in our day-to-day-lives come into being. And, of course, we got to do cultural and tourist things as well.

How does a trip like this come together?

Lots of organizing on my part! Putting out the word (on, and other hackerspace email lists, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Diaspora) with enough advanced warning so that those who are interested can go; communicating with people well ahead of time to ensure that we had housing taken care of, as well as cool things to see and do; and booking and paying for all the hotels and transportation between cities (knowing that I'd get paid back by the folks after we met in China).

What would you expect to get from this trip?

I travel a lot. And usually when I travel somewhere, I have one main thing planned, and leave most of the rest up to serendipity and adventure. In this way I meet the coolest people. And I connect many of them together whenever it seems they could benefit from some form of collaboration. When traveling with a group, we all get to learn from one another as we get to know each other. China is the place where most adventure just seems to come together so easily. China is changing so fast at this point in history. It is exciting to be there and see and feel it happening, as well as be a small part of that change.

What do you think the people you visited (hackerspaces, etc) got from the trip?

I hope they were inspired to explore more of their creativity. And I really hope at least some were inspired to explore and do what they love! China has historically been a place where (in general) creativity has been stifled. But right now, things are really opening up there. And there people in and out of government are pushing, in their own ways, for people to explore their creativity, for without this, China's economic future is in question, and with it, it seems ensured. I also hope that more people were inspired to start more hackerspaces. When I go back next year, I expect that there will be lots more! There will probably be more Maker Faire-like events. And, I am excited to see the positive growth.

What are your responsibilities on the trip? How do you wrangle all these people?

I'm an anarchist at heart. I'm also good at wrangling. But, I'm way lazy. Fully organizing everything to small details takes way too much work! But, not only that, but it gets in the way things moving in a way that might be much better for the individuals in the group, and thus, the group. I see my responsibilities as giving people enough info so that they can enjoy their trip the most -- such as letting people know how to get a Chinese visa, and where to book plane flights, suggestions for itineraries each day, and making sure people know what time our transportation will be leaving for our next destination -- but staying out of the way so that individuals and the group can decide what to do. I want everyone to put in as much energy as they want into making the trip that they want.

Who are they? Did you know them before? How did you put them together? Did they know eachother?

Except for knowing me, hardly anyone knew each other before the trip -- and two people didn't even know me. There were people from all over the world: Yair from Israel (who didn't know anyone on the trip), Simon from Switzerland (who I met at Chaos Congress, an annual hacker conference in Berlin), Tobias from Germany (who I met in 2007 at Chaos Congress), Florian from Germany (also from Chaos Congress, and who's been to Noisebridge a few times), Jonas (from Hong Kong, but who I've been friends for many years, from when he lived in San Francisco), Ursula from San Francisco, Charles from New Orleans (but who met me briefly when he lived in San Francisco), Min Lin from Shanghai (and co-founder of XinCheJian hackerspace there, who I met the week they opened their space last year), and Jacob from Phoenix area (that's you! -- who I met when visiting Phoenix last year when I did a workshop at HeatSync Labs that he co-founded).

What are the accommodations like? What are the costs?

Everywhere we went the accommodations are somewhat minimal, but clean. The cost was about $25 per person per night. All double rooms.

My flight was $34.30, because I have so many frequent flyer miles (and that was the fee). But round trip to China is often as low as $680. I'm not sure what it would have cost me for this trip (editors note: my flight was ~$1100 USD from Phoenix to San Fran to Hong Kong). My total costs for this trip came to $1,961.71 . Here's the breakdown:

     lodging:  $828.59 for 32 nights (~$25/night)

     transportation:  $494.53 (including planes, trains, mass transit, taxis)

     food:  $418.34  (~$13/day)

     phone:  $57.81  (SIM for Hong Kong, SIM for China, plus top-ups for voice, text, data)

     Chinese visa:  $150.84  (visa, plus photos for visa)

     laundry:  $11.60

I also bought a lot of parts for electronic kit-making and playing (not included in the above), plus 2 suitcases to carry the extra parts home: $484.49

I also bought 4 custom-made pants and 8 shirts (not included in the above): $135.12

I also bought some really good tea (not included in the above): $23.84

What was the biggest challenge on this trip?

For me, the challenge is to keep little bits of meat out of my food -- I'm a vegan. But that's actually not very difficult in China. And there's so many fantastic vegetarian restaurants. I can't actually think of anything that was all that challenging for me. Perhaps motivating everyone to explore more? And ensuring that people get along well, or stay out of others way when they don't? But that wasn't really a problem. Probably the biggest challenge comes from barely being able to get by in spoken Mandarin, and being almost totally illiterate otherwise. That is very frustrating. But even this isn't a huge problem, since our phones can help us, and also Min Lin was way helpful with her fluent Mandarin and fluent English (and her inexhaustible desire to help others). Also, Ursula has passable Mandarin skills.

What was the most interesting/remarkable/exciting thing?

I'm excited about a group artist in residence program that is going to happen as a result of visiting Toyhouse, the first hackerspace that is part of a university (and there are about to be many more, which excites me a lot, too!). As part of encouraging Chinese people to explore their creativity, a group of Westerners are being invited for 1 month, all expenses paid, to go to Petrochemical University in Beijing, learn how to use the way amazing tools available in their labs by students there, then create workshops for students there to be involved with while the group creates projects individually and together. This will be a pilot program, and if successful, will spread throughout China.

The Maker Carnival was also very exciting. So many way creative projects!

How do you do workshops in China. Do they speak english?

My workshops go a lot slower in China, since I need to have people translate as I go along (since I can't converse in Mandarin). Many people at hackerspaces can understand English OK, but it is still better when someone translates from my (somewhat bizarre use of the English language) to Mandarin.

What has been your message as you travel through china to all these hackerspaces and two Makerfaires?

My main goal is to inspire people to explore and do what they love! That is my message everywhere I go. It is important everywhere. If we do not explore and do what we love, then we will die never having loved out lives. And that is just way too sad. This is an even more important message in China, since there has been so little encouragement of this in their history over the past several centuries. It is now time for this to change in China! And it is changing.

How do you feel about touring a country like China which has a poor human rights record, censorship, etc? Has there been any political problems?

I've never had any problems traveling anywhere I travel. But, I do not go to places to try to force political change. My message is very positive: explore and do what you love! In the case of China, or Egypt (where I was last September), their economies depend on people doing this. People need to create products and services that are good for their own localities. If someone explores and does what they love, then others are going to love it, too. And when people love something, they will pay for it. And if something becomes popular enough, then people can make a living doing what they love. And if it is popular enough, then they will need to hire friends, and others from their local community. And local economy will spread. And people will have the goods and services they really want. Governments love this sort of thing. :)

I have no problem traveling places with poor human rights records. I will not help organizations who's values do not align well with mine. But if I see opportunities for positive change, I will do my best to help.

**...have you been scared? **

I've had very few scary experiences outside of the US. In the US I've had guns pointed at me, and a few other scary experiences. But out of the US, the scariest thing that happened to me was in India, where a dog wanted to bite into my lower leg, and almost did, but at the last moment, its owner screamed, and the dog healed.

Do you censor yourself? Any Appelbaum style travel problems?

I've never had anything but officials being polite to me at borders.

I do not censor myself overtly. I do tend to express things differently, depending on the audience. For instance, while talking to you, we may get into a political discussion about how this or that thing about our country really sucks. This topic isn't something I would have with everyone I meet, and certainly not as a first topic when I do meet someone. So, this type of discussion isn't my first thing to say to a border protection officer. And, when talking to a government official in China, the first topic isn't human rights records in their country.

You've been to China almost every year for the past how many years? What strikes you as you visit every year? What are your thoughts on china and its future?

I went to China the first year as a tourist with my mom in 1998. And I've been going almost every year since I started manufacturing TV-B-Gone remote controls there in 2004. China is a very different place than in 1998. It is actually a very different place than even a few years ago. It is really fascinating to get a snapshot, from my own limited perspective, each year. China really is opening up in remarkable ways right now. I have no idea what this brings. In my rosiest hopes, China will continue along this path, and there will be thousands of hackerspaces within 10 years, and some significant percentage of the billion people in China will be exploring and doing what they love, creating robust local economies all over the place, providing goods and services that people really want and need for a huge majority China. The worst case is that some people at the top of the bureaucracy get a bit too nervous at the rate of change (or at some occurrences along the way), and it all comes to a grinding halt. Or, perhaps a more likely negative outcome: Chinese culture remains staid and constricted, where people continue to live for status and money, and all of the hackerspaces and equipment set up for people to explore their creativity remains mostly unused. But even if that last scenario is the case, there will at least be some people making use of the available resources. And if enough do, then it will spread. Maybe not as fast or as huge as my rosiest hope, but still -- with more opportunities for some large number of people to live lives they truly love.

How much time do you spend traveling?

Over the last few years, I've averaged about half my time at home, and about half my time on the road: teaching soldering, teaching people how to make things with electronics, workshops, talks, presentations, helping hackerspaces everywhere I go, and poking others to start hackerspaces.

How would someone get you to visit them?


email: mitch at CornfieldElectronics dot com

twitter: maltman23

Skype: maltman23

Facebook: maltman23

How would someone else plan a trip like this?

Do it!

How would someone find out about the next trip like this you plan?

I put the word out on the email list, the Noisebridge email list, and other hackerspace email lists. I also put the word out on my Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Diaspora accounts. So, follow any or all.

Whats next?

Hell if I know! Life is way too weird to plan it in advance and have it be so. All the same, I do know that I'm going to New Jersey to re-charge 3,500 TV-B-Gone Pro batteries to ensure that no customers get units with batteries that are too weak (they need to be recharged at least once every 6 months -- my original calculations were 12 months -- damn!), and then to Orlando, for a Mini Maker Faire there (to teach Arduino, soldering, and give a talk).

--edited to fix Mitch's email and my flight details