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Confessions of a Hackerspace Virgin

by strand on November 29, 2010

in News

This was recently posted to Robert Boerner’s blog, http://robert-boerner.blogspot.com/. Bob is one of our newest members, having recently moved to Seattle from Alaska.

As I nervously trekked up Madison Street last Saturday morning enveloped in the brisk fall air, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Well, that’s not entirely true…I did know I was going to visit an Open House being held by Jigsaw Renaissance (JR).

Nestled between a grocery store and a check cashing place, JR is located in the First Hill neighborhood in Seattle Washington. What exactly is JR? Is it a store to buy puzzles depicting images from Renaissance masters like DaVinci? No it is not…although I had read about their existence on the Make Magazine blog I had to do a bit of Googling myself to get an idea of what I was getting into, and found this on their website:

“So, here’s the idea: Ideas. Unfiltered, unencumbered, and unapologetically enthusiastic ideas. Ideas that lead to grease-smeared hands, lavender sorbet, things that go bang, clouds of steam, those goggle-marks you see on crazy chemistry geeks, and some guy (or girl) in the background juggling and swinging from a trapeze.

We are a collective of intellectual eccentrics, passionate about learning and our various (and yes, I mean various) arts. Walk through our door with an open mind, and you are liable to be whisked off your feet and into a project you’d never have thought up. We encourage communal learning, asking questions, and pushing that red button. Go on. Do it. If you stick around long enough, you’ll end up being the one creating projects and doing the 3-2-1 countdown for some new toy. Which is exactly what we hope will happen.”

Since I have a habit and some say strange need to sum things up, I came with this definition: Jigsaw Renaissance is a place where people are encouraged to create, repair and learn about, well, just about anything. A term has been coined to describe places with similar ideals, and that term is a hackerspace. From Wikipedia:

“A hackerspace or hackspace (also referred to as a hacklab, makerspace or creative space) is a location where people with common interests, usually in computers, technology, or digital or electronic art can meet, socialise and/or collaborate.”

The term and the ideas behind it is not new, just seemingly not a common part of the vernacular.

Having read about Jigsaw Renaissance online I was anxious to visit. Back when I was in school, I used to enjoy those fleeting moments of bliss when I felt like I was really learning something, and that always seemed to coincide with making something. Whether is was a gumball machine in Wood Shop in Junior High or a documentary video in college, there were those moments that still resonated in my head because I made something tangible. Unfortunately, those moments were few and far between. Looking back now I am somewhat shocked by how infrequent those positive experiences occurred. It seems as if my education was focused on a very rigid definition of what someone else thought I needed to be successful. If that sounds overly broad, it is, at least to me.

Like many people I have met, I never entered a career related to my major in college. I have a Communications degree with a focus on Journalism from the Pennsylvania State University. Not the most prestigious school in the world, but far from the worst. Upon graduation, I had a hard time getting a job. As a result a I would up working for a small software startup that a friend of my fathers was starting. I had played with computers since the Commodore 64 and seemed to have a knack for them despite never having taken any real classes in them outside of a single Pascal programming class, which I hated.

Fast forward 15 years, and all the jobs I ever had were in an IT related field. Some of those jobs were fun for brief moments, when I got to put together a solution to a problem, or fix something that was broken, but they all seemed to lack that feeling of euphoria that came with learning something completely different and putting that skill to use. I can’t really remember a time when I was able to stand a few steps back from something and point to it and say, “I made that”. It follows naturally that I had very few instances where I could teach what I did know to someone else. The few times I was able to I did have that rush of endorphins, like I was actually adding value to the world in some tiny way. The description of what JR was about sounded like the perfect cure to my ills.

I just moved to the Seattle area from Anchorage, Alaska only three months ago. Being back in the lower 48 has made me realize how isolated I felt in Alaska. That’s not a comment per se on the people or the place, just that I felt alone and cut off from the world. I have never been very outgoing or extroverted, so even getting up the nerve to visit JR in the first place was a little daunting. But nevertheless, here I was walking up the street with a plastic tote in hand carrying some bits I thought someone in the space may find interesting.

Since I have a sense of direction that usually cannot navigate out of a wet paper bag, I had looked on Google Maps and Google Street view to find the location. Although the address was easily found (1026 Madison Street), the Street View image showed what looked like a European gift shop. Obviously the picture was out of date, so when I did finally push open the door I was literally stepping into a brand new unknown world.

Walking underneath a sign made out of what appeared to be old metal hazard signs that had been laser-cut with the JR logo, I was quickly over-stimulated by all the things laid out before me. While I was trying to take it all in, I met Strand, the Community Evangelist for JR. He showed me around the space and helped me understand what everything was and why it was there. They had woodworking tools, tools for working on electronics, sewing machines, raw materials, a three dimensional printer that was in the process of being constructed, musical instruments and even a machete. They had moved into the location back in April and were still in the process of making it their own. Strand took me from the main open space back through a small room with couches dubbed the “Conflict Room”, a space where people could just sit and talk and work out differences if need be, then through a long dark narrow hall which contained some more storage and the restroom. Circling back to the main open area he pointed out the many desks that were situated along the walls of the space. Those desks were permanent space rented by people to do, well, whatever they like. One space was where one member runs her sewing business. Another was setup to do video editing. Strand introduced me to its occupant, Ben, who is a writer and director.

Still swimming in all the sights and sounds (and smells, someone was making eggs in the kitchen) bombarding me, Strand introduced me to Doug. Doug had brought along his three children to the space and they were all entranced doing various things.

For only being a few minutes in, I was glad I came. No sooner was my tour finished than Strand was asking what I had brought with me. I had brought a wireless device to create phone networks called a Mesh Potato (villagetelco.org). Everyone seemed interested so I plugged all three of them in and showed them how they worked.

Not long after I had setup my own little phone network, I got to meet Willow Brugh, the director of JR. I had read about Willow and seen some video of talks she had given about JR on the internet. She introduced herself and asked if I had been given the tour. After I told her that Strand already had, she was curious about what I had brought. Again the genuine interest was present. I learned a lot about the space from Willow (she is the director after all) including that they have even been referenced by Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy with the Office of Science and Technology Policy during a speech he gave after Maker Faire New York at a workshop given by the Nation Science Foundation. When someone appointed by the President of the United States quotes you, you must have pretty good ideas.

I remained in the space for the next several hours chatting with Strand, Willow, Doug, and another member, Isa who was working a project to have a light switch tweet its status so members would know when someone was in the space after hours. In that time I decided to join as a member of JR for six months at $15 a month. If I had wanted to rent my own desk and get my own key to the space, that would have been $100 a month. As I was getting ready to leave, Willow mentioned that they would be having Flash talks starting at 4p.m. and that I might want to stay as one of the talks was going to be given by an expert on wireless mesh networking, the same technology used by the devices I brought.

A Flash talk is a brief presentation (in this case five minutes) given by someone on any topic of their choosing. The first talk was about making your own circuit boards at home. The second was the wireless expert. Willow had mentioned his name was Rob, but it wasn’t until he introduced himself that I realized who he was.

Years ago I remember seeing on the Internet that someone had built a directional Wi-Fi antenna from a Pringles can and shot a wireless signal over a great distance. This made the rounds of the internet and soon after everyone was turning potato chip containers into an antenna. Well, the guy giving the flash talk was the same guy, Rob Flickenger. Holy crap. He shared the details of that initial creation and where it had taken him from writing a book for O’Reilly to traveling the world for the International Centre for Theoretical Physics teaching about and setting up wireless networks. I felt like I was listening to a real life wizard. Except this wizard was anxious to share all of his secrets. There was no pretense, no stuffed shirt behind a podium, just a guy talking about what he had built and how he had built it, anxious to share the details with anyone willing to listen.

After the flash talks were done, a small group of people remained to chat. At one point the topic of Rube Goldberg machines came up and how cool it would be to build one (think of the children’s game mousetrap and you get the idea). Willow was engaging Rusty Oliver of the Hazard Factory about how something like that could be done. I just sat back and marveled at the conversation. Where else would such a topic come up? Certainly not in any of my school classes, and definitely not at any of my jobs.

In the course of the conversation I learned that Rusty taught a welding class every Saturday. I got a card from him and then packed up my things and said goodbye to the people I met and headed out. As I walked outside it was now dark. Although I had been aware of the time, I still was shocked that over six hours had passed so quickly as I walked down the now black sidewalk to where I had parked my car on 9th Avenue.

I write this the Wednesday after going to JR. I usually will try to write things down as soon as possible after doing them as my short term memory seems to be going as I get older, but I didn’t in this case. Since Saturday, I have spent most of my time replaying the experience in my head. It was a lot to take in for me, and only now do I think I have some kind of idea of what JR is, or rather what it made me feel.

In Junior High School, remember reading a short story by Isaac Asimov called The Feeling of Power. In this story, mankind has grown so dependent on technology to do everything for us, people have forgotten how to do tasks like simple arithmetic. The world is at war and sophisticated computers are used to control missiles. When a low ranking member of the army shows his superiors that he is able to perform math in his head, they are shocked by his abilities and want to use his new found skill to teach other people so that they can use human piloted missiles in an attempt to gain an upper-hand over the enemy.

I won’t spoil how the story ends if you want to read it, but the imagery came flooding back to me as I sat in the middle of JR and listened and watched everything going on around me. It has been a long time since I felt I really learned something. It has been an even longer time since I felt I was able to contribute back something to the society that affords me so much luxury. JR feels like the perfect crucible to get those feelings back.

Thank you Willow, Strand, Doug, and everyone else at Jigsaw Renaissance for creating the space.

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