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Como Gadget Works: Columbia's own hackerspace

When you imagine a hacker, you’re probably thinking of someone banging away at a keyboard, doing something shadowing and illegal on the internet.  These days a lot of hackers are banding together, and it’s far from illegal.  They’re forming groups called hackerspaces--community workshops where hackers (some of whom prefer the term “makers”) get together to build robots, modify electronics and socialize.

You can find these hackerspaces in warehouses and lofts in a lot of bigger cities.  Columbia’s got one too, called Columbia Gadget Works.  Though they don’t have a shared space and have only about a dozen members.

I visited a meeting of Columbia Gadget Works in a living room in South Columbia.

“Yeah, no programming in my background” said Ben Datema, environmental leadership officer at MU.  “I work in student life.  Get people involved in environmental issues.”

It was Datema’s fourth meeting and Columbia Gadgetworks and it’s fair to say he’s hooked.  

“I just like to know how things work.” he said.  “Play around with things, and customize them in different ways.”

To get the most out of this group, it helps to have some technical background--but if you’re like Datema, you can learn something here, to.  Datema recalls a recent meeting when he attempted to wire a set of homemade blinker for his bicycle.  The project was a little advanced for him at the time:  

“I was over there with my little breadboard with all these wires sticking out.” Datema said.  “First circuit I had ever built in my life. And just kind of threw it out to the group and asked who has any experience with that.  That’s a good example of how the group operates.  We all just pull in together to see what we can pull off.

There’s about a dozen members at this meeting which occurred in late April.  The project for this evening is lockpicking.  There are keyed and combination locks strewn all around the carpeted living room.  Some of the more experienced members are showing people how to use a real lockpicking pick to gently raise the pins in a padlock.

It’s certainly not the stereotype of red-eyed computer hacker staring at a monitor all night.

“A lot of hacking comes down to coming up with elegant solutions to problems,” said Columbia Gadgetworks president, Zach Zemens.

Zemen, who is a software engineer for CarFax during the day, says that hacking isn’t such a defined activity as a way of approaching problems.  When I spoke to him he was sitting at a table with a coke can and an exacto knife, trying to fashion a tin can into a shim that could pop a combination lock open.

“Like in the case of lockpicking,” he said, “the problem is you have a lock you want to open but you don’t have a key or you don’t have the combination.  So you find an elegant solution to get around that problem.  Like anyone can just go and buy a new lock.  It takes some measure of skill, practice and creativity to use a tin can to open up a combination lock.”


A Worldwide Movement

When you talk to members of a hackerspace, you often hear the words “hackerspace movement.”  Some of the first hackerspaces were in Europe and they’ve appeared in the US only in the past 10 years or so.

“I’ve visited a couple other of other hackerspaces around the country,” said group member Brad Collette “and some of them are beautiful spaces.  Wery well equipped.  But, those are running as commercial ventures.  They charge upwards of  $100, $150 a month in membership dues.”

A notable example of the for-profit model is Columbus Idea Foundry in Ohio.  It takes up an entire warehouse and rents out huge parcels of property to paying members and small companies.  On the West Coast, there’s Noise Bridge in San Francisco.  It’s a registered non-profit and has an extremely active membership.  They say they have people working on projects there 24 hours a day.  

These larger, well-financed spaces have things like lathes, laser cutters, and 3d printers for building complex electronics like robots.  CoMo Gadgetworks isn’t quite there yet.

“Oh, we don’t have plans,” said Collette, “We have dreams at this point!”

The group’s membership is small and they don’t have a shared space yet.  Monthly meetings alternate between Zemen’s house in South Columbia and Collette’s workshop in Ashland.  They aspire to the space and membership of these more established Hackerspaces, but for now, at least they’ve got the network:

“Since we’re listed on hackerspaces.org” said Collete, “we’ve been getting contacted by all sorts of different groups that are kind of tapping into this market or this network.  A lot of hackerspaces around the country are kind of connected with each other.”

One group that contacted them is a rock band that also teaches an electronics workshop.  They’re called CMKT4 and they don’t play traditional venues--only hackerspaces.

“They’ll do a kit build of a particular microphone and they’ll actually set up instruments and play music” said Collette.


The Workshop in the Woods

Two weeks later, the band has come to to Collette’s workshop far off the main main roads in Ashland.  CMKT4, from Dekalb, Illinois, is traveling West on a countrywide tour.  They’ll play a set for the hackerspace, but first they teach them how to build their version of the “contact mic”

“It works just like an acoustic guitar pickup” says guitarist Zach Adams.  The mic element is housed between two bottle caps. He demonstrates by holding a the little bottlecap shaped contraption directly to the body of his ukelele.  The mic picks up the vibrations in the wood and plays them through an amp.

“This will be our 42nd hackerspace,” said band member Jeff Cox.  “We’ve taught at hackerspaces from coast to coast.  We kind of describe ourselves as a hackerspace rock band.  That’s one of the gimmicks of the workshop--we always include a live performance after the workshop.”

It might be a gimmick--this blending of the hackerspace workshop and rock band--but it’s more than that too.

“We started as just a garage band,” said Adams “and then we were like why don’t we do some of this hacky circuit bending stuff that we’re all kind of interested in.  And then when we were touring, we discovered that it was difficult to make money on the road as a band.  And we already had the contact mics.  And then we started making them together.  That was our product.”

Instead of selling tickets to shows, they started selling kits.  The kits cost $15 bucks apiece and the mic can be built and completed in a couple of hours.  It involves using a soldering iron and a glue gun, both of which CMKT4 supply for the evening.  After the members successfully attach most of the metal parts together, they plug the mics into an amp to test them out.

It’s surprising to see them work.  They start out as these little baggies of plastic and metal.  A little soldering iron, a little hot glue and suddenly they crackle and tweet erratically like something alive.

“It works perfectly, I’m really proud of it,” said Alex Collete, Brad Collete’s 12 year old son.  “I learned how to solder, how the soldering iron works.  And I learned how the sound works.”

When everyone’s totally finished, the band sets up in the garage to play.  They bring out a table and stack an array of strange electronics on it.  There are plastic ray guns with dials and buttons sticking out of it.  There’s an old furby wired to a mini amp.  Everything is homemade.  

CMKT4 has played in a lot of hackerspaces.  When they finish their tour next week, they’ll have been to over 60 hackerspaces over the course of their career as a band.  They’ve played in huge, warehouse spaces and in busy urban spaces with commercial fronts.  Tonight, they play in a roomy garage in Ashland a few feet from a John Deere.

Scarlett Robertson joined KBIA as a producer in February 2011. She studied psychology at Lake Forest College and holds a masters degree in journalism from Syracuse University. Scarlett began her professional career in psychology, jumped to magazines and then came to her senses and shifted to public radio. She has contributed to NPR member stations WAER in Syracuse, KUT in Austin and Chicago’s WBEZ.