There are about 20 people crowded into what was once a foreman’s office space. The gathering is friendly and informal, but there’s an agenda and reports that have to be made.
“The reversing class we had last Wednesday was a pretty good success,” Paul Vincent says. “We had probably 25-ish people show up.”
The meeting is held in on the second story of an old warehouse in Camp Washington. If you know where you’re going and have the door code, you can get in from an entrance at the street on Spring Grove Avenue. I don’t know where I’m going, so I slip under a half-open loading dock door and make my way through the first floor, which is home to a boxing club. There are two canvas rings, fighters and plenty of sweat.
Upstairs is Hive13 (sounds like “five-one-three,” the local area code) and the reverse engineering class to which Vincent refers is just one of the topics that has been introduced here for area hackers. Vincent is planning another session — this one focusing on wireless computer network security — for January.
“I’ll set up a wireless network, we’ll break into it as a class and then I’ll show why your network should be encrypted, why your Web traffic should be encrypted, why you should have a password on your router,” Vincent says. “Based on the information gathered, I’ll send an exploit to the Gmail account I set up. It should be more easy to follow, more fun.”
If this sounds more arcane than easy, that’s because a good number of the folks in the room arrive with engineering or computer science degrees. Others have field experience, meaning that they like to take stuff apart and put it back together again.
Sometimes that stuff is computer software. Other times it’s a television set or a coin-operated video arcade machine. Most often, the hackers who use the space take things and reconfigure them to work in new ways.
Members of the collective were proud to show me a toy car that navigates itself around obstacles and a light display they’re developing that will turn their ordinary glass block window that faces the street into a programmable screen to display pictures or words.
Of course, hacking on this scale does for product warranties what The Bonfire of the Vanities did for art. But that’s OK with the members.
“You don’t truly own something if you can’t fix it yourself,” says collective member Chris Davis.
Repairing instead of replacing
Davis’ ire is raised by manufacturers who lock down their devices with special screws that require a proprietary tool to be turned.
He says there used to be television repair shops to which you could take your TV, get a part and have it fixed or maybe even fix it yourself. Vintage electronics often came with technical schematics pasted inside their cases.
But no more. Now manufacturers give you a replacement or you trash the broken device because it’s cheaper to buy a new one than it is to have someone just diagnose the old.
This is wasteful, environmentally irresponsible and infuriating, Davis says.
The opposite of this disposable, consumer-driven culture is the community of makers — like the ones at Hive13 — who embrace the open source ethic. For most people, the limits of their exposure to this term is downloading an open source piece of software like the Firefox browser or Open Office, which does everything that Microsoft Office does but is available for free. So the term becomes synonymous with a free product even though it means much more.
“It doesn’t mean you don’t pay for the software,” Davis says. “It means you get the code for it.”
The source code is like those wiring diagrams of yore and allows users to open a piece of software and experiment with making it better. Anything can be open source: a car, a stereo system or even a tool. And Hive13 owns one particular tool that might be the platonic ideal of open source design: The Makerbot.
The Makerbot is a build-it-yourself 3-D printer. It’s a box, about the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet. A coil of plastic wire, similar to what’s used on a weed whacker, feeds into the top. This wire is guided through a heated extruder by robotic carriages and prints a layer at a time until a three-dimensional object is rendered. The result could be a Lego man or a gear or any part that can be drawn on a computer.
Presently, the Makerbot is pumping out the parts to make a next-generation version of itself; it actually reproduces. (Can the Terminator T-1000 be spotted on the horizon?) The device is meant to be a rapid prototyping machine and allows makers to visualize and draw their own machines, execute a test version of the device and revise their design to improve on it.
Putting know-how above profits
“I think it’s an important thing, being able to fix stuff, keep things working and make stuff instead of buying something,” says Dave Menninger, one of Hive13’s founding members.
Menninger’s interests run primarily to the engineering end of making, but the group is interested in all disciplines of self-sufficiency.
For example, Paul Vincent’s current project is making a home-brew vanilla extract.
The membership is mostly male — only one person among the 19 members is a woman — and mostly thirtysomethings with a few people in their twenties and forties. All of them express a mixture of childlike enthusiasm and practically religious zeal when discussing their craft.
“The hacker ethic is, essentially, no one should have to figure something out twice,” says Hive13 member Chris Anderson.
“It’s the whole point of science, math and engineering — it’s better than cheap, better than free,” Anderson says. “It actually costs you money to not do it. I have an idea for a thing and I can start at ground zero or I can pick up something that’s 80 percent finished. Duh. Of course.”
Anderson describes the difference of culture clash between makers and corporate manufacturers as a war of attrition.
“You have one side that uses money,” he says. “The other side has time and talent. One is finite. The other is infinite. Who wins this war of attrition?”
For more on the emerging “maker” culture, read CityBeat's report on the April 29 Bold Fusion event and keynote speaker David Pescovitz, a Cincinnati native covering the “maker” movement for Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.
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