The hacktory

Techies, builders and engineers get their geek on at Louisvilleā€™s first hacker space

Almost every night of the week, LVL1’s 2,000-square-foot communal workshop is a hive of tinkering, socializing and building. Oscilloscopes, wave-form synthesizers and multi-meters, all donated by members, line the shelves and tables inside the hacker space. Puffs of smoke and tiny explosions erupt from the poised tips of soldering irons. Hand-built robots click and flash. Musical instruments are modified, purposefully mangled and built from scratch. Consumer electronics have their warranties voided by simply being opened up, cheap broken toys are cannibalized for parts, and, above all, information, free and plentiful, is shared.

At a Tuesday night meeting, Tim Miller, a quiet, dark-haired network technician in his mid-20s, draws a rough sketch of a tree on the dry-erase board at the front of the room, adding a squiggle at the end of a branch near the top and stepping back into the crowd of half a dozen that has wandered over and gathered behind him.

He crosses his arms as the group considers the problem: At the end of a test flight, the computer payload for a robotic helium balloon that members of LVL1 designed has gotten stuck 80 feet in the air, tangled in the upper regions of a giant tree on a Christian dude ranch in Vernon, Ind. Somehow, the payload — a 12-pound mother-brain of chips and sensors about the size of a microwave — has to be retrieved so the data it has collected can be analyzed. Ideally, the payload can be installed beneath another balloon that, in the coming weeks, will attempt a record-setting flight across the Atlantic.

More accurately, a record-setting float: Balloons are always at the mercy of the elements, so without the payload reading atmospheric conditions, LVL1’s balloon is unlikely to make it to the Eastern seaboard, let alone across 3,500 miles of open ocean. The payload represents hundreds of hours of work volunteered by almost every member of the collective, most of whom knew nothing about ballooning and much less (if anything) about electronics when the project began.

And now it is up a tree, in the custody of Hoosiers. The project is in jeopardy.

The geeks prowl around the problem, mentally circling it.

“It’s just hanging there,” Miller says, “in the air.”

“How close can you climb to it?” asks Joe Pugh, a pale 20-something with a Mohawk.

Bill Schwab, a gray-haired former plant manager, volunteers to bring in a weed-whacker with a 12-foot long reciprocating saw attachment.

“I could be here,” he says, pointing lower in the tree, a spot from which he says he could saw away at the cable that connected the payload to the balloon. With any luck, once free of the entangled balloon, the payload would plummet, bumping like a Plinko chip down through the branches and back into LVL1’s possession.

Other ideas bubble up: How about making a human pyramid? Why not surreptitiously infect the tree with some disease or fungus, then wait for it to die, fall over, and return the package to the ground? Miller has a compound bow — could they maybe use it to shoot an arrow threaded with nylon test-line through the tree, between the payload and the balloon, then use the test-line to haul up a rope, then use that rope to haul up an even heavier rope that has been braided with nichrome wire, then hook up both ends of the nichrome wire to a battery, thereby heating the wire to 1,000 degrees and burning through the cable connecting the payload to the balloon? Could they do that without burning down the tree? If so — Plinko.

Could someone perhaps climb the tree?

Meanwhile, Mark Endicott, a high-school physics teacher with a Ph.D. and large-gauge black earrings, sits in front of a laptop working on a program to help the balloon project interpret weather data generated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. LVL1 opened in July of last year after Endicott and Brian Wagner, who teaches with Endicott at Kentucky Country Day, went to Maker Faire, a hacker gathering that Endicott describes as “Grateful Dead show meets Walt Disney World, but for nerds.”

“It was the most amazing place I’d ever been,” Endicott says. “There was this giant, 20-foot-tall hydraulic hand called The Hand of Man. You put your hand in this little glove, and the giant hand did whatever your hand did. You could pick up cars and crush them.”

After returning home, Endicott and Wagner placed ads in the papers and posted to blogs, announcing a meeting to explore the possibility of opening a hacker space in Louisville. People showed up, and within a few months, the collective had found its current digs off East Broadway. Membership now stands at 32, but there are many other contributors who haven’t officially signed up.

While the ad hoc payload-retrieval committee brainstorms, crossing and uncrossing their arms like amateur mechanics gazing into a popped car hood, an ad hoc video game-playing and paleo-technology committee sits on the floor in front of a TV and tries to understand the quest of the orange square in Atari’s 1979 game “Adventure.” The square is, like, supposed to be a person, and the arrow it seems to pick up occasionally, a sword.

“You use it to kill that dragon thing,” says one of the glare-washed girls, pointing at the screen. “If there were a princess in this game, it would be a pink dot.”

A fairly new phenomenon, hacker spaces started appearing in their current, techno-utopian form in the United States about three years ago. Basically, a hacker space is no different from a literary salon, a craft guild or a garage to hot-rod muscle cars in. Just as humans live in groups, we work in groups. We share knowledge and resources — though the word “hacker” has some unique baggage.

Since the 1980s, “hacker” has been short for “computer hacker,” a bedroom-confined miscreant with the power to infiltrate mainframes and force them to play tic-tac-toe. The hacker space movement restores something of the word’s original meaning: To hack is to create, despite incomplete knowledge, using whatever is lying around. Broken power tools, poorly understood computer systems, hand-designed circuit boards, sewing machines, plastic, garbage, and information itself are all raw materials. The hacker’s world is a world of stuff that can be used. A hacker is optimistic, clever, fidgety and not entirely serious; like MacGyver, fond of explosions; like Bugs Bunny, wily and benign.

The word most likely entered the language in the 1950s on the campus of MIT, codified, if not necessarily coined, by model train nerds decades before personal computers existed.

The MIT Tech Model Railroad Club formed at the end of World War II. They built small trains, as well as scenery for them to pass through and intricate electronic systems to keep them from smashing into each other, but that’s almost incidental. They could have been building anything that required mechanical cunning and enthusiasm for technology. Sure enough, as soon as a new gadget appeared on MIT’s campus — the hulking, but feeble PDP-1 computer, which had about 9 kilobytes of memory — the Tech Model Railroad Club was all over it.

This computer-geek offshoot of the original hacker community would come to define “hackers,” thanks to newspapers that needed a short, punchy way to refer to a new category of person. But even the prototypical computer hackers Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple and helped bring about the personal computer revolution, were influenced by and involved with other aspects of hacker culture — in particular the heartwarmingly weird “phone-phreaking” sub-culture of the ’60s and ’70s, whose members discovered arcane ways of manipulating the phone company’s signaling system into allowing them to place long distance calls for free.

By the 1970s, a lot of formerly fearsome technology had been demystified enough that it was approachable for the hobbyist, and hacking began easing into mainstream American culture. Magazines like Popular Mechanics published guides and instructional articles on how to build and repair machines and gadgets around the house. For a while, the DIY movement gathered steam. But it didn’t last.

Mitch Altman, the godfather of the current hacker space movement and founder of the San Francisco hacker space Noisebridge, says there were two things that killed DIY in the 1970s. The first was lawyers.

“There were all these cool things in magazines that may or may not have been dangerous to try,” he says, “but magazines got afraid that people would get hurt, sue them, and put them out of business. One of the downsides of our country is that people will make money any way they can, even if it’s unethical or, like, fucked up. Like when someone spills coffee on themselves and sues the company that gave them the coffee. But lawsuits didn’t drive the DIY magazines out of business — the fear of lawsuits did. They got so afraid of liability that they changed their content and drove themselves out of business by becoming irrelevant.”

Meanwhile, he says, technology was becoming so sophisticated, and overseas manufacturing so cheap, that there was increasingly less incentive to make things oneself. The luster of building trinkets like model rockets and metal detectors was tarnished by the gleaming marvelousness of the integrated circuit: calculators, transistor radios and, eventually, computers were far beyond the comprehension of all but the most Poindextrous, and impossible to manufacture anyway without a silicon-wafer fabrication facility at one’s disposal.

“But eventually,” Altman says, “things got so cheap, and so sophisticated, that you could buy something you didn’t want for $10 that contained a part that, by itself, would have cost you $100. The old Speak & Spell was like that. The voice generation chipset inside it was $100 if you bought it from Texas Instruments, but you could buy a used Speak & Spell for 10 bucks. There were so many things like that.”

Altman, along with anyone else paying attention, found himself awash in a sea of cheap sophistication. Out of the raw materials all around him, Altman built a sly little plastic box with a single button on it. When the button was pressed, the box transmitted every known off code to every television set within about 50 feet. The gadget, which Altman called the TV-B-Gone, has come to be a common teaching tool in U.S. hacker spaces. (The effect is most surreal in box-store electronics departments, says Chris Cprek, LVL1’s current president: Dozens of televisions go dark and fall silent. Seconds pass and the fear creeps in. Something, who can say what, has gone terribly, terribly wrong…)

As computers became more common and technology more accessible, hackers started building things again. But hacker spaces in America tended to be private and isolated; they were almost always small apartments or studio spaces where groups of friends fled after hours, workshops for storing soldering irons and servers, and in which builders could make messes they couldn’t make at home.

Meanwhile, in Europe, particularly in Germany, a very different kind of hacker space culture had come into existence. It was rooted not in the American system of individualism and competition that splits our citizenry into strivers, wage slaves and deadbeats, but in European ideals of communalism and cooperation. Abetted by a government and a culture with a more lenient attitude toward squatting in unoccupied buildings, German hacker spaces had been taking up residence in large warehouse spaces for 20 years, emphasizing openness and a sense of play. Anyone was free to join spaces like the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin, as long as they were polite and paid their dues.

It’s not often that it’s possible to pinpoint when a sub-culture begins to change, but in the case of the American hacker space movement, it was the moment Mitch Altman and a few dozen American hackers boarded an airplane to tour Germany’s hacker spaces in August of 2007. When the tour — known to hackers across the United States as Hackers on a Plane — was over, and Altman and the rest returned home, the effect was immediate. Minds blown by the energy of the German hacker space movement, Hackers on a Plane alumni quit their jobs and started proselytizing the “Chaos Computer Club’s Design Patterns,” a document that set forth decades of wisdom on what seemed to keep hacker spaces open and prosperous, what caused them to wither away and fail, and what kept hackers hacking.

In the three years since, more than 130 hacker spaces have opened in the United States, all in accordance with the techno-utopian vision first glimpsed by the Germans. Governing them is Bill & Ted’s exhortation to righteousness, a sunny variation on the Golden Rule: Be excellent to each other.

The following week’s meeting at LVL1 opens with good news: Joe Pugh, the Mohawked hacker, has brought in an Xbox Kinect for members to dissect. Then comes some distressing news from the Christian dude ranch in Indiana: Dan Bowen, the leader of the balloon project, announces that the payload is not only higher in the tree, it is now somehow in two trees.

Ideas bubble up. Someone mutters something about a shotgun.

“Are you sure they’d miss the trees?” Pugh asks, still intent on tree-murder.

“Yeah,” Bowen says with regret, “they said they would miss them.”

Bowen is a trim and precise college dropout who, in his technological optimism and fondness for wearing blazers with jeans, evokes Silicon Valley in the 1980s. He’s tried sending a balloon to Europe before: In 2008, while living in Knoxville, he watched in misery as his previous effort, the “Spirit of Knoxville,” fell from the sky.

“A huge part of it was, we had no idea what was going to happen,” he says. “For the first few flights, we didn’t have enough ballast to drop. Then when we finally had enough ballast, we couldn’t drop it fast enough. It was agonizing from the ground to see the balloon falling so fast, with the liquid ballast just going drip … drip … drip …

He sees the balloon project as his way to contribute to the survival of the species, a mission he embarked on while on a runway in the Mojave Desert watching SpaceShipOne, the first privately manned vehicle to enter outer space and return to the ground. Eventually, he says, we’ll probably have to flee the planet; whether we’re escaping an incoming, hell-bent asteroid or rising ocean levels, our time on Earth is limited, and at the moment, the autonomous robots into whose care we’ll have to entrust ourselves are pretty pathetic.

“Take the Mars rover,” he says. “It drove into a gopher hole, basically, and didn’t know to stop grinding its wheels before it got stuck.”

Bowen proposed the White Star Balloon project, named after the company that owned the Titanic, in August, and has been continually surprised at the daunting intricacy of the project, as well as flattered by the outpouring of support, often in the form of lost sleep and forfeited weekends, from other members of LVL1.

“We’re working as many hours as we can stand,” he says. “Last week, the core team got something like three hours of sleep.”

This is far and away the hacker space’s most involved and serious project to date. As with most hacker spaces in the United States, what goes on inside LVL1 is usually play bordering on performance art — at the moment, they’re gearing up to mail a cupcake to England. (There’s a trick, of course — the package will be fitted with a small gyroscope to keep the cupcake upright during transit.) Several hacker spaces sent balloons into outer space over the summer and returned with pictures of the Earth below, but Bowen says no one — not even NASA — has sent an autonomous robotic balloon across the ocean.

“There’s a little bit of literature in NASA and NOAA papers from the 1940s and ’50s, but they never used this small of a balloon, so this is all unknown,” he says. “The photos from the space balloons are beautiful and stunning, but it’s pretty easy to get a balloon into space. The balloon goes up and takes a picture, the balloon comes down. It’s what balloons do.”

To get to Europe, Bowen says, the White Star balloon will have to rise to 30,000 feet and enter the vortex of fast-moving air called the jet stream, then, contrary to the physics that will want it to rise or fall, find a way to stay there. But first, it will have to make its way to the jet stream, a difficult task: As altitude increases, temperature fluctuates, causing the helium inside the balloon to expand and contract, which in turn affects the balloon’s buoyancy. If the balloon doesn’t ascend fast enough, it gets snagged in the up-and-down well below the jet stream and, as the helium leaks out, drifts to the ground.

The solution is to fill the envelope with so much helium that it rockets through the temperature layers. But the solution creates a problem — once the balloon reaches its desired altitude, there is nothing to keep it from continuing its ascent into outer space. To avert runaway ascent, there’s a hole in the bottom of the balloon — as the helium expands, it pushes itself out of the hole. If LVL1’s design is correct, the balloon should stall out in the jet stream and be swept eastward at 100 to 200 miles per hour.

“But at sunset,” Bowen says, “comes the killer — you remove the sun, the temperature goes down, the gas contracts, and the balloon starts to fall. So you need to dump weight overboard. But how much? If you don’t act fast, you’ll hit the ocean. You have maybe 10 minutes before you’re in the water.”

The temperature question is the central mystery. The NASA papers are clear that the temperature of the helium is important, but they don’t say why, or what it should be. For such a low-tech form of aviation, the hole in the literature was surprising.

Bowen hopes to fill it, but he is aware that even with a ground control team of 10 to 30 people working 8-hour shifts for up to three days, things are hardly guaranteed to go according to plan. If the payload is able to sense its surroundings correctly, and if the robotic moving parts don’t freeze up in the minus-60 degree air, and if the batteries powering them don’t fail, and if LVL1’s programming is bug-free, and if their guesstimation of the relevant physics is correct, then the balloon makes it to Europe.

In all other cases — if the creature LVL1 built and attached to the balloon isn’t smart enough — it falls into the frigid North Atlantic, like the Titanic, and drowns.

If helping humanity survive a global apocalypse sounds ambitious for an amateur ballooning group, consider that, first of all, the environment in which LVL1’s balloon will find itself is not that different from that of Mars. And as Bowen points out, the sea of cheap technology is so rich that any of us could assemble something about as sophisticated as the Apollo capsule for a few hundred dollars, and — crucially — without having to engineer a single part. The work has been done for us by consumer electronics companies. Robotic life rafts to outer space can be crowd-sourced.

And in any case, something as profound has been done before, and quite recently. Hackers have already changed the world. We are living in the wake of a crowd-sourced revolution; our world is the world as dreamed up by model-train nerds.

The previous generation — the computer hackers — altered the world so thoroughly that it’s now a demanding mental exercise to reconstruct it as it existed before they — a nameless, bustling group of geeks — invented the Internet. Now consider a more recent change to our landscape, Facebook, which has made it hard to remember what it feels like to fall out of touch with old friends. An emotion is fading from our experience, replaced by a different one: bewildered frustration that there are people we cannot find online.

But to subtract the Internet from the world, you must remember to forget much more: e-mail and all it makes possible, Wikileaks, mp3s, digital-photo sharing, YouTube, every non-telephonic function on your cell phone, “connectivity,” every piece of free news you’ve ever read, and the ability to summon a universe of information by typing a single word into a search bar. Remember how hard it used to be to, say, piece together the complete discography of R.E.M.? Years could go by and then one day, from a chance conversation, you’d discover that they’d released a collection of B-sides you’d never heard of … With Google, days spent in the stacks at the library telescope into a microsecond, and this seems normal. This is normal.

What the computer geeks saw that the rest of the world did not was that information is not a neutral vessel waiting to be filled. Information is a thing itself, and it is infinitely ductile — it can be stretched out into a one-dimensional string of ones and zeroes. This is what the Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT geeked out so hard over when they were programming on that laughable old machine. Not the machine itself, but what it revealed about reality.

The information revolution continues to shape-shift. Inside LVL1, information has crossed over from the meta-world into the real world, like the villainous Agent Smith in the second “Matrix” movie. It is a material substance. Every piece of equipment at LVL1 is labeled with a code — coated in information. Point any smart phone (loaded with the right app, written by hackers) at the code and you will find your browser whisked instantaneously to a continually updated Wiki page that contains every piece of information available about the encoded object — its owner, its purpose, instructions on how to use it, its complete history. The real world, fleeting and unknowable, is mirrored by a meta-world — far richer in detail — that contains the past.

About the size of an overhead projector, an open-source 3-D printer called a Maker-bot, built at a New York City hacker space called NYC Resistor, sits along the wall at LVL1. When connected to a computer (loaded with the right software, written by hackers), the Maker-bot can fabricate a three-dimensional replica of anything it is possible to conceive of in the natural world — toys, trinkets, jewelry, whistles, buttons, hooks, wheels, gears.

Chris Cprek, LVL1’s president, sees in the Maker-bot a potential for a transformation at least as profound as that brought about by the Internet.

“One of the first things that was printed out on the Maker-bot was a whistle,” he says. “Print it out, pop in the ball, you’ve got a whistle. Now, it’s just a whistle, but that was a much — much — cheaper thing to do than to have 10,000 whistles manufactured in China and then shipped to the U.S. and distributed to stores where they may or may not sell. You’re actually manufacturing the whistles on demand.”

Three-dimensional printing, he says, is one of the next frontiers along which society will change: Ultra-local manufacturing will allow anyone with a few hundred bucks to completely opt out of the global supply chain. The plastic fed into the printer is cheap — less than $10 for a pound — and some hackers at MIT have just come up with a cheap, open-source gadget that grinds up and melts down plastic water bottles to feed into the printer. The raw material for ultra-local manufacturing may well be garbage, and because the bottle-grinder is open-source, much of it can itself be printed out by a 3-D printer.

“Three-dimensional printing is in its infancy,” Cprek says, “just like the Apple-1 was in the infancy of the computer industry. But they’re just going to get better and better. There’s no way around that.”

In attempting to get the balloon out of the tree, Tim Miller, the soft-spoken network tech, printed out a hook to attach to the end of the arrow he shot. He failed to get the balloon down — some arborists stepped in to help, and launch is scheduled for some time this spring — but he already knows what he’s going to print out next.

“I’m going to print out another Maker-bot.”