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Hacker Spaces Offer More Than Sum of Their Tools

  • Shelley Schlender

Discarded scraps of wood were turned into a thing of beauty.

Discarded scraps of wood were turned into a thing of beauty.

“Hackers,” whether they’re Wikileaks or malicious computer coders, have a bad reputation. But there are also hackers who are simply trying to create a more user-friendly world. Think of them as New Age do-it-yourselfers.

And they have playgrounds where they do their hacking.

Hacker Safe Spaces

Tinkerers around the world are starting to come together at so-called hacker spaces, to share tools and camaraderie. These hacker spaces include a member-financed club in a warehouse in Oakland, California called Ace Monster Toys.

Jose’s full time work is as an architect, but in his spare time, he hangs out at Ace Monster Toys so he can use big “toys” like a buzz saw.

He hacks guitars out of old wood, including one created entirely from triangular scraps of highly-prized purple heartwood that a carpenter had thrown away after completing a project.

Different rooms, different tech

Rachel McCrafty, an artist, designer, and maker whose real name is Rachel Sadd, runs Ace Monster Toys. She says Jose’s work represents the heart of what they do here.

“That he made something epically beautiful out of trash," she says, “that’s the essence, to me, of hacking.”

She says Ace is a great place to hack, tinker and collaborate on a variety of projects.

There’s a textile room, where quilt squares made in the beginner’s sewing class are displayed on one wall. The highlight is the club’s professional sewing machine.

In another part of the building, it’s more high-tech. Software engineer Walt joins Jason, a sound engineer, to experiment with Jason’s latest “toy.” It’s a programmable music cube he’s developed that flashes green and yellow as it changes pitch, all in a clear cube that’s no bigger than the palm of your hand.

Hackers can create intricate electronic devices with the tools at a hacker space.

Hackers can create intricate electronic devices with the tools at a hacker space.

Upstairs at an electrician’s table, red lights flash as part of a baton-sized gizmo for scaring pets away from cars. Kam, its creator, is a salesman for a semiconductor equipment maker. He says that he’s learned new ways to program gadgets, thanks to other Ace Club members.

In fact, the people who hack here say that one of the best things about this place, is the people who hack here.

“Whenever I run into problems, people here help me,” Kam says. “They are very nice people. Very helpful.”

McCrafty says she planned it that way.

“Our teachers are volunteers, our tool stewards are volunteers, our board members serve as volunteers. They’re just incredibly generous.”

A cooperative space

The club’s 150 members pay monthly dues to cover the building's rent, and to get their hands on cool stuff, like a 3-D desktop printer, and a monster-sized laser cutter that can cleanly cut wood into the curvy front of an electric guitar, or make something as delicate as a paper octopus. Members can use the tools anytime, day or night. McCrafty says it works out, thanks to rules that emphasize communication and respect.

“Respect yourself. Be safe. Respect the space,” she says. “Respect the people you’re sharing with.”

The massive laser cutter at Ace Monster Toys can handle the most delicate tasks.

The massive laser cutter at Ace Monster Toys can handle the most delicate tasks.

These values pay off, as they did for Owen and Arun. The young entrepreneurs are here every day, all day, using computers in the club’s shared office space. They’re programming Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa to be a virtual banking expert that readily answers financial questions.

By hanging out at Ace, Owen says they’ve learned more about how a high-tech probability model can enhance Alexa's virtual banking expertise.

“It was actually our friend, Walt. We had just met him then, and he said, ‘Hey, I couldn’t help but overhear, you guys were talking about a Bayesian classifier. Let me tell you how I use that in my current job.'"

Looking around at his fellow hackers, Owen added, "So I think it’s pretty critical that we’re in a space where people are generous with their time, they’re super motivated and working on their own projects. It just creates these chance encounters.”

It all makes this hackerspace greater than the sum of its parts, or its members, all of them offering unique ways for people to “play” together.

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