Archive for November, 2010

Go east!

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

“20 on 3”. “25 on 1”. Is this a gambling house?? No, it’s a gas station in Buffalo, NY. Before filling your tank, you need to prepay. It’s like that a lot here in the states, apparently they’ve had some trouble with gas thieves. I rarely ever have seen this elsewhere. Maybe once, in France, near Paris. So I put 40 on 4, and fill up the tank of my rental Ford Focus.

I drive over to my host’s house, only to find he is in the hackerspace. No problem, I have a tank full of gas and a TomTom satellite navigation. So I head down to the space: Buffalo hacker space. As I drive around the city, it becomes apparent that the economy is not at its strongest around here. I see a lot of abandoned businesses, windows shut with plywood plates.

I park my car in front of what looks like an abandoned industrial complex. I walk in, sign my name and take the elevator to the 4th floor. The elevator is clearly retro-fitted, it stands out in the grimy maze of brick and mortar. The building is amazing, as I zig-zag my way to the space following directions put up by the Buffalo hackerspace team I am enthralled by the sights. If only I were a photographer, I could have captured every corner and last trace of long-gone industrial activity. Ramps big enough to bring trucks up the entire building, chutes and trash compactors, large spaces, dimly lit corridors.

Anyway, I digress. Let’s suffice that it is a very beautiful building in all its rawness. After a brisk walk I find the entrance to the hackerspace. It’s a nice space, and I have some good conversation. Just like the town though, they have some problems finding members. I hope they get some new members coming in, it’s a nice place to hang out and work.

The next day I find myself in Rochester, again in an old industrial building. Here I find interlock, where a broken mechanical candy vending machine proves to be an interesting project. Together with some of the members we fix it and figure out how the configuration settings work. Had a great night here!

Syracuse, Dinosaur BBQ. 1/4 ribs and pork.

From Rochester, I go east. It feels like driving into Germany. The highway is sloping up and down over green hills. Over the railings of bridges taking the road from top to top, I look down on the rooftops of villages in the valleys down below.

I make a short stop for lunch in Syracuse, where I meet the Syracuse Innovators Guild. They just got themselves set up as an organization and are about to sign the lease on their space. Over meat & root beer we discuss how to set up a hackerspace. I feel a good vibe in this group, and leave with a good feeling about their space. Must come back sometime to see how they fared.

The toll-roads are bleeding me dry. When I think I’m finally on the freeway (free as in free beer), there’s another bloody toll-plaza. Despite that, I make it into Boston, MA. As it turns out, they have some unique experiences lined up for me. To start with, I spend two days in the basement of the computer science building of Boston University, which is where hackerspace “builds” is. It’s a funny experience, waking up and walking to the restroom with your toothbrush and toothpaste seeing classrooms full of students attending classes.

On the second evening, I decide to try my luck and go for an unannounced visit to The Sprouts, where I should find Bosslab. Unfortunately, there is no-one there that evening. The drive down is not wasted though, as I discover Rosebud’s diner. It’s one of those classic diners in a trailer (although here is a whole back-area with a stage and everything). Great food and not too expensive.

After dinner, I decide to head over to Artisan’s Asylum, the Joy Street location (they have two locations, one workshop and one classroom facility; Joy Street is the former). When I arrive in Joy Street, Boston, I’m confused. It looks like a regular apartment complex. Not a workshop. Double-checking. The space is in a bloody suburb! So I head to Joy Street, Sommerville. I should really pay more attention to those little details.

Luckily, I find the space. I walk right into a managers meeting, so am left to my own devices. I don’t really mind, and explore the huge 10.000 square feet 1st floor space. I meet some random people that are also hanging out to wait for the end of the managers meeting. I even meet a fellow dread-head, and we share compliments and maintenance tips.

Also going on is a welding class. Had I known earlier, I would have signed up! Welding is surely on my list of things I want to do. Not tonight though. Next to the class a girl named Echo is working on a beautiful metallic bird, and I try to lend a hand. After balancing it out, it has a beautiful flying motion. Nice work!

I leave content.

Did I mention driving in Boston yet? It is crazy! Roads stacked on top of each other, crazy intersections, insane drivers. Try this for example: get on a 6-lane highway on the left then make an exit on the right half a mile along. It’s like the ancient computer game frogger. The other cars are all speeding at least 20mph over. At times like that you’re happy with a car that actually accelerates when you hit the pedal.

My final experience is a tour under and over MIT: I meet up with a friend-of-a-friend who shows me what ‘hacking’ means here. We take a side door and end up in a service tunnel. In a giant room, there is a mural of the ‘hacker ethics’, which I take to heart. We then move on to another equipment room, where a ventilation duct opens up near the ceiling. D. (the friend-of-a-friend) climbs up, and hints me to follow, which I reluctantly do. The inside is all smooth metal, but I learn a trick to descend to the bottom of the vent, where we crawl into a corridor that is called ‘hell’. So named because it is hot from all the pipes carrying heat in the form of steam all throughout the campus. Anyway, after much more climbing and crawling, we end up on the roofs where we enjoy a beautiful view of Boston’s skyline.

Off to New York City, and then down to Philadelphia, Washington DC and into redneck country. Stay tuned for more on that!

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Ruins, oot&aboot, searching through my baggage

Friday, November 19th, 2010

“The ruins of America”, as a friend of mine describes Detroit. I have not seen the ruins yet, what I did see is one awesome hackerspace and a magnificent museum-slash-arcade.

The hackerspace certainly is the biggest I’ve seen so far (not counting the hacker dojo, which is more like an office building). It is cold inside, but work to get the heating there is underway. I am greeted by a giant sculpture of a Canadian comic made out of ductape! Strewn across the giant industrial warehouse are various project, from a piano rigged to be controlled by hard-disk motor to robots made by teams of high-school kids. In the middle is a floating loft, which provides a loungy environment where I interview the president of this space. There are also a number of office units at the front, where we find a crafts-room, a kitchen area, an electronics lab and even a chemical lab.

As for the museum-slash-arcade, I’m referring to Marvin’s marvelous mechanic museum, the museum from the guy behind This site is invaluable for pinball enthusiasts, as it contains very specific and extensive information on how to repair and maintain pinball games of all era’s. The place itself is amazing, it is literally stuffed with all kinds of electro-mechanical and electronic amusement. Including a bunch of the latest Stern games. I spend many quarters there.

My final day I spend going down-town. I now understand what my friend meant by calling it ‘the ruins of America’. A lot of run-down buildings, gritty alleys and broken windows. It is cold. A small train, the “Detroit people mover”, brings me from the GMC world headquarters to downtown. I fail to find downtown though, it’s all wide streets with few shops and abandoned buildings. I decide to leave town, and head for Canada, which is calling me from across the Detroit river.

Flat meadows and fields zoomed with barb-wire fences and interspersed with flocks of leafless trees. Reeds in the watery ditch lining the roadside wave in the wind. Power lines reaching for the horizon. Canada is very much like home.

Around Kitchener, it is dark by now, the heaven decides to come down. With low visibility I crawl through heavy traffic. Of course, my phone is roaming and I do not have data. I decide to stop at a McDonald’s to use the free wifi and have something resembling dinner. Alas, no wifi. And when I ask for sauce to go with the french fries, the girl lists the available salad dressings. Weird folk.

Driving through Toronto, the rain still beating down on the windscreen, I find the hackerspace It’s a beehive in the middle of chinatown. Around the couch people are picking locks and bumping keys. At the whiteboard, animated discussion about designing a new programming language ensues. The cupcake with automated build platform is churning out experimental makerbot part after experimental makerbot part. In all this I manage to find my host (one of the founders of the lab, and a Dutch guy) for the two days, and we head of to his apartment early.

I wake up early, contact Japan and record the third hackerspace hour special with Fish and Nick Farr and a bunch of other Hackers in Japan. After editing that, I head into town. I explore the subway system, and obtain a day-pass for all public transport. It looks like a crash-card, but it seems to get me into all the trains and streetcars (or ‘funny little trams’ as I call them). Public transit seems very well organized, and I have no trouble getting around.

In the financial district, tunnels connect the various streets and buildings, with underground food plaza’s and what have you. I explore the Union station, and somewhere in the catacombs, I find an actual arcade with some video-games and about 10 well-maintained pinball games. That’s another handful of quarters, Canadian quarters this time.

They don’t seem to understand train rides though. They tend to make the experience like flying: baggage check-in, long lines for boarding, gates. I feel lost without data connectivity. I wander the streets, shop after shop after shop. Gigantic shopping malls. I have a quick Asian stir-fry for dinner, with a fix of wifi on the side. There is an eagle class in the hackerspace tonight, part 2 of 2 but I decide to check it out anyway. It turns out to be educational, and afterward we have crispy spicy sliced beef at one of the dozen Chinese restaurants (it is Chinatown, remember).

A bit of sleep, and I end my visit to Canada with a walk along the Niagara river. Right about where it drops from a 52 meter cliff. I expected it to be more impressive, although it was certainly something to see.

And then the gamble I have been dreading since the moment I left the USA: will thet the US border patrol let me back in?? After some poignant questions, which I barely manage to answer because of my nervousness, the officer decides to search through the car. Rummaging through my coats on the backseat, unzipping my luggage in the trunk. It all checks out again though, and I can move on. Boy, I’m glad we don’t have this bullshit in Europe. Imagine going through that every time I visit Belgium.

Ah well, I’m back in the states! Ready for the last 2 weeks of this adventure. Time sure flies, just 14 more days. Next up, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston and New York. Stay tuned!

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Bent Chicago

Monday, November 15th, 2010

I have a new love. He is called Chicago, IL. What a fabulous city. Or, to quote one of the people I met, “Chicago is superior to other cities!”. Even though it feels like a windy fridge and has security camera’s with blinking blue LEDs on every street-corner.

I start my stay in Chicago with an experiment: cooking “hutspot” with sweet potatoes and Bratwurst. My host is allergic to normal potatoes, and “rookworst” is not really available in the generic American grocery. All in all, it turns out well. Maybe even more Dutch than hutspot with normal potatoes: the sweet potatoes give the whole dish a deep orange color.

After a good sleep on the provided air mattress, I decide to drive towards the lake shore. Finding a spot to park and prepare myself some chocolate-spread covered bread is difficult. Although close to the shore, I decide to park at Recreation Drive. There’s a park with tennis courts between me and the lake. I planned a walk, but rain interferes. So I eat my breakfast, while surfing the net for things to do (all the while distracted by a view of joggers going back and forth along Recreation Drive).

A few moments later, I find myself on a red-line train going down-town. After checking my mail, I see my host John sent me a tip: MEECAS is having its annual meetup & concert in a bar called Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. When I arrive, the social part of the meetup is in full swing. In the back, a pool table is transferred into an electronics workshop, while in the front the first tentative jam sessions are taking place.

MEECAS (the Mid-Western Experimental Electronics Conference and Showcase) is a group of electronics geeks with a special interest in music. As it turns out, Chicago is a breading ground for electronic and experimental music. The group meets every saturday from noon to 3PM in said bar to tinker and bend circuits.

I meet dozens of people, have many interesting conversations, and get a lot of inspiration. At around 3PM, I decide to leave, but not without promising to return later tonight for the concerts. I head off to “boystown”, the queer district of Chicago. The plan is to hunt down some food and boys, in the end I only find some food. Good food, it must be said. I decide upon “The Chicago Diner” (“meatfree since 83”), where I have a delicious black-bean burger. The best burger I’ve ever had!

Of course, no visit to Chicago is complete without dropping by PS:ONE. Luckily, a bunch of folks are present and willing to show me around. They have a nice space there, roomy and full of good equipment. While I talk with some of the folks, who seem genuinely interested in my travels so far, others work on a steam-engine in the tool shop. Surprisingly Arien, the mastermind behind the 10GBit uplink at HAR2009, is also in town and decides to pay a visit to the hackerspace as well.

Alas, I can’t linger. I must go to the MEECAS concerts. So it is back to the Lizard’s Liquid Lounge, where I’m greeted by large amplitude’s of white noise. As the evening progresses, I completely lose track of time. Chicago has a great number of brilliant electronic musicians, and I’m entranced by the pieces performed. From Alex Inglizian (whom I interviewed for signal) with his analog synth and self-built digital/analog synth, to CMKT4 who religiously rape and torture electronic kids toys bringing forward a wonderful cacaphony of noises. The final by Tim Kaiser completely hypnotizes. When I look at my phone (which was switched of because GSM interferes with the instruments), it is already 1:30AM. So I quickly head out to my host to catch some sleep.

Looking back, I feel like I only explored the tip of the iceberg of Chicago’s coolness. I shall have to return. For now, on to Detroit.

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Sorrow and joy

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

Skipping ahead. Denver, Kansas City, Davenport, Urbana-Champaign. Too much to just be done with in a few sentences. I will get around to describing these places and their marvelous hackerspaces soon.

Heading for Chicago, a black day in this trip. Relations between me and travel-partner flyko have been deteriorating. I only met him at eth0 this year, and the pressure of spending time in each others company 24/7 highlights some personality incompatibilities we were not previously aware off. We decide we can’t go on like that anymore, and our ways part. I feel sad, yet also relieved. It was destroying our friendship, I saw no other way to go forward.

It feels lonely, but I also see chances. While it is convenient to have flyko around, as he knows the culture and can quickly connect with fellow Americans, I can now witness the real America as well as show more of myself. I’ll miss his jokes, proximity and above all his support, but I guess some things just aren’t meant to be.

After all that drama, I almost forgot I have an appointment on holy ground: Stern Pinball Inc. The last pinball manufacturer that is still developing and manufacturing new pinball games. I enter the facility through a side-door, which brings me right onto the production floor. After a short wait, I’m met by Jim Belt. He shows me around. All around, workers are busy assembling and testing new games. If you see this, it is hard to believe that pinball is not as popular as it used to be.

After the tour, I get to meet Gary Stern, the man behind this company that is keeping pinball alive. He’s interested in how the games are doing over in Europe, and asks me about themes and their popularity. All in all, this was truly an amazing experience, one I would never expect to have. I’m a happy man.

Next time up, more on Chicago, Detroit, Toronto (if I am allowed to go there, and then back into the US) and a flashback to the places i mentioned at the start of this short post.

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Into the desert and on to the mid-west

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

It proves to be hard to stay on top of things, blog-wise, while on the road. Days pass without a single moment to sit down and write.

While it is a lot of fun to meet all these new friends, it can also become overwhelming and tiring to have to get into a new group every day. Adjust to a new home night after night. Add to that the long drives, and it becomes apparent that this may look like a nice holiday, it is actually hard work.

So it should not come as a surprise that between the traveling, meeting people and doing radio, not much time is left for blogging. I regret this, as writing is certainly one of my passions. And I want to go beyond merely summing up dry facts about the tour.

Anyway, I digress. Los Angeles, I have been looking forward to this. The beaches, the movie industry. It is all very iconic. We do not go there directly though, but first pay a visit to Arclight. He welcomes us in his home, where we get a brief tour of his wide array of interests. The self-built and solar-powered shed, a generator that he is working on, a collection of items found in the desert and various abandoned mines. We are hungry, but get a treat of delicious chilly. We then head down to 23b shop, our base from where we will explore the area.

LA has a lot to offer in hackerspaces. From 23b, where mechanics and electronics meet, to nullspace labs where we find a group of hardcore electronics geeks. We get a crash-course in SMD soldering, and are truly amazed by the helpfulness of the guys present. Crashspace is sort of in the middle, and is more of a makerspace. It is one of the spaces that participated in the “Take on the machine” challenge, and is just around the corner of the MGM studios.

At night, we decide to visit the Hollywood sign. What a disappointment! It is not lit at night, simply turned off. Following the satnav up the hill, we meet a gate that is full of signs discouraging people to even think of getting close to the sign. We get out and take some pictures, but not long after a security truck pulls up and we run with our tails behind our legs.
One thing I will remember (and miss perhaps) about this visit to the USA are the freight-trains. They are everywhere in the USA. As I lay down in Kansas City, trying to fall asleep I hear the distant horn blow it’s warning for those wandering the streets. The same sound as in Fullerton, Denver, Seattle, it is everywhere.

After a brief stay in the desert, near Joshua Park, we head out to Vegas. We meet up with Krux and Fish from SYNshop, a very young space in Las Vegas. The space is in the garage, but actually their whole house is one big hackerspace. A PDP-11 restoration project is on the way, and access control is already functional. They have boxes of random stuff, and we go through one of them. Among other neat gadgets we find a mysterious machine, which later turns out to be some sort of CPU-emulator. It is inspiring to see the determined enthusiasm with which these guys attack the box!

From Vegas we leave on another long drive to Park City, where we stay with Flyko’s aunt & uncle. They are very friendly and welcoming, as have all the people we stayed with. It still amazes me that in every city we so far have found a place to unfold our mats and unroll our sleeping bags.

Near Park City is Provo, and we head down there (avoiding dear and elk on the freeway) to visit The Transistor. In a loft, we find a handful of people working on a mame cabinet. They are well utilized, from heavy machinery to fine electronics. With a CNC factory downstairs, they can take on any project. This they have proven in “Take on the machine” as well.

Sadly, we have to head out early again, to drive to Denver. More on that later!

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