Archive for the 'gmc does america' Category

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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West coast

Friday, November 5th, 2010

It’s Thursday. Early. Construction workers enter the building where we sleep (on the ground floor of which Brainsilo is located). We decide to head off early, and start the long journey to San Francisco, California. It is going to be a long drive. Instead of taking the direct route, we opt for the scenic route along the 101. Little do we know that we’ll be driving for 15 hours.

After a couple of hours we set down for breakfast in the Beach Dog, a cozy little place in Lincoln Beach, Oregon. The pacific is just a mile away. It is here that I start to experience American life in the little towns. Friendliness abound. When we are done, we shortly stop by Radio Shack for a phone charger. Behind the counter is a rack of shotguns for sale, off to the back is the handgun department. Even Flyko is surprised to find firearms at Radio Shack.

We continue down the 101. It’s not long before the freeway takes us to the coast, along which we will meander our way down to California. It is a beautiful route, taking us through the mountains at one time, driving along cliffs that veer down into the pacific ocean the other time. The weather is not ideal, but still we get to enjoy spectacular vista’s of rocky coasts and splashing waves.

As it gets later, the weather worsens. In total darkness and pouring rain we finish the last 5 hours of hour drive. Finally, we arrive in San Francisco where we stay at Travis’ place (well actually, it is in Oakland). He is a very generous host, and has prepared for our stay. To my delight, he has even put a few bottles of mate in the fridge. It is the first mate I will drink in the states. I will not see mate anytime soon, the USA is a seriously mate-deprived country. Which is really a shame if you are doing 15-hour drives.

The next day, we head out into town. The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) is a delight. After some initial confusion about the ticket system, we head down to the platform and board the train that takes us into San Francisco. We briefly enjoy the upholstered chairs and carpeted floor, before we disembark. After wandering around in the less attractive parts of town (where poverty and drug-abuse seems to be all prevalent) and the obligatory visit to the Golden Gate, transported there by a bus operated by one of many bus companies, we head down to Noisebridge.

Noisebridge is a large and interesting space. A large variety of work areas, ranging from sewing to welding, and soldering to culinary. An impressive library, a vertical bike-rack and more. I talk with Frantisek about tastebridge, a weekly workshop about brewing all kinds of fermented beverages. The beverages taste good. Initiatives are on the way to create an incubator to create even more complex beverages that require 30 or more microorganisms and their corresponding ideal temperatures.

The day after, we head into chinatown to meet up with people from openPCR and biocurious. It is interesting to hear about biohacking. OpenPCR is a project akin to makerbot, but for building a DNA sequencer. Another interesting development is bio-computing. When bacteria or other organisms form the basic computing unit, a bowl of goop can contain a supercomputer fit for attacking large combinatorial problems.

We don’t linger any longer, and continue our travel southwards along the west-coast. Our next stop is in the middle of Silicon Valley, the birth-place of modern IT. David Weekly, one of the founders of the Hacker Dojo kindly puts us up in his impressive Californian apartment. We cook dinner, and talk about launching stuff to the moon, the hacker dojo and other subjects. Silicon Valley is impressive, but i somehow feel out of place. These are the really smart kids.

The hacker dojo is a really huge hackerspace, but somewhat different from ‘traditional’ hackerspaces (if such a thing exists). It has an almost business-like atmosphere. Several offices are used by various groups working on projects ranging from the afore-mentioned garage-based moon-landing missions to a gaming conference in the large room. While the hackerspace is a place to meet, to share ideas, it is not uncommon that such projects evolve into businesses.

After one day in the area, we head down to LA. By now, it is officially Halloween and on our way we stop briefly in Santa Cruz. After a short stroll along the beach there, we find an arcade. I briefly play a game on one of the pinball machines there (Revenge from Mars), but it is poorly maintained. On the way to a beach-bar I see a teenager dressed as Freddy Kruger, and I am surprised that kids these days still watch Nightmare on Elmstreet. I had oysters as an appetizer, forced upon me by Flyko (who by the way sprays lemon juice in my eye).

After that short interlude, we continue on our way to LA. Our destination: 23b. It is one of the three hackerspaces in or around LA, and we have arranged to sleep there while exploring the other spaces. More on that later!

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Initial explorations

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

So, there I am, setting foot on American soil for the first time in my life. At Chicago O’Hara airport. Well fed, i step out of the plane for the long walk to customs. That’s mostly a bunch of guys and gals with guns, who spend their day stamping forms. For our own security. I feel so much more secure knowing that my forms have been properly stamped! Explaining a 6-week hackerspace tour to the nice lady behind the counter (who will take my fingerprints later) without mentioning the word hacker proves to be a challenge. How do you explain that you’re staying with people you’ve really never met, but that the hackerspace community is such that it will be allright. She actually thinks i’m crazy, doing the tour in 6 weeks and all.

Luckily, my documentation checks out, and I can collect my checked luggage. Yet another round of questions, less thorough this time, and one more form returned to yet another customs official. The pile they put the collected forms on makes me wonder if they are actually archived or just thrown away when the guys’ shift ends. Anyway, on to a funny little railway to take me to the gate where a domestic flight will take me to Seattle. Oddly enough, security is much more strict on this flight. I duly go through the motions, taking of my shoes, forgetting the cellphone in my pocket and all that. Frankly, i’m done with planes for a bit now.

Seattle promises to be wet and windy, so I’ll feel right at home! When I arrive at the Columbia city stop of Seattle’s lightrail, Flyko is waiting for me with his bio-diesel converted red VW Rabbit, which takes us to his appartment. We’re off for a quick bite in Georgetown, a lovely little community within an industrial complex. Right next to the Boeing factory. Trains, planes and Calamity Jane’s. We enter to order a bite, only to find a lesbian in a clockwork orange costume force us into playing bingo. It’s hard checking out the menu while keeping up with the bingo balls.

After that I am quite tired. We do have a lot of catching-up to do though, and a busy tuesday ahead. We start off the day with a visit to the Museum of Communications, where Flyko volunteers between travels. It is a great place, truly unique in the world. After a cup of coffee, Troubleman Bob takes me through an extensive tour of the 3rd floor (we don’t even get to the 2nd floor), where I get to see innovation in telephony switching technology starting in 1915, using an elevator system to select prefixes and subscriber numbers through literally thousands of contacts. They also have a number 5 crossbar telephone switch. At least a dozen racks of roughly 70 feet full of electromechanical equipment; relais, wiring, stepper units. And it is all interconnected, so one can make calls from one switch to the other. If you are ever around Seattle, this is a must-visit!

After a quick lunch, we set out for town. Pick up the car, do some shopping (get new shoes!) and get myself a sim with a local number and internet on it. In the evening we head out to The Black Lodge. This hackerspace recently got evicted from their location, because the land owner sold the piece of propery the hackerspace was on. Luckily they have a new space, and are moving in next week. We met them at their old space, where they were just packing their last belongings. There’s a lot going on in the space normally, with regular programming nights and the occassional party.

On wednesday, we head out for our first short ride out to Portland, where we find Brain Silo. In an old abandoned industrial building, with large silo’s running all the four floors of the building, this hackerspace occupies part of the first floor. To my surprise I find a pinball game there. When asked ‘do you know how to fix pinball machines?’ I don’t hesitate: I dive right in. After a few initial checks and standard quick fixes the game starts to work. I leave the rest for them, giving them a link to the marvin3m pinball repair pages. I also talk with one of the developers of the Damn Vulnerable Web App, recording an interview for signal next thursday.

After that, we find a cozy place to sleep in the space to prepare for the next day, where we will do a long 11-hour lap to San Francisco. More on that later!

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