The Freehacker’s Union

This rant is about an idea I have for a group of geeks who fight to keep the art of hacking and invention alive. I want to call it The Freehacker’s Union. I want it to be against business, against the coopting and destruction of geek culture, and for preserving hacking and invention as methods of personal artistic expression.

The idea is still forming, so this is the story of how it came about.

Business Is Killing The Art Of The Hack

My realization of this started fairly innocently, ever since my job as Vice President of I.T. at Bear Stearns evaporated overnight. Don’t worry, being a VP at Bear didn’t mean jack shit. It meant only that I got a fat severance package that lets me work on one of my ideas, and I decided to go for it. I’m going to create simple, durable, and open programmable hardware for my guitar. I’m not really interested in making it into a business, but if that happens that’s cool. I’m more interested in expressing myself in a new way that involves the intersection of my technical and artistic abilities.

This requires practicing guitar more, working on a few little software projects, and doing a serious amount of electronics hacking. I’ve actually built a huge number of circuits, read tons of books and learned how to program a PIC basic stamp. I fucking love this shit. After years of hacking on web servers, it’s nice to just get down and dirty again.

I actually like doing this stuff so much that I’m going to start recording videos of the things I build and other stuff and put them online for people to look through. Right now I’m working on a cool project that will be a programmable true bypass effects router board. It’s pretty snazzy how it all works, but I kind of need to save the description of it for a little later.

The videos and blog entries about electronics here will mostly be for me to record the adventure as a series of advanced lab notes. I do some amount of self-education on the subject every day so I really do need to document it somehow.

One thing I found through doing all this hardware hacking is that people who wield a soldering iron in NYC are kind of secretive. I mean, they’re nice enough, but they really hold their secrets close to their chest. Take sourcing parts as an example. I would go to meetings where people showed off cool projects they made, and ask them where they get their parts. They would just evade the question, or tell me “digikey”, which is bullshit because I saw some Radio Shack shit in their gear.

I had to do my own research and found that, no, these guys get some of their shit from the NYU Computer Store on 242 Greene St near Washington Square Park. It’s obvious since everyone in NYC uses Arduinos and this store has most of the parts I’ve seen them use. That store has an entire section that’s dedicated to hardware hacking gear, including parts, kits, tons of Arduino components, full stamps, everything. It’s even got books by Tom Igoe about making physical computing devices, something that all the guys I talked to obviously read.

There’s also several very good Radio Shacks in the city that have a large array of parts if you need them in a hurry. My favorite is the one on 14th just west of Union Square. Radio Shack isn’t what it used to be, but many of them have a big cabinet full of OK parts that you can at least use to get started with, especially if you have no idea what anything is initially. The people who work there are totally clueless, so bring a friend who knows better (if you can find one willing to help that is).

I however am focusing on the PIC line of processors, and probably won’t do much with the Arduino. I’m not sure why people like the Arduino, but god damn is that an expensive platform for very little capability. The PIC is a fun little platform and does most of the stuff I need, plus it’s dirt cheap and easy to use with a ton of free complete books available for download from Parallax that cover all sorts of great topics. I’m serious, just about every book they sell is available free as a PDF.

Another thing I’ve found is that trying to learn electronics is very frustrating simply due to the poor quality of the books available. Electrical engineers are great at describing a component, but not at explaining how you use it for something. I swear I read 10 books on transistors before I finally found one from Parallax that just simply told me how to use one with their basic stamp. Also, the cool Radio Shack kits by Forrest M. Mims III are fantastic because he painstakingly goes through every step so you don’t get lost.

You have to understand the theory of electronics of course, but without any practical examples the theory is totally useless. In the same way having a book of nothing but examples is also useless since the theory helps with creating new things not found in the examples. What the EE books need is a good mix of both theory, application, and why something is done. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’d whip through a book, see some weird thing in a circuit like an inverted LED on a reed relay, and wonder, “WTF is that for?”

Only days later in some other book do I find out that, yes, that LED is crucial when using a relay because it absorbs the stray inductive current the relay generates as it collapses. Nice, glad to know that. (Of course, maybe they should put fucking diodes in all relays.)

Otherwise, this adventure in electronics is incredibly fun, and mixing it with my music practice is a blast. It’s a great way to mix up art, performance, and geek exploration into one big mash.

Yet, during this time something has been missing. I just can’t seem to find anyone else in the city really doing this kind of thing. I tell people this and they mention NYC Resistor but those guys are more of a business selling classes than an actual hackspace or club. I tried asking them in IRC how to join or get into the space, and they were kind of snooty and vague.

“This Town Needs An Enema”

The hacker scene in New York sucks. With a few exceptions, I’m finding that every geek gathering is full of asshole MBAs, groupies, and their wannabes. It’s fucking depressing, and makes me feel like I’m the last of a dying breed.

I realized this in stages over the last couple of months. I asked some of my more connected “friends” where they go to meet nerds. Silence. They apparently don’t go to any kind of meetups or anything, and if they did go they weren’t telling. I found out that VCs go to these parties looking for the next dumbfuck web site they can waste someone else’s money on, so the people I asked consider this a limited resource not to be shared.

I tried a few user groups, but there’s barely anyone doing anything truly interesting. I really do enjoy the people who take the time to go to a user group for their favorite tech, but at the same time I feel like they’re just there to escape their jobs. That’s sad because I run into people who say, “(sigh) I have to do Rails”, even at the Python groups. The Python group has had two months of meetings about fucking performance tuning. I love those guys, but holy baby jesus can we just move off of cython already? I hear reports that even the iPhone and Cocoa user group is lame. I mean, that group should be going ape shit right now.

The few user groups in NYC have to beg for space. I posed the idea that the Python group meet twice a month like the Ruby group, and they said they can’t find space. This is classic tragedy of the commons. All these fucking companies in this city making insane cash off Ruby and Python and the user groups training their employees have to beg for space? You’d think Google would kick in space for a damn Python meeting once a month.

Then I stumbled on this IgniteNYC event which had a soldering competition. Surely that would bring out the nerds. Nope. If you read that link, you should find this gem:

“They’ll do a tweetup and say ‘Let’s go to the castle’”.

What?! Don’t fuck up my geek terms you moron! Die! Die die die die! Fucking arrggghhh! Who let idiots who say things like that into my world? I read that and I didn’t know whether to cry or strangle a kitten. Then a friend sent me a LOLcat so I had to just cry.

IgniteNYC was pathetic. There were more eye candy bimbos there than at the fucking Bunny Ranch and more business douchebags than at the fucking Bunny Ranch on two-for-one night. It wasn’t a geek event at all. It was an event where the newly minted founders could find a cum dump to fuck that night, and the business idiots could find a new “techie” to exploit. It made me sick.

Then I went to another event at SparkSpace, which is a fairly nice coworking place in midtown. I walked in the door and some guy (one of the hosts I guess) asked what I do. I said, “Well, I’m a programmer but I…” Then he cut me off and said, “Oh! Everyone’s always looking for techies. I’m sure you can find some great ideas here to work on.”

Yes, because I don’t have any of my own ideas. No, you see I’m a fucking nerd because I code. Never mind that I’ve traveled the world, survived horrible events, built myself up from nothing learning to fight, love, pray, and survive despite numerous obstacles that would make this little maggot piss his fucking pants.

I fucking code so I’m not a man anymore.

You see people, the alpha males have business degrees. They can be fat and pasty, pretty boy douchebags, or even ugly serial killers, but if they have an MBA from a 6 month “executive program” then they’re ALPHA. They have the ideas. They have the balls. They’re full of testosterone. Now me, I learned to actually do something with my brain besides take people’s money, which means I’m not a real man. My ideas don’t mean anything and I’m just supposed to let the adults talk. I’m BETA, and only some shit fuck rich boy (or wannabe rich boy) with his fucking pop-up collar and cheap suit can truly lead.

Then it hit me, it’s the business that’s killing tech in this city. The business of technology in New York values douchebag asswipes and “idea guys” over the real people who built this world. Their ideas are shit, but because they have an MBA from Columbia (they didn’t do much to earn) they are listened to and valuable. Me and the other hackers are just tools, cogs, and slave labor designed to be subservient to a real man’s passions.

The problem is, because none of these dicks do anything they don’t know what’s a real technically challenging innovation. They would rather try to make a little bit of money making a slightly better version of whatever everyone else is making. They want the lottery tickets and the fast payout where they take all the fucking money and trade the geeks over to Google or Microsoft like some fucking slave exchange.

Since when did selling a company mean that the buyer gets the employees by default? When the only thing that was really valuable in many of these acquisitions was the employees. The techies. The geeks. The nerds. Not the asshole biz fuck nut who snorts coke and thinks he’s so important. The real value in a company with an idea guy’s turd of a product is the smart geeks who put the polish on it.

The business is killing the spirit and passion geeks have for making the things that make this world. By pushing the Alpha Biz Guy’s (ABG) myopic view of what’s cool we are snuffing out what brought guys like me to technology and inventing in the first place: The awesome hack.

I want my awesome hack back dammit.

The Freehacker’s Union

Bear Stearns was a 400 billion dollar company that survived the Great Depression, many recessions, and several wars. In the end, it was killed by two idiots betting heavily on bad ideas, and a few people playing 1.7 million dollars in puts against the company. It was business guys, not geeks that destroyed that company. They did it back in the last dot-com boom too. Enron, Sarbanes-Oxley, and the dot-com bust is all the MBA’s fault.

The impact of Bear Stearn’s death is staggering. 15,000 people lost their jobs, pensions, careers, and friends overnight. The impact to the economy is only now being felt. The practice of “naked short selling” that caused Bear’s death will be regulated for a short time by the SEC just to protect companies like Bear. The FED had to open special lines of credit to other banks to keep them floating. Taxpayers will have to shell out trillions of dollars to keep things stable.

All because of two dumbfuck business guys betting on ninjas No Income, No Jobs, no Assets.

I fucking hate the Alpha Business Guy right now. I need a hack night that’s just for geeks. Hell, what I really need is a hack night that’s all about the art of the awesome hack. I want something that is so completely anti-business that attending this group could get you fired. Well, maybe not that bad but I sure as hell want business guys to stay as far away from my fucking art as possible.

What I want to create is something that’s been rolling in my head for a while called The Freehacker’s Union. A group who’s goal is to:

“Preserve hacking and invention as methods of personal artistic expression.”

I want the rules of The Freehacker’s Union to be:

  1. If it’s art, wires, or code you can bring it. This will be our triad: art/wires/code. Remember it.
  2. NO FUCKING BUSINESS ASSHOLES This isn’t your personal fucking recruiting station. Take your “game changing” ideas and fuck the hell off.
  3. If you can’t sling at least one of the three in the A/W/C triad then you can’t come. No exceptions.
  4. Everyone who attends has to eventually show something. If it’s your first night, you have to present something. It can be anything, but you gotta show that you belong. If you can’t then you can’t come back until you can. For those who absolutely can’t talk in front of people, you can get someone to show your stuff on your behalf.
  5. No girlfriends or boyfriends unless they’re hardcore too. Keep your fucking groupies at home.
  6. Organized using simple software that’s open. No special hidden jabber servers, no yahoo groups, no fucking evite or someone’s favorite latest startup website. Just a simple mailing list, a website anyone can manage, and maybe a channel on IRC.
  7. Frequent meetings at a regular time and spot. I like twice a month, but hell if people can handle more then I want to do it.
  8. Clear guidelines on how to become a member, including the benefits and responsibilities.

Other than that, I’m open to suggestions. I’m going to be doing more writing on this subject, and coming up with ideas with friends, and then I’ll announce our first meeting. If you have thoughts, or you want to attend, then let me know.

If you’re an Alpha Biz Guy then fuck off. I don’t want to hear about how you can kick my ass and how I’m never going to get hired again.

I don’t give a fuck about you, I just want to hack and you’re fucking that up for me.

Let the games begin!