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Monday, February 4, 2013

Milford hackerspace has hackers, but it’s still working on space

David Brooks

Stop me if you’re heard this one before: Three software guys, a mechanical engineer and a standup comedian walk into a bar.

“What was that 3-D printer I saw you with last night?” asks one. ...

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Stop me if you’re heard this one before: Three software guys, a mechanical engineer and a standup comedian walk into a bar.

“What was that 3-D printer I saw you with last night?” asks one.

“That was no 3-D printer, that was bait for a Souhegan Valley hackerspace!” says another. (Pause for riotous audience laughter.)

OK, the joke needs work. But that’s because it isn’t really a joke: A bunch of folks – yes, including a professional comedian – are trying to establish a hackerspace in Milford, following in the footsteps of Nashua’s MakeIt Labs, and they do have a 3-D printer, albeit one that isn’t working.

So they’ve doing pretty well with the “hacker” part of the equation. “Space,” on the other hand, is an issue.

“I’m thinking maybe we could create a virtual hackerspace ... avoid the whole ‘paying rent’ thing,” mused Jack Shimek, the mechanical engineer, who is the driving force behind what is called TekArts.

Last year the group set up TekArts in the Pine Valley Mill near the Wilton line, but that was derailed by plans to turn that
building into housing. What Shimek calls TekArts 2.0 is now meeting in a music room (not a bar – that was poetic license) donated by Milford musician Amy Conley and her husband, Mike.

When I attended the weekly meeting last Thursday night, Jan. 31, none of the half-dozen people sang, which is probably a good thing, but they did get very excited after learning that one member, David Rysdam of Milford, owns a metal lathe.

They passed around some specialty nuts and bolts he had made – “This is my show and tell,” Rysdam said – and began planning how they could use the lathe used to complete construction of a RepRap, a 3-D printer brought in by TekArts co-founder Matt Bouley. It is missing some parts that can’t be printed, because they’re metal.

Making use of other people’s tools is one of the draws of a hackerspace, which can be thought of community-operated places for do-it-yourselfers. They’re also called makerspaces, as in “a space for people who like to make stuff,” and are the physical embodiment of the loose “maker” movement that has erupted in the last half-dozen years, a physical-world version of computer hackerdom’s open-source philosophy in which innovation is admired, as long as it is shared by all.

The national manifestation is Make magazine, but the regional manifestation is MakeIt Labs, which opened a year ago in a grubby old industrial building on Crown Street.

MakeIt Labs survives on membership fees, holding classes, sponsorships, and a staggering amount of volunteer labor.

It has more tools than you can shake a wrench at, including a kiln, plasma cutter, auto lift and, yes, 3-D printer. For membership dues of $40 a month, they’re yours to enjoy. Even better, the brains of other MakeIt Labs members are yours to pick.

Sharing knowledge with other hands-on geeky folks is the big draw of a hackerspace, which is why Shimek thinks that TekArts can keep going even with lack of permanent space, and therefore lack of sharable tools.

Thursday’s meeting included discussion about the best way to build a wicked cheap solar air heater, the joys of salvaged power supplies, and the learning curve for Google SketchUp, a 3D-modeling tool.

TekArts is discussing future projects, such as creating a greenhouse for a proposed community garden, that would give a focus to all those fun arguments about how best to build something.

It also plans road trips – which sounds much better than “field trip,” I think – including one later this month to the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Mass., to gawk at the cool stuff in the New England Model Engineers Show.

If TekArts can connect with Nashua Community College or the Advanced Technology Center at Milford High School, both obvious breeding grounds for makerspace fans, it should do well even without a place to park a milling machine.

Now let’s get to the part of the story that many of you are really interested in: What’s with that comedian?

He’s Gregg Boggis of Milford, a working comedian who travels around the Northeast. You can see his act on YouTube.

Boggis says he is more oriented toward the “arts” part of TekArts but, with a carpentry and plumbing background, isn’t tech-shy. He showed up at a TekArts open house, he said, because “It seems to be an effort of doing things in unconventional ways, with a lot of interesting people” and has remained intrigued.

Boggis drew a comparison to Spooky World in Litchfield, the huge Halloween haunted house where he has worked.

“There are all these crazy people with all these incredible art skills, but they also have to design and build the sets and the props, with pneumatics and animatronics, latex, paint, sculpting, all these different kind of things,” he said.

Very hackerspace-ish, indeed.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or