Building circuits, code, community at Noisebridge hacker space

The Noisebridge hacker space offers sewing and Mandarin classes, soldering workshops, Internet-controlled front door access, and a server room with no door.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
5 min read

Noisebridge co-founder Jacob Appelbaum James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--About 30 people listened intently on a recent Thursday night to short presentations on linear algebra and beer brewing, watched a demo of an iPhone cyberspace shooter game, and learned how to make a light staff (acrylic rod, LED, resistor, tape, no soldering required).

For the last talk, a speaker billed as "Dr. Baron Mikheil von Burstein, esq." explained how to pull off his interactive public art specialty--swings that hang in the aisles on the underground trains in the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system.

"I installed it publicly, illegally and got away with it," he boasted. He had materials with him to hang four swings, he said, adding "Let's install a swing right now on BART!"

At least half the crowd followed him, officially ending Five Minutes of Fame, an event held the third Thursday of every month at the Noisebridge Hacker Space.

Noisebridge is described on its Web site as a nonprofit "space for sharing, creation, collaboration, research, development, mentoring, and of course, learning." It was conceived by Jacob Appelbaum and Mitch Altman while they were at a hacker conference in Berlin, Chaos Communication Camp 2007.

Noisebridge hacker club (photos)

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"Something clicked there and we both independently came up with the notion that we would make a hacker space happen in San Francisco," Altman, a computer security expert, said in a recent interview. Altman and Appelbaum spread the word to friends, and a group started meeting in cafes on Tuesday nights, until they found their first space. They quickly outgrew that spot, and in October they moved to their current 5,200 square foot space a block or so away in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District.

The large second-floor concrete warehouse space was packed with programmers, artists, writers, lawyers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and urban hipsters with bike messenger bags for the open house party on a Friday night in early October. Electronic music played, people lined up to buy drinks, and a variety of digital toys were on display, including a computer-controlled mill someone was using to etch the Noisebridge logo into metal. A light display with a sign next to it said, "Hack me. I'm proprietary."

In a far back corner, a curious architectural feature stands out--a small room that houses the servers and is accessible only via a ladder and a crawl space near the ceiling. The back story, or at least part of it anyway, was revealed on a subsequent visit.

"This death trap is a response to a political battle," said Appelbaum. "There used to be a door here," he said, pointing to an area obviously boarded up and painted over. "But some people wanted to lock the server room and log access. So, what is the eventual outcome? This wall."

Noisebridge co-founder Mitch Altman shows people how to solder and work with electronics at his weekly Circuit Hacking workshop. James Martin/CNET

Oddities and whimsy abound at Noisebridge. The handles on the door of the refrigerator (which is stocked with the hacker drink of choice, caffeinated Club-Mate) are on the opposite side from where it opens. A red pay phone is rigged up to be a voice over IP phone, allowing calls anywhere for free. And a laptop is precariously perched atop a wall divider that operates a touch panel designed to control the HVAC, lights, and building access.

Noisebridge members take their automation designs seriously. The front door can be opened remotely over the Internet by someone at home. The system also calls the cell phones of certain members the day before the weekly trash pickup, and whoever can respond is automatically connected to a phone at Noisebridge. Whoever picks up is asked to put the trash cans out front.

"It's funny that we have to have that [system] to manage the trash," joked one Noisebridge member.

It's very much a do-it-yourself space, with members building an induction stove, a custom tile countertop decorated with the Noisebridge logo, a dark room and optics lab, and an industrial shop. A cyborg group is working on augmenting reality with artificial senses and creating an anklet that lets the wearer feel which way is north. One person working on a genetically modified bacterium wanted to create a bio-hacking area, but that idea was rejected after some debate, according to one member.

There have been courses on sewing and crafting; workshops for French, German, Mandarin, American Sign Language, cryptography, creme brulee making, and, of course, lock picking. Coming up: a knot-tying workshop, a class on CPR, and an EFF presentation on hacker spaces and the law.

While the world of hacking traditionally is built around mystery and exclusivity, Noisebridge aims for more widespread appeal.

"We'd like to take hacking from the underground, where it's inaccessible, and make it accessible to everyone," Appelbaum said. "It's not just about bits and bytes...it's about the intersection of art and technology and changing the greater world around you."

"Hacker spaces have evolved in a good way," said Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer of security firm Veracode who was in the L0pht Heavy Industries hacker group in Boston in the 1990s. He visited Noisebridge recently and noted that the group "has more resources, more space and equipment, and it seems like more diversity of people."

While there are about 100 members of Noisebridge (each paying $40 to $80 per month), L0pht typically had 7 or 8 members at any one time, primarily focused on hardware and computer security, according to Wysopal.

Noisebridge has an executive board whose members are elected, but decisions are made by consensus of the entire membership. The group's motto is "Be excellent to each other," a line from the movie "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure."

"It's more anarchy than anything else; people getting together to form temporary, smaller, organized groupings to perform a task," said co-founder Altman, who runs a circuit hacking workshop every week and makes the TV-B-Gone device that remotely shuts off TVs.

Members learn from each other and create things, but more importantly, they have a safe space to form a community that they can't get elsewhere, especially not on the Internet, according to Altman.

"A lot of us are introverted geeks who were bullied and even beaten up, like I was," he said. "Now, we can get together and celebrate our unique geekiness, share that with the world, and make the community around us better."

My colleague James Martin created an audio slideshow on Noisebridge: