Communities are sprouting up all over the world to provide an outlet for those who want to create new things and hack existing ones. In this article, Jonathan Speicher writes about one such group, HackPittsburgh, some of the projects he’s worked on, and the value the maker movement brings to those who work in the software industry.
I belong to a hackerspace. The word “hack” doesn’t mean what it used to—or, to put it another way, it is gradually resuming the definition that those of us in the software world have ascribed to it for quite some time. After years of viruses, trojans, and compromised privacy, “hack” has a dirty reputation, but this wasn’t always the case. Our venerated Jargon File, for those like me who are old enough to remember it, defines “ hack” as “an appropriate application of ingenuity”  or, perhaps more relevant in the context of today’s raging do-it-yourself culture, a verb meaning “ to work on something .”  This, to me, is the allure of the hackerspace and the reason I chose to get involved.
A few years ago, a couple of my friends got together to discuss forming a hackerspace in our city, Pittsburgh. The idea, patterned after successful predecessors such as Brooklyn’s NYC Resistor, is simple: Provide a communal workshop where people can hang out, work on projects, share tools and equipment, and, most importantly, draw on the experience and insightfulness of others, collaborating to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. These are lofty ideals, and while I think that in practice they are realized, my hackerspace experience has been a lot less principled: I’m there to have fun, write code, learn new things, and blow off steam in a way that I just can’t do at the office.
One project at HackPittsburgh, our hackerspace, that immediately drew my attention was that of local artist Lori Hepner. Hepner’s Status Symbols is “a series of virtual portraits that are studies of identity in the digital age of social media.”  The project involved creation of a motor-driven sculpture containing an array of colored LEDs on a rotating arm. When active, the sculpture displays real-time messages from Twitter in binary code, which Hepner then photographs with a medium-format camera. For this project, I wrote code in Python to search Twitter via its API. The Python script retrieves tweets matching certain search criteria and sends them to the sculpture’s control board, a popular open source microcontroller platform called Arduino. There, embedded software uses the sculpture’s LED array to display the binary representation of the tweets in a number of different colors: red for hash tags, purple for quotes, orange for mentions. I wrote the embedded software for Arduino in C to the artist’s specification. Hepner’s Status Symbols has been shown around the world and featured on Time magazine’s LightBox blog .
I also participated in HackPittsburgh’s LEAD Balloon project . Our goal was to launch a weather balloon into near-space, photograph the curvature of the earth, and retrieve the balloon after it had landed. This poses a number of challenges, so the fairly large project team was divided into sub-teams responsible for launch site selection, lift, airborne tracking, photography, data logging, recovery, and the airframe itself. I wrote several bits of C code, again for the Arduino platform. The first controlled a sixteen-channel analog multiplexer connected to a number of airborne sensors, and the second recorded sensor and GPS data to an SD card during the flight. I took responsibility for integrating all of the team’s code into the final flight software package. I even designed and fabricated the parachute using online resources to calculate the proper diameter necessary to produce our desired descent velocity. HackPittsburgh has made four launches to date and recovered three of the four payloads, resulting in some breathtaking photographs, a peak altitude of 101,030 feet, and fourth
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