Mention the word "hacker" and most people think of a socially inept geek in a dark basement who gets his (the stereotype is a young male) kicks breaking into computer networks to steal or destroy important information.
Some maverick techies do use their power for evil. We've seen the kind of havoc these malicious meddlers can wreak on government and military systems, corporate files, financial records and Sandra Bullock's identity.
But the hackers gathered on the third floor of a nondescript brick building in Winnipeg's Exchange District on a Tuesday evening are of a different ilk entirely.
For starters, they want to take their name back from its aforementioned, ill-intentioned cousin, the "cracker."
"That's another form of hacking," says Stefan Asmundsson, 34, who's hunched over a work table covered with electrical components, tools and mechanical odds and ends.
In his world, hackers don't break, they build. They're tech-savvy, creative types who just want to find out how stuff works -- and then maybe modify some of that stuff to make it work even better.
And now like-minded Winnipeggers have a 4,200-square-foot "hackerspace" in which to do that. It's called SkullSpace and it's located at 125 Adelaide St.
"It's a space full of tinkerers," says Asmundsson, an MTS technician who has a background in computer engineering technology. He's currently building his own 3-D printer, which to a tech noob might sound like something out of Star Trek. When it's finished, it'll be able to "print" solid, three-dimensional plastic models of whatever is on his computer screen.
The machines normally cost thousands of dollars, but Asmundsson is building his from a blueprint he downloaded from the Internet and parts he mostly picked up at Home Depot.
He'd been searching for a hackerspace for quite a while, he says, before he found SkullSpace, which opened its nerd-friendly digs on June 1. It currently has around 40 active members (90 per cent of whom are male), who pay a $40 monthly fee for 24-7 access to the space.
Hackerspaces are where the growing DIY (do it yourself) movement meets the digital age. They provide a physical space for working on projects; there's also a sense of community and camaraderie you're not going to get tinkering alone in your garage or at your kitchen table.
SkullSpace is kind of a cross between shop class and a computer lab. It's part artist studio and part club house. In addition to the workshop, there are classrooms, a lunchroom and a video game lounge, where you'll find foosball and pool tables and vintage pinball and Atari Pong, as well as a virtual reality machine.
"It's a very social place," says Justin Lacko, 24, who graduated last year from the University of Manitoba's architecture program and has a background in circuit design.
"It's like a social club with a learning aspect and a working aspect," he says. "You can come here to just hang out and relax or with a specific goal in mind."
One member built a hovercraft out of a huge wooden disk, a plastic cover and a leaf blower. Another modified a flashlight with a laser projector so it could produce a sort of mini nightclub laser show. Lock-picking is apparently a popular pursuit among hackers, who like to test their skills on old security devices.
Hackerspaces tend to be loosely organized and governed by consensus. There's a spirit of co-operation and sharing -- tools and equipment, as well as knowledge and skills.
A recent article in The Guardian described physical hackerspaces as "the digital-age equivalent of English Enlightenment coffee houses" and the "heart of the higher-minded hacking ideals: freedom of information, meritocracy of ideas, a joy of learning and anti-authoritarianism."
That collaborative spirit is what helped SkullSpace grow from three guys meeting at the Lo Pub to a 24-7 hacker hub with lectures, workshops and film nights, says co-founder and president Ron Bowes, 28.
The third Saturday of every month there's a hackathon. From noon to 8 p.m., members of hackerspaces around the world collaborate to build something, which they gift to a hackerspace in another city.
As is typical of hackerspaces, everything in SkullSpace was either donated or built by members, including the walls that divided the former sewing machine factory into its various workspaces and classrooms.
"There was a good mixture of skill sets that got the place built, and hopefully those same skill sets will get some cool projects done in here," says Bowes, who works in computer security as a vulnerability research engineer.
(As The Guardian article points out, the World Wide Web and Facebook could be considered hacker creations.)
Whether you're interested in individual or group projects, hardware, software, electronics or photography, SkullSpace can provide the space, tools and equipment -- everything from wire cutters and soldering iron to oscilloscope and a room full of servers -- and the expertise to support you.
"Mentorship is a big deal for us," says Mike Loney, 30, who works in building automation design.
And if you just want to tinker a bit...
"There's a bunch of old computers over there that don't work," says Loney, pointing to a shelving unit, "and somebody is going to be interested in taking them apart and figuring out why they didn't work, and maybe get them working again."
Or, in true hacker spirit, "maybe taking a wired keyboard and making it wireless," adds Bowes.
For more information about SkullSpace, go to www.skullspace.ca, check Facebook or call 960-4345.
Get with the program
Hacker: (Originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe.) A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
"It is better to be described as a hacker by others than to describe oneself that way. Hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome. There is thus a certain ego satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if you claim to be one and are not, you'll quickly be labelled bogus). -- The New Hacker's Dictionary (3rd edition)
Hackerspaces: Community-operated physical places where people interested in computers, technology, science, electronics and related pursuits can meet, socialize, share resources and expertise and work on projects.
Hackerspace.org, which has been called "an embassy for hackers," lists information about current and emerging hackerspaces around the world.
The world's first official hackerspace, Metalab, opened in Vienna, Austria, in 2006.
Canada currently has 26 hackerspaces. Winnipeg's SkullSpace (125 Adelaide St.) is Canada's largest in terms of both physical space and membership, according to president Ron Bowes.