We recently had the opportunity to sit down over tea in San Francisco with Mitch Altman, creator of TV-Be-Gone and a champion of hackerspaces and the hacker movement. Many thanks for him to taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down with us!
Hackster.io: So are you from the Bay Area originally?
Mitch Altman: No, I was born in Chicago, I’ve been here since 86. When I was much younger, I drove to Alaska, and visited a friend in San Francisco on the way south. I just kind of ended up getting stuck here.
H: So I don’t know if you saw this recently, but we published a blog post trying to define what exactly a hack is, as obviously the term is widely open to interpretation to many. We came up with a pretty unbounded definition, but are curious as to what you would define a hack as.
M: Yeah, I don’t bound the definition at all. The main thing is that you’re doing what you’re doing because you love it, but hacking in that context is taking anything as resources, and the world is full of resources including ourselves, and using those to make whatever projects you think of cooler, and sharing it. Often you use the resources in unintended ways by the people who created the resources.
H: How did you personally get started hacking?
M: Oh, I’ve been a geek all my life. I started taking things apart to see how they worked when I was a teeny little kid. For some reason, my parents didn’t kill me so I kept doing it and eventually started putting things back together. Sometimes, there were parts left over, and even with parts left over, it still kind of worked sometimes. And sometimes it would do things differently than I expected, and sometimes it was really cool nonetheless. It showed me that ‘wow, I can take these things apart and put them back together anyway I want.’ I didn’t call it hacking back then, I just thought it was fun.
H: What was your first fully-fledge hack?
M: When I was in 4th grade, I got this little thing from Radio Shack that had an amplifier and speakers. At the time, my brother and I were in bunk beds – I was on the top, he was on the bottom. To talk to each other, we could just yell or lean over, but I thought it would be more fun to duct tape speakers on our bunks and wire it up with the amplifier and some switches so you could push a button to talk to each other.
H: So it sounds like you taught yourself quite a bit in terms of how to hack. Did you have any formal education in something like Electrical Engineering or Computer Science, or did you teach yourself via experimentation the whole way?
M: Yeah, I went to engineering school, and unfortunately, school didn’t teach me much. All the learning I did at school was really in a lab, sort of a proto-hackerspace. It was the only lab at the University of Illinois that didn’t accept any military funding. All the other labs received military grants and had to work on stuff like missile guidance systems, but we got to work on fun things – like robots and flying machines and music synthesizers.
H: Do you have a favorite hack or type of project - Something that kind of epitomizes your interest in hacking?
M: Well I like technology that subverts technology. I love TVBeGone [pulls out a small black clicker out of his pocket and depresses it], I actually just turned off a bunch of TVs just now. One of my other favorite famous projects is the useless machine.
H: Both of those are very poetic. So what hacks are you working on at the moment?
M: I’ve been traveling a lot recently, so I haven’t had that much time to finish my hacks. I’ve been organizing a few hacker conferences, including one coming up in Hamburg, so I’ve had my hands filled with that a lot recently. I’ve been working on a TVBeGone Pro, and on making a very inexpensive music synthesizer, sort of similar to 70’s stylophones. You’ll be able to hack the firmware and learn about digital signal processing and see how to create sounds.
H: What type of development tools do you find yourself using the most?
M: I can use anything, but I really love AVR for building because it works with Mac, Windows, Linux. It’s probably the most popular one with the DIY scene, and it’s what the Arduino is based off of. For my products I use whatever is most appropriate on a case by case basis since AVR is a bit too expensive for most of my finished products. For instance, all that TV-Be-Gone is is basically a timed blinking red light, so the hardware and firmware on that are actually really simple.
H: While we’re on the topic, what inspired you to build TV-Be-Gone?
M: Well, I was a total TV addict when I was a little kid. I was bullied a lot and depressed, and I would just kind of numb myself by watching TV all the time. So eventually, I quit, went cold turkey, and learned how to live the life I love living, which necessitated not having a TV as part of it. Soon, TVs started to pop up everywhere in public places. One night, I was having dinner at a Chinese restaurant with some friends and we kept watching the TV that was on in the corner even though the sound wasn’t on. I would be telling myself not to look at the TV and I would keep looking at it, and then I thought, wouldn’t it be great to make something that could turn TVs off anywhere. And I realized I could actually make something that did that, so I did.
H: Is there anything in terms of what hackers are working on now or innovative technologies that are exciting to you as a hacker?
M: For me, it’s not so much the particular projects or technologies, what’s exciting to me is that people are coming together and creating supporting, explorative communities in the form of hackerspaces.
H: Did you notice a turning point in regards to when the community started to come together?
M: Yeah, it was 2007. Before that, there were maybe 40 hackerspaces, mainly in Germany. But it wasn’t until Chaos Camp, an outdoor hacker camp, outside of Berlin in 2007, that hackerspaces really started to take off. Some German hackers there gave a talk about how to start your own hackerspace and then it sort of clicked, ‘I need to do this.’ Hacker conferences end, but if we had a hackerspace San Francisco, it wouldn’t have to. So I helped start one, some friends started some, and within a year, there were 100 more – now there are thousands. And for me personally, hackerspaces are something I’m passionate about, so I’ve been working on a bunch of stuff to try and help them. I just love that the space exists where people come together and learn and do something they love.
H: Do you prefer the term hacker or maker?
M: Hacker. Maker makes it sound as if you have to create something physical. Hacker is broader; it encompasses maker, but it also encompasses breakers – people who just take things apart to learn or see how something works. But really, whatever people want to call what they do is fine by me, as long as they love it!
H: How can people get involved in the Hacker movement?
M: Just do cool stuff! Go to a hackerspace if you want to; start a hackerspace, that’s how they start (Author's Note: For you San Franciscans, check out Noisebridge)! Go to a hacker conference or MakerFaire; create your own little thing or big thing for people to get involved with. Make music, make art! Whatever it is you want to explore and do, just do it - and you can do it much more easily with a supportive community. Hackerspaces provide that. The email lists on hackerspaces all over the world (which you can find on hackerspace.org) are great resources to get involved.
H: What do you do when you’re not hacking?
M: I’m always hacking.
To see Mitch's hacks or order the kits, check out his site: http://cornfieldelectronics.com/
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