Interview with James "Myrcurial" Arlen of Think|Haus

Individuals can make, create, repurpose, bend, re-finish, enhance and otherwise stamp their own personality on the objects, tools and decorations that surround them.

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 25, 2009

As part of my research for my recent essay on creating an open framework for public city data, I came across a recently-formed organization in Hamilton called Think|Haus, located at 152 Niagara St. in Hamilton, near Burlington St. E. and Wentworth St. N.

Think|Haus is a centre to promote "Maker" culture: crafters, hackers, tinkerers, do-it-yourself (DIY) mechanics and engineers. Their website reads in part:

Think about how the history of Hamilton is intertwined in the "make it happen" ethos of the DIY mechanic, the basement engineer, the warranty violator, the patent ignorer.

Hamilton was once known as "The Ambitious City".

Come and be ambitious with us.

Curious to learn more, I contacted the organization and they agreed to an email interview. The following responses are provided by James "Myrcurial" Arlen, a hacker-turned-security consultant who works by day implementing information security for large corporations and whose interests include "organizational change, social engineering, blinky lights and shiny things."


Ryan McGreal, Raise the Hammer (RTH): Just what is Think|Haus?

James Arlen, Think|Haus (JA): In its simplest terms, Think|Haus is a shared workspace for hackers, makers, artists and crafters.

In a more detailed description, Think|Haus represents the combination of "clubhouse", "basement", "garage", "dorm room common area", "coffee shop" and random collision of people who share a common mentality - that individuals can make, create, repurpose, bend, re-finish, enhance and otherwise stamp their own personality on the objects, tools and decorations that surround them.

ThinkHaus is a place where the tools, techniques, and other interested and interesting people come together to make these things happen.

William Gibson, a noted Canadian science fiction writer, may have said it best when he wrote: "...the Street finds its own uses for things..." We're finding those uses and making possible the next evolution in (re)manufacturing.

RTH: What do you hope to achieve?

JA: We want to show people that there is an alternative to buying what you're told to buy - that repair and repurpose are two more "R"s along with recycle, reduce and reuse. We want to teach some of the techniques of applied engineering - the ways to get things done - whether they relate to metal-craft, knitting, or software design.

Repair and Repurpose are two more "R"s along with Recycle, Reduce and Reuse.

One of our biggest pushes over the near-term is going to be the installation of a set of rapid-prototyping machines which will allow us to manufacture objects from plastic or metal using patterns or designs shared over the internet or developed by members - technology that was simply unavailable to average people until just a few months ago - and we'll have up and running before the end of the summer.

RTH: How can people participate?

JA: The easiest way is by coming to one of our open|haus sessions - Tuesday nights at 7:00 PM and seeing what we're up to.

The best way is to join us, become a member with 24 x 7 access to the Think|Haus and help us build a new way of approaching the intersection of consumer culture, boutique manufacturing, artistry and ambition.

RTH: What, if anything, can the City of Hamilton do to support your activities?

JA: There are a few great ways that the City could contribute - depending on how you define "City"!

If you mean the civic government, they could help by helping us teach people how to repair, repurpose and redefine the consumer and consumable objects around them.

If you mean the people of Hamilton, the best support is active support - if you have a skill that lends itself to applied engineering, crafting, computer science or some other useful field, offer to put on a class and teach your specialty.

RTH: What do you think about the city's "creative cluster" initiative, and do you see a role for your organization in the city's plans?

JA: It seems like a good idea, however, I'm concerned that it's based on the 'special interest' build requirements - that it could be amazing, but it could also be the Jackson Square of the Hamilton Art Scene.

I'd like to see that rather than trying to build to a set of (current) specific uses, a general purpose facility be created - various sized rooms with power, water, heat, a/c, and internet - and that the facility finds its own uses. Much like what we are in the midst of doing, creating a framework upon which any one of a vast number of projects could be built.

RTH: What do you think about the idea of creating a public API for city data on which third party developers can build reports and applications?

JA: I think that it's ultimately the only option. The most important point is that the city (and by extension, the province and the country) do not own the data independently of the citizens, and should the citizens ask, the city should provide the data in an open usable format.

The city has shown in the past that it really doesn't know how to do a good job of managing the expression of data for the use of citizens. Compare and contrast the HSR route planner (running on a non-standard http port with a user interface as designed by Torquemada) compared to the same data expressed through the Google Maps interface.

Don't get me started on the backyard quarterback analysis of data-driven decisions and financial analysis.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By frank (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 10:55:38

I love that quote "Repair and Repurpose are two more "R"s along with Recycle Reduce and Reuse". That's how I was brought up and it saves me a fair chunk of change :)

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 11:31:18

So true Frank, though sadly more and more devices are either too complicated to repair yourself or prevent you from fixing them by design (i.e. the iPod). At least there are sites like with tons of step-by-step guides to make all sorts of cool and/or practical stuff.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 13:00:04

Things like the American DCMA are only going to become more prevalent if we keep allowing those who don't understand technology to make the rules governing its use.

Ryan wrote: "It's as if it were illegal to open up your lawnmower and study how it works, never mind lend it to your neighbour. "

I doubt anyone in the American congress/senate even considered the above fact before voting on the DCMA.

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 13:09:55

Thanks for mentioning that instructables site. I love it!

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 14:32:02

As much as I hate to defend the ideas behind the DMCA, the lawnmower analogy falls a little flat. Imagine if I bought a lawnmower, brought it home and was able to give everyone I knew a fully functioning, exact copy of the mower.

The problem is there there is a huge amount of money invested in doing things the way they've been done and the last thing huge and highly profitable corporations want to acknowledge is that they are rapidly being made redundant. Conceptually, it's the same principle as people being put out of work by improved automation, but we feel a lot less sympathy for them. The key difference is that they've got the political clout to resist.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 15:26:55

Yeah, but you haven't spent millions upon millions of dollars investing in any particular industry, nor do you have a revenue stream in the billions of dollars that is threatened. It's easy to sit on the sidelines and say "Adapt or die", it's different when you're the one being told to die for the betterment of the species.

I'm having a hard time accepting the fact that I'm defending the RIAA, but I can honestly see where they're coming from.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 15:46:50

I too can see why the RIAA does what it does but it doesn't make them right nor do I think it will be successful. The RIAA and its ilk are currently where the auto industry was a few years ago. Using a failing business model and continually ignoring all the indicators from their consumers about the kinds of products they want.

A smart record label would start changing itself to expect less revenue from actual album sales and more from merchandise and concerts while making the physical copy of the album more worthwhile. Why would I pay $25 for a cd when I can download the songs for $0.99 each on iTunes if the only difference is a crappy piece of paper with song names and legal bs?

As MC Lars said... "Its 2006, the consumer's still pissed Wont take it anymore so I'm writing a list Don`t try to resist this paradigm shift The music revolution cannot be dismissed $18.98 Iggy Pop CD? What if I can get it from my sister for free? It's all about marketing Clive Davis, see? If fans buy the shirt then they get the mp3 Music was a product now it is a service Major record labels why are you trying to hurt us? Epic's up in my face like, "Don't steal our songs Lars," While Sony sells the burners that are burning CD-R's So Warner, EMI, hear me clearly Universal Music, update your circuitry They sue little kids downloading hit songs They think that makes sense When they know that it's wrong! " ["Download This Song" by MC Lars, "The Graduate" - 2006]

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By Future halfway there (anonymous) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 15:56:15

@Ryan Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow wrote a recent article about how the music industry screwed themselves locking in with iTunes b/c they raised the economic barrier to entry so high they created a virtual monopoly and now iTunes has alot of power.

Funny you mentioned Amazon, they're already halfway there (selling 256 bit MP3 but price still too high at $0.99 each), they're just about the only company with deep enough pockets to go head-to-head against Apple.

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By Hammer Girl (anonymous) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 16:32:24

But what about in the instance of, true example, I just cracked the housing that surrounds the spool on my weed whacker. Wouldn't it be better to manufacture the replacement part than to buy a whole new model? And no, I can't get the replacement (I tried) from the company because that model isn't made anymore.

I'm intrigued. I've read about hackerspaces, didn't realize we had on in the city. Checking it out soon!

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted June 25, 2009 at 23:58:29

So it should be illegal for me to take apart my mp3 player to fix the stereo input jack because the company that makes it has spent a lot of money developing the technology? Maybe it broke because of a poor design, and maybe they spent money developing an input jack that would break after 100 uses... ?

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted June 26, 2009 at 00:06:54

This is exciting to see. Hands-on repair work is a budgetary necessity in our house, that's for sure. It's good to think of it as a creative endeavour rather than a necessary evil --she said, contemplating the family washing machine in pieces in the basement as her husband surfs online looking for manuals and diagrams, teaching himself how to run diagnostics on the various electronic components. Meanwhile, we do our bit to keep the attendant at the local laundromat employed. Win-win.;) Anyone see this book excerpt in the New York Times, from Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford?

It's a book about the value of working with your hands, and has some interesting things to say about the down side of too much emphasis on a so-called knowledge-based economy. I haven't yet gotten hold of the book itself.

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By Dcept905 (anonymous) | Posted June 26, 2009 at 09:48:53

That excerpt was an awesome link! Having been a manager at an office for years and getting absolutely zero satisfaction from my work, being stressed out much of the time and finally deciding it wasn't worth it I decided to go back to school to get my degree in a technical trade field. My first co-op job paid more than my office job, and I now truly love what I do for a living. I was able to identify COMPLETELY with what the author was saying. I'm definitely going to pick this book up, sounds like an amazing read! Thanks for the link!

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted June 26, 2009 at 11:48:44

I just saw another article (in an old issue of wired, maybe?) that mentioned the Shop Class as Soulcraft -- i'd like to pick it up. My immediate family does everything from carpentry to computers to engineering, so I think they'd enjoy it as well.

It's been interesting this summer.. all my education has been in very knowledge-based fields, but i've been doing landscaping and painting this summer in addition to my regular job. i can't and won't particularly romanticize those fields, but it has been good to do an honest day's labour. There's something valuable there.

Think|Haus is an idea I'm not sure if I have the time or particular skills to become involved with, but I sure love the concept.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 26, 2009 at 13:52:01

Matthew Crawford was even on Colbert the other night. I've already reserved my copy at Bryan Prince. I've been muttering for the last couple of years to no one in particular, that we couldn't go on importing all our widgets from China forever, and eventually we would have to get back to making real stuff. Everyone just patted me indulgently on the head and went on with their globalization mantras. Maybe I'll finally get a little respect at family gatherings now. Oh who am I kidding.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted June 26, 2009 at 14:43:13

I found a review of Crawford's book via via Arts and Letters Daily, on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, wherein another interesting fellow is quoted-- one Bill Brown, who works on something he calls "thing theory". Here's a quote from from the article where he's mentioned: "Bill Brown, a professor of English and visual art at Chicago, offers several explanations for the growing body of scholarship on the nature of work and objects. "When there's a blip in the economy, people start looking up from their desks," says Brown, whose own work on "thing theory" investigates the way inanimate objects form and transform human subjects. And as the world becomes more digitized — and its physical environment more degraded — people long for more contact with the material, he says."

"...we couldn't go on importing all our widgets from China forever..."-- Highwater, above

My husband was able to track down the part we need for the washing machine (see my comment above) from one place here in Hamilton, but only just-- everyone he was calling was out of them, and they were back ordered. We were looking at waiting a month to repair our own machine. Wonder where those replacement parts are coming from...

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 26, 2009 at 15:33:36

The priority is probably getting the new parts into new machines with surplus runs heading out for repair parts.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 01, 2009 at 17:07:22

"The problem is there there is a huge amount of money invested in doing things the way they've been done and the last thing huge and highly profitable corporlations want to acknowledge is that they are rapidly being made redundant. Conceptually, it's the same principle as people being put out of work by improved automation, but we feel a lot less sympathy for them. The key difference is that they've got the political clout to resist."

The difference with automation is that it is still owned by the corporation, whereas internet filesharing is owned by consumers. Automation generally caused workers to lose out because it's legal status (owned by the corporation) put it into conflict with them rather than allowing them to use it to their own advantage. This then screwed consumers by driving down the quality of goods by out-producing traditional workers and artisans. The internet allows us to replace many of the corporations themselves entirely, while still giving space to consumers and producers.

I have very little sympathy for the recording industry, given how they've behaved over the last half-century. It wasn't good for musicians and it wasn't good for consumers. Any massive monopolistic bureaucracy of that sort which can be so readily trumped by MySpace deserves to be put out of its misery.

As for the Think|Haus, it's unbelivable. I'd talked about this kind of thing with people, but fully expected it to take the better part of a decade to get together. Great going.

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By Going My Way (anonymous) | Posted July 02, 2009 at 15:56:10

Interesting article, and comments. Seems to me to be headed toward the traditional divide between management and labour, and rightly so. The division between the old industrial and the new information economies is merely the stage on which the play is being performed, showing how the labour/management divide needs to adapt.

When it looked as though computerization might wipe out middle management in North American institutions and folks like Mike Harris cut back on funding for advanced education, universities responded by offering high-cost MBA courses that would train middle-managers to become corporate "leaders." Same skills, upgraded with digital-aged jargon and advanced yesmanship to make graduates acceptable to nervous corporate executives. This politicized middle management more than it had ever been and contributed in no small part to the costs of its products. But the decision-makers aren't going to take the hit for that, and so internationalized its labour workforce. Kapow:globalization.

Meanwhile improved digital communications de-institutionalized knowledge and folks who like doing and making things, as opposed to those who seek the power to tell others how to do and make things, quickly gained access to their information peers. Now we have two economies- an information-based manufactory that is growing and an overly managed mass-production economy that is in crisis. It should come as no surprise that corporate and government managers are throwing money at ways to keep the mass-production economy going, often at the expense of this new, growing manufactoring sector. Why is the funding for early-childhood education considered an insurmountable difficulty, or hiring more nurses or doctors impossible, while the auto sector gets bucks by the bucket?

Ryan asked Think/Haus folks what the city could do to support it. I'm not connected with either party, but my suggestion would be that the city, with its teams of players constantly competing to be "community leaders" should just get out of the way. Think of the Pearl Company's problems. So many of what we now consider important civic issues -- essentially issues of municipal infrastructure -- might actually be answered or at least mitigated through home workshops or Think/Haus style collectives. Do cyclists really need the city's permission to find the best and safest routes from A to B, or do they merely need the city not to interfere as cyclists gradually take over these routes?

Maybe some current infrastructure, electricity grids, water and waste treatment, can and should soon be deconstructed rather than rebuilt, the actual work done more efficiently, close to home.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 03, 2009 at 07:30:43

Going My Way wrote:

Do cyclists really need the city's permission to find the best and safest routes from A to B, or do they merely need the city not to interfere as cyclists gradually take over these routes?

An interesting idea, if there were a large enough group of cyclists using the same road(s) everyday, most drivers would just change their routes to avoid the "inconvenience" thus making those streets safer for the cyclists.

Perhaps create an unofficial bicycle "highway" system with a main trunk line going across the city and predefined branches going to various destinations, then encourage all cyclists to only use this system to ensure as many people as possible are using it at any given time. An added benefit would be that since there's really no physical infrastructure the branches could be created and changed organically based on factors like construction and popularity and then immediately disseminated through something like a google maps mashup and/or social networking sites.

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