[hackerspaces] TX/RX Labs first newspaper piece
txtwisterchaser at gmail.com
Sat Mar 27 23:20:57 CET 2010
Take back the labInventors’ club teaches technological self-relianceHOUSTON
CHRONICLEMarch 26, 2010, 8:31PM
It's 10 p.m. on Friday in the Museum District. In a workshop jammed with
computer guts and old circuit boards, a motley crowd of college students, IT
experts, NASA engineers and one young boy gather around a homemade gizmo
spitting out tiny, 3-D buildings made of plastic. The spectators are all
members of TX/RX Labs, a year-old nonprofit that teaches ordinary people to
fix — and build — their own technology. This shambling, easygoing tinkerers'
club is a model of how Houston should be cultivating its large bank of
untapped intellectual capital.
Tech collectives like TX/RX got their start about a decade ago, spreading
from Europe to New York, Washington, D.C., and California. Computer
programmers first gathered to teach new skills and collaborate on software
projects for the sheer fun of it. The groups' do-it-yourself ethic caught on
outside the computer world, leading to collective workspaces that attracted
tech enthusiasts of all types.
Inspired by this movement, 32-year-old Houstonian James Kern — a University
of Houston math and psychology graduate who works in information technology
— cofounded TX/RX.
Within months, he had attracted about 75 members, some with little in common
but a taste for technology — and the conviction that they had a right to
know more about it. For a monthly fee of $80 ($50 for students) members get
almost round-the-clock access to a well-equipped if ramshackle lab, complete
with electronic parts, a drill press and computer network components.
But for most members, the prize resource can be found once a month on Friday
nights, when they gather to talk tech, pose questions, and put their heads
together on often-ambitious projects.
This past winter, for example, they spent a few hundred dollars on an old
printer from Goodwill and a mail-order computer kit — and built the
sophisticated 3-D printer churning out those highly detailed miniature
plastic buildings. These printers, normally in the $40,000 range, are
usually affordable only for specialists such as architects. The TX/RX crew
plans to engineer theirs to produce its own plastic components —
essentially, to replicate itself — so that individuals can build them at
It's a great example of the club's overall mission: teaching Houstonians to
be self-reliant in handling the technology on which we all depend. Though
almost everyone uses cars, computers and cellphones, Kern said, few
Americans have a clue how to fix them. TX/RX wants to show us how. But TX/RX
also teaches many lower-tech skills — as in its 2009 lock-picking seminar,
or the upcoming soldering class in which members will learn to fix their own
The club itself is open to everyone, career gearheads or not, however: the
intellectual and creative fellowship, Kern said, is as important as
technology expertise. Among the regulars, Kern said, is a 14-year-old boy,
accompanied by his father, who painstakingly is building a suit of chain
In many ways, TX/RX is a sign of the times. Whenever the economy sputters,
Americans tend to get interested in do-it-yourself, making do and
repurposing. TX/RX, which also prioritizes leaving a smaller environmental
footprint, neatly responds to that trend. The collective also belongs to a
pre-recession backlash against several decades of technology so specialized
— so opaque — that ordinary Americans can no longer take apart a car or
telephone and learn how it works. There's a yearning to reclaim the
once-familiar feeling of competence that the new tech collectives fulfill.
But TX/RX also continues a much older, and historically influential,
tradition: the work of the amateur scientist. Richard Holmes, the British
author of *The Age of Wonder*, tells us this tradition dates to the 18th
century, which saw the rise of independent scientists — thinkers who would
include Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin — who worked from their homes,
followed their curiosity and often built their own instruments.
Two hundred years later, the word “amateur” usually carries a pejorative
tone. It shouldn't.
In Houston, home to tens of thousands of talented engineers, scientists and
technicians, TX/RX offers a reminder of the potential of the trained mind —
inside and outside of the traditional workplace. Even in a recession, unpaid
should never be mistaken for unproductive.
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