Hackers can be a diverse bunch. My old hackerspace had folks ranging from NSA employees (ahem, independent security contractors) to space-probe pilots to anarchist vegan punks. And we all got along because we shared a common love for what we’re doing. One summer night we were out late in Adams Morgan and my vegan-punk friend reaches into the trash can and pulls out a discarded pepperoni Jumbo Slice.
“Wait a minute! Vegans don’t eat pepperoni pizza with cheese.” But my friend was a “freegan” — a vegan who, for ethical reasons, won’t buy meat or milk but who also won’t turn it down if it’s visibly going to waste. It’s actually quite a practical and principled moral proposal if you think about it: he’s not contributing to the use of animals that he opposes, but he gets to have a slice of pizza just the same. And fishing a slice of pizza, in a cardboard container, off the top of the trashcan isn’t as gross as you’d imagine, although it pays to be picky.
A Fracker is Born
That was the night that we realized we all had something deeper in common: we were all “frackers”. If you’ve been around hackers long enough, you’ll have noticed this tendency, but maybe you’ve never put a name to it. Tearing something apart, even if you might break it in the process, isn’t a problem if you fished it out of the e-waste stream to begin with. If you’re able to turn it into something, so much the better. It’s all upside. Need practice de-soldering tricky ICs? Looking for a cheap target to learn reverse engineering on? Off to the trashcan! No hack is too dirty, no method too barbaric. It’s already junk, and you’re a fracker.
Do you have a junk shelf where you keep old heatsinks in case you need to cut some up and use it? Have you used a heat gun more frequently for harvesting parts than for stripping paint? Do you know that certain satisfaction that you get from pulling some old tech out of the junk pile and either fixing it up again or, better yet, making it do something else? You might just be a fracker too.
Yes, I know. The word means a bunch of other things now. But this was back in the day when the only other rival connotations were a substitute swearword on Battlestar Galactica. We decided that was OK. As hackers take back “hacker”, we’d take back “fracker”. Well, it went nowhere. But if you’re out there reading this and you’re a fracker, maybe you can help.
A Field Guide to Frackers
There are many types of fracker out there, and many motivations for fracking. Let’s look at a few of the obvious ones:
- The Eco Fracker: Some frackers have this feeling that there’s something wasteful about throwing so much good tech away. PCBs and ICs are very resource intensive. Recycling is better than not doing so, but even that’s imperfect. The best way to keep something out of the landfill is to keep using it.
- The Poverty Fracker: Maybe you don’t have money for a streaming media station, but you know you can make one out of a trashed router. That’s poverty-fracking, a noble tradition.
- The Parts-is-Parts Fracker: This fracker has an extensive junk collection and knows where to get something when it’s needed. Pulling a heat sink off an old power supply to use for an audio amplifier is parts fracking.
- The Fixit Fracker is often a poverty fracker or an eco fracker in disguise. But hacking on broken junk just for the challenge of making it work again can be quite rewarding in its own right. Even if you don’t know what you’re going to do with the microscope you hauled out of the trash, you make it work again.
- The Art Fracker: They like the way old junk looks. When you find a cool-looking instrument panel or an old mechanism in the junk, you pull it out and house some other gear in it, that’s art fracking. Think Rasbperry Pis in Macintosh SE cases.
- The Reverse Fracker: These folks primarily like to figure out how stuff works. After pulling some techno-trash out of the bin, they learn a lot from taking it apart and mapping it all out. It may work again, it may not. Knowledge was gained.
- The Virtuoso Fracker: The virtuoso is a lot like the parts fracker, only for the virtuoso fracker, it’s an intentionally limited set of parts. What’s the coolest thing you can make out of an old CD player and some popsicle sticks? With one hand tied behind your back? That’s virtuoso fracking.
Of course, in the real world, every fracker is a mix of all of the above. Sometimes you’re looking for inspiration, sometimes you’re just looking for a power supply. But as long as you’re letting me taxonomize here, let’s look at a few exemplars.
Three Inspirational Frackers
[Matt Evans] started off as a fracker of necessity: he was a poor student. But by the time he was giving this fantastic talk at a Linux conference in 2012, he had a decent job paying him enough money to buy whatever he wanted. Nonetheless, when he needed a JTAG programmer to break into some other motherboard from the trash heap, he of course had to build one himself out of a discarded router by writing some kernel code and tapping around the board for GPIOs.
In [Matt]’s talk, he goes through all his reasons for fracking, and it’s fairly clear that he’s at least an Art-Fixit-Eco-Virtuoso Fracker. We’ll call [Matt] simply a Renaissance Fracker. (Not strictly fracking, but neat nonetheless is his cutting up STM32F0 Discovery Kits with a hacksaw post.)
[Sprite TM], who graces our pages frequently, is mostly a Reverse Fracker. Who else takes apart a hard-drive to see if he can reprogram some of the chips that make up the controller? A bunch of his projects display the minimalism and re-use of the Virtuoso. And I have no idea what to make of the Tamogotchi Singularity. Is that Art? It’s awesome…
[The Post-Apocalyptic Inventor] has a YouTube channel where he displays his particular blend of poverty-fixit-reverse-parts-fracking. When he takes apart a welder, it’s partly to get a working a welder, but also to learn about the designs and improve them. And you can be sure that he gets every last stepper motor out of a copy machine.
There are many other inspirational frackers (and their fracks) out there — let’s hear your favorites in the comment section.
A Fracker Manifesto
So are you a fracker too? It’s not official until you’ve at least skimmed through our manifesto.
- Take stuff out of the trash can!
- Make it do something else.
- Don’t worry about breaking it.
- Fixing something is good — changing it is better.
- Appreciate the design of the original, but don’t be limited by it.
- Vintage hardware is beautiful.
- Building something for $0 is inherently cool.
- Let the constraints be a source of inspiration.
Fracking is much harder than buying modules on eBay, but that’s part of the point; you push yourself and you learn. On the other hand sometimes a challenge can turn into a frustration, so there’s no sense in being fanatical. Any fracking you do is good for the environment, your skills, your aesthetic sensibilities, and your pocketbook. You don’t have to delete your profile at Mouser or cut up your credit cards. You’re probably better off just buying capacitors and LEDs rather than scavenging them off of old motherboards and trying to measure them all for instance. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)
But when you do make that scroll wheel out of an old hard-drive platter and motor assembly, you are going to smile just a little bit wider because the surface-mount comparator that detects the phases came from an old iMac that your neighbors pitched. Being a fracker is its own reward. Frackers of the world, unite!