Beirut's first hackerspace links creators in an open lab [The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon]
(Daily Star, The (Beirut, Lebanon) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 09--BEIRUT -- Her name is Emily. She is cradling a bottle of beer and standing expressionless against a wall.
She is barely a meter and a half tall. But she towers in intrigue above the various renaissance men and tech geniuses congregating in Mar Mikhael's Lamba Labs -- computer engineers dabbling in music and pottery, social activists and political scientists cum video producers.
But Emily is something else -- a robot.
"We made Emily originally as a robotic beer server," says Bassam Jalgha, a founding member at Lamba Labs, Lebanon's first hackerspace.
Lamba Labs, located at Karaj next to Enab restaurant in Mar Mikhael, is dedicated to projects like Emily, experimentations that combine technical know-how -- in this case, a robot -- with a little community spirit, beer.
The lab began five months ago and has since found its footing.
It offers a communal space for idea and skill sharing. Projects have a tech focus, but often wander off into the realms of art, music and social activism. For instance, Lamba Labs offers free workshops ranging from an introduction to AutoCAD software to pottery night.
The difficulty of defining Lamba Labs comes down to the loose definition of its mission: a hackerspace.
To many, a "hackerspace" might sound like a hub for bored computer geniuses making mischief before getting recruited by Microsoft.
But "hacker" shouldn't be taken too literally.
"Every hackerspace sees itself as something different. Some see it as pure software development," Jalgha says. "Others are based in a social responsibility for freedom of Internet and technology.
"Mainly, at the core is community ... bringing people together from specialized fields to create."
Beirut's hackerspace is about "hacking" Lebanon's social norms, namely that learning a skill or getting help comes with a price tag. "Sharing among each other goes against society," Jalgha says.
Workshops are free, members pay a minimum of what they can afford to take advantage of the office space and its resources -- usually around $20 per month -- and those members happily help anyone walking in with a bright idea.
Lamba Labs' office takes up a tiny room no bigger than 4 meters by 4 meters. But members have access to the spacious, high-ceilinged community room at Karaj, a parent lab for experimental arts and technology.
The space is equipped with a long, central table perfect for solitary work or collaboration, stacks of beanbag chairs ready to soften hours of brainstorming, a 3-D printer, silk screen printing, a kitchen, a garden, a white board and an office stacked floor to ceiling with odds and ends.
Clay masks dry on an office table, still fresh from last night's workshop. Boxes of computer parts are scattered on shelves. Lingerie is pillaged from a La Senza bag and replaced with Internet router hardware. And from a corkboard hangs an axe murderer's candy shop of cutters, clippers and pliers.
So what do you get when you cross a software engineer with a musician An electronic tuner. An electrician with a fashion designer An LED-lit sweater. How about a computer genius with a social conscience A belt that warns the blind when they're about to bump into something.
Those are just several projects members and drifters through Lamba Labs have worked on.
Two other founding members plan to create an interactive map in time for Lebanon's June elections. The map would allow members of the public to log instances of corruption or tampering, which would appear as pinpoints at the location where they occurred.
Lamba Labs has a sister hackerspace in Iraq, called Fikra. The two groups share mutual founder Bilal Ghalib, from the Global Entrepreneurship and Maker Space Initiative. Beirut's hackerspace has served as a source of encouragement and solidarity with Fikra, which is encountering far more obstacles due to greater instability in Iraq.
"In Baghdad, it's much more challenging because everything must be checked for security reasons," Jalgha says.
Ghalib, Jalgha and Lamba Labs' other founders seek to expand the collaborative hackerspace concept across the Middle East and North Africa.
And in terms of its own transparency, Lamba Labs aims to practice what it preaches. All of the organizational meetings are open to the public, and organizers plan to make Lamba Labs' finances public information as well.
As of now, Lamba Labs survives off of donations and its minimal membership fees, though intern Janina Santer, 21, has a mind to change that.
Traveling to Lebanon from Germany for a two-month stint with Lamba Labs, Santer is organizing the launch of its first digital advertising campaign on kickstarter.com. The website allows nonprofit groups to post video appeals for funding.
Santer says she was attracted to Lamba Labs because of her political science background. She saw in the project its spirit to reform the country's politics.
"It's a great and inspiring city. People are very educated, they've traveled all over the world; they're not isolated. But still things are stuck," Santer says.
Indeed, as members and guests works away at a public "Build Night" Wednesday, the lab emanates the kind of creative camaraderie conducive to taking care of business.
And as for Emily, her days of serving beer have passed, though she still adds to the life of the party. The independently mobile robot now wanders Lamba Labs' mixers, a computer atop her head Skyping with a fellow hacker from abroad.
Lamba Labs hackerspace is located after BLC bank in Mar Mikhael. For more information and workshop schedules, visit its website at lambalabs.org.
(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Visit The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) at www.dailystar.com.lb/
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