Monday, April 22, 2019

Enter the Makerspace

[Author's Note: This article was originally written for one of my journalism classes in late April of 2019.  Andrew, my husband, is the Andrew featured in this article, and for that reason I scrapped the article for professional use, since I felt I was too close to a primary source.  Furthermore, I felt that I was unable to verify some of the direct quotes, which I had written in my notebook back during the grand re-opening on March 10th.  You can check out the HexLab website here.]


Unless you know where to look, this space is indistinguishable from a warehouse.

The large, open floor plan is covered in unidentifiable machines and surfaces scattered with tools;  a DIY mezzanine made from steel occupies about a quarter of the floor, adding to the space. It can be accessed via a rickety staircase and overlooks the rest of the floor; the railing is made of posts threaded together with thin wire.  There are a few spots along this impromptu widow’s walk that lack any barrier, giving one a sense of vertigo.


There are signs of life here: a bright blue banner against one wall clashes terribly with the general greyness of the rest of the space, and strings of Christmas tree lights beneath the mezzanine give one section of space the vibe of a college dorm.  A sign by the door features a skull and crossbones and warns, “CLEAN OR DIE.”


Up in the mezzanine space, the vibe of a college dorm is stronger.  Here, above the machinery on the first floor, there are army cots, a few couches clustered around an enormous flat screen TV, and a bright orange IKEA bookcase filled with books on crafting projects.  There are also a few cots crammed against one wall; the only thing lacking is a ring-eyed graduate student.


This is HexLab makerspace, a co-op for creative types to build.  What they’re building matters less than the process; in a single visit, I am shown a refurbished arcade cabinet with over 900 playable games, laser-cut wood ornaments, a 3D printer, snake vertebrate cast in pewter, and a small, robotic spider that appeared to serve no purpose at all other than perching ominously on its creator’s shoulder.  Like most makerspaces, HexLab is a membership-based “club” of sorts that, in return for a monthly fee, offers tool use, work space, and craft classes. A community center that bases its business model on knowledge sharing and tool use seems like it would have no trouble staying afloat, but makerspaces are actually a niche business with several unique challenges, and HexLab is no exception.


A PLACE TO CREATE


Makerspaces, also called “hackerspaces,” arose sometimes during the dot-com boom in the 1990s.  Initially a place to share software, learn coding, and distribute technology, the first hackerspaces cropped up in Germany during the 1990s.  The appeal of hackerspaces was simple: DIY technology was inexpensive and rewarding. People could build their own computers, fix their own phones, and “upcycle” electronic garbage into something valuable.


Public hackerspaces most typically appeared in warehouses, basements, and garages, places that naturally drew DIY enthusiasts and techies.  One of the appeals of these venues was that they had the space to store ongoing products, which might include loose nuts and bolts, small electronics, lengths of coiled wires, and other such items that would look messy or out of place elsewhere.  Hackerspaces are like junk drawers, supersized. Here, you can find just about any battery type you need; whether or not the battery works is another matter.


The first official makerspace is general credited to C-Shop, a makerspace that opened in Germany in 1995.  This was a “hackspace,” dedicated to the dissemination of coding knowledge. There was less emphasis on physical creation and more on digital mastery.  Most early makerspaces were similarly focused on small electronic hardware, and projects that involves mastery of computer language or circuit design. Part of the reason was practical; early makerspaces existed in small spaces and could not accommodate larger projects.


As the popularity of makerspaces grew (Hackerspaces.org listed 200 in 2009 and 2000 six years later), so did the spaces themselves.  Projects that once occupied only a flimsy plastic folding table expanded across workbenches; makerspaces became places were people could house unfinished projects that might not fit in their living rooms.  Makerspaces could also house community tools. And while some tools, like power drills, are common staples of garage workshops, others, such as welding equipment, are not. Makerspaces offered people access to specialty tools they previously would not have had access to.  In turn, this opened the door to many people for new craft projects.


One example of a classic makerspace is MIT’s FabLab.  Begun in 2009, there are now over a thousand individual FabLab makerspaces around the world; they are governed by the Fab Foundation, a non-profit entity.  The purpose of FabLab is to give its community access to tools for digital fabrication; the FabLab charter has very specific criteria for what constitutes a sanctioned FabLab makerspace.  On the Fab Foundation website, it calls “democratizing access to the tools for personal expression and invention... essential.”


This spirit of community cooperation is one echoed by most makerspaces, including the for-profit ones.  Considering the high cost of some technologies, co-ops are a logical way for hobbyists to access industrial tools.  Many people who hold memberships in makerspaces originally relied on college machine shops for their projects, and, having graduated college, were looking for a similar space to work, one that wouldn’t require the purchase of a $4,000 laser cutter.


One of the reasons for the recent surge in popularity is the increasing use of technology in everyday life.  As more and more people rely on technology, more and more people have a vested interest in understanding it. This includes programming software, repairing hardware, and modifying or maintaining existing systems.   


But makerspaces are broader than hackerspaces, which focused largely on electronics.  Makerspaces can include quite literally any craft, from wood-working to needle-felting.  The only real question is what sort of tools and space are available.


There are a few other makerspaces in Los Angeles, such as Crash Space in Culver City, Burbank Makerspace, and Long Beach Maker Society.  HexLab doesn’t work in any official capacity with other makerspaces, though it has a friendly relationship with LA Makerspace, which is a program rather than an actual space.  LA Makerspace promotes free and and subsidized classes at libraries and other public venues to promote an interest to STEM fields to schoolchildren, and has held some classes at HexLab.


What sets HexLab apart is by and large is the size.  HexLab is enormous compared to Crash Space, boasting a square footage of about 2,000 feet (excluding the second-story mezzanine).  It has a reputation as one of the best makerspaces in the Los Angeles area.



PROJECT


I drove to HexLab makerspace to find out precisely what tools are available, and what sort of projects are being done there.  When I arrive in the industrial district located next to the Van Nuys municipal airport, there are a few people milling around the parking lot, while one man digs a screwdriver into a small, grey box beside the door.


What I am witnessing is a project.  


The board of HexLab decided that, for security purposes, an RFID reader on the door would be better than a traditional lock-and-key set up.  RFID stands for radio frequency identification and examples include the key fob you use to unlock your car and the key cards people use to swipe into work.


One of the board members, Andrew, took it upon himself to set up the system.   It took him three or four weekends, most of which was spent researching different RFID chip reader set-ups.  Andrew says he went to NewEgg, an electronics website, and found “super cheap Chinese crap, which was as good as any place to start.”


Quickly, he amends his statement: “I mean, it sounds sort of derogatory when I say it like that, but I don’t mean it that way.  I mean, holy shit, they made a circuit and an entire device that’s like, seven or eight dollars. Here in the U.S it’s like forty.  Explain that.”


The RFID reader was partially purchased because it’s designed to be extremely user-friendly and emulates a keyreader, unlike other RFID readers that send signals that are coded in binary.  The makers at HexLab, as a whole, tend to like things that look cool.


In fact, the whole RFID reader project was started in the first place because they felt it was more “on brand” to swipe a badge than to turn a key.  There was no security breach that prompted this. The original plan discussed involved a fake door behind the first one; it was supposed to look like a  defunct mechanic’s shop or out-of-business travel agency, which a secret wall panel that could be opened with a wave of one of the key fobs.


“Like Q’s lab in James Bond  ...or the Bat Cave,” says Andrew.


All of the HexLab members have their keychain fobs ready, which they will be able to scan to unlock the door electronically.  The RFID system will allow the makerspace to track member movements. It has been in progress for a long time, but today is its grand unveiling.  There is no secret door panel; it is far less of an elaborate set-up than was originally conceived. However, it seems that the external casing for the electronics doesn’t quite fit.  It was 3-D printed and one of the screws doesn’t quite align. The man with the screwdriver is trying to “Macgyver” a new hole. I hear the word “Macgyver” a lot in this crowd.


One of the onlookers shifts the feet impatiently and offers to hold up the plastic casing while the man with the screwdriver drills a new screwhole to secure it.  The people who are awaiting entrance are all members of the makerspace and, though they seem to get along well with each other, impatience has made them cranky. Few want to talk to me before we’ve entered the building.


Some of the current projects include a man who modifies video game controllers, a woman who makes handbags out of laser-cut wood, a man who is crafting sunglasses made of old car materials the evoke classic auto styles, and a man who is building electronic cosplay weapons.  The sunglasses man is the one offering to hold the box, and he’s wearing a pair of his sunglasses. I try to guess the car based on the materials; I see leather and chrome, which gives little away. After I made a few bone-headed queries, he finally gives me the answer. It’s a model of car I’ve never heard of.


The RFID box is affixed to the wall and a cheer goes up from the six onlookers, who each wave their key fobs at the RFID box and are rewarded with a beep that indicates it’s working.  This is the grand reopening of HexLab, and considering it involved an electronic project, one could argue it’s off to a good start.

An early view of the RFID reader in its 3D-printed casing.


ALLEN PAN


The grand reopening occurred just last March; HexLab was acquired by current owner Allen Pan in September of 2018 after nearly going bankrupt.


Makerspaces are not lucrative; HexLab is largely run by volunteers and has 501(c)(3) status.  Because HexLab lacks any sort of HR or legal department, it got its non-profit status through an umbrella company called Social Good Fund.  Social Good Fund files for 501(c)(3) status on behalf of smaller companies in return for 8% of the revenue that the company generates. For HexLab, this is a significant cost.


Curiously, although the business model for most makerspaces is based on that of a co-op, HexLab is not owned by multiple parties.  Allen is the sole owner of HexLab, and before Allen, it was owned by Michael Hexler. Being the sole owner of a cooperative business is a heavy burden to bear; the World Council of credit unions notes that the 5-year survival rate for co-ops in the US is 90%, compared with only 5% for privately owned businesses.


The odds are stacked against Allen, but he is confident that he can do what Mike Hexler could not.  Although Allen is the sole party responsible for HexLab’s financials, he is running HexLab with the help of a elected board.  Members on the board can help him in his decisions; although Allen has the ultimate say in HexLab’s management, he feels that getting multiple perspectives will greatly improve the way HexLab is run.  Board positions are unpaid, of course; HexLab does not generate enough profit to pay its volunteers. Most people volunteer do it for the love of the space, with the understanding that HexLab’s precarious financial situation precludes it from paying any of them for their time.


HexLab is at a further financial disadvantage because of its location.  Placed in an industrial park in Van Nuys, many of its members commute from the larger Los Angeles area, which already has a makerspace of its own, albeit in a much smaller space.  But Allen is confident that HexLab is on the cusp of becoming a successful endeavor. Its largest challenges are providing useful experiences to people, and advertising that those experiences are available so that people come in to have said experiences.


Advertising is no problem; Allen has a YouTube channel dedicated to making things, and it has over 800,000 subscribers.  But watching a video of someone making something is different than coming into the makerspace and making something yourself.


Other makerspaces have faced similar hurdles; one of the most famous and seemingly successful makerspaces, TechShop, had ten locations in the United States (three in California) when, without warning, it closed its doors in November of 2017 and filed for bankruptcy three months later.  One location in San Francisco had a phoenix-like rebirth not dissimilar to HexLab's; an independent purchaser acquired and reopened one of the TechShops, rebranding it TechShop 2.0, and was able to keep it afloat.


It’s worth noting that, in addition to the ever-increasing popularity and complexity of technology, another reason for the surge in popularity is the concept of crowdfunding.  Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have allowed people to create makerspaces. The biggests costs are typically securing a venue and getting together the equipment to make it profitable.  No one will go to a makerspace without tools, so it’s critical during set-up to have tools available. People are willing to pay memberships if it gets them access to tools they might not otherwise be able to access.


Crowdfunding not only offsets the costs of starting up the makerspace, but serves double-duty in popularizing it.  Patreon, for example, is a site that allows people to sponsor projects on a monthly subscription basis, and gives those projects a social media platform to engage with donors.


HexLab began a Kickstarter on May 1st with the goal of $9,700.  The money was needed, according to the site, for equipment, much of which had been sold off when HexLab was on the verge of collapse in 2018.  What type of equipment is needed isn’t specified on the site, though it notes that the campaign would cover the cost of instructors and materials for a series of free STEM classes aimed at middle school children (4 classes with 20 seats each).  This explains to me, at least, how Social Good Fund pitched HexLab’s 501(c)(3) status, though it doesn’t explain what sort of materials or instructors are needed.


In one day, the Kickstarter earned almost half of its goal.  At the time of writing this, it has 89 backers. That’s a respectable number of pledges, in my opinion; Allen attributes this success, in part, to the aggressive social media campaign that HexLab has recently undertaken.  A new Facebook page, a new Instagram page, and innumerable hashtags are working to try to get HexLab some much-needed attention.


Allen is hopeful; he thinks that the Kickstarter will be able to address most of the pressing financial woes, and thinks that the grand reopening will bring HexLab (and its crowdfunding project) all of the attention it needs to be successful.


It sounds like it’s working, at least on paper.  But some members are not so confident. One member, who asked to remain anonymous, says that they follow Allen on YouTube and that they feel he is “dropping the ball” by not leveraging his fanbase to promote the Kickstarter.  The member also said that Allen hasn’t yet used his Instagram, with 5,000 more followers, to even mention the Kickstarter campaign. According to this member, Allen has anxiety about asking others for help, and that often prevents him from doing necessary promotional work or admitting when the financial situation is getting bad.  The member said that they suspected the financial situation was worse than Allen was letting on.


I don’t know to what degree Allen should be worried, but I am struck with the impression that the gadgeteers who occupy the space are not especially business-savvy.  Though the top priority is the budget, the board meeting is quickly derailed into a discussion about the logo. Allen wants to rebrand as “Sufficient Space,” with a lightning bolt logo instead of a hexagon.


When the logo argument gets tabled and the conversation swings back around to money, a new debate arises.  Should the makerspace have “day passes?” Currently, standard monthly membership is $140. However, members who teach classes at the makerspace can have their fees waived.  The result is that, although HexLab boasts 30-something members, it’s generating far less than the expected $4200 a month, which is needed for the cost of basic bills, like rent and electricity.


When I entered the makerspace, I was given a red lanyard to indicate that I was a guest.  But there’s nothing to distinguish members as such; apparently, it’s a tight-knit group, enough so that no one ever bothered to compose a membership list.  


The exact number of official members is unknown because the person in charge of membership recruitment and tracking has no official member list.  Later, I press the facilities director for numbers, and he says that in the month of February, 50 people paid dues. Of the fifty, half were paying a discounted rate and were people who weren’t coming in.  These were likely old members of HexLab who had signed up and simply never cancelled their monthly membership.


I ask the board if they feel it’s ethically murky to collect fees from people without rendering a service to them.


“Absolutely,” says Andrew, at the same time Allen says, “No, that’s just the business model.  It’s like a gym membership.”


“Which frustrates me, because I’ve been trying to cancel my gym membership for two months,” says Andrew.


The financial  situation was inherited by the members of the board.  Polling the members of the board, the general agreed-upon plan seems to be to continue to collect dues from members regardless of whether or not they are attending the makerspace, at least until such a time as the makerspace is on less unsteady ground.  Once the financial situation improves, the majority of the board wants to switch to an “opt-in” plan for due collection. But for now, they simply don’t have the luxury of canceling lapsed memberships; every penny counts.


Another issue, according to the treasurer, is that the web designer on payroll has done no work for several months.  Aside from Allen Pan, the web designer, Stephen, is HexLab’s only true employee on payroll. Stephen has since been dismissed, but now, the website is languishing.  And the website is a critical component of membership recruitment… assuming that a membership list is ever established.


Why, I ask later, does no one want to do the website?  Considering makerspaces grew out of hackerspaces, and many of the members of HexLab have experience with coding, I feel this task should be an easy one to outsource.  Allen shrugs and says that the website is a big responsibility; the makers here are hobbyists, and no one wants the weighty responsibility of handling the website, which is the central portal through which people can buy memberships.


There are six people on the board for HexLab, including Allen, and none has any business experience.  They are running the makerspace as they run their projects: on a wing and a prayer, with a can-do attitude that relies on a guess-and-check method.  It’s certainly in the spirit of a making space, as they seem to have learned a lot from past mistakes. But it’s unclear how close they are to having a stable monthly financial plan.


The board was formed in November of 2018 to try to help Allen distribute the burden of running the space himself  The number of positions is somewhat unclear. Allen is the undisputed Director. The other positions are long-time members who volunteered and were voted in by other members of the board.  The ones present at the meeting I attend are the Membership Coordinator, the Programs Coordinator, the Facilities Coordinator, the Treasurer, the Outreach Coordinator, and the Safety Coordinator.


I ask why there are so many “coordinator” titles.  The answer is that the board was shy about the idea of being too bureaucratic and felt that the titles like “chair” or “director” would feel too hierarchical.  “Coordinator” was considered less offensive and more approachable.


The board meets most Sundays for about two hours.  The Treasurer, Brandon, is also the Membership Coordinator; it’s unclear even to him if they are the same title or if he’s serving double-duty.  The Facilities Coordinator is Andrew of the RFID project, but Allen discontinued his position back in February, since another member, Dustin, who is on payroll, has been helping to clean up.  Tasks like sweeping and changing out rolls of toilet paper. Dustin is a member in high standing.


Andrew continues to come to the board meetings.  “I’m only facilities coordinator in my head, not on paper, but who’s going to stop me from coordinating the facility?” he says.  “What I do, I call it the Automation Team.”


“Is there anyone on the team?” I ask.


“...it’s a team of one.  But I hope if I keep calling it a team, someone will join.  I mean, someone else will join. We’ve already got one really dedicated member.”


Some of the positions clearly have less direction than others.  When I ask what the safety coordinator does, Allen said, “He puts up signs warning people to be safe.  ...I wish I were kidding.”


Allen admits that safety coordinator position doesn’t entirely make sense, because safety training is most likely to be taught to area supervisors.  There are six areas in the makerspace (laser cutting, 3D printing, electronics, textiles, metal working, and wood working) and each area has a designated volunteer who acts as a point on contact between Allen and that specific area.  These supervisor positions are unofficial and arose organically; people who were heavily involved with their areas due to their personal projects or interests were instructing the board on what equipment to purchase and what sort of upkeep the machines needed, and at some point, the volunteers ended up with (un)official supervisory titles.


For a co-op that initial shied away from bureaucracy, it sounds like HexLab went the way of most organizations and developed a fairly complex administration.


I ask Allen if he thinks it might be time to reorganize now that they have a little more experience and have seen what positions are needed and what their duties are.


“Naw.  It’s working fine,” he dismisses me.  “Come on, let me give you a tour.”

Allen from above.

HEXLAB ON TOUR


As Allen gives me a tour of the space, I find myself frequently overwhelmed with questions.  “This is our CNC machine,” he says.


“What’s a CNC machine?” I ask.


“Computer numerical control,” he says before plowing on ahead to the laser cutter.  I find out later that there are two CNC machines: a mill, and a router. The mill removes materials from metals and the router removes material from wood.  The laser cutter is also itself a CNC machine.


I ask another member what sort of thing the CNC mill might be used to make, and they reply, much to my delight, that industrial CNC mills might be used to make automotive parts or “Iron Man suits, although ours is probably too low-power for that.”  The CNC router, on the other hand, might be used to make parts for furniture.

The CNC machine. 

Near the end of the tour, I catch a snippet of conversation between the man with the robotic spider and an apparent admirer of the robotic spider:


“How many actualizers does that have?"


"Just two servos."


"Running on Trinket wireless?"


As someone without any understanding of robotics, this brief exchange both excites and intimidates me.  Most of the people here seem to be old friends, familiar with each other as well as each other’s projects.  When I ask one member, Ryan Wise, if he believes there’s any cliquishness to makerspaces, he immediately says, “Oh, yeah.”  Ryan is the maker of the pewter snake vertebrae; he only recently got into casting, he says, and spreads out a number of small pewter items on a table for me to pick at while I grill him with questions.


I ask what he thinks might contribute to any perceived cliquishness in a makerspace, and he launches into an explanation as if I’d just asked about CNC machines.   “They’re usually not truly professional operations; they’re volunteer-based, and volunteers tend to bring in their friends instead of strangers. So strangers often have the feeling of being less informed and less included.”


Although HexLab and other makerspaces envision a community space that strives to share knowledge, I’m certainly feeling what Ryan described.  The learning curve at HexLab is steep. The overwhelming majority of people who sign up for memberships already know what tools they need and how to use them; they are paying for access to the tools.  Though HexLab offers classes on various instruments, there is usually low attendance, and the classes are sporadic because the people who teach them are members who volunteered to do so. One of the most asked-for classes, says Allen, is one on Raspberry Pi electronics.  A Raspberry Pi is a tiny, low-cost single-board computer (models start at only $20) that is designed to teach programming and computer science to its users. It takes the form of a green circuit board covered in tiny computer chips, and fits in the palm of a hand. People can build and program Raspberry Pis for a variety of things; the RFID door access system at HexLab, for example, runs on a Raspberry Pi computer.


But despite the popularity of the Raspberry Pi as a springboard for those who want to get into digital and electronic creation, HexLab has never offered a Raspberry Pi class and has yet to plan to.  The classes are limited to what members offer, and are subject to the availability of the instructors. Classes have never been a big financial draw for HexLab, despite the classroom in the back.


Across the warehouse, over the electronic whirring of a 3D printer, a few people laugh and cheer as the members play arcade games.  I wander over, hovering on the poured cement floor to watch. I don’t get the chance to play any arcade games, myself, but I do go home with a small handful of pewter-cast snake vertebrae in my pocket.  The members I met were generally very willing to speak to me about their projects, but I had trouble shaking my personal sense of self-consciousness, because many conversations involved jargon I was unfamiliar with.  


HexLab has an membership coordinator, Brandon, but when I ask the board what sort of outreach he does, I discovered his job has mostly been tending to the website now that the web designer has been fired.


Brandon also designed the new logo: a lightning bolt inside of a hexagon.



LASTING IMPRESSIONS


I return to HexLab makerspace a few times, just to hover around and watch members work.  They are not anti-social; most are happy to discuss their projects. But they all have a relatively singular focus on whatever project that is.


For Allen, the project is the makerspace itself.  Like all makers (and makerspaces), Allen’s biggest challenge is that he lacks the proper tools.  He certainly doesn’t lack enthusiasm; I have yet to see him get upset or frustrated, even when faced with broken RFID casings, missing membership lists, or vanishing web designers.  Like most of the creators here, Allen is passionate about his project, and treats failure as a learning experience.


But unlike the other creators here, this isn’t merely a hobby, and failure will have more dire consequences than simply losing time or materials.


Some of the board members have criticisms.  Among these is the frequency with which volunteers miss or arrive late for shifts.  But they are all generally hopeful for the future; once the Kickstarter ends at the end of the month, they think there will be more time and money to focus on improving the space.


The board hopes to be able to be able to declare financial stability sometime this spring; many of them already have plans for what they would like to do once they are in the black.  The suggestions range from building membership storage lockers for projects to creating a VR suite. I ask about the secret door; Andrew says he’d rather set up a voice-activated virtual assistant (similar to Alexa or Siri).  One of the things I’ve come to appreciate is that the makers here are not shy about throwing out ideas and seeing what sticks.


Everyone here is extremely optimistic about the future; all of the plans I hear are ones that revolve around the concept of fixing the financials and improving the space.  No one has discussed what will happen if the Kickstarter fails to meet its goal.


Not even Allen has not considered the possibility of failure and when I ask him what he’ll do if it comes to that, he shrugs and simply says that he doesn’t think it will.


HexLab makerspace may not have all of its holes properly aligned quite yet, but Allen isn’t worried.  He can always Macgyver it.

 Build it in a cave with a box of scraps, if you will.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Is Trouble Brewing for SoCal’s Small-Batch Kombucha Makers?

[Author's Note: This article was originally written for one of my journalism classes.  In the coming months, many articles will be backdated and follow stories or formats that are atypical for me.  I'm exercising my writing chops! Most of the content for the next month or two was originally generated for journalism or writing classes. Names are changed in some instances.]


Southern California is known to the rest of the nation as a bellwether for new health foods and drinks, and currently, a new superstar is on the rise: kombucha. With sales in North America having doubled each each since 2015, SPINS predicts that kombucha sales will hit $1.8 billion by 2020, creating a massive industry for the once-obscure drink.

"It's a gold rush," said Madison Tulley, a small-batch brewer who has been making kombucha since 2013. She attributes kombucha's spike in popularity to its supposed health benefits, which include increased gut health health and immune function. Kombucha is a sweetened, carbonated, and fermented tea that is slightly tangy to the taste; it is reminiscent of hard lemonade. With a highly acidic pH of about 2.5 and live bacterial cultures, kombucha is often sold as a health beverage; it can be found in restaurants, grocery chains, and farmer's markets across the world.

Tulley never intended to sell kombucha; she began making it in six years ago because it was cheaper than buying it for $4 a bottle. But she quickly found a business opportunity.

"The SCOBY [selected culture of bacteria and yeast, made to ferment the tea] just keeps growing, so you can just--" She makes a makes a chopping motion and includes a wet squicking noise that sounds very much like what a SCOBY might sound like if it made a noise. Earlier, she invited me to fish a disc of rubbery SCOBY out of one of the large one-gallon jugs she brews her kombucha in. The SCOBY reminds me of the egg part of an Egg McMuffin. It floats at the top of the jugs of tea, which line Tulley's pantry.



 These shots are actually from my own home, courtesy of Andrew.
Naturally we tried to make our own kombucha.
Who doesn't want a rubbery pancake alien growing in their pantry?

Like her competitors, Tulley sells her kombucha for a high price; a Mason jarful goes for $3 to $6 at the local farmers' market. There's a lot of competition now as more and more people flood the market with their own kombucha recipes, to say nothing of the commercial producers of larger batches, who have more elaborate facilities and can guarantee a more uniform taste product-to-product. "The hardest part is the fizz," she says as she lets me sample from a few different jars. The kombucha Tulley makes is decidedly more tart and less fizzy than commercial kombucha, but it isn't bad. Another thing that's making it harder for small-batch brewers to sell their kombucha is government regulation; kombucha has some alcohol in it, but small-batch brewers like Tulley don't test for how much, so it's unclear whether or not their drinks should be regulated as alcoholic or not. (Typical kombucha alcohol content hovers around 0.5% , the exact cut-off for what the government deems alcoholic versus non-alcoholic.)

Kombucha is thousands of years old; the first recorded instance we have of it comes out of the Tsin Dynasty in China, around 221 BC. It's called many things in many cultures, the word "kombucha" likely being a Japanese loanword. (In Japanese, kombucha, 昆布茶, translates to "kelp tea" and refers to another beverage entirely.)

I asked Tulley if any of these concerns were slowing her down or worrying her; she laughed and said no. Like the California gold rush, only a lucky few small-batch makers of kombucha will ever make it big. But although there are over seventy large, commercial companies that make kombucha, Tulley believes there is still an ample market for small-batch sellers like herself, because the taste can vary greater depending on what type of tea is used, how the fermenting process is done, and the makeup of the SCOBY. In any case, Tulley says most people she knows make it for their own personal use, and sell the extra bottles without the expectation of creating an for-profit empire. "One thing about us [small-batch brewers] is that we use our own product. We know it's good, because we're making it for ourselves, first. It's not about profit, profit, profit," says Tulley. And this appeal, says Tulley, will keep small-batch brewers like her afloat, like so many SCOBY patties in one-gallon jugs of sweet tea.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Deal With It: You Can’t Win at Three-Card Monte. ...Or Can You?

As you stroll the boardwalk, the sun shining, the smell of churros and the cry of seagulls filtering through the air, someone makes you an offer. Would you like to double the money in your wallet? It will take about five to ten seconds, and all you have to do is point.

The appeal of the game “Three-Card Monte” tends to draw a crowd, but there can only be one winner. The person who offers the highest bet will be the one to have the honor of pointing to one of three cards, and they could potentially win a lot of money. You join the crowd to watch, intrigued, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with other curious spectators to determine if this too-good-to-be-true offer is real or not.

"Three-Card Monte" derives its name from the 19th century word "monte" in Spanish, which translates to "mountain" but also refers to the pile of cards left on the table after dealing them.  Three-Card Monte leaves a heck of a "monte" if you started with a full deck, because only three cards are dealt.


Three-Card Monte has been around for centuries; there are records of it being played back in the 15th century.  And variations of the Three-Card Monte, such as the "shell game," have been around since ancient Greece.  If you Google it, you'll find Renaissance paintings and old-timey pictures of people  playing it in the World War 1 era.  It's a very popular game, and you've probably seen it, but just in case you haven't, allow me to describe it for you:


The dealer shows that he has three ordinary playing cards, and he invites onlookers to follow one as he shuffles the cards face-down. The crowd watches, murmuring, as the dealer shows them the face of the cards, and then flips down the cards down on the top of a cardboard box with an audible thwick. The dealer invites one of the spectators to make a bet and try to select the “money card.” It may be the ace of spades or the queen of hearts. It doesn’t matter, because the player will not find it. Three-Card Monte isn’t a game; it’s a scam.

 You should have realized when you drew a trap card by accident and later a "Rules for Playing Rummy" card.

But as you watch the dealer shuffle his cards around the table, you follow their path with ease, and then you witness someone else in the crowd win $20 after betting $10. How could it be a scam if someone just won money? The dealer smiles, shrugs, and gives up the money almost sheepishly. The crowd thrums with excitement; this particular dealer doesn’t seem very talented at moving the cards around fast enough to outwit the player. The crowd of observers grows, and cheers loudly when another one of their own throws down even more money, $50 this time, and selects the correct card again. Reluctantly, the dealer pays out $100 to the lucky player, doubling his bet, and begins yet another round. You guessed the last two rounds correctly while watching others win money, and you guarantee you can win, so long as you monitor the movements of the cards closely.


You have $100. You're going for it.

What you don't know is that the dealer uses sleight of hand to throw the results. And the people who won? Those are plants, or “shills,” whose job it is to lure in unsuspecting victims, or “marks.” They whipped the crowd into a frenzy and "won" a few rounds to convince someone to empty the contents of their wallet. If they play their cards right (forgive the pun), some poor rube (in this case, you) might end up parting ways with a crisp $100 that still bears the inky smell of newly printed bills.

So how does the scam work? The dealer presents three cards and then moves the cards around the table, and the player tries to follow one. But when the dealer threw down the money card at the very beginning and told you to follow it, it wasn’t the one that you thought it was. You have been following the wrong card all along; the game (or more accurately, the con) was over before it began.

Holding the cash bets in hand allow the dealer to further obscure sleight of hand.

Magicians call this technique a “lift.” After displaying the face cards to the audience, the dealer flips them to throw them face-down on the table. The seemingly casual motion obscures the dealer’s trick; he masked one card with another.

If the mark does select the correct card by pure, dumb luck, the dealer can use sleight of hand to swap cards, perhaps even employing the lift technique from before. (The dealer often uses a card to flip over the selected card, and when he does so, swaps them; this move is colloquially called a “double turnover” in magicians’ circles, or a “Mexican turnover” to hucksters.) Alternatively, a planted shill in the audience might step in and place a larger bet, and then bid on a different card to protect the dealer. Dealers who work with shills control the crowd by planting wins and making the game seem “fair.” Shills get a cut of the money, later, in return for their protection of the dealer and recruitment of marks. 

Having gained your trust and then swindled you out of your money, the dealer packs up and vanishes. He has little to take with him; his entire enterprise, after all, is made up of three completely normal playing cards that slot easily into his back pocket, snugly tucked in with all the money he just won from you. Your sense of excitement and fun has been replaced with disappointment and the dawning realization that you just lost all of your churro money. It wasn't a total bust, though, because you have just learned a hard lesson: the house always wins.


Of course, as the title of this article implies, now that you know it's a scam, you might perhaps be able to scam the dealer back in a karmic act of clever card trickery.

For example, let's say you can get the dealer distracted and bend the corner of a card.  Or let's say the dealer slips up and accidentally marks the card himself.  Ha!  Now you can win back your--

Nope, sorry, that's also part of the scam.  Sometimes, shills will "bend" a card, which "guarantees" a win.  The dealer pretends not to notice.  When the shill points out the bent" card, he wins.  When you do it, you lose, because the dealer will use sleight-of-hand to bend a losing card and/or to swap out the bent money card with a bent loser card.  Congratulations.  You played yourself.

 A tutorial on the Monte and the "bent card" variation.

So the house always wins.

Or does it?

Arguably, there are two ways to win the unwinnable game that is Three-Card Monte. The first: to act as either the dealer or the shill, assuming you don’t mind breaking the law. Three-Card Monte is illegal in many places, including California; Section 332 of the California Penal Code was amended in 2005 to make Three-Card Monte and similar games into larcenies that carry up to a $5,000 fine. And Canada banned Three-Card Monte nationwide under Criminal Code section 206; conning people with this simple card trick can land you in jail for up to two years. Across the pond, the 2005 Gambling Act in the UK functionally outlawed Three-Card Monte as well (though, unlike Canada and the United States, does not mention it by name).

Knowing that being a Three-Card Monte dealer is fraught with potential legal fallout, you might prefer the other way to win Three-Card Monte and “beat the dealer.” This trick can be summarized in only four words: don’t fall for it.