Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Art of Making Things

I've always been in awe of people who can make things, whether it be a paper airplane, a wooden table, an automobile, a home, a rocket ship, a bridge, or even a pyramid.

Each one of these things started as an idea and then someone had to figure out what materials were needed, the tools required to make it, how to fold, cut, stack, glue, or staple the pieces together, and then enlist other people to help them.

When the project is completed, if the item works as intended, that's a huge accomplishment.

But people don't build as much stuff as they used to. The days of the woodshop in the garage are numbered. The days of people working on their own cars are numbered, too. And the most recent pyramid built is more of a temple to gambling gods in Las Vegas, a stark contrast to its predecessor's truly otherwordly purposes.

Luckily, we still have good carpenters who not only fix stuff in our homes, but also build fine furniture. We still have good mechanics who not only fix our cars, but who experiment on how to make lower emissions, convert energy to horsepower, reduce drag and increase acceleration.

The days of the tinkerer are seemingly over. So when Make magazine (www.makezine.com) came out a few years ago, I was overjoyed. It's a magazine for do-it-yourselfers who like to build stuff.

Typically, projects in Make are geared around electronics, but not always.

For example, in the current issue, Volume 23, there are articles on how to make a "Mosquito Death Ray;" hacking a toilet plunger to push, not pull; how to use an infrared thermometer; favorite gadgets, and more.

In previous issues, I've seen projects such as how to use a kite and a camera to take aerial photos and arrays of LEDs that kids can not only build, but also program.

With many of the projects, there are references where you can download the instructions and even companies that will sell you the kits, so it's more of an example of assembling parts rather than trying to scrounge them from different stores.

One project I find particularly ingenious is what the magazine calls "The Most Useless Machine." Basically, it's a box with a switch on top. When you turn the switch on, an arm comes out and turns the switch off, then it goes back into the box.

If you recall the toy bank that, when you put a quarter in a slot, a hand came out and grabbed it, this is pretty similar.

The difference is that with Make magazine, you not only read about it, but you can learn how to build one, often with basic tools.

I'm a strong advocate that we need to build more stuff. It's valuable learning for children and adults to know how things work, how to solve problems, and understand the basics of mechanics and electricity.

Make magazine also puts on a series of events called Maker Faire (see: http://makerfaire.com/newyork/2010/). Maker Faires are where do-it-yourselfers bring things they've made, whether they be machines, computers, Rube Goldberg contraptions, rockets, flamethrowers, boats, gadgets, or much more. Here's a link to a video from a 2009 Maker Faire -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45xt-3Z5MI4

The first east coast event is happening on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 25 and 26, in Queens, N.Y. I've not been to a Maker Faire, but am looking to attending this one. Not only are the items there fascinating, but the creativity, imagination and ingenuity that has gone into these items incredible. It's an inspiration to see first-hand that our ability to think and create is still alive.

For kids, it's a great opportunity to see things that ordinary people have built. Much like the television show CSI gets children interested in science, Make magazine and Maker Faires can expose children to other areas of interest that could spark imagination in them.

One of these days, pick up a copy of Make magazine and follow the instructions to build something. It might be the start of something great for your family. And you may discover an artist in your family.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 1 September 2010.
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