Technologicology: Proof That Geeks That Make Stuff Are Sexy

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After the jump, Brian James Kirk gets down with the Make: Philly posse.


A Visit To Make:Philly,
Which Kinda Made Me Cry Happy-Tears

Things just haven’t been the same since Bob Villa disappeared off television’s radar. What was it about seeing that portly man shove a big hunk of wood through a precision saw that made all three Sunday PBS viewers swoon. He was the inspiration for Home Improvement’s Al Borland. His M.O. made that OxyClean dude who now singlehandedly runs the after-hours telemarketing circuit. Home Depot owes its entire existence on B.V.‘s tight, worn Wranglers.

But holy hell, I dare you to name one friend that could last five minutes watching This Old House. Once our generation finally got our own places, got over our Ikea obsessions, and started getting hassled by GreenDrinks e-mail fliers enough to finally check out their blog, we’ve had higher hopes than building breakfast nooks, rocking chairs, and Lazy Susans.

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Ow Ow Ow. I wasn’t lyin’ when I said you could smell the sex over the sawdust. Eat it Villa.
Photo Credit: Jef Wilkins

We were raised on annoying Ruxpins that played cassete tape audio books (which, is uhm, back and creepier than ever), RC cars, and computers which we tore apart at every chance our parents took a trip to the grocery store. Some of us only stared at the circuitry while the brave ones amongst us eventually wired all three together to create some kind of incarnate Teddy Bear that could travel 30 scale-miles-per-hour and play M.C. Hammer songs that scared the shit out of our girlfriends.

makephillysmall.jpgNothing has really changed. We’re as curious as ever, have a little bit more than lunch money, and we’re still trying to scare the shit out of our significant others. But, with enough practice, and a little help from our friends, we may be able to create some things that are as useful as they are fun.

Make:Philly, a local group modeled after O’Reilly’s Make magazine, a D.I.Y. projects mag dedicated to everything, er, make-able, gives the geek-at-heart a place to share wisdom and silliness once-a-month. It’s goal is to “provide creative folks in the Philly area a forum to share projects they are working on, receive feedback on how to tackle challenges and most importantly be inspired by what others are making,” according to one of the group’s founders, Harris Romanoff.

What’s that mean for you, my hammer-impaired friend? If you’ve got an idea for a project to make your life easier and you aren’t really sure how to use a glue gun, this is the place to be.

Last Saturday, the group had one of its biggest meetings to date (due in part to Monome‘s Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain, Philly-based industrial designers who spoke about their open-source, minimilistic design interfaces).
Photo Credit: Jeremy Fernsler

Romanoff started the show by sharing a children’s toy he created for teaching a child how to spell their name. Magnetic block letters sit atop separate gear systems that when powered by a hand crank slowly spin the blocks to show a new word after a full rotation is complete. It’s no Tickle-Me-Elmo in the flash department, but it’s something unique and educational that can be cherished instead of chucked ten years from now.

Far Mckon, a Make:Philly organizer, showed off his plans for office domination. He stood beside a curvy white object that looked more like a vase then a technological advancement. Fed up with constantly being bombarded by rubber bands, he made the device to attract the attention of co-workers and offer an incentive greater then striking him with projectiles. Wire contacts on top serve as catches for flying rubber bands. When touched, the wires cause a wave of LED lights to flow through the inside of the device that like the Aurora Borealis on mushrooms. It’s not really gonna do much to change our innate fear of flying rubber, but it’s a start.

Josh Kopel, another founder of the group, pulled out a small antique wooden box from near the front of the room that plugged into an adjacent wall outlet. When a small, centered button atop the rectangle is pushed, and a simple pattern tapped on the lid of the contraption, it plays back the rhythm with a tinny mechanical toy sound that you’d expect from the small device. It took several tries, all the more endearing, until it correctly played the pattern he used as an example. “It’s a little forgetful,” he said. His observation was met with laughter and applause from the curious crowd. It’s no Tommy Lee, but it won’t bang your girlfriend behind your back, either.

At Make:Philly, it’s not about getting it perfect, it’s just about getting it.

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This contraption actually played Beethoven‘s Fifth in Morse code.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Fernsler

After the show it’s the after-party, and for Make:Philadelphians (and ahem, R. Kelly), that means getting your hands dirty. In ode to their speakers from Monome, the challenge was simple: create a device that plays an on-going series of sounds, and the group closest to creating an actual recognizable melody without having a group member humming Queen non-identifiably in the background, wins.

The group assembled into a dozen teams who started breaking down the walls. Fitted with an arsenal of funnels, tongue depressors, nine-volt batteries, heat-insulated tubing, copper piping, and other regular finds of a Kensington neighborhood tour, the groups set about their mission. They created wind chimes powered by a hair dryer motor, an “arch of sound” that relied on hard wires that extended from a spinning Styrofoam globe, a propeller that struck gigantic hanging washers, and a slew of other confusing, seemingly impossible devices. The cacophony sounded more like the workings of an industrial plant than a DJ booth, but the efforts were applauded. There’s no prize except the acceptance of your peers, something many of the attendees probably missed out on in high school.

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Your chances of winning greatly increased by piling more and more rubbish on your prep table.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Fernsler

But guess who’s laughing now, Mr. Quarterback. My advice? Go to these meetings simply to find a smart, sexy single. Sure, they’re going to build some LED powered engagement box-o-tron when they pop the question, but you know what they say about guys and girls who are good with their hands—they know how to work a circuit.

For more information and upcoming events, please visit the Make:Philly website.

Brian James Kirk is a writer living in Fishtown, USA. He is trying to Carson Daly himself into a degree of geek cred, but mucking it up so even Temple’s Trekkies think he’s a poser. He enjoys tripping over the lowest acceptance threshold ever.

Previously: Technologicology: There’s No Razr On This Cellular X-Mas List