Saturday, June 19, 2010

Julia Child was a hacker

Embracing DIWO—the better way to DIY—at the Bay Area Maker Faire
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel June 5, 2010

I just learned a new definition for a word I thought I knew: hacker. A hacker—the hobbyist kind—does not have a negative association. It’s someone who makes innovative customizations or combinations of retail electronic and computer equipment. Put more simply, a hacker creates by combining things in a whole new way.

Perhaps hacking is at the essence of all American invention and innovation. Isn’t hacking what Julia Child did when she decided that the American housewife needed to learn to cook like the French? And wasn’t George Washington Carver hacking when he created so many uses for peanuts? And weren’t the founding fathers hackers when they dreamed up a country governed not by a monarch, but by its population?

I just attended my third Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo and came away more dazzled than ever before. The big picture—what Maker Faire is all about—is hacking, and hacking in such a way that everyone is part of the process. Children are learning to solder circuit boards right next to adults. Men are learning to crochet right next to women. It’s one big collaborative making frenzy, inspired by exhibitors large and small, who are there to amaze, educate, and share their particular passion.


If hacking is all about making new combinations, Maker Faire exhibitors showed us how. Some great combinations I witnessed were:

· The Human Powered Stage, which hosted hourly concerts, with mikes and amplifiers powered by audience members pedaling several stationary bicycles.

· The Coke and Mentos show, where two guys got drenched in sticky brown soda, and taught me why 108 2-liter bottles of Coke Zero and 648 Mentos candy can make a spectacular, synchronized geyser show.

· Musical iPhone apps, where I learned how to turn a cell phone into a trombone or a piano, and ways to connect and perform with other iPhone players throughout the world.

· Kinetic Steamworks, where a snow cone machine was powered by a 75-horsepower traction steam engine that belched steam and whistled periodically like a locomotive.


To get the audience on the road to hacking, Maker Faire gave its audience plenty of opportunities to learn and play:

  • Lego dumped a huge pile of their colorful plastic blocks on the floor, ready for assembly.
  • Sparkfun Electronics sponsored a SMD (surface mount device) workshop, with long tables and plenty of instructors to learn the basics of soldering circuit boards.
  • Lion Brand Yarn hosted beginner knitting and crocheting classes.
  • Singer provided sewing machines in the Swap-O-Rama-Rama room, where tables piled high with second-hand clothing and embellishments were ready to be cut, sewn and altered into totally new fashions.
  • The Maker Shed Store was full of how-to books and kits for sale—fun stuff like the electro-mechanical Blinkybug kit or more challenging stuff like the Daisy pocket-sized open source MP3 player kit.

DIWO (Do it with others)

If hacking is about working collaboratively, exhibitors also suggested some post-Faire ways to make that happen:

· is a virtual how-to and DIY community where people make and share step-by-step project instructions for free. Projects include just about anything you can make, and so, even if you consider yourself a more traditional crafts person, through weekly emails you’re exposed to everything from how to make Nutella cheesecake, to a mouse for people with hand disabilities, to an Altoids box barbeque, to a DVD drive iPod dock. Currently, Instructables has over 36,000 projects posted on their website, and they make it fairly simple to post your own. (I love this website.)

· Hacker Dojo is a non-profit actual community workspace for learning, sharing and making things. Located in their 600-square-foot facility in Mountain View, they hold classes, events, lectures, parties, DevCamps, DevHouses, and Hackathons. Their members make everything from code to robots to homemade bread, and believe in sharing not only ideas, but tools and materials. According to one member, “If it’s not nailed down you can use it.” They currently have about 150 members, and charge a monthly membership fee to cover overhead. Another Bay Area hackerspace represented at Maker Faire was Noisebridge in San Francisco.

· Make Magazine, who originally created the Maker Faire in 2006, publishes a quarterly magazine full of technology-oriented projects., the online version, keeps a list of hackspaces, groups, and other DIY organizations at Also see its sister,, for a wealth of craft projects and forums.

(As an aside to crafters without the technology background, don’t let wires and circuitry intimidate you. I threw my reticence aside, when I walked into a darkened exhibit hall at Maker Faire and saw a spectacular wearable computer fashion show, with textiles that sparkled and glowed with the help of conductive thread, fiber optic cable and LED beads. We can learn this stuff too.)

Some people might not find much merit in projects involving snow cones, Mentos or Blinkybugs. Of course Julia Child and George Washington Carver hacked their way into the history books with end-products as deceptively trivial as a cookbook and a jar of peanut butter. But I can’t help seeing the promise in the convergence of 80,000 people of all ages, over one weekend in May, gathering simply for the chance to learn, play, make and hack.

Note: If you missed Maker Faire in San Mateo this year, you can still catch the World Maker Faire in New York, September 25 and 26, 2010 at the New York Hall of Science. See for details.