Friday, February 22, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) What to do after you’ve installed a computer in a remote-controlled car and hooked it up with Internet access, a wireless router and a camera?

Ask Mike Davis. He took his mobile Internet access machine to a meeting with other readers of Make magazine, a how-to publication for people who just love to tinker with stuff.

There, the 28-year-old systems engineer from Brooklyn found someone who built homemade LCD displays for clocks that make you solve a math problem before setting the alarm. And he found a class in pipe mechanics — a discipline with many applications beyond building cannons that shoot fruits and vegetables.

He was among people he understood.

Make magazine, not yet three years old, is leading a new wave of interest in build-it-yourself projects. Even as technology comes to us in packages ever harder to take apart and tinker with, Make harkens back to a time when it was OK to build your own radio, get under the hood of your car and open up electronic devices like record players just to see how they worked. Its Web site sells hooded sweat shirts emblazoned with the credo: “If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It.”

People seem to be catching on. In the summer of 2005, not long after Make’s first issue came out, a MIT-educated engineer named Eric Wilhelm launched a site called with how-to instructions for all kinds of projects. Meanwhile, a meet-up group called Dorkbot has been springing up in cities across the country to showcase artistic, musical and just plain quizzical inventions using one thing in common: electricity.

Make is about to gain an even bigger national audience.

A Make-themed TV show is set to air on public TV stations across the country early next year, and on May 3-4 the magazine is hosting its third “Maker Faire,” a contraptions bonanza that drew 40,000 people last year, double the amount of its first year.

Richard Hudson, executive producer of science programming at TPT/Twin Cities Public Television, the PBS station in Minneapolis which is making the show, says he hopes the new “Make:TV” show will do for the build-it-yourself project what Julia Child did for cooking and “This Old House” did for home improvement. The show is being sponsored by Geek Squad, the technology services business owned by Best Buy Co.

“The real magic of the magazine is giving you permission and the instructions to take control of technology, to do what you want with it,” Mr. Hudson said. “In the world of making, you get to turn technology to your will, and that’s a breakthrough.”

The magazine, part of a Sebastopol, Calif.-based technical publishing company called O’Reilly Media Inc., traces its origins to 2003. Dale Dougherty, a longtime editor of technical manuals, suggested “a Martha Stewart for geeks” to CEO Tim O’Reilly. Its paid circulation is now 100,000, and back issues sell briskly on its Web site, Mr. Dougherty says the whole Make franchise is close to being profitable.

Make isn’t about products per se, but recipes for making stuff. Some projects are practical, like a battery charger for an MP3 player, affectionately called a “Minty Boost” after the tin of Altoids mints that is adapted to hold a pair of AA batteries (not included). Other projects are more involved, like using a length of wood and a cigar box to build an electric guitar.

Make has built credibility among the geek elite, thanks partly to editor in chief Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder the hip Web site BoingBoing. A compendium of wacky finds from the worlds of technology and pop culture, a recent photo posted there featured a “Giant sculpture of woman made from peaches.”

Google Inc., another bastion of tech coolness, has been a sponsor of Maker Faire and sent representatives there to promote a 3-D modeling and design program called SketchUp, which turns out to be very popular among readers of Make.

“We felt like we were among friends,” said John Bacus, product manager for SketchUp.

Make also goes on field trips to explore what other like-minded contraption creators are doing. Mr. Dougherty and contributing editor Bill Gurstelle, a former engineer for AT&T Inc., have visited the Punkin Chunkin World Championships in Delaware, a contest for makers of huge devices designed to hurl pumpkins great distances.

Mr. Gurstelle is no slouch in that department. He’s authored a number of books including “Backyard Ballistics” and “Whoosh Boom Splat: The Garage Warrior’s Guide to Building Projectile Shooters.”

Mr. Gurstelle, who describes what he does as “PG-13 science projects,” compares Make to what Popular Science magazine was 25 years ago: full of projects made for people “who like to take control of the gadgets and gizmos around them.”

Mr. Wilhelm started an early version of while still a starving grad student because he was seeking advice about how to make equipment to support his kitesurfing hobby on the cheap. The site is now nearly profitable and seeing online traffic grow about 10 percent a month, hitting 2.5 million unique visitors in January, said Mr. Wilhelm. One of the most popular projects is the “Invisible Book Shelf,” made by attaching an L-bracket to a book which you then attach to your wall, and then pile more books on top.

Dorkbot, an amateur meet-up group for technology tinkerers, has been thriving as well. Started in 2000 by Douglas Repetto, director of research at the Computer Music Center at Columbia University, the group has regular meetings in New York and another dozen cities for people to display various electronics projects both artistic and functional. Dorkbot proclaims on its Web site that it’s all about “People doing strange things with electricity.”

That certainly applies to Mike Davis, who made the mobile computer. Mr. Davis had spent plenty of time exchanging ideas with other hobbyists online, but he said there was no substitute for going someplace in person and see projects first hand.

“I had a fairly brisk online social life for a while with a lot of geeky people, but it’s not as tangible as in real life,” Mr. Davis said. “Bringing the car and having people poke at it, it just seems more real.”

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