Sunday, October 23, 2011

Item #58: Making, Makers and Maker-Dom

There is an amazing movement sprouting up: A Maker Movement. Where people in spaces and places all over the world, come together to make things. Productive things like 3D printers made from scratch, with human hands, in small rooms, by tiny teams. Or fun, imaginative things like go karts that look like cupcakes. Depending on the persons involved or the viewpoints of one, the printer might be fun and imaginative and the cupcake go karts productive. But that’s the essence of the whole thing right there. Making, Makers, Maker Spaces and The Maker Movement is at the same time fascinating and captivating, indefinable and non-capturable. You can’t pin it down to reasons for being, or the potential it holds.

It is The Maker-Dom, a kingdom unto it’s own.

It’s tentacled still in terms of it’s ideologies. ‘Making’ could be a counter-point to traditional education models. ‘Making’ could be anti-consumerist, or anti-corporate: an alternative to buying. ‘Making’ could be evolutionary and natural, meaning with ‘making’, we are just getting back to our inborn instincts and abilities. ‘Making’ could be an outcropping facilitated by the access that technology provides. Or ‘Making’ could be a cry of individualism to see ‘self’ imprinted on ‘things’.

The Maker Movement has its characters – a cast of thousands in all corners of the globe. Kids, Parents, Nerds, Artists, Scientists, Businesspeople and Billionaires. Perhaps that’s why it enthralls me so. Let me introduce you to three of these characters I came across in my investigative travels.

MAKER 1: Gail Folsom of The League of S.T.E.A.M.

Here she is, the gorgeous lady that first caught my eye. The League of S.T.E.A.M. was birthed when years ago Gail Folsom wanted a costume for a party that glowed, functionally, and so, she collaborated with her husband, an accomplished prop designer to make it so. Acclaim came, the idea grew, others came on board and now The League of S.T.E.A.M. is a veritable indie Cirque du Soleil of entertainment. A traveling theatre troupe, music partnerships, a podcast and web series, plus merchandise for sale has made this Maker’s Maker-Dom.

For fear of mis-representing the glory of this being, the League of S.T.E.A.M. self-describes as:

“We are monster hunters from the Victorian era. From up on the stage to mingling with the crowd, our members engage the audience with proton packs capable of firing blasts of “steam,” zombie man-servants on chain-leads, net guns and titillating electro-shock packs and ethereal glowing ghosts. Every piece of machinery is meticulously designed, detailed, and fully functional, from the steam cannon to the extendable “Punchy Fist”. The League of S.T.E.A.M. is one of the fastest-growing entertainment groups of its kind, and our series of filmed exploits has ensured us a popularity that fills our events to capacity.”

MAKER 2: Lindsay Lawlor and Russell, The Electric Giraffe

Inspired by trips to Burning Man, and a want to create a device that would get him up high, carry a few people and pump out “some bitchin’ sound”, Russell was born. Russell is a maze of wires and components and a product of thousands of lines of code yet looks like a ferris wheel come to life. Dotted with glowing lights and outfitted with ‘eyes’ that seem to convey emotion, Russell always ‘gets the mike’ so he can speak for himself. Russell narrates his ongoing upgrades via blog-stream at Lindsay and Russell’s Maker-Dom destination at

“Ouch! That plasma torch hurts!!! HELP, he's gone nuts!!! Help! Eeek! My owner went crazy and tore me to pieces! He’s assured me I’ll look better than ever, but for now I’m very nervous about my future and wondering what’s going to become of me!”

MAKER 3: Michael Smith, The Inn Chef

Many know Michael Smith as popular TV food personality, published author, professional chef and food ambassador.

But Michael is also a Maker.

Says Michael: “I think one of the neatest things about cooking and recipes in particular is how easy it is to make them your own, and stir your own personality into them…the essence of a recipe is that it’s just a starting point…a good well-written recipe is the kind of thing where you can free-style and riff off of it…to be successful with a recipe, you don’t have to do it exactly the way the person who wrote the recipe does it, but you find a way to stir your own ideas into it…there is an interesting trend called open-source recipe sharing…let’s see what we can do when we collaborate on what a perfect recipe can be…”

You can see the full interview with Michael Smith and Maker Culture on Youtube.

This is only a tiny little sampling of the Maker-Dom cast. And there is even more fascination to find when you begin exploring Maker Spaces, like Maker Faires and NYC Resistor Lab, or Maker Media via Make Magazine or Make Online.

If this interests you, start exploring…better yet, start Making!

Picture sources:,,

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Item #57: Words: Communication, Art and Science.

I have always been fascinated by words: short pretty words, long meaningful words. At one point, I started writing down words that just all by themselves looked beautiful: clairvoyant, elixir, labyrinth, serendipity, love. I always chalked my attraction up to interest: I like Italian coffee, Tori Amos, red boots and words.

But wow, there is so much to words.

Words as Communication

Words are a primary means of communication of course. With words, we get through the basic requirements of our days. We can share a pleasantry, offering a “good morning” greeting to a neighbour, we can secure something we need, “excuse me, where are the washrooms?” and we can signal danger, “Call 9-1-1”.

We can take words up a level and use them to foster interpersonal emotional understanding. “You seem upset, what’s wrong?” “So it sounds like the teacher said you did something wrong but you don’t know what she meant, so now you are confused.” And words are exchanged until the emotional experience is shared and clearly understood.

Words are critical to learning. I know we say people learn by doing, but I would have a very difficult time explaining the theory of distributed cognition if I was unable to use words. I can’t show you distributed cognition. I can’t show you ‘austerity economics’, or ‘a progressive political platform’. Those are concepts that require words to explain.

Words as Art

And then words can be art: storytelling takes communication to a more creative, more imaginative place, where words are not only to convey productively, though they often do as well: just think of fables and fairy tales which teach important life lessons in beautiful packaging. Storytelling elevated to art form is to create an experience of enjoyment, to convey for pleasure.

But the word art forms I love most are poetry and lyrics, in particular, where words aren’t required to communicate with clarity, but instead to paint a visual picture in your mind, or elicit an emotional reaction.

She railed at the doctor:

"He cannot be mine.

He smells of the ocean, of seaweed and brine."

"You should count yourself lucky, for only last week,

I treated a girl with three ears and a beak.

That your son is half oyster

you cannot blame me.

... have you ever considered, by chance,

a small home by the sea?"

(Tim Burton)

“if I look

at the crystal moon, at the red branch

of the slow autumn at my window,

if I touch

near the fire

the impalpable ash

or the wrinkled body of the log,

everything carries me to you,”

(Pablo Neruda)

Words as Science

And finally, I have just been reminded that words are also an important scientific tool, things we can analyze and through which we can comprehend meaning. Precisely the same words we use as people living in different cities, different nations, and different continents all over the world can have entirely different meanings. And the words we use in one context can have one meaning, when used in another context, can mean something very different. And the study of these different uses, in these different spaces, in different contexts, is a scientific tool that teaches us about people, and about the cultures they live in.

A simple example:

In most family environments, saying “I think I’ll have a beer” might serve to signal a relaxing mood, a time of social gathering, a celebratory event.

In an alcoholic family environment, saying “I think I’ll have a beer” might signal danger.

Referencing God has radically different associations depending on where you are in the world. The meaning associated with the word ‘woman’ differs radically, signaling hierarchy, power or influence in some cultures and the opposite in others. We can observe these differences using words as a scientific tool to help us understand the significance behind these differences.

I love how important words are, how multi-faceted, how magical they can be. I’m not sure I recognized all that before capturing this here. Words indeed are Communications, are Art, are even Science. Maybe they are more too.

I was inspired however when I noticed an advertisement for an event happening next week, one which I suspect will be attended by fellow word-lovers. If this sounds like you, you might be interested too. Words By Design: An Evening With Bruce Mau is opening the International Festival of Authors, speaking in the Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on October 19 at 8pm.