Computer Class as Soulcraft


The Wall Street Journal has a fun, inspiring piece about technological tinkering:

Occupying a space somewhere between shop class and the computer lab, the new tinkerers are making everything from devices that Twitter how much beer is left in a keg to robots that assist doctors. The experimentation is even creating companies. With innovation a prime factor in driving economic growth, and corporate research and development spending tepid, the marriage of brains and brawn offers one hopeful glimmer.

Engineering schools across the country report students are showing an enthusiasm for hands-on work that hasn't been seen in years. Workshops for people to share tools and ideas -- called "hackerspaces" -- are popping up all over the country; there are 124 hackerspaces in the U.S., according to a member-run group that keeps track, up from a handful at the start of last year. SparkFun Electronics Inc., which sells electronic parts to tinkerers, expects sales of about $10 million this year, up from $6 million in 2008. "Make" magazine, with articles on building items such as solar hot tubs and autopilots for robots, has grown from 22,000 subscribers in 2005 to more than 100,000 now. Its annual "Maker Faire" in San Mateo, Calif., attracted 75,000 people this year.

"We've had this merging of DIY [do it yourself] with technology," says Bre Pettis, co-founder of NYC Resistor, one of the first hackerspaces, in Brooklyn. "I'm calling it Industrial Revolution 2."

First reaction: I'm really glad he didn't call it Industrial Revolution 2.0.

Second reaction: The paper prefers to stress the influence of the economic crisis, but if there's a surge in mechanical hacking right now, it's at least partly an outgrowth of the hacking subculture that gave us tools like the original Napster. The tinkering described in the Journal story doesn't just occupy a space between shop class and the computer lab; it represents the two rooms influencing each other.

Elsewhere in Reason: Katherine Mangu-Ward talked to the founder of Make for a Reason story earlier this year. Brian Doherty profiled the DIY energy movement last year. And back in 2000, I looked at a world where "we've let the tinkers back in."

NEXT: Mike Flynn on Big Government (The Website!) & The Videos That Cut Down ACORN

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  1. Make is awesome. That is all.

    1. "The experimentation is even creating companies. With innovation a prime factor in driving economic growth, and corporate research and development spending tepid, the marriage of brains and brawn offers one hopeful glimmer."

      Must find a way to shut this down.

      1. 1. Track Mouser/Digikey/E-goldmine receipts.

        2. Roaming RFI detection vans, with appropriate SWAT response to any detected interference.

        3. NARCs who hangout at radioshanty

        Just a few suggestions....wait what AM I DOING?!?!

        *rushes to flush semiconductors down the toilet*

      2. Shut it down? More likely try to find a way to squeeze some tax money or something out of it.

        1. Yeah, i replied to this one before i saw the strikeout-tax-and-regulate revision posted below.

          Same methods would be used though, just for people who didn't report their own tinkering.

  2. Yes, and as an engineering grad student, I am horrified and deeply threatened by this trend.

    Those tinkering kids r going to steal my jerb.

    1. As a tinkering kid: As long as I don't learn calculus, you're job is probably safe.

      1. I think you should probably learn English too, AMIRITE?!!?

        1. Meh. Only enough to be able to communicate with asians, czechs, and other non-native english speakers.

          I'm labeling diagrams, not trying to satisfy english majors.

        2. and i'm so sorry I fucked up a your/you're/their/there/they're instance. I'm usually very attentive to those mistakes.

      2. calculus is easy

        1. Then maybe Hazel should start worrying....

          1. Actually I should.
            The essence of all research is to take complex things and distill them down into a few simple concepts that anyone can understand. Those concepts just happen to be hierarchically organized, so if you don't understand basic things like calculus, then you won't "get" harder things like dynamics. Even though dynamics can be distilled down into a few simple rules.

            1. Er... the rules just happen to be written in the language of calculus.

  3. if there's a surge in mechanical hacking right now, it's at least partly an outgrowth of the hacking subculture that gave us tools like the original Napster

    I would posit that the surge in mechanical hacking is a result of the proliferation of personal devices. You can put XBMC on your old XBox. You can hack your iPhone. You can put DD-WRT on your router. You can turn your old TiVo into a Linux box. And we all have these things, so inevitably more people are going to hack them.

    1. I credit YouTube and Doom.

      Once everyone started making and eidting their own videos and making their own game levels and sharing them online, they started making applets and such for iPhones, and that provided an opening for hardware hackers to interact with youtube kids.

  4. Actually Shopcraft as Soulcraft (the book the title of the post is riffing on) is a pretty interesting book. The guy makes good points. We have been sold a bill of goods by the people who claim that the "creative class" and sitting in a cubical all day shuffling paper is the way to go. I think people, need to create things or fix things. The abstract life of the mind has its limits.

    1. So only manual labor has value then?

      1. It isn't purely manual. Labor which combines both is of value here.

        1. Both manual and mental. (I'm not doing well with the latter today.)

          1. Whew. I can live with that.

            So we're saying, ultimately, your mental effort has to turn into something physical.

            1. Well it is much more satisfying when it does. Besides, I'm not sure any labor can be strictly manual - doesn't learning how to perform it have a mental component?

              1. I'm more thinking of mental work being the guy who came up with the instructions to follow. But yeah, would seem any task has an intangible information component.

            2. There is nothing else quite like seeing one's plans and purposes become physical reality. I'm a craftsman - I can never get enough of seeing materials take shape under the influence of my tools, according to my will.

  5. Part of it also the insane cheapness of things, plus the short duration of the technical obsolescence cycle. If I screw up my last gen technology, who cares? Chances are I've already bought the new stuff, so the old box is trash anyway. Might as well play with it first.

    1. Well, the downside of that is that your labor can go from priceless to worthless overnight. Once again, disproving the labor theory of value, not that the Marxists will notice.

  6. Occupying a space somewhere between shop class and the computer lab, the new tinkerers are making everything from devices that Twitter how much beer is left in a keg to robots that assist doctors.

    Fuck the doctors; I want to know more about this device that tells you how much beer is left in the keg. I've got four kegs of homebrew on tap in the basement and it would make scheduling future brew days soooooooo much easier if I had a better idea of how much is left in each.

    1. I was thinking all you'd need is a pressure gauge that could be read electronically. Then i thought about how the pressure aims to be kept pretty stable inside so that the beer keeps flowing.

      So i think you'd need to homebrew (DIY+Beer pun intended) a keg with some optical sensors built-in to detect the liquid level. Then grab an embedded webserver board. Use a pic microcontroller to read the sensor and send a compatible message to the server board. (not sure about the features on those embedded boards, might not need the uController at all)

      Which could then update your home-intranet website (with keg level indicators), send you an e-mail, and tweet you about it all at the same time.

      It might just be cheaper to plop your kegs on some bathroom scales though and just check em manually. Cheaper, but less cool 😉

      1. who said anything about bathroom scales? Just get digital scales and you can automate the whole thing in much the same way you were originally planning. Also, you'll want to throw a pressure sensor on the high pressure side of your CO2 regulator to monitor how much CO2 you have left in the tank. (you do have a CO2 system, right?)

        1. i'm thinking bathroom scales for the cheapness factor. Precise digital scales that can handle over 50lbs are gonna cost a pretty penny.

          No word whether Club has some inert-gas backfill yet, but if he does I'm gonna bet he's got a gauge to monitor the gas resevoir.

          1. Yeah, I have a dual-gauge regulator, though it really doesn't tell you much until you're already getting low (i.e. once there's no more liquid CO2 in the tank). I've thought about going the digital scale route; the only problem there is four kegs in a fridge is a pretty tight fit, so you'd need something with a footprint barely larger than that of the keg itself. I've found there is a commercial product out there that optically measures what's left in the keg, but it runs around $100, and it's not worth $400 to know the level of the kegs. Alternatively, I could always purchase some kind of flow meter. Of course, the biggest problem with all of this is that I'm not an EE or computer scientist and probably wouldn't know how to wire everything together in the first place. I'm lucky I can use an external thermostat.

            1. Hey, i'm not an EE or comp sci major either. I just play one on TV (or something like that.)

              got a link/brand for that optical measurement product? I'm curious how they see into unmodified kegs.

              I like the flow meter idea, how's that price out. Alternatively, you could build a few abacus-style counters and make sure to fill each glass fairly uniformly. No half-glass refilling.

              Kick it Old School!

              (i'm not sure if this mini-thread counts as a thread jack, since we're epitomizing the topic of the thread.)

              1. Upon further review, I think I might have been wrong on the optical sensor one (I think I found something like that for large-scale liquids but not kegs). I did, however, manage to find a flow-rate sensor for kegs. You can check it out here, and it runs $79. Not bad if you only have one keg, but a bit pricey for four.

                1. Pretty cool meter. Is +/- 10 beers close enough for your scheduling needs?

                  Looks like the cheapest and simplest option.

      2. Use the same kind of sensor that's in your gas tank on your car.
        Hook it up to a microcontroller A/D converter. Hook that to a bluetooth transmitter.
        Run a piece of C code on your computer that polls the microcontroller periodically and sents a tweet.

    2. The gizmo you are looking for is called a load cell. Some can be easily hooked up to a computer.

      1. So basically the guts of a digital scale, without all the annoying case and display.

        Looks like they're still $100 a piece though (lowest price i saw, some were more like $500 and over). You'd still have to do some hooking up work too though, and Club isn't up for that.

        I say give in and buy the optical sensor product.

        1. all you need are four cheap digital bathroom scales stripped of their housing and mounted to bottom of the kegerator resting the edge of the kegs on the load sensors. get a tare weight of full and empty kegs.
          it's simple math from there to know the full, 3/4, half, 1/4, and empty marks on the digital display.

      2. Or you could slap a strain guage on the outside of the tank and measure the strain on the metal from the pressure inside.

    3. I would also think that you could go the old electrical water sensor level route. Basically you have 2 electrodes and when the liquid covers both of them resistance is not zero. Use a transistor as a switch and light up an led. The more electrodes you have, the finer your resolution. I would think 1/4's of a keg would be good enough. I don't know what effect electricity would have on the beer though. It's only a small amount of voltage though, so it's not dangerous at all. I would just make sure to use a gold plated electrode like maybe from a home audio cable.

      1. Here's a possible alternative: magnets. Basically, you house a magnet in a food-grade float that you put in the keg. Then you use sensors to determine what the level of the magnet it. The page I link to above only seems to use it as an on-off switch (with the switch being thrown once the liquid drops below a certain level) but if you could somehow determine the level of the float based on the strength of the magnetic field that would be awesome.

      2. As long as the current is low, it shouldn't electrolyze much beer. My concern would be how to pass the leads into the keg. Same issue with an optical system though. Need to put holes in a pressure vessel and somehow seal your augmentations on it strong enough to be upto spec again. I'm seeing welding and a lot of machining for the ports....much more intensive than some soldering and screwdriving.

        1. How does your car sense it's gas tank level?

          1. Not sure if they do it differently now, but it used to be a float that swung on an arm connected to a variable resistor. Not too useful for kegs, unfortunately.

        2. I'm assuming that if he has 4 in the kegerator in a small footprint that they are corny kegs. Those are relatively inexpensive and you can modify them fairly easily. I'm thinking a drill, food grade epoxy, and some wire. You could use the steel keg as the common.

        3. The psi is typically in the single digits.

  7. The first sex cyborg will be built in someone's garage. Actually, it's probably already been built, but the inventor has no reason to leave his house anymore. So we won't find out about it until a neighbor finds his rotting corpse.

    1. People forget the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

      1. speak for yourself...

  8. marginally on topic bitch:

    I picked up a demo DVD distro of kubuntu the other day and installed it on my brand new Toshiba laptop. After an hour or two of fighting a bunch of seriously annoying features- mouse-click thingy, I"M LOOKING AT YOU- I'm not impressed; in fact, I'm pretty much of the opinion that IT SUUUUUUUCKS!

    Unfortunately, my old knoppix discs won't run in the new computer.

    That is all (for now).

    1. Ubuntu 9.04 was pretty solid. Much better font rendering now. Gnome has improved quite a bit.

    2. Ubuntu 9.10 froze right as I was typing this message to say that it's frozen like 10 times in the last week. I've really gotta downgrade already.

    3. ubuntu has a great marketing department, but it really isn't a very good distro. My main gripe has always been the package manager screws up the dependencies every time I try to install something. I think ubuntu is doing a disservice to promoting linux by making its most visible distro be so bad. (if you're wondering, I run Fedora, and have for years, and it's awesome)

    4. Ubuntu 8.10 is what we use in our lab.

  9. "Must find a way to shut this down tax and regulate this."

  10. Proud to say that Mark Frauenfelder and Mister Jalopy of MAKE are buddies of mine, and I had the pleasure of helping build a "Hirsch vortex tube" at Mister Jalopy's garage / mad science lab aways back. I also tinker with building hot rods.

    I like the notion of academic scientists & engineers getting back to the shop for hands-on building, but that's not the real problem. The real problem is in social engineering, whose faculty and students are completely, utterly detached from physical and empirical reality. The mindset that says that universal health and care solar powered subway trains will become a reality by legal decree. Not surprisingly, I've found that few of these types have any actual skills beyond self-satisfied arrogance.

    A useful set of question for anyone vying for political office: (1) What physical things have you ever created? (2) What physical things have you ever repaired or maintained? (3) What kind of tools do you own -- not in the bizspeak buzzword sense, I mean actual tools, lathes, sewing machines, welders, etc.?

    1. I bet you are one of those few people over at BoingBoing that doesn't call me evil all the time. 😉

    2. That is actually close to what Crawford was talking about in his book: Not so much social engineering folks per se, but people being "groomed" from a young age to go into business, politics, etc, have never had any real experiences with the consequences of failure. They have never dropped a valve shim into a motorcycle engine (haven't done that, myself), or zapped themselves because they forgot to turn power off to a light circuit (done that). Thus, the idea that the mortgage market can collapse because people sell mortgages to others who can't afford them is just an abstraction to the people in charge. It's a very interesting book on a number of levels. I'm going to have to read it again to get the full gist of it...

  11. I think one of the bigger factors factor in the uptick of electromechanical and electrical device tinkering is the better availability of parts - there are a lot of good internet-based speciality parts suppliers (SparkFun for robotics and controls, Small Bear for guitar fx, etc) and and the big suppliers are more willing to support small orders than they used to be. It's a lot less fustrating to track down parts than it was even a few years back.

    1. I think the internet does have a big role in this. I also think the availability of schematics and instructions are really important.

  12. Yeah, I read Doctrow's Makers too.

  13. So another liberal arts type stumbles across people engaged in non-liberal arts activity and we have a new trend. Come on guys, this stuff was old when Stewart Brand was a boy. And guess what, the literati discovered The Whole Earth Catalog too. Brand made it look so cool that hippies actually went out and bought socket sets (they made them out of copper back then). 'course they never did learn to use 'em. When you have a joint in one hand and a copper socket wrench in the other everything looks like a nail.

    Flying machines, ham radios, blue boxen and micro computers. I'm sure some of you can fill in the blanks before Malcolm Gladwell shows up.

    1. You ought to read the Journal article before critiquing it. It does not consist of a reporter entering a subculture and assuming it must be new. It consists of a reporter entering a subculture and discovering signs that it's growing.

  14. WTF does this mean:

    Your post (#1457904) has been marked as spam by a third-party spam filter. If this is a mistake, please email

    1. I'm gonna guess that it means a third-party spam filter marked your post as spam, and you should email to tell him/her it was a mistake. Of course I'm no expert so I could be wrong.

      1. Ah, poetic justice... I just got the same error trying to respond above.

  15. My best post ever and you bastards don't get to read it because of some goddamn third-party spam filter. I'm taking my bat and ball and going home. This thread is over. I mean it, it really is. Go, go home.

    1. I've only gotten the spam response once, and i was able to post the same message on a 2nd attempt.

      The lesson is: if you're typing out so much that you can't reproduce it from memory, compose in notepad and copypaste.

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