Monday, February 28, 2005

February 2005 Early Indications II: Make Magazine review

Tim O'Reilly has always been an atypical technical publisher,
beginning with his training: a bachelor's in classics from Harvard.
For over 25 years O'Reilly Media has been in the vanguard of
computing, and it helped launch the open-source software community.
This was not altruism: O'Reilly both helped get the name into common
usage and demonstrated that there was a viable economic model
associated with Apache and Linux.  The company's guides to everything
from Google to Python to .net illustrate both a technical agnosticism
and the commercial realization of a simple fact: people want to make
technology work, preferably on the human's terms.  For some, this
means rewriting an operating system kernel, for others, getting a
printer to stop spitting out gibberish.

And then there is the hard core of hackers, in the MIT sense of the
word: people who create "an appropriate application of ingenuity."
The open-source ideal -- that anyone associated with a technology can
see into its workings and non-maliciously modify them -- is not really
new, either in connection with software or with the American made
environment in general.  (I won't generalize about other countries and
cultures because I lack context to do so, but clearly there are many
places where hacking is practiced and even venerated.)  While hacking
everyday objects in some ways gets harder in the digital age, the
practice builds on centuries of curiosity, adaptiveness, and

American publishers have appealed to this impulse for decades.  The
early PC magazines, by necessity, helped users untangle the
intricacies of command-line interfaces and often maddening device
driver issues.  Before that, the market supported magazines devoted to
modifying everything from radios to cars to guitars to hi-fis.  Such
titles as Popular Science (founded in 1872), CQ (for ham radio),
Mechanix Illustrated, Car Craft, and countless others were premised on
a readership that wanted to understand and modify its technologies.
But proprietary connectors, voidable product warranties, and
non-intuitive technologies such as engine-management chips curbed many
customers' desires for tinkering, and DIY readership plunged as some
publications migrated toward gadget worship if they survived at all.

Which brings us to Make, O'Reilly's new quarterly publication.
Combining old-fashioned re-use of everyday materials (a self-timer for
a disposable camera suspended from a kite for aerial photography is
made from Silly Putty) with serious but understandable computer
science, Make sets a high bar with its first issue.  Reasonably simple
projects answer both "I've always wondered about that" and "hey that's
really clever" impulses in the reader.  The common thread is access:
the magazine is devoted to the premise that users of technology are
makers rather than "mere consumers" of it, as the publisher's note
puts it.  It's no accident that Make devotes significant attention to
tools for unscrewing non-standard fasteners: getting under the hood is
harder than it used to be, but can be accomplished as a more than
symbolic first step.

The editors have open-source sympathies in that reader involvement is
invited, or perhaps even mandated, if the enterprise is to succeed.
Make has no standing team of experts, no labs or test kitchens; it has
instead a network of people who are both capable and eager to share
their competence.  A long section of the magazine is quite similar to
Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog: what are the essential, offbeat, or
otherwise noteworthy tools you particularly value?  Examples here
include a Delta benchtop sander, a $160 mil-spec LED flashlight, and a
CO2-powered drain plunger.  Fittingly, a supercharged Swiss Army knife
also makes an appearance.  Elsewhere, such commonplace artifacts as
iPods, Airports, and Excel are enhanced with clever tricks.

The quality of the contributors is outstanding; the trick will be to
maintain it at that level.   Neil Gershenfeld from MIT discusses his
work in small-scale fabrication labs set up in rural India, Norway,
Ghana, and Boston's South End.  Bunnie Huang, who made his fame
reverse-engineering a Microsoft Xbox, explains how to create,
electronically, the same effects made by a dancer whirling around in
the dark holding glowsticks.  Science fiction icon Bruce Sterling
explains the various schools of thought among modern re-creators of
Stone Age flint tools.

The flagship article on kite-borne aerial photography evokes both
sides of the Make duality: the Everyman "I could do that" and an
awe-struck "wow he's good"  admiration.  Kites are universal icons (as
evidenced by the recent prize-winning novel set in Afghanistan, for
example, not to mention their popularity from Cape Cod to Brazil to
Japan), and the eye-in-the-sky whimsy of the project combines with the
author's skill, on display in a gallery of professional photos, to set
up a lovely dynamic in the do-it-yourself instructions for using a
disposable camera.  The stakes are low, the appeal intuitive, and the
results potentially addictive.

For me, one of the foremost contributions of Make is its reconnection
to the hands-on, project-centric literature that has for a variety of
reasons lain fallow for the past decade or two.  Websites devoted to
hacking Furbies, Roombas, or TiVos (or Xboxes for that matter) have
never attracted wide emulation, and the over-clocker community --
today's inheritors of the hot rod legacy -- has failed, probably by
design, to escape from the lunatic fringe.  What Make should do is
drive people to their parts drawers, to eBay, and to the workbench,
emboldened by a notion that the made environment is plastic.  Knowing
that they can grasp a range of tools both analog and digital, hard and
soft, readers can reclaim their share of the creative identity that
has birthed multiple waves of technical progress.  Hats off to the
O'Reilly team for a great launch of a valuable publication.