There’s a lot of cool tech in science fiction, and some of it has reached “iconic” status. In my own fiction, I have some technology that I think will resonate with the reader — it’s become more or less “iconic” for me, at any rate. But as I think about it, I’m not sure there’s enough “personality” in things like the lightrail or even the Citadel tower to make them into cultural icons.
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I recently started mowing with a push reel mower.
Wait, wait … come back … I swear this isn’t a yard maintenance blog. Actually, I’m not sure what kind of blog this is. One that references pantslessness and the random musings of people who don’t quite understand what copywriting is. Oh, and the shameless whoring of myself for money, in the form of constantly hawking my books.
OK, you’re free to leave.
For the ONES of you who stayed … I recently started mowing my lawn with a push reel mower. The honest answer to “why in the hell?” was, initially, because I was broke and didn’t want to shell out gas money for something I was going to have to sweat over. Of course, that doesn’t begin to answer the question of “why do you even HAVE a push reel mower?” To answer that, I have to explain that I am a hopeless geek who loves being slightly anachronistic, and almost always ops to go for the sort of thing you’d normally only see in movies from the ‘50s or parodies thereof.
Being a hopeless geek, I must justify my obsessions with flimsy and highly implausible rationalizations. Thank God for the Internet, which makes it possible to find such rationalizations in minutes, rather than having to wade through piles of magazines and gardening books in the public library for hours.
The rationalization I hit on is that push reel mowers are apparently “Good™.” Generally Good™, for just about everything. It’s impressive.
Environment? Good™ for it. Personal health? Good™ for it. Your grass? Good™ for it. Gophers?
Those poor little screaming bastards.
I like this whole “good for everything” bit. I can feel like I’m doing something that’s laudable, as if someone driving by might stop, congratulate me on my commitment to doing Good™ in the world, and offer me the key to something. Maybe not the city, but something big and impressive. Like a Wal-Mart.
But if I’m being honest, I have to say that my neighbor is a big part of the reason I kept using that push reel mower on Day 1.
I don’t really know my neighbor. I think his name is Dave, which you would think would be easy to remember, as it is both the name of my best friend and the name of my formerly-estranged-but-now-solidly-and-happily-available-in-my-life-father. We’ll just roll with it.
At any rate, I was busy sweating and pushing and stooping and unclogging (these things are not meant for really tall grass, trust me on this), when I hear my neighbor say, “Cool!”
There followed some brief chat about using “an old fashioned mower” in this heat, some ideas about how Good™ the mower is for EVERYTHING (except gophers), and then a big thumbs-up and a “carry on.” I carried on.
I’m easy to sucker. I admit that. All it takes is a small bit of praise and acknowledgement and you can pretty much get me to do anything. Just one of my many buttons.
So that first day I kept pushing, even though my grass was actually way too tall for using this particular style of mower, and probably should have been cut down first and then just maintained. But I “pushed” through. Heh. And in the end, I was fairly satisfied with the results. Even though it took me six hours instead of the usual one hour, and I basically mowed the whole lawn three times in one day.
For the record, I’m not insane. If it took me six hours to mow my lawn every time I did it, and all I was getting out of it was saving a few bucks, I’d drop it like the ratings of the final season of “LOST.” But now that I’ve managed to get the grass to a manageable level, it actually only takes half an hour to mow the whole yard. 45 minutes tops. And I DO get a little extra exercise out of it, safe a few bucks on gas, and keep that much more smog out of the atmosphere. Done Good™.
So I’ll probably keep using the mower. My friend Bob thinks I’m nuts, and most of the neighborhood probably thinks I’m an anachronistic freak who needs to catch up with the current century. And both of those opinions could actually have some merit. But as long as I feel good about the whole thing, why not? I’m not hurtin’ anybody but the gophers.
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Recently I went to a makerspace. Sometimes referred to as a "hackerspace," this is one of those uber-geek environments where a bunch of like-minded geniuses and tech heads come together to work on ... well ... everything. Everything and anything. Name a project, anything that takes ingenuity and innovation and a bit of sweat and blood, and you will probably find it in a makerspace.
The makerspace in question is TX/RX Labs, right here in Houston, Texas. Right in the heart of Houston, actually, residing in an empty garage space on the Eastern edge of downtown, close to Minute Maid Park. The members of TX/RX count among them NASA engineers, system administrators, artists, and general tinkerers and hobbyists. The group has tools and resources that include 3D printers, CNC routers, oscilloscopes, soldering stations, power tools, and scads of reclaimed and repurposed parts.
For an urban scavenger and dumpster diver such as me, the place is paradise.
I first decided to check it out several months ago, but for whatever reason I never got the opportunity (or never made the time). Instead, I kicked around trying to figure out a way to rent my own workshop, and maybe even start my own makerspace. It seemed to me that the $80-per-month membership fee was a little excessive. What, exactly, would I get for my eighty bucks?
Well, for starters, space. It should have occurred to me from the start that the "space" in maker/hackerspace actually means exactly what you would think. These places provide room to boom. They are a location for you to use for your creative hijinks.
But it's much more than that. A makerspace is also a chance for like minds to come together under the same freak flag, and deal in the only currency worth the same no matter where you are in the world — knowledge. Where else are you going to get a chance to learn programming and engineering skills from a NASA engineer? Where else will you meet actual, honest-to-God hackers who aren't trying to steal your identity? Where can you learn how to use a computer-controlled router? Community college?
Makerspaces are picking up a long-held tradition and carrying it forward. For as long as there have been hairless monkeys on this planet, there have been tribes of folks who have, as their primary purpose, the goal of working together to build something bigger, better, and badder. The Renaissance saw guys like Leonardo and Michelangelo creating studios full of disciples and students, and using them to help pursue art, science, and even a bit of mysticism.
Later, guys like Edison came along and built “laboratories” where their teams could have access to the best tools and materials, and a chance to invent widely and wildly. Edison’s lab was reputed to have stocked a sample of every known material of the time, which came in handy when he was trying to find the best way to create a light bulb filament or a conductor for his alkaline battery or a material for making phonographic cylinders.
In more modern terms, makerspaces harken back to those groups of garage hackers, who happily cobbled together the first personal computers out of bits of wood and solder. Our current technological age comes from them, building on the work of guys called “Cap’n Crunch,” or (maybe you’ve heard of them) Stephen Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.
I have always been fascinated by these guys. The idea of being able to take a bunch of spare parts and junk and turn them into something useful and innovative and new … that has always made my heart pound. It’s like being in love. It’s like having sex for the first time. Invention — pure invention — is better than booze or drugs for giving guys like me a rush.
TX/RX Labs had that feel of being at once a part of history and a lead into the future. When I first arrived, I was wary of what seemed to be a “bad neighborhood.” The streets are lit, but deep shadows are everywhere, and the building itself doesn’t exactly scream “safe and secure.” It’s industrial and run down. Graffiti and trash are everywhere.
When I first peeked into the garage bay door, peeled up to reveal a vintage pickup backed up to a concrete loading dock, I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place. I checked my phone, surfed to the website (www.txrxlabs.org), and made sure I had the address right. This was the place. I’m not sure what I had been expecting.
A guy was tinkering with something on a makeshift workbench at the top of the loading platform. I called out, “Hey, is this TX/RX?”
“Yeah,” he said, and then met me at the top of the stairs, shaking my hand, and taking me on a guided tour.
Now, as far as I can determine there is nothing illicit or illegal going on in this place. But because I’m doing a bit of unauthorized reporting on the goings-on, and because I’m not at all certain these guys want their names splayed all over the interwebz, I’m going to assign some pseudonyms for the folks I met. If anyone reading this was there the evening I dropped by, feel free to introduce yourself in the comments. I’ll give credit where credit is due, when credit isn’t doing a number on anyone.
That said, we’ll call our new friend “Jim.”
Jim was a slightly balding guy, probably in his mid-thirties. He was an amicable fella, perfectly willing to tote me around and introduce me to folks, and to show off the toys the group has collected. When I met him, he was retooling a security system rescued from a local fast food franchise that was on the remodel.
Jim is a kind of low-key guy. He didn’t get overly excited about anything, but I could tell he was proud of the place and what they were doing here. “It’s just a place for a bunch of people to come together and do something really cool,” he said. “Everyone has their little projects, and people help out when they’re needed.”
He showed me some of their equipment, which included a Mendel — a 3D printer that uses plastic filament to print an object one layer at a time. They also have a Makerbot, which does the same work, and a couple of CNC routers, which create computer-generated objects using wood. In effect, the group has its own micro-manufacturing setup, where they can design and build almost anything. Well … maybe “almost” is putting it a bit mildly.
I have read about and dreamed about and drooled about all of this technology for a couple of years now. But this was the first time I’d gotten a chance to see it live, and see it in action. And it did not disappoint. As I watched, one of the groups members fired up the Mendel and began printing parts for (amazingly) another Mendel. Eventually, the group will be able to assemble a second unit, built primarily from parts that the first unit has created.
This is the dream. If you’ve ever read Cory Doctorow’s “Makers,” you have a pretty good idea of what this place was like.
In fact, this was Geek Heaven. A Geek Mecca. This was the home I had been searching for my whole life. I have spent countless hours trolling flea markets and dumpsters and curbsides, rescuing odds and ends, cobbling together something useable and useful with what I find. I have built professional production studios from reclaimed technology. I have helped invent wonders and toys. But I’ve always more or less been on my own. I have a good friend who likes to do this sort of thing with me, but it’s always been just me and him. Now, though, I found the tip of a community iceberg. And I loved it.
True, I wasn’t there 20 full minutes before someone started waxing nostalgic about their first Dungeons & Dragons character. And there were jokes a-plenty about bygone technologies, BBC television shows, and comic books. It made the whole thing feel wonderfully comfortable and innocent. It put me at ease. Suddenly, I couldn’t care less about the ghetto-like exterior of the place. Inside I was as safe as houses.
And lest you think this is nothing but a bunch of geek masturbation and gluttonous consumption of technology, think again. These guys go beyond the stereotypes and actually contribute something to the world. One of their big, recent initiatives was a fundraiser for a Kenyan hospital.
I was more than just an observer that evening, of course. At various points, I actually lent a hand in a couple of projects. My initial fear that I would arrive to find that everyone knew far more than me about everything was quickly dissipated. I found that, yes, there were guys who were sharper when it came to programming and chemistry and other wonderful sciency stuff. But, somehow, I could hold my own. And when it came to thinking creatively and innovating something new from a bunch of old parts, I discovered that I was more than prepared. I’ve been doing this for some time, after all. I’m used to thinking in terms of “how can I build this when I all I have is that and that?” So it wasn’t long before I was rolling up my sleeves and helping to build server racks or assemble bits of various projects.
I was home.
This all works into my big master plan for 2011. See, I’m not big on “New Year’s Resolutions.” I think that resolving to do something is fine, but having an objective is better. I can resolve to lose weight, for example, but it’s better to have the objective of “develop a fit and healthy lifestyle.” The goal is there, but the path to reach it remains flexible and measureable.
So this year, my objective is to be a Maker. In fact, I’m dubbing 2011 “The Year of the Maker.” This year is all about building and creating and innovating. This year is about producing something new, something that makes the world a better place.
TX/RX Labs, unwittingly, will play a role in that. But it doesn’t end there. I have this plan to start my own group, with the purpose of creating for the sheer joy and thrill of creating. And I’ll document all of this here. Lucky you!
If you are interested in joining a makerspace (hackerspace), try typing “hackerspace” and the name of your city into Google. You’ll find something right away, I promise.
If you are interested in joining TX/RX Labs, I have it on good authority that they are more than happy to have new members. Visit them online at www.txrxlabs.org, and check them out on their Open House nights, Fridays after 7 p.m. Come ready to work. It’s more fun that way.