I went to the Maker Faire\the birds and the beasts were there\the big raccoon…

As I mentioned below, I spent last weekend up in San Mateo at Make magazine‘s Maker Faire. As you can see if you follow the links this was an event for geeks and hackers of all stripes to come together and show off neat stuff. Aaron Falk convinced me that it would be fun to see, so he, I, his daughter Katie and Brenda all packed off to see what was what.

Now, for me, nothing says fun like walking in past three vehicles capable of emitting huge blasts of fire, so I knew we were in the right place. The other characteristic of the faire that was to become immediately evident was that they were interested in encouraging kids to play with stuff and that the attendees had never heard of a liability attorney. This was evident when one of the owners of one of the fire blasters handed the remote control to a 3-year-old girl and let her try it out. (I should point out that the owner did supervise the child and no one was in any danger at any time). It was a great “here, you try it” ethic.

There was a lot to see and we spent the first day taking things in. Among the things we saw were:

  • An impressive display of lego-constructed computer-controlled trains
  • A yarn spinning demonstration
  • Intricate steam-powered 1/48 or so working vehicle models
  • A set of artificially intelligent blimps that demonstrated hearding behavior
  • Pinball machines
  • A real time video constellation generator
  • A vegetable-oil-powered computing cluster
  • A car with a PC hacked into it
  • An erector-set-constructed Difference engine
  • A PDP-1
  • A couple Jacob’s Ladders and at least one big Tesla coil (the displayer of which was encouraging kids to buy old transformers from neon sign repair trucks)
  • A ten-foot-high robot giraffe
  • A student project from Bennington College: A breadboarded 26-Hz CPU
  • Several platforms for robot construction/remote control hacking
  • An automatic mural painter

I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff.

There was also a big crafts bazaar – a Bizarre Bazaar according to Brenda – where unusual crafts were for sale and display. Brenda was looking of one of the exhibitors, but wasn’t able to make a connection. Right across from that was a group of people playing polo on Segways, including Steve Wozniak.

We spent the first day drinking all that in and attending the technology fashion show(!) in the evening. Katie was the one who was excited by that, but I actually enjoyed it a great deal. Some very neat stuff. Apparently the designer had been on a fashion reality show that had caught Katie’s eye.
Katie did all right by celebrities. In addition to meeting her fashion designer, Sunday she met both hosts of MythBusters and got her picture taken with them.

We spent most of Sunday building stuff. There was a large room set up for kids to basically build stuff out of junk. We’d passed through on Saturday and were amazed to find this large room filled with 20-year-old abandoned electronics and a vast array of tools (drills, hammers, pliers, glue guns, soldering irons, etc.) open for people to build random stuff in. On Saturday basically every table had a soldering iron and a hot glue gun on it, and all sorts of things were in progress. Again, no concept of liability, and you have to love them for it.

Sunday a few people had gotten hurt or scared and hot glue and solder were adults-only materials. I still got to see a 12-year old take a hacksaw to an old IBM PC keyboard. And he wasn’t alone. Katie and Aaron set out to build a lamp Katie designed out of a circuit board cut into a rectangular box and a spinning set of feathers. Light was to be supplied by a string of christmas lights. They spent several delightful hours building this from parts. Brenda made some jewelry and I generally helped out.

Well, “helped out” may be too strong. I offered fairly useless advice and screwed around with equipment lying around. Along the way I vaporized a Christmas light. We were trying to tell if a power strip was hot, so I cobbled a little continuity tester out of a Christmas light and a plug. Now I remember from shop class that you need a resistor in that circuit, but I figured that the light would get a little bright and I wouldn’t plug it in long. Many of you know what’s coming. Nothing happened when I plugged it into our strip, and Aaron helpfully suggested that I plug it into a known good strip. I did, heard a loud whoosh and looked at my tester thinking “didn’t I have a bulb in there?” I had. The whoosh was the glass shooting off of it as the air inside rapidly expanded from sudden violent heating as the filament instantly vaporized and arced.

As I managed to look like something of a doof and didn’t hurt myself or anyone else, I was delighted with myself. These are the sorts of things that reaffirm my decision to take up computer science instead of electrical engineering.

Katie and Aaron fared much better and Katie now has a super-cool lamp for her room. When we left there we ran into the MythBusters playing Segway polo, and Katie got her pictures.

I can’t recommend the Maker Faire highly enough. even if we hadn’t gotten to touch anything it would have been a great experience just walking around and looking. The fact that everywhere we went people were encouraging us to try out their inventions and play with the toys they’d layed out made it even better. I can’t imagine that they’ll have anything like the playroom going again if the lawyers ever hear about it, so get out there for the next one.

A must.

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