This weekend, I learned how to build an aerial photography rig out of a disposable camera and a kite. Klutz that I am, I didn't get very far before figuring out that today's power drills will bore into your antique oak dining room table if you hit the wrong button. But I also learned how to braid fishing line into a sturdy suspension cable, how to make a time-delay shutter lever out of Silly Putty, and the proper technique for gluing Popsicle sticks to each other rather than to my fingers. Did you know that Popsicle sticks come in standardized sizes for crafts?
I pulled my DIY weekend from the pages of Make, a new quarterly magazine for techie tinkerers. The premiere issue, which costs $14.95 and is available at most chain bookstores, CompUSA, or by subscription, has 192 pages worth of projects: backyard monorails, tricked-out PDAs, and Pong games that replace the video screen with two mechanical paddles and a real ball. Most of these real-world hardware hacks come with photos and step-by-step instructions so you can try them yourself. Some of the projects, like the trick five-in-one network cable, are practical tools for geeks. Others, like the tips on how to disguise your Jeep as a corporate fleet truck so you can get free parking downtown, are clever pranks you'll wish you thought of first.
Make is the latest project off the O'Reilly assembly line. The techie publishers are revered for their attention to detail, accuracy, and readability—since this is an O'Reilly publication, it's a safe bet the instructions will work. The magazine's goofy prankster streak, though, bears the touch of editor in chiefMark Frauenfelder, the playfully nerdy mind behind Boing Boing. You'd expect an O'Reilly publication to exhaustively document the parts you need to build a park-anywhere urban truck. It's totally Frauenfelder to add that a laminated "Funeral" sign for your windshield works best if used sparingly.
You needn't be a techie to read the articles or try out the projects. (Well, except for the build-your-own magnetic card stripe reader.) The clean layout and clear, step-by-step writing owe more to Cargo than to a programming manual. The kite camera project is probably the best example of the Make aesthetic. (You can download a six-page excerpt from the article in PDF format, but you'll miss the meticulous parts chart, assembly instructions, and striking bird's-eye photos shot by the author.) The introduction puts your project in context: "Kite aerial photography … bridges the gap between taking pictures from a ladder and taking them from an airplane." The step-by-step instructions are precise, instructive, and goofy: "The double-lever shutter linkage uses two rubber bands: one to provide tension on the Silly Putty timer, and another to push down on the shutter button."And the images of the finished product—a disposable camera hanging in midair like a marionette—give you something to aspire to.
All of you housebound types should be warned that Make isn't available online. You'll have to read it in print. Yes, on paper—just like you did in 1993. Why a magazine and not a Web site? In print, you can lead readers down a single path as they flip the pages rather than hope they'll click from start to finish without getting lost or giving up. It's also easier to pour something as dense as the kite article, with its detailed photos and lengthy instructions, into a magazine. And you can carry the book into the hardware store or prop it up on your workbench, where it's less at risk than your laptop would be.
More important, a Web page or a PDF printout can't become a lust object. I've found copies of Make on the living room couches and coffee tables of my smartest, most design-conscious friends. Just like Lucky or Cosmo sell a certain kind of lifestyle, Make is the lifestyle magazine for kids who built model airplanes and grew up to be network architects who read about Lego-powered supercomputers on Slashdot.
The best magazines build a facade of practical information but really exist to let you enjoy your interests vicariously. No one picks up Car and Driver to decide whether to buy a Ferrari or an Aston Martin—we all just want to read about racing them through the Alps. Most gadget magazines are heavy on photos of the latest Nokias and Sonys—glossy photos from the front and the side and close-ups on the shiny, silver buttons. Make is for people who don't care about what stuff looks like on the outside. It's for the tinkerers who dream of overclocking the real world with Silly Putty and a soldering iron.Even if you're never going to build the foot-long magnetic linear accelerator, it's comforting to know that somebody out there did—and took pictures.