Maker Faire Austin 2007

I went to the Austin Maker Faire October 19-21. I’ve been promising various people I’d write about it for a while but events have conspired to prevent it until now. The short version is that it was fun, interesting, worth the trip, and I’ll be returning next year. It was interesting to compare this to my Marfa trip a couple of weeks ago for the Chinati Open House art festival. I’m even more convinced of a growing convergence between DIY/homebrew technology geeks and artists. I even ran into a guy in the Maker Store wearing a Chinati 2007 T-shirt, so there were at least two of us who attended both events and probably more.

I drove down to Austin from Dallas and stayed in a Holiday Inn Express. Despite having four lamps, my hotel room was strangely dim. Rather than complain, I tried to get into the spirit of the Maker Faire by driving to a nearby Home Depot and purchasing a box of 100 Watt light bulbs, which I used to upgrade all the lamps. While hanging around the hotel, I met a cat in the hotel parking lot. The hotel’s main entrance had automatic doors which relied on motion sensors. The cat had learned that it could enter the hotel any time it wanted by walking up to the doors. It frequently walked into the lobby, where it caged treats off the hotel guests. The daytime hotel clerks chased the cat away but I noticed the nightshift guy feeding and playing with the little cat.

Susan wasn’t able to go with me. Actually, I think she was afraid it was just going to be another boring robot event. She’s patiently attended more than her share of robot-related events. It’s always more interesting to view art and technology when you can share the experience with someone. Fortunately I met Alix, a local Austin blogger, and we hung out together during the Maker Faire. Hopefully she enjoyed it as much as I did.

Maker Faire was too full of interesting experiences to describe them all in a short blog entry. Maybe I can get across the general idea. Unlike most conferences, fairs, and similar events, people attending the Maker Faire are not idle spectators. Participation is allowed or even required for nearly everything there. If there’s a ride, you can bet you’ll have to pedal. If you buy an electronics kit, you’ll be provided with tools, test equipment and space to assemble it. Stand too close to the girl building synth gear out of salvaged medical equipment and she’ll put you to work disassembling equipment. If you go to the Swap-O-Rama to trade clothes, you’ll be cutting, sewing, and silk-screening them yourself, with expert help if needed. Maker Faire is very much a DIY event in every sense.

There are a few exceptions. You’ll have to keep your distance from noisy machines belching flame and sparks, for example. And while you may be asked to help turn the cranks to hoist the 4,000 lbs safe into the air during the execution of the Life-Size Mousetrap game, you’ll have to stand behind the fence when it plummets to the ground with an impact that can be felt a hundred yards away.

Everywhere you look at Makers Faire you’ll see interesting people who are always willing to stop and explain how their creation works, how they made it, why they made it, who did their tattoos, or answer any other question you might have for them.

I suppose I should at least give you a quick sampling of the things you might see at a Makers Faire: art cars, dirty art cars, biped robots, robots on wheels, robotic toys, robot art, robots that make art, cute girls who drive all the way from Iowa to show off the art-making robots they built, strange musical instruments, stranger musical instruments, tesla coils, tesla coils that are musical instruments, drummers who knit, free-roaming ferris wheels, working medeviel siege weapons, strange fire-breathing machines, homebrew supercomputers, stirling engines, fur-bearing dinosaurs, girls with tattoos, girls with hula hoops, girls with 5-inch plastic heels, the amazing mouse girl, the cigarette-smoking bee girl, scary insectoid robotic things, Dalek pumpkins, photovores, things that spin around until you get dizzy (unless it snaps your feet off like twigs first), things that I don’t even know what they are but if you pump them full of gas, pressurize them, and apply high voltage, they glow purple. And I should point out that I hardly saw half of what was there. For more weird stuff, check out my Maker Faire flickr gallery.

Those who got tired of looking at mind-blowingly strange things could stop to listen to mind-blowingly strange music playing on any one of the three stages. There were also several talks and tutorials going on at any given time. Wendy Tremayne, the founder of the Swap-O-Rama, gave an interesting talk entitled The Maker as Revolutionary. For me that talk tied together some of the loose threads between art, DIY geeks, and the free software movement that I’d been pondering since my trip to Marfa.

Road Trip to Marfa, Texas

Every year, artists from all over the world gather in Marfa, Texas for the Chinati Open House art festival. For a few days the town has more art galleries than any other city on Earth. Lacey, my artist friend in Houston was planning on driving out to Marfa this year because one of her bronze pieces was going to be displayed at Camp Marfa, a gallery of works by Houston and Lubbock artists. I signed on at the last minute as traveling companion. She left Houston by car on the morning of Oct 4 and I flew down to San Antonio that afternoon, where I met her as she passed through.

We stopped briefly at a WalMart in Boerne, where I bought a tent, bedrolls, and assorted other things one might need when arriving in a crowded small town with no hotel reservations. We made it as far as the city of Junction where we stayed in the luxurious America’s Best Value Inn, where each room is provided with all the live crickets you could want at no extra charge.

We later talked to other artists who’d chosen to drive through the night and we were glad we hadn’t attempted it. One driver hit a deer and several others reported close calls with other wildlife. Even driving during daylight, we came within a few feet of hitting a good-sized bobcat that charged across the highway in front of us, probably chasing a jack rabbit. In addition to wildlife, we also passed along side a wind farm with hundreds of huge wind turbines. It was an amazing site but due to the tight schedule we weren’t able to take the time to check it out.

Each of the art collectives is apparently responsible for coming up with their own facility to house their art. The Houston art enclave worked out a deal to use the historic Building 98, part of Fort D. A. Russell. The adobe and concrete building was originally the officers club in the 1920s. During WWII it became a prison camp for German POWs. Interestingly, the Germans painted ornate murals on the walls of the dinning hall, making the building the largest work of art created by POWs in world. What could be more appropriate for use as an art gallery?

Paintings and sculptures were installed throughout the building and one room was used for the multimedia works of a Houston group called Apocalypstick. The building had a large rear patio area where we had a couple of bands playing in the evenings. The Lubbock artists had improvised their own gallery inside of a Ryder truck. They arrived, backed the truck up to rear patio, installed in and out ramps, powered it from the building’s AC and – instant art gallery. There seems to be a lot of creative DIY cross-over between artists and geeks.

Overall we had a blast out in Marfa with only one mishap. On Friday night, Lacey twisted an ankle on the front steps of the building. She was in quite a bit of pain and this changed our plans to walk through the art galleries Saturday, shooting photos and seeing the sites. We ended up sticking to Camp Marfa most of the day and Lacey turned in early, sleeping in the SUV to avoid the party. Did I mention the party? Sonic Youth played a free concert Saturday night for the thousands of art and music fans in Marfa. Somehow, one of the members of the local band playing at our gallery had gotten them to make an announcement that everyone should head over to Camp Marfa after the concert. We had to close off the art areas and route people to rear of the building where our band was playing. And, aside from Lacey, none of us got to sleep until early the next morning.

After a few hours of sleep, Lacey and I headed out about 7am and repeated the inbound journey except with me driving. She felt up to driving by the time we were approaching San Antonio and assured me she’d be okay to drive the remaining distance back to Houston, so I called Susan and she was able to book me a flight back to Dallas. The shocker came a day later when Lacey got her leg x-rayed and it turned out she hadn’t just twisted her ankle, she’d broken her leg. It was a clean break of the fibula and she’s now in a cast. This certainly explained the pain and swelling but not why the pain was all in her ankle when the break was much higher. And I really regretted letting her drive when I heard that. How many people can say they’ve driven from San Antonio to Houston with a broken right leg? Not many I bet.

Lacey wrote her own account of the Marfa trip in her blog. It’s more detailed and probably more fun to read than this one, so check it out. What’s that? You’d like to see photos? No problem, check out my Marfa, Texas 2007 road trip photo set on flickr.

Storms, Crustaceans, and PQFP Chips

There’s a major thunderstorm passing overhead right now. The noise from the rain hitting the roof of our building sounds like loud applause. Ten minutes ago it was warm and dry outside but that’s Texas weather for you. I’m working late again tonight and I’ve been nervously watching the lightning strikes all around the area and hoping one of them doesn’t take out our power. I replaced the batteries in two of our UPS units this month, so we’re probably ready for it if it happens.

Susan is working late too. We took a little break earlier and tried another of the new restaurants that’s opened here in Deep Ellum. There seem to be new ones opening all the time. Tonight we tried Crustaceans, a creole/cajun place. It’s actually the reincarnation of a New Orleans restaurant that was destroyed by hurricane Katrina. The owner, chef, and some of the employees ended up in Dallas and a local organization helped them re-open their restaurant here in Deep Ellum. It’s the real thing. If you’re in the area and like that sort of thing, definitely check it out. In the past week we’ve also tried Tarantino’s (Italian food, a bit expensive but very good) and Kim’s Cafe (breakfast, burgers and sandwiches – so so).

The website design business is booming lately, leaving me not very much time for more fun things like robotics. The latest group robot project at the DPRG is proceeding nicely without me. I’ve been working on my own robot off and on. Just as I finally felt like I’d wrapped my head around PID algorithms and got some working code, I managed to toast the 68332 on my MRM board. I’m guessing it was a static discharge. It’s a surface mounted 132 pin PQFP chip; not exactly something you can replace with common household tools. I ordered a few new chips, though, and a friend with a hot air rework station is going to swap out the bad one for me.

Futuro Man and the Candybar Ranch

Back in April of 2003, Barry Jordan, a friend from the DPRG, asked me to come out to his ranch and help him set up a foal cam. The Candybar Ranch is east of Dallas in Poetry, Texas. On the way there, while traveling down Highway 276, I came upon an intact Futuro house. The Futuro House is a round, fiberglass house on stilts that looks something like a flying saucer. It was designed by Finnish architech Matti Suuronen in 1968. Like R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Deployment Unit and Wichita House, the Futuro house was designed to be a light, prefab house that could be shipped anywhere in the world and quickly assembled to provide cheap housing. The Futuro house could accomadate up to 8 people, included a bathroom, a kitchen, a table, and beds. Less than 100 of the houses were made. About half of those ended up in the United States. Many still exist if you can find them. They are said to have come in a variety of colors but all of the examples I’ve seen in person have been orange. Perhaps the US manufacturer favored that color. I made note of the location and, a few days later, Susan and I returned to the scene and took a few photographs.

Why am I telling you this now instead of two years ago? It seems I did make a passing comment about it some forgotten blog post. I recently received an email from someone in Finland who is trying to locate and document all surviving Futuro houses. He ran across my blog and asked for more info. His website is a bit scary; loaded with animated GIF files that will slow your browser to crawl and make the site almost unnavigable. Still, it’s a worthwhile goal to build such a list. So I dug up our photos, scanned them, and added a Futuro House gallery to our site. I’ve sent the link off to be added to the list. If I get time in the near future, I may make another trip out to the house to verify that it’s still there and take some better photos. If anyone else knows the location of a Futuro house, drop an email to FuturoMan.

Art and Corn Dogs

I seem to have fallen into a groove of only posting news updates once a month so I guess it’s about time to sum up the exciting events of September. Let’s see…

Susan and I went to the Joan Mitchell exhibit at “The Modern“, the new
Ft. Worth museum. Mitchell is by no means my favorite artist but it was very interesting that you could look at what appeared to be just a big Jackson-Pollock-like mess of colors on a white background and get the impression of a city or snow-covered trees and then find out 1) that the other people standing around got the same impression and 2) that the fine print on the plaque describing the painting confirmed your impression and she had actually painted what you thought she’d painted. You can find a few samples on Google Image Search.

We also made an early visit to the State Fair of Texas. We usually don’t make it until October but managed to get there on Monday, Sep 29th this year. I think that’s a first for us. And going on a week day is always considerably less crowded than weekends. All the usual things were seen and done. Eating corn dogs and tornado potatoes, checking out all the new concept cars in the automotive exhibits, watching the bizarre variety of farm animals being prepped for contests, the weird craft exhibits. One of the high points this year has to be the very nice rendition of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) created from a toilet seat and assorted plubming components. A few things were missing this year though; no butter sculpture, no shooting Bin Laden with a paintball gun contest. And while we didn’t take in the Birds of the World show this year we did check out the nifty Texas Garden Railway that was added to the Texas Discovery Garden Center.

Otherwise, most of my time seems to have been spent on work-related things. I didn’t manage to get some time in working on and the robotics category reorganization project at ODP. The data dumps from ODP have started showing UTF-8 errors again but there’s a good chance the source of the errors has been found and will be fixed soon. Meanwhile, the webcam situation at the DPRG lab is improving. We’ve run a camserv relay live at the last couple of RBNOs with good results. Hopefully we’ll have the second camera online soon.