I met a man at the Maker Faire
who ran across the continent of North America
. That is: six marathon
runs per week, for six months. New York City
to Los Angeles
Six months is a long time to be in pain, and I know most people would be sore after running one marathon, much less a half-year's worth. I asked him how he fought the urge to stop.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"Surely you must have got up one morning three months into it and thought, 'Maybe I should stop doing this.'"
He raised an eyebrow and thought about it. Squinted at me.
"I'm still not sure what you mean," he said.
"Didn't it hurt?"
"Very much. Every day."
"What did you have to do to keep yourself going? What was your inspiration?"
"Well, I was going to run across the United States."
"But you must have had some way to push yourself forward when you just felt like giving up."
"I'm not sure I follow. If I had given up, I wouldn't have made it across the United States."
"Did you have some kind of spiritual inspiration? Were you running for a cause?"
"Well, in the beginning I said I was going to run to help feed hungry people. But after a while, I realized that wasn't really the reason and I couldn't lie to everyone and try to raise money for it. So I gave that up and just maxed out my Visa cards."
"So if not some great cause, what kept you going? How did you motivate yourself?"
He rubbed his thin beard and looked me over as if he was trying to calculate the distance between my nostrils in metric units.
Eventually he said, very calmly, "Did you hear the part where I said I was trying to run across the United States?"
And so on.
The blonde-haired girl and I have been attending the annual SF Bay Area Maker Faire for the past four years. For the past two years we have been volunteers. This year we were made part of the crew - which entailed working 15 to 18 hours per day at a pay rate of approximately zero American dollars per hour.
My Maker Faire job comprised many tasks including helping the makers to get themselves set up, supplying the right number of folding tables and chairs to each exhibitor, making sure each exhibitor was in their assigned places, alerting the show management to possible security and safety issues, helping parents find their lost children, directing people to the rest rooms, taking tickets, herding people at the entrance, assuring people they would not be blinded by the half-milliwatt green laser, unloading and loading equipment, and making sure nobody got hurt pulling overhead two-ton boulders.
The blonde-haired girl did the same things, though her responsibilities also included making superhero capes for children and fashioning fancy clothing out of castoffs for Maker Faire attendees.
She did not have to reassure people about the lasers or the lightning bolts.
The Maker Faire celebrates the Maker culture, which has existed for as long as humanity itself, but has never had its own accessible festival including thermite explosions and flame-throwing robots. Many people have been meeting yearly in the Nevada desert at a gathering called "Burning Man", which is probably the best known expression of the Maker culture. Though the Burning Man festival predates Maker Faire and could be considered the unadulterated original, due to its location and the subsequent necessary logistics to get there and survive, it is not as easily attended by the casual civilian.
Maker Faires are less intense and many of the Maker Faire exhibitors are also Burning Man exhibitors.
There are several Maker Faires held throughout the United States that are put on by the same organization associated with Make Magazine and O'Reilly publishing. The biggest ones are held yearly in the San Francisco Bay Area, at the San Mateo Fairgrounds, in New York at the Hall of Science , and in Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum. There have been Maker Faires in Austin, Texas, as well. They are looking to expand to new cities.
The advertisements for the event suggest the Maker Culture is mostly a DIY phenomenon. That would lead you to believe Makers are people who fix their own computers and blenders and maybe do their contract work on their own homes. But this is a very limiting definition. While a "Maker" will indeed repair or modify any material object, makers will also typically endeavor to bring into existence some object, process, or phenomenon never before experienced by the human race. Or they will try to duplicate some object, process, or phenomenon that had been previously inaccessible.
There is an axiom among Makers so fundamental its name is never spoken in polite company. It is a hallmark of the Maker movement and celebrated among the participants of the Bay Area Maker Faire.
At the risk of mortal ethics violation, for instructional purposes only, I will say: "Why?" is not allowed.
The unclean will ask "Why a 40' tall bridge stanchion complete with user-rotatable 2 ton boulders?" Why musical 500kv Tesla Coils, robotic chain saws, bicycles made of wood, children's siege toys, a universal TV remote with only a single button for "off", a Victorian homes on wheels, and a CNC machine that can draw convincing replicas of classic artwork on eggshells.
Asking "Why?" will yield the questioner a very unsatisfying silence and unfocused stare and immediately banish one into the crowd of unbelievers who weigh down the maker community with constant iPod repair requests.
"Why" is derogatory. It's demeaning to the Maker ethos.
Makers are the medium of the universe's creative impulse.
Had we been around, we would have been very happy to help God for those six days of design and construction. And on the seventh day we would have installed WiFi.
I commiserated with a maker who had realized an analog clock with mile long hands. He had part of it at this year's Maker Faire. The full version will be erected at Burning Man later this year.
The hands are made from lasers.
"My neighbors generally stay clear when I'm trying out something," he said, touching upon the unspeakable word uttered by confronting authority figures. "But every now and then somebody loses their cool."
He had just finished telling me about a device he'd constructed which consists of 6 large fans arranged in a circle to create a wind vortex. He turns on the fans and pumps liquid propane into the jet stream. Then, wearing a fire suit, he ignites the aerated propane. The result is a tornado of fire 30 to 40 feet tall, depending on how high he turns up the fans.
"They call the cops, but as I'm on my own property, there's not much they can do about it. They were trying to figure out if there was an ordinance I was violating, but there wasn't. So they just warn me about disturbing the peace if I run it too late at night."
I said, "The Tesla guys had the same problem. There was no law to stop them except making too much noise. Eventually the cops got them for welding in public without a permit."
"Bastards have no souls."
I am fairly confident one could lose an eye or a finger at the Maker Faire.
Let me repeat this. At Maker Faire, if you are not careful, you can knock out your own eyeball with flying metal or fire.
If you want to participate in the possibly dangerous activities you must sign a release. There are happy youthful volunteers dispatched throughout the Maker Faire grounds with release forms and bracelets to wear after your release is signed. Upon signing the participant can ignite some thermite, spin the boulders, climb onto a truck outfitted with playground equipment, ride a solar-powered carrousel that has its governor removed so it will spin at maximum velocity, machine your own aluminum, or solder parts onto a circuit board with an actual hot iron capable of frying your flesh down to the tendons.
Thermite, I remind you, will burn through concrete.
This year 100,000 people came to experience the unbridled joy of creativity, gleefully undertaking the full risk of such activity.
This year at Maker Faire a kid who was dragging around a big rock fell down onto a steel plate and sliced her knee open to the bone. This was a possibility given what she was doing. Her father was with her. He encouraged her to pull the rock, despite the inherent possibility of injury.
The ambulance came and took her to the hospital.
Nobody else so much as flinched. Other parents simply took up the rope connected to the big rock and encouraged their children to drag it, and pay more attention to the sharp steel plates near the draggable rocks.
In real life, Makers are not protected from flame or sharp metal. As with all animals we have a keen sense for danger and a healthy instinct for self-preservation. Though we cannot perform our creation in a world without these items. So we take care. We are vigilant. And because accidents by their nature are random, unplanned events, we keep around a healthy supply of band-aids and tourniquets.
By the way, the chances of losing a limb at Maker Faire are about the same as the rest of your actual life, which is to say, not high.
I think Galileo would have exhibited at Maker Faire. So would have Tesla, Archimedes, and Von Braun.
Probably not Edison, though.
Maker Faire is a rock concert for geeks. We're issued badges that dangle from our necks from lanyards emblazoned with geek company logos. The badges say: I make " blank " - and the user fills in the blank with a sharpie so everyone can see.
Some typical badges say, "I make TESLA COILS." I make WEARABLE COMPUTERS. I make ROBOTS. I make TELESCOPES. I make ELECTRIC GIRAFFES. I make TITANIUM VIOLINS. I make FIRE. I make SIEGE WEAPONS. I make MUSIC.
I also saw: I make LOVE. I make PEACE.
And: I make YOUR SISTER.
The Faire itself is a celebration of all those things, in rapid succession, in 3D and a with a 12-channel maximum velocity soundtrack. There are electric bands playing where the energy for their amps is derived by the audience pedaling bicycle-mounted generators. There are ferris wheels pedaled by the riders. There are people dressed like they've stepped out of a Jules Verne novel. There were people equipped convincingly like characters from the game Halo. There are people making music with sunbeams. Every couple of steps is something cool, and someone wondering how it works.
This year we had some Discovery Channel celebs there to address the crowd. Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs gave a talk on the same. Mythbuster Adam Savage is a yearly participant and contributor.
I literally bumped into Steve Wozniak in the crowd, though he didn't recognize me (his son has been a noder here, by the way).
None of those people drew as big a crowd as the dualing musical Tesla Coils or the Flaming Lotus Girls.
Makers love their geek celebrities, but fire trumps everything.
The guy who ran across the continent converted a full-sized Ford Econoline van to run on used doughnut fryer oil. He drives it to and from his job as a carpenter in Oakland. When he drives by it smells like a bakery. He's augmenting it with solar panels and a hydrogen fuel cell system to give it greater range. He's planning to drive across the United States without a drop of petro fuel. He plans to bring with him some of the kids from the group home where he is a counselor.
He was also a volunteer. For three days he hauled boxes, sold t-shirts, and directed people to the rest rooms.
We sat together at the crew wrap party after the Faire closed.
He said, "I have to be of service. It doesn't matter what I do, as long as I am helping. That's the revelation of the run."
I listened to this humble guy in awe and admiration.
My wife, who rarely imbibes more than a half glass of wine at a time drank three margaritas and got loopy. She buried her face in my shoulder and with tears in her eyes informed me that working 18 hours per day for free at Maker Faire was the first time in years she'd been deeply happy.
I said to her, "Did you know Gabriel ran across the country?" and poked a thumb toward the man at my left.
"Yes," she said. "These people, it's like the ice."
Gabriel looked at me and shrugged. I thought he wanted an explanation.
"She means...well, we keep getting ourselves into the same group. We were in Antarctica. The group there is very, industrious. They make anything out of anything. But it's like the lost tribe of the Apocalypse or something. We just keep bouncing all over the world and finding each other again. And then when we do..."
"It falls into place," he said, finishing my sentence.
"Yeah, like that."