Armed with Curiosity: Gareth Branwyn

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By Tiffany Lee Brown
2:00AM on Jul 30, 2010
Originally posted to the SyFy website (in the Eureka Idea Lab)

Since before you could look at pictures on the World Wide Web, Gareth Branwyn has been exploring the fringes of technology and culture, writing about his findings for Wired, Boing Boing, and in various books, including Jamming the Media. He is currently the Editor in Chief of Make magazine’s online empire of cool stuff. In other words, Gareth knows more than you (neener, neener, neener) and you should listen to him:

Tiffany Lee Brown: Tinkerers and starry-eyed visionaries are your forte; you’ve been a honcho-to-be-reckoned-with at Boing Boing, Wired, Street Tech, and now Make. So tell us: what personality characteristics seem to set people up for being good at inventing, at making?

Gareth Branwyn: Recently, at Maker Faire Bay Area, our annual DIY free-for-all in San Mateo, one of the presenters, Raven Hanna (a scientist-turned-artist who makes molecule jewelry) said of the event: “It reminds us what it feels like to be excited about the world and its possibilities, like when we were young. People probably become makers because they never lost that feeling of wonder and creativity, and so many others are rediscovering it.” 

I think that nails a big piece of it. Makers, hackers, tinkerers, DIYers tend to be relentlessly curious about the world and figuring out how it’s put together. Also, I believe that most scientists, engineers, and inventors–the exceptional ones, anyway–are also part poet/artist. As well-known “gonzo engineer” Steven Roberts says: “Art without engineering is dreaming. Engineering without art is calculating.” I think there are increasing numbers of people who are exploring the margin between these two, and that’s very exciting.

TLB: If a person doesn’t come by it naturally, what should she do to become a better DIY mad scientist, inventor, or hacker?

GB: There are so many ways in these days. First off, armed with that above curiosity, and a decent screwdriver set, you can start by taking things apart. We all have tons of techno-junk in our basements (dead VCRs, cameras, cellphones, computers). Strip it down, explore what makes it tick (steer clear of TVs, btw–dangerous current inside), fire up Google and investigate all of the parts you find. 

Many cities now have hackerspaces or citizen science groups. Find the one nearest you and go to an event. They usually have beginner classes in electronics, robots, chemistry, programming, etc. Check out sites like Make and Instructables for beginner-level projects and try your hand at these. And that leads to another aspect of what makes a good maker/inventor: Not being afraid to fail. Just get in there and get your hands dirty. “DIY” starts with “Do!”

TLB: In your work and play, what scientific theories or advancements have been the most inspiring to you over the years?

GB: Oh, wow. So many amazing ones in my lifetime. Off the top of my head, I’d have to go with:

Feedback. The cybernetic idea of feedback–output from a system being fed back into that system as information (signal/current/data) that alters the present/future state of the system–has had a tremendous impact on everything from guided missile systems, where it was first modernly applied, to the understanding of complex ecosystems to rock and roll (Jimi Hendrix, the first cybernetic musician). I’ve always been fascinated by cybernetics, systems theory, control theory–all fundamentally based on the notion of feedback.

Emergence. The basic idea of emergence is that simple, lower-level interactions in a system can create higher orders of complexity that emerge, or self-organize, from these interactions. Emergence/self-organization is found in biological, artificial, and hybrid systems. One amazing, shining example of emergence: you’re soaking in it: the Internet! There are many examples of emergent properties that have been observed in things like crowdsourcing behavior. Personally, I believe, as stated by Arthur Koestler, that “it is the synergistic effects produced by wholes that are the very cause of the evolution of complexity in nature.”

Entanglement. Quantum entanglement was disagreeably described by Einstein as spooky action at a distance. Basically it describes a phenomenon whereby particles (photons, electrons, qubits) that have come into contact with one another continue to exert an influence over each other regardless of how far apart they may be separated. Spooky, indeed. And this influence is faster than the speed of light. Entanglement has potential applications in quantum computing and quantum cryptography.

TLB: One peek at the Gulf Coast tells us we still haven’t figured out how to balance science, technology, and the natural world. As in Eureka, the advancements we make sometimes wreak major havoc before we can contain them. Do you think armchair scientists and DIY makers can influence that balance in the future?

GB: Absolutely. As of a couple weeks ago, people submitted 122,000 ideas to government offices and BP on how to fix the Gulf oil leak. Seven suggested solutions have been field-tested and are going to be tried out in the Gulf, mainly different approaches to skimming. I think one thing the increasing popularity of the DIY/maker movement has done is get people to think creatively about solutions to problems and allows them to think they might even be able to do something about it. 

When you look at some of the innovations that have come out of the hacker movement, from the hugely popular, open-source, Arduino single-board microcontroller (originally developed by artists for artists), the MakerBot 3D printer, and Sugru, a silicon-based Play-Doh-like substance that’s adhesive, waterproof, heat-resistant, and sets up at room temperature–these were all developed by individuals or small groups with next to no budget. They had a big idea and used the Internet to leverage financing, development, manufacturing, and commercial distribution. For the oil leak, sites like Core77, the design site, have started discussions to brainstorm ideas. I think we’ll see far more crowdsourcing of ideas, and actual solutions, in future situations like this.

TLB: Pick one: personal jetpack, warp drive, or Lee Majors-level bionic implants?

Well, I already have an artificial hip, a rebuilt heart, and get shot up six times a year with tweaked mice proteins (Infliximab) for my arthritic disease. I’m a human/machine/mouse hybrid! So, the whole Lee Majors thing? Old news for me. As William Gibson said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” I get the Joint Journal from my orthopedic clinic and I lust after the new hardware. Time for an upgrade.

If I had to choose, it’d be warp drive, without question. It’s not that I don’t love my Mother Earth, but if I had a choice, I would leave her in a smear of light in my rear-view mirror in a (bionic) heartbeat.

[Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid.]

Introducing Café Gaga, the Podcast

I am thrilled to finally be launching this podcast, which I’ve been wanting to do for a while. The basic idea for the show is “a periodic podcast about what’s on my mind or what’s fallen into my lap.” In each episode, I’ll be talking about projects that I’m working on, things I’ve been thinking about, and media and ideas that have been landing on my virtual desktop and physical doorstep. I’ll also have guests on from time to time, mainly casual conversations with friends to find out what sorts of trouble they’ve been getting up to.

In this first episode, I talk to my pal Michael Taft. Michael is currently writing a book, called The Mindful Geek, that he’s also crowdfunding on Indiegogo. Michael is an accomplished mindfulness meditation teacher, who teaches in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. I talk to him about his history with meditation, his teaching practice, and his forthcoming book. It was a fun, I hope interesting, conversation and I think a great way to inaugurate the show.

I’d love to get your feedback on the show and if you find it entertaining and useful.

Here are the show notes with links to the things we discussed:

A very special thanks to Michael Taft for being on the show, sound and video editor, Anthony Sunseri for fixing my horrible audio and mixing the show, and AdamD for the the Café Gaga theme song, “In Bright Axiom.”

WINK Review: Remembered for a While

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When English singer/songwriter/musician Nick Drake tragically died in 1974 (ironically from an overdose of anti-depressant medication), he was not tremendously well-known. But in death, his hauntingly beautiful compositions have transformed him into a highly influential musical figure who’s inspired generations of musical artists. In Remembered for a While, his sister, Gabrielle Drake (perhaps best known as the purple-haired Lt. Ellis in the cult-fave 70s British TV series, UFO), has put together a touching and beautiful anthology of all things Nick Drake.

Read the full review here.

Boing Boing Feature: All Quiet on the Martian Front

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Last week, I had the pleasure of writing a piece for Boing Boing about my favorite new tabletop sci-fi wargame, All Quiet on the Martian Front.

It’s 1908. Earth has finally recovered from the terrifying shock of the Martian attacks of 1898 that nearly laid waste to London. While a few of the world’s more cautious leaders, intellectuals, and industrialists call for continued vigilance and defense preparations against the possible return of the deadly mechanized Martian horde, most of the world has fallen back into complacency. Under the cover of this collective sleep, once more, Martian cylinders begin to fall from sky. This time, the Martians land in largely uninhabited areas of the globe, and this time they’ve inoculated themselves against the earthly microbes that proved their undoing in the first invasion. The second wave of the Great Interplanetary War has begun.

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Read the full piece here.

WINK Review: The Think The Book

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WINK is a site that’s dedicated to the unique and glorious qualities of the print book. Similarly, The Thing The Book celebrates all aspects of this amazing medium that revolutionized the world. Created by John Herschend and Will Rogan, the Bay Area artists behind one of my favorite subscription-based art projects, The Thing Quarterly, The Thing The Book gathers together over 30 well-known writers, artists, photographers, and thinkers, and asks them to riff on some traditional element of the book: cover, bookplate, table of contents, footnotes, endnotes, index, endpapers, etc.

Read the full review here.

Last Kickstarter Backer Report of the Year

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Here is the last KS newsletter with a round-up of my Borg Like Me activities for the year.

What’s in Store for 2015

I’ll do some more book readings next year, but mainly I’ll be moving on to other projects. I’m currently working on “The Eros Part: Further Writings on Love, Sex, and Muses,” the third volume in the Borg Like Me chapbook series. This was a reward for a KS backer level and so is my top priority. Realistically, it may not be out until Spring, but I think it’ll be worth the wait. I’m also working on “Sucks-Less, Too,” the follow-up to “Gareth’s Tips on Sucks-Less Writing.”

I might also be launching a casual, periodic podcast, called Café Gaga, that will cover what’s going on at Sparks of Fire Press, weird and wonderful things that are crossing my transom, some conversations with interesting friends doing interesting things, etc. I also have at least one Sparks of Fire collaborative art project I’m planning. And those are just what’s swirling around SoFP and Borg Like Me. I have several other projects in the pipeline I’m pretty excited about and will tell you more about them as soon as I can.

Read the full newsletter here.

Wink Review: Syllabus

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My latest review on WINK, of Lynda Barry’s intensely inspiring Syllabus:

Professor Lynda Barry has been on a roll of late. First, she published her astonishing and inspired writing-workshop-in-a-book, What It Is. She followed that up with Picture This: The Near-sighted Monkey Book, which covered drawing in much the same way that What It Is approached writing. In Syllabus, Barry has published her actual hand-drawn lesson plans from her popular college class entitled “Drawing the Unthinkable.”

Read the entire review here.

Tom Igoe Reviews Borg Like Me in MAKE Magazine

I was thrilled to get my latest copy of MAKE and to discover this review of Borg Like Me by maker icon Tom Igoe (co-creator of the revolutionary Arduino microcontroller).

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WINK Review: Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia

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We all know the multimedia artistic brilliance of pioneering New Wave band Devo. And many of us know that Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh is an artist who works in other media. But even other moderately devoted fans such as myself may be surprised to realize just how multiple Mothersbaugh’s artistic talents are, how persistent, or how significant when surveyed as a whole. This is all remedied in an impressive new volume, Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia, assembled by Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver Director Adam Lerner.

Read the complete review here.

RU Sirius Interview Me for H+ Magazine

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From Sirius’ Intro: Gareth Branwyn’s latest book, Borg Like Me, takes a slightly unusual route to tell us the story of his Cyborgification, a process that started, of necessity, when he was very young. By combining memoir-style segments with articles published in various periodicals ranging from my own MONDO 2000 through Wired, Boing Boing and Make, the book both reflects back on various periods in counterculture/technoculture and reflects them directly via writings that appeared at the time.

The result is surprisingly coherent. It’s also a serious read that touches on some dark and difficult days. Gareth loses control over his body and he loses his wife, first to the touring life of a rock musician and then to suicide. Through it all, his spirit of romanticism, experimentation, curiosity and hackers/tinkerers’ ethics persevere.

Read the entire interview here.