Sebastopol-based O’Reilly Media has clearly filled a need with Make Magazine, devoted to do-it-yourself technology – but a long, long way from Popular Mechanics and the other DIY magazines that baby boomers recall from their dad’s garage in the 60s. The magazine features creative, eccentric projects that might require technical prowess, or fearlessness, or some cool power tools – or a little bit of all three.

A couple of years ago the first “Maker Faire” was conceived; the fourth one just concluded at the San Mateo fairgrounds. For two days, an oddball collection of people who make cool stuff was assembled in one place, a sort of updated county fair for the new century. Every corner had something that you haven’t seen before! Big metal things belching fireballs (I overheard fairground workers disgustedly grousing to each other, “There’s fire all over the place! Everywhere you go, there’s something on fire!”). A guy offering electrical shocks to passersby. A lifesized replica of a Mousetrap game. The stars of the famous Diet Coke & Mentos video, dousing the crowd with a choreographed display of fountains from 104 Diet Coke bottles. Rockets. Steampunk. Battling robots. Pinball machines. Bending neon. Really large sculptures. A bus powered by pedaling passengers smiling and yelling at each other, “Pedal! No, wait, stop!” And a lot more! You can see a handful of my pictures here, and a lot of pictures and videos at the fair web site.

makerfairepurldrumsThere was something so wonderful about watching Corey Fogel grimly knitting while he played the drums, pressed against the wall of one of the fair buildings. It’s hard to know why – it just fit the scene so well.

Unfortunately, the Faire was a victim of its own success this year. Organizers could tell from the online hubbub that this year’s fair would attract more people than prior years, but the most frequent comment I overheard from staff people was that the crowd far exceeded even those expectations. Traffic was backed up – it took 45 minutes to crawl from the freeway to the parking lot. Too few ticket booths – another 45 minutes of standing in line to buy a ticket and enter.

The Maker Faire is intended to have a loose, homemade feel, offering hands-on experiences and interaction with the creative people behind each exhibit. All too often, the crowds kept that from being possible – too many people mobbing a scheduled event, no real chance to engage a maker in much of a conversation. Expect some changes for the next Maker Faire – or plan to attend, but get there early on Sunday instead of the middle of Saturday afternoon, which didn’t work out as well as I hoped.

But that’s nitpicking a truly interesting family event. Keep an eye on O’Reilly and Make Magazine – they’re doing something very cool!

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