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Sharing tech's whimsical side

Magazines blossom from a couple's penchant for clever, unusual inventions.

December 02, 2007|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair hoisted their household from the din and whir of Los Angeles four years ago to live on a breezy South Pacific island one-third the size of Santa Catalina.

Frauenfelder was a technophile and founder of Boing Boing, a popular blog about geek counterculture. Sinclair was the author of "Net Chick: A Smart-Girl Guide to the Cyberworld" and other books.

So to set up house in Rarotonga with no cellphone, no television and a dial-up Internet connection that cost $6 an hour was a stroke of deliberate irony. They did it with their two daughters for four months in the summer of 2003, using coconuts, twigs, shells and various items lent by neighbors to make the basics: clothes, dolls and food.

It was all training for their next high-tech adventure.

Upon the family's return to L.A., Frauenfelder helped launch and edit Make, a magazine for alpha geeks with soldering guns and a penchant for building their own gizmos. One issue of the magazine featured an aerial camera rig made out of Popsicle sticks, a drugstore kite and Play-Doh. Another had instructions for building a solar-powered xylophone.

The magazine has tapped into an underground movement driven by hardware hackers who wanted to reclaim the mass-produced world of consumer electronics and make devices that are uniquely their own.

"They are curious about how the world around them works, and they want to have a say beyond just the purchasing decision in the technology they use," Frauenfelder says of the typical reader. "They like to alter technology to make it highly personal. And once they figured out how to do something neat, they can't wait to share the idea with other people."

Some of the projects in Make are meant to be useful, such as the battery-free remote control. The vast majority are whimsical constructions made out of common household items.

Take the automatic cat feeder built using an old VCR and a sausage grinder.

"The VCR is programmable and the grinder can be loaded up with dry cat food," Frauenfelder says. "You can program it to grind out food at different times. It's funny and cool looking, but it's completely fantastical. If the power ever goes out, you'd come home to a starving cat and something that's blinking '12:00.' "

The magazine is the brainchild of Dale Dougherty, an executive of O'Reilly Media Inc., a publisher of technical books. He had produced a popular series of how-to books called "Hacks" that showed folks how to tweak their iPods, TiVos, cellphones and other common technologies. In 2003, Dougherty pitched the idea of a magazine to his boss, Tim O'Reilly, during a taxicab ride in Portland, Ore. O'Reilly, who was always eager to spot the next technology trend, agreed.

To launch the magazine, Dougherty tapped Frauenfelder, who had been associate editor of Wired magazine and editor in chief of Wired Online, the magazine's Web version. Frauenfelder knew his way around the world of magazines and was plugged into the culture.

Frauenfelder was ideal in other respects as well. The son of an electrical engineer, Frauenfelder learned how to have fun with technology at an early age. Father and son built radios and other gadgets, including an electrical "eye" that would sound a buzzer when someone walked through a door.

"He has a degree in mechanical engineering. He's studied how to put things together," Dougherty says. "He has the head of an engineer and the heart of an artist."

The magazine debuted in the fall of 2004, with Frauenfelder as editor and Dougherty as general manager. Its physical format is somewhere between a magazine and a book -- or "mook," a term used in Japan for colorful, paperback-size magazines.

The magazine gathered such a loyal following that O'Reilly put on a Maker Faire for its readers in 2006 in Silicon Valley. Twenty thousand people showed up, bringing their contraptions. In May, 40,000 people came to the second fair, showing off their homemade robots and wearable computers.

Make has 100,000 paid subscriptions, a modest circulation in the world of mainstream magazine publishing but more than enough to make a profit. O'Reilly has since launched a second publication, Craft, edited by Sinclair. Whereas 85% of Make's readers are male, for Craft it's the opposite. That publication is for an eclectic movement of do-it-yourselfers who get into embroidering their skateboards or whipping up a party dress from an old T-shirt.

Frauenfelder met Sinclair in college when her band, Rap Race, opened for his, the Elephant Boys. A favorite pastime for the family, which includes Sarina, 10, and Jane, 4, is making stuff.

Their projects, spurred by fun and curiosity, include building a musical instrument out of an old cigar box attached to a piece of wire and a 6-foot wooden pole and making a simple motor constructed with paper clips, a magnet, two feet of wire, tape, wire strippers and a small battery.

In Rarotonga, it was desperation that spawned inspiration.

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