Mass Geek

Easy access to detailed information and pro-quality tools means nearly anyone can become expert in nearly anything. The future belongs to these Mass Geeks: global communities joined by obsessive interest, demanding highly tailored experiences.

Last Updated April 21, 2014

A Modular Smartphone in the Real World

The concept behind Google’s Project Ara modular smartphone has been on the radar of technophiles and DIY geeks alike for several years now, starting with Motorola’s “Modu” project in 2012, and then the fascinating “Phonebloks” concept from Dutch designer Dave Hekkens. We might have initially shrugged off the idea of a click-in-place, endlessly upgradeable smartphone as nothing more than blue sky conjecture, but Google seems dead set on turning this pipe dream into reality. The latest news from Project Ara includes photos of working prototypes, a well-resolved aluminum chassis that can take all sorts of processing and sensor modules, and most important, a release date. Recent articles in Wired and Time make it clear that the device will be a available in 2015, giving obsessive tinkerers something to celebrate, and perhaps sparking a wave of modularity in the electronics field - a UK firm, for example, is already working on a similar concept for smartwatches too.

Wired has the latest on Project Ara, but check out the Phonebloks site for a little history, and Techcrunch’s article on the modular smartwatch project for a taste of what’s coming.


A Great Flood of Words

The Vatican Apostolic Library recently announced a plan to scan 41 million pages of 2nd to 20th century manuscripts. 82,000 books are to be made available online for free, provided your ancient Greek is up to the task. Thanks to the proletarian Pope Francis, this is a win for geeks everywhere. The most pertinent question, however, might be why bother? From Steve Jobs to NPR, there are plenty of options for sourcing the opinion that “people don’t read anymore.” It’s not as simple as that, obviously, but the literate world certainly is reading differently. And the volume of words published daily whether digitally or in print continues to increase… will the Vatican’s hundreds of millions of words, most in highly obscure languages, sink without a ripple?   

Hyperallergic has the whole story… don’t worry, it’s less than 500 words.

Hawaiian for “Righteous”

“Unsuspecting teens try Pono.” A scary new party drug? Nope, it’s Neil Young’s new digital audio ecosystem, which offers super high fidelity. Pono will serve up FLAC files straight from master mixing boards, so the quality ranges from “really good to really great.” Young’s been troubled by crappy sound since long before mp3s and streaming – he got very excited about ultradiscs in the early 90s, but those high-def, high-cost CDs turned out to be a disaster. Today, Kickstarter means Young can get his hands dirty in hardware, although it remains to be seen if this similarly premium-priced effort will turn out better. An incredible range of recording artists – from Arcade Fire to ZZ Top – have agreed to be part of the new offering, which is currently at $5.5M of an $800k ask with a week to go.

Check out Pono – and watch Neil cruise around in his Cadillac with all sorts of musicians – in what might be the longest Kickstarter appeal video ever.

An Exhibition Three Centuries in the Making

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, one of 18th century Italy’s greatest printmakers, had an extraordinary imagination, but lacked access to 3D printing. Sir John Soane, an English contemporary, stocked his own home in London with hundreds of Piranesi’s prints, many featuring impossible-to-fabricate furniture and interiors. Fast forward 300 years to today, when Soane’s home is a museum, and the foundation attached to it has decided to create an exhibition not of Piranesi’s prints, but of physical reproductions of the fantastical products they depict. By taking advantage of the increasing accuracy and accessibility of 3D printing, and the meticulous detail of Piranesi’s work, Sir John Soane’s Museum is proud to announce “Diverse Maniere,” a collection of precious objects designed in 1770s Italy, but not manufactured until 2014. It’s the sort of thing neither man could have imagined possible, but both probably would’ve loved to see.

The official description of “Divers Maniere” is on the Soane’s Museum website, and The Guardian has a glowing review.

DIY Danger

Personal economics frequently drives people to take technology into their own hands: things can be cheaper when you make them yourself. Personal health? Not so much, but then e-cigarettes came along. They’re cheaper than smoking, safer (or so the argument goes), and companies like Bloog make it easy to piece together your preferred combination of battery and cartomizer. The final ingredient is e-liquid, a vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol mixture that delivers the e-cigarette’s vapor, flavor and nicotine. But nicotine is a neurotoxin – that’s why tobacco plants developed it, to ward off insect pests – which means this particular DIY is actually quite dangerous. “It’s not a matter of if a child will be seriously poisoned or killed,” said Lee Cantrell, director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System. “It’s a matter of when.”

The New York Times has more.

Store All The Things

There was a time, not so long ago, when a terabyte (TB) was such a large quantity of information that it defied comprehension -- the data equivalent of a trillion dollars, or the age of the universe. Today, though, 1TB is just right for digitizing your movie and music library at high quality, or storing all the files from your small photo studio. And 1TB is what you get for the bargain price of 10 US dollars now, thanks to the tireless efforts of Google Drive. As a recent article from ReadWrite points out, low-cost cloud storage is simultaneously one of the least sexy and most important tools for democratizing technology, removing one of the final obstacles to pro-level curation or generation of digital content.

ReadWrite runs the numbers on how different cloud services stack up, and discusses the implications too.



A Machine for Knitting

On the surface, OpenKnit looks like a surefire win for democratizing technology: draft a textile design on free Knitic software, send to OpenKnit’s “digital fabrication machine,” and boom! A hands-free sweater of your own design. Not so fast. The machine requires quite a bit of human intervention to work, plus it’s pretty slow. And the garments OpenKnit creates are… crude, to say the least. Is this technological breakthrough any more democratic than, say, learning how to knit by hand? The vast majority of fabrics are woven by machines already, so OpenKnit essentially just moves the means of factory-style production closer to home. Consider Ghandi’s leveraging home spinning and weaving in the course of freeing India from British Colonial rule, and Mass Geek yourself out taking a hand-knitting class online, maybe? Craftsy is just the thing.

Decide for yourself; read more at Core77.

DIYL (Do It Yourself Library)

With Harvard-trained architect Hallie Chen’s help, a group of Bay Area eighth-graders are going to design and build their own school library, called X-Space. (They’d like your help, too, by way of Kickstarter.) Students discussed together what their REALMCharter School needed, facilities-wise, which led to the idea of a flexible area for reading, learning and relaxing. From the programming to the supremely modular design of the bookshelves and furniture, everything about X-Space was designed democratically. The whole project is the result of REALM’s Studio H class, which has a mission to let students “design and build audacious and socially transformative projects.”

Visit Kickstarter to see the X-Space shelves, as well as models of the space, furnishings, bookplates and bookmarks.

The Internet by Any Other Name

The internet came from geeks, so it’s no surprise that the system speaks their language… despite its ubiquity, “dot-com” is a suffix only an engineer could love. The top-level domain game got a bit of humanizing attention several years ago, when a spate of shorter URL appendages inspired the likes of, for example, or But things didn’t go so well, and those clever frontrunners eventually recanted, becoming and This time, ICANN really means it, and 1,300 new generic domains are imminent: behold “.condos” or (inscrutably) “.fish”. Not only will these new extensions increase choice and customization, they’ll help the internet get a bit less Anglocentric, as lots of non-English words are made available, from “.网络” (Chinese for “network”) to “.tienda” (Spanish for “store”).

See the whole list (and read who’s buying the administration rights to these new marvels) at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Giant Robot Says Stop

“Eight foot tall robot directs traffic in African capital” sounds like a B-movie sci-fi plot, or perhaps an attention-seeking gimmick, but if recent news out of Kinshasa is to be believed, it may in fact be a solution to the city’s long-standing traffic woes. Rather than install a traditional signal, Kinshasa traffic engineer Isaie Therese had an animatronic, vaguely humanoid robot built and installed on an island in the middle of one of the city’s busiest intersections, and it appears to be doing a pretty good job. The robot’s technology is fairly basic—red and green LED indicators, extensible arms and a few traffic cameras—but the form factor gives it a remarkable level of recognition. The robot’s also become a small source of local pride… something that’s rarely said about more traditional signals.

See more on Kinshasa’s traffic automaton, including video of it in action, at The Washington Post.