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 September 15, 2014

Farewell, Sweet ‘Shack

RadioShack’s time has come, following years of declining sales – bankruptcy rumors started flying last week, and then the CFO resigned. As the spiritual home of the Mass Geek movement in the United States since its founding in 1921, the loss of our most widespread physical retailer of obscure electronic bits and pieces may be saddening, but the character and expertise that made RadioShack great has been gone for years. Even so, UBS announced a line of funding that could keep the company out of Chapter 11, making this an interesting moment to consider what form RadioShack could viably assume, because electronics retailer just isn’t in the cards. With over 27,000 employees spread across 4,485 stores, a total brand overhaul to become the brick-and-mortar home of today’s maker movement might make the most sense.     

The Washington Post has a good synopsis of the situation at RadioShack.

Government by Geek

Doing it yourself is a big part of what Mass Geek is all about, but it’s not all soldering and lines and code – we can (and should) be responsible for our own ethical behavior, too. The recent theft via iCloud of private photographs belonging to celebrities has shed an interesting light on this imperative. Reddit has repeatedly been castigated for being the place online where these images were being shared. T.C. Sottek wrote a particularly aggressive opinion piece for the Verge, cherrypicking quotes Reddit CEO Yishan Wong, who defended the decision to take down posts surrounding “Celebgate.” The substance of the matter couldn’t be clearer: Reddit’s administrators enforce rules (and laws) but ultimately, it’s a platform that reflects its users. “You choose what to post. You choose what to read. … We will try not to interfere - not because we don’t care, but because we care that you make your choices between right and wrong.” Moral of the story: don’t blame the mirror for not liking what it shows you.

Read Wong’s entire post on Reddit’s blog or feast your eyes on the blow-by-blow account of  the entire debacle.  

What the Well-Equipped Library is Making These Days

Makerspaces, over the past few years, have been like an exotic bird with bright plumage in the ecosystem of America’s DIY movement: they’re exciting to talk about and thrilling to see in the wild, but too rare to be of real use to most practitioners. That’s all changing rapidly now, with the proliferation of makerspaces in public libraries, of all places. Unlike high-priced, full-service collectives like TechShop, or hackerspaces targeting expert-level hobbyists, the shops being set up in places like the Chattanooga Public Library are deliberately low-end and easy to access. With just a 3D printer, some computers running basic modeling software and perhaps a laser cutter, these makerspaces are relatively inexpensive (Chattanooga’s cost only $25,000) and absurdly popular – a recent survey found 109 libraries in the US that either have one in the works, or have already installed one.

Wired has an overview of the public library Makerspace phenomenon. (Photo: Chattanooga Public Library)

Government Hacks

The Verge kicked off its annual Hack Week today, featuring great digital minds on thorny problems software might solve. Vox Media Coordinator Mike Case modestly asks why not the US government? Imagine a centralized information service that spanned all government services – a natural-language Google search for local, state and federal offerings, essentially, with all digital and physical resources included. Case suggests that the beleaguered USPS could be revamped as a real-world touchpoint, too, with a bit of DMV, IRS and Social Security functionality available at every one of the roughly 90,000 post office locations across America. (This would dovetail nicely with GrandArmy’s recent rebranding, as well.) The newly announced US Digital Services Office points toward a future where this kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking might actually be feasible.  

Read more and keep up with Hack Week 2014 at The Verge. (Image via UnderConsideration.)

Nature is the Original Maker

If Mass Geek had to pick a manifesto, it would probably be the Maker’s Bill of Rights. First developed in 2005 by Make Magazine, this brief, to-the-point set of statements about the way things ought to be in a maker-centric world crystallized an entire movement’s motivations and expectations, and brought phrases like “Screws are better than glues” into mainstream conversation.

Some of these principles might be much older, though -- millions of years old, in fact. Sherry Ritter and Gretchen Hooker of the Biomimicry Institute have been compiling a set of rules called Life’s Principles, that aims to distill some basic principles that living things use to solve problems in the grand evolutionary scheme. And many of those rules have close counterparts in the Maker movement. Sharing information, standardizing practices and upcycling, it turns out, are common practice in the natural world, prompting Ritter and Hooker to write a fascinating reflection on the parallels between making and biomimicry.

Read the article at Make Magazine, and explore Life’s Principles at


For Hardware Startups, a Source of Cash and Insight

Launching a new piece of hardware is fundamentally different from a website, app or software package – while both demand creative insight and functional expertise, physical products have to deal with issues of manufacturing and distribution that can be very complicated, and very expensive. For decades, this has limited the ability of small entrepreneurs to launch technologically complex hardware, even while tiny teams of coders and designers have given the world an astounding diversity of digital products. A recent research effort by CB Insights suggests that crowdfunding sites–especially Kickstarter and Indiegogo–are starting to change that. Today, the success of hardware products like Oculus Rift, Ouya and Pebble show that crowdfunding offers more than just a source of capital, but also a kind of “audition,” that lets entrepreneurs (and future investors) test out a concept’s viability before sinking too much of their own money into it.

The full CB Insights report is online, or read The Verge’s summary. (Image via Wikimedia.)

Automatic (Congressional Transparency) for the People

Wikipedia is today’s reference of choice, and its crowdsourced nature needs no further introduction – even the US government uses it! Software developer Ed Summers recently developed a simple scraper program that tweets whenever changes to Wikipedia originate from Capitol Hill’s ISP address, making the world’s first automated Congressional watchdog. Government employees are the source of Wikipedia edits on all sorts of things, it turns out, from Choco Tacos to conspiracy theories on the original moon landing. Last week Wikipedia banned edits from the US House of Representatives’ location for ten days, due to “persistent, disruptive changes.”

Read more at the BBC, or check out the CongressEdits Twitter feed to see what Uncle Sam’s been up to.

Everyone’s an Illustrator

In the annals of software design, it would be hard to name a package that’s more profoundly democratized visual production than Adobe Illustrator. There have been dozens of other graphics editors, of course, but Illustrator’s launch in 1987 marked a clear break in graphic design, page layout, art, and the business of image creation. Before Illustrator, it was all French curves, rubdown text and hand kerning tables; after Illustrator, anyone with a decent PC and a willingness to learn by trial and error could create a convincing poster or print publication. Terry Hemphill’s recent mini-documentary “The Adobe Illustrator Story” chronicles the software’s invention, and follows the radical reinvention of an industry in its wake. It’s fascinating as a piece of design history and a milestone in modern DIY, but also as a statement on how much DIY has changed our perception of what’s interesting: after all, how appealing would a documentary software have been back in 1987?

Watch “The Adobe Illustrator Story” at Vimeo, or read the summary at FastCo Design.

A Boy’s Map

All open source and user-generated services have their limits, typically a function of the size of the group collaborating. Not always, though. Boundless, an open source mapping software that relies on its users to fill in business and point of interest locations, illustrates a peculiar case. Boundless’s OpenStreetMap has been developed with the help of a huge base, but the users are overwhelmingly young men. That meant an overabundance of strip clubs and take-out food locations, and no day care centers. Geospatial representations notwithstanding, other gender biases will surely come to light as women around the world continue their embrace of technology.

Fastco has the story.

Clone It Yourself

Access to cutting-edge technology has always been a limiting factor for institutionally-based scientists; for startup businesses and hobbyists, experimenting with world-class equipment was simply an impossibility. Silicon Valley-based Transcriptic is set to change that, offering genotyping, cloning and biobanking for hire at its fully automated robotic laboratory. The online lab means geography is no obstacle, and because equipment runs 24 hours a day, prices are low: a simple cloning experiment costs roughly the same as dinner and a movie. CEO Max Hodak says “Transcriptic frees up researchers to focus on the creative aspects of scientific discovery that drive important medical advances and make critical discoveries possible.”

Re/code has more.