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When I think of horrifically frustrating project experiences that end in an outcome far exceeding expectations, two instances spring to mind. I tell these stories frequently (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) because I think they represent the power of perseverance in the face of projected failure.

The first tale I’ve told countless times, probably even here on MAKE, about a friend of mine, a fabric artist, who, back in the 80s, entered a weaving contest in a fabric arts magazine. She’d never done any weaving. She got some how-to books, borrowed a loom, and decided to weave the fabric to make a seersucker shirt. It quickly turned into a nightmare. The seersucker threads kept breaking as she wove them. It became a huge exercise in frustration, but she kept at it. She thought her difficulty was due to the fact that she was a newbie. Finally, after much struggle and heartache, she finished the weave, made the shirt, and submitted it to the contest. The magazine called a month or so later and said they were stunned by the piece, especially because you “can’t” hand-weave seersucker! She’d won the contest, and a ginormous, gorgeous Swedish loom that consumed most of a small room in her house. This is a perfect example of how you can do things when you’re ignorant of (or ignore) the common belief that you can’t. Sometimes ignorance is a huge advantage.

The second story concerns my BEAM robot pieces in MAKE, Volume 06. I agreed to write an introduction to BEAM and two simple BEAM robot projects for the issue. I’ve done plenty of BEAM projects over the years (since the mid-90s) and had made several Symets (think: solar-powered top), but I’d never made a Solarroller, except for a kit version. Still, I figured I’d choose those as my projects. How hard could a roller be? It used the same solar-engine circuit as the Symet, and frequently used a cassette motor and part of the body of the cassette player for the structure, and a couple of wheels. No biggie. So, of course, I made sure to wait until the absolute last minute to start working on the piece.

I wrote the introduction almost in my sleep (I’ve been a BEAM evangelist for a long time now) and I built and wrote up the Symet piece without incident. Piece o’ cake. And then the fun started. What I didn’t consider was just how finicky it was to make a body and wheels out of junk that were structurally sound enough, square and level enough, the wheels, free-rolling enough, to make the most efficient use all of that precious juice being converted from photons to electrons and stored in the vehicle’s SuperCap. My cassette guts weren’t the same as others I’d seen used, so I had to try and create a different body for my roller. My plan was to build the vehicle in the morning, get it working by afternoon, and then deconstruct it in reverse to photograph all the steps in the evening. Then, on the second day, the only day I had left, I’d do the final write up and ship everything off.

Cue a montage of day one, a series of crazy constructions that end in failure, one after another. I tried making rollers from soldered paperclips, different epoxied-together pieces of techno-junk, AOL CDs, you name it. And you throw it in the trash. One crumpled wreck after another. I ended day one with nothing to show for it. But I tried to dust myself off and tell myself I had another day — 24-whole hours! I could build it in the morning, photograph it in the afternoon, and then pull an all-nighter to have the article finished by the next morning.

Cue a montage of day two (which looks disturbingly similar to day one), although the look on my face has now changed from frustration to sheer desperation. By 6:30pm, I had another day with nothing to show for myself. I was toast. I was embarrassed. I was going to have to call Mark Frauenfelder the next day and tell him that I was only able to do one of the two assigned (and… gulp… contracted) projects. I saw the oven in the kitchen and thought about poking my head in it. It would certainly fit. It was getting smaller by the minute.

I took a break to watch the evening news. That’s always a good relaxation choice when you’re depressed and panicked, right? As I watched, distracted by my predicament, my eyes landed on our perfectly good, relatively new, VCR. (We’d recently bought a cheap one ion which to watch our aging VHS collection.) I knew VCRs contained a lovely, wide, smooth-rolling rubber roller which is used in many a solarroller. Was that drool gathering in the corner of my mouth?

In situations like this, it’s best to not over think things. I leapt from my chair, drew my Leatherman from its holster, and like Steve Irwin wrestling a startled croc, I muscled the unit out of the entertainment center, down onto the floor, and went Medieval on it. I had that thing gutted and my precious roller in hand by the time the news came back from its first commercial break. From there, everything that had been a frustration suddenly became a joy. Everything seemed to effortlessly fall into place, to an extent that was almost alarming. Where there had been massive resistance before, suddenly, there was none. Everything you see in the finished roller design grew from the acquisition of that VCR roller. From there, I had the idea to use a large nylon servo link-wheel as the drive wheel, to build the little roof out of paperclips to house the solar cell and the circuit (and add counter-balancing weight the wheel), to bond the only other wheel, a nylon one from the cassette player, to the front to create three stabilizing points of contact. I had the whole thing built and working within an hour (the circuit part had already been completed).

I pulled my all-nighter, sent off the article by the middle of the next day, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I still felt embarrassed about the whole ordeal though and wondered if it was going to be good enough to pass editorial muster.

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Then I got a call saying that, not only did they like the article, but they thought the BEAMbots looked so cool, they wanted to use them as the cover of the issue — the cover of the MAKE robot issue! I was floored! [Cue cartoony image of jaw falling to floor and eyes bugging out of head in surprise] Something that was one of the most frustrating build experiences I’d ever had, one I almost gave up on several times, had morphed into the cover story of a magazine! I could have cried. Okay, maybe I did well up a little. I cry during dog commercials.

I have a large poster-size print of that cover, that I still haven’t framed and hung. I want to do that at some point as a reminder to hang in there, to keep going. Because, just when you think all is lost, things can (at least sometimes) almost magically turn around, and you can win in ways that you never imagined.

But the downside to this tale is that the consumer electronics in our house are no longer safe. I just recently went feral on our cheap CyberHome DVD player, in search of a part. It had skipped a couple of times recently, so it was asking for it.

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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