Fashioning the Future With: Alex Glow
If you love magic, making, and wildly sensational women in STEM, then you'll adore today's Q&A with Alex Glow. Alex is a modern-day Merlin, a master of YouTube, and a talented artist, musician, and inventor. Endless creativity along with unwavering innovation are synonymous with Alex Glow, and we think that's pretty spellbinding.
Alex's career is bewitchingly cool. She's the Lead Hardware Nerd at Hackster.io where she produces and stars in near-daily videos covering a wide variety of tech-related topics. Head on over to Hackster's Youtube Channel to peruse the myriad fun and enlightening videos. You'll learn about all kinds of products, projects, Women in Hardware, and more.
If you've attended a maker-centric event recently, you might have spotted Alex wearing her rad, robotic owl familiar whom she created. His name is Archimedes, a.k.a. "Archie;" he was recently featured by Make:, and you'll learn all about him below. Oscillating olives! A true-life tech wizard and a responsive robotic owl all in the same Q&A; it's our lucky day.
So, put on your smart wizard's cap and get ready to learn about one very cool creator. Read on to find out Alex's advice to young makers, what amazing projects she's working on now, and to which wonderfully specific locale she'd like to take Archimedes. Meet Alex Glow.
When did you know you were a maker?
After graduating college in '09, I was working part-time and started a blog to publish notes from one project per week – from DIY notebooks and food to a cyborg-tastic musical juggling harness. I was taking the notes anyway, so why not share them?
I built the harness at All Hands Active, a hackerspace I helped start in Ann Arbor, and wore it to my first Mini Maker Faire there. That year, my creative life exploded from a personal to public practice, and I started integrating electronics.
What was the first invention you ever built?
Oh, it has to be that juggling machine! It was terrible! A cigar box strapped to my waist, with noisemakers: zip-ties attached to motors, which would spin and buzz against bolts, as well as a terrifying spark gap… They turned on and off as I juggled conductive tinfoil balls, which connected wires on leather gloves and copper finger rings that I wore: primitive “switches”. It rained at the Maker Faire, so I got some mild shocks after dropping the Imballs in puddles. A great memory!
What do you enjoy most about creating tutorials and other video content for Hackster.io?
My favorite part is being able to share my friends’ awesome projects and tools!
Honestly, my work feels like a huge con. I get to try new boards, talk about hardware, and build things, just because it’s fun for people to watch. The best part is that it’s platform-agnostic, unlike other jobs where I was working with a specific platform. I focus on the most useful, new, and interesting tech, but there’s a lot of flexibility.
What advice do you have for girls (middle and high school) who want to go into STEM and what introductory projects would you recommend for a new maker?
Do what you love in your free time, and DOCUMENT it online! Finding a troll-free space to do that is important — I’ve done my best to cultivate one at Hackster. You’ll be showcasing your enthusiasm and growing expertise to the world, which can lead to all kinds of opportunities. You can, of course, go for a direct education; I studied languages, so I can’t speak to this much, but there is a discipline called Design Engineering that seems pretty close to “maker school”. But it doesn’t have to be your major, or your job. They don’t define you.
Introductory projects? Find what speaks to you. A simple timer circuit can become a clock, a musical instrument, or awareness-enhancing jewelry with a haptic motor.
A few great platforms for beginning electronics: Circuit Stickers, the BBC Micro:bit, and/or the Adafruit Circuit Playground Express plus some sewable LEDs. Also, look up bristlebots! They’re simple, highly customizable robots.
Your robotic familiar owl is named Archimedes and your Soundcloud username is the_merlin. What draws you to the Arthurian theme?
Haha, you caught that! Merlin is the nickname that my friend Pokey gave me at All Hands Active, and it was my hackerspace/IRC handle for a while — less so now that my professional identity overlaps so much.
I like that Merlin refers to a magician, two aerospace engines, and a bird of prey. Plus, I loved The Once and Future King when I was a kid, so when I eventually built an owl familiar, his name was a perfect fit.
Speaking of Archimedes, what are some of the places you’ve worn him and what are people’s reactions like?
Maker Faires are great, because kids love him. The most interesting was bringing him to China and giving a talk that addressed the graceful evolution of technology, with privacy and design at the forefront.
I use him to spark conversations about facial recognition, connected devices, and how they’re perceived based on their enclosures. It’s fascinating — even at DEFCON, only one person expressed concern about the camera on my shoulder! (I’d given Archie an eye patch.) Since he’s so cute and detects emotions, people will try to “perform” a perfect smile… but he’s very picky about who looks happy enough.
I want to take him to an owl cafe in Tokyo so that he can meet a real owl!
What project are you working on now?
I just created a touch-sensing hat that uses the Chirp audio protocol to send messages, and will eventually communicate with Archimedes! Next up, I’m thinking a robot-spider-legged bowler hat, like the one that my friend John Edgar Park designed for Meet the Robinsons, with a Snips AI brain. I like unisex wearables: wings, horns, robots, hats…
I’m also working on a version of the jeweled cybernetic head from Neuromancer.
If there were no barriers (financial, logistical, etc) what would your dream invention be?
My dream is to prototype a public-transit-via-glider system: Rooftop-mounted launchers based on those ratcheting rollercoaster slopes. An AR interface showing upward thermal drafts. Landing pads atop office buildings. Low power consumption, low noise output, and the dream of flying “cars” becomes real!
You’re a talented musician; are most of your songs inspired in some way by science, technology, and space?
Most of the ones I share ;) Thanks for the compliment! I also write a lot of songs about romance, but I feel some responsibility to be considerate of their subjects. Some songs oscillate between the two — a breakup song became one about UFOs (and love), while a song about steampunk mechs was rewritten about a love interest (and electronics). I guess they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Also, some songs are tools to help me memorize things, or to get through certain feelings: shell scripts for the soul.
Piggybacking off of that, what does the intersection of tech, art, language, and music mean to you?
I want to surround myself with beautiful, useful, poignant things. All art is a conduit for that: I used to create alphabets with specific aesthetic qualities, but the original purpose was to keep my sibling from reading my journals. (Hi, Cleo!)
My favorite projects synthesize several of those themes: "Spinning Up" was a song I wrote for the Planet Labs satellites, transcribed in a bespoke “iris” music notation, and laser-etched onto the side of a spacebot… it pushes all my artistic buttons and makes me incredibly happy. I still have a 3x-sized version from the Earth-based exhibition in my room. So grateful for that experience.
You have a really cool personal style; how do you define it?
Oh, thank you! It’s somewhere at the intersection of “cozypunk”, cyber-wizard, and genderfluid semiformal; Shenova’s Merlin-engine blueprint skirt is a recent fave.
I really admire people like Janelle Monáe who transition freely between styles, and I love seeing other people dressed interestingly. So I try to dress exactly how I feel that day without being self-conscious.
Practicality is key, too: I started wearing more ballet flats & Converses because it’s better for your joints to walk on the balls of your feet, and flexible soles help with that. Black helps me travel, bike around, and give talks without looking sweaty. ;)
Do you have any favorite fictional STEM characters in books/movies/other art forms?
Well, speaking of Janelle Monáe, her Cindi Mayweather persona as depicted in “Many Moons” – the ArchAndroid, an archangel-like mediator “between the mind and the hands, [which] is the heart.” Plus, of course, amazing style!
I also irrationally love the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Buckaroo is a rocket scientist / brain surgeon / rock star: an unconventional Renaissance person.
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
Something for flight, most definitely. Maybe heel springs like Chell from Portal, but with turbojets!
Where can people find you online?
I mostly interact on Twitter and Instagram, plus of course the_merlin on Soundcloud. My personal worldview is occasionally updated in a wiki on GitHub at https://github.com/alexglow/aeiu/wiki; it’s fun and weird. :)