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High-tech tinkering
Inventor of computer-connected cat door just one do-it-yourselfer targeted by Make magazine

  • Bob Blick of Santa Rosa made the first Open Source propeller clock that was outfitted with LEDs on blades, powered by a small but simple electrical motor and pulley system. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

Call it the Mysterious Case of the Fallen Feline.

When Bob Blick's cat, Yum Yum, had a seizure one morning, the Santa Rosa man searched for the cause. Even the family vet was stumped.

Fortunately, Blick didn't have far to look for clues. The amateur inventor had set up computer-controlled cat doors to keep skunks and raccoons from getting Yum Yum's food.

The network also allowed him to track the cat's comings and goings. Blick's computer showed Yum Yum didn't go outside the night before the seizure.

Yum Yum's back on her feet, and Blick's investigation showed she may have had a brush with weed killer a few days earlier.

Blick typifies a new generation of high-tech tinkerers. Dissatisfied with off-the-shelf technology, they are making amazing gadgets in their basements and garages.

The growing movement is chronicled by O'Reilly Media's Make magazine, a year-old publication that has become the bible of the do-it-yourself technology set.

It's a new kind of business for the Sebastopol publisher, known mostly for its computer manuals and conferences. Make is as likely to appeal to 15-year-old hobbyists as it is to tech professionals.

"It certainly reaches an audience that doesn't read our computer books," said Dale Dougherty, executive editor of Make.

Dougherty said the quarterly magazine is promoting the uniquely American impulse to invent for the simple joy of it.

"It's helping people do things," Dougherty said. "A lot of magazines got away from that."

Homegrown technology is being driven by the Internet, which makes it easy for amateur inventors to share their ideas and feedback. There are free computer-aided design programs and links to Chinese factories that can manufacture new gadgets.

According to the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C., organization that tracks social trends, more than half of adult Internet users look for do-it-yourself information online.

Giant companies such as Microsoft are taking notice of the trend. Microsoft has released Visual Studio Express, software that lets amateurs build home networks to control lights, TVs and other electronics.

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