Author Spotlight: Kiteman



Most readers who spend a lot of time on this website might better know Mark [redacted] by his user name, Kiteman. Over the last five years, he has posted a series of amazing projects on Instructables. I had the chance to ask him a few questions about his projects, his role as an Instructables mentor, and his tool of choice. This is what he had to say:

How did you discover the site and what inspired you to start posting projects?

I came a roundabout route idly looking for information on, I think, jet engines, I landed on the Make website, then followed links through to Instructables. I've got to admit, for a while there I thought Instructables was part of Make!

I had already written a number of articles for the BBC's "Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy" website, several of which were chosen for inclusion in the Guide itself, but that was, and still is, a purely text-based format. When I saw the 'ibles format, I knew it was the way to go. The community was so welcoming as well, and had a positive, family-like vibe that is sadly missing from so much of the internet, how could I not get involved?

How did you choose your username? Does it hold any particular significance for you?

When I first got online, I was posting on the BBC using my real name. Unfortunately, I attracted a low-level stalker, so decided to do what I should have done first, which was use a pseudonym. But what?

The obvious answer was to use the reason I was online in the first place, researching kite designs for a large science/technology project I was putting together for my classes to follow. Some people change their usernames on an almost daily basis, and I found that confusing -- it's a personal weakness that I have a very poor memory for names and faces. So, I decided to stick with the same name permanently. That is also why I tend to use variations on the same avatar all the time.

Of all the projects that you have posted, which is your favorite?

Would you ask a parent which child was their favourite??

But, if you ask me which project I revisit most often, that would be the Paper Catapult, because I make it on a regular basis with my pupils. I suppose I have a soft spot for it as well, because the whole thing popped into my head, whole and complete. The images that look hand-drawn are actually scans of the first draft I drew on squared paper.

Do you have any ugly duckling projects that you know aren't great but you love and cherish them anyway?

I suppose that would have to be my first published Instructable, "How to Make Sherbet." It had no photos, and still hasn't (thank goodness for the flexible standards of a young website!), but it's had thirty nine thousand views!

Good grief, that was five and a half years ago!

If you could give one piece of advice to all of the other authors on Instructables, what would it be?

Just one? How about; "assume you're talking to a foreign idiot savant using a dial-up connection"?

If somebody wants to follow your instructions, it probably means they haven't done whatever it is before, and might need lead in detail through steps you found easy. What you feel is covered by a simple photo, somebody else simply might not grok*. The step-by-step model has always been, and always will be, my idea of a "proper" Instructable, and they are the projects that get the highest ratings and best comments because they are the easiest to follow and reproduce.

Plus, there is a very high probability that your readers do not share your native tongue, and almost certainly view the world from a different context, so do your best to produce the best text you can; translation software, and school-level EFL lessons cannot cope with text-speak, bad spelling or too much slang.

I had so much confusion with my pulse-jet project, because the fuel I used is commonly called "meths" in the UK, but the the first image that word conjures up in the US is an illegal drug.

Oh, and "humour" is spelled with a "u".

As a member of the Community Team, you've mentored many Instructables authors. What result do you like to see after lending someone a hand?

That they take my advice, and use it in their next project. It is very easy to highlight the errors in somebody's work, but true criticism should be constructive - "what you're trying to do here is good, but don't you think it would be better if...?"

That sounds arrogant, but I hope people realise that I am not putting their projects down, just trying to help them present it better, so that more people are motivated to read it, try it, and pass it on.

If folks care enough about their projects to want to share them, then I hope they care enough to want to present them in the best possible light.

What tools are indispensable to you when you're working on a project?

Everybody needs a a decent multitool. I used to use a Gerber Light, which I referred to in my early projects as "my favourite pointy thing", but I was delighted to win an engraved Instructables Leatherman with my Valentines project on distilling perfume oils, only my ninth Instructable. That has been somewhere about my person almost every waking moment since then. I've used it at some point in most of my published Instructables, and it served a long stint as my shed's door handle, until I eventually got around to fitting a new one. I've used it to re-attach doors, open paint-tins, cut food, cook on a barbecue, perform minor surgery, hold stuff I'm soldering or desoldering, to remove a ruler stuck on a pupil's finger, and to open an awful lot of bottles of ale.

I'm working on it becoming a family tradition to own and use properly a pocketknife of some kind. I bought Roger-X a Gerber for his first birthday after joining the Scouts, Conker-X will be getting a similar gift in October, and even Kitewife carries a small Victorinox knife in her handbag, which she mainly uses for cutting wool.

Is there anyone who has been particularly influential towards your work on projects for the site or in your life in general?

I didn't realise it at the time, but some of the most influential people in my making have been my science teachers. There was Mr Jones, who spent a week sharpening a butter knife to a razor's edge, then used it to dissect a cow's eyeball. Or Mr Miller ("Mad Kenny"), who taught the facts of life with, frankly, disgusting poetry, and smoked a cigarette backwards, blowing a lungful of pure oxygen through it to make it burn to the filter in a few seconds' flare. Or Mr Tomlinson ("Rastus Watermelon"), who wore a tanktop and sandals, and shot a carbon-dioxide rocket through the lab wall...

Other heroes are probably unknown to many people outside the UK. I grew up with a TV programme called "Think of a Number", presented by Johnny Ball. These days, he's mostly known in the UK as "Zoe Ball's dad", and elsewhere as "Fatboy Slim's father-in-law", but to me he was the man who showed that maths and science aren't just important, they're fun. I met him once, for just long enough to shake his hand and gush garbled complements at him -- the poor bloke was taken right off guard by a grown man acting like a star-struck teen.

Adam Hart-Davies also deserves to be more widely known -- his programmes and book Local Heroes show that science, and especially engineering, can be done by anybody, using kit built from scrap and hauled to location on his bike trailer.

More recently, my inspiration has been the other members of Instructables. They are such a creative, imaginative and inspiring group -- how could I not want to offer up something to the community that has given me so much?

What do you mean by "has given you so much"? What has Instructables given you?

Instructables has given me one big thing: permission.

Before I found Instructables, I didn't know I was a Maker. I had a bunch of ideas, some of which I followed up on, but most of them never even got as far as scribbles on paper, because I couldn't justify following them through to completion. They were of no obvious benefit to me, and of no real use in lessons, so the ideas got neglected, and I felt unfulfilled.

I had a good job, and a wife and children whom I love dearly, but there was still a gap.

Lithium Rain told me once that Instructables is my religion. I'm actually an atheist, but in a lot of ways I guess she was right.

Instructables was my Damascus, even though I didn't know I was supposed to be going there. My revelation was that I didn't always need a solid reason to follow up on an idea. The simple existence of Instructables gave me, at a deep level, permission to Make, and that became permission to actually work out who and what I am, and what I am is a Maker.

There isn't an Instructables Holy Book**, but there is a very pure thing at it's core, an idea about which I am, frankly, evangelical; The world is a better place with Makers in it, and we should (must!) encourage their existence at every opportunity. This world is in a bad way, but it is the Maker spirit that will go a long way to saving it.

*That dates me, doesn't it?

**I've never used a bible in school assemblies, but I have used Thomas J Glover's "Pocket Reference".