Who Says Machines Must Be Useful?

First published in The New York Times on January 6, 2012. Read the original (with videos!) here.

ON the roof of a small row house in Brooklyn, a black powder fuse flared brightly against the gray sky. Hissing and sparking, it burned through a platform installed inside a repurposed Ikea bookshelf, sending four colored balls into action, lighting camp stoves, swinging fly swatters and knocking over books in a frenetic burst of organized chaos. In less than a minute, the final ball had dropped to the ground and was pocketed by Joseph Herscher, 26, the kinetic artist behind this real-worldRube Goldberg machine.

“That’s it for now,” Mr. Herscher, a slim, dark-haired New Zealand native, said. Highly energetic, he resembled one of his own devices as he ran around grabbing the other balls before they bounced into the construction site next door. The wind was picking up, and he wanted to get everything inside before the November storm hit. Since his workroom doubles as his kitchen, he also hoped to get things put away before his roommates returned with groceries. Mr. Herscher shares his small apartment/laboratory with two friends and a hamster named Chester, who is in training for a lead role in Mr. Herscher’s latest creation.

“I’m trying to make it as absurd and useless as possible,” Mr. Herscher said of the contraption, which will turn off the lights behind him when he leaves the room. It is the first in a series he calls Ecomachines, which will perform simple, energy-saving tasks in elaborately wasteful ways.

“You hear that it’s good to recycle everything,” Mr. Herscher said, “and then you hear it takes more energy to recycle paper than it does to cut it down. It’s really hard to know what the right thing to do is. This is a way to express my own frustrations.”

The project is also an attempt to inject larger meaning into a form he already loves. Four years ago, with no particular training in sculpture or mechanical engineering, Mr. Herscher built his first Rube Goldberg machine in the living room of the large house in Auckland, New Zealand, where he lived. Like his current projects, it was constructed mainly out of recycled materials and dollar-store finds, like Solo cups and paper-towel tubes. The result was a massively complex installation with an elementary school mad-genius aesthetic: balls rolled through tubes, bounced and dropped from one platform to another. A teakettle filled a plastic cup with water until it tripped a lever. Whirling sledgehammers slapped the balls forward until a final hammer swung down and smashed a Cadbury Creme Egg into a satisfying splat of chocolate ooze.

“I spent seven months on the thing,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t know why. I didn’t have a plan. In the back of my head, I was thinking it would be really cool when my friends came over.”

Indeed, his friends were amazed — as were the more than 2.3 million YouTube viewers who watched the resulting video,“Creme That Egg.” His landlords, however, were not. Two weeks after the machine was completed, Mr. Herscher and his roommates were evicted.

“We pulled it all down and left about 500 pinholes in the wall,” he said, laughing. But the video had already become popular. Soon Mr. Herscher was appearing on talk shows, leading workshops for children and designing machines for corporate functions. Much of that ended, however, when he moved to New York in 2009.

“I wanted to save some money for a change,” he said. He spent his first two years here working full time as a computer programmer (which he still continues part time today) while living in a crowded duplex apartment that sometimes boasted upward of 15 roommates. “My parents are musicians,” he said, “so I really avoided going down the path of the struggling artist. That’s my biggest fear in life.”

At first, he tried to create a machine that would peck out Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano piece “The Entertainer” in rudimentary percussion, but space constraints made it impossible. He continued leading occasional youth workshops around the world. During the 2011 Venice Biennale, he organized 40 children to create a Goldbergian plant-watering devicein the shade of the Greenhouse at the Venice Giardini. He had been invited by the Italian arts organization Microclima, whose members had seen his work on YouTube. Mr. Herscher, however, had to find private investors to finance the event, which he did by appealing to the national pride of his fellow New Zealanders. While these workshops were fun, he said, he missed having the freedom to create things by himself and on his own time. So he decided to find an apartment that would let him build again. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t an easy search.

“Joseph had quite specific requirements,” said Mr. Herscher’s roommate Olivia Lynch, 25, a communications coordinator at the British Broadcasting Corporation who is an old friend from New Zealand. These included private roof access, ample common space and — perhaps most important — roommates who would put up with an inventor’s workbench next to the kitchen sink and the possibility of something out of the children’s game Mouse Trap taking over the living room.

After looking at more than 20 apartments, Mr. Herscher called Ms. Lynch at work to explain that he’d found the perfect place. There was just one small problem: two other people had already put down deposits, and if they didn’t sign the lease in the next 20 minutes, the apartment would be gone.

“I said, ‘Joseph, tell them we’ll pay six months in advance,’ ” Ms. Lynch recalled. “So he jumped on his bike and wrote a check for $17,000.” By June, they had moved in. After a few trips to Ikea (where most of Mr. Herscher’s supplies came from), he was back in the Rube Goldberg business. But one issue remains: what to do with the machines when they are finished. As of now, Mr. Herscher has no idea; he has no gallery representation and has never sold a machine.

“It’s going to be hard to find a place that will show them,” he said, looking down at a ceramic bowl that had shattered in two during a test of the fuses. His planned devices will incorporate things like hot irons, chemical reactions and live animals, and he worries they will be a difficult sell. But he’s not letting that stop him. “I hope that New York’s such a complicated place that there might be somewhere that’s interested.”

An Arcade to Make Gamers Cry

First published in The New York Times on February 10, 2011. Read the original with comments and photo gallery here.

ON my first visit to Babycastles, an independent arcade in Queens, I watched as two young women explained to a friend the rules of a video game. It didn’t involve fighting, special moves or guns, but it was full of big-headed cartoon characters wandering through a jewel-toned landscape.

“I don’t understand,” their friend said, “but I love it.” From a nearby stool, I cheered them on until it was my turn.

An avid gamer since Pong, I have always loved the feeling of hiding in a friend’s basement while playing games through the middle of the night. It was something no traditional arcade could recreate: the camaraderie, the broken-down couches, the blasting punk music. But entering Babycastles brought it all back — right down to the low ceiling and the musty basement smell. But there was one important difference: the games at Babycastles can’t be found anywhere else. There’s no House of the Dead 4, Mortal Kombat 3 or even classics like Space Invaders.

Babycastles is part of a movement of indie and amateur game designers from around the world who are rethinking games from the ground up. Every month, the arcade features games built around a different theme and picked by a rotating cast of curators. Recent topics have included “Games That Will Make You Cry” and “Christian Video Games.”

Kunal Gupta, a video game promoter and the founder of Babycastles, said he hoped to educate a new generation of players about the many forms that video games can take. It’s the best kind of education, disguised as a night of competition among strangers.

Babycastles is small, occupying the basement of Silent Barn, a performance space and living collective on Wyckoff Avenue. Mr. Gupta and three friends live upstairs and run the music events on the main floor. The arcade is open four or five nights a week, during every show. Visitors flow seamlessly between the activities on the main floor and the games below.

Three or four games are typically set up in the basement. In keeping with the do-it-yourself aesthetic of the games, Mr. Gupta, along with a legion of volunteers, has built, scavenged and refurbished arcade cabinets to hold them. With a small bar, a few overstuffed couches and dim lighting, the space feels like a 1970s rec room reimagined by hackers. This intimacy makes it natural to watch and to interact with other players as if they are old friends.

Babycastles is not a money-making venture. Visitors pay for the music shows (usually $5) but not the games, which have no coin slots. Mr. Gupta hopes that one day, the independent video game scene will support designers, in much the same way the indie music scene supports musicians. But the first step has been to create that scene in a physical space.

At a party last fall, I listened to religious rock as visitors played Christian video games from the past two decades. For many, the games were like nothing they had experienced before. And that was a big part of the appeal.

“There’s not much I can tell you about this game because I’m confused completely,” said Paul Cox, a first-time visitor to Babycastles, as he attempted to navigate a game called “The You Testament,” based on Noah’s Ark. “It’s actually a blast so far.”

You Can Buy Gaydar at the Apple Store

Written with Brian Joseph Ferree and originally published in Details' March 2010 issue. Read it online here.

Jared had just locked himself out of his Brooklyn apartment. As he stood on the street waiting for his landlord, he launched a new app on his iPhone. Minutes later, the blond-haired, blue-eyed grad student was pants-down in a nearby courtyard with the proverbial Boy Next Door. Thanks to Grindr, a GPS-based mobile dating service, the savvy stud was back on his stoop in time to meet the landlord.

"The streets were empty, Grindr was full," says Jared (who asked that his last name be withheld). "I didn't think it would be that easy." Ever since the long-forgotten days of the 300-baud modem (24,000 times slower than your iPhone), guys like Jared have been hunting for the ultimate gaydar—high-tech devices that streamline the search for sex. Grindr is the latest incarnation. When you open the application, you're greeted with 100 Chiclet-size photos, each representing a nearby John Doe. Sorted by proximity, they include names, ages, and short bios. See someone you like? Text him to arrange a rendezvous. "The first guy I talked to was 1,000 feet away, which seemed close," jokes Jared, "until I saw someone 602 feet away." Released a year ago on iTunes, Grindr was an instant success. "We're at a little over 300,000 users and adding about 1,500 every day," says creator Joel Simkhai. The service is now available in 77 countries, including Iran, Israel, and Kazakhstan, proving that wherever you find gay men in search of companionship, you'll also find the latest in technology.

On a balmy October afternoon in New York City's Greenwich Village, a trial run on Grindr produces a UN diplomat between sessions, a retail clerk on his lunch hour, a graphic designer working from home, an on-shift bartender, and dozens more predominantly young, affluent iPhone owners all looking for a mand8t. With their 24/7 connectivity, their fondness for tailor-made software, and even their own porn site (GuysWithiPhones.com), they are nearly a culture unto themselves. Now, with Grindr, they have a safe, easy way to hook up at virtually any place and time.

It is, one might say, a giant leap forward from the mid-eighties, when AIDS hysteria had shuttered many gay bars and sex clubs. Back then, the dial-up modem seemed like a godsend. "This was a revelation, that you could use your computer to connect with other gay people," recalls Jon Larimore, who created an early online social network in Washington, D.C., called the Gay & Lesbian Information Board. In 1986, the year after Rock Hudson died from AIDS, GLIB had thousands of subscribers dialing in from the comfort of their homes, many from inside their closets.

AOL took the success of boards like GLIB and stretched it coast to coast. "I was able to type I'M GAY before I could say it," says the 33-year-old Simkhai, reminiscing about his early forays into the company's M4M chat rooms. In 2000, Timereported that 20 percent of the service's 21 million subscribers were gay.

In the decade that followed, Simkhai and his AOL "buddies" became digital-age pioneers, boldly going where no man had gone before. They built websites (PlanetOut, Gay.com, Manhunt), invented shorthand (BTTM, BBBJ, PnP), explored the full potential of the Craigslist personal ad, and quickly mastered the use of instant messaging, emoticons, texting, and video chat.

This is not to say that they left their heterosexual brothers in the dust. Today, of course, there are matchmaking sites for every conceivable taste (not to mention a vast smorgasbord of online porn). In fact, Simkhai has fielded so many inquiries from salivating straight guys that he's thinking about developing a Grindr-like service for them.

And so, with smartphone dating apps like Grindr, Boy Ahoy and Twinkleboi, gay men have charged ahead into the world of mobile. Is it the male sex drive alone that makes them such early adopters? Not really. Is it the means to spend lavishly on new gadgets—the lusty, inveterate-trendsetter consumerism you see on the shopping strips in Dupont Circle, Chelsea, and the Castro?

Not exactly. Contrary to public perception, gay men earn less on average than straight men. But they are more likely to vote with their wallets, and technology firms have often led the way in their support for gay rights. In 1993, Apple flexed its muscle in Texas to preserve the domestic-partner benefits for its employees. Ten years later, gay men were twice as likely as straight men to own the company's computers. But Josh Rubin, founder of the Cool Hunting website, posits yet another theory. "Out gay men are familiar with taking risks," he says. "Trying a new phone is pretty easy compared to coming out of the closet."

Not long ago, it was enough to dream of technology that could help a man take that brave first step. Today the goal is to free him from the tyranny of the computer terminal. Wi-Fi-enhanced sex toys may let you stimulate partners thousands of miles away, but you can't as of yet e-mail pheromones, which makes the guy in the lunchroom far more appealing than the hottie halfway around the globe. "In the firm I was working in, I couldn't figure out who might be gay," says Antonio, a twentysomething grad student at the University of Arizona. "So I'd turn Grindr on to see if I could find myself another homo in the building." Alas, the pickings were slim. "In Tucson," says Antonio, "it starts loading people in Phoenix." Give it a few months—there aren't a lot of dance partners when you're early to the party.