Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Backyard mechanics

In a mechanic shop full of workbenches and hoists, Leonardo Moratti is working on his car. He pulls out a series of four iron pipes, joined at one end by a block of metal; it’s an intake manifold of a Toyota engine.

“Even as a child I had an interest in cars, and as I got older this interest grew,” he said.

Moratti is a student of the Motive Power Technician program at Centennial College’s Ashtonbee campus in Toronto. The program offers theoretical and practical training in car repairs.

He said this program helped expand his knowledge of car repairs. If there is a malfunction he can fix, he doesn’t hesitate.

“For example with this intake manifold, I know there are a few gaskets leaking. That’s something I know I can fix on my own,” he said. “If I took it to the mechanic it would probably cost $400 for the labour alone.”

He added that everyone should have some basic knowledge of car repairs.

“A lot of people get a basic kit, like a tire jack, but when there is a breakdown they don’t know what to do,” Moratti explained. “One time a friend of mine was replacing his tire, but didn’t know to place the jack under the frame. Why get the tool if you’re not going to learn how to use it?”

Dave Samalea is the co-ordinator for the Automotive and Motorcycle program at Centennial College and has been a licensed automotive technician for 31 years.

Samalea said technological advances are make it difficult even for experienced technicians who want to work on their own cars.

“You can’t do repairs anymore without the specialized equipment,” he said. “I can’t do repairs on my own car at home because I don’t have the electronic gadgets I need for diagnostics.”

Don Given is removing a tire from a car sitting atop a hoist lifted about 4 feet from the ground. Given enrolled in the Motive Power Technician program to save money on car repairs. He said before taking this program he made a few costly mistakes while fixing his car.

“It’s really important to have the right tools. It’s difficult to do this without the right tools,” Given said. “I found that out the hard way, I blew out a couple of spark plugs and started having problems with the engine.”

He said when there is a problem with his car he always wants to poke at it.

“When my brake pads wear out, I replace it myself. That’s something mechanical I can see it and feel it on my own,” he explained.

Given said a lot of DIY mechanics are so keen to save money, they’ll dive into the maintenance without any thought.

“Like with the spark plugs I blew, I tightened them with a tool that was a fraction of an inch too big,” he said. “I was looking to save a few bucks, but I ended up paying a
lot more. Having the right size tool and a little patience is crucial when you’re fixing a car.”

Like Given, Moratti works on his car to save money, but he said the most satisfying feeling for him is a job well done.

“For me there is a sense of accomplishment when you diagnose a problem and fix it,” Moratti said. “You say to yourself, ‘I did this and I did it on my own.’”

Monday, December 13, 2010

DIY Filmmakers making their mark

A bunch of people crowd into a suburban, two-car garage. A circle forms around two shirtless combatants as they begin to trade blows.
The crowd urges them on, as the fitter of the fighters comically pounds on the the other one, who is only looking to make some money – by any means he can.
This is not a scene from an underground fight club. It’s a film sequence created by do-it-yourself filmmaker Aaron Manczyk.


Truth be known, Manczyk’s love for filmmaking was nearly stifled. In 2007, while attending the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto, Manczyk, now 24, clashed with his teachers in film class. He says that his teacher would reject his ideas.
Frustrated by the lack of creative freedom that school afforded, he decided to strike out on his own. Manczyk began shooting his first feature length film, My Awesome Movie, on a rather limited budget.
“It cost me $30,” he said. “Anybody who says you need money to make a film is a liar and is lazy.”
Working with Zak Tatham and Efehan Elbi in a troupe known as “Family Contact,” Manczyk acknowledges his partner’s creative help, and the fact they provided equipment. “It did cost more money, but that’s stuff that would have been bought anyways,” he said. “If someone wants to make a movie, I think in this day and age, if they don’t have a camera, they know somebody who has a camera.”
The cost of filmmaking technology has plummeted in the past decade. Cameras are relatively cheap. Computers are everywhere and editing software is priced for consumers.
Norman Wilner, a film critic for Toronto’s NOW Magazine, notes that increased access has benefits and drawbacks.
“All you really need now is a decent camcorder and a laptop and you can make a movie,” Wilner said. “And because of the way digital cinema has proliferated in the last couple of ears, you can get that movie screened at a film festival.”
While Wilner generally sees this as a good thing, he’s seen his share of DIY productions that go awfully wrong. Still, he enjoys the simplicity of the DIY film world.
“There are days I’ve come away really energized from something like, two people just walking around Brooklyn (Aaron Katz’ Quiet City).”


Bert McKinley embraces that simplicity.
Even at age 22, he has long been interested in documentary films, so that’s what he submitted as a final project at Ryerson University. His proposal was one of 17 chosen by faculty out of around 170 submissions.
McKinley’s series, The Human Project, stands out for tackling non-traditional subject matter, most notably jarring tales of people who have discovered dead bodies.
“I’ve always kind of been interested in mundane things… or I guess relatable stories,” McKinley said. “In the documentary world at least, I’m not crazy for seeing social justice kind of things, or environmental, which overall tends to be most what’s released.”
McKinley’s film project came in with a higher price tag than Manczyk’s, about $2200, but that included the purchase of new equipment. And like Wilner, McKinley says that there is, in fact, an audience for these films.
“We made it a web series to put up for free on the Internet, and we’ve gotten so much response from people.”
It’s proof that DIY filmmakers don’t need major financial backing to be seen, though it can be tempting.
Manczyk recalls a story where an acquaintance offered Family Contact a five-figure sum to turn one of their shorts into a feature.
“Within a couple times of talking to him, he already had ideas that he wanted – which is fine, but as soon as you start getting... Other people’s money involved, you end up having to sacrifice a lot,” Manczyk said.
While dreaming of making it big, however, creative freedom will suffice.
“Anybody who does it part-time, you kind of want it to evolve somewhere farther, so it can become your predominant thing,” he said. “At the same time, that shouldn’t be the only reason you’re doing it.”

Web Extra: DIY Filmmaking

Here are some clips from the filmmakers featured in the DIY Film story.

Aaron Manczyk of Family Contact's
My Awesome Movie (trailer):

Trailer for Bert McKinley's The Human Project:

Backyard takeover

Tucked among lawns in Toronto's west end, the gardens grow.

Rows of flowers bring colour, scent and nature to Roncesvalles and High Park areas – And
Sarah Nixon is responsible.

Nixon is a 'do-it-yourselfer' in the truest sense of the word: she 'does it herself' so that
others don't have to. Nixon uses front and backyards in her neighbourhood to grow flowers, which she sells to customers.

“When I started doing this 9 years ago, I'd never heard of anyone doing the same thing. It
struck me as an obvious use of space... All these lawns, and empty gardens,” she said.

Obvious or not, she's spun her passion for plants and gardening into a full-time business,
called My Luscious Backyard. The deal works out well for both parties:The homeowners get a
beautiful yard, and Nixon gets to use their space.


Over the past decade, many others have had similar ideas as Nixon, sparking a growing
movement dubbed urban agriculture.

“Suddenly people are really getting on board with... trying to use all the available land in
the city,” Nixon said. “Especially with food; There's a couple of other people doing flowers now,
but mostly a lot of it's going on with food.”

Nixon's idea fits well with a growing public interest in making resourceful use of urban
land, according to Marjorie Harris, an author of numerous gardening books.

“There's so much space in this city where there are no gardens. They are lawns and a tree
stuck in the middle,” Harris said. “I think that really gets to people when they see this land as
essentially not being habitat.”

“It's one of those movements that is quietly trendy... There are all sorts of places throughout
Toronto where people are taking little empty spaces and doing things with them.”


While the success of Nixon's business mirrors the trend, she came about the idea on her
own. After moving to Toronto in the early part of the decade, Nixon found herself with her first

“I started growing lots and lots of flowers,” she said. Soon, she had more flowers than she
knew what to do with. She began giving them away to friends, and decided to try and recoup some of her investment at local farmer's markets.

“I started asking friends in the neighbourhood if I could use their backyards that they
weren't really using – if I could use their space and plant a flower garden there which they could

Nixon found that the farmer's markets weren't very lucrative, but still wanted to explore the
idea of selling her flowers as a means of income. She opened a website, and soon her passion
progressed into a full-time living.

Ruth Schneider used Nixon's services for the first time this year after hearing about her
from a neighbour, and a local newspaper article.

“I just thought the concept was really an interesting one, and very sort of ethical and useful
one,” she said. “And the fact that I didn't want to garden my front yard anymore – I wanted
somebody else to do it, and this was really a great solution.”

Nixon said she's mostly self-taught, though she's had help along the way.

“I grew up in a house of very enthusiastic gardeners,” she said. She gained further
experience on organic farms for a couple of summers during her university years, and worked
various jobs until her business started to take off.

And in do-it-yourself fashion, Nixon is the only full-time employee.

“My partner helps me sometimes, and his sister also lives with us, so I hire her to help with
weddings and larger events like that," she said.

It's all worked out pretty well for Nixon.

“It grew out of what I love to do. If I wasn't doing this business, I'd still be all over it,” she
said. “It's just kind of a bonus that it's what I get paid for now.”

Keeping the zine spirit alive

On a chilly October night, three people huddle around a table in Toronto.
As they casually discuss page layout, it seems as if they could be assembling a newspaper, or a glossy magazine, maybe even a plain-text newsletter.
Except that there are no computers in the room. Instead, resting upon the centre table are the tools of their trade: Scissors, glue, and various types of paper.
It only makes sense that Patrick Mooney is at the table – he's just the kind of guy who does things himself. A lifelong Toronto native, Mooney is a co-founder of the Toronto Zine Library (TZL), one of the largest collection of zines in the city.
“I always thought they were cool,” he said. “I thought libraries should have zines, but they don't really take them seriously. So it was like, I guess we'll have to do it ourselves.”
Housed in the second story of the TRANZAC building near Bloor and Brunswick, the staff at the Zine Library on this night is working its own, self-titled zine, which provides information and upcoming events at the library.
For the uninitiated, zines are independent publications, usually the work of a single author. Self-publishing may not be the easy way, but for 'zinesters,' it's their way.
The personal nature of zines reflects the specific mindset of their authors, according to Harley Paegot, who has published about a dozen zines in the past 2 years.
“If you go to a zine fair, you'll find lots of zines about being queer, being vegan, being indie or whatever,” Paegot said. “The idea is, 'Because I'm not being represented in the mainstream magazines, newspapers or on TV... I want to find like-minded people.'”
Paegot says that the creative freedom inherent in zines helps to balance some of the work involved in putting them together independently.
“There's just the freedom of not having an editor breathing down your neck,” he said. “So even if you're just writing a poetry zine... you can put out what you want to put out, without having to worry about criticism or somebody saying, no, you should tweak that or you should change that.”
The DIY mindset of zine-makers is not lost on TZL volunteer staffer, Chris Landry.
“Zines have a kind of ethics to them,” Landry said. “They have a sort of rebellious spirit.”
Landry believes zine culture exists as a bastion for the marginalized, pointing to the way that many authors use them to work through their personal issues.
“It seems like people use zines for really specific, topical things,” he said. “People who can't really share these things in public life... It gives people a chance to sort of reach out without having to deal with social stigma.”
Zines provide an outlet, if not a living. In fact, there's little, if any money to be made, according to Mooney.
“Basically all of the funding for this (library) comes from either our own pockets, or people buying memberships. We'll do some fundraising from time to time,” he said. “It's the kind of thing where it's not commercially viable.”
Paegot, whose zine Yard Sale contains personal reflections, writing, music reviews and interviews, points to the cost of production as one of the biggest challenges for zinesters trying to make it on their own.
“It's very rare that you make any money from zines,” he said. “My goal was just to break even, which was a struggle in itself.”
For someone desperate to share their thoughts with the world, a more financially sensible option might be to open a website or a blog. But for Paegot, a former blogger, the shift to zines provided a personal, tangible connection that the online environment couldn’t match.
“If I'm going to invest all this time into putting something out there about myself, I like when I'm done to have something physical in my hand,” he said.
“I have a stack of these little booklets that I can show people and hand to people, and that people can put on a bookshelf and have for years.”
For that reason, Paegot believes zine culture is likely to live on in some form or another.
“There will always be a certain target audience who wants something tangible, something physical in their hands, and there's always going to be a niche for that,” he said.
Mooney echoes that notion, saying that zinesters will continue to do-it-themselves, regardless of how niche it may become.
“We did a (workshop) at a high school once, and I don't think anybody knew what a zine was. But there's always going to be the five kids in the high school who know what zines are,” Mooney said with a laugh.
“They just weren't in that class.”

Bottle your own wine

In a small kitchen at the back of her shop, Esther Ciciarelli is preparing a customer’s order. She opens up a small cardboard box and takes out a clear plastic bag containing a dense red liquid of grape concentrate and pours it into a white pail.

“This is Chilean Merlot,” she said. Knowledgeable of wine making, Ciciarelli and her brothers bought into a Wine Kitz franchise seven years ago. They have been running and operating the business at their 429 Wilson Ave. location since.

They spent their childhood watching their father make the wine.

“It’s been a part of our culture ever since we were kids. My dad would make wine straight from the grapes,” Ciciarelli said.

Each batch she makes is about 23 litres. For the Merlot she adds about 90 grams of oak chips.

“The majority of red wine has oak chips which really complements the aroma and flavour of the wine,” she said.

Oak chips can be added anytime before bottling the wine, but Ciciarelli recommends adding them during fermentation.

“The longer the chips are integrated, the more character it will give your drink,” she added.

For 17 years Charles Fajgenbaum helped wine lovers enjoy the winemaking experience.

Fajgenbaum, 52, owns and operates Fermentations, which sells winemaking products. That’s not where his DIY career in spirit began, however. He recalls the first drink he made was beer.

“I was 16-years old when I made my first batch at home and it drove my parents crazy. My mother wondered what the heck I (was) doing.” he said.

The process of making the wine provide the initial motivation for making the beverage.

“I’ve always been a bit of a science geek and...I looked at it as a science process not an art process,” he added.

Fajgenbaum worked in the sales and marketing department for a pharmaceutical company, and prior to opening Fermentations winemaking was only a hobby. Enjoying a great glass of wine was Fajgenbaum’s inspiration for starting his own business.

“Everybody (the winemaking industry) was trying to make things as cheap as possible not as good as possible,” he explained.

One technique he uses is adding fresh grape juice rather than concentrate. “By the time you transform the heck out of something it’s been so transformed from what it’s supposed to be,” he explained.

Although the majority of their customers place an order, Ciciarelli said they still have a few customers who buy a batch of wine to make at home, and do so for economic reasons.

“When you buy a bottle of wine from the LCBO, 59 per cent tax is incorporated in the bottle you’re buying,” she said.

Keith Nickleson, a teacher, has been making homemade wine for 15 years, and credits this to the savings he gets.

“When I make my own bottle at home the whole thing only costs about $4,” Nickleson said.

For some people winemaking is not only a passion, but also a family tradition.

Al Toste watched his parents make wine. He said that his favourite part of the experience is the fermentation.

“The fermentation releases the smell of the wine and the aroma of it, and to me that’s a good experience,” Toste said. “That’s when you know you’ve made a good wine.”

Like Toste, Fajgenbaum enjoys the process, but said the most rewarding part for him is when he actually tastes the finished product.

“I know people who are cabinet makers, and after all the nailing and sawing is done, you know the piece of furniture is complete,” Fajgenbaum said.

“It’s the same thing with wine you have to enjoy the process, but it’s nice to know you also have a great end result.”

Retailers Cashing in on the Growing DIY Culture

Pat Higgins sees a trend in the retail market. Consumers tackling home and garden improvement projects on their own seek help from do-it-yourself-friendly stores.

“We’ve seen big increases in the garden business. People are decorating and doing their own landscaping,” Higgins said. “That’s the biggest shift in DIY I’ve seen.”

Doing home renovations oneself goes further than saving a buck or two. What used to be a hobby has become a way of living. Retailers have DIYers on their radar. They’re looking to cash in on the movement, supporting its growth by passing knowledge and advice to keep eager customers.

For 35 years Higgins has worked in retail. The last 13 years he’s owned and operated a Canadian Tire store in Uxbridge, Ont. He’s noticed a major shift in the DIY culture since the market crash in 2007.

“When it comes to home repair, there’s no doubt that as times get tough, people want to tackle these projects because it’s more affordable,” he said.

Adding to the DIY motivation, Higgins said tool manufacturers are shifting their production lines. They’re pushing for more ergonomic, user-friendly rakes, shovels and cordless power tools.

“We’re seeing a lot of expanded lines, which apply to DIY. It’s a move towards ergonomic,” Higgins said. “It’s all designed for the person doing it themselves.”

With the right tools in hand, consumers are tossing out the phonebook and heading into building materials suppliers themselves.

For 33 years, Doug Plourde, owner of Danforth Lumber Company has seen more DIYers coming to his lumber yard save a money.

“In 2007 we’d get about 70 per cent contractors and 30 per cent DIYers,” Plourde said. “Now we see it at about 60/40. People are handier and have more time to do things themselves.”

Plourde said the Internet is a massive teaching tool. He knows when people have a question and are curious they’ll consult the web.

President of Sheridan Nurseries Karl Stensson said “keeping things simple” is key to get customers crashing the shop’s doors and pursuing the next DIY project.

Stensson said his store offers DIYers three levels of interaction: free in-store advice, appointments for smaller project designs, or a home visit design for complex jobs. He said Sheridan takes pride delivering the know-how and confidence to the DIYer so they know exactly what to do and what to expect.

“The first and biggest mistake is not following a design,” Stensson said. “Once you make that mistake, you’re perpetuating (problems) all the way down the line.”

A major retailer for 97 years, Stensson said his company’s philosophy focuses putting power in the hands of the consumer. Like Plourde, Stensson believes technology and the Internet are a perfect landscape to teach handy work.

“We’re doing YouTube videos on how to treat your lawn. Our garden guide has now expanded to 160 pages and the first 30 pages are all questions and answers about home gardening,” Stensson said.

Building material and home improvement retailers appear to be adapting to changing consumer trends. Retailers have a vested interest in the success of their customers. Customer feedback will continue to drive the home improvement industry.

“We’re a DIY store that in itself solidifies the transfer to a DIY consumer and the DIY environment,” Higgins said.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Toronto musician makes some noise with his wacky toys

As a kid, Sam Ferrara once put his leg through a Slinky and it got stuck.

“I couldn’t get it off,” Ferrara said. “My dad had to wire-snip it.”

Today, Ferrara still plays with the Slinky, but in a different way. He uses it for musical percussion.

To build his Slinky instrument, Ferrara lined three in a row and sandwiched them between two pieces of scrap metal. He welded the Slinkys to the metal and used hockey tape to securely fasten them.

To play them, Ferrara cradles the bottom half of the set in his left hand; then with his right hand, he lifts the top half up and down as the Slinky coils jingle against each other.

Over the last 20 years, Ferrara, a Toronto-based musician, has been experimenting with random objects and giving them a percussive use. He described how his work with his do-it-yourself instruments began.

“I was just roaming around my apartment and trying different stuff,” he said. “I remember my girlfriend walking in and she said, ‘What are you doing with that cheese grater?’”

Resting the cheese grater on his knee, Ferrara sweeps a sheet of 50-grit sandpaper against the cheese grater to create a brushing sound. He puts 10 heavy duty Band-Aids on his knuckles, however, before each show to protect them from getting cut.

Ferrara has a wide range of instruments in his music bag. From spoons and metal files, to a musical saw with a violin bow that creates a sound like that of whales underwater. He's also attached a foot pedal to a hi-hat tambourine and plays it with his heel.

Sam Ferrara and John Borra recently celebrated six years of playing Sunday nights at the Communist's Daughter. Kay Pea was there to shoot some video.

Every Monday night, Ferrara plays his quirky instruments alongside his longtime musical companion, John Borra, at the Dakota Tavern on Ossington Avenue. They perform with three other musicians in the band Rattlesnake Choir.

Dakota Tavern manager Samantha Martin said Rattlesnake Choir has had "one of the most longstanding residencies" at the venue. She explained why she continues to book them.

“Rather than having a full drum kit,” Martin said, “to have more of a junkyard percussion is really fun to watch. It’s something different and it’s not in-your-face drums.”

She described the reaction that Ferrara receives from the audience.

"Whenever Sam picks up the saw and plays it, I notice there's a lot of hoots and clapping," she said. “He does a lot of it all at the same time and he switches between things ... I think that's what makes it fun to watch - just the fact that he can do it.”

Richard Flohil, a prominent music publicist based in Toronto, has seen Ferrara play at the Dakota Tavern several times. He explained what makes his style so intriguing.

“Music appeals to the head, the heart, the groin or the feet,” Flohil said. “And this (music) is fun. It’s relatively easy to play and it has a history.”

Its history dates back to the era of jug music in the 1920s in Memphis, Tenn., as Flohil explained.

“This was very do-it-yourself music historically. They were using jugs and old washboards and beat-up guitars and banjoes,” he said. “It's from an era when an illiterate black population had always used music. Going back to slavery times ... music helped things like picking cotton or lining railroad tracks."

So why does jug music still exist today?

"Inevitably, all music is a continuum," Flohil said. "Anybody doing jug band music now, it's a curious revival ... It was done at the time because it was handy, homemade music."

Ferrara has learned through experience that some homemade instruments are better than others.

He used to play the Zippo lighter - until his hair caught fire while on stage one time. He quickly doused it with his beer, but from that day forward, he never miked the Zippo again.

Ferrara also used to play the plastic bags. He would stuff several crinkly bags into a giant ball and press them in and out like an accordion. But it hurt his chest too much so he stopped.

Luckily for Ferrara’s fans, he has no plans to give up the Slinky.

“They’re my babies,” he said.

DIY lifestyle essential in launching television networks

Cottager Tony Armstrong faced a plumbing dilemma one day a few years ago. The foot valve in his water pump wasn’t working. He came up with two solutions.

“It was late October and the water (Lake Simcoe) was very cold and I wanted to fix the damn thing as soon as possible," Tony Armstrong said. “Why not a television show that showed people how to fix their foot-valves?”

Armstrong is a producer and director withCottage Life Television, providing programs that cater to the needs of cottagers.

Cottage Life Television was launched in 1992, at a time when there were no channels broadcasting do-it-yourself programming. But Armstrong said he knew there was a market for it.

“We knew the demand was there,” he said. “I was working with a lifestyle magazine. So we took a chance in producing the show, buying the (advertising time) and selling the ads ourselves...and it paid off.”

He added that when launching the television show his intention was to reach the readers of their magazine.

“Initially the estimate was to reach the same audience, but then each of those channels had their own built in audience, so we were having people coming to Cottage Life Show that didn’t know there was a magazine.”

Do-it-yourself television has seen a rise in popularity since the early ‘90s and there is no stopping it, said Angela Jennings, president of Fusion Television. She’s also a producer of lifestyle series such as Divine Design and Colour Confidential.

The shows take viewers through the process of transforming homes from their original look to an inspired space, while giving them home improvement tips along the way. She said these shows empower viewers.

“People have become empowered over the years as these genres became demystified,” Jennings said. “In the '80s, only wealthy people hired interior designers.”

“By expanding the popularity of these things via television, they became more accessible to the average person and hence was born the, ‘I can do that!’ attitude that permeates DIY programming,” she added.

Maria Armstrong, (no relation to Tony Armstrong) is the executive producer of Big Coat Productions; she credits the popularity of the DIY genre to people’s growing interest in being self-reliant.

“I think people want to learn to do things and do them well whether it’s decorating or cooking,” she said.

She underlined the importance of informing people, and said the entertainment aspect of the show has to play a key role.

“The genre is heading in more of the reality type approach,” Maria Armstrong said.

“People want to be entertained as there are so many videos focused at ‘how-to’ so the television programs have to inform as well as entertain.”

Tony Armstrong agreed that shows need to entertain,but said it’s important they focus on the project rather than the people.

“When I first started in this was the legitimacy of it that was entertaining,” he said. “The people who wanted to turn their barn into a house were interesting people, but the barn was the star of the show.”

The DIY Network offers online programming with expert advice on home improvement projects. Tony Armstrong said more networks should look to the Internet.

“If you want to paint your living room and you turn on HGTV and there is nothing on painting, your curiosity hasn’t been satisfied,” Tony Armstrong said.

“So broadcasters need to take the leap of faith and start programming for the web.”

Non-profit organization helps "the needy get nerdy"

Mathew Clark is spending his Saturday afternoon in an industrial warehouse in Toronto’s Junction area, where he is screwing tight electronic cards into a computer tower.

Clark is a volunteer at Free Geek Toronto, a non-profit organization where used and recycled computer equipment is refurbished.

“The first time I came here I worked for four hours learning this. And now I can do it on my own,” he said.

When entering the warehouse you’ll notice old computer monitors, hard drives, and electronic cards stacked up on shelves, volunteers assemble computer different components and look for parts that fit.

Tobie Marven, a volunteer co-ordinator, said Free Geek’s main objectives are limiting electronic waste and making technology more accessible to those who lack financial means or technical knowledge.

“We’re helping the needy get nerdy,” she said. “There is an over abundance of computers that people are just throwing out and there is a huge group of people who can’t afford computers.”

Free Geek offers two programs. The Adoption Program gives each person, after 24 hours of volunteer service a computer. In the Build Program, volunteers build five computers and a sixth to take home.

“We’re giving computers for people who want to volunteer, or selling them for $50,” Marven explained.

Most of the equipment Free Geek uses is donated. Marven said a lot of people throw out their electronics when they have no use for them.

“We also refurbish and then we make sure things are being recycled ethically,” she explained.

“There are so many harmful contaminants in these equipment, and by getting people to donate them, we are minimizing the amount of contaminants going into our land fills.”

According to Stats Canada more than 100,000 tons of electronic wastes is generated annually. Marven said the environmental aspect of the organization is one of the reasons people donate their unwanted computer parts.

“People hear about E-Waste (electronic waste) and they hear about us, so they want to be part of the solution,” Marven said.

Large bins containing mouses and keyboards sit in the drop off area. People donate their unwanted equipment, and volunteers test the equipment before reusing them.

Free Geek started in Portland, Ore. in 2000, and has locations in 12 cities across Canada and the United States. Its Toronto location opened to the public last March.

Perhaps one thing that stands out about Free Geek is that they use Linux Operating System, an open source software system. This means there are no restrictions on customizing upgrading or redistributing the software.

Marven was initially drawn to Free Geek by the idea of open source software.

“I like open source software, but prior to starting here I never opened a computer in my life,” she said. “I took the build class, and I learned how to test all the components and now I’m able to help people do this.”

The programs are completely run by volunteers. Marven said this is a motivating factor for people to continue working at Free Geek.

“What’s different here is if you volunteer in other places you have a small role to play, there is this entire paid staff who will find something smaller for you to do.” She said. “But here you can quickly become a key part of the organization, and part of making decisions.”

Hue Cameron, worked as a technical support technician in the 1990s, and had to leave his job due to a disability.

Cameron came to Free Geek to relearn his computer skills.

“Here I can learn how to fix a computer and take it apart, rather than buying one at a computer store then spending $200."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Goin' social through song and axe

It's pouring rain in Matt Wilson's backyard.

About 40 people have come to battle the damp and chilly October night, all in the name of Wilson’s game: Backyard Axe Throwing League (B.A.T.L.).

Players step up to a stone plate, wield their individually painted hatchets behind their heads and aim for the bull’s-eye on a rectangular-shaped wood plank target 15 feet ahead.

“It’s satisfying as all hell; the sound it makes and the feeling you get when you throw it and it sticks in the bull’s-eye,” Wilson said. “Then you just want to throw five in a row.”

But not everyone has come to throw an axe. Half of the people there want the entertainment.

“It’s totally a social thing,“ Wilson said. “When you’re not playing, you’re hanging out and you’re watching and you’re cheering.”

A similar social element exists in Toronto’s do-it-yourself acappella singing group, Tunes Beats Awesome (TBA).

‘Have fun. Sing good.’ That’s TBA’s mantra.

Eight years ago when it began, Jeff Magee started singing with TBA; he’s since become co-director of the group.

Every Sunday, Magee drives from Pickering to the Hart House building at the University of Toronto campus to meet with the other 17 group members for rehearsal.

Magee conducts each rehearsal, coaching the singers and giving them feedback. When TBA performs at events such as Acappellooza - where they gave two sold-out shows last year - he joins the group on stage to provide the vocal percussion.

When they’re not rehearsing, Magee and co-director Katherine Dodds have their hands full running the group.

“TBA’s not just a Sunday-run group,” Magee said. “You have to be thinking about everything every single day.”

Printing off sheet music, booking gigs and directing their publicity keep Magee and Dodds occupied. Although Magee finds it tiring, the reaction he sees from the singers makes it all worthwhile.

“You get a lot back from it just seeing how much they enjoy it,” he said. “I wouldn’t put the effort in if I didn’t feel it was rewarding.”

Clips from B.A.T.L. featuring TBA's version of "Battlefield"

Wilson’s B.A.T.L. began while on a cottage trip in the summer of 2006. Wilson and his friends started throwing a hatchet into a tree to pass the time. They soon added rules and a point system. Five throws per player per round, three rounds per set. Players get five points for the bull’s-eye, three points in the ring around it and one point for the outer ring. The player with the most points wins the round as they play a best-of-three set.

When Wilson returned home from the cottage trip, he built the first B.A.T.L. target and convinced a dozen friends to contribute $25 for materials and to join the fun.

Since then, B.A.T.L. has continued to grow in popularity. This year has been particularly significant for Wilson.

“I took the plunge to make it two nights (per week) and did all of the legal stuff to make it completely legitimate,” he said. “I’m now treating it like something that I could do for a living, within the next year maybe.”

Wilson plans to eventually move the league indoors and run it year-round. He explained why he thinks the game attracts competitors.

“There’s an element for people who feel like they shouldn’t be allowed to do it,” he said. “You’re throwing an axe ... It sounds completely dangerous, but when you get back there and see it, it’s not at all; it’s totally organized.”

David Banerjee, a Toronto teacher with an MA in educational theory, explained why people engage in activities outside their daily work routine.

“We have a minimum amount of social intercourse that we need,” Banerjee said. “We are pleasure-seeking ... We like to be around each other. We’re evolved for tribal living and it’s nice to have fun.”

Banerjee added that people have been designed to find meaning in the world by doing something they enjoy.

“People structure their understanding of the world by saying, ‘I’m not really going to try and understand the world, I just want to understand my little piece of it ... and I’ll be pretty happy,’” he said.

Sharing that understanding with others appears to be a common theme for TBA and B.A.T.L. participants. Just like Wilson said, Magee finds value in the social aspect of acappella singing.

“Some of the best times we have are when we go to Michigan and meet other groups,” Magee said. “It’s like a family ... You’re all music nerds.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Forget the drugmart and do-it-yourself

She digs two tablespoons of baking soda and glycerin; one tablespoon of cornstarch, pours it into a small bowl, adds a few drops of natural oils and grapefruit, and stirs the ingredients to a thick white paste. This is how Lisa Druchok makes deodorant.

“Over the past three years I have gained a real interest in learning how to make things myself,” Druchok said. “During the course of 2010 I have taken more do-it yourself workshops.”

Druchok is a client of Tracey TieF, a Natural Health Practitioner, who hosts hands-on workshops from her Toronto home for people seeking alternative methods to make health and cosmetic products.

Small jars and vials of natural herbs and oils sit in her small living room, where she instructs clients on making their own natural cosmetic products, such as fragrances, skin lotions and shampoos. She said she always had an interest in the natural means of treating the body.

“When I was four for instance my sister was suffering from asthma so I made her a ginger drink and as it turns out ginger is a helpful decongestant,” TieF said.

Prior to launching her wholistic health practice, Annares Natural Health in 2007 TieF worked with the homeless for 19 years and said she saw a link between the two.

“I’ve always been an activist so there is a deep connection for me between social justice and traditional ways of interacting with the environment and healing people,” she explains.

TieF uses essential oils on cosmetic products she makes and abstains from using preservatives. Clients sign up for her workshops for various reasons. Some are looking for different options, and others are interested in the actual process of making body care products.

Fleur McGregor visited a workshop to make a skin lotion for her baby.

“I had a desire to have (the skin lotion) be completely natural and under my control,” McGregor said. “It also sounded like fun to be able to find out how to make it.”

Vicky Yoo is a marketing assistant at Pure and Simple, a wholistic spa and a natural skin care products retailer. Yoo said more people are turning to natural alternatives, and this turn prompted companies to manufacture natural and organic cosmetic products.

“A lot of people get allergic reactions to skin care products and are looking for something more pure,” Yoo said. “So (cosmetic manufacturers) have to think of producing skin care lines that are more natural.”

TieF said the ingredients in her products are known as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and don’t require any testing. Cosmetic products that contain preservatives must meet the requirements of the Food and Drugs Act.

TieF said there is a list of substances banned from the market, but there have been no tests conducted to determine the safety of two or more combined substances.

Goin’ Solo Magazine tried to reach Health Canada’s Consumer Safety office but were unable to get a response.

As Druchok flips through her notes, pondering which elements she wants to put together for her next recipe, TieF walks into her kitchen and returns with a bottle of vodka.

Druchok mixes the vodka with coriander oil, cleaning vinegar, and then pours it into a small glass bottle to create an odour remover. Druchok said she feels that DIY workshops such as this are important and skepticism has driven her to take part in these workshops.

“I am always striving to be more self sufficient,” she explained. “It seems odd to me that people don’t know how to make the products or grow the food we have come to rely on.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Toronto artists do it on the street

In an alleyway near Queen and Bathurst streets, Toronto artist Mike Parsons stood in front of a giant mural. What was once a brick wall had become a canvas for his artwork.

"This was a huge process,” Parsons said. “The first thing was priming the wall white, which I did with giant poles.”

Hired by the owner of the house with the brick wall, Parsons created the mural using a 40-foot ladder and a few hundred dollars worth of white and black paint. He worked his way across the wall, section by section.

“I basically would paint about 40-by-five-feet a night,” he said. “It took about 40 nights in total to complete.”

Over the last decade, Parsons, who works under the name Hey Apathy!, has completed three graphic novels and over 10 major gallery installations. He’s also done numerous public wall murals and street art performances.

He explained why he prefers street art over gallery work.

“The commercial side of the galleries could get a bit trying; they would tell you what to do, what size to paint, what to paint, and ask you to do more of what sold last year,” he said. “The streets were a way that I would have complete control and freedom over whatever I did.”

Eric Cheung, another Toronto artist and collaborator with art group AT.AW., sides with Parsons.

“When I have a gallery show, it’s very anti-climactic; you put it on the walls and a couple of people see it,” Cheung said, “(but on the street) if you have a good idea, you could just toss it out there … It’s not squirrelled away or hidden.”

Jack Cassady, an associate professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design, acknowledged some of the benefits that street art has over gallery work.

“It gives the artist an opportunity to experiment without pressure from public or commercial galleries,” Cassady said. “So they can be more individual; they get out their voice.”

Unlike Parsons, Cheung prefers to do street art without anyone watching. He often takes to the streets very early in the morning, posting textile images of his characters - dubbed The Orphans - on utility poles or plywood at construction sites.

“I like the fact that when you throw stuff on the street, it’s this idea of it being free,” he said. “If you associate it with somebody or some event … people start thinking about other motivations rather than simply this person just putting work on the street for you to enjoy.”

Matthew Blackett, publisher of Spacing magazine, supports the type of DIY street art that Parsons and Cheung do. He recalled a time when he was walking through Little Italy and noticed pieces of cardboard with fruit illustrations affixed to the lampposts.

“You could clearly see someone was doing this intentionally,” Blackett said, “for no other thing than just to catch the odd person’s attention and question what it was.”

Getting people’s attention is what Cassady said a street artist’s reputation depends on.

“The only way you’re going to get anything happening in the street art (culture) is if you draw attention,” he said. “If you don’t draw attention, nobody is going to notice you.”

Although Cheung says it’s great when people find out who he is and want to know more about his projects, he’s not trying to convey a political message.

"I'm just trying to create a more interesting urban environment," he said. "It's funny. In Toronto, the street art is always very much about a very political idea … There's a couple arguments I've had where it shouldn't be as demanding of a message as some people would like it to be."

Parsons has a different approach. As he walked around the gallery (at 401 Richmond St.) displaying some of his paintings, he described one of the common themes in his art.

“The idea is that the city is the gear and it's up to all the people to propel it,” he said. “If each person takes responsibility for their actions, then that's a good place to start … Even by not doing anything they have an effect.”

As a self-represented artist, Parsons promotes and sells his own artwork. He also built the website for his business from scratch.

He explained why he chooses to do all of the work himself.

“All of those are jobs that could be done by various people to make it work, but it can’t always be done the way that I want it to,” he said. “Instead, I pace myself and do it all myself and things end up being more rewarding that way.”