The MakeShift Challenge (or what would MacGyver do?)

For its first five years, Make: magazine ran a column called "MakeShift," edited by Lee D. Zlotoff, creator of the TV show MacGyver. The idea was to present Make: readers with a MacGyver-esque challenge in each issue, collect all of the submitted solutions, and then publish an analysis, along with all of the top submitters' notes and sketches, on the Make: website. The "MakeShift" challenge asked readers to ponder such conundrums as how to contain a viral outbreak on a plane, how to charge your phone with nothing but camping gear and a propane torch, how to fend off a zombie attack, and how to get help after a very bad fall.

The reader-responses were impressive. People really put a lot of thought into their solutions, sending copious notes and drawings. And in fully explaining the challenges and ranking the solutions in the follow-up website articles, Lee and Make: editor Bill Lidwell shared a lot of great MacGyvering tips and nutshell science and engineering.

Sadly, years ago, the "MakeShift" columns disappeared when a dedicated magazine area of the Make: site was discontinued. So, a few weeks ago, Make: decided to bring back "MakeShift," now publishing re-constituted columns every Wednesday. Here are the first three posted.

Dead Car Battery

You're 50 miles into mountainous woods, your battery is dead, and there's a big snowstorm bearing down. How can you revive your dead battery? On, and it's a automatic transmission.

Potable Water

You're in a village in East Asia and the water has become dangerously contaminated. You have 48 hours to create a reliable source of potable water. Go!

Crane-Mounting a Fiberglass Super Cow

A realtor wants to mount a giant fiberglass cow, made to look like Superman, on top of a 40-story-tall sky crane, during the summer and fall, in a city that's at high risk of hurricanes. An engineering firm says it will cost some $50,000 to safely deploy the Super Cow. You brag that you could easily do it for $20. The realtor accepts. Now what do you do?

One of the ideas that Lee put forth in the columns was a MacGyver-worthy measure of intelligence that he called MQ (for "MakeShift Quotient"). MQ is one's ability to use knowledge of science and engineering, combined with chewing gum, bailing wire, and some Yankee ingenuity, to fashion workable solutions to problems on the fly. Reading through these challenges, reader solutions, and Lee and Bill's thoughtful commentary, is a surefire way to increase your own MQ.

Disclosure: I have been involved with Make:, in one guise or another, since its inception. I am currently a regular contributor to the website and the magazine.

Notable Replies

  1. Enkita says:

    The lesson I learnt from the first one was that, if I ever go camping in deep woods by car my hand-cranked Honda portable generator will go with me (and will be tested before use). If it's somewhere with unobstructed sunlight a solar panel will do nicely. Ah, the benefits of living in the 21st century.

  2. It's baling wire. Formerly used in balers, for baling hay into bales. Now obsolete, it has been replaced by baling twine. Baling twine is very useful, but in different ways than baling wire was, and much harder to cut without tools.

  3. But you gotta admit -- wire that could bail out your boat (or your brother) would be pretty damn cool ; -)

    If you miss baling wire as much I used to, check out "lashing wire," the stuff that wraps around aerial tv cable distribution lines to secure 'em to the thick "strand" cable that runs pole-to-pole.

    Lashing wire is made from stainless and strong as shit in tension; also resists breaking-by-repeated-bending like nothing you've seen (takes about 50 sharp bends to break). Diameter is roughly 17ga AWG, typically sold on 1200' coils for about $30; one coil lasts forever in home use. (I've even used it as emergency replacement for form ties when pouring concrete.)

    Type 430 is low-carbon, ~18% chromium, good for everywhere except chloride/industrial environments; $30.
    Type 316 is 18/10/3 chromium/nickel/molly-be-damned, holds up against anything; $60.

    I worked cable construction for a few years, and ever since then lashing wire's been standard in all my car- and tool-kits.

  4. There's a much simpler solution: put a spare battery (or two, if you're paranoid) in the boot. You've got the car anyway, so weight isn't an issue.

    Relatedly: I do a lot of back-country solo walking, of the sort where I can easily go for a week or two without encountering any humans.

    A few years ago, my Dad bought me a flint and steel, intended as a foolproof backup firestarter. It works quite well; starts fires easily.

    But I never, ever carry it when I'm out walking. Why? Because the flint and steel weighs more than half a dozen disposable lighters.

    What I actually carry are a few cheap lighters (to provide redundancy in case of failure), kept in a waterproof container, plus a few waterproof matches (for the unlikely possibility of me simultaneously dropping all of my lighters into a puddle or something).

  5. Crash the plane as hard as you can.

    How can you revive your dead battery? On, and it's a automatic transmission.

    No it isn't. That would be stupid.

    An engineering firm says it will cost some $50,000 to safely deploy the Super Cow. You brag that you could easily do it for $20.

    That's also stupid. Bid $49,000.

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