Need to become the ultimate MacGyver. Suggestions?
July 31, 2008 8:39 AM   Subscribe

Need to become the ultimate MacGyver. Suggestions?

I'm an author working on a novel where the hero is incredibly resourceful. He can make a hang glider out of a paperclip and a matchbook; disarm an ICBM with dental floss -- not that absurd, of course, but you get my meaning.

He needs knowledge of electronics, mechanics, chemicals, physics -- all that stuff. I'm not looking to become an expert, per se, but to have access to enough knowledge and resources to make the character believable. To make what he does *plausible*.

I'm open to *all* suggestions: books, videos, short classes I might take, etc. Anything. Help me, Hive Mind!

Thanks in advance.
posted by gb77 to Technology (31 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I think your surest bet might be to develop some working relationships with experts in those various fields, or at least with people who are well-read and with your reference librarian. Any general course seems like it will be too general for you to get what you'll need out of it to be creative. AskMe seems to be quite useful in this capacity for a lot of folks :]

And thank you so, so, so much for not using the word "hack" in this post.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:50 AM on July 31, 2008

Thanks, fiercecupcake. If you only knew how close I was to typing "hack". Something pulled me back from the brink....

posted by gb77 at 8:54 AM on July 31, 2008

Give your character a good command of duct tape. Browse through Make.
posted by jet_silver at 8:55 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are you writing Buckaroo Banzai fanfic? World-class neurosurgeon, race car driver, rock star, and physicist.
posted by mkb at 9:03 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are you writing Buckaroo Banzai fanfic? World-class neurosurgeon, race car driver, rock star, and physicist.

Nope, 'fraid not. Globetrotting, independently wealthy former engineer with an inordinate number of bad guys trying to ruin his day.
posted by gb77 at 9:05 AM on July 31, 2008

How Stuff Works
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:28 AM on July 31, 2008

Now with a link...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:28 AM on July 31, 2008

Scour Lifehacker for applicable MacGyver-esque innovations.
posted by Detuned Radio at 9:30 AM on July 31, 2008

Hmm, sounds like Buckaroo would be an appropriate reference, though, if you leave out the aliens.
posted by mkb at 9:34 AM on July 31, 2008

Watch Survivorman
posted by zeoslap at 9:35 AM on July 31, 2008

Make that Survivorman
posted by zeoslap at 9:36 AM on July 31, 2008

Scrapheap Challenge - an engineering game show produced by RDF Media and broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. In the show, teams of contestants have 10 hours in which to build a working machine that can do a specific task, using materials available in a scrapheap.

Examples of challenges include making a jet car, a bridging machine, a car-crusher, or a machine to fling a British Leyland Mini as far as possible.

The show was inspired by a real life McGyver moment in the Apollo 13 mission.
posted by malp at 9:58 AM on July 31, 2008

HyperPhysics. It'll give you a good briefing on everything but chemistry. I'd also use this as an excuse to watch every episode of Good Eats. You'll also need Readily Available Chemicals. Pay attention to the laws of thermodynamics, ideal gas law, and electromagnetics. You might also consider an old copy of the boy scout handbook, and the Dangerous Book for Boys.

Try to replicate the situations your character is in as closely as you can and see what you come up with. As stated here, build it and familiarize yourself with it, but then step away and relax. Alone. The solutions will come to you. Maybe not the first time, but they will eventually.
posted by jwells at 9:58 AM on July 31, 2008

Once you figure out what the possible problems that your character will have to solve, try contacting a local college, and see if any of the professors would be interested in using these situations as part of a class. You may find that college kids are quite resourceful.
posted by markblasco at 10:22 AM on July 31, 2008

Spend a few hours poring over a Pocket Ref. It's not an entertainment title like some of the stuff mentioned above, it's pretty dry stuff, but if it doesn't teach you the basics of Doing Anything... nothing is going to.

It's got a massive variety of reference sections: chemical, structural, material, astronomical, mechanical, navigational, signal, mathematical, and more. There's a reference table for everything you can think of (although in my opinion way too much of the book is descriptions of parts standards for construction and plumbing, but I'm sure that helps a lot of people). If I could only take one book with me while trying to restart civilization after the apocalypse, this would be it.
posted by majick at 10:22 AM on July 31, 2008

Oh, and it has the added advantage that a bad-ass engineer would actually own one.
posted by majick at 10:23 AM on July 31, 2008

Make magazine holds a macgyver competition every issue - a macgyver-like challenging scenario is issued and then people respond with the most creative ways they know of to solve the challenge. It's very good for giving you an idea of just how many different macgyver options and approached can be available even for exactly the same situation.

With the exception of the current challenge under way, each challenge, the results, and commentary on the results and how winners were picked, is here - Makeshift.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:33 AM on July 31, 2008

David Jones, a brilliant and dazzlingly creative scientist, devoted years of his life to thinking up things like that for some reason (you have to think he couldn't help himself, really):

Daedalus is a fictional inventor created by David E. H. Jones for his Ariadne column in the New Scientist and The Guardian, and which is currently featured in Nature.

Daedalus's imaginary inventions are solidly grounded in science — usually just within the bounds of technical feasibility, and often prophetic.

For example, he once designed a locomotive fueled by fine grass shavings, to be gathered en route by a lawnmower installed in place of the usual cowcatcher. According to Daedalus's computations, the natural growth of grass planted between the rails would produce enough shavings to propel a fully-laden train every hour.

In the columns, Daedalus' inventions are often developed by the fictional company DREADCO (Daedalus Research Evaluation and Development Corporation).


* The Inventions of Daedalus: A Compendium of Plausible Schemes, by David E. H. Jones. W. H. Freeman (1982); ISBN 0-7167-1412-4

* The Further Inventions of Daedalus, by David E.H. Jones. Oxford University Press (1999); ISBN 0-19-850469-1.

This gives a poor idea of the transcendent ebullient silliness of Daedalus' work. He's like a catastrophic snafu in the secret, illegal cloning lab, resulting in a mosaic of Enrico Fermi and Rabelais.
posted by jamjam at 10:37 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Scrapheap Challenge - an engineering game show produced by RDF Media and broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK.

AKA Junkyard Wars in the US.
posted by inigo2 at 10:41 AM on July 31, 2008

Seconding Junkyard Wars and Make; see also Mythbusters (can't believe it hasn't been recommended already).
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:50 AM on July 31, 2008

Make Blog and Hack a Day.

Note: the hacks in fiction are really over the top. You should watch the MacGyver Mythbusters special for more info. You'll find realism is a lot more interesting but more boring for some readers.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:54 AM on July 31, 2008

You need asavage
posted by bitdamaged at 11:02 AM on July 31, 2008

As the writer, you don't need to be an expert on any of this stuff; only your character does.

Therefore, the knowledge you need to acquire is situational. Figure out what your set pieces are, where your MacGyver will apply his super-intellect, and you'll have a better idea of what knowledge you need to acquire. The richer the set-piece is in tech, the more fun your MacGyver can have.

Some sample set pieces (large): The steam tunnels of a large university; a construction site; a freighter, a grocery store.

Some smaller set pieces: men's bathroom; refrigerated truck; stairwell.

Some set pieces are places your hero has lured his foes, some are places he's trapped, some are places he has to go to get the macguffin or the information he needs.

Once you have those set pieces, your question can be much more focused: what can a smart fellow do with a construction crane? What can he do with a hand dryer?

You might also Google the go-bag. They come in all varieties, from what a special-ops guy has at the ready, to what a fashionable geek might be carrying. Figure out what your guy carries with him. Figure out what other people might be carrying on them that the guy can use.

I realize this is all very light on specific resources, but I think it will help you avoid information overload, and enlist the aid of specific experts by saying stuff like, "You're at the top of a stairwell and the door to the roof is locked. There are five thugs coming up the stairs, and they mean you no good. Assume you have your trusty leatherman tool, and nothing else but a fire extinguisher and whatever you find in a standard custodial closet. You have to get out onto the roof and/or disable all the thugs. Go."
posted by zueod at 11:09 AM on July 31, 2008

Highly recommend another UK show - the Open University's Rough Science. A team of scientists given seemingly impossible tasks with next to no equipment. The chemistry guy was particularly impressive.
posted by handybitesize at 11:51 AM on July 31, 2008

Henley's from 1916 has almost everything you can imagine in it.

Check out some ARMY field manuals, especially the survival ones, and the improvised munitions ones... they're sorta like James Bond behind enemy lines blow up a building with a gallon of gas, some aluminum, and a bit of C4 and a tuna can. Make a .45 pistol out of pipe, make a .22 out of coat hanger wire, explosives out of dirt and piss and battery acid.

Look for old dictionaries, my grandparent's version was like 5" thick and had many pages of obscure interesting stuff: basic fencing stances, semaphores!, morse code, ballet stances, ice skating moves, knots, boating signals, and on and on. Find the old stuff from before the wussification age.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:48 PM on July 31, 2008

Oh, and read Neal Stephenson's Zodiac. It has the best fictionalization of an engineer thinking about a problem I've ever read. (Come to think of it, Cryptonomicon has some content like that, too.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:36 PM on July 31, 2008

Try watching Burn Notice (though I hear they leave out one crucial ingredient so nobody can "do this at home"). Either way, it sounds like you get the general idea on that show.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:36 PM on July 31, 2008

Act two of a This American Life episode features a tale about a woman who tries to become such a person. Pretty interesting, and it is a real-life person. That entire episode is pretty great.
posted by sararah at 5:00 PM on July 31, 2008

You should go to the library and borrow the whole series of Worst Case Scenario books. The website pretty much sucks, but you do get nice tips on how to pull yourself out of a car hanging from a cliff, or defeat an alligator in an attack and stuff like that. Travel, Extreme and surprisingly, Sex are the most useful. I mean, what international man of mystery doesn't need to know how to determine if his date is a (secret agent) axe murderer?
posted by DarlingBri at 5:28 PM on July 31, 2008

Check a surplus store for an Army Rangers field manual. It's full of interesting stuff!
If would also be cool if your leading man invented some obscure item by mistake, that then becomes of mainstream use- kind of like superglue did. Now it's used to close wounds, lift latent fingerprints, etc.
posted by Acacia at 3:50 AM on August 1, 2008

As a way of nthing Rough Science, they typically solve several challenges an episode, and each problem will be built out of a series of macgyverings.
For one, in order to build an underwater microphone, they needed something that could convert sound-waves into electricity - so the chemistry guy helped out the electronics guy by growing a piezo-electric crystal from raw materials.
In hindsight, well duh, of course you can do that if you know how. But it was an approach that would not have occurred to me, and I was quite impressed!
posted by -harlequin- at 4:58 PM on August 1, 2008

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