Book Review: The Good Life Lab


Stop whatever you’re doing and get this book. I’ve just finished reading it and I have to say that [Wendy] and [Mikey] could easily be the poster children for modern day hacking, and this book could be the manual for a life built on hacking.

When I visited [Wendy] and [Mikey] last year I was blown away.  Their little homestead was a veritable smorgasbord of hacks. Everywhere I looked, things were cobbled together, modified, repaired, and improved. There wasn’t a single piece of their lives that wasn’t somehow improved by their efforts to play an active role in their own living.

That sounds a bit cheesy I know. We all play an active role in our lives right? Sure. But what they have done is created a hacker’s homestead. My projects tend to live on my workbench, occasionally poking into my daily life, but they went were there was virtually nothing and hacked together everything they found they needed.  Their life is their workbench.

If there was a need, something would be made to satisfy that need. The buildings they built were constructed from scrap and paper, the power they use was harvested from their own cobbled together solar system and battery array, the food they eat was cultivated from the desert using intelligent planning. It was not only an impressive display of hacker ingenuity, but also inspiring.

The book basically comes in two parts.

Part 1. the Story:

[Wendy] and [Mikey] were hackers in New York. You might remember [Mikey] from some articles he wrote for hackaday ages ago, as well as his projects that appear on our pages. [Wendy] started swap-o-rama, which you may have also seen. This part of the book is an interesting view of hackers struggling to live two different ways at the same time (DIY/Hacking vs Get a job and be normal). Ultimately, they decided they would move to the middle of New Mexico and just make what they need.  They’ve been documenting this whole process on their blog, Holy Scrap, as well.

I wasn’t too interested in a “hackers falling in love” story, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is more of a first hand account of some of the cool stuff they were doing in New york. There are stories of things like when [Wendy] orchestrated a large event involving decorative burn barrels on the streets of New York, or that time when [Mikey] built a bunch of vibrating underwear with remote controls to pass out to strangers at burning man.

Part 2. the Lab.

After spending so much time doing what they do, they’ve compiled chapter upon chapter of projects to survive on. Ranging from electronics projects like harvesting and repairing car batteries to growing and harvesting your own medicinal plants, Creating entire buildings from old phone books to converting vehicles to run on grease. I think this section should be handed out in high schools as part of the curriculum.

In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. It almost seemed like a glimpse into an imaginary place that belonged in a [Niel Stephenson] book (I could imagine passing through this area in the Diamond Age). I should also mention that even though I did visit them last year, I don’t really know them. I knew they were in my path for that trip and shot them an email. They were fantastic hosts who fed us, amused us, and took us swimming in the Rio Grande.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Good Life Lab

    1. Clearly he was referring to the activated yeast roll Wendy turned into an ocarina. Once you are improving the quality of your life through music, you get to eat the instrument with some tasty home-made soft cheese.

  1. How do you balance “off the grid” with wanting to stay connected? Is a lifestyle like this compatible with high-speed internet and always-on smartphones? I’m too attached to my constant connection to the world to give it up.

  2. I still fondly remember the tour video and “Da Pimp”. Very cool stuff, and it seemed like to the Sklars, every aspect of life was something to be re-examined and re-invented.

    They’re the ones that got me thinking about all the rechargeable batteries I have, belonging to a multitude of cordless tools. Many of which are rarely used, with the batteries serving no purpose at all in the meantime. And when I do go to use one, I often find the battery has been trickle charged to death by a cheap charger. Or if I’ve left it unplugged to avoid that fate, it may have died from excessive self-discharge instead. Far too many batteries to keep track of, and are needlessly wasted. And even if the battery is still good, the run time usually leaves something to be desired. Would be so cool to have a single high-capacity universal battery that can connect to any tool, by some means auto-detect what it’s connected to, and output the correct voltage. It could strap around my waist like a fanny pack. When I’m not using it, it could parallel the battery in a UPS, charge itself, then prop up the capacity during a blackout – greatly extending the run and life times of the gel cell battery.

    I’m slowly getting closer to this project. When it’s done, then I’ll buy the book. Too much inspiration already, and not enough time. ;)

  3. “DIY/Hacking vs Get a job and be normal”; respectfully does such a dichotomy exist? I’m sure there are many DIY sorts who put in 40-60+ hour weeks “working for the man”. As far as the book goes, for $25 I doubt I’ll buy one my budget doesn’t allow for $25 books that might not teach me something useful that I can use Although I hope the project works out well for the couple.

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