Robert Cockerham and Yours Truly
Robert Cockerham and Yours Truly

(This piece was originally commissioned by MAKE Magazine, but ended up on Yahoo.com, from where it has since disappeared. I feel it is only right and just to reprint it here.)

Nerd Crush For the Connoisseur

When I first heard about this guy Robert Cockerham’s website, cockeyed.com, I pictured something along the lines of an amalgam of clever backyard engineering projects mixed with some of the milder exploits from Jackass, minus the penile injuries. I wasn’t far off, but what I didn’t know was of Robert’s righteous place in Internet pioneer nerd-dom.

And when I told a few of my friends that I had befriended Robert and, eventually, that I was going to be writing an article about him for the redoubtable Make Magazine, the din of giddy squeals from both male and female nerds of A Certain Age was deafening. My friend Summer said, “my ex-husband and I were so geeked out on him and Cockeyed! Oh my GOD!” She put her hands in her lap forcefully as if to calm herself, and was quiet for a tense and excited second or two.

“Have you met him? WHAT’S HE LIKE?” Her cheeks—I’m serious—were flushed. Flushed! Based on things like his parabolic solar concentrator, “The Light Sharpener” and the prank he played at the Roseville Galleria Hyundai Dealership display, which involved his adding a pseudo-time machine made out of a repurposed component of a Korean boxing robot (more on that later.) Ahhh, sapiosexuality. The boon to all of us who are smarter than we are cute (though Robert is cute by any measure.)

I explained to her that Robert is best described in the exact way he describes himself, on his very own website: “I feel my strongest traits are 1) my overall knowledge of material handling and properties, 2) an unnatural ability to complete projects and 3) a good sense of humor through good times and hard times. Oh, and one more, I don’t mind asking basic questions.

“If you liked any of this stuff, or have valuable suggestions, project proposals or lawsuits pending against me, please email me.”

I’ve spent some time with Robert, and what I can tell you is this: his cautious, mild-mannered demeanor does not match what one would expect from a person who once facilitated the flaming detonation of a giant, ketchup-packet-filled, wire-crafted teddy bear on the streets of his neighborhood, like a horrifically-misunderstood prescience of Burning Man. What he does seem reminiscent of, in fact, is a tech employee at a corporation like, for example, MCI, which in fact he was, when he began to gradually lure friends over to his house on weekends for help making manifest his plans for elaborate (and often surprisingly expensive) pranks, with building his mad scientist-meets-Willy-Wonka useless whirligigs, flux capacitors, and shitty-shitty-bang bangs, as well as his heartbreaking works of staggering genius.

He also started using the web in ways no one really was, yet. Back in the days of Alta Vista and Geocities, he got himself a personal URL and started blogging. In days of yore, when it was hard to find images online that were larger than a microchip, he bought a digital camera and started uploading big pictures that got lots of excitement and attention. He predated all that stuff we share like mad on social media now, the “wow . . . why?”–inducing links from eccentric engineering-types who make machines that maybe don’t do much but they’re just plain cool, the smart humor sites and the just plain weird stuff, and even the embryonic concept of flash mobs and the wildly-elaborate pranks that we see on YouTube that go viral before we even get a chance to log on in the morning.

When he and his coworkers got laid off from MCI, they used their severance pay to take a tour of Europe, and he blogged it all. He blogged it. With his (at the time) high-res camera and his growing online readership, he wrote and photographed his experiences. Robert and I are almost exactly the same age, and I, as a writer, am left slapping my forehead at my own lack of foresight: I didn’t even own a personal computer until . . . 2005? When I was thirty-five? All the opportunities missed! But he saw the potential, or maybe he was just enjoying what he was doing, and kept rolling with it.

But is he a “maker?” And where was the seed of it all, really? Way back when, when rocks were formed, little Robert, son of a forensic scientist and one of four kids, developed something of an unnatural fascination with Makita drills, and the first thing he made was a set of speaker boxes. He never lost his desire to create and build–sometimes functional objects, and sometimes things one would more accurately describe as junk sculptures, with a strong bent toward prodigal genius. And he always liked to make people laugh. His nature, then and now, was low-key and more introverted. So, how to get an audience, how to get participants, how to become the charismatic mad scientist and ne’er-do-well gadabout who is the Robert Cockerham of cockeyed.com?

The Early Days: Internet Pioneer, Mad Scientist, or Sex God?

(I’ll give you a clue: he doesn’t own any leather pants, nor does he have a profile on FetLife, nor–sadly for us all–any beefcake posters.)

He ended up at University of California Santa Barbara, struggling to survive in the oh-so-challenging environment of beach-meets-mountains geography, when he discovered a long-standing tradition there that was to inform the person he was to become: their famous annual costume parade. “I realized,” he told me, leaning forward with something of a conspiratorial tone, hands clasped together and resting on his knees, as we sat on stools across from each other in my hoarder-trashed, pink-painted, uh, office, “that with a couple days’ effort, I could be, like, a rockstar.” His eyes open up a little wider, like he’s sharing the secret to insta-fame and glory, to getting-laid-in-a-hurry, to BMOC-status.

But what he chose for his first foray into rockstar-dom says a lot about Robert. He decided to be a kiosk.

“A kiosk?”!

“Yeah, you know, the kind they always have at college campuses, I guess, with the pagoda or kind-of Kremlin-looking top? I made it out of cardboard, and stapled all these flyers to it. I cut out a small sideways oval for my eyes, and made shoulder harnesses so I could wear it. People were all, ‘oh my God, look! It’s a kiosk!’ and stuff like that. Just shouting and pointing. All night it was like that! Man, it was great.” He smiled and shook his head at the memory. The glory, the reveling.

They were pointing and shouting. At a cardboard cipher.

“But no one could see you.”

“Yeah. I guess there was that. Someone did pop under and up and got in there with me for a minute, but that was it.”

I brightened. “Did you have crazy on-the-spot sex? Set the kiosk down and get bizzay?”

“No. No, I didn’t do that.”

“Some kind of rockstar you are.”

“I guess I’m the quiet, anonymous kind.” (Introspective silence.) “There was one year I went as a map of Africa. My face poked out somewhere around Chad. It wasn’t nearly as big a hit, though.” He looked solemn and regretful.

Ultimate Success, Ultimate Prank . . . and he’s not stopping

But the crazily-creative costume-creation would become something of a specialty for Mr. Robert Cockerham, and they would bring him as much glory as some of his other famous inventions and legendary pranks. Sometime back, he had the great good fortune of attending a costume contest at Industrial Light and Magic (YES, birthplace of Star Wars and headquarters for George Lucas’ special effects creative team,) and he went as an old-school crowd of paparazzi, complete with flashing, popping cameras made from deconstructed and somehow re-purposed disposable point-and-shoots that he found, dumped by the hundreds–all the film used up but the flashes still intact.

What you need to know is this: Robert Cockerham won the freaking costume contest at freaking Industrial Light and Magic. He won. that. shit. But what made him most happy is that, apparently, in addition to that insane achievement, George Lucas’ child favored Robert’s costume over all the others as well, and came over to marvel and comment.

But my personal, favorite cockeyed.com creation got him mentioned on the morning talk shows and written about in all the expected places: his piece de resistance, the Disneyland Costume. An absolutely stunning display of attention to detail and hilarious lack of self-consciousness (easily my favorite Robert-trait,) the Disneyland Costume is like the world’s most gigantic hat (when I say gigantic, I mean gigantic: 6’5” in diameter,) worn at a steep angle for maximum view-ability, with his head poking out at the Matterhorn!

“You’ve come a long way from Chad.”

“Indeed. I started the process by studying satellite maps, and, using Adobe Fireworks, printed that all onto seventy sheets of paper, then simplified it so that it was sort of an augmented reality, highlighting the attractions that people would want to see.”

“What made you choose to do a costume of Disneyland?”

He stopped, paused, looked at me, spoke slowly: “Well, because everybody loves Disneyland.” I heard the unspoken word at the end of that sentence: “DUMMY.”

But as a resident of the conservative, moneyed, highly-law-abiding suburb of Roseville, the cockeyed.com story that intrigued me even more was the one he told about how he pulled one over on the infamous Westfield Roseville Galleria. (You know the Getty Museum in LA? The Met in NY? This is our equivalent. Marble-floored, cameras everywhere, a hushed and posh quality.) He had found an enormous . . . object . . . elaborately electronic, printed with unreadable characters and pegged throughout with blinking LED lights, along the roadside. (This sort of thing happens to Robert.) After a whole lot of Google-fu, he learned that it was half of an incredibly expensive Korean boxing robot “toy.” Like, $10,000-range expensive.

“So I got this idea . . . “

He realized that the only way he was going to get it into the rarefied confines of the plush, Nordstrom-anchored church of consumerism was to put it on a dolly and walk with casual confidence right by the front desk. You know, where Information and Security are. So he did exactly that, as-big-as-you-please, and made his way directly to where Hyundai had set up a large promotional area, complete with two parked cars, information KIOSKS [I still smart at the missed opportunity for costumed  shenanigans,] and signage. He “installed” his addition in what looked like a natural spot within, marked with a very professional-looking warning note that said: “CAUTION: TIME MACHINE OUT OF ORDER. CALIBRATION OFF BY THREE DAYS. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT [and here he put the number of the Roseville Hyundai dealer’s service department.]”

“It lasted three months.”

I leapt off my stool and screamed, laughed, clapped.

That’s Robert. He’s not in it for the glory. He’s in it for the fun.