Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Technology (Underground) Words of the Year

In its 16th annual 'words of the year' vote, the American Dialect Society voted for their selections of Words of the Year. For these word experts and etymologists, the Word of the Year includes not just words but phrases as well. Words under consideration are not necessarily brand new, but they have to be notable and buzzworthy in the past year, in the manner of Time magazine’s Person of the Year. For example, President Bush's phrase "heck of a job" makes the cut.

This year's word list contains a number of interesting technology derived words which I shall endeavor to include in my daily conversations to the greatest extent possible. The truthiness of this statement is indisputable.

  • This years best new word is "Truthiness" which is the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. Popularized by Stephen Colbert. Sez colbert “I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart."
  • Podcast: a digital feed containing audio or video files for downloading to a portable MP3 player.
  • Lifehack: to make one’s day-to-day behaviors or activities more efficient. Also as a noun. Lifehacks apply the make-do, can-do, what-will-it-do attitude that originated in computer hacking.
  • Patent troll: a person or business, especially a lawyer, who applies for or owns a patent with no intention of developing the product but with every intention of launching lawsuits against patent infringers.
  • Other interesting words include "pope-squatting", and whizzinator

Nitric Acid Acts Upon Trousers

I found this on my hard drive and I just can't remember where I first found it. Well, irrespective of whence it came, I think it's pretty good.

In 1879 preeminent American chemist Ira Remsen made the greatest discovery of his career by accident. When he ate rolls at dinner after a long day in the lab researching coal derivatives, he noticed that the rolls tasted initially sweet but then bitter. Since his wife tasted nothing strange about the rolls, Remsen tasted his fingers and noticed that the bitter taste was probably from one the chemicals in his lab. The next day at his lab tasted the chemicals that he had been working with the previous day and discovered that it was the oxidation of o-toluenesulfonamide he had tasted the previous evening. He named the substance “saccharin.”

Remsen was well known as a chemist who was truly entertained by what he found in his chemistry lab. Here's an sample of his writing that shows what a neat guy he must have been:

While reading a textbook of chemistry I came upon the statement, "nitric acid acts upon copper." I was getting tired of reading such absurd stuff and I was determined to see what this meant. Copper was more or less familiar to me, for copper cents were then in use. I had seen a bottle marked nitric acid on a table in the doctor's office where I was then "doing time." I did not know its peculiarities, but the spirit of adventure was upon me. Having nitric acid and copper, I had only to learn what the words "act upon" meant. The statement "nitric acid acts upon copper" would be more than mere words.

All was still. In the interest of knowledge I was even willing to sacrifice one of the few copper cents then in my possession. I put one of them on the table, opened the bottle marked nitric acid, poured some of the liquid on the copper and prepared to make an observation. But what was this wonderful thing which I beheld? The cent was already changed and it was no small change either. A green-blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great colored cloud arose. This was disagreeable and suffocating. How should I stop this?

I tried to get rid of the objectionable mess by picking it up and throwing it out of the window. I learned another fact. Nitric acid not only acts upon copper, but it acts upon fingers. The pain led to another unpremeditated experiment. I drew my fingers across my trousers and another fact was discovered. Nitric acid acts upon trousers.

Getman, F.H. "The Life of Ira Remsem"; Journal of Chemical Education: Easton, Pennsylvania, 1940; pp9-10

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Big Time Building Implosion Scheduled

It's hard to get much advance information on building implosions, but here's one that looks like it's worth putting on the calendar. According to the Portland Oregonian newspaper,

"The massive cooling tower at the decommissioned Trojan Nuclear Plant will be brought down this spring, not by the political controversy that has marked its past but by the detonations of contractors hired by the structure's owner, Portland General Electric.

PGE said Thursday that it has hired Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix, Md., to implode the 499-foot tower in what utility officials called the logical next step in a multiyear decommissioning. PGE shut down the facility in 1993 after a cracked steam tube released radioactive gas. The plant had operated for 17 years at a site near Rainier, 40 miles northwest of Portland.

The cooling tower, along with office and storage buildings, two ponds and a park, are the dominant features on the 634-acre site.

Although much of the decommissioning work has occurred, the destruction of the cooling tower will represent the most dramatic step.

Controlled Demolition operates worldwide. In the Northwest, it is best known for its implosion of Seattle's Kingdome.

The demolition of the cooling tower probably will take place in May, according to PGE. Demolition experts will set many charges, mostly at the cooling tower's base, and collapse the building within itself, attempting to minimize flying debris and billowing dust.

The cooling tower, at 499 feet, is higher than all but two downtown office buildings: the Wells Fargo Center at 544 feet and the Unico U.S. Bancorp Tower at 536 feet."
I might try to arrange a trip out there to see this. I've always wanted to visit Portland anyway.
PS: Comments with "heads up" information on confirmed upcoming implosions are most welcome. Include as many where, when, what details as possible. Thanks

Yesterday's Tomorrows

I think this joke is pretty funny. They fooled me, for a while. The caption reads in part:
"Scientists from the RAND Corporation here created this model to illustrate how a home computer could look like in the year 2004"

The problem with this is, it's completely bogus. In reality, I guess this is a photo of a mock up of a nuclear submarine command center from the 1950's. Even in the 1950's, most futurists would not have predicted home computers to come with steering wheels.

Photoshop and false pretenses aside, it's really hard to predict the future. I own a couple of books that prove just how hard that is. One is called Yesterday's Tomorrows and the other is The Experts Speak. (Example Quote from the Expert's Speak: "Nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will be a reality within ten years. " - Alex Lewyt, president of Lewyt Corporation, a vacuum cleaner company in 1955.) That's so goofy that I now wonder if that's a myth as well. Feel free to post other bad past predictions of the future

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Video: Fun with Jet Engines

Every jet engine works because of Newton's third law of motion- for every action, there is an opposite but equal reaction. In your typical aircraft turbo jet engine, air is sucked in the front and roars through a set of compressor blades, increasing its pressure. Simultaneously, it mixes with fuel and ignites. The resulting combustion results in a rearward force as the products of the combustion zoom out through the exhaust nozzle. I think back in engineering school, this was called "a Brayton combustion cycle."

Like Newton says, the backwards pointing force must be balanced with an equal force that pushes the the airplane attached to the jet engine, forward. The forward force is the thrust and that propels an airplane through the air.

Take a look at what the backward force can do:

link 1 http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1309610693318372088

link 2 http://www.nearlygood.com/video/jetblast.html

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Friday's Radio Highlight: CBC-1 : The Current

I am doing an interview tomorrow, regarding the Technology Underground, on Radio Canada's morning show "The Current." Please tune in if you live in Canada or get digital satellite radio. It is also available streamed over the internet at this location:


The interview starts at about 8:35 AM local time (no matter where in the continental us you are, it's still 8:30 AM local time.) It's on CBC 1 . To hear it, go to the CBC website above and click on a city in your time zone. A streaming media window should open up and you can listen. If you miss it, it will be available for podcasting later in the day.

High Stakes Gambling with Vegetables

My friend Waddy Thompson is a master underground technologist. He's good with machine tools and good with a welder, plus he knows a thing or two about machine design as well. I met Waddy at the World Championship Punkin Chunk a few years ago when he brought "the Spooky Bazooky", a human powered air gun that could launch a 10 pound pumpkin about a half mile.

Waddy lives down in South Florida so his knowledge of how to make fruit fly comes naturally. See, they've got a lot of watermelons down there. So many, that they are used in ways we northerners never consider.

Waddy sent me this sequence of pictures that shows how people down there gamble with vegetables. Here's how this works:

Somebody brings a bunch of cheap china dinner plates to a field. Everybody who wants to gamble, pays 10 bucks for a plate and writes their name on it with indelible marker.

After all the plates are purchased, everyone marches out into the field and places their plate in a place they consider "lucky." (top photo) Then, all retreat back to a safe distance.

An airplane appears overhead (middle photo) and a water melon is dropped over the side. And then another melon. And another. An so on. The fruit barrage continues until a melon smashes into someone's china plate and breaks it (bottom photo.) Winner! The plate owner collects all the money in the pot.

Kind of like Battleship and Bingo, but kinda not. Anyway, Ka-boom, splat.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab

Back in the 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War there was all sorts of amateur atomic experimentation going on. I guess it was a sort of “know thy enemy” attempt at making peace with a suddenly much too dangerous world.

A.C. Gilbert, who among other accomplishments, won the Gold Medal in Pole Vaulting at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, graduated from Yale Medical School and then, in what must have been a hard left turn on his life’s highway, started a toy manufacturing company.

Eventually, the A. C. Gilbert Company became the leader in the manufacture of construction and scientific toys like chemistry sets and erector sets.
Gilbert’s sets sold like hotcakes, and over thirty million of them would be purchased.

But Gilbert himself was a person who was interested in more than money. He was said to be deeply involved in the mission of his company, that is, to bring kids to enjoy and appreciate science. So, he tried several other avenues besides chemistry sets as well. Among them was the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. With the help of faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gilbert designed a sort of chemistry/physics set that included radioactive materials, an accurate Geiger Counter, and much more. The purpose of this toy, which was purported to be by 1950’s standards to be completely safe, was to demystify nuclear energy and encourage a deeper, less hysterical understanding of it.

The problem with the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory was that is was very expensive to make. It came in a brief case style box and had cool drawings of Rutherford style atoms, with electrons whizzing by in elliptical orbits, on its cover. Inside was the apparatus that allowed boys and girls to “See the Paths of Alpha Particles Speeding at 12,000 Miles per Second!” and “Watch Actual Atomic Disintegration – Right Before your Eyes!”

But such meaningful science costs a lot of money, too much in fact, to make for a profitable toy product line. Gilbert lost money with each sale. And even worse, nuclear physics is, well, nuclear physics, which means it’s pretty complex stuff, even for brainy children, and most simply could not understand what was going on. So, the set did not last for a long time in the marketplace. But there were certainly those kids and no doubt adults too, who loved the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Experimenters Kit.

If you have a Gilbert U-238, hang on it to it. From what I can tell from places that deal in collectibles, for instance, ebay, there is a big demand and they go for a lot of money.

As a kid, I did own a Gilbert chemistry set. In those days, chemistry sets had real (read potentially dangerous) chemicals in them and the science experiments were better than they are today. Editorializing now, it seems to me that modern chemistry sets are weak conceptually, because the only types of chemicals included are "safe" or non-toxic ones which drastically reduces the scope and depth of the projects available.

This Week in Science Radio

This Week in Science, is a weekly radio show produced by the University of California at Davis. Their motto is "TWIS - serving up cutting edge science on the radio since 2000." Kirsten and Justin, the program's hosts and producers, invited me on their show yesterday to discuss a wide variety of topics related to the Technology Underground.

Topics we covered included:
-Tesla Coils
-Rail Guns
-Potato Cannons
-The drive people have to make and experiment with interesting things

Those interested in catching it can hear it via the Internet here:

I believe you need Apple Itunes in order to listen.

Cafe Scientifique

I went to a recent lecture at a local college by Simon Singh, and that was pretty good. Singh is a British author with a phd in physics and he's excellent at explaining science and math in an easy to understand fashion. His latest book is called Big Bang and it's about cosmology. I typically dread listening to people talk cosmology stuff because it always seems to be so full of conjecture and immense inferences based on slim evidence, but Singh was great.

So, I looked up Singh on the Internet. On Singh's website there is a link to a UK activity called "The Cafe Scientifique Network". It seems like such a good idea that I'm posting the description from their website below

What is the Cafe Scientifique? The Cafe Scientifique is a forum for the
discussion of important and interesting scientific issues that is much more
informal and accessible than a public lecture.

Who else will be there? The audience will consist of people who are
interested in science but generally never have the opportunity to discuss their
views with and ask questions of someone "in the know". No scientific
knowledge will be assumed by the speakers so that everyone can participate.

What happens at a Cafe Scientifique? each event starts with a short talk
from a speaker who is usually a scientist or a writer on science. After this
there is usually a short break to allow us to refill our glasses and have a few
private discussions. This is generally followed by an hour or so of questions
and answers and general discussion. There will be opportunity for everyone to ask questions, and we welcome those which begin "This might be a stupid
question, but......" These questions are invariably not stupid and often rather

Where and When? Cafes Scientifiques are hosted in a range of venues. Most of these are bars or cafes, but some are bookshops, theatres or community spaces.

This is something I wish we had in this country. Maybe the Brits are a bit more oriented to public discussion and discourse about science. But, if there was something like this here, I know I'd make time to go. If anyone knows of a similar type of activity here in the USA, please comment and post details.

A reader named Barney posted this great link to North American Cafe Scientfique sites. Thanks!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cool site that is worth a look: cookingforengineers.com

Is this slightly off topic perhaps? Heck no, for example, if you use the wrong oil in the kitchen, something could go boom, (I guess.) At my house, Karen, my girlfriend, generally uses olive oil in cooking because of its low saturated fat content, but I've always felt it was inferior for jobs like frying. Maybe, I thought, if I could just find the right type, it would work better, get hotter, etc. The olive oil I use smokes pretty easily, setting off the smoke detector, and imparting a burnt flavor.

So here's what a recent post in cooking for engineers has to say about this:
Fat Type: Smoke Point in °F Smoke Point in °C

Extra virgin olive oil 320°F 160°C

Coconut oil 350°F 177°C

Vegetable shortening 360°F 182°C

Lard 370°F 182°C

Refined canola oil 400°F 204°C

Extra virgin olive oil 405°F 207°C

Sesame oil 410°F 210°C

Cottonseed oil 420°F 216°C

Grapeseed oil 420°F 216°C

Virgin olive oil 420°F 216°C

Almond oil 420°F 216°C

Peanut oil 440°F 227°C

Sunflower oil 440°F 227°C

Refined corn oil 450°F 232°C

Refined Safflower oil 450°F 232°C

Refined soy oil 450°F 232°C

Extra light olive oil 468°F 242°C

Soybean oil 495°F 257°C

Safflower oil 510°F 266°C

Looks to me like the extra light olive oil should work fine for frying. I just need to buy the extra light type. Comments from experts on this are appreciated.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Pioneer Pyrotechnics - Great photos

More Pioneer Pyrotechnics

A description of anvil firing:
Shooting the anvil is just plain old-fashioned fun and exciting, as evidenced by this eyewitness description of the simultaneous firing of three anvils, approximately 15 feet apart.

"Thunder-- smoke-- airborne! The two outside anvils went up in a harmonious tandem (way up) while the middle anvil, a split second behind, climbed skyward like a rocket, passing between the two outside anvils. Then, suspended weightless against the heavens for a moment, they plummeted earthward at last. The synchronization, the flight pattern and the phenomenal distance all made for a super show, best ever!"

A reader sent these pictures of an anvil firing. Boy, those pioneers really knew how to celebrate 4th of July, didn't they? I must put in this warning: I've not done this personally and don't try it based on the tiny amount of information provided here. While the pictures may indeed show some experienced anvilists(?) I'm a still a bit circumspect. It looks as if the anvils are aligned base to base, and the internal cavity in the base is filled with black powder. Hmmm. That seems like a lot of powder, maybe too much? If things go wrong, the possibility of shrapnel exists, not to mention the danger of an anvil falling on you.

Thoughts on DIY Geek Porn

Newsweek science correspondent Steven Levy's article in this week's edition of Newsweek magazine explores the culture of making interesting things, including thethings that go whoosh, boom and splat, something he calls DIY Geek porn.

Here's a quote from the article:

We've already seen the popularity of house porn (shelter magazines and "Extreme Home Makeover"), car porn (auto mags and "Pimp My Ride") and food porn ("Iron Chef"). Now we've got geek DIY (do it yourself) porn. Just as would-be Emerils pore over lushly illustrated cookbooks with recipes involving hard-to-find morels and complicated instructions for roux, Tom Swift wanna-bes are devouring Make and reading books like William Gurstelle's "Backyard Ballistics," which has sold more than 160,000 copies.

Gurstelle, an engineer from Minnesota who makes his own medieval-style catapults, readily admits that not everyone who reads his books winds up building tennis-ball mortars, fire kites and horse trebuchets. But both he and Dougherty make a case that whether you're a builder or a dreamer, the Maker Ethic is empowering. Its lesson is that in a world where we are overwhelmed by stuff, we should aggressively assert control over the gadgets around us, even if it means voiding the warranty and occasionally frying a finger. Also, we should view extreme Makers as role models. Gurstelle's latest book, "Adventures From the Technology Underground," profiles amateurs who build flamethrowers, rockets and humongous Tesla coils. (My favorite quote: "Pumpkin-hurling devices do not fit well in the municipal zoning code.")

Read the full article here.

There's a couple of interesting things relating to Levy's article.
  • First, here is a pretty good example of geek porn. (Well, I thought it was pretty funny.)
  • Also, here is a boing boing post on the same topic.
  • Second, roux (roux is a mixture of flour and fat and is the basis for many Louisiana dishes, particularly gumbo, but also etouffees, sauce piquantes, and more) is often known as Cajun Napalm because it is actually quite dangerous to prepare. It often pops and spatters as it cooks and will chefs have been burned quite badly by the stuff.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Major Bang and the Radioactive Boy Scout

Today's New York Sunday Times gives good review to a new Off Broadway production that manages to combine two of my favorite elements of the Technology Underground: Nuclear Armageddon and The Radioactive Boy Scout.

The Foundry Theater in Brooklyn, New York presents a new play called Major Bang, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Dirty Bomb: The website provides this capsule review:

Part suspense thriller, part magic act, part instructional seminar, MAJOR BANG is a dark and comic take on our new era of global (in)security. Sprung from the contents of a backpack left on the subway, the piece samples Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and the true story of David Hahn, a boy scout who built a nuclear reactor in his parents' garage to earn his Atomic Energy Badge. Add in the boy's over-caffeinated father, a seductive food irradiation executive, a deranged scoutmaster – Major Bang himself, scenes from The Bodyguard, and a cameo appearance by Lenny Bruce, back from the dead to discuss the war on terror. All are performed by a magician and a DJ, who in turn are performed by Steve Cuiffo and Maggie Hoffman. The result is a 75-minute ride through 21st century concepts of fear – both real and manufactured.

While filmed renditions of nuclear holocausts have been well explored previously in this blog, the Radioactive Boy Scout may need some explanation. Ken Silverman, a writer now working for the LA Times wrote a book called the Radioactive Boyscout. It's about the aforementioned David Hahn, a Michigan teenager who built very hot and very dangerous nuclear device in his backyard by accumulating a bunch of radioactive material from stuff like smoke detectors (americium) and lantern (thorium) mantles. Weird but fascinating story and very much worth reading.

For more on home made atomic energy gear, see
the earlier post about Fred Neill and others, who built far safer and more mainstream homemade atomic energy projects. Neill evidently was a technical consultant on a movie that was made about the Radioactive Boyscout.

Relevant past posts:
Hollywood Armageddon
Pinnacle NucFlash
Home Brewed Basement Isotopes

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hollywood's Catapult Warrior - encore presentation

If Saturday Night Live can have an encore presentation on occasion, well, so can notes from the technology underground

Some things just go together. Like peanut butter and jelly, hot dogs and baseball, or say, verbosity and blogging.

What else goes together often, if not always well? Look at British movie actor Orlando Bloom's recent film work. While I'm lukewarm at best regarding Bloom's acting ability and choice of roles, I do love catapults. Anyway, here is a few of the catapult warrior's recent movies:

Orlando Bloom Movies that Feature Catapults
  • Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
  • Troy (2004)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

What do all of these movies feature?
They feature catapults. I didn't see all of these pictures, but I've heard they all have catapults. The CGI trebuchets in the LOTR movies were terrific. They really seemed to have modeled the catapult motion perfectly. Given the complex motion of the sling, that must have been difficult.

If you know of other recent movies featuring catpults, please post that info.

(note: this post is typed in TREBUCHET font)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Hollywood Armageddon

Besides Dr. Strangelove, there were 40 nuclear armaggedon movies were identified and posted after I asked readers to send me the names of movies in which atomic detonations occur on screen. The list is as follows:

1. The Day After*

2. Threads*

3. Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie

4. The Mouse That Roared

5. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines*

6. Red Dawn

7. Big Trouble

8. True Lies*

9. A Boy and His Dog

10. Six String Samurai

11. Terminator 2

12. Broken Arrow*

13. Sum of All Fears*

14. Special Bulletin

15. Countdown to Looking Glass

16. Dawn's Early Light

17. The Peacemaker

18. Chain Reaction

19. Goldeneye

20. Crimson Tide

21. Miracle Mile

22. Testament*

23. A Boy and His Dog

24. On the Beach

25. Special Bulletin

26. When the Wind Blows

27. Beneath the Planet of the Apes

28. The Bedford Incident

29. Pisma myortvogo cheloveka

30. Fifth Element

31. The War of the Worlds

32. Colossus: The Forbin Project*

33. The Andromeda Strain

34. Silent Running

35. Aliens

36. The Dead Zone

37. 2010

38. Ice Station Zebra

39. Superman 1

40. Atomic Cafe

I put asterisks next to movies that either I've seen or could otherwise say with certainty that nuclear detonation does occur on screen. As far as the others, I don't know -- that's a lot of movies to watch.

If anyone can add to my store of knowledge, and tell me if they know for sure that a blast occurs screen or not, I'd appreciate it.

How To Fly Underwater

Graham Hawkes builds underwater craft, but they're not submarines. They are acurately described as water planes. They fly underwater.

Graham Hawkes is friendly enough but reserved. He’s got the demeanor of a man whose shared his story and his vision so many times that he might be getting tired doing it. Still, he’s willing to talk to me, because it’s just a numbers game and at some point, people will really start to listen if the message is presented frequently enough.

I spoke with him in his San Francisco workshop a couple of years ago when I was working on a story. The picture at left shows one of his underwater craft being overhauled.

He said, “The first thing to remember is that there is a distinct similarity between vehicles that travel through the air like airplanes and vehicles that travel through the water like submarines. Both water and air are fluids and the physical laws and engineering models that govern the propulsion and steering of the machines that travel through them are far more similar than they are different.”

That made sense, so I asked, why do submarines and airplanes look and work so differently?

“It’s the wrong analogy,” says Graham. “A submarine does of course, travel through a fluid, water but it does so like a blimp or a hot air balloon, a lighter-than-air air ship, not like an airplane. Basically, a submarine is a lighter-than-water craft that uses ballast tanks and weights to allow the ship’s pilot to move up or down, to go to the bottom or up to the surface. The sub moves forward because it is shoved through the water by the action of a propeller.”

I began to see his point. Even the most modern, most highly sophisticated submarines, like the US Navy’s Virginia class attack subs or the giant Russian Severodvinsk series, are just basically dirigibles immersed in the sea - big, powerful, sophisticated balloons - using the same principles of fluid motion as the Zeppelin Von Hindenberg. Once he pointed that out, it is seemed to me that both the USS Seawolf and the Goodyear Blimp look much more similar to each other than the Seawolf and a B-52.

It’s amazing, really, that so little research work has been done on underwater flight. In the world under the water, it’s as if the Wright Brothers never built their airplane and the underwater "skies" are filled with high powered balloons, blimps, and dirigibles instead of winged aircraft.

Backyard Ballistics

According it's publisher, Backyard Ballistics is approaching 200,000 copies in sales. I think that's indicative of the interest out there in "making cool things."

In case you're not familiar with this work (which I authored in 2001), it's a collection of projects all of which go Whoosh, Boom, or Splat when completed. My personal favorites (although this changes depending on my mood) are the Carbide Cannon, the Cincinatti Fire Kite, and of course, the Spud Gun (that's me with a fancy taser powered version above right.)

I'm always anxious to learn about the kinds of home made ballistics people have made. If you've got one you're proud of, drop me a line. Use the email link under "about me" if you don't want to comment publicly.

Take a look at it on Amazon if you're interested

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Pinnacle Nucflash

To the left: the "football". This is the satchel that follows the US President with him wherever he goes. It contains the "go codes" to launch nuclear strikes.

Take any good nuclear Armageddon movie, from Dr. Strangelove, to Fail Safe, to The Sum of All Fears, there’s always a scene in which the erstwhile lightly engaged president is either tendered an urgent note or handed a telephone by his top aide. Cut to a closeup on the president's face. His expression changes immediately, the color drains from his face, followed by a sound-on-sound slash cut that takes the viewer to an underground bunker, deep under a Virginia mountain. There, a collection of grim faced, high-ranking military men work determinedly to avoid a global catastrophe. . .

What words are written on that note, what could it say that can make the President go white in an instant? What are the words that the president never wants to see on a note thrust into his hand while he is busy giving a speech? I believe the answer is “PINNACLE/NUCFLASH”.

Pinnacle/nucflash is the military communications code word designation that instructs all military communication personnel to stop whatever else they’re doing and transmit the message that immediately, because there's some bad news, really, really bad news that you need to act on right now.

There is a set of instructions that describes exactly how information relating to military threats to the USA is designated, prioritized, and delivered. The rules are spelled out in precise military fashion in a document called OPREP-3, the US Military’s written guideline for operational reports relating to important events involving nuclear weapons.

“PINNACLE/NUCFLASH” are the flagwords or header that presages an electronic transmission through the U.S. military's command and control structure that reports an actual or possible detonation of a nuclear weapon. Not only that, these code words mean that the explosion was not an accident and the risk of nuclear war is imminent.

As one might expect, “PINNACLE/NUCFLASH” has the highest precedence in the OPREP-3 reporting structure. Men and women train for months, years, in order to be able to coolly and efficiently handle the communications that follow an OPREP-3 PINNACLE level flagword. There are several OPREP-3 code word designators with a chilling cold war/Tom Clancy/John Lecarre ring to them. None of these foreshadow good news. I'll write more on those later.

Well, going back to the movies mentioned in the first paragraph, do you know of any other nuclear armaggeon movies? Any movie in which the bomb actually went off? I'm making a list. (I like to make lists of movies. Sometime I'll share my list of movies with trebuchets.)

For much more on similar topics elsewhere in this blog, navigate to the home page: nfttu.blogspot.com and look around

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Man Who Found Einstein's Brain

At left: Einstein's brain, compared to a normal brain.

I had a long conversation yesterday with Stephen Levy, who is the head science correspondent for Newsweek Magazine. We were mostly talking about the culture of people who like to make things that go whoosh, boom, and splat. Hopefully, Newsweek readers will see my name in print in the next issue.

Besides that, Levy is an interesting guy. One thing I learned while talking with him is that he is the person who first broke the story of Einstein’s brain.

For those of you that don’t know the story, when Einstein died in New Jersey in 1955, his body was cremated, except for his brain. The brain was removed in hopes of performing analysis to figure out why the guy was so amazingly intelligent.
The strange part of the story is that the pathologist, Dr. Thomas Harvey, who performed the autopsy kept the brain.

No one really knew that until Steven Levy, then a reporter for the New Jersey Monthly, set out to find Einstein’s brain. He discovered that Einstein’s brain was still with Dr. Harvey who was now in Wichita, Kansas. The brain was in two mason jars in a cardboard box that was marked with the words "Costa Cider". Most of the brain, except for the cerebellum and parts of the cerebral cortex, had been sectioned.
Stephen told me that when Dr. Harvey showed it to him,
“There were a few sections that looked pretty brain-like. But I have to say, what really hit me, was that it had this power to it; knowing what that brain had done. To see it was in some ways a spiritual kind of thing .”
Steven published his story in 1978 and some of it can be found here .

Geek Group Announces Open House

Not too long ago, I bought a number of electrolytic capacitors from a place in Michigan called "The Geek Group." The Geek Group seems to be a collection of like minded individuals who are pretty active builders of robots, tesla coils, alternative transportation and the like.

A description of their upcoming open house was posted on pupman.com. A portion of that is below:

The Geek Group is having its first Open House at the
new facility. All are encouraged to attend and swap
stories, expertise, and maybe even equipment.

The event will be Saturday, January 21st, and will run
from noon until 6 PM. Attractions include Gemini, the
twin coils operating at 10-15 kw, Thumper,a 1600VDC,
80,000 Amp Impulse Generator that will explode cans,
a can/coin crusher (bring your favorite can and we'll send
you home with a thinned outversion!), and many other
projects and demos appropriate for all ages.

Looks like a pretty full plate of projects. They are having an open house on Jan 21 at their new facility in Kalamazoo. Might be worth a look if you're in the area.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Exploding Chicken Recipe 1 - "Chicken CacciaTora Tora Tora

Here's a link to a fine article in the Atlanta Constitution about why it's a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher handy in the kitchen. Among other horrors, the article refers to the Great Exploding Chicken Episode of 1982:

Apparently a recipe for Apricot Brandy Chicken published in the newspaper's Sunday magazine blew the doors off at least two ovens in the Denver area.

Though the blame eventually settled on cooks who had a heavy hand with the brandy, the recipe became famous and sparked an informal naming contest at the newspaper, where waggish scribes dubbed the dish Chicken CacciaTora Tora Tora and Coq Au Blam.

I tried to find the recipe that caused the problem, but had no luck. Anyone who knows the recipe is welcome to comment.

On the same subject, I did find this on a German chat site:

"The exploding chicken recipe was a recipe for chicken cutlets which
were marinated in a large quantity of mixed hard liquors - vodka and
gin both figured, as I recall. I had to run out and told the SO and
the two guests who didn't go with me (to the store for sodas) to keep
an eye on it. This they did by lowering the heat.

They were in the living room when there was a sudden very loud sound
from the kitchen; they literally thought that a car had tried to come
in through the kitchen window. One of our cats went scattering out of
the kitchen, wild-eyed, and when they went into the kitchen, they
found the oven door standing open and flames licking over the
chicken. Not realizing what had happened, they figured the cat had
somehow knocked open the oven door; they blew out the flames and
closed it up.

Shortly thereafter there was another, not quite as loud bang and they
found the door open again. At this point I walked back in with the
friend who'd gone with me, to find them all peering intently into the
oven. We pieced together what had happened : the alcohol had
evaporated into fumes, which ignited when they touched the heating
element, and, boom.

The explosion was actually powerful enough to break the secondary
hinge on one side of the oven door. The primary hinge still held, so
the door was able to stay in place (or it might've been the secondary
that held, I forget which way around now, former apartment). We still
joke about opening a novelty restaurant. 'BOOM!'

The chicken itself was very tasty, though. "

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Here's a quote from a review of Shane Black's 2005 movie Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang by the movie critic for The Emirates Network, a movie review site in the United Arab Emirates.

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is like receiving two sweet kisses on your lips and then two well-aimed .45 caliber shots in the nuts.

Now that's a movie review.

Survival Research Labs announces LA performance

To the left: Swiss artist Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York, a self destructing artwork

A post on Boing Boing says that there will be an underground technology style mechanical art presentation on Saturday. Mechanical artist Mark Pauline and his art troupe Survival Research Laboratories will perform this Saturday evening in Los Angeles.

The fact that SRL is making a public announcement and making it so early makes me think this show could be less edgy than previous ones. Still, any SRL performance is an experience worth taking in.

I've not seen a Mark Pauline choreographed presentation, but I have seen a number of performances put on by SRL alumni and other followers. They are extremely interesting, chaotic, and possess a distinct air of danger. A friend of mine who was a member of SRL told me some pretty good stories about clandestine, middle-of-the-night shows taking place under highway bridges and aquaducts.

Every SRL performance includes a variety of odd and powerful machines. Past machines included robots, radio controlled vehicles, flamethrowers, pulsejets, air cannons, high voltage discharge machines, and so forth. Very intense, very avant garde, very Tinguely-esque.

Comments from those who attend this show (or have attended past shows) are most welcome!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Imploding the Castaways

LAS VEGAS - A hotel-casino that opened in 1955 as the Showboat and was more recently known the Castaways collapsed into history Wednesday when it was demolished by implosion.

From the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza:

The 19-story tower, which stood alone about three miles east of downtown Las Vegas, had been closed since changing hands in a bankruptcy proceeding in January 2004.

A staccato series of explosions reduced the 447-room building as planned into a 20,000-ton heap of rubble and raised a huge cloud of dust just after dawn on a sparkling clear morning.

Here's a good description from the website of Megan Edwards

Win Ben Stein's Money - the Answers

Thanks to everyone who entered the book giveaway contest. Here are the answers to the 10 questions:

1. Until 1970 what title was given to the head of the US Post Office Department?

2. In music notation name the vertical line drawn through the staff to mark off a measure?

3. Formed by hardened lava, what is the most abundant of the volcanic igneous rocks?

4. What children's pastime can be played "double dutch" or "criss-cross"?

5. Canada is bordered by three oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific and what other?

6. What part of the stage in front of the proscenium is also the name of an article of clothing?

7. What is the state flower of California?

8. In the world of transportation, what do the initials S. U. V. stand for?

9. What English poet penned the words, "No man is an island" in 1624.

10. Who led the Flying Tigers in WWII?

And which did I miss? Numbers 2, 8(!), 10

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Exploding Chicken Part 4

Cock a Doodle Boom

Another post regarding the always fascinating (at least to me) exploding chicken meme:

A raw chicken was blown up by a police at the James Bridger Eighth Grade Center in Independence, Missouri. The explosion was intended to illustrate the destructive power of explosives and fireworks.

From the Jackson County Examiner newspaper:

The explosion ripped and blackened the chicken, throwing some pieces as far as 50 feet. The kids, many of whom jumped and squealed at the blast, were impressed by the show.

"I thought it was really cool. I saw it explode and black smoke went everywhere. Then, I got hit in the arm by a tiny piece of chicken," said student Justin Wolfe.

Wolfe said he was surprised that an M-80 firework could cause so much damage but claimed he would not be afraid to use one.

Not so, for several of the girls nearby. Cassy Paris, Rachel Dorman and Falon Galluzzi all proclaimed the chicken explosion "completely gross."

"I would be afraid to use fireworks like that," Dorman said.

Of course, that is the point of the demonstration, Parks explained.

"These are what I call illegal fireworks, basically, they are hand-made explosive devices," Parks said, pointing to a display rack of odd-sized red tubes with wicks sticking out. "We tell the kids not to touch them, not to buy them, never to hold them in your hand. Otherwise, your hand will look a lot like the chicken. There's not much left."

The Velocity of Consumption

Engineering Estimates

There is one particular skill that separates the engineer from all other technologists. which is the ability to make quick and easy feasibility estimates. A good engineer has the ability to do basic research and quickly produce an order of magnitude calculation. This is important because it can sometime lead to quick insights.

Here’s an example of quick estimation.

How long did it take the earth to amass the amount of energy that humans consume in one second?

I read in books on the subject that the fossil fuels – coal, natural gas, and oil consume daily were formed from vegetation and dinosaurs deposited during the Carboniferous through the Permian eras. Scholars (intelligent design dogmatists aside) say this extended roughly 365 to 225 million years ago. It took, therefore, about 170 million years of animals and plants living, dying, and decomposing into carbon to give us the reserves of fuel we now have.

Large scale usage of oil gas and coal began more or less with the advent of the automobile in around 1900, and scientists figure that the fuel will be gone sometime around 2070. That means what took 170 million years to make, will be exhausted in 170 years.

170 million years to produce/170 years to cosume = 1 million production/consumption ratio

Each year we consume a million years worth of living dinosaurs and plants. Each year has very roughly 10,000 hours in it, and each hour has 3600 seconds.

1000000 production consumption ratio /1000 hours per year/ 3600 seconds per hour = 2.7 years production/second

So each second, humanity consumes the energy that took the earth 2.7 years to make.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Blow Up

So, Blown Anything Good Up Lately?

Thomas Edison was fired from his first job for setting a railroad baggage car on fire. Apocryphally, Edison had set up an amateur chemistry lab in the railcar to amuse himself when he wasn’t selling newspapers to passengers on the daily commute from Port Huron to Detroit on the Grand Trunk Railway. Young Edison made a mistake in handling phosphorous which apparently started no little fire in the baggage car.

I find that many of radical tinkerers I meet share a number of unusual experiences sometime in their childhood. One commonality was, like Thomas Edison, lots of them blew something up as a kid. And they felt good about it. Few apologies, little remorse. It was something that happened, they did it and that’s about all there was to it.

Usually the object of destruction was something old and worthless, a thing whose highest value role in the world was probably its sacrifice of itself, thereby inspiring the nascent extreme tinkerer to move on to more sophisticated and credible projects. But sometimes the targets of childhood high impact experimentation were not well chosen. One of the tinkerers I talked with once blew up a car, one a fence, several blew up sheds or garages. (Beside the baggage car incident, the youthful Edison bought his tinkering chops by filling a log with gunpowder and blowing up an icehouse.) A couple of them accidentally started fires that required the assistance of the fire department to contain.

My extreme tinkerer acquaintances reported “successful” experiments involving fuel oil/fertilizer explosives, “rock dynamite”, “stump dynamite”, rupturing pressure vessels filled with sublimating carbon dioxide, garbage bags filled with hydrogen, fulminate of mercury and ammonium triiodide (the darlings of college freshman chemistry classes), nitric acid soaked cotton, and pipe bombs filled with all manner of ill advised and dangerous powders and propellants.

A couple questions for readers of this blog:

1.Safety issues aside, do you believe there are moral or ethical ramifications of blowing things up for fun? Have you blown anything up?

2. Can you tell me about any famous scientist, inventor, engineer, who blew something up accidentally, either in childhood or as an adult?

Advice for Inventors from Edison

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

--Thomas Edison

“There ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish something.”

--Thomas Edison

“Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged.”

-- Thomas Edison

"I'm desperately trying to figure out why kamikaze pilots wore helmets."

--David Edison

(I’m not sure, but I don’t believe there’s any family connection between David and Thomas)

Friday, January 13, 2006

The 10 Question Test of Knowledge Contest

It's time for the contest!

Prizes: Five copies of my brand new book, Adventures from the Technology Underground, published by Clarkson Potter/Random House. Books will be sent directly and free of charge to winners directly from my publishers. Email names and addresses will not be collected, all privacy respected.

Here's the premise: In 1999 I was on a game show called Win Ben Stein's Money. The show format worked like this: in the first round, three contestants, (of which I was one), played each other by answering general knowledge questions in an elimination round. I made it through that round. In the second round, Ben Stein became a contestant and played the two of us remaining. I won that round and so, faced Stein in the final showdown. The final round was a head-to-head competition where Ben and I were locked in isolation booths and attempted to answer the same ten questions in 60 seconds. Ben and I tied, each answering seven of ten questions correctly, so I went home with $2350.

If you can guess which three questions I missed, and provide the correct answers, I will send you a book. If more than five people guess correctly, I will draw names. If no one guesses correctly, I will provide a hint or two each day until somebody wins.

Email your entry to bgurstelle1(at)mn(period)rr(period)c0m, or use the link in the about me section of the blog.

Please: one email per day per reader for the contest.
I'm not sure how the publisher handles foreign mail, so there may be shipping charges to foreign destinations.
Publisher reserves all rights and can pretty much do what they want, but I think they'll be pretty good about it.

Email your guesses as to which three questions I missed. What are the correct answers to those three?

1. Until 1970 what title was given to the head of the US Post Office Department?

2. In music notation name the vertical line drawn through the staff to mark off a measure?

3. Formed by hardened lava, what is the most abundant of the volcanic igneous rocks?

4. What children's pastime can be played "double dutch" or "criss-cross"?

5. Canada is bordered by three oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific and what other?

6. What part of the stage in front of the proscenium is also the name of an article of clothing?

7. What is the state flower of California?

8. In the world of transportation, what do the initials S. U. V. stand for?

9. What English poet penned the words, "No man is an island" in 1624.

10. Who led the Flying Tigers in WWII?

Good luck!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

"Adventures" contest starts Friday

NFTTU Contest starts tomorrow!

Prizes: Five copies of my brand new book, Adventures from the Technology Underground, published by Clarkson Potter/Random House.

How: Books will be sent directly and free of charge to winners directly from my publishers. Email names and addresses will not be collected, all privacy respected.

When: Contest starts Friday the 13th

What: In 1999 I was on a game show called Win Ben Stein's Money. I made it to the final round where I went mano-a-mano with Ben Stein in a ten question test of knowledge. Ben and I tied, each answering seven of ten questions correctly.

Tomorrow, I'll post the ten questions they asked me. If you can guess which three questions I missed, and provide the correct answers, I will send you a hard cover copy of this fun new book. If more than five people guess correctly, I will draw names. If no one guesses correctly, I will provide a hint or two each day until somebody wins.

See Monday's post for more contest details

Short Notes from the Technology Underground

Ben Stein versus Einstein -- A head to head comparison

King Kong Movie's Biplanes on Display soon

Shuffling this Mortal Coil

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Death Wish 6: Beyond Bronson

(Dear Readers: Free Book (Adventures from the Technology Underground) Giveaway Contest Starts on Friday!) see Jan 9th post for details

Me and Caz Build a Flamethrower

Note: What follows are NOT directions on how to build a flamethrower. There isn’t nearly enough information here to guide a person to build one safely or reliably.

It’s only a general reflection on the art and science of building things. Unless you've got a death wish, don't even attempt to build a flamethrower.

“The dragon spouted fire, burned bright houses-- the glow of fire stood out, a horror to the people. That terrible sky-flier wished to leave nothing alive ” --Beowulf
In order to get going, I decided to start with what I already knew a little about, namely, building robots. I knew many of the best known and most creative people involved in this activity, so I planned to design and build a new robot, take it to a warrior robot tournament, and to see where that would lead. The idea was to make one that sported a big, powerful, and extravagant flamethrower, one that belches great gouts of cherry red flame, just like Beowulf’s dragon.
I decided to name this hunk of construction “Fafnir”, after the firebreather of Norse mythology, foe of Seigfried and progenitor of the dragons in “Lord of the Rings”.

I made Fafnir in the garage. Caz S. helped me, or rather, I helped him, and it was intended to be an attachment for one of my warrior robots. It was the thing that was to set it apart, engage the crowd, scare the other competitors.

Caz is a big thinker, a young engineer from Massachusetts and a guy with big ideas. He talked me into building something that wasn’t just some half assed lighter fluid squirter, but a real mean and a big honker, one that could shoot a cloud of pressurized and ignited gas halfway across the arena. We designed one that fired a hurricane of super hot air with a loud, throaty whoosh. The flame, if all went as we imagined it would, would leap in a great swirling vortex from the flameholder at an angle about 60 degrees to horizontal in a spreading cone of incandescent orange/red light.

The Physics of a Propane Flamethrower
An LP gas tank isn’t pressurized per se, like an air tank. You don’t need to plug in an air compressor and pump up the tank. Instead, the propane is pushed out of the tube at its vapor pressure, which is the pressure exerted by the vapor itself, just sitting in the tank just above the liquefied propane. This is a substantial amount of pressure. Normally, a regulator is placed between the tank and the grill in order to control the gas pressure down to a level where it is usable for grilling steaks.

But in Fafnir, when the LP gas in the metal tank suddenly exits through a big enough orifice in the nozzle, it leaves unfettered by any regulator or other artificial restriction, and so, it leaves under pressure linked to the thermodynamic imperative for liquid propane to expand to great volume at normal atmospheric pressure. The warmer the liquid propane, the higher the vapor pressure is. I don’t guarantee the accuracy of this but it looks to me that at 60 degrees F, the propane shoots out at a beefy pressure of close to 100 PSI. At 90 degrees F, the gas pressures reach levels of nearly 150 PSI, nearly enough to shoot a cloud of hot ignited gas well across a tennis court sized enclosure.

A tank of LP gas with a control valve but no regulator is a dangerous little piece of work, and under no circumstances should anyone without a death wish experiment with one. Caz said we should name it “the Fireball in a Can.” Perhaps “The Accident Waiting to Happen” may be more appropriate.
More later.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Jet Screamer

Here's a round up of new jet powered stuff that I've come across lately

It's good to see there's plenty of current amateur research regarding mounting things to jet engines.

1. Jet powered surfboard. Apparently, this product has been on the market for a while, but it looks as if the company that makes it has come up with a new and improved model. Unfortunately, the company website seems to be broken, but this Gizmag write up describes it well.

2. Jet powered kayak.
I can only find bits and pieces of this story. A well known kayak named Shaun Baker has developed a jet powered kayak in which, as far as I can tell, he hopes to set speed record on the River Thames. According to natives.co.uk, there was a recent outdoors and film event in which:

Shaun Baker introduced his jet powered kayak for the first time to a public audience, and showed footage filmed a few days earlier of the jet powered kayak performing on water for the first time ever ahead of a planned world speed record mooted for the Thames!
In an interview with the British site themeswierproject.co.uk, Baker says that:
It's still kind of under wraps at the moment, but I'm working on a "rocket-powered" kayak. Well, it's actually jet-powered - we were having a few issues with the rockets. A couple of guys from Brunel Uni are helping with the build of the project and Red Bull are backing the early World Speed Record attempts
I'd like to know more, and will try to update later.

3. Jet Powered Skydiver
This is an update to the Bird-Man suit article published last week. Here's a link to an outstanding video of a skydiver wearing a bird suit with a jet engine strapped to his feet. The noise the turbines make when he tests them sitting on a truck bed is tremendous by itself. The shot of the sky diver screaming, jet-powered, through the sky is very good.

Sunstrike - A whole new can of whoop ass

The uses for tesla coils and other devices of that ilk continue to expand. This snippet talks about an Indiana company's idea for a "less than lethal" weapon type device that uses high voltage for crowd control. From a recent edition of digitaljournal.com:

Military Weapons on the Horizon
If Thor were to land in 21st-century Earth, he would be jonesing to own a lightning gun dubbed StunStrike from Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (finally, a company worthy of the name “Xtreme”). This 11-foot-high weapon shoots four-foot bolts of lightning by using an electrical charge to create a path for sparks generated by a Tesla coil. Call it the next-gen stun gun or Loki’s worst nightmare.

The company that makes this (or plans to make this, I can't tell from the company website whether this really exists or not) is called XADS. Their other product line consists of something referred to as "photonic disrupters." I think I'd like to have a photonic disrupter. Not sure what I'd do with it, but it sounds really cool. If memory serves, I think I first heard that term in the 1960s as a Star Trek weapon carried by either Romulans or Klingons.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Announcing a Contest!

Prizes: Five copies of my brand new book,
Adventures from the Technology Underground, published by Clarkson Potter/Random House. Books will be sent directly and free of charge to winners directly from my publishers. Email names and addresses will not be collected, all privacy respected.

When: Contest starts Friday the 13th

What: Here's the premise:
In 1999 I was on a game show called Win Ben Stein's Money. I flew to Los Angeles on my own nickle to try out and, son of a gun, I made it. In case you've never seen the show, it worked like this: in the first round, three contestants, (of which I was one), played each other by answering general knowledge questions in an elimination round. I made it through that round. In the second round, Ben Stein became a contestant and played the two of us remaining. I won that round and so, faced Stein in the final showdown. The final round was a head-to-head competition where Ben and I were locked in isolation booths and attempted to answer the same ten questions in 60 seconds. Ben and I tied, each answering seven of ten questions correctly, so I went home with $2350.

On Friday I will publish all ten questions they asked
me. If you can guess which three questions I missed, and provide the correct answers, I will send you a book. If more than five people guess correctly, I will draw names. If no one guesses correctly, I will provide a hint or two each day until somebody wins.

Here's a question I was asked in the preliminary round which I got correctly:
What is the modern name of the animal that North American indians called "arakum?"

Answer: raccoon
Please: one email per day per reader for the contest.
I'm not sure how the publisher handles foreign mail, so there may be shipping charges to foreign destinations.
Publisher reserves all rights and can pretty much do what they want, but I think they'll be pretty good about it.