Sunday, February 26, 2006

Mercury's Falling

Slightly off topic, but not too much I hope.

<--- Mariner 10 photo of Merc

I am interested in astronomy. In the early 1960's I helped my dad build a 6-inch reflecting telescope, which I still have. At one point I knew many of the constellations and stars in them. I remember fewer names now because I've not studied it much lately, but I'm still pretty good at identifying winter sky constellations and most of the circumpolar stuff.

Anyway, I can identify Mars, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn (usually) when I see them. But I've never seen Mercury. I've looked often, but no luck. This might be the time to try.

Mercury is bright, but it's always close to the sun, never rising or setting more than an hour or so before or after it. So, without both a long clear horizon and favorable celestial geometry, you can't see it; and I never have.

I came across this post on the websitewhen another reader sent a post on a related topic. It's cloudy tonight, but I'm checking it out the next opportunity I get. This is from's website.

It's not every day you get to see a shrinking planet. Today could be the day. Step outside this evening at sunset and look west toward the glow of the setting sun. As the sky fades to black, a bright planet will emerge. It's Mercury, first planet from the sun, also known as the "Incredible Shrinking Planet."

"This is only the second time in my life I've seen Mercury," says sky watcher Jeffrey Beall who snapped this picture looking west from his balcony in Denver, Colorado:

Above: Mercury on Feb. 13, 2006. Mercury is the bright "star" just above the mountain ridge, rivaling the city lights. Credit: Jeffrey Beall.

Mercury is elusive because it spends most of its time hidden by the glare of the sun. This week is different. From now until about March 1st, Mercury moves out of the glare and into plain view. It's not that Mercury is genuinely farther from the sun. It just looks that way because of the Earth-sun-Mercury geometry in late February. A picture is worth a thousand words

Friday, Feb. 24th, is the best day to look (sky map); that's the date of greatest elongation or separation from the sun. Other dates of note are Feb 28th (sky map) and March 1st (sky map) when the crescent moon glides by Mercury—very pretty.

Readers are invited to respond with news of their own Mercury sitings .

Ball lightning shooting microwave oven

I’ve conducted a lot of experiments with microwave ovens – sparking green beans, foaming marshmallows, and measuring the speed of light (it’s possible it measure the speed of light with a microwave oven and a chocolate bar) and so forth. But this sounds better – a microwave ray gun that produces ball lightning.

I just read about two scientists from the University of Tel Aviv who created ball lightning in their laboratories using parts from a regular microwave oven. They took the microwave oven’s 600 watt magnetron and turned it into a sort of ray gun that they used to directionally shoot microwaves. The scientists, Eli Jerby and Vladimir Dikhtyar, call the gun a "microwave drill."

From the Tel Aviv U website:

Fireball Ejection from a Molten Hot Spot to Air by Localized Microwaves
Vladimir Dikhtyar and Eli Jerby* Tel Aviv University

A phenomenon of fireball ejection from hot spots in solid materials(silicon, germanium, glass, ceramics, basalt, etc.) to the atmosphere is presented. The hot spot is created in the substrate material by the microwave-drill mechanism.The vaporized drop evolved from the hot spot is blown up, and forms a stable fireball buoyant in the air.

Video of fireball here:

The two scientists zapped glass, silicon and other stuff, melting it. When they shut it off and pulled it away, it dragged some of the superheated material along with it, “creating a fire column that then collapsed into a bright fireball that floated and bounced across the ceiling of the metal enclosure,” according to a Fox news report.

"The fireball [looked] like a hot jellyfish, quivering and buoyant in the air," Jerby told the magazine LiveScience.

"Our experiment confirms to some extent the theory that ball lightning originates from hot spots in the ground created by normal lightning," Apparently, ball lightning happens when lightning strikes the ground and zaps the minerals in the soil. The vaporized nanoparticles could then link together into chains and form a fluffy ball of silicon that floats on the wind. The particles react with oxygen in the air and release light as they burn.

Readers are invited to comment with reports of their own microwave experiments.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dude, where's my flying car?

The cover of the March Popular Science features the headline "Where's my flying car?"

<-left Aerocar Skycar right->

Interesting. That's also how I start off the introductory chapter to my new book, Adventures from the Technology Underground. (See link at right for more info.)But, I'm not terribly surprised, since its a rather popular topic almost anybody who grew up watching the Jetsons. In my book, I look at how the quest to build a Flying Car exemplifies the ethos of the underground technology enthusiast.

There's been a bunch of people and companies who've tried over time, The AeroCar, the Mizar, a couple of ideas put forward by Norman Bel Geddes, and lately, Paul Moller's wankel powered wonder, the Skycar M400. (the trouble with the skycar is that its' been hyped for a really long time, and as far as I know, still no real, untethered flight.)

I interviewed Moller a few years ago at his office in Davis, CA. Lots of cool stuff: rotary engines galore, hovercraft, flying cars. I must say, he has a great looking shop and factory -- tooling, machinery, wind tunnel, the works. He's a pretty engaging guy.

Fanyway, from a Jetson's standpoint, here's what's come to pass already:
Tiny portable TV's
Tiny, portable telephones
Video phone
--seems like we've got the electronics and telecomm stuff down pat.

But on the mechanical side of things, we're still waiting.

Beside the flying car, here's what I'm still waiting for:
1. Machine that controls weather (remember the silver idodide experiments of the 1950's?
2. High speed levitating trains connecting major cities (they do it Europe, why not in USA?)
3. The foodarackacycle
4. Robot maid (actually, I rather prefer the "monkey butler" concept, first promulgated by Bart Simpson. Seems like more fun. Besides, we only need to train one. (From the Simpson's:

NELSON : How many monkey butlers will there be?
BART : One at first - but he'll train others. )

Cow Bombs

There is an urban legend connected with the idea of an exploding cow. One minute it's there mooing and chewing. The next moment, a firestorm of tenderloin and brisket bits, covering fields with goop for blocks.

How could a cow explode? Methane. The speculation is that it's possible that the methane rich flatuence of a cow is somehow ignited, resulting in an explosion. A cow produces about 280 liters of methane-rich flatulence each day. Quite a bit of gas, so much so that cows are said to be a threat to the environment for this reason alone. According to an article by the BBC,
Environmental scientist Professor Frank Convery claims cows breaking wind and
belching account for 35% of Ireland's green-house gas emissions. These have been
linked to global climate change.

What's really weird and almost certainly untrue is the belief that people somewhere have inserted a tube into a cow's posterior in order to ignite the gas and in so doing, caused the cow to explode.

Methane (CH4) and hydrogen (H2) are the main flammable ingredients of bovine intestinal gas. The oxidation of one part of methane requires two parts of oxygen. In contrast, burning hydrogen requires much less oxygen:

CH4 + 2O2 → CO2 + 2H2O
2H2 + O2 → 2H2O

The claim is that gas within a cow's intestines, once ignited, could cause a huge explosion resulting in gloppy shards of cow gut shrapnel . This is almost certainly untrue according to people who study such matters.

Which brings up the question, who are people who study such matters? Maybe they are these people.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ride Films

I saw an ad for a simulation ride the other day. I think motion simulators showing ride films are cool. Bigger motion simulators are cooler.

When my boys were little, we would make a point to go to the large, commerical, motion simulator thrill rides in amusement parks whenever a really good ride film came out.

You've maybe seen some of these simulator ride films. They are large rooms with anywhere from two to two hundred seats, each seat attached to hydraulic or electric actuators. The means move in several planes of motion quickly. When combined with the giant screen and loud, surround-sound sound effects, the motion effects are nearly perfect. It's like being on on a moving airplane, race car, out of control mine cart, and so on.

According to a fellow who seems to know a lot about building ride film simulators, the software that controls these things involves a concept called a "motion base." Better motion bases simulate more degrees of freedom during the ride film simulation. Degrees of freedom is tech-speak for how many directions the base can move, of a possible total of six.
Degrees of Freedom
Heave (move up/down)
Pitch (tilt forward and back)
Roll (tilt side to side)
Surge (move forward and back)
Sway (move side to side)
Yaw (do the twist)

Most entertainment bases are "three-DOF" - that is, they can pitch, heave, and roll. Some also have surge and hence are four-DOF's . A very few are six-DOF's, or have a different combination of fewer than six DOF's.

The movement and giant screen tricks the mind into thinking it is flying or riding along, when in reality it is pretty much stationary. The sensation is so realistic it motion sickness in supceptable people (like me) But if that happens, one needs only to close their eyes to make the queeziness go away.

I used to look forward to each new movie/simulation release. My favorite was "Red Rock Run" which was sort of a out of control ride through a Martian mining operation. The first one I remember seeing is "Alpha One Cowboy." According to Wikipedia, the best known ride simulation is Star Tours at Disney World. My list of favorite ride films:

  • Red Rock Run
  • Space Alpha Cowboy
  • Star Tours
  • Secrets of the Lost Temple

Readers are invited to comment with their favorite motion simulator ride films.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Art of the H-Bomb

Atomic Blasts Through the Eyes of the Artist:

Operation Crossroads was an atmospheric nuclear weapon test series conducted in the summer of 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The series consisted of two detonations, a low altitude test and a shallow water test. The devices, each with a yield of 21 kilotons, were named shots ABLE and BAKER. A planned third test, a deep underwater detonation, was canceled after the second test.

Unlike all later nuclear tests, the media covered the Crossroads detonations. 131 newspaper, magazine, and radio correspondents from the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and Britain covered the detonations,a large major media event indeed. Three soldier-artists recorded the event artistically, using mostly watercolors. (I'm not sure where the originals are now)

There are about 50 paintings in the US Navy's archive. The whole collection is here.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Potato Guns in the News

Probation over chopper shoot threat -
News.Com.Au Feb 15

A QUEENSLAND man who twice threatened to shoot down a helicopter with a homemade bazooka and tomatoes fired from a spud gun has been sentenced to two years probation.

Anthony Douglas Donohue, 35, today pleaded guilty in Southport Magistrates Court to two counts of threatening to endanger the safety of an aircraft.
Full Story Here

Cheek wants to spin some gold into a good cause -
Detroit News Feb 14

Joey Cheek, the newest American champion, politely apologized to the assembled media and said he'd have to skip the cute stories this time, the ones about growing from an inline-skating kid in North Carolina into a speedskating gold medalist on the widest, whitest ice in the world.

"The potato gun story, huh?" Cheek said with a laugh. "Last time I'll tell it. You know, you can get pretty bored in speedskating training."

In his spare time ("you get bored during speedskating training") he learned to build an explosive-powered potato gun out of PVC pipe. You stuff a potato in one end, fill the other with hair spray, make a spark and, boom.

"The potato shoots 300 yards," he smiled.

Full Story Here

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Skydiving Record

The old record was 357 skydivers. The attempt was a part of Thailand's Royal Sky Celebration that notes the 60th anniversary of the reign of Thailand's King, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Earlier this month, 400 skydivers from 31 countries set a world record for the largest connected formation skydive. It occured on Feb 8 in the skies over Udon Thani, Thailand. the top picture shows how the formation was supposed to look. The bottom shows how it actually did look. Pretty good, if you ask me. (I wonder if those seven or eight guys around the perimeter who aren't quite hooked up ever got linked in to the formation. Or maybe they were photographers? - bill)

It took three tries. On the third attempt the team came together and completed the predetermined formation which was larger than the size of a football field and were stayed together for just over 4 seconds.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The GarageMahal

In an earlier post, I brought up the idea of "the perfect home workshop." or as one clever person put it, "the GarageMahal."

I believe that almost anything I could think of could be build in a shop like that. It's just a matter of picking up the machining skills necessary.

Thanks to everyone for their excellent comments.

I've summarized some of the best ideas below.

1. Don't forget to add a water supply,

2. Another thing to consider: How heavy can you build the floor pads? My friend has a couple of bridgeports in his garage that have managed to sink his concrete slabs lower than the ones they are not resting on.

3. One thing you may VERY much like... a cutoff saw of some sort.

4. Another thing, depending upon how large the pieces you will be working on are, another friend installed an overhead crane

5. I cannot recommend enough a laser leveled concrete floor, which is then epoxy sealed. Smooth, level, and sealed. very important.

6. Get an air-compressor. But build a noise-reducing high airflow box to house the compressor. don't 'save' money on an oil-less one, they are crazy loud, a good oiled compressor is good stuff

7. Water. A large wash basin/laundry size sink is very helpful

8. Lathe: A nice size is 12" x 36". Buy a quick change tool post

9. Mill: A Bridgeport is a wonderful machine. Given a choice, go for something other than the "M-head"--you want an R8 taper, which is what a lot of mill tooling is. You can get chucks to use with it (you don't *have* to use collets for drill bits).

10.Tooling can be expensive--all things equal, go for the deal with more tooling thrown in. Collets, 3 and 4-jaw chucks, etc.--all these are expensive,

11.Add a metal-cutting band saw (under $200) and a good ($20) blade for it. Sawing a length of 1" aluminum into 2" pieces gets old very quickly.

12.The 7x10 or 7x12 lathe is a great starter machine that might be worth considering. Buy one for $300, use it for a while, buy a bigger lathe and sell the starter machine.

13.Three phase is rather expensive to bring to a home shop. A converter is a much-less-expensive alternative. A static converter coupled with a 3-phase "idler" motor generates darn good 3-phase for home shop use.

I'm still soliciting advice, so send comments if you've got them. Now, all I need is a boatload of money...

Example of what not to do

I remember doing something like this on a MUCH SMALLER SCALE in a high school chemistry class. As I recall, we filled a baggie or something with the gas used for bunsen burners. It made quite an explosion, but after reading this, I figure that was a bad thing to do. In any event, bigger is not always better.

I wonder how big the balloon was that did this. As Mr. Wizard said, "kids, don't try this at home."

From the website of the Denver ABC news affiliate

A man from Sheridan is facing explosives charges after he accidentally blew up his own car with a gas-filled balloon he was taking to a Super Bowl party.The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office found a suspicious-looking car Sunday afternoon behind the old Duggan's gas station in the 4500 block of South Santa Fe Drive frontage road. Passersby had called in to report some type of explosion or car accident.When a deputy arrived to check it out, he found a white car that showed obvious signs of an explosion. All the windows were blown out, the vehicle doors were bent towards the outside and the roof was pushed about a foot higher than normal.The deputy traced the license plate to a home in the 3600 block of South Grove Street in Sheridan. Sheridan officers talked to the people inside and a man and a woman admitted that they were in the car.

They explained that they were taking a balloon to a Super Bowl party -- a balloon filled with acetylene, a very explosive gas used in welding -- so they could blow up the balloon while celebrating.However, on the drive, the balloon rolled across the back seat, possibly causing static electricity, and igniting the gas, causing it to explode.The couple said a passer-by gave them a ride home.Deputies called in an ambulance, who took the couple to Swedish Medical Center for possible shrapnel wounds and broken eardrums.Norman Frey, 46, faces a charge of possession, use, or removal of explosives or incendiary devices. He faces two to six years in prison.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Broken Arrows and Bent Spears

In an earlier post, I wrote about the US military's procedure for reporting incidents involving or potentially involving, nuclear weapons. This procedure is known as OPREP-3, and basically it spells out how nuke incidents are categorized, described, reported, and priortized. Here's some more on that topic.

The highest priority incidentsare identified by the codeword "Pinnacle." Electronic messages starting with the Pinnacle flagword means what follows is hot stuff indeed. If the next word after Pinnacle is "Nucflash", look out, because World War III has started -- somebody used a nuke, on purpose, and the world has immediately and irrevocably changed.

Of course, there are OPREP-3 reports of lower priority and that's what this post is about. (A full description of OPREP-3 can be found here. It's kinda interesting, but be advised it's a pretty tough slog through a lot of detailed procedural documentation)

Here's a summary of non-Nucflash OPREP-3's situational definitions:
“FRONT BURNER” reports go out when something happens that has the potential of escalating into a situation such as armed attack on or harassment of US forces, but don’t currently involve the use of a nuke.

“BROKEN ARROW” code designation signals that an accident involving nuclear weapons or nuclear components occurred, but this accident doesn’t create the immediate risk of nuclear war. Still, Broken Arrow could mean something as unpleasant as an accidental nuclear weapon detonation, the non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon, or as in the John Travolta movie of the same name (which I thought was a pretty good movie, despite what a lot of critics said,) jettisoning of a nuclear weapon from a damaged aircraft.

"EMPTY QUIVER" is a reporting term to identify and report the seizure, theft, or loss of a U.S. nuclear weapon.

“BENT SPEAR” and “FADED GIANT” events are incidents involving nuclear weapons or radiological contamination that are of significant interest but are not quite serious enough to qualify as a NUCFLASHes or Broken Arrows.

In general, all of these situations from NUCFLASH to FADED GIANT are cloaked in secrecy and details normally do not circulate outside military channels. So, a logical question to ask is: how often are Pinnacle and other, lower priority alerts made?

Unfortunately, the government does not report on this.

Below, Slim Pickens in the film Dr. Strangelove, which is basically a movie about the consequences of a falsified Pinnacle Nucflash report.

The Brookings Institute (one of the oldest and best known think tanks in the United States) provides a bunch of related nuke information, especially about on the quantity and distribution of domestic nukes on their website. Although the numbers are getting a bit dated, I find them quite interesting. Given the size of some of these numbers I have little doubt that they must happen with some amount of regularity. Here's an excerpt of the Brookings Report:

The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940. The Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project. (More info here))

Total cost of the Manhattan project: (through August 1945) $20 billion dollars

Total number of U.S. nuclear warheads and bombs built between 1945 and 1990:
More than 70,000 of 65 types

Number remaining in U.S. stockpile as of 1997:
12,500 (8,750 active, 2,500 contingency stockpile, 1,250 awaiting disassembly)

Number of nuclear warheads requested by the U.S. Army in 1956 and 1957:

Amount of plutonium remaining in U.S. nuclear weapons:
43 Metric tons

Number of dismantled plutonium "pits" stored at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas:
12,067 (as of May 6, 1999)

States with the largest number of nuclear weapons:
New Mexico (2,450), Georgia (2,000), Washington (1,685), Nevada (1,350), and North Dakota (1,140) (I wonder why Georgia? -ed)

First and last U.S. nuclear weapons tests:
July 16, 1945 ("Trinity") and September 23, 1992 ("Divider")

Number of U.S. nuclear tests in Nevada:

Number of U.S. nuclear bombs lost in accidents and never recovered:

Friday, February 10, 2006

Live Fast and Die Young

Police in Britain use speed cameras to identify and fine speeders automatically. They look like this <-

Evidentally, they are controversial but do provide some interesting reading on occasion. From the BBC: Record speed biker dies in crash

A Welsh motorcyclist died in a crash while riding his motorcycle at a speed in excess of 100mph. I believe his bike was a Suzuki GSX series crotch rocket. I am no authority on fast motorcycles but evidently these Suzukis are incredibly fast. According to experts, one particular model, the GSX1300R was designed to be the fastest sportbike on the market, designed and built specifically to conquer the previous top speed records set by all other production motorcycles. This model has a giant powerplant sized at 1298cc but also an extraordinarly aerodynamic profile. That's a real fast bike .

The same rider was picked up a few years earlier by police who clocked him speeding at 155mph on a fast Honda. That speed was was the highest ever recorded in Britain. I guess he didn't learn his lesson. From the BBC site:

Lee Beddis, 37, of Blaina, near Ebbw Vale, was killed when he hit a car on a 60mph road near Usk in Monmouthshire on his way to work, an inquest heard.

"The sole reason for Mr Beddis's death was the outrageous speed at which he was travelling on a quiet country lane said police spokesperson Wendy James.

In May 2002, he was banned from driving for a year after riding so fast he was "like a blur" to other motorists. A police camera recorded his speed as 155mph - at the time the highest-ever reading on a speed camera. He was riding along a 60mph road at the time.

Sometimes the cameras get it wrong, though. Also from the BBC:

A farmer from Wiltshire has received an apology after he was accused of doing 85mph on his tractor in south Wales. Steve Crossman was sent a ticket after a speed camera on the A465 near Neath allegedly snapped him.

But the six-year-old green-and-yellow tractor has a top speed of only 26mph and has never been to Wales. Mid and South Wales Safety Camera Partnership said it had misread a number plate and has apologised. The real speeding driver escaped a ticket.

The first 49-year-old Mr Crossman knew of his tractor's alleged antics was when a letter arrived at home, Mill Farm in Horningsham near Warminster.

"It's a good tractor,” said Crossman. “But not that good.”

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Fishing for Luddites

Let me start this post out with a really old joke:

A man pulls into town with a truckload of fish. The game warden sees him and asks him how he caught them.

"Come on I'll show you," he says. The guy gets in the boat with the warden and proceeds to the middle of the lake. The warden asks "how do you catch fish with no pole?"

The man opens box pulls out a stick of dynamite and lights it. The warden says "Hey that's illegal! I'm going to have to arrest you." The man hands the warden the sizzling dynamite and says you going to talk or fish?

I live in Minnesota where a lot of people, including me, like to go fishing. There's an incredible amount of technology that seems to be involved in catching a 2 pound walleyed pike. I may be a luddite, but to me it's getting out of hand.

When my brother goes fishing (that's him above), he does so in a $10,000 special purpose fishing boat outfitted with:
- (2) gasoline motors, one large and one small
- electric trolling motor with foot operated remote control
- (3!) combination depth finder/fish finder sonars (get this) networked together using some sort of ethernet LAN
- Walkie Talkie to talk to other fishermen
- Air and water temperature sensors
- Several special purpose boron-fiberglas-carbon rods
- Aluminum/titanium/plutonium spinning, bait casting, and spin casting reels
- Several hundred dollars worth of tackle
- Oxygenated live well to optimize bait viability

Although Steve doesn't have one, other people use underwater television cameras and who knows what else. Furthermore, they wear polarized oakleys, space age quickdrying fabric vests, "fishing boots" and so on.

I have a question about all this: Is there a backlash out there against all this technology for as simple an activity as trying to catch a fish? For example does anyone know if there's an association of "cane pole" fishermen and women? If I eschewed all this technology in favor fishing with a cane pole from a dock or rowboat, using a worm or minnow, how many less fish would I catch? Isn't there a diminishing return on using all this technology. I mean, it's just fishing.

Also, are there similar examples of backlash against technology in other sports? For example, tennis players who use wooden racquets? Hockey players who play on out door rinks? Please, I'd like to hear about other examples or general thoughts about this if you've got them.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Swedish Potato Guns That Can Take Down Cows

From "The Local - Sweden's News in English"

Spud gun lands Swede in court
Published: 8th February 2006 11:11 CET

A Falun resident who made a potato gun which packed more power than a revolver may have been delighted with his technical prowess. But now he has had his chips: he is facing legal action for weapons offences.

The local newspaper Falu-Kuriren reported that two police units were called to a housing area one evening last August by concerned residents. Officers heard explosions and through a window of an apartment saw flames coming out of the end of a weapon.

Within minutes they raided the house - and found a homemade potato cannon. The 'spud gun', as such devices are known, was confiscated along with two boxes of ammunition. Uncooked.

The gun was tested by the National Forensics Laboratory, which declared that the projectile force was greater than that of a Browning revolver.(See below for notes on this - Bill)

The 25 year old man has confessed to making the gun. In July he had taken it to the Great Lake festival in Ă–stersund but was refused entry.

On Tuesday he appeared before magistrates for a good roasting at Falun district court.

"Potato guns fall under the weapons licensing legislation," wrote the prosecutor in the court application.

Notes on Stopping Power of A Browning Revolver:
The Swedes ran some tests on that spud gun I see. But I bet those Swedish tests are pretty wimpy compared with the great Thompson-LaGarde Tests of 1904. Back then, the US Army wanted to know exactly how much stopping power a US military sidearm (e.g. the Browning Revolver) should produce.

Tests were conducted in which several army officials paid a visit to the Chicago stockyards. There, Captain John T. Thompson of the Infantry and Major Louis Anatole LaGarde of the Army Medical staff tested
different types of bullets (and the guns that shot them) then under consideration for military use. Each was aimed and fired at live cows, though the testing was not very consistent.

Basically, Thompson and La Garde would shoot a cow, then see how long it took to die (such as 4 minutes). If death took too long, one of them would walk up and kill it with a hammer. Or, sometimes they simply kept shooting rounds at the beast until it expired. This evidently did not provide all the data necessary. The final test was to shoot at a hanging cadaver at various distances and rate the effect.

The details of the test are creepy, morbid, and wonderfully fascinating, at least from some people's (okay, my own) perspectives. Anyway, if that Swede's spud gun is as powerful as a Browning revolver, that's bad news for cows.

Details of the test are available here.

This may qualify as the second most grotesque report in US history, perhaps only behind the great Gerry Commission Report on death penalty procedures, which I provided in an earlier post

The Perfect Workshop

Above, the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison's workshops.

What do you need to set up a perfect workshop? I make a lot of stuff, but I don't really have the kind of workshop I'd like. So, maybe it's time to bite the bullet and get one built.

I am currently designing (mentally at least) a new workshop, to be set out in the backyard. It will be a second garage because the big door makes it easy to move larger stuff in and out. The architectural requirements are:
  • 1. the aforementioned large door for easy movement of items in and out of the workshop
  • 2. gas heater (my contractor friend says to install in floor heating, but I don't want to spring for that, plus I think it would take too long to heat up in winter. )
  • 3. skylights to supplement the florescent lights
  • 4. wireless ethernet connection to my home network
  • 5. Three phase power at 240 v

As far as the equipment goes, here's my opinion what a great home workshop needs:

  • 1. A milling machine - the question is do I get a large used, Bridgeport-like Asian knock-off mill on say, ebay, or go for something like a new Sherline. Most of the stuff I cut isn't that big. Budget: $1200 US
  • 2. A metal cutting lathe - Same question as above. Do I get a used a big one or a small one? $1000
  • 3. A drill press. Drill presses are relatively cheap. budget: $300
  • 4. A bench grinder- $75
  • 5. An oxy-acetylene torch and metal cutter head - $300
  • 6. MIG welder. If I was better at gas welding I wouldn't need this maybe. But I'm not and MIG welding is soooo much easier. I'm thinking, what, about $600 for this?
  • 7. Air compressor. I bought a little one, mostly for pressurizing air cannons, but these things are really handy. I'm not yet using pneumatically powered tools, but I imagine that will happen. $400
Add a few handtools (plus stuff like an angle grinder, cordless drill, and so forth) , and I think I could build almost anything.

Readers are invited to weigh in on suggestions for inclusions to the list of items in the perfect home workshop (and info on your workshop is appreciated)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Technology Crackpots

To be really cool, technology must be different, quirky, non-corporate and non-mainstream. The more different it is the better I’d like it. There really should be a playful, humorous, tongue-in-cheek zaniness to it. Not everybody had to get the joke, but it had to be there somewhere. Otherwise its not weird, its just half assed crackpotism.

If you talk a while with any aggregation of rocket builders, catapult enthusiasts, or high voltage experimenters, there’s a farily good chance that one or more of them will prove to be card carrying crackpots.

Here's a rough transcription of a conversation I had with a guy who's spent some time thinking about crackpots.

“I’m a crackpot observer,” he said. “I sometimes seek them out and add them to my list of observed species just the way birders seek out hawks and finches.”

“I think the most common variety of crackpot is the Religious Crackpot. These are to Crackpot Observers what robins are to bird watchers. Religious crackpots have great ability realize and understand the True Meaning of a particular religion that somehow the other 25 million adherents overlooked. It’s an amazingly self involved genre.”

“But probably, the more interesting are the Physics Crackpots,” said my friend. “Have you ever tried to really tried to understand intricacies of modern physics? It’s too hard for most people to understand. There’s so many abstractions, so many vague and arcane definitions. Because modern physics is so complicated, it provides opportunities for taking parts of abstruse ideas and weaving them together to come up with semi-plausible sounding revolutionary physics ideas. When someone tells you about a ‘previously overlooked explanation for the origin of the universe’, there’s a good chance that the person talking is a crackpot. Physics Crackpots are terrific at selectively interpreting (or more likely simply perverting) existing theories.
Just listen for the code: “free energy”, “antigravity”, “the zero point”, “dimensions beyond space and time”, and so on.

“I also find Engineer Crackpots quite interesting. Engineers differ from physicists in that they take the basic knowledge and theories of the physicists and turn them into practical and meaningful applications that society needs. In the same way, Engineer Crackpots take the pseudoscientific ideas of the Physics Crackpots and make up lots of impossible and incorrectly understood technology. You see them all the time: perpetual motion machines, almost any CIA/FBI/KGB suppressed Nickola Tesla invention, cold fusion, and things that go faster than light, its all engineering crackpotism.”

“At the top of the list is the Conspiracy Crackpot. This is the most inspiring subgenus of crackpotism. The conspiracy crackpot can take a theory from one discipline, marry it to a fact from another field, sprinkle in a few coincidental facts or examples and bingo! a brand new theory is produced. The really facile ones can include aliens, the CIA, quantum physics, and directable electromagnetic fields, all at the same time.”

The signal aspect of the conspiracy crackpot subtype is that a conspiracy exists, the purpose of which is to stop the dissemination of the crackpot’s theories and knowledge. Why has the physics crackpot been prevented from getting the funding that would allow the colonization of Mars? Why has the engineer crackpot been prevented from moving forward on her 150 mpg auto engine? It must be a conspiracy-- say the conspiracy crackpots – and probably involves the oil companies, the British royalty, Microsoft, and of course, the Jews.

So, what's your favorite type of crackpot? Religious, Physics, Engineer, or Conspiracy? Or perhaps, some other genre?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Make Magazine Vol 5

The new copy of Make Magazine just arrived in the mail. I admit I am favorably disposed towards the magazine because I write for them, but the latest issue really is fabulous. O'Reilly Press (of computer book fame) publishes Make. They seem to be blowing the doors out in terms of subscriptions.

There are 39 titled articles in the latest issue, Volume 5 , and many of these are step by step instructions for how to build things. The projects I like best include:

  • Water rocket (has a very clever trigger mechanism)
  • Backyard Zip Line (Note: I would suggest adding an old rubber car tire for shock absorption)
  • The Jam Jar Jet (disclaimer: I wrote this one. But that doesn't mean I can't like it best)
Mark of Boingboing fame is the editor in chief of Make. I can't figure out how this guy can do so many things at once.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Robosaurus Man

In a season 2 episode of the Simpsons, Homer watches a wrestling match on TV at Moe’s while the Simpson children watch the same at home. During the wrestling match, a commercial runs for a Monster Truck Rally, which features "Truckasaurus," a colossal, fire-breathing metal dinosaur that devours cars.

The commercial voice over:"One night only…one night only…! If you miss this, you'd better be dead...or in jail!" Homer Simpson, guided by an primitive, overpowering force immediately hops into his car and rushes home, where son Bart has undergone the same experience. They run towards each other and embrace, and shout as one, "Truck-a-saurus!"

I met Doug Malewicki a couple of years ago at his southern California home. He is president of Aerovisions, Inc, which is involved in a lot of good stuff. I got the impression that Doug is an "out there" visionary with a tinkerer’s pedigree. His list of accomplishments put him in the top rank of technical self expressives. He’s designed a rocket engines, built a working rocket belt, worked on personal submarines, and he’s one of the men who designed Evel Knievel’s “Sky Cycle X1” rocket car, which tried, but failed to jump the Snake River Canyon back in 1974 in the world’s most widely viewed daredevil stunt.

I think, though, the creation that he’ll probably be best remembered for is “Robosaurus." the inspiration for Truckasaurus. Robo is a 40 foot tall, twenty ton car eating robot that rips old autos in half in its huge hydraulically powered maw to please crowds at monster truck rallies and tractor pulls. Each year, Robosauraus travels the country, thrilling the spectators at air shows, car shows, festivals and sporting events, just about any event where a 60,000 pound metal eating dinosaur would be welcomed.

Here's the (I think) 2006 Robosaurus schedule. If you go or have gone previously, event descriptions in the form of comments are welcome.

Jan 21, 2006 Thrill Show Houston Astrodome

Mar. 19,20 Thunder in the Valley Airshow Columbus, Georgia

May 26,28,29 Charlotte Motor Speedway - Coca Cola 600 Charlotte, N.C

June 18 Firebird Raceway Phoenix, AZ

July 13 Old Bridge Englishtown Raceway Englishtown, NJ

July 16 Lancaster Speedway Lancaster, NY

Sept. 30, Oct. 1,2 California International Airshow Salinas, CA

A car destroying robot is a fine fitting alter ego for Doug who believes fervently in a car free or at least, a car de-emphasized world, one where personal, computerized, lightweight, ubiquitous public transportation is so well designed that driving seems like an idea for losers.

Anvil Firing, weekend reprise

Weekend Reprise: A look at an interesting past post

Anvil Firing

I first became aware of the activity of anvil firing about three years ago at Battlebots in San Francisco. One of the builders ( I think it was Robert Lawrence who built Mechavore,) told me about an activity that takes place out in the desert where in participants take an anvil, set it atop a black powder charge and set it off. The explosion is plenty powerful, powerful enough to send the anvil way high into the air. Pointless to some, perhaps, but it sounded plenty cool to me.

Please send comments with information on what you know about anvil firing and where and when anvil firings will occur this year. Thanks!

A week or so ago, I was talking about anvil firing to one of my blacksmithing friends, and she thought she had heard of the practice but wasn't really sure what it was all about. I looked it up and it appears this is some sort of primitive pioneer pyrotechnic display; something that prospectors, miners, and other outdoorsy types did for fun on the 4th of July.:

First, some history
From the Idaho Statesman:

In early Idaho the Fourth of July was celebrated with enthusiasm. Holiday events began the night before, as this Statesman account of 1875 tells us: "After ten o'clock Saturday night the noise of gunpowder rose on the midnight air. To be sure, the great Fourth was near, and to the young, noise and happiness, patriotic enthusiasm, and Chinese crackers are synonymous and convertible terms. If they wish one day of the year, or even two days, to sit up all night so as to usher in the day with noises, to accompany themselves with fire and flame, concussion and reverberations, and lager beer, and to wind up with weariness, blisters, and colic — why 'tis the Fourth of July and a free country." The story concludes with "Long may the eagle wave and the stars and stripes float o'er the land of the free."

Anvil-firing on the Fourth was a pleasant pastime common on the Idaho frontier, but virtually unknown today. Here is the recipe: Move one large anvil out of the blacksmith shop to open ground. Pile as much black powder on top of it as you can, attached to a length of fuse. Place another anvil upside down on top of the powder. Light the fuse and run like hell. The clang of the steel, coupled with the explosion is said to have made a most satisfactory sound. In 1891, at the little town of Van Wyck, Idaho, a place now under Cascade Reservoir, "The sound of anvil firing resounded from the grove at the foot of West Range, wakening the sleeping echoes which went vibrating across the valley, rousing its silent population into activity and a realization that the Glorious Fourth was at hand."
Now, the Science of Anvil Firing:
From what I can piece together, here is a typical Anvil Firing Procedure
  1. First, two big, forged steel (not cast iron) anvils are procured. Then one is placed atop the other with the two anvil tops together. This means that one anvil is right side up and the other anvil is upside down. I’ve heard the top anvil referred to as" the flyer" and the bottom as the base.
  2. In the top of most anvils, there is apparently a cavity or hole .
  3. The anvil wrangler places some small grain size, fast acting black powder in the exposed cavity.
  4. A fuse is inserted into the cavity, and the flyer placed on top.
  5. Light fuse. All run away. A good anvil fire-er can send anvils up 100 feet or more.

Now the disclaimer
This is merely a general description of the pastime. This is all hearsay, I’ve never fired one myself, and can't vouch for it's accuracy. So I don’t recommend anyone try it based on general descriptions such as this. Warning, do not try it at home, because, well, it seems kind of dangerous. Beside blowing yourself up with explosives, the black powder could cause shrapnel, and you could get hit on the head by a quickly falling anvil, just like in cartoons.

Speaking of cartoons in which characters get hit in the head by anvils, this article is really quite amusing: Watch out for Falling Anvils by Cal Meachan:
Excerpt: In the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," when Eddie the human detective and Jessica the cartoon character emerge from the alley onto the street you can see a street sign behind them - "Watch out for falling anvils."

It's funny, of course, but I have to ask why? We've been conditioned by cartoons - especially all those Road Runner cartoons - to think of a falling anvil as something that hits the villain on the head. It's the instrument of his comeuppance. Of course anvils don't fall from the sky, except in cartoons. (BG: or in Idaho on July4th) The joke in Roger Rabbit is funny because it evokes the memory of a situation that only exists in cartoons where falling anvils are a danger. They're dropping from the sky all the time in cartoons. . .

Red means Updated post

posted by Bill Gurstelle at 12:17 PM

Friday, February 03, 2006

Movies With Trebuchets and other Catapults

Trebuchets and other catapults - they are in vogue.

Has anyone else noticed a lot of movies with trebuchets and other catapults in them? I sure have. For instance, they were the special-effects stars in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly, the Return of the King. They've been on TV as well: Fox Sports, the Simpsons, Northern Exposure, PBS Nova, Warner Brother's cartoons and probably many others.

Here's my list, admittedly incomplete. If you've got more, send 'em to me.

I built a fairly large and historically accurate trebuchet a couple of years ago. I named it Ludgar, the Warwolf, after the huge trebuchet built by Edward I of England in 1304. Ludgar was really big, accounts say that Edward cut down an entire forest to obtain enough wood.

For those interested in catapults, here's a couple of links.

First, visit my building-a-catapult site and you can see the construction of my trebuchet, step by step right here.

To build your own model catapults, trebuchets, ballistas, onagers, petraries, espringales, blide, and rock slingers, check out my book The Art of the Catapult.

The List of Movies with Catapults and Trebuchets:

  • Kingdom of Heaven
  • Alexander
  • King Arthur
  • LOTR Return of the King
  • Gladiator
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (I especially like the part of this movie where John Cleese says "Fetchez la vaca" in a cheesy French accent.)
  • Robin Hood Prince of Thieves
  • Robin and Marian
  • Robin Hood Men in Tights
  • The Scorpion King
  • Flesh and Blood (the Rose)
  • Jabberwocky
  • Army of Darkness
  • Timeline
  • Young Einstein
  • Willow
  • Empire Strikes Back
  • Richie Rich
  • The Messenger
  • Excalibur
  • Joan of Arc
  • Troy
  • El Cid
Timeline was a so so movie but the trebuchet is wonderful. Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator have excellent battle sequences with catapults. The LOTR movies have well done CGI trebuchets.

If you know of others please comment!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Killdozer, A Rampaging Tank, and Drunken Nuns on Tractors

It's the stuff of Hollywood movies. Is there anything as frightening as being chased by a really big, powerful, diesel powered machine on a rampage?

The rampaging construction equipment scenario actually does happen, maybe more frequently than you'd expect. I googled up machines on a rampage, went from one link to another and came up with a fairly long list of rogue earthmovers, from out of control tractors (including the "killdozer" shown top left) to army tanks. Here are a few:

First of all, there's this news story off the Rueter's wire:
Mar 21 2004, 10:25 WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish Benedictine nun is facing jail for driving a tractor into a car while drunk outside her convent in southwestern Poland, police said on Friday. The 45-year-old nun will be charged with drunk-driving and causing an accident, which carries a prison sentence of up to two years, Dariusz Waluch, police spokesman in the southwestern Polish town of Dzierzoniow, told local news agency PAP. He said the nun was 17 times over the country's legal alcohol limit for driving.

More on this inebriated churchwoman later.

In 2005, Marvin Heemeyer modified a bulldozer into "the killdozer" by attaching concrete block and armor plates to a Komatsu D335A and setting out on a rampage. He knocked down several buildings in Granby, CO, while shooting a hunting rifle from the armored cab, before fatally shooting himself.

Newspaper accounts say that the police were unable to stop killdozer and could only evacuate civilians from the path of the machine. According to one news account, an eyewitness said, "It looked like a futuristic tank." The witness reported he saw a police officer perched on top of the moving vehicle, firing shots into the top. At one point, he said the officer dropped some kind of explosive down the exhaust pipe. "He just kept shooting. The dozer was still going ... it didn't do a thing.'

Reportedly, Heemeyer was upset by something the city government did and went out of control. No one but Heemeyer was killed in the incident.

Colorado must be the place for such occurances. Back in 1998, Thomas Leask fatally shot a man and then took a large piece of road construction equipment on a demolition spree. Leask drove the stolen military surplus front-end loader into the Alma, Colorado's water treatment plant knocking it out of service He also rammed into town hall, a fire station and the Post Office; causing holes that measured 10 feet high and 15 feet wide. Police took him into custody when he left the loader.

In 1995, methamphetamine abuser Shawn Nelson stole a tank (a M-60A3, a 31-foot-long vehicle capable of speeds up to 30 miles per hour. It weighs 57.3 tons when fully loaded for combat and normally carries a 105 mm gun and machine guns) from a National Guard armory and rolled through San Diego, leaving a wake of smashed vehicles, crunched light poles and geysering fire hydrants. The rampage ended when the tank got stuck on a concrete freeway divider and a police officer popped open the door and shot Nelson dead.

And, finally, a recent update to the drunken nun on a tractor story:

Thu Jan 12, 2006 11:49 AM ET WARSAW (AFP) - A Polish nun who caused two accidents while driving under the influence of alcohol informed on a police officer who asked for a bribe to cover up her mishaps.

The 35-year-old policeman has been accused of corruption and faces a possible jail sentence of up to eight years, said Ewa Weglarowicz-Makowska, spokeswoman for the state prosecutor's office in Jelenia Gora, southwest Poland.

The Benedictine nun caused two accidents, the first in 2004, when driving a tractor towing a snowplough, she hit a car parked at the entrance of her convent in the southwestern town of Krzeszow.

A year later, her car ended up in a ditch after she drove at high speed.

Anxious to avoid scandal and particularly worried that her convent would find out, the nun went for help to a friend who was a police officer. The policeman promised her he would make sure no one found out -- in return for a payment of 3,000 zlotys (790 euros, 960 dollars) Weglarowicz-Makowska said.

"When the policeman demanded another payment of 3,000 zlotys to keep the second accident under wraps, she decided to inform on him," the spokeswoman added.

Personal Propulsion Magazine. . .

Personal Propulsion Magazine isn't a bad idea for blog. (Thanks Jim!)