Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Learning To Speak

Last summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to present a series of lectures aboard the Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 on behalf of Oxford University. I did so on a transatlantic crossing between New York and Southampton, UK.

To prepare for the talks, I spent considerable time observing seasoned, practiced, expert speakers and lecturers in action. I learned much about the art of oratory from doing so. I must say, I learned from the very best: I heard such luminaries as Sandra Day O'Connor, Salman Rushdie, Dan Pink, and Tom Friedman. I attended dozens of lectures and I heard just about all the different types of speakers that exist -- writers, motivators, social scientists, astronomers, more writers, meteorologists, biologists, palenentologists, archeologists, journalists, jurists, and more writers. It was truly an interesting experience.

I am pleased to say that public speaking is alive and vibrant in this country, TV, Internet, movies, etc non-withstanding.

I wrote an article for Rake Magazine, tracing out my journey down the road of public presentation. The article just came out. You can read it here. Then, go out and hear a lecture

Monday, February 26, 2007

More on How to Build a Catapult

[Looking for more catapult building info? There is much information in this blog on how to build a catapult. Type "catapult" into the search bar above for more catapult building blog posts]

I'd like to thank those people who have written me lately with questions about catapult building. There's no doubt a renaissance in interest in the ancient art of hurling.

Catapults are wonderful, exciting examples of technology. They are simple yet complex; delicate yet brutal. Unlike looking at say your computer or an airliner, you can pretty much look at a trebuchet or ballista and kind of understand what's going on. On the other hand, the physics and kinematics are complex and intricate.

If you're interested in catapult building, I've posted before on this blog about catapult building, and it might be worth your while to check the index and read those posts. If you need plans, get a copy of my book, the Art of the Catapult (see link below).

Tips for building a catapult for school projects:

  • Use modern materials. While it might be cool to build a coiled rope torsion spring like the ancient Greeks, you'll probably find it difficult to get enough spring power without torquing down the ropes so much that you'll crush the frame. Better to use bungee cords.
  • I find hardwoods and metal frames work better than softwoods.
  • If you're making a trebuchet, consider forgoing the pouch on the sling and simply attach a cord to the object you're hurling:. That way, when the projectile flies, then so does the cord. I call that "a sacrificial sling." It's way, way easier.
  • Consider your release mechanism carefully. For bigger catapults, consider a pelican hook (it's a peice of hardware that sailors use, and you get them at stores that cater to boating) or possible an archer's arrow release. You get those at sporting goods stores. Their fairly cheap and they work well with smaller machines.
  • I've created a post exclusively on obtaining triggers at
Catapults are fun yet challenging to build. As much as I'd like to help individual readers out, I simply don't have the resources to answer specific questions or provide plans for projects. However information is available in my book, The Art of the Catapult, which you can get at any good bookstore, online, or often, at the library.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Rocket Manual for Amateurs

Back in 1960, U.S. Army Captain Bertrand Brinley published the Rocket Manual for Amateurs, one of the greatest DIY books ever written. Its cover price reads 75 cents. Buying a copy today in a used bookstore will set you back about $200. But it’s that good. (I know, I have it.)

There is a considerable amount of information on rocket motor making in RMFA. Now, back in the 50s and 60s, making rocket motors was a fashionable pastime, and there were lots of clubs and societies that would goof around making rocket engines.

But like any high energy hobby, things could and would go wrong and people got hurt. Rocket engines had a nasty habit of blowing up in the maker's face and causing injury. There is a part of the process where the propellant is rammed into a tube and that's pretty dangerous. (I personally know of a couple people who hurt themselves this way.)

So, the activity changed, led by Estes rocket company, people were encouraged to buy commercial rocket motors instead of rolling their own.

That is indeed much safer. But i think you lose something when you give up the core part of the activity. The Rocket Manual for Amateurs has the info needed to make several different types of rockets and rocket engines. I'm thinking about making some. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The York Pennsyvania Cabin Fever Expo

Speaking of people with high cylinder indexes, (see previous post, below) I recently returned from an event in York Pennsylvania called the Cabin Fever Expo. It's fairly large, and about 8000 people show up from all over to see what the country's best modelers are modeling. For example, there are people who machine miniature gasoline engines on mills and lathes they keep in their workshops. There are steam engined powered boats, trains, model sawmills, and so on.

My hat is off to the men (it's almost completely male) who have the ability to make these wonderful machines. The craftsman ship is outstanding.

Some of the machines are so intricate, that I figured it must have taken several hundred hours of work to get that far. So, I kept asking the modelers "how much time did you spend making this engine (airplane/boat/machinegun/etc)?"

None of them could give me an answer. Evidently, its about something more important than time.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

What's your Cylinder Index?

My ex-relative of mine (I'll call him "Joe") lives way, way out in the hinterlands on 80 acres of hilly woods and wooded hills. He lives in a trailer that has no electricity, no running water, no central heat. It's a lifestyle he's consciously chosen, for better or for worse.

He's an interesting guy, albeit strange . He reminds me of a grotesque, a Gothic protagonist from a Sherwin Anderso
n novel . Exceptionally talented in mechanical ways, intellectually present, yet sadly lacking in empathy and communication skills.

Now, the remarkable thing about Joe is that he has the highest CYLINDER INDEX of any man I've ever met, and I've met men with really high cylinder indexes, believe me. What is a cylinder index? It's a term invented by radio broadcaster Joe Soucheray. To figure it, simply count the total number of cylinders in all the internal comubustion engines you own.

For example, I've got a 8 cylinders in my Explorer, Karen has 4 in her Honda. My weed wacker has one, my snowblower has 2, my chain saw has one. There's two of us, so 8+4+1+2+ = 15 which is my Cylinder Index

My brother, the dentist, has a fairly decent cylinder index. His pickup truck has 6, his SUV has 6, and his wife's sedan has, I think, 6. He's got a fishing boat with 4, a chain saw 1, a snowblower 2, a weed wacker 1, a lawn mower 1, a riding mower 2, a generator 1. What's that, about 30?

But Joe has (or at least used to have) a pick up truck with 6 cylinders, an old but working jeep with 4, a partially working Dodge for 4, five bulldozers (yes five, the guy loves pushing dirt) for about 25, about six old farm tractors (all working, but some just barely) for 25 more cylinders, several generators
adding 6, four mowers for 4, and a bunch of miscellaneous things like piston driven welders (it generates its own electricity on the job site), a couple outboard motors that he owns for no particular reason, weedwhackers, snowblowers, and odd ball stuff like gas powered mixers, crushers, spreaders, and so on. All told, Joe's index easily tops 100.

What does a high cylinder index indicate? Virility? Nah. Obsessive/compulsive disorder? Maybe. A fascination with technology? Probably? An obsessive need to prove virility through technology? Hmmmm.

So, who's got the highest cylinder index you've come across?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Mark, My Editor at Make to be on the Colbert Report

My editor (and friend) at Make Magazine tells me that he'll be on the Colbert Report Comedy Central on Tuesday, March 6. Mark Frauenfelder is a wonderfully interesting guy and I'm looking forward to the show. He's written several books including The World's Worst: A Guide To The Most Disgusting Hideous; Inept, And Dangerous People, Places, And Things On Earth, which quite clever and very attractively priced on Amazon right now.

Based on what he usually talks about on Boing Boing, I figured he'd be talking about homeland security paranoia; e.g. the Aqua Team Hunger Force flashing sign overreaction.

But he tells me he's there to talk about Make. Even better. It looks like this magazine is starting to garner some big attention.

I wonder if he'll talk about the potato gun or tensegrity tower articles I did?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Make Magazine #9 out now. Includes Bullwhip!

My apologies for the lack of posts lately. I'll try to rectify that. I've also changed some programming things so the RSS feed to this blog should hopefully work now.

Make #9, the fringe science issue is out and on the newstands. This is the world's best magazine, hands down. I am proud to be writing for it. I've got several pieces in it, including one on how to make a bullwhip. I've made a few now, and they are great fun to make and use.

Speaking of bullwhips, this just in from the website,

Harrison Ford threatens to quit Indina Jones!

Date: 01/02/2007

Harrison Ford has threatened to quit the new Indiana Jones movie, unless he gets to use a real whip.

The 64-year-old actor, who plays the daredevil archaeologist, was told the weapon would have to be computer generated because of new film safety rules.

Harrison branded the rule "ridiculous" and said he would pull out of the film if he couldn't wield his whip.

A source said: "The idea was to take away the risk element the whip carries.

"Safety laws have changed since the last film and movie makers have to be much more careful.

Now they use computer graphics for any dangerous stuff."

Harrison was 39-years-old when the first Indiana Jones movie, 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' was released in 1981.

'The Temple Of Doom' followed in 1983 and 'The Last Crusade' five years later.

The trilogy made more than £600 million at the box office.

The fourth movie is due for release next year.

I must say, I side with Harrison Ford on this. I think actually being able to hold and crack the whip would be pretty important to getting into the character. While there is some risk, I do not believe them to be particularly dangerous. Better that than say, driving while talking on a cell phone.