Thursday, March 30, 2006

Air Show Season Begins

There are about 20 or so military fighter jet performance teams besides the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels. I find it interesting to compare the airplanes each group chooses to fly. Except for the Americans and the Russians, all other teams fly trainer aircraft, not front line, top performance fighters. (I could be wrong on this, but that's how it looks to me.)

The Thunderbirds fly the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon. According to the Air Force, the F-16 is a "highly maneuverable multi-role fighter proven to be one of the world's best precision tactical bombers and air-to-air combat aircraft. The only modifications needed to prepare the aircraft for its air demonstration role are installing a smoke-generating system in the space normally reserved for the 20mm cannon, and the painting of the aircraft in Thunderbird colors."

The Russian equivilent to the Thunderbirds are the "Russian Knights." The RK fly the incredibly huge Su-27 flanker fighter jet. It's a much larger aircraft than the F-16, which makes it a difficult airplane (so I'm told) to use as a close quarters demonstration aircraft.

SU-27 Specifications
Takeoff weight: 51,015 lb
Powerplant: two Saturn/ Lyul'ka AL-31F afterburning turbofans
Thrust: 55,116 lb
Max Speed : Mach 2.35

F-16 Specification
Takeoff weight: 23,765lb
Powerplant: one Pratt & Whitney F100-220 afterburning turbofan
Thrust: 29,100 lb
Max Speed : Mach 2.0

I don't know if the Thunderbirds and the Knights ever fly at the same airshow. It would be a cool thing to watch and compare - the manueverable F-16 versus the huge, fast Su-27.

By the way, on March 25-26, in the skies over Fort Smith, Ark., Nicole Malachowski made aviation history when the Air Force Thunderbirds gave their first performance of the 2006 season. Malachowski is the first female pilot ever selected for either the Thunderbirds or the Navy's Blue Angels.

Scrambling for Scramjets

Looks like the Aussies had a successful test launch of their Mach 10 Scramjet. According to ABC news,

Researchers in Australia's Outback launched a test flight Thursday of a supersonic jet designed to fly 10 times faster than conventional airplanes.

The test flight was conducted by researchers at the University of Queensland under commission from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, in the remote community of Woomera, about 310 miles north of the South Australian state capital, Adelaide. Full article here

Also, according to the article, the researchers have high expectations for scramjet technology
Some observers say scramjet technologies could revolutionize air travel. Officials at the University of Queensland have said scramjet-powered passenger jets are still a long way off. But it might be possible to use a scramjet-powered plane within the next 10 years for limited purposes, such as delivering vital organs for urgent transplant operations.
I am skeptical. How many times a year is someone going to need a heart scramjetted in from halfway around the world? Not too often. The scramjet appears to me to be too expensive, too inefficient, and too fraught with ecological, mechanical, and economic problems to have any real applications outside of research or perhaps military applications. So

Also, the last time I looked at the high Mach numbers associated with scramjets, a keen eyed reader questioned the mach number to miles per hour conversion I used. He asked "doesn't the relationship between mach number and mph change at different altitudes?" (Mach number is the ratio of something's speed to the speed of sound. ) But the speed of sound is different at different air densities, hence, it changes at different temperatures, pressures, altitudes, gravities, you name it.

The true mph to Mach number conversion is well, complex. Here's part of what you need to know in order to do it.

So, I say forget all that and use Mach 1 = 760 mph and be happy with that. And if you're really interested in accuracy, use NASA's mach number conversion tool here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Older than dirt

March 29,2006

What do LaToya Jackson, Heisman trophy winner Earl Campbell, and me all have in common?

We all turn 50 today!

That makes me think about soil science (stick with me, you'll see why in a minute.) I notice that there are many words that are used to describe soil: earth, ground, clay, duff, dust, loam, marl, mud, sand, silt, subsoil, topsoil, firmament, humus, sediment, till, gravel, gumbo, loess and dirt.

"Dirt" is a basic and important thing. In fact, it doesn't get any more basic or any more important than dirt. According to the wiki entry, soil is

Soil is material capable of supporting plant life. Soil forms through a variety of soil formation processes, and includes weathered rock "parent material" combined with dead and living organic matter and air. Soils are vital to all life on Earth because they support the growth of plants, which supply food and oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

Where does dirt come from? Lots of places. Composting for example. John Adams, our second president, once looked at someone's compost pile and said proudly, "This may be good manure, but it is not equal to mine."

Soil comes into existance via several processes. One mechanism for soil development occurs when recent lava flows in warm regions are exposed to heavy and very frequent rainfall. In these places plants become established very quickly on the lava, even though there is very little organic material. The plants are supported by the porous rock becoming filled with nutrient bearing water, for example carrying dissolved bird droppings or guano. The developing plant roots themselves gradually breaks up the porous lava and organic matter soon accumulates but, even before it does, the predominantly porous broken lava in which the plant roots grow can be considered a soil.

Much of this happens quickly, in far less than fifty years. So, in effect, I (and LaToya, and Earl) really am older than dirt.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Hamster Power

I love being a writer. My datebook is filled with to-do-lists with stuff on it like:
1. Finish hamster powered nightlight article
2. interview paper shredding plant operator
3. think of something original for blog

That train of thought (at least the trains of thought resulting from the first and third items above) leads to this: I've got an article coming up in a major national magazine (guess which one) that shows readers how to build a hamster powered generator capable of doing meaningful work, if by meaningful work, you mean lighting a single red LED.

There's a lot of latent energy going to waste in our nation's hamster population. Harnessing that energy could help solve our future energy needs.

And that thought leads to this film clip on the website, Notice: no hamsters were hurt in the making of this film, probably.

Building Implosion Update

A reader posted an update regarding a large scheduled implosion in the Portland, OR area. The picture at right shows the Trojan nuclear power plant, and the doomed cooling tower. Looks like a really big.

I'd love to see this implosion. It's one of those things you'd always remember if you were there, in person. And it would be a good memory: powerful, exciting, chaotic and orderly at the same time.

From the PGE website:
Cooling tower implosion details

The 499-foot cooling tower is scheduled to be imploded on May 21, 2006. PGE has chosen a contractor, Controlled Demolition Inc. (CDI), which has safely imploded a number of large structures, including the Kingdome in Seattle.

To implode the tower, CDI will place explosives in the lower half of the tower which, when detonated, will cause the tower to fall into itself. Debris will be contained almost entirely within the tower's footprint. The implosion, from the first detonation of explosives to the settling of the tower, will take about 8 seconds.

Minimal public impact is expected as a result of the implosion. Ground vibration will be imperceptible. Noise levels will be equal to or less than that of a summer thunderstorm or a typical fireworks display.

Fine particles may travel downwind and if so, would appear as a fine layer of dust. The best place to watch the implosion will be on television. Portland television stations plan to carry it live. Public viewing areas may be difficult to find, and traffic will be held up at several points before and during the time of the implosion.

While I give credit to PGE for openness regarding the event, it appears that it won't be accessible to the public except through the sterility of television coverage. Contrast that with the approach the city of Fort Worth took, which was discussed in a previous post

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Eye for an Eye

I got banged in the eye a couple days ago playing basketball. I took a picture to show to send to some friends to garner some sympathy.

Here's how it looks for real:

Here's how it looks when I use the filters on Picassa to "enhance" the detail. Will picture number 2 get me more sympathy?

Along those lines, if you play ball long enough, you'll get hurt. During the 20 years I've played pickup basketball, I've seen ACL's blown out, Achilles tendon's ruptured, broken wrists, displaced patellas, broken digits, and so on.

Basketball is a rough sport. And, it's number 1 in eye injuries.

Sports cause more than 40,000 eye injuries each year. Overall, basketball and baseball cause the most eye injuries, followed by water sports and racquet sports.

According to the website,

Common types of eye injuries are blunt trauma, penetrating injuries and radiation injury from sunlight.

Blunt trauma occurs when something hits you in the eye. Blunt trauma causes most sports-related eye injuries. Some serious examples are an orbital blowout fracture (a broken bone under the eyeball), a ruptured globe (broken eyeball) and a detached retina (the part of the eye that is sensitive to light and helps you see). Bruising of the eye and eyelid (a "black eye") looks bad but usually is a less serious injury.

So what's my point? No point really. Just looking for sympathy. (See picture number 2)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Scramjets - faster than just about anything you can think of

Scramjets are in the news.

The fastest non-rocket vehicle is the x-43 scramjet built by US company Alliant Techsystems. Last year it went about Mach10 in a test.

That's fast:
10 mach = 7 612.0 mile/hour
10 mach = 3.4 kilometer/second
10 mach = 20 461 204 furlong/fortnight

Now, other countries are racing ahead with their own scram jet programs.

Lastest Scramjet News from India:
IN a major breakthrough towards the goal of developing an operational supersonic combustion technology, which holds the key to building a reusable space vehicle or a high speed, ultra fast aircraft for civilian or military uses, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully carried out the design, development and characteristics realisation of the supersonic combustion ramjet (Scramjet) early this year.
Latest Scramjet news from Australia:
A new jet engine design able to fly seven times the speed of sound is scheduled to launch over Australia on Saturday. The scramjet engine, known as Hyshot III, has been designed by British defence firm Qinetiq.

What is a scramjet? From the wiki entry:
A scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) is a variation of a ramjet where the flow of the air and combustion of the fuel air mixture through the engine is done at supersonic speeds. This allows the scramjet to achieve greater speeds than a conventional ramjet which slows the incoming air to subsonic speeds before entering the combustion chamber. Projections for the top speed of a scramjet engine (without additional oxidiser input) vary between Mach 12 and Mach 24 (orbital velocity). By way of contrast, the fastest conventional air-breathing, manned vehicles, such as the U.S. Air Force SR-71, achieve slightly more than Mach 3.2.
Scramjets are something American scientists do very well. Alliant Techsystems, a Minneapolis HQ'ed company is doing a lot of interesting things with unmanned scramjet vehicles.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

World's Loudest Road Vehicle?

What is the loudest thing on the streets? I've always thought it was a pulse jet organ car I saw at Burning Man, but this thing here might give it a run for it's money. I'm not exactly sure what the overall purpose of this vehicle is, but it is interesting looking.

The large horn in the front is a Kahlengerg S-6. From the website:
This is the largest air horn in the world. It was built in 1984, the only one of its kind, and won the competition among ship horn manufacturers at the Philadelphia Maritime Museum in 1985. It is 7 feet long, with a 35-inch bell and a 17-inch diaphragm. Weighing in at 267 lbs., it can be heard for 12 miles on land and 25 miles on water, when operating at full pressure (250 psi)
Write in with comments if you've experienced this.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Navy's Swimmer Nullification Program

This headline on the BBC website caught my eye:

Pentagon plans cyber-insect army

The article goes on to talk about some DARPA plan for implanting microtechnology in butterflies to sniff out explosives or something equally weird. But it reminded me of something I read about the Japanese using bats to carry incendiaries in World War 2. And, when I read a little farther in the BBC article, that story, about the bats was mentioned.

But, the article lists other animal warfare attempts including tantalizing information on some secret US Navy program that used trained dolphins to
. . . tear off diving gear of Vietcong divers and drag them to interrogation, sources linked to the programme say. Syringes later placed on dolphin flippers to inject carbon dioxide into divers, who explode.
Wow, exploding Viet Cong frogmen! Could this really be true?

Well I did some research and came up with a possible source for the BBC's claim. In 1990, William Johnson published a book called the Rose Colored Menagerie, which says:
By 1972, the US Navy had deployed a top-secret team of "warrior porpoises" in Vietnam, part of its "Swimmer Nullification Program", yet another Orwellian code name for killing. For at least a year, these experimental dolphins were utilised to protect strategic Vietnamese harbours against infiltration by enemy frogmen.

According to Dr. James Fitzgerald, pioneer in dolphin research for the CIA and US Navy, after detecting an intruding diver, the animals were trained to pull off his face mask and flippers, tear the air-supply tubes, and finally "capture him for interrogation." In fact the dolphins serving in Vietnam seem to have been considerably less benign. Indeed, it was the increasingly sordid exploitation of cetaceans by the US military which began to provoke repulsion amongst its own dolphin trainers. Several resigned in disgust, and experienced few qualms about betraying at least some of the military's secrets to the public. According to Dr. Michael Greenwood, the Navy's dolphins had also been taught to kill, with knives attached to their flippers and snouts.

Worse was to come however, when dolphins were equipped with large hypodermic syringes loaded with pressurised carbon dioxide. As the dolphin rammed an enemy frogman with the needle, the rapidly expanding gas would cause the victim to literally explode. Years later, it was revealed that the killer dolphins of Vietnam had actually been responsible for the deaths of 40 Vietcong divers, and accidentally, two American servicemen.
By the way, the entire book seems to be online and free to view here. I looked through parts of it online and it's interesting as well as grotesque and depressing

But, adding a bit of credibility to the dolphin hit man idea is this US Navy website. Here's a quote from that page:
While dogs work as effective sentries on land, dolphins and sea lions cannot be outmatched as sentries in the water. In the MK 6 MMS, dolphins and sea lions effectively protect piers, ships, harbors, and anchorages against unauthorized swimmers, SCUBA divers, closed-circuit divers, and swimmer delivery vehicles.

MK 6 MMS was first operationally deployed with dolphins during the Vietnam War from 1971 to 1972 and Bahrain from 1986 to 1987
Does "anchorages against unauthorized swimmers" really mean "blowing them up with CO2?"

Bye Bye, Tom Cat

In the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise and the other naval pilots flew the high powered and extremely fast F-14 Tom Cat. But the Top Gun airplane is no more.

On March 10, the F-14 Tomcat fighter faded into naval aviation history. That’s when the pilots of Fighter Squadron VF-31 (the TomCatters) and VF-213 (Black Lions) ended their Iraq deployment, where they flew sorties from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The planes flew in formation back to Oceana Naval Base and the crews are being retrained to fly other, less expensive planes.

According to Defense Industry Daily,
The swing-wing F-14 remains a capable aircraft in both air-air and air-ground roles; yet it lacks electronics upgrades for the most modern weapons, and its maintenance burden is several times that of the competing F/A-18 Super Hornet. On average, NNS reports that an F-14 requires nearly 50 maintenance hours for every flight hour, while the Super Hornet requires 5-10 maintenance hours for every flight hour.
Apparently, this move has not been greeted with universal approval. The TomCat is a faster plane with longer range, and according to some, can engage more targets simultaneously.

So, is the F-14 gone from the skies? Well not completely. Again according to Defense Industry Daily, The last Grumman F-14s flying will belong to Iran.
Iran's residual fleet of F-14s and Phoenix missiles racked up an impressive list of kills (Major Jalal Zandi, with 9 kills, is believed to be the most prolific Tomcat ace) and demonstrated the value of an "air dominance intimidator" fighter capability during the 1980-1988 Iran/ Iraq war. The Iranians proved ingenious in evolving an infrastructure to keep their aircraft flying, and the Islamic regime resorted more than once to pulling former IIAF pilots out of prison to fly missions.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

My name is Bond; Covalent Bond

A short ride through the archives. A collection of interesting past posts dealing with chemistry

Nitric Acid Acts Upon Trousers
In 1879 preeminent American chemist Ira Remsen made the greatest discovery of his career by accident. . . .

Exploding Cow Chemistry
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. . . .

Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab

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. . . .

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Hats Off to Texas

Hats off to Fort Worth for not keeping the timing of it's building implosion a secret. Too often, in my opinion, overblown safety concerns and lack of regard for the public's right to experience stuff shrouds otherwise cool technology examples in needless secrecy. The city posted information on their website. While I don't know how close people could get, apparently there was provision made for the interested public; and I think that's great.

From the NBC television affiliate in DFW:

FORT WORTH, Texas --

Workers with D.H. Griffin of Texas leveled the 30-story Landmark Tower in downtown Fort Worth after four months of planning.

The implosion was a success and the building fell the way demolition experts intended, but several windows on the Baker Building to the east of the Landmark Tower were damaged.

Cleanup is scheduled to begin right away, but officials said it will take around 90 days to completely clear the debris.

Thousands of spectators braved rainy, chilly weather to watch the 1950's era building be brought down in the controlled blast.

NBC 5 reported that it will took 364 pounds of explosives to take down building.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Whoosh, Boom, but hopefully not Splat

Frequent readers of this blog understand that my favorite subject matter is all things that go whoosh, boom, or splat. Therefore, I think today's topic is relevant.

The subject is flatuence. A subject not offen addressed outside the hallways of junior high, but is now going mainstream. There is a new website,, devoted to news about this topic. Here's a few interesting tidbits:

  • Diabetics and dieters are statistically much more gassy than other people
  • Consider yourself normal if you pass gas 10–20 times a day.
  • It’s not unusual to pass gas upon awakening because it accumulates overnight.
  • Eating a meal also stimulates gas production. Eating sends a signal to the brain to get going, experts say.

Here's a link I found on that leades to a medical journal article about the effect of gatorade on runners. There is information about a recent Dutch study that concludes that gatorade is a big gas producer.

The use of carbohydrate-containing sports drinks led to higher incidences of all types of GI complaints compared to water. (p <>

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Skyaak - Canada's Answer to the Frisbee

Because I am a writer, I get to appear on national TV and radio every once in a while. Last month I did an interview with Radio Canada about Adventures from the Technology Underground. Fairly often, people contact me with questions and comments afterwards.

A Canadian inventor named Michael Robert Gaudet came up with something called the Skyaak, which is something you toss around to your buddies for fun. He sent me a couple after hearing me on the radio and I have to say, they are incredibly cool. It's sort of like a pole shaped frisbee. There are two conical surfaces on either side of a plastic pole. The conical surfaces act as wings and provide interesting aerodynamic properties to the thing as a whole.

I took one to the gym last night and threw it around between basketball games. It was a hit! I've not met Mr. Gaudet and have no financial interest in his product, but I do think it's very neat. I think it has more cachet than your regular old frisbee. Google skyaak if you're interested.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Water Bears - the new sea monkeys?

I've received many comments regarding the post on tardigrades, the cute invertebrate often called a water bear. As soon as the weather warms up, I'm going to take out my 40 year old microscope and see if I can find a few hiding in a moss clump.
<-- From Matt Norwood

Mark Fraunfelder of Boing Boing fame says water bears looks more like bears than sea monkeys look like monkeys. Maybe there's a huge business opportunity here. When I was little, I bought a sea monkey kit from an ad in a comic book. (I may be weird but I think that female sea monkey is strangley attractive)

They were okay, but nothing special. Could someone start a company selling water bears? Given that they don't need much care and are nearly impossible to kill, they could be the next big hit. The only problem is that you need a magnifying glass or better to see them. Hmmm, that's a problem.

Anyway, reader Matt Norwood did a bunch of water bear research and posted it on his blog. For those inquiring minds who want to know, here's more.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pressure Cooker Bombs

Ever notice that even terrorist seem get involved with "fads?" It seems that the latest is a new type of improvised explosive device that is all too common in the area of the Indian subcontinent. The pressure cooker bomb is becoming the terrorist's weapon of preference. Here's something from the New Dehli Newspaper, the Hindu:

Terrorists trained in making pressure cooker bombs

NEW DELHI: Terrorists in camps purportedly operating along the Baluchistan border between Pakistan and Afghanistan are being trained in making and exploding pressure cooker bombs, which were used in the Delhi blasts last year and at least in two explosions in Varanasi this past Tuesday.

During interrogation, Mohammad Ibrahim, who was arrested for his involvement in the Special Task Force office blast in Hyderabad in October last, allegedly disclosed that he along with several others from Hyderabad and Ahmedabad had been sent to the Baluchistan border camp via Bangladesh to undergo training in the handling of explosives, arms and ammunition.

The "course" also included the manufacturing of pressure cooker bombs fitted with clock-timer, similar to the one used in the improvised explosive device defused at Godolia in Varanasi on Tuesday.

If you Google "pressure cooker bomb" you will find there's a huge number of attacks carried out using this type of device. What is it about a pressure cooker that makes it so suitable for this use? Some of the article say that it's because security people often don't check them carefully because they are so common. Really? Are that that many pressure cookers out there crossing Indian and Nepalese border checkpoints that they have become invisible to agents?

I'm pretty sure that the security screeners in the US are clued into this. In fact, The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning a while back about such devices. They issued a guideline in February 2004 about them. According to DHS,

Typically, these bombs are made by placing TNT or other explosives in a pressure
cooker and attaching a blasting cap at the top of the pressure cooker. The size
of the blast depends on the size of the pressure cooker and the amount of
explosive placed inside. Pressure cooker bombs are made with readily available
materials and can be as simple or as complex as the
builder decides. These types of devices can be initiated using simple electronic components including, but not limited to, digital watches, garage door openers, cell phones or pagers.
As a common cooking utensil, the pressure cooker is often overlooked when
searching vehicles, residences or merchandise crossing the U.S. Borders.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Anatomy of a Bad Neighbor

I wrote an earlier post about a couple of Coloradans who got into trouble with a balloon filled with flammable gas that destroyed their care. But that's small potatoes compared to this:


From the blog

We believe our neighbor, who seemed to be obsessed with fireworks, modified and sold them. He clearly has the illegal kind, the huge ones, and way beyond the little size that are legal here for one day on the 4th of July. He has an enclosed shed behind his house where he seem to be performing his chemistry.

The incident:

From The Long Beach (CA) Press Telegram:

March 6, 2006 - Explosion rocks Lakewood neighborhood

LAKEWOOD — A Sunday morning explosion from a house filled with fireworks blew out windows of 15 neighboring homes, scattered debris for blocks and was felt as far as Hawaiian Gardens, Downey and Bellflower.

At around 6:55 a.m., neighbors awoke to sharp, gunshot-like sounds to find a 400-foot plume of gray smoke above the single-level house at 6178 Dunrobin Ave., from which shot out wild barrages of fireworks.

Miller suffered second-and third-degree burns to the back of his neck and arms. He was rushed to the hospital for treatment but was released a few hours later to be booked on suspicion of illegal possession of fireworks.

Julia Emerson, spokeswoman for Southern California Gas Company, said the house Miller had been renting was blown off its foundation, and its roof actually popped off — like a cartoon — and fell back to place.

Most residents said that they thought the explosion had been inevitable, adding that Miller set off fireworks as often as twice a week, sometimes during the evening or early in the morning.

The next day:

The Long Beach (CA) Press Telegram:

Lakewood resident had denied fireworks

LAKEWOOD — Months before a Sunday morning fireworks explosion destroyed a home and damaged several others, the Sheriff's Department questioned the resident after receiving complaints from neighbors, staked out his house, and even dug through his trash cans looking in vain for evidence of manufacturing or having illegal fireworks, officials said.

When confronted, the resident, Brian Miller, would say the fireworks were coming from the next street over, said Capt. David Fender, commander of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lakewood Station. Brian Miller is being held at Twin Towers Jail in Los Angeles

And now:

Innocent plea in fireworks blast

The man accused of blowing up the Lakewood home he rented with illegal fireworks pleaded not guilty to nine felony counts Tuesday, a Los Angeles County district attorney spokeswoman said.

During his arraignment at Bellflower Courthouse, Brian Alan Miller, 36, a stay-at-home father of two, was charged with possession of a destructive device, possession for sales of a controlled substance, two counts of child abuse, recklessly causing a fire and two counts of vandalism, DA spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said.

Miller, whose bail was raised to $850,000 Tuesday, could face a minimum of six years in state prison, Gibbons said.

I'm no expert but I'd say this guy's in deep trouble - Bill

Robot Fightin' coming up

I see there's another big fighting robot event coming up. From the Battle Beach website:
In partnership with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University , Battle Beach is pleased to announce that their next robot combat event, Battle Beach 4, will be held on April 8th and 9th, 2006 at the Volusia County Fairgrounds in Deland, Florida. This is the Robot Fighting League's Southeast Championships and an RFL National Championship Qualifier. Since the demise of popular television coverage, robot combat has exploded as a grass roots, family oriented sport, with over 50 competitions held in North America each year.

I wrote about this in an earlier post this year. I've built a number fighting robots with my son Andy, and enjoyed it much. If you want to learn about building one, check out my book, Building Bots. Click on the link at right for info. --->

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Beyond Imagination at the University of Illinois

"Beyond Imagination" at the University of Illinois.

Sounds a little bit like Burning Man on the prairie. But in actuality, this is the University of Illinois Engineering Open House and may be the largest such event of its kind. The annual event will take place this Friday and Saturday (March 10 and 11)

The purpose is to showcase the research advancements of the University of Illinois College of Engineering. This event features student project exhibits, faculty lab exhibits, robotics competitions and grade/high school engineering competitions.

From the UI website:

86th Engineering Open House is "Beyond Imagination"

Wild and wacky Rube Goldberg machines, “robot wars,” and more than 160 fun-filled exhibits await visitors to the 86th annual Engineering Open House (EOH) at the University of Illinois.

“The theme of this year’s open house is ‘Beyond Imagination’,” explained Doug Johnson, director of the 2006 Engineering Open House. “We are expecting well over 10,000 visitors, who will experience the myriad of engineering marvels and mysteries in this ever-changing world. This is a chance for the engineers here to show off what they do during their spare time. EOH is a great forum for teaching a broad variety of audiences about how engineering affects their lives.”

The event, organized by students in the Engineering Council at Illinois, will take place from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Friday, March 10, and from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 11.

“This is a completely free event and no registration is required."

I see from the web site that activities and events range from Tube Climbing Robots, to Tank Wars, to a Vacuum Cannon, to a Quiz Bowl, to an exhibit on career opportunities in Agricultural Engineering, and on and on. Great looking stuff! I wish I could drive to Champaign for the event, but this weekend is busy, so maybe next year.

If anyone attends this PLEASE comment or email me an event report - who, what, why, impressions, feelings, etc. ALSO, if anyone knows of a similar event at a different institution, please send info directly to me or by commenting. Thanks!

It Takes a Forklift to Move a Forklift

In an earlier post, I listed the things a home workshop should contain if money were no object. Many readers posted comments as to the things they felt were the most important inclusions into a well equipped workshop.

About three years ago, I visited the shop of my friend, Christow Ristow (he's the one on the right), in Los Angeles. Ristow at one time was part of the well known machine art troupe Survival Research Labs. He is the creator of "the Subjugator" (that's the one on the left,) a very powerful, very nasty looking radio controlled beast.

Anyway, I thought Ristow's LA shop was one of the best equipped I'd come across. He had a lot of stuff in there - mills, lathes, drill presses and a lot of really, really weird props. (He's kind a got a thing for mannequins, I think.)

Christian wrote in to say he is moving from LA to Taos where he's setting up his shop. .His blog details the move. Like he says, it takes a forklift to move a forklift.

Anyway, the point is, I have a new must-have inclusion for the well-equipped shop list: a forklift

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Amateurs do matter in technology"

I came across the work of Kristen Haring on the Smithsonian Lemelson Center's website. I think it's pretty good, and relevant to the typical subject matter found here.

"Amateurs matter in technology," asserts Kristen Haring. "Engineers and big business do not simply hand down innovations to the rest of us. Important technical ideas arise from weekend tinkering in basement workshops." Haring's dissertation-in-progress focuses on the work of these anonymous inventors in the field of amateur, or "ham," radio. While amateur radio enthusiasts embraced the image of great inventors struggling alone in workshops until the "eureka" moment arrived, most ham operators were, in fact, unconventional inventors. In contrast to the secrecy involved in the patent process, the culture of the hobby dictated sharing of knowledge; amateur radio inventors typically published their ideas in ham radio magazines.

Haring wrote a good article about amateur ham radio operators, the technology behind ham, and the ham radio culture. It looks like ham radio operators were the underground technologists of the 1930s. Here's an excerpt

Many radio listeners chose to build their own receivers, either to save money or to control the design. Even those who bought ready-made radio receivers faced tasks such as wiring in a battery and assembling an antenna from parts sold separately before they could spend evenings searching the dial for new stations. Radio handbooks of the 1910s and 1920s commonly referred to listeners as one type of radio amateurs.

The other kind of radio amateurs listened to and additionally sent out their own radio signals. From the beginning of the twentieth century, "transmitting amateurs" or "hams" experimented with two-way radio. Hobbyists in home workshops made technical improvements to radio communication that rivaled those made by the U.S. military.
Full article is here.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Rube Goldberg Machine Contest

Flame from lamp (A) catches on curtain (B) and fire department sends stream of water (C) through window. Dwarf (D) thinks it is raining and reaches for umbrella (E), pulling string (F) and lifting end of platform (G). Iron ball (H) falls and pulls string (I), causing hammer (J) to hit plate of glass (K). Crashof glass wakes up pup (L) and mother dog (M) rocks him to sleep in cradle (N), causing attached wooden hand (O) to move up and down along your back.

Above, an example of a Rube Goldberg cartoon. These are the inspiration for an engineering student competion. This year, it took six months and 125 steps for a team of Purdue University students to win the 22nd annual Purdue Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. But this event is only a regional run up to the big national contest, which will also be held at Purdue but later this year.

The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest is named after cartoonist Reuben Goldberg, the spirit of whose work inspires the contest's weird machines and crazy mechanism. For 55 years Goldberg's award-winning cartoons satirized machines and gadgets which he saw as excessive. His cartoons combined simple machines and common household items to create complex, wacky, and diabolically logical machines that accomplished mundane and trivial tasks.

At this year's regional contest at Purdue, the winning machine was built by the local Society of Professional Engineers and incorporated a bouncing water balloon, a fireman action figure fleeing a fire and weights attached to a spinning bicycle wheel

The job it was designed to do was to shred five pieces of paper but to do it in the most convoluted and complex manner possible. The winners will go on to a national contest in April.

The five pages destroyed was a short "History of Technology" paper and was ultimately destroyed by a fire-breathing dragon.

National Competiton Finals coming up

The 2006 National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest is coming up. It will be at held 10:30 a.m. to approximately 1:00 p.m. April 1 in the Purdue University Armory.

The events are free and open to the public.

All machines will be required to individually cut or shred five sheets of 20 pound, 8 1/2-x-11-inch paper in a minimum of 20 steps.

Great Technology Related Movie Quotes

Post Oscar Movie Post:

What's the best way to impress people at parties?

Wow them with your off hand knowledge of great movie quotations. (See earlier post about "Engineers - Cool or Uncool?) Every underground technology buff knows that some of the greatest of all movie quotations deal with matters that go whoosh, splat, and boom. Here are some good ones to work on. Memorize and impress those around you.

1. Apocalypse Now (1979) Robert Duvall
You smell that? Do you smell that? ... Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like ... victory.

2. A Few Good Men (1992) Jack Nicholson
You can't handle the truth! ... Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You?

3. Dirty Harry (1971) Clint Eastwood
Being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?

4. The Simpsons Homer Simpson (To his daughter Lisa, about hearing her perpetual motion machine) "In this house, young lady, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!"

5. October Sky (1999) Chad Lindberg
That's a great idea. Tomorrow’s newspaper: Four unidentified high school student lost their lives earlier this morning when their toy rocket exploded.

6. The Eraser (1996) Johnny Castelone
I promised you that I'd help you with anything. Now, what we're gonna need is a few tanks, a couple of rocket launchers, and a pair of balls like the King of Bayonne.

7. Ed Wood (1994) Bela Lugosi:
[Lugosi points to a Tesla coil on the set of Bride of the Atom] I'm not getting near that goddamn thing. One of them burned me in "The Return of Chandu".

This is but a small sampling. Know any others? Send comments with your favorites.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Water Bears - The World's Toughest Animal

A little off topic, but still. . . Here's something I found particularly interesting from last month's Washington Post:

James D. Lawrey, a George Mason University biologist, is studying lichens at several National Park Service sites in the Washington area...

Within their small colonies, they harbor a lot of life.

"One gram of moss from the forest floor, a piece about the size of a muffin, would harbor 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades [tiny invertebrates], 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 50 nematodes, 400 mites, and 200 larvae," according to Robin W. Kimmerer in "Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses." "These numbers tell us something about the astounding quantity of life in a handful of moss."

Interesting. I know what a a larva and protozan is, I think I know what nematodes, mites,, and rotifers are, but what's a tartigrade?

I looked up tartigrades on wikipedia. They are also called Water Bears. They are kind of cute, at least for a microscopic invertebrate. Compare the cuddly Water bear with a mite. I'll take tartigrades any time.

Now here's the thing I really like about tartigrades. They are apparently the World's Toughest Animal. You can shoot them into space, take them to the deepest ocean depths and let them go, deprive them of air, water, and food for years and they don't care. Send them into the core of nuclear reactor. They'll be fine.

From the wiki entry on tardigrades:

1. Tardigrades can survive being heated for a few minutes to 151 °C or being chilled for days at -272.8 °C (almost absolute zero).
2. Radiation— Shown by Raul M. May from the University of Paris, Tardigrades can withstand 5700 grays of x-ray radiation. (Five grays would be fatal to a human).
3. Pressure—They can withstand the extremely low pressure of a vacuum and also very high pressures, many times greater than atmospheric pressure. In theory, they could even survive the vacuum of space, though the possibility of it is slim.

That's one tough cookie.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Interpreting Rocketman

I came across this video on the other day. It's probably unfair to criticize a 35 year old performance in light of more modern sensibilities (how will people react to, say, a recording of this year's Madonna's Grammy Award appearence in the year 2040?)

That being said, this is at once, a spectacularly painful and hysterically funny performance of William Shatner "interpreting" Elton John's song, Rocketman. Man, can that guy smoke a cigarette. (I think that's Bernie Taupin introducing Shatner. He looks particularly uncomfortable; he must know what's coming.)

Check out this amazing artist in action here.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Lot of Stun Guns in the News, Lately

ITEM 1: Man's shirt erupts in flames after he is shot with Taser

DAYTONA BEACH -- Dennis Crouch had already slashed himself. And when he refused to drop his knife, Daytona Beach police Officer Betsy Cassidy decided she had no choice.

"Taser! Taser!" Cassidy shouted as she sent a two-pronged wire, packing 50,000 volts, at Crouch's chest. What happened next stunned everyone.

A Taser probe pierced the pocket of his khaki shirt -- and ignited the butane lighter inside. Crouch's pocket exploded in flames.

"The subject," recounted Sgt. Al Tolley in a subsequent report, "immediately dropped the knife."

Officers grabbed Crouch, threw him to the ground and rolled him around till the flames went out, Tolley said. The Daytona Beach man, 53, was taken to Halifax Medical Center with minor burns and two self-inflicted stab wounds in his .... click to read entire article

Item 2: What Happens When You Stun Gun Yourself?

"Pocket Taser Stun Gun, a great gift for the wife"
This was the advertisement in Larry’s Pistol & Pawn Shop window next to the condo we rented last month in Florida. So I went in to check it out. I saw something that sparked my interest. The occasion was our 30th anniversary and I was looking for a little something extra for my wife Gisele. What I came across was a 100,000 volt, pocket/purse-sized taser..... read more

Item 3: 12-Guage Stun Gun Coming
America's largest stun-gun manufacturer is working on a new way to deliver electricity to the human body - through 12-gauge shotgun shells.

Though it's still being developed, Taser International Inc. says the new product will allow police officers and US troops to hit someone from a much greater distance than its current line of Tasers, which Amnesty International has cited in more than 120 deaths.

The eXtended Range Electro-Muscular Projectile, or XREP, will be a shotgun shell designed to combine the blunt-force trauma of a fast-moving baseball with the electrical current of a stun gun.

"It will truly cause incapacitation," company spokesman Steve Tuttle said.... click for more

Borat Would Be So Proud

Look up while driving down the freeway next time you’re out in the countryside. See those powerlines? They pack a lot of voltage. In the USA, a typical high voltage powerline carries somewhere around 110 Kvolts, maybe reaching 220 kV in some places with more specialized needs.

But that’s nothing compared to the Powerline Ekibastuz-Kokshetau, which is the powerline designed for the highest transmission voltage (1150 kV) in the world. This powerline, carrying the number 1101, runs 268 miles (432 km) from Ekibastusz to Kokshetau in Kazakhstan. It is mounted on electrical pylons with an average height of 60 metres. The weight of the conductors is approximately 50 tons.

On a whim, I looked up what’s new with the Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company and to see what more I could learn about why they built a powerline that carries a million volts. Was this some sort of Cold War era attempt at outdoing the West simply to prove the superiority of USSR’s technology? Or was there a particular need for such high voltage? I still don’t know. Readers are invited to answer this question.

But I did find this kind of quaint and interestingly worded press release on the Kazakhstan electricity company’s website. Imagine a workplace where retires are rewarded with "gratuitous material aid,” medals, and subscriptions to Pravda. (I used to work for a big company. No one ever gave me a medal. I like medals. I wish I had one. Heck, I wish I had a subscription to Pravda, for that matter)

Press Release #1 Kazakhstan Electrical Grid Operating Company

For the period from 6 to 9 May will carry out solemn actions on which power engineers - veterans of Great Patriotic War (World War II) and the persons equal to them will be celebrated.

The actions spent within the framework of the Victory Day celebrating are not single actions. KEGOC JSC concerns to the Companies, where they honour the workers who have a deserved rest. Annually 402 persons, pensioners of the Company every Day of Power Engineers receive gratuitous material aid. Besides other forms of support of older persons are also practiced. So this year all the pensioners of power industry were provided with an annual subscription to "The Kazakhstanskaya Pravda" newspaper.

(By the way, if you don't know who Borat is, he's the sixth most popular man in Kazakhstan.)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Engineers: Cool or Uncool?

A lot of the time, people don't think engineers or scientists are cool. Are they right or are they wrong? Here's one take on this incredibly important question.

1. When most people think "engineer" or "scientist" (Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Thomas Edison, etc) the first thing that comes to mind is NOT cool or sexy or handsome or heroic. Engineers know this and that bothers some of them. I think this is why engineers as a group dig Star Trek. It's a small wonder, since the only place on television with heroic engineers is the starship Enterprise. And even better, its the one place in the universe where they occasionally get to have sex, although it’s typically alien sex. (This could be good or bad, depending.) All in all, life aboard a starship is much more glamorous than the real life of most engineers, which consists of living like salaried prairie dogs, in fabric covered cubicles, deep in suburban office plantations, dreaming of alien sex.

2. It appears GQ and Details Magazine spend little time courting the engineer reader. Trendy clothing is not a priority for an engineer. In fact, if the bridges of their eyeglasses stay taped together okay, and nothing embarrassing such as privates or nipples are are swinging about, then their sartorial objectives have been satisfied. To most, anything else is overkill.

3. When something funny happens, instead of manly, hearty laughs, a lot of engineers tend to smirk. Sometimes, it’s worse than that, far worse - they giggle. This is very unfortunate and the less said, the better.

4. Extreme tinkerers, to a person, share a love for special purpose buildings and vehicles. Ask one what they’d like more than anything else in the world and nine out of ten will say “a 20’ x 30’ heated workshop out in the back with oversized doors and 200 amp, 480 volt electrical service.” Besides the workshop, all extreme tinkers covet a trailer large enough to transport their hobby all over the country.

5. In a broad brush description such as this, I'd say that engineers are a pretty frugal group. Now, do not misunderstand, no one is saying that they are cheapskates. Frugal behavior is not attributable to a miserly disposition or to simple penny pinching avarice. It is really much more about looking at every spending situation as opportunity to substitute knowledge for cash, a tradeoff that most engineers would make in a heartbeat. Moreover, when the conditions are right (like when building something really, really cool), all thoughts of economy are vacated. A different engineering trait kicks in and the sky’s the limit. Which brings me to the last trait.

6. In their own weird way, I think we have very large egos. Two things are important to the people who tinker on large, involved projects: The first is how smart they feel they are, especially when comparing themselves to other people. The second thing is how many cool things they can make. Your pocket protected, handbook carrying, soldering-gun-at-the ready tinkerer cannot walk away from the challenge of making something really new and unique until it is met head on and conquered. If it's a really, really tough problem, it’s like watching the police dogs on "Cops" go after a shirtless car thief - they are just relentless. They clamp on to tough problems like grim death -- to them, it’s a titanic struggle between their will and the laws of physics. It's been said that engineers will go without food and hygiene for days when they’re working on a project. (At least that’s the excuse they use.) And when they succeed in building something really, really cool, they will experience an ego rush that is better than sex - well, alien sex in a weightless environment notwithstanding.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Above, artist's rendition of me, walking out of the big box electronics retailer's store on Monday. This is just after finding out their technicians erased my hard drive by mistake.

Posts on Notes from the Technology Underground have been a little thin lately. That's because I took my computer in to a large, national computer services company for a tune up. The young and evidently poorly technicians in their skinny black ties reformatted my hard drive. Without my authorization. This is a very, very bad - I lost a lot of data. (It's amazing how much data isn't backed up like it should be!) Anyway, recovering from this nightmare has been time consuming.

Anyway, I'm getting closer to being back to normal.