Thursday, December 31, 2009

How to Make a Leyden Jar and Electrostatic Generator

When the cold weather makes the air so dry, it's impossible to touch stuff in the house without getting a little shock. If you want to take that making a spark thing to the next level, then check out the next issue of Make Magazine (Make 21.) I show to how to create some really big-ass sparks by building a friction based static electricity generator and a Leyden jar.

The longer I worked on this project, the more excited I became with it. It took me a while to figure out how to best fabricate the Leyden jar and electrostatic generator and had to go through several iterations before it worked the way I wanted it to. The jar really holds a charge and it's unbelievable how big a spark that thing makes! If you accidentally discharge it with your hand when you're not expecting it, look out! It's quite a shocking experience.

All the directions are in the upcoming Make. I also made a video that's pretty detailed. See it at:  or click on the thumbnail photo below.

PS Thanks to everybody who wrote me with good wishes concerning my health. I'm going to be fine.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

England's Daily Telegraph's take on Absinthe and Flamethrowers

America's DIY ballistics king Bill Gurstelle shoots from the hip about health and safety

Tom Leonard meets the DIY artillery king at his 'barrage garage'.

The above headline is from today's (Dec 3, 2009) Daily Telegraph, England's largest daily newspaper. There's an in-depth article on Absinthe and Flamethrowers and goes into depth about the importance of reasonable risk taking. The reporter, Tom Leonard, is a terrific writer and the photographer took some very interesting pictures.

I'm honored and humbled to be referred to as " America's DIY Ballistics King"

The article on the Daily Telegraph website is here. I've also made it available on my blog, Absinthe and Flamethrowers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How to Build a Potato Cannon Wall Poster

Here's another poster that looks great on the wall of just about any workshop, classroom, or bedroom: How to Build a Flamethrower. I developed this poster with my professional graphic designer colleague, Jon. Huge: 3' X 2', full color. Great to have, great to give.

The poster covers the design and construction of a powerful spud gun, and covers a variety of ignition methods including taser-powered, piezo-electric, and good ole fashioned flint and steel. I've made *lots* of these and my best ideas are all here. Enjoy a 300 foot blast!

Check out the "How to Build a Flamethrower" Poster as well

You can see more and buy it at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How to Build a Flamethrower Poster

I'm excited to say my new poster: How to Build a Flamethrower is ready to go! I developed this poster with a professional graphic designer. It's full color and measures 36-inches high X 24-inches wide. Everything you need to know (with a bit of web support) to build a kick-butt, working flamethrower! A flame 15 feet high!

It's the perfect holiday gift for the person who loves stuff like this.

It looks cool on the wall of your workshop, bedroom, or classroom.

Find out more at

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Car Launching

I often head to northwestern Wisconsin because my brother has a lake cabin there. Interesting place, rural Wisconsin. Go into any of the bars or taverns up there (believe me, there are a whole lot) and you immediately get the sense that the level of cultural sophistication is not what it is in say, Manhattan or West Palm Beach. Or Omaha, Peoria or Wilkes Barre either.

But that's not a bad thing. The locals are a quite creative lot. Here's an example. It's a pastime called "car launching."

It is exactly what it sounds like. This year several cars, trucks, and two school buses were launched. I'm absolutely going to be there next year.

See for yourself below: Special extended video of the event from my friends at KARE!11: click here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Marshmallow Shooter Video on Kare -11

Today on KARE-11's Showcase Minnesota show, Rob Hudson and I build a marshmallow shooter, one of the safer projects from the many available in Whoosh Boom Splat, the enthusiasts guide to making projectile shooters.

Here's a link to a video of the segment - It's pretty good; we had fun nailing the camera man! Easy and fun to make, and costs about $3 to make.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Kurt, Roger, Ryan and David build a trebuchet - and it's a big one!

A few of my friends in St. Paul got together and build a really enormous trebuchet, a type of medieval hurling machine or catapult. I knew that Richard Chin, the great features writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press would immediately understand the import of such an undertaking. I called him up and told him about it and he got out there. This story appeared in the yesterday's Sunday paper. 

Have trebuchet, will fling
Four friends go medieval and build a 'siege engine' (basically a catapult) because they can
By Richard Chin

"This is kind of chancy. We've never done anything this wide and big," warned Roger Bacon. "OK. Let's do it."
There was a countdown, a whoosh, and suddenly a wheelchair was soaring hundreds of feet in the air, hurtling through the skies above Hugo at an alarming rate of speed.
That's what happens when four 30-something guys decide to build a trebuchet, a siege engine resembling a catapult originally designed in the Middle Ages to pummel castle walls with projectiles.

There are no castles in Hugo, so the builders of this trebuchet are content with seeing how far they can fling a bowling ball. They're at about 700 feet so far. They're hoping to reach 1,000.

They're also testing the flight and crash-landing characteristics of obsolete consumer electronics by launching old television sets, a VCR and a computer. Thanks to the Hugo trebuchet, mankind now knows that a flying microwave oven will bounce about five feet into the air after hitting the ground.

Eventually, the trebuchet team hopes to send a clothes dryer into flight.

Built by Bacon, of White Bear Lake; Kurt Modert, of Hugo; Ryan Krueger, of Maple Grove; and David Proehl, of New Hope; the machine is just the latest and biggest, but not necessarily the craziest, project taken on by the four friends.

"We like destroying stuff," Bacon said.

They used to combine snowmobiles with upholstered furniture, resulting in a La-Z-Boy mounted on an Arctic Cat and a couch that was towed on skis.

They've shot each other with potato cannons loaded with hot dog buns and marshmallows and went golfing with a motorized golf caddy made from an old snowblower.

Then they went through a phase in which they took plastic bags filled with a mixture of creamed corn, elbow macaroni and oatmeal and concealed them under their coats.

They would go to bus stops or the entrances of movie theaters and pretend to feel queasy. While a friend would make helpful comments like, "I told you that shrimp wasn't cooked," they would bend over and spew a stream of pseudo-puke on the sidewalk to the horror and disgust of bystanders.

So when Modert decided in 2008 that his New Year's resolution would be to build a trebuchet, maybe the only thing that surprised his friends was how big it would be.

"I thought it would be a desktop model, you know, something to launch paper balls at the office," said Modert's girlfriend, Sue Ruby, of Minneapolis, who wants the record to show that she met Modert after he was done with street-theater vomiting.

Modert actually planned to build something that would go in the back yard of his mother's 12-acre property in Hugo.

Construction began in the spring of 2008 with the erection of a massive wooden frame capable of supporting an 18-foot throwing arm.

It was built with construction lumber, landscape timbers, recycled aluminum plates and salvaged panels from a garage door.

"It's stuff you can get at any Menards," Bacon said. "Kurt doesn't have much of a life, so he was working on the trebuchet all the time."

The swinging counterweight used to propel the arm was fashioned from an old 265-gallon fuel oil tank they got for free off Craigslist.

They spent a lot of time with calculators trying to figure out what to put into the tank to get the best performance. Water leaked. Navy beans weren't very heavy. Mercury would give more than enough heft, but "it turns out it would be difficult to get a large amount of mercury," Krueger said.

They ended up putting sand in the tank, about 1,300 pounds so far. For more power, they can get it up to 3,750 pounds.

The arm is moved with an electric hoist, and it's released by a trigger mechanism that was fashioned from a device originally used to hold and release a theater curtain rope. That piece of hardware cost less than $5 at an Ax-Man Surplus store.

At one point, Modert's mother asked where they were going to move the trebuchet when they were done.

But the machine, situated only a few yards from the house, is anchored with lengths of pipe driven several feet into the ground.

"This one is permanent. It's too big to move," Modert said.

The builders are not sure how the $2,500 project will affect the home value.

"The tax assessor did come out earlier this year, and we're waiting to see what he says," Bacon said.

Bacon said when asked if any changes had been made to the house, Modert's mother told the assessor, "Well, there's less shed and more trebuchet."

"At every step, it was like 'Let's take it one step bigger than we originally planned,' " Proehl said.

"It kind of got a little carried away," Modert said. "Why do it if you're not going to do it big?"

"Most people who build stuff like giant catapults are doing what they're doing because they're seeking a challenge, the challenge of creating something big and wonderful in a physical, tangible way," said William Gurstelle, a Minneapolis author of books such as "Backyard Ballastics" and "Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously."

The original ammunition used by Modert and his friends were defective bowling balls, acquired for free at local bowling alley pro shops. They started arcing over the field behind Modert's boyhood home in August.

"They haven't told you about the mistakes they made," Ruby said.

Once, a bowling ball was tossed about 150 feet in the wrong direction.

"Toward where my car was parked," Ruby said.

The team uses a number of safety measures to make sure no one gets hurt. But when asked if it's dangerous, Bacon said, "Yeah. Well, no. Yeah."

"There's the potential for things to break," Modert said.

During a recent hurling session, a bowling ball was launched almost straight up in the air, sending everyone ducking for cover.

"All right. So let's not do that one again," Krueger said.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tricked Out Motorized Couch

A guy in northern Minnesota built a way cool, tricked out, motorized couch and drove it to the local bar. But he got so drunk that he crashed it into a parked car.

Note the headlights, surround sound system and cup holders. It's powered by a lawn mower engine which makes me think it couldn't attain much speed, given how heavy it is. The police chief "estimates" it could reach 15 to 20 mph. I can't imagine that being true. Anyway, the police confiscated it. Too bad.

Full story from the Star Tribune:

The operator of a La-Z-Boy chair converted into a motorized vehicle -- complete with a stereo and cup holders -- has admitted that he crashed the piece of furniture after leaving a bar in Proctor, Minn., extremely drunk.

Dennis LeRoy Anderson, 61, of Proctor, pleaded guilty Monday to hopping on the chair on the night of Aug. 31, 2008, after visiting the Keyboard Lounge, then crashing into a more traditional vehicle in the parking lot. Anderson's blood-alcohol content was 0.29 percent, more than three times the legal limit for driving in Minnesota.

Deputy Police Chief Troy Foucault said Thursday that the chair is "quite decked out." Along with the stereo and cup holders, it is driven by a converted gasoline-powered lawnmower, and has a steering wheel, headlights and a power antenna.

Foucault estimated that the La-Z-Boy can top out at 15 to 20 miles per hour. A National Hot Rod Association sticker adorns the headrest.

The chair was impounded and will be sold at the next police auction.

"We have quite a few people calling about buying it," said Foucault, who half-seriously acknowledged that he is tempted to bid on it, except that "I have kids who would take it out and drive it on the street."

Anderson admitted to police that he had been drinking at home, was leaving the bar and had drunk eight or nine beers that day before getting on the La-Z-Boy and crashing it into a Dodge Intrepid parked outside, Foucault said. Anderson was treated for minor injuries and given a field sobriety test, even though he pleaded several times with the officer to "give him a break," according to the police report.

"He failed everything," Foucault said, which led to Anderson's arrest and seizure of the chair. The officer on the scene checked Anderson's driver's license and determined that it had been revoked because of a previous drunken-driving conviction, according to police.

Anderson, who does auto body repair work out of his home, was sentenced Monday to 180 days in the St. Louis County jail or at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center and was fined $2,000. The jail time and half of the fine was stayed for two years of supervised probation with conditions that include a chemical dependency assessment, random testing and 30 days of electronic monitoring.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

New How-To Video on Electrostatic Generator and Leyden Jar

I've filmed a new video showing how to build an electrostatic generator and a leyden jar. Watch it at:

If you've never messed around with Leyden Jars, you should; they are immense amount of fun. I accidentally shocked myself yesterday and it nearly knocked me over, so if you make one, don't make it too big. Eventually all Leyden Jars wind up shocking their owners.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

12 Shocking Ideas That Could Change the World

This month's Wired Magazine cover article is entitled  "The
Smart List: 12 Shocking Ideas That Could Change the World."

My essay, entitled "Take Smart Risks," is number 11, (between
Gregg Easterbrooks "Embrace Human Cloning" and Robert Gates
"Overhaul the Pentagon.")

You can read the entire article in the new October issue of
Wired, or online (for free!) at bookmark

Friday, August 21, 2009

How to Choose a Throwing Knife

In my other blog Absinthe and Flamethrowers, I answer a question a reader posed about how to buy throwing knives.
I was just wondering which company sells the best throwing knives, or which one you trust.
also how much does a good set of 3 usually go for?
First, what exactly is a throwing knife? Wikipedia sez:
Throwing knives are knives that are specially designed and weighted so that they can be thrown effectively. They are a distinct category from ordinary knives.

Throwing knives are commonly made of a single piece of steel or other material, without handles, unlike other types of knives. The knife has two sections, the 'blade' which is the sharpened half of the knife and the 'grip' which is not sharpened. The purpose of the grip is to allow the knife to be safely handled by the user and also to balance the weight of the blade.

When I first started throwing I bought three fairly smallish knives and they were pretty hard to throw consistently. so, I upgraded to larger, heavier model and things were much easier.


So, you want to learn how to throw knives? It pays to start with good equipment. The most important thing is to use knives made for the purpose. They should be neither too heavy or too light.

Choosing a knife. The type of knife you choose will have an incredible impact on how much you’re able to enjoy knife throwing. Keep in mind that quality throwing knives do not have a handle. The blade is the throwing knife.
▪ Size: Knives that are between 12”-16” are a good size. They aren’t too big and not so small that you’d have to throw harder and strain to watch them in flight.
▪ Weight: Knives of the above size will fly fairly undisturbed from wind and make a satisfying sound when they hit the target.

more at

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Speed Week at Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats - A whole lot of flatness!

I'm guest blogging on this month. I'm excited for the opportunity because it gives me a chance to provide some additional information about some of the stories I've done for Make Magazine previously.

In this month's Make Magazine (Issue 19) I've got a piece on Speed Week, the gathering of speed enthusiasts that meets in Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover Utah to celebrate all things that go fast on the ground.

The Make Magazine piece focuses on Belly Tank Racers, which are fast cars made from the aluminum fuel tanks of military airplanes (they are highly aerodynamic so they are perfect for car bodies.) The men who make them, make them from scratch, and take them to speeds exceeding 200 mph. Now that's some fine work.

Here are some additional pictures of those way cool belly tankers.

This is Gary Calvert's belly tank racer.

Belly Racer's Engine

Here's the interior

Here's me inside it.

Belly Tankers are "open wheel" machines meaning there is no fairing or cowling covering the tires.

Working on Steve DiMartino's Jesse's Girl just before racing

Ready to race. The belly tanker gets a push start and then streaks across the desert.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

How to Make a Sazerac Cocktail

In 2008 the Louisiana House of Represenatives voted to make the Sazerac the official cocktail of New Orleans. It’s a great mix of flavors and packs a kick. A favorite with those who understand the art of living dangerously.

• 1/2 cup ice cubes
• 1 sugar cube
• 3 dashes Bitters
• 2 ounces rye Jim Beam or Old Overholt RYE (not bourbon) whiskey
• 1/2 teaspoon of absinthe
• lemon twist

Chill an old-fashioned glass by filling it with ice and water. In second old-fashioned glass, mix together sugar, bitters, and just enough water to dissolve the sugar. Stir. Add cognac or whiskey and remaining ½ cup ice, and stir well, at least 15 seconds. Take the chilled glass, discard ice and water and pour in absinthe. Swirl it around so the absinthe coats the interior of the glass. Add rye whiskey mixture into the chilled, absinthe-coated glass. Add lemon peel and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to Make an Arc Light

Most people think Thomas Edison invented the electric light. Nah. Edison invented the incandescent light bulb, but electric lights were invented about 70 years earlier by Sir Humphrey Davy. His device was (and is) called an Arc Light.

Arc lights are extremely bright. Not particularly efficient mind you, but they are certainly bright. When I was going to high school in the 70s, there were arc light movie projectors in the school auditorium.

WWII style searchlights were arc lights as well. Each search light piercing the night sky over London searching for Stukas and Junker bombers were the equivalent of a 13,000 watt incandescent bulb and were able to throw a beam on something five miles away.

Click above on the picture above or browse to for a video of an arc light I made that uses carbon rods from a non alkaline battery and a 12 volt transformer. The video shows how it's made and more info is available in an upcoming issue of Make Magazine.

Note: If you make one, don't look directly at the arc without eye protection -- avoid the UV rays

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A new television gig

I've been itching to get back on the small screen now that I've had a taste of it when I was doing Make TV. I'm getting that scratched, at least a little bit as I've become a semi-regular on the KARE-11's morning television show Showcase Minnesota. Each month or so I go on the air with Rob Hudson, one of the show's two hosts, and show the viewing audience one of the projects from my books. KARE-11 is the local NBC affiliate.

Today (July 14) I dug out my taser powered potato cannon and demonstrated that. It worked quite well considering we were operating it outside in a driving rain. But that's show biz. The people at KARE 11 are consummate professionals and working with Rob is a treat.

The episode can be downloaded here. Next month I demonstrate the water rocket from Backyard Ballistics.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Interview Today on WHYY Philadelphia

Today, I'm being interviewed on WHYY- Philadelphia's NPR Affiliate:

Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane is an intelligent talk show dealing with issues of the Delaware Valley, as well as issues of national and global concern. Radio Times is produced by WHYY in Philadelphia.

Hour 2 (11 AM Eastern Daylight Time)
This hour, learn how to make a flamethrower in your own garage with engineer and author WILLIAM GURSTELLE. Gurstelle gives instructions on this and other explosive projects for the do-it-yourselfer in his new book Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously.
Listen on line at:

I was on NPR's Science Friday

The 4th of July is the time when people really start thinking about the things that go whoosh boom and splat, so Absinthe and Flamethrowers is getting a lot of media attention.

Yesterday, I appeared on National Public Radio's Science Friday show. The subject of the show was how to make those oh-so-interesting projects such as spud guns and smoke bombs.

Science Friday is a live show, but I was on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Luckily there was a good satellite connection, so the call and the interview could happen.

You can here the interview at the NPR Science Friday website or by clicking here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jatropha Seeds - a promising biofuel?

I'm asking my brother Steve, the expert gardener to experiment with some jatropha seeds that I found on Amazon. They're pretty cheap - $4, which is a buck less than the seeds for the incredibly hot pepper called naga jolokia seeds I asked him grow. Amazon refers to jatropha as "diesel fuel plants." That's probably hyperbolic. But the stuff does have potential I think.

I became interested in jatropha because the Houston newspapers reported today that a Continental Airlines test flight earlier this year using biofuel intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions achieved fuel efficiency slightly higher than traditional jet fuel. That's huge.

During the 90-minute flight Jan. 7, test pilots put a Boeing 737-800 through various maneuvers, powered by one CFM International CFM56TB engine using 100 percent traditional fuel and one using a 50-50 mix of traditional and biofuel. The flight did not carry passengers and the airline did not set a timetable for using the fuel on regular flights.

Fuel efficiency from the 50-50 mix was about 1.1 percent higher, the airline said.

The biofuel blend included components derived from algae and jatropha rather than food crops. Greenhouse gas emissions for production and consumption of the biofuel tested are estimated at 60 percent to 80 percent less than for traditional jet fuel

This is at least the second report of an airline using biofuels based from Jatropha, Air New Zealand just reported similar results with similar biofuels.

"A second generation biofuel, jatropha is grown on land that doesn't compete with food. It requires almost no care and very little water. Another major benefit of jatropha is that, due to its ability to take hold in harsh wastelands, it can be used to help stop erosion in these areas and reclaim them for agricultural production." -- Gas 2.0

So, this jatropha plant makes a lot of fuel, grows in wastelands, and needs no care or water. Hmm, is it time to buy stock in jatropha companies?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

New Absinthe and Flamethrower Website

Sales of Absinthe and Flamethrowers remain brisk. As of this writing, it's one of the 300 most popular books sold on Amazon. I'm humbled and grateful. Thanks to those who have read the book and shared their opinions.

I've redone the official A and F website. For updates, corrections, and general news regarding Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously, visit:

To purchase a copy of your own, click here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Here's Why Engineers Aren't Famous

Back in the 1970’s, there were not many famous scientists or engineers, and now, there are almost none. If you disagree, try and name one, right now. Go ahead, try it. Who did you come up with? Carl Sagan? No he’s dead. Try again. Stehpen Jay Gould, the Harvard guy who talks about dinosaurs? No, he’s dead too. Hawking? Sure, Stephen Hawking is alive, but he’s far more well known for overcoming his disabilities to do great scientific stuff, than for his scientific stuff itself (Can anybody really understand “A Brief History of Time?). Perhaps, on odd occasion a autograph seeker stalks MIT’s Old Main in hopes of obtaining Marvin Minsky’s or Noam Chomsky’s signature, but really, very few scientists need bodyguards to keep away the star struck rabble.

On the “Q-Scale” of modern fame where Albert Einstein stars with a 54 and George Takai rates a 1, no living scientist or engineer even shows makes a blip on the Sulu’s radar screen. It’s pitiful, but the truth is that no technology related individual, with the exception of Bill Gates, pulls a higher Q score higher than Count Chocula.

The point is there are many, many excellent engineers although the majority of whom are not well known outside of their own companies. In fact, the term "famous engineer" is an oxymoron on par with "nondairy creamer", "dry martini", or "jumbo shrimp". Unlike like say, journalists or lawyers, few people can name more than one or two famous engineers, real or fictional. A recent poll, (I asked my friends one night, while drinking) determined the most famous engineers in history were Thomas Edison (a good choice) followed by Scotty on Star Trek, and then a big gap to Q, the gadget guy in James Bond movies. Beyond that, it’s a lost cause.

Although many of the things that engineers, tinkerers, and radical, technological self expressives make are quite well known, the people behind the things rarely capture the limelight. Why are tinkerers, engineers and technological self expressives so hidden from fame?

Perhaps it is due to their slightly offbeat sensibilities compared to the population as a whole. Although it is not politically correct to assign traits to groups of people as a whole, I have found that more or less, engineering/tinkering life is based on a few basic principles, none of which are designed to attract attention, or at least favorable attention. Here they are:

1. Engineers as a group dig the original Star Trek (note the George Takai/ Mr. Sulu reference in a preceding paragraph.) It's a small wonder, since the only place on television with heroic engineers is the starship Enterprise. And even better, they occasionally get to have sex with aliens. This is much more glamorous than the real life of an engineer, which consists of living like salaried prairie dogs, in fabric covered cubicles, deep in suburban office plantations, dreaming of alien sex.

2. As noted above, 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 private parts or nipples are unwittingly exposed, then their sartorial objectives have been satisfied. Anything else is overkill.

3. When something funny happens, instead of manly, hearty laughs, people who tinker with machines tend to smirk. Actually, it’s worse than that, far worse - they giggle. This is very unfortunate for the whole group’s public relations effort and the less said about this, 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. The trailer must come with a professional paint job on the side that reads “TEAM EXTREME” or something similar in red and black script.

5. Tech-geeks are a pretty frugal group. Now, do not misunderstand, no one is saying that radical technical self expressives are cheapskates. They're 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 us to the last trait.

6. In their own weird way, they 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 radical tinkerers 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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hey, I've Got a Monkey on My Back, or, Human - Animal Combat

To some extent, fairs and amusements parks can trace their roots back to Roman Circuses. Although they incorporated bloodthirsty spectacle, the producers of such shows showed considerable creativity. One type of gladiatorial combat involved the “Venatio” or the slaying of wild animals.

To produce the Venatio, wild beasts from every part of the Roman Empire were transported to Rome. Prior to gladiatorial duels (always the main event), animal “hunts” were held. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of animals might be dispatched in a single day in this fashion. For example, during Emperor Trajan’s inauguration festival, nearly ten thousand animals were killed.

Animals that appeared in the venatio included: lions, boar, elephants, bears, dogs, and camels. The men who fought the animals were called the bestiarii, and they were often criminals and were compelled to fight the animals with feeble weapons and no protection.

Despite the impression given by the bread and circuses public policies of the era, the second century AD was tough time for Rome. The distractions of the circuses were an important tool for keeping the Roman citizenry docile to the emperor and under control.

Roman leaders often exerted control over the Roman masses not by offering bold and imaginative leadership but by appealing to people’s basest instincts. In the 3rd Century AD, the empire was in decline, buffeted on all sides by increasingly powerful Germanic neighbors, making it nearly impossible to exert tight control and provide effective government in many sections of the empire. Grasping at any opportunity, Roman emperors attempted to distract the people they ruled buy staging lavish and grotesque spectacles. And such distractions had the unfortunate effect of making the mob grow more ever more bloodthirsty.

The emperor in 182 AD was Commodus. He was a man of unbelievably strange habits, a nearly impossibly cruel demeanor, and a completely unchecked ego. He went so far as to temporarily rename Rome “Colonia Commodiana” (Colony of Commodus.) Yet despite his numerous character flaws, the common people of Rome loved him.

This emperor well understood the crudest and most primitive aspects of his subjects and he shrewdly appealed to the immoral nature of his times.

He wasn’t the first emperor to do so, but there was something that set Commodus apart from the likes of Nero or Caligula. Commodus believed he was the second coming of the god Hercules, and to prove it, he set forth on his own Herculean mission. He became the most prolific and deadly animal fighter the world has ever known.

While contemporary Roman writers often describe Commodus as a quite handsome man, surviving statues show Commodus to be rather jowly with an effeminately curly beard. Infatuated with the Greek god Herculesm, Commodus was obsessed with fighting animals in hand to hand (or hand to paw? Hand to hoof?) combat. For Hercules, as you may remember from classes in Greek mythology, endured twelve labors, most of which have something to do with hand to hand animal fighting. Some of his labors included slaying the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar and the Stymphalian Birds. He also stole, rustled or otherwise committed shameful acts against the Ceryneian deer, the Geryonian Cows, and the Cretan Bull. In fact, if you were an animal of any reputation, you most certainly did not want to see Hercules knocking on your door.

But even mythical Hercules did not display the zeal for animal fighting that Commodus did. The emperor frequently posed for statues and portraits wearing a lion skin and brandishing a club of olive wood. He called himself “Hercules Romanus” (Roman Hercules) or “Hercules Secundus” (the Second Hercules.)

A contemporary of his, historian Cassius Dio, describes Commodus’ animal fighting devotion:

Commodus devoted most of his life to ease and to horses and to combats of wild beasts. In fact, besides all that he did in private, he often slew in public large numbers beasts as well. For example, all alone with his own hands, he dispatched five hippopotami together with two elephants on two successive days; and he also killed rhinoceroses and a camelopard (a giraffe).

Imagine, then, a day at the Roman Coliseum in the second century during the reign of Commodus, now calling himself Hercules Secundus. The arena, decorated to resemble a cheesy, faux Serengi, is clogged with exotic beasts -- lions, bulls, horses, and a gorilla or two. Perhaps the animals are drugged, or hobbled, or perhaps simply confused by the noise and the crowd. In any event, Commodus, dressed in a lion skin and holding various weapons wades into the bestiary and cuts down half of Noah’s Ark to shouts of admiration by the decadent Roman spectators.

The spectacle is hardly bloody enough to satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd. Before long, there are more animal carcasses on the ground than at the killing floor of the Chicago Stockyards. At the end comes the monstrous coup de gras: the Emperor cuts down an exotic animal with a 14-foot neck; a gentle, silent, cud-chewing giraffe.
But this is just the morning’s entertainment. After that carnage, the gladiator fights begin. Ave caesar! Morituri te salutamus!

Animal fighting is one aspect of Living Dangerously, and obviously one that has ancient roots. But in modern times it does not, in fact it should not, mean that animals must killed or injured. It simply requires a fair fight between man and beast, no guns allowed. There are plenty of modern examples of animal fighting that are part of the art of living dangerously.

Fairs and amusement parks at the turn of the Twentieth Century were colorful, vibrant, and boisterous places. They offered an antidote to the strict moral codes of the period and offered exotic products and activities which curious visitors found irresistible: foot long hot dogs and salt water taffy, ferris wheels and roller coasters, and . . . kangaroo boxing.

In the year 1900, the Boardwalk in Atlantic City was well known for its boxing kangaroo (whose name unfortunately is now lost to obscurity.) But by all accounts, it was a hell of a good boxer and was said by more than one spectator that it could probably give John L. Sullivan himself a run for his money. This was the heyday of man versus kangaroo pugilism. While kangaroo boxing was in vogue, mastering this Living Dangerously Art was a fast track to glory and admiration.

At the Pan American World Expo in Buffalo, New York in 1901, one of the most popular attractions was “The Man versus Kangaroo Boxing Match.” One spectator was so enthralled by the event that she recorded the event in her diary in vivid detail. Her breathless description, presented below, has been reproduced exactly, including her spelling and grammatical errors.

A man dressed in red tights entered, followed by a good-sized Kangaroo, who immediately made preparations for the contest. At the Refree’s request the contestants proceeded to shake hands after which the foxy Kangaroo made a swift lunge at the man and the fight was ON. The man immediately followed this up with his right and then the Kang got down to business and went for his adversary for fair, dodging his blows and raining one after another blow upon the mans neck and shoulders.

Then when the man, seeming to getting the best of him, the Kangaroo would throw himself backwards, supporting his weight on his powerful tail and then he would strike with his fore feet and his hind feets at the same time. Each time he would succeed in striking the man in the stomach with his hind feet. On getting an advantage by these maneuvers he would follow them up by a succession of very sharp blows and at times during the performance the man was often made to know when he got "it" in the neck. Of course the man did not strike as hard as he seemed to but it kept him pretty busy to ward off the quick thrusts from the creatures stout arms. At last with a bound the Kangaroo struck the man on the chest and then as he lifted his arm to ward off the next blow the Kangaroo would pelt him again.
"TIME" was called and the contestants were escorted to their corners to be fanned and rubbed down by their attendants. Again, they met in the ring at the first of the second round, and clinched and struggled, the kangaroo pelting blow after blow on the mans head.

After 10 minutes of good solid scrapping the kangaroo landed an uppercut sending the man sprawling up against the bars of the arena. Time was again called and at the end of the third round the fight was called off - the Kangaroo being declared the VICTOR.
The FIGHTING KANGAROO was a pretty creature with a soft coat of brown fur covering its body. Its eyes were soft and dreamy and during the fight when getting the advantage its eyes could be seen to sparkle with a mischievous light. To see this boxing contest was alone well worth the price of Admission to the show.

The motes of kangaroo fighting evidently lingered in the air over Buffalo and settled on some of it’s residents. Thirty-four years later, a young man named Robert Donovan was promoted from copy boy to reporter by the Buffalo Courier Express. Ambitious and talented, he eventually became Washington Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Fast forward to 1966, when President Lyndon Johnson embarked on an Asian trip to seek support for his Vietnam policies. President Johnson asked Donovan, who covered the mission as Washington Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times, to box a kangaroo while the entourage was in Australia. Johnson remembers Donovan rooted loudly for the kangaroo.

As the well educated and well connected Johnson proves, hand to hand animal fighting isn’t just for street toughs and down-and-outers. It’s actually quite popular among many Dangerous Livers.

Randy Brinkley has done many interesting things in his life. He was the NASA Program Director who led the team that saved the Hubble Telescope. And before that, he was a Marine Top Gun fighter pilot, flying F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harriers. But his most unusual claim to fame is that he is a monkey fighter.

That doesn’t mean he fights like a monkey. Rather, it means he actually fights monkeys (orangutans to be exact), hand to hand.

Okay, that’s a huge exaggeration, since he only did it once, But the point is, anybody who can run a company that builds rockets, fly a Mach 2 fighter jet, and then take on an ape in a cage match is a guy who understands the art of living dangerously.

“I was in Georgetown, with other Marine second lieutenants, drinking beer and trying to impress a group of students. This group had gone to a nearby carnival where for five dollars you could get into a cage with an orangutan. If you could stay in the cage with the ape for five minutes, they paid you $100. But none of them were successful.

“After several hours of strategy sessions and drinking beer, we devised a plan and we launched off to encounter the orangutan.

“The monkey looked docile enough, 110 pounds, long skinny arms, just sitting there in the middle of this iron cage. I approached the monkey from the backside and grabbed it in a half nelson. To my surprise and pleasure, she offered no resistance. Then I made the mistake of lifting the orangutan off the ground. I had a big smile on my face. This lasted for about fifteen seconds, and then I noticed that this long, skinny arm had reached up and grabbed the iron bar over my head.

I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, until a few seconds later, I felt my feet leave the ground. I figured out the orangutan, who weighed 110 pounds (and I weighed about 230 at the time) had just done a one-arm pull up with something like three times her body weight.

“I realized I was in deep and serous trouble, and the grin on my face turned to stark terror. I was no longer squeezing the ape, but actually holding on her back for fear of my life. The orangutan, while she held us in mid air with one arm, reached around with this other long skinny arm and grabbed me from the back of my neck and slung me the length of the cage, through the door which I immediately took exit from the cage.”

Absinthe and Flamethrower Review in Today's New York Times

People have good days and bad days. Today, I'm pleased to say, I am having a very good day.Forgive me for tooting my own horn, but how often does this happen to a person?

Top of page C6, Today's New York Times: Here's the full review.

For Those Who Like Danger, the Home Book of Things Not to Try at Home

by Dwight Garner


Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously

By William Gurstelle

It’s only a few weeks before the Fourth of July, the time of year that the thinking person — or at least the type of thinking person who likes to hear things go whoosh and ka-blam — begins to consider how best to spend the holiday.

Some guys, and I know who a few of you are, will be loading up the car in states where, unlike New York, the sale of fireworks is legal. (Those Phantom Fireworks discount cards can really burn a hole in your wallet.) Others like to prepare emotionally and mentally for the Fourth by getting some reading done.

Two books that put me in the mood for rockets’ red glare are George Plimpton’s classic “Fireworks: A History and Celebration” (1984), and, less conventionally, Jim Paul’s shaggily artful book “Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon” (1991).

But when it comes to the theory and practice of making your own noisy, mildly dangerous fun in the backyard, America has a new poet laureate. His name is William Gurstelle, and he staked his claim to do-it-yourself greatness in 2001 with his friendly paperback book “Backyard Ballistics.” Its subtitle tells you all you need to know: “Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices.” According to the author, it has sold more than 250,000 copies. I keep a well-thumbed copy in the upstairs bathroom.

Mr. Gurstelle, a professional engineer, has now returned with a more contemplative if no less wonky and gonzo book called “Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously.” It explores the significance of moderate risk taking to our happiness, well-being and career advancement. (Managers who take the greatest risks are the most successful, he observes.)

It’s also a book that contains meticulous directions for making a real, live, beastly flamethrower in your garage — albeit the propane kind, not the ridiculously dangerous liquid-based variety.

Mr. Gurstelle’s book begins with the words of David Brooks, the New York Times Op-Ed columnist, who complained in 2005 that we are living “in the age of the lily-livered,” where “everything is a pallid parody of itself.”

Mr. Brooks continued: “Gone, at least among the responsible professional class, is the exuberance of the feast. Gone is the grand and pointless gesture.”

For Mr. Gurstelle, this column was as rousing as Henry V’s speech at Agincourt. He is also an admirer of Hunter S. Thompson, who in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” introduced the term “edge-work” into the lingo. (“It was dangerous lunacy,” Mr. Thompson wrote about one of his enterprises, “but it was also the kind of thing a real connoisseur of edge-work could make an argument for.”)

Mr. Gurstelle warns against incorporating Thompson’s hallmarks — “shotguns, LSD and anarchy” — into your lifestyle. Because you are not Hunter S. Thompson. And because he does not want you to die stupidly and young. Just as important, he observes, it is hard to make playing with shotguns, LSD and anarchy artful. And for him, style, ingenuity and playfulness are everything.

In “Absinthe & Flamethrowers,” Mr. Gurstelle burrows into the difference between what he calls “Big-T types” (genuine thrill-seekers) and “little-t’s” (total milquetoasts), while suggesting that most of us dwell somewhere in the middle. He even provides a test that indicates where, on the thrill-seeking scale, a reader stands. He notes “the specific brain chemicals — dopamine, monoamine oxidase and norepinephrine, among others — that underlie the personality traits of risk taking, impulsivity and self-preservation.”

There are pages and pages of warnings in “Absinthe & Flamethrowers.” Some of these are very funny. (“Do not eat any chemicals no matter how tasty they smell.”) All are serious. Mr. Gurstelle does not want you to get hurt. But he notes: “Part of the appeal of living dangerously may be that there is a real possibility of death. However, that possibility should be extremely, extremely remote.”

Mr. Gurstelle exactingly describes how to make your own gunpowder, a substance he calls “the most significant chemical compound mankind has ever developed.” It’s the foundation for many of his book’s activities, the same way the perfect fish stock undergirds dozens of recipes in a cookbook.

Making even small quantities of gunpowder, he adds, “puts you in the rarefied company of such important historical figures as Joan of Arc, Roger Bacon, Mark the Greek, Lammot du Pont, Black Berthold and Leonardo da Vinci.” From there, he’s on to making things like fuses, rockets and an eprouvette, or small cannon.

“Absinthe & Flamethrowers” is not “The Anarchist’s Cookbook Redux.” Making your own gunpowder or small-scale rocket is real work, hardly worth a terrorist’s time.

“Even underage delinquents have easier opportunities for finding materials with which to cause problems,” Mr. Gurstelle writes, “than to go through the rather long and demanding processes described here.”

When Mr. Gurstelle begins to explore things like drinking absinthe, mastering bullwhips, eating hot chili peppers and throwing knives, his book runs briefly into the shallow weeds. There is even a disquisition on “danger dogs,” that is, hot dogs wrapped with grilled bacon. That’s not edge-work, it’s pigging out. I have nothing against any of these things, but Mr. Gurstelle is at his best in the garage with a “This Old Tennis Ball Mortar” sort of project.

“Absinthe & Flamethrowers” ends with Mr. Gurstelle’s own kind of Declaration of Independence, one perhaps worth reading aloud on the Fourth of July, ideally after strapping a battered football helmet onto your head so you look a bit like B. D. from “Doonesbury.”

“We, the intellectually curious, may soon find ourselves trapped in a pen, fenced in by rule-bound sticklerism and overzealous concern for our personal safety, unless we exercise our civil liberties and our curiosity,” he declaims. And so, “It’s time to retake authority from those whose goals are to limit, not expand, intellectual and physical pursuits.”

Bravo, sir. It’s the kind of speech you want to punctuate with a potato cannon blast.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Mother of All Potato Cannons

My friend Christian Ristow was at Maker Faire with his giant pneumatically powered sculpture called Hand of Man. It’s great. It’s a highly interactive piece in which one puts on a glove with sensors and controls a multi-ton pneumatic hand capable of picking up and crushing a refrigerator.

photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

I've known Ristow for years, ever since I interviewed him for a book and we stayed in touch. About a year or so ago, I worked on a TV pilot for Discovery Channel starring my friend Christian. He is perhaps the most gifted mechanical artist I’ve ever met.

Ristow designed a machine gun potato cannon which was a true machine gun spud gun. It had a gravity fed magazine that fed spuds into the firing chamber. There were four air tanks with solenoid valves that could shoot potatoes continually and at high velocity at a target until the magazine was emptied. I dubbed it "the Quadra-tator."

The airtanks were massive and could hold plenty of compressed air. I calculated the muzzle velocity was well in excess of 85 mph. The rate of fire depended on the speed with which you turned a crank. The crank controlled five pneumatic solenoid valves, one for the magazine loader and one for each of the air tanks.

It worked absolutely great. We could get 20 or potatoes in the magazine and could empty the thing in much less than a minute. For the finale, the Quadratator, along with the gatling gun that Dave Mathews built, destroyed a car with it.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Now Blogging on BoingBoing

It's been pretty spare here on Notes from the Technology Underground lately. That's because I've been posting on my friend Mark Frauenfelder's well known blog, BoingBoing.

I've written about 10 posts so far and the most popular as been the post on Absinthe.

It took a while, but I'm starting to develop a taste for the anise and wormwood combination that flavors all absinthes. I got several bottles from several distillers evaluated them. There are several good ones, and a few not so good. I'm very impressed with Taboo from Okanagan Distillers and Kubler from Altamar Brands.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Geek Dad Guest Blogging

For the next two weeks I have the honor of guest blogging on Wired's Geekdad blog ( It's important to nurture the next generation of Edisons, Teslas, DiVincis, and Curies and here's a forum for exploring just that topic.

My friend John Baichtal is a regular contributor there and I read it regularly. So, when the opportunity to write for a group of like minded people with a big readership came along, I jumped on it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Exploring the trans-Saharan Gold Trade

My archeologist son Andy leaves today on an expedition to a remote part of Ghana, on Africa's western coast. It's seems like it's going to be quite an adventure:
I'm leaving tonight for Ghana to once again participate in an archaeological investigation of West African history. We're staying in the main city of Accra for a few days before heading out to the rural village of Banda. I'm working on a team of North American and Ghanaian archaeologists investigating an ancient market town connected with the very beginning of the trans-Saharan gold trade about 1000 years ago.
Under Andy told me about it, I didn't know there was a trans-Saharan gold trade. According to Wikipedia,
"Trans-Saharan trade is trade across the Sahara between Mediterranean countries and sub-Saharan Africa. While existing from prehistoric times, the peak of such trade extended from the eighth century until the late sixteenth century
The place he's working is so remote that there's no phone or email. I can only imagine what it's going to be like for him.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Marvelous Work of Norman Saunders

I met illustrator Zina Saunders at the GEL conference in New York City last week. Wildly creative and fairly edgy, she works have been in a number of top magazines. I hope to talk to her later today to learn more about what she's doing.

Anticipating that call, I did a bit of internet research and found out she's the daughter of Norman Saunders. Norman was a big time illustrator also and did a lot covers for pulp novels. It turns out Norman was from northern Minnesota (I live in Minnesota) and the story of his life is fascinating.

Random bits of information from

Norman Blaine Saunders' illustration career was as big and successful as any artist could hope for, and no single genre could contain his remarkable talent. He painted them all - aliens and aviators, heroes and hunters, detectives and demons, quarterbacks and comic books, sex kittens and serial killers, westerns and wacky packs.

1953- Daughter Zina is born. Norm's style of work for gruesome comic books is effectively ended when Comic Book Code of Decency Law is enacted and most comics are printed with a the seal "Approved."

More on this to follow. . .

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

100 Geeks You Should Be Following is the parenting blog at Basically it is a group geeks who have reproduced biologically and now blog their experiences raising children in the digital age. I like this blog as it ruminates about the way being a parent intersects with technology and popular culture.

Today, on, this post: 100 Geeks You Should Be Following On Twitter

Among those recommended are Neil Gaiman, Wil Wheaton, Adam Savage, Trent Reznor, and. . . . . (wait for it) me(!).

I love the recognition, but now I'll have to try harder to make my tweets more interesting and actually understandable. No more "I think anchovy pizzas suck" or "A/n hav bn sndng ppls (s bck 2 thn. edit LT @SpazNet:"

Sunday, May 03, 2009

New York: I am a Camera

I flew home from New York last night, and boy, are my arms tired. Seriously though, flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, it's just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.

I was part of Mark Hurst's always excellent GEL presentations which was held at the TimesCenter in Manhattan. GEL 2009 was super despite the down economy - upbeat and interesting. I spoke on the Art of Living Dangerously.

Before I left I decided to walk around midtown, play tourist, and take a few pictures. My requisite shots of skyscrapers at night.

This one is better. On 30th street I found this locust tree.

The tree's trunk was bubbling up, sort of angrily, out of the tiny open space allowed for it between concrete layers of NYC sidewalk. The other trees on the block were a lot calmer.

Next week I head for Washington DC to participate in Kinneret USA. Should be fun.

Friday, April 24, 2009

How to Give an Ignite Presentation

What is an "Ignite Presentation" and how do you give it? Ignite talks are a style of presenting where people speak on a subject of their choice for five minute accompanied by 20 powerpoint slides. The slides are automatically changed every 15 seconds. At the end of five minutes, the Ignite talk is over - that's it; fini; done.

On Wednesday, I gave a five minute Ignite talk at Ignite Minneapolis. It was a boisterous crowd, 500+ people strong, and many of them a little tipsy after having a few glasses of beer at the free social hour that preceded the event. I've done Ignite before and I'd do it again because I find it a lot of fun to get up there and talk about something for five minutes.

Reaction of the crowd? It was positive; they laughed at the appropriate places and I got a sort of a boozy roar of approval at the end.

I encourage everybody to give it a try. As far as public speaking goes, it's a good place to start. Here's why:
  • Like karaoke, even if you suck, no one really cares.
  • It only lasts five minutes.
  • Most people come to ignite to be entertained. It's a pretty non judgemental crowd. (But there may be some troglodytes or hecklers out there - just ignore them since they're idiots anyway.)
Convinced? Okay, if you're going to do it, here are some tips:

  • If you write out your talk in advance, figure that you can speak about 20 to 30 words per 15 second slide. That's not a lot but you can do a lot with that if you're good.
  • You have five minutes, that's it. So, you're really limited to how much you can say. Don't try to explain global warming. But you can tell people how to plant a tree and why that's a good thing. Have a single concept broken into 3 to 5 subparts (and keep those subparts SIMPLE)
  • Use as few words on your slides as possible. Most of my slides have no words at all, just a single photo or graphic. The slides should reinforce your words, not vice versa.
  • You need to connect with your audience using your voice. Modulate it. Talk fast then slow. Loud, then soft. Sound sarcastic then sincere. It keeps people interested.
  • Figure out your natural style and go with it. I tend to talk fast. It works for me. But your natural style may be completely different. Your style will become apparent when your practice your talk. Once you figure it out, go with it.
  • Humor is terrific. A few funny pictures will hold the audience attention.
  • Speakers get energy from your audience. Look for a few people in the crowd who like what you're saying and speak to them.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ignite Minneapolis

I am doing a talk at the upcoming Ignite Minneapolis this Wednesday (April 22) . Ignite presentations were invented by my friends Bre Pettis and Brady Forrest a few years back in Seattle and the concept has taken off. Basically, you sign up and talk for five minutes about what ever subject you want. You have 20 PowerPoint slides and they change automatically every 15 seconds.

It's fast paced and fun. I did this before at an OReilly event in San Jose and it was fun. This time it should be even better as there's free beer!

Come if you can. Feel free to email me via the form on

Here's the info from the Ignite website:

Ignite Minneapolis #1

The first ever Ignite Minneapolis event is right around the corner. Admission free. Beer is free.

Wednesday, April 22
Solera, downtown Minneapolis

6:00 – Doors Open, social hour
7:00 – Presentations Begin
8:00 – Break
8:15 – Presentations Continue
9:00 – Event Conclusion

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Risk Taking and Decision Making

I gave a talk yesterday about the Art of Living Dangerously at the Minnesota High Tech Conference. Some of what I spoke about is based on the work of a number of well known academics who more or less pioneered the ideas of measuring and analyzing an individual's proclivity to assume risk.


A number of people asked me for additional information on the field of risk taking and decision making. Here are some books I recommend on the subject.

  1. "Risk Taking, A Managerial Perspective" by Zur Shapira. It's good, although I'd have say it's pretty densely written, and doesn't lend itself to skimming.
  2. "Behavioral Expressions and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking" by Marvin Zuckerman. This is a terrific book should be read by more people. No doubt the title puts people off.
  3. "Choices, Values, and Frames" edited by Amos Tversky. Covers the concept of framing bias in risk taking and decision making.
  4. For a book on decision making in general, apart from looking strictly at risk taking psychology, consider "Decision Making" by the editors at Harvard Business School
  5. Finally, there is much information on risk taking psychology and suggestions on ways to improve your life through wise and rational risktaking in my new book, Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously. It will be widely available in June. To reserve a copy, preorder now on Amazon by clicking below:

An adapted version of Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking Scale V psychological test is available online here . Note that SSSv and provides a more detailed breakdown of risk taking behavior than the SSSVI version we took at MHTA. The online test provides raw scores and some interpretation.

Fully interpreting SSSv is a bit involved, but there are instructions in the Zuckerman Book listed above.


I speak professionally and consult with organizations on this subject and would be happy to discuss working with your organization. For more information, please visit

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Methylene Chloride and Dippy Bird Science

Methylene Chloride is the bonding agent I used to attach one piece of polycarbonate plastic to another piece when I was constructing the firepiston (see Feb 13 post in this blog.) MC works well because it's thin and penetrates into seams well and does a good job of dissolving the plastic so it solvent welds together.

Coincidentally, I found out, while researching dippy bird physics, that methylene chloride is the same stuff used in the dippy birds to make them go up and down. The science of dippy birds, according to the How Stuff Works website are this:
  1. When water evaporates from the fuzz on the Dippy Bird's head, the head is cooled.
  2. The temperature decrease in the head condenses the methylene chloride vapor, decreasing the vapor pressure in the head relative to the vapor pressure in the abdomen.
  3. The greater vapor pressure in the abdomen forces fluid up through the neck and into the head.
  4. As fluid enters the head, it makes the Dippy Bird top-heavy.
  5. The bird tips. Liquid travels to the head. The bottom of the tube is no longer submerged in liquid.
  6. Vapor bubbles travel through the tube and into the head. Liquid drains from the head, displaced by the bubbles.
  7. Fluid drains back into the abdomen, making the bird bottom-heavy.
  8. The bird tips back up.
Methylene chloride is also used, apparently in decaffinating coffee. The MSDS says the stuff is somewhat dangerous, but apparently not so much that it cannot be used in dippy bird toys - at least until someone complains.