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.