William Gurstelle


The 100 Watt Lightbulb Goes Out: Ronald Howes, Easy Bake Oven Inventor, Dies at 83

First-Easy-Bake-Oven.jpgThe original EASY-BAKE used a 100 watt bulb as its heat source. (I always loved the fact that you could bake brownies with a lightbulb.) In its first year, over 500,000 pre-pubescent Duncan Hines wanna-be's talked their folks into spending $15.95. By its fifth birthday, the EASY-BAKE Oven was a household name.The toy was invented by Ronald Howes Sr, who died yesterday at age 83. According to his obituary , Howes sounds like my sort of guy.
He always had the coolest stuff on earth that I could mess around with," such as phosphorescent powder he was testing for various glow-in-the-dark applications, his son said.

But Mr. Howes always realized that the Easy-Bake Oven was, in his son's words, "the big one" in his career. About 20 million Easy-Bake Ovens have been sold since they went on the market in 1963.

Over the years, Mr. Howes' constant tinkering with possible new products was never confined to office hours. "We no longer have a garage in our house - it's a physics lab," his wife said. "You can hardly walk around in it."

I Warned You to Stay Away From My Stuff

shocking stapler.jpgThanks to the tireless efforts of a legion of Chinese engineers/joke-fabricators, it's now possible to a own a Dwight Schrute-like office cubicle where every single item in sight, from the stapler to the desk clock to the computer mouse to the can of soda, is engineered to provide a hysterically comical high voltage shock when touched.

Who would want to do that? Man, that would be so cool; who wouldn't? I added up the total price for all items listed below and the whole bill comes somewhere around $50.

Partial listing of Shocking Gag Devices available at just one online merchant and no doubt I'm just scratching the surface of the entire shocking gag gift industry:

Shocking gag lighter
Shocking pen (numerous models and manufacturers)
Shocking chewing gum
Shocking tape measure
Shocking lipstick
Shocking hand shaker
Shocking USB drive
Shocking pack of novelty quarters
Shocking calculator
Shocking flashlight
Shocking laser pointer
Shocking digital camera
Shocking MP3 player
Shocking computer mouse
Shocking car key remote
Shocking desk stapler
Shocking slot machine
Shocking dice set
Shocking Alarm Clock
Shocking razor
Shocking Compass
Shocking chocolate Bar
Shocking Soda can
Shocking joke Book
Shocking candy Jar
Shocking playing Cards

So maybe I'll do that. Or would that would just be immature?

Could This Really Happen to You?

popscicover2.jpgAs a contributing editor at Make Magazine, I know how important a good magazine cover is for single copy sales. A pretty girl is good for sales, and a guy dissecting a house plant is not so good.

This is my favorite cover of all time - it has it all. (But I just can't imagine how the scenario depicted could possibly take place. Maybe these people are models on a photo shoot gone bad, or maybe this is the top floor of a parking garage.)

Sure made me want to buy the mag. So I went on eBay and bought it.

Centenary of First Ever Air to Ground Radio Message: "Come and Get this Goddam Cat"

2010 marks the centenary of a number of great events, including the first air to ground radio message.

Exactly 100 years ago, a gray tabby named Kiddo became the first cat to cross the Atlantic Ocean by dirigible. Kiddo belonged to one of the crew members of American explorer Walter Wellman's airship America. In 1910 Wellman attempted to cross the ocean, leaving from Atlantic City, New Jersey on 15 October that year. kiddo-vaniman.jpg Kiddo stowed away in one of the lifeboats, and was after his discovery turned out to be as big a pain as only an angry, claustrophobic cat can be, scratching, mewing, and howling and generally bugging the heck out of everybody on board. The America carried radio equipment -- the first aircraft so equipped -- and apparently the historic first, in-flight radio message, to a secretary back on land, read: 'Roy, come and get this goddamn cat'

More information on this momentous event is here.

Xyloexplosive Devices

Beyond domino toppling lies the next big thing in kinetic art: xyloexplosive devices. I met kinetic artist Tim Fort when he put on a workshop at the wonderful Leonardo's Basement in Minneapolis and taught me the basics of stick bomb building.

Fort apparently holds the world's record for building the largest such device, shown in this recently recorded video clip.

The Decision Tree

thedecsiontree.jpgLast May I had the opportunity to talk a while with Wired Magazine's Thomas Goetz about the idea of how people can take control their over own health care using the tools and data available on the Internet. His new book on the subject, entitled The Decision Tree, is a step above most health improvement books in terms of the scholarship/readability (i.e. it's based on good science and it's easy for me to understand.)

The big idea is this: A person's health doesn't happen all at once; it's a consequence of years of choices - some large and some small, some good and some bad. His book looks at the choices that advances in genomics, self-monitoring, new screening techniques, and collaborative health tools are giving the average patient. The trouble is, there's so much information available that it's really, really hard to interpret it all. What to do? According to Goetz, the answer is to make a decision tree.

Read the rest

45 Years of 43-Man Squamish

squamish team 2_ smaller.jpg Watching the nearly incomprehensible (for me anyway) Olympic men's short course team speed skating event on the television prompted me to do research that and find out it's the forty fifth anniversary of the invention of 43-Man Squamish.

For (mostly) men of a certain age, 43-Man Squamish is a favorite game. Back in the day, I played both Shallow Brooder and Half Frummert, something of a rarity. Invented by Tom Koch of Mad Magazine, I heard Squamish was under consideration as a Olympic sport, but lost out to Mass Start Biathlon and Air Rifle.

It's not as well known in the USA as in some parts of the world, so some Boing Boing readers are possibly only marginally familiar with it. Squamish is a full-contact, sometimes dangerous game played on a five sided field (the Flutney) by players using a long forked stick (the frullip) to smack around a special ball (the pritz.) More squamish rules and details are available here.

DaVinci in Mud

I wrote an article for this month's issue (January/February 2010) of The Atlantic Magazine on the interesting and far reaching cultural effects that small, inexpensive computers (like the Arduino) are having and will continue to have upon the art world. The Atlantic, one of the world's venerable magazines (having survived 151 years and counting) amazingly displays all of its content on its website for free, so you can read the whole piece here.

Physical computing, as defined in the piece, is computing technology that relies not on keyboards and mice for input, but just about everything else. Sensors, meters, electrical and physical interfaces of every kind transduce something physical into something that the cheap but powerful computer chips can understand. The opportunities this presents for artists of all sorts are myriad. One particularly interesting physical computing interface is Tom Gerhardt's "Mudtub."The artist basically turns a tub of mud into a sort of computer mouse. I mentioned it in the Atlantic article but it really needs to be seen to be understood. Check out the video.

mudtub_Medium.jpg From his website:

By sloshing, squishing, pulling, punching, etc, in a tub of mud (yes, wet dirt), users control games, simulators, and expressive tools; interacting with a computer in a new, completely organic, way. Born out of a motivation to close the gap between our bodies and the digital world, the Mud Tub frees the traditional computer interaction model of its rigidity, allowing humans to use their highly developed sense of touch, and creative thinking skills in a more natural way.

Mechanical Sculpture by Aaron Ristau

Subatomic-Disintigrator-750.jpgAaron Ristau, who showed me his some of his amusingly rendered sculptures at the last Maker Faire held in Austin, Texas has a new webpage.

droidSmall.jpg His work is sort of a mash-up of the industrial precisionism of Charles Scheeler with dada-esque mechanical irony of Jean Tinguey. Those who find beauty within the geometry and textures of mechanical objects will enjoy his work. At least I do.

The A-604 and the Recoil Flux Capacitor

42LE.jpgMaybe what's wrong with America's automotive industry is that we just don't innovate like we used to. I have an engineering degree and many years of experience, so I like to think I know jack. Chrysler's A-604 Automatic Transaxle was a great piece of engineering and there's so many insightful things said in this fine 1980 era video that it's well worth watching if you have even the slightest interest in automotive technology history.

It starts out a little complicated but don't worry, it's so clear that by the end of this short video you will have a good understanding even of what modial interaction of the magneto means. It's just that good.

And if you pay attention, you'll hear the first ever mention of the 1990s mileage enhancing breakthrough, the recoil flux capacitor. Highly recommended viewing.

2010: The Golden Anniversary of the best year ever for DIY Books

1960 was a truly golden year in the annals of DIY history. Fifty years ago some of the most important how-to books in the history of making cool things came out.

I wrote in BB last June that 2010 marks the Golden Anniversary of the publication of Bertram Brinley's Rocket Making for Amateurs - that book was the bomb, (kind of literally I should add). Brinley was a US Army colonel and had the cool sounding title of official liaison between the US government and all civilian rocket enthusiasts. In the heyday of Sputnik, Explorer, Echo, and Pioneer, geeks and technophiles monkeyed with rocket fuels like micrograin and ammonium perchlorate instead of silicon and optical fiber.
brinley.jpg
The book's cover price reads 75 cents. Buying a copy today in a used bookstore will set you back about $200. But it's that good. I bought it when I was researching the roll-your-own rocket motor section in my book Absinthe and Flamethrowers.

Besides RMFA, it's the golden anniversary of another seminal book for people who love to make cool things: The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. The rumor on this book is that it was banned by the government and removed from libraries because the projects were too dangerous for the intended audience of junior high school aged children. Well, maybe, as it does provide instruction in the production of chlorine gas from toilet cleaner and bleach, but still. . .
golden book chlorine.jpg
While you can't buy it new (and used copies on Amazon are really pricey) you can download a pdf on Anne Marie Helmenstine's excellent chemistry page at About.com.

Milktoast Nation?

pic_salsons_big-milk-toast_Medium.jpg Great to be back on BoingBoing! Thanks for having me.

Six months ago, my book Absinthe and Flamethrowers, Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously hit the bookstores and it's been a great ride since then. The book, 1/3 polemic on the risks of risk taking (those being the ruminations) and 2/3 DIY instructions (the projects) on making everything from making rockets and gunpowder to using a bullwhip, hit some sort of collective nerve. Featured in the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Wired, and the London Daily Telegraph, I was inundated with emails from kindred spirits, who after reading Absinthe and Flamethrowers want to share with me their own rationale and experiences in the Art of Living Dangerously.

Some of the stories retold sometimes makes it seem our world is in danger, not of becoming too dangerous but of becoming too safe. My friend, Minnesota based Jack Gordon wrote an essay which won the Economist/Shell Writing Prize a few years ago, in regard to the role of the media in this issue which is a pretty interesting take on the issue:

For two decades and counting, we citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave have happily traded freedom for every scrap of bogus safety dangled before us. Indeed, we have devoted prodigious energy to inventing threats that demand the sacrifice of liberty, privacy and even basic human dignity.

Blowing threats out of proportion is, of course, the stock in trade of TV news, whether the menace in question is a summer rainstorm or the distressing stains revealed when an investigative reporter shines ultraviolet light on a freshly laundered bed sheet at an upscale hotel. But television reflects its viewers' attitudes as well as shaping them, and clearly there exists a very large audience receptive to the never-ending theme: Life is meant, ever and always, to be safe--and you're not safe.

Gordon's full essay is here.

Hittin' the Ole Dusty Trail

(Bill Gurstelle concludes his guest blogging stint here on Boing Boing. He is the author of several books including Backyard Ballistics, and the recently published Absinthe and Flamethrowers. Twitter: @wmgurst)

Thanks to Mark and the other BoingBoing bloggers for the chance to put words in front of the world's most interesting and lively blog readers. It's been great. You've been great.

I'm taking took a page from previous guest blogger Gareth Branwyn's final post and putting hyperlinks to many of my posts all in one place for those who may have missed them and so I have one place I can link to:

Summer Road Trips

Hit By Rock From Outer Space?

Rocket Making for Amateurs

A Monkey on My Back (non-metaphorically speaking)

Growing the Poison Pepper

Licensed to Drink

Knife Throwers Just Want a Little Respect

Happy 35th Anniversary, 10 Cent Beer Night

The Least Exciting Moments in Sports

Wails and mumbles: So Effective It's Given Away in Bags!

Wails and Murmurs: Eating Couscous at the Chi-Chi's in Walla-Walla

Exploring Your Own Backyard:

My new book, Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously continues to do well, as does Backyard Ballistics, The Art of the Catapult and the rest, no doubt helped by the interest fueled by posting on this wonderful blog.

Please do check out Absinthe and Flamethrowers if you have any interest. For more info, see www.absintheandflamethrowers.com.

If you want to reach me to, say, inquire about writing assignments or speaking engagements, visit me at www.williamgurstelle.com and use the form on the contact page. I'm leaving the country for a couple of weeks, but I'll have email access from time to time.

Thanks again. Enjoy your summer, live dangerously, and live artfully.

On the Road with Kesey and Truman

(Bill Gurstelle is guest blogging here on Boing Boing. He is the author of several books including Backyard Ballistics, and the recently published Absinthe and Flamethrowers. Twitter: @wmgurst)

Today's the end of my guest blogging stint on BoingBoing and I'm in the mood for a summertime road trip. Unfortunately, my car is 1999 AWD Ford Explorer with a 5.0 V-8 and gets, maybe, 16 miles to the gallon. The thing about it is that nothing ever goes wrong with it. It's a great vehicle, gas mileage aside. Wired magazine ran a great article explaining that the greenest vehicle is the car you already own. So, If I do go somewhere, I'll rent a Civic instead.

A great road trip requires more than just driving. It should be something like and retracing the route of Lewis and Clark. Or retracing the route of H. Sargent Michaels 1905 "Photographic Guide for Motorists from Chicago to Lake Geneva."

Matthew Algeo new book, Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure, is the account of a great road trip. The book's conceit is marvelous: almost immediately after leaving office, ex-president Truman and his wife Bess got behind the wheel of a new Chrysler New Yorker and drove from Missouri to New York and back, as plain old private citizens.

truman drinks coke.jpg
Harry loved to drive, so he and Bess loaded up the trunk with a few suitcases and took off. No bodyguards, no secret service. Harry and Bess ate in roadside diners, stopped at country gas stations, and just made like normal people, as well as the recently retired leader of the greatest nation in the free world could do. Impossible to imagine Clinton, Bush, or Bush doing that (Carter, maybe.)

Algeo retraced the route, visiting the places Turman stopped at. He uses newspaper accounts and interviews with the still living but now usually elderly people that interacted with Harry - waitresses, hotel clerks, even a cop who stopped him on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for driving too slow - to weave together a terrificly interesting story.

So, I need a road trip. Maybe I'll retrace the route of the Ken Kesey's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test trip, or Hernando Desoto's quest for the fountain of youth through the Southeast. I'm still thinking of more.

The Word Gets Out

(Bill Gurstelle is guest blogging here on Boing Boing. He is the author of several books including Backyard Ballistics, and the recently published Absinthe and Flamethrowers. Twitter: @wmgurst)

Well, my time guest blogging on BoingBoing is almost over. So many things to write about and so little time. A few things I like that deserve more, than the few words I'm able to provide:

1. ZoozBeat This is the iPhone/iTouch application that won the "gadget-off" competition at Kinnernet last month in Washington DC. It's a gesture-based mobile musical studio, simple enough for non-musicians to immediately become musically expressive but rich enough for experienced musicians to push the envelope of mobile music creation. Use shake and tilt movements, tap the screen, or press the keypads to create and modify rhythmic and melodic lines. Available thru iTunes.

The Celestron digital microscope I wrote about earlier came in second.

2. The Debut My absolute favorite indie rock band in the world. I'm especially fond of the lead singer. ; ) Best known work is The Photograph Song



3. Goex brand black powder. Sure, you can learn how to make your own bp by reading the Thundring Noyse chapter of Absinthe and Flamethrowers. But what if you just want to buy it? Then this is the stuff I like: "In a powder mill in the piney woods of north Louisiana, workers carry on the tradition of generations of American black powder makers, grinding out granules of black powder at the GOEX Black Powder Plant."

4. BIRTH CONTROL IS SINFUL IN THE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGES and also ROBBING GOD OF PRIESTHOOD CHILDREN!! (Paperback). Not sure if it's worth every penny of its $135 cover price, but may be available used for less. One Amazon reviewer wrote:
"Despite being written entirely in BLOCK CAPITALS, this self-published work conveys its message elegantly. In fact, you don't even need to read it to understand the main argument being put forward.

True, by avoiding this book you will miss out on the precise location of the heretical surfboard worshipped by the British royal family and . . . .". .( more here)

5. Malta (the drink, not the country, although the country is fine as well) It's a delicious malt flavored beverage popular in the Caribbean. (But read the label. Goya Malta has a whopping 230 calories per 12 oz serving.)