How to: Build a better sand castle

Geoscientist Matt Kuchta explains why wet sand makes a better castle than dry sand — and what you can do to make your sand fortress even more impenetrable. Hint: The secret ingredient is window screens.

A spaceship that tastes like Grape-Nuts

This morning, Marketplace Tech Report had a story on a new cellulose-based building material that could be made by genetically engineered bacteria — altered versions of the bacteria that naturally make stuff like kombucha. This tech sounds like it's got a long way to go from laboratory to the real world, but if they can perfect the process and make it large enough quantities, what you'd end up with a strong, inexpensive goop that could be used to build everything from medical dressings, to digital paper, to spaceships. Yes, you could theoretically use this stuff to make rocket casings, according to R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., a professor of cell biology at UT Austin. And if you can build a rocket from this stuff, you could also break the same material back down into an edible, high-fiber foodstuff.

Why do trains stay on the track as they go around a curve?

The other night, Joshua Foer posed this question was posed to a table full of science journalists. Most of us started talking about friction, and/or possibly something to do with the little flanges on either side of a train wheel.

We were all wrong.

This is a Richard Feynman video, yes, but it's more about mechanics than physics. Turns out, you can learn a lot about how trains stay on the track by looking under your own car.

World's largest tunnel boring machine lands in Seattle

Known affectionately as Bertha, this tunnel boring machine has the widest diameter of any boring machine ever built; 57.5 feet. It's being used to dig a highway tunnel under downtown Seattle and it just arrived there today after being shipped from Japan.

I feel this warrants your attention for two reasons:
1) If you live near Seattle, you can actually go get a look at this massive beast before it starts chewing its way through the city. If you like looking at giant machines (or know someone who does) now's your chance. She's coming into the Port of Seattle, Terminal 46, as you read this and there will be ample opportunities to get a look as the pieces are assembled and moved into the nearby launch pit. The Washington State Department of Transportation has suggestions on places to go to get a good view.
2) If, for some reason, you were looking for a new way to lose massive amounts of time on YouTube, Bertha (and boring machines, in general) can help with that. Here's a cutaway animation explaining how boring machines work. Here's a video of Big Becky, another boring machine, breaking through to the other side of a tunnel at Niagara Falls, Canada. (In fact, boring machine breakthrough videos are, in and of themselves, a mesmerizing genre.) And in this video, you can watch the massively long line of support equipment go by in the wake of a boring machine.

Photos from on top of the Great Pyramid

The Pyramids of Giza close to tourists at 4:00 pm. Recently, a group of Russians managed to hide out at the site after closing time and scramble up the Great Pyramid of Cheops in the fading light. Naturally, they took photos. (Because if there is one thing the Internet has taught me about Russians, it's that they like to climb to dangerous heights and then take photos.)

These shots are kind of fabulous, not just for the thrill of "yeah, somebody broke the rules!", but because of the perspective you get from on high that isn't visible in the many ground-level shots I've seen. From on top of the Pyramid, you can see how the stone is pockmarked and carved — it really looks like something humans cut out of the Earth. You can also see the graffiti left by generations of tourists in multiple languages; English, Arabic, French, and more. And you can see the edge of the modern city, shimmering just at the horizon. I don't think I'd previously had such a profound sense of how closely modern Egyptians lived and worked to the Great Pyramid, before. What a fascinating view!

Thanks to Steve Silberman for the link!

How to: Demolish a truss bridge

Like the people cheering at about :25 into this video, I'm a sucker for dramatic explosions. This one comes from Texas, where the transportation department blew up an old bridge in the city of Marble Falls on March 17th. Also, apparently, it's warm enough in Texas that multiple gentlemen could watch a bridge explode from the comfort of their jet skis.

Building a better Bay Bridge

San Francisco will get a new Bay Bridge this summer. The New York Daily News has an interesting story about that bridge's creation — and the earthquake-resistant engineering behind it.

The secrets of elevator design

Making a high-quality elevator isn't just about designing something that can safely go from one floor to another. Elevators are service items. That means that when you design an elevator, you also have to design for people — both individual desires and needs, and the desires and needs of a variety of cultures.

If engineering is really about designing socio-technical systems, then elevators are big, fat, obvious reminder of that dynamic in play. In a profile written for the Wall Street Journal, author Kate Linebaugh describes the work of Theresa Christy, a mathematician and Otis Elevator research fellow.

You press a button and wait for your elevator. How long before you get impatient and agitated? Theresa Christy says 20 seconds.

As a mathematician steeped in the theories of vertical transportation at Otis Elevator Co., Ms. Christy, 55, has spent a quarter-century developing systems that make elevators run as perfectly as possible—which means getting most riders into a car in less than 20 seconds. "Traditionally, the wait time is the most important factor," she says. "The thing people hate the most is waiting."

... The challenges she deals with depend on the place. At a hotel in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, she has to make sure that the elevators can clear a building quickly enough to get most people out five times a day for prayer.

Read the full story at The Wall Street Journal

Via Maria Konnikova

Image: Elevator, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 25103209@N06's photostream

In post-Sandy "dewatering" mission, Army engineers drain one Olympic-sized pool's worth of water per minute

In an Army Corps of Engineers press release, details on the astounding rate at which workers are draining water from New York's subway and transit tunnels: "To date, the USACE has used about 50 pumps of various sizes to remove 64 million gallons of water from the New York City mass transit system. Operations are ongoing at six sites, with pumps removing about 116,000 gallons per minute. The 696,000 gallons the pumps are draining each minute exceeds the amount of water in one Olympic-size swimming pool (660,000 gallons). There were roughly 600 million gallons in the tunnels when pumping operations began on Thursday, Nov. 1." (via Noah Shachtman).

Meet the National Unwatering Swat Team

As I post this, the National Unwatering Swat Team should be reaching New York City, where it will do what the National Unwatering Swat Team does best — remove water from places it shouldn't ever be. This is a different mandate than dewatering, in which water is removed from places where it's sometimes okay to have water. (Via Philip Bump)

Entropy versus warranty: how companies figure out how breakable their products are


The current Wired has a long feature by Robert Capps on the significant changes in product testing and warranty service brought about by the combination of highly accurate computer modelling and disclosure laws that force firms to publish details of the costs of their warranty plans. The latter was most interesting to me, as it offers insight into what had formerly been a black box for gadget-watchers.

One of the world’s foremost experts on the cost of product failure lives and works in a fifth-floor apartment on a modest block in Forest Hills, Queens. His name is Eric Arnum, and he runs a one-man newsletter titled Warranty Week. Tall and soft-spoken, he can (and often does) talk about warranty accruals, payment rates, and reimbursement policies for hours without stopping. Most of his days are spent in his small office, working on a vast array of spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides—files that contain detailed warranty information for 1,107 companies. Collectively, these sheets hold perhaps the most comprehensive accounting of product failures on the planet.

Warranty information is one of the most closely guarded secrets in corporate America. Companies are loath to share how much they spend on warranties and why. It’s understandable, as talking about warranties is the same as talking about the fact that your products break when they’re not supposed to. Because of this, nobody just gives data to Arnum. He has to dig it out, one company at a time.

Arnum owes his livelihood to Enron. In the wake of the scandal that took down the energy juggernaut, the Financial Accounting Standards Board made changes to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principals—the rules that, among other things, govern how companies write financial statements. As of November 2002, companies were required to provide a detailed reckoning of their guarantees, including their warranty reserves and payments, in quarterly and yearly filings. The result was that, for the first time in history, someone could look at, and compare, how US public companies handle claims—how much they pay out, how much they hold aside for future payments.

Why Things Fail: From Tires to Helicopter Blades, Everything Breaks Eventually

Engineering photo competition winners

Described in this video, the winning entries of the University of Cambridge's Department of Engineering 2012 Photography Competition. Many of the amazing entries can be viewed here on Flickr.

Dredging: how the hell does that work?

Ben Mendelsohn sez, "Dredging - the mechanized transport of underwater sediments - is one of the most elemental of the infrastructural support systems that underlie modern societies. Through dredging, we act as geologic agents - moving earth in what amounts to a new geologic cycle. This video introduces dredging, its landscapes, and some of the fascinating technologies that we use to manage it. It was produced in support of DredgeFest NYC, a symposium on the human acceleration of sediments, to be held in New York City on September 28-29." (Thanks, Ben!)

Science summer-camp for girls

Get WISE is a sold-out science camp for girls running in Halifax, NS, on the campus of Mount St. Vincent University. It's part of the Women In Science Education Atlantic initiative, and combines kinetic learning with hands-on exercises as well as more traditional classroom work. The kids really look like they're having a great time, too.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

How the Selectric's digital-to-analogue converter worked

This great video explainer shows the inner workings of a digital-to-analogue converter, using the IBM Selectric's early example of the form to illustrate the mechanism:

Using slow motion video Bill Hammack, the engineer guy, shows how IBM's revolutionary "golf ball" typewriter works. He describes the marvelous completely mechanical digital-to-analogue converter that translates the discrete impulse of the keys to the rotation of the type element.

IBM Selectric Typewriter & its digital to analogue converter (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)