• The Long Goodbye

    Thanks to Mark, David, Xeni, and Cory for the opportunity to place my posts on the world's best blog for the past two weeks. Having an online presence on such a lively and well-read space has been a thrill.

    As Marlowe says, nothing says goodbye like a bullet, but it's been great to write for a while about things besides stuff that goes boom, whoosh, or splat. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. If you're interested in that sort of thing, come by my site www.AbsintheAndFlamethrowers.com or check out a copy of my book Absinthe and Flamethrowers.)

    I've placed links to a few of my favorite posts below for those who may have missed them the first time.

    I haven't been keeping up on Facebook or Twitter, but check out my youtube videos if you get a chance. Cheers!

  • BeFunky's Way Cool Portraits

    My friend Gareth Branwyn, chief blogster at Makezine.com, had a picture of himself drawn as a robot that I thought was pretty cool. Investigating that idea led me to the befunky.com website. Tons of interesting ways to rendering your portrait without having to know or have Photoshop. The interface is easy too. Impessive!
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  • A flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo, into frantic oblivion

    One favorite quote from Hunter S. Thompson, who died exactly five years ago (give or take a few days) ago, is this one, the opening lines from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

    We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like:
    I feel a bit lightheaded. Maybe you should drive. Suddenly, there was a terrible roar all around us, and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, and a voice was screaming: Holy Jesus. What are these goddamn animals?

    Duke_and_gonzo_Small.jpgThompson and his lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta visited Las Vegas in 1971 to cover the Mint 400 race for Sports Illustrated. But the article they wrote was about far more than that.

    Las Vegas Review reporter Corey Levitan writes an article in which he tries to figure out what was real and what wasn't, which as might be imagined when dealing with Thompson seems like a tough thing to figure.

  • Light Art Performance Photography

    dana maltby 3_Small.jpgdana maltby 2_Small.jpgMinneapolis/St.Paul based artist Dana Maltby uses a open shutter and a slew of colored lights to create some fascinating images that he calls "light art performance photography." All images are straight from the camera, no photoshop, no computer manipulation at all; not even cropping or adjusting.

    Here is a link to a video that shows how he makes light paintings

  • Happy Sesquicentennial: The Chemical History of a Candle

    I propose to bring before you, in the course of these lectures, the Chemical History of a Candle. There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle.–Michael Faraday, introduction to lecture 1

    This is my all time favorite DIY science book. 150 years ago, the great Faraday (and I do mean great; I don't believe there has been an experimental scientist of his ability since) gave a series of lectures for school children at London's Royal Institution. In six lectures he explained many mysteries of chemistry and physics using a wax candle and some very simple props. The text for all six lectures are available for free online. I am still looking for an online edition that contains the drawings, which are pretty important.IMG_1663_Small.JPG

  • Crowdsourcing the Physics of the Backdraft Cocktail

    As may be apparent from my earlier posts, I'm interested in "dangerous" foods and drink and playing with fire. This week, I've come across this flaming cocktail idea called "The Backdraft." Here's a bloke from New Zealand or Australia (I think) drinking one.

    The recipe, abridged from Wikipedia is as follows

    1. A saucer is placed on a counter or table.
    2. A shot glass is placed in the center of the saucer, filled with Sambuca
    3. A pint glass is filled with 1 – 2 shots of Cointreau. Swirl this in the glass to coat the sides
    4. The Cointreau is lit and allowed to burn until the sides of the glass become warm to the touch
    5. The lit Cointreau is poured into the shot glass, igniting the Sambuca.
    6. The pint glass is lowered over the flaming liquid. As the atmosphere cools inside the pint glass it will try to suck the alcohol on the outside back into the upside down pint glass. This backdraft effect is the origin of the drink's name.
    7. The glass is removed and a straw is used to suck up the alcohol from the saucer and shot glass.

    That seems a relatively straightforward preparation of a drink only a bit less goofy than a Flaming Moe. But I'm trying to understand the physics of the Backdraft. What causes the vacuum in the upside down pint glass? The Wikipedia explanation follows, but I'm not sure it's correct.

    Backdraft physics follows (more…)

  • In the Cubicle Trenches – Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction

    Assert dominion over your desktop. Between the instructions provided in John Austin's book and the key to your company's office supplies cabinet, you need tolerate no threat to the security of your cubicle.

    mini-weapons-of-mass-destruction.jpgI've long given up the life of cubicle dweller, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten the roots of my working experience. So, it was with great anticipation that I was given a review copy of John Austin's new book, Mini-Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare.

    It's a collection of less-than-lethal weapons easily buildable from paper clips, pencils, rubber bands, and plastic eating utensils. Some of the projects appear to be inspired by the stuff in my book Art of the Catapult, but on a much smaller scale, so they're suitable for pissing off Dwight in the next cube, but not really getting Toby involved.

  • And You Thought Byzantines Weren't Funny?

    jim bowen_Small.jpgI've been reading the oldest joke book in existence, the Philogelos, a Byzantine book written in about 400 AD. It's full of knee slappers. The book is mostly quips from two guys, Hierocles and Philagrius, about whom little is known.

    Like network television, Byzantine comedy is mostly based on the fortunes and foibles of a gallery of stock characters: the drunk, the miser, the braggart, the sex-starved woman, as well as a classic type known as the scholastikos, variously translated as "pedant," "absent-minded professor," or "egghead."

    There's a great video here, in which Brit comedic legend Jim Bowen does ancient Byzantine material in a modern comedy club. (Well, it's not Oswald Patton, but Bowen's stuff is 1600 years old)


    Scholasticus meeting a friend exclaims, "Why, I heard you were dead!" The other replies, "Well, I tell you that I'm alive." "Yes," persists Scholasticus, "but the man who told me so is more truthful than you!"

    More yuks on the next page


  • Weaponized Chili Peppers

    I posted earlier this week about foods people eat even though they are dangerous if improperly prepared. Here's a food people eat that seems dangerous no matter how it's prepared – the bhut jalokia pepper. The jalokia is way, way hotter than even the scotch bonnet. It's absurdly hot, beyond anything imaginable. So obviously, I had to get one. I got some seeds from the New Mexico State Chili Pepper Institute but had no luck in getting these to grow; evidently Minnesota's climate is not right for their cultivation. This recent article in the Asia Times makes me all the more disappointed.


    BANGALORE – Red-hot chili peppers could soon come to India's defense. The country's defense scientists are working on using the world's hottest chilies in hand grenades for use in counter-insurgency operations and riot control.

    An important ingredient in Indian cooking, hitherto chilies have been confined to kitchens. They seem poised now to storm another bastion. If ongoing field trials are successful, chilies will soon make a grand entry into India's defense armory.
    The plan is "to harness the pungency value of chilies to make hand grenades that can be used in riot control and counter-insurgency situations", R B Srivastava, director of life sciences in the government-run Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), told Asia Times Online.

    The Asia Times article also goes on to say that India's scientists are using smeared bhut jolokia paste as elephant repellent on public works projects. What a useful plant!

  • Self Righting Domino Sculpture

    What I find frustrating about domino toppling is its ephemeral nature. If only the dominoes could stand themselves up again, you could topple them over and over. Los Angeles artist Karl Lautman solved this problem a few years ago in his sculpture called Ouroborus.

    I blogged last week about how microcontrollers like Arduino and Basic Stamp are changing the way sculptors use computers to create works. In Ouroborus, each domino is connected to a solenoid beneath it via a couple of polyester strands. When the domino falls over, it lifts the solenoid's plunger a bit. When the solenoid is energized (under microncontroller control), it pulls the plunger back down, yanking the domino back up. I've attached a drawing of the domino hardware. Complete build notes here (PDF)

  • Is your bathroom a cause of political radicalism?

    bathroom bolsheviks.jpgI've been in some pretty terrible public bathrooms, some of which made me want to do various things, but I can't say they really affected my politics. But back in the 1930s, it was apparent to major paper companies that the best way fight the Red Menace was by eliminating scratchy toilet paper, which is why this poster strikes me as interesting.

    <--Try wiping your hands each day on harsh, cheap paper towels and maybe you too, would grumble.

    (Personally, I'd prefer even cheap paper towels over electric dryers although the new Xcelerator models are fun because you can make gross noises when you hold your hands just so.)

  • Madoff Made Off with my Money

    When I guest blogged last June, I posted about tautonymically named people (e.g. Billy Dee Williams, Ford Madox Ford, Humbert Humbert.) It made me want to research other people with oddly themed names but I didn't really have a good idea for a post until I played tennis with my friend whose real name is Ace Allgood. Ace serves many aces and is a good tennis player.

    pecksniff.gifThinking about that led to me to the concept of nominative determinism, at least one guy's idea that a person's name plays a causal part role in the development of one's job or other important attributes of life. Similar to this are aptronyms, "names that match its owner's occupation or character, often in a humorous or ironic way."

    A few examples illustrate the idea: Vikings field goal kicker Ryan Longwell, Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, Astronaut Sally Ride, prostitute Mi Sook You, and poet William Wordsworth.

    The works of Charles Dickens are filled with great aptro-named characters: Pecksniff, M'Choakumchild, Bounderby, etc

  • Giant Spiked Cave Spider as a Wall Accent

    Last year, David Pescovitz gave me a copy of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology. An interesting book, and it really made me want to start my own cabinet of curiosities. Apparently every really good collection of wonders has a preserved giant insect or two. So, it was with great interest that I clicked on the Spiked Giant Cave Spider on etsy.com.
    giant spider 2w.jpg

    From the Etsy site: "All of the real Butterflies and insects used in our framed shadowbox butterfly art have been raised on natural cruelty free tropical farms around the world."

    BTW, doesn't giant spider farmer sound like a job for Mike Rowe?

  • Fugu Without Tetrodotoxin is like Nascar Racing without the Possibility of Crashes

    Recently in the London Daily Telegraph:

    "An aquaculture company based in the southern prefecture of Ehime (Japan) said it had raised 50,000 non-poisonous fugu at a fish farm."

    fugu.jpgIn my book Absinthe and Flamethrowers, there's quite a bit of rumination upon why people purposefully eat dangerous foods. I'm not talking about foods that are just unhealthy like the 1400 calorie Hardee's Monster Thickburger, but foods that do or might actually contain poison or biological hazards if not handled with precision and experience.

    The list is surprisingly long and includes ackee (a Jamaican favorite,) pokeweed (a southern US boiled green,) and casu marsu (the fabled larva-laden cheese of Sardinian sheepherders.) But the tops among all is fugu, the sushi made from the flesh of the tiger pufferfish. Certain internal organs of the fish contains extravagant amounts of ultra powerful nerve poison tetrodotoxin, so one's first meal with inexpertly prepared fugu sashimi is certainly one's last.

    But that's why people want it. It's not about the food, I guess as much as the preparation and eating ritual, and what those ceremonies mean to the diner. Take the poison out of the fish and you may as well be eating kani kama.

    As far as I know, no one has yet learned how to remove the tetrodoxin from the flesh of the only other animal that has it, the rough skinned newt, although newts probably make for lousy nigiri.

  • 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 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.