Claude Pilliard enjoys creating vacuum tube amplifiers from scratch, as seen in this step-by-step video.
An elegant adding machine made of wood and using marbles to represent numbers in binary, complete with correct handling of numeric overflow.
More information and other wooden marble contraptions here.
Beautifully engineered Enigma-like "coding machine" hand made by Tatjana van Vark.
“Each wheel has 509 parts.” Incredible!
I have previously written about Ron Patrick’s rather unique home-modified WV Beetle, and I remain impressed with his engineering skills.
It is street legal and technically a “hybrid”, since it has two methods of propulsion.
What a nutcase!]]>
Why is the sky blue? Why do the stars twinkle? Was the moon landing a hoax? Where is the centre of the universe?
Often his answers start off which what is common knowledge but then supersede that with a bunch of extra detail and insight; such as the chapter about tides, which starts off talking about the moon, then recedes to cover gravity principles, then involves the tidal influence of the sun, and ends with the following paragraph:
So the next time you're at the beach, think for a moment about what you're seeing. The force of tides may take the water in and out from the shoreline, but it also lengthens our day, pushes the Moon farther away, creates volcanoes, eats stars, and viciously tears apart whole galaxies. Of course, the tides also make it easier to find pretty shells on the coastline. Sometimes it's awesome to think about the universe as a whole, but other times it's okay just to wiggle your toes in the wet sand.
Bad Astronomy is essentially an astronomy-specific variant of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.]]>
Bear Grylls is perhaps more known these days for jumping out of helicopters and eating live animals on his sensational survivalist show Man vs. Wild, however we shouldn’t forget that in 1998 he became the youngest Briton to successfully climb Mount Everest.
If you have any doubts about the significance of this feat you should read the book he wrote about it.
Nine men set off individually to sail around the world, in various states of preparation:
“The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race was a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race, held in 1968–1969, and was the first round-the-world yacht race. The race was controversial due to the failure by most competitors to finish the race and because of the suicide of one entrant; however, it ultimately led to the founding of the BOC Challenge and Vendée Globe round-the-world races, both of which continue to be successful and popular.” — Wikipedia
The peak of Mount Everest pokes into an altitude where aircraft cruise. The high speed “jet stream” winds make it impossible to climb to the top, except for a short window of time each year when the jet streams are redirected. The mountaineers awaiting this window of opportunity each year attempt to find a suitable weather window in which to scurry (slowly) to the top in a semi-conscious daze and (hopefully) make it back alive..
In the 1996 season the jet streams came back early and caught a lot of people by surprise. Jon Krakauer was there as a journalist on an expedition with acclaimed mountain guide Rob Hall, and documented the adversity in this book.
Mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates set out in 1985 to be the first to climb Siula Grande (6,344m) in the Peruvian Andes, via its West face which is almost vertical.
They made it to the peak however there were some 'complications' on the descent. Namely Joe Simpson slipped and injured his leg. Initially he thought the injury was not that serious and that he was just being (in his own words) "a bit wet". In reality, his calf bone had been driven up into the knee joint, which is why he was finding walking a little difficult.
"It completely destroyed both of my meniscus cartilages, crushed between femur and tibia, caused disruption of the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, and also damaged the fibular head and peroneal nerve. To complicate things further I had also fractured the ankle and the heel of the same leg but didn't notice at the time as I had quite a lot on my mind."
By this time the pair had also run out of fuel for their stove and so, unable to melt snow for drinking water, were becoming dehydrated.
This was only the beginning of their adventures.
Steven Callahan set out on a race from the Canary Islands to the Carribean in 1986 but after six days his boat sank and he had to make do in his survival raft for the next 10 weeks, fending off the sharks, fishing with his harpoon gun, and distilling water using temperamental solar sills.
His raft punctured and he had to come up with some ingenious repairs and continually re-inflate it. He used an improvised sextant made out of out of three pencils to navigate. His harpoon gun broke, repeatedly.
Through all this he did not give up and managed to survive until he drifted to salvation.
You might think that some of the people described above are quite hard-core, and yes, they sure are. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, however is an absolute lunatic. He is in a league of his own.
In his auto-biography he describes his exploits from the early days through to modern times. The tales of adversity and stamina on his various expeditions are second to none.
There was this one time, when he visited both the north and south poles on foot; or he time that he got frostbite on his hand and, fed up of waiting for the operation to remove his blackened fingertips, amputated them himself, in his shed, using a saw. Or the time that he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest at the age of 65. Or when he ran a marathon (that's quite a long way)… at the age of 59… (that's pretty impressive)… having had a heart attack and double heart bypass only four months prior… (wow, what a recovery!) I mean, that's pretty impressive, and more than a little insane, right?
Except it wasn't just one marathon. He actually did seven marathons, on seven consecutive days, and did them on seven different continents. At the age of 59. Four months after a heart attack. Bam!
The declining download speed is not much concern to me, as it is consistent and more than fast enough for my requirements.
More importantly, I am happy that in the past year we have not had any noticeable degradation or outages, which, alas, means I have nothing further to report on the awesome customer service of O2.
Since computer time was scarce you had to book in advance for a specific time slot to run your “Official Sanctioned Programs”. Bookings were taken around the clock, and the enthusiasts chose to hang out at all hours, being ready to jump into any time slot that people didn’t turn up for. (Unsurprisingly these were the late night time slots.)
In these nights they explored the capabilities of this early technology, they wrote games, they wrote the first interactive debuggers. Things were low-level; programs were written in assembly, and the hackers were obsessed by succinctness and efficiency. On one occasion the impromptu “Midnight Computer Wiring Society” actually rewired the mainframe (against all sanctions) to implement a new instruction at the hardware level!
Things were different for computing in those days: Rather than each person having a computer on their desk, and another on their lap, and another in the mobile telephone in their pocket, there was only one terminal. And when you were on the terminal, you often had an audience. (No pressure!)
People would sit at all hours of the night and argue what to an outsider would be bafflingly arcane points. These arguments were the lifeblood of the hacker community. Sometimes people would literally scream at each other, insisting on a certain kind of coding scheme for an assembler, or a specific type of interface, or a particular feature in a computer language. These differences would have hackers banging on the blackboard, or throwing chalk across the room. It wasn't so much a battle of egos as it was an attempt to figure out what The Right Thing was. The term had special meaning to the hackers. The Right Thing implied that to any problem, whether a programming dilemma, a hardware interface mismatch, or a question of software architecture, a solution existed that was just ... it. The perfect algorithm. You'd have hacked right into the sweet spot, and anyone with half a brain would see that the straight line between two points had been drawn, and there was no sense trying to top it. "The Right Thing," Gosper would later explain, "very specifically meant the unique, correct, elegant solution ... the thing that satisfied all the constraints at the same time, which everyone seemed to believe existed for most problems."
From here grew the personal computer revolution. Computers got smaller and more affordable, and entered the mainstream. The classic computer games companies Sierra On-Line, Sirius, and Brøderbund Software (now all sadly defunct) emerged, as well as the very beginnings of companies such as Microsoft, Apple Computer, and Atari.]]>
From attempts to bring dead animals and people back to life (using electricity), to measuring the weight of a soul (by carefully weighing a terminal patient as they expire), and inviting road rage (by waiting in a stopped car for an extended period after the lights turn green), Alex has amassed a collection of these weird and wonderful experiments, carefully catalogued into themed sections.
True to the promise of the title, there is also coverage of LSD administered to elephants, with rather unexpected and somewhat devastating results, in one case.
An interesting and light read.]]>
Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.]]>
Marian Pretzel was a young Jewish art student living in Lvov, Poland. He talks about being fond of sports, the 'Dror' sports club he was involved with, and his decision to go to art school. But when the Nazi occupation came it quickly destroyed his family and landed him in the Janowska concentration camp.
It was painfully clear to Marian that he would not survive long at Janowska, and he soon made a miraculous escape from the camp. Previously, he and a friend were given the challenge of forging some stamps on an official-looking document; now Marian had to rapidly develop his forging skills to help his survival.
The book chronicles his journeys during the war years with various friends, around Poland, the USSR, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Each trip was backed by a well thought-out and rehearsed cover story, and suitable forged documents bearing all the right stamps.
His escape from Janowska was only one of his many brushes with death. Along the way he lost countless family members and friends who were not so lucky as he was. And although his survival was largely based on resourcefulness, ingenuity, and boldness, on many occasions it came down to pure luck. For instance, on one occasion he and a friend missed their train because they had to collect a boarding pass before embarking; the train became full while they were in the queue so they had to wait until the next day. Meanwhile, the place they were going to was bombed, and most of the inhabitants killed — had they caught the train they intended, they would likely be amongst those dead.
This book really puts things into perspective for someone who lives in London, goes to work every day, and has responsibilities including ironing work shirts and feeding the cat. The thought of not having anything to eat and dodging the Gestapo at every corner is quite a startling one.
Amazingly, through all this Marian manages to keep a clear head and a positive attitude at a time when many around him are paralysed, mesmerised, and stupefied, by fear:
I had lost everything but my life... I made a slow and careful inventory of the qualities I possessed and how they could be instrumental in my survival.
It’s only 10 minutes long; hang around for the finale, it’s good.
“Anyway, I’m not sure about all that, but I do know this stuff is coming. Man, it’s got to come; what’s going to stop it?”
[Via TED: Best of the Web]]]>
The book comes to life with constant examples; they cover false stories like the kidney heist, where a businessman wakes up in a bath tub full of ice to discover his kidney has been harvested by organ thieves, and true stories, like the guy who lost 200 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches every day.
There are also a number of case studies that explore how to turn an abstract idea, such as a CEO telling employees to “maximise shareholder value”, into something more concrete and sticky, which relates to actual day-to-day work of the employees and is therefore much more likely to be understood and applied!
Chip and Dan set forth the six aspects of generating a sticky idea as SUCCESs:
If these summary notes don't make a lot of sense to you, that's because you should go and read the book in its entirety. Then you'll know how to turn a phrase like "maximising shareholder value" into something a little more... 'sticky'.
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."
— John F. Kennedy, 1961
After significant head scratching I managed to establish the root cause of the problem: The “faucet aerator” was to blame.
The faucet aerator is a thing screwed on to the end of the spout; it mixes some air into the stream of water in order to make it all soft and fluffy. The particular faucet aerator fitted had a “water saving” feature, which intentionally limited the flow of water passing through. (Blue mesh in the picture)
This combined with the pressure differential between the hot water and the cold water, meant that when using the mixer to create warm water what was actually happening was this:
Then you desperately attempt to rinse the soap from your hands before they catch fire, but you can’t do it quick enough, at which point you desperately swing the mixer over to maximum cold only to have the scalding hot water that has just backed up into the cold pipe dump out on you, followed by some warm water for a time, and eventually cold water (by which time your hands are already burnt).
Needless to say I quickly did away with the extra “water saving” part of the faucet aerator, and that faucet has been fine ever since!]]>
As ‘DIY’ correctly noted in this comment, the root cause of the observed effect is that the hot water is at a higher pressure than the cold. The reason for this is that the cold water is fed from a water tank in the loft, whilst the hot water comes from the combi-boiler (which is fed directly from the water mains).
If the mains water pressure is higher than that of the water coming from the water tank then what’s the point of having a tank? I’m not sure; I’ve yet to consult a plumber for the answer to this.
It could be a historic artefact. Maybe once upon a time the mains water pressure was not that great. Or maybe the water mains pressure is good with only one or two faucets on, but would be unable to supply all four flats in the property if everyone happened to turn on their faucets and flush the toilet at the same time? Or maybe it’s for isolation, so that someone in another flat flushing the toilet won’t make your shower go hot. (But that doesn’t really work out, because it would make your shower go cold instead, since the hot water from the combi-boiler is still fed from the cold water mains!) I don’t know.
What I do know, however, is that this isn’t the full solution to the puzzle. Even with a pressure differential, why would the hot water push back into the cold pipe rather than coming out of the faucet? Surely it's easier to come out from the faucet than to push back against the cold water?
So the question remains: How does the hot water end up in the cold water pipe?
Give up? Click here for the solution.]]>
Consider the following observations regarding the behaviour of the mixer tap in the bathroom basin:
From this information it should be possible to conclude where the problem lies. However, it is probably not immediately obvious what is going on. (It certainly wasn’t to me, at the time!)
Can you work out where the problem lies?
Click here for a hint.]]>
What makes this book unique is that after debunking, Richard then continues to talk about techniques that, according to other scientific studies, actually work.
Truths: (well, hypotheses supported by the cited studies, at least)
These findings are neatly summarised in little sections throughout the book which specify actions you can take (allegedly in 59 seconds) to derive the relevant benefits.
Another thing that makes this book unique is Richard’s casual writing style, with regular bursts of deadpan satire and exaggerations slipped in to make sure you’re paying attention. (And like The Undercover Economist, this book also features an amusing study involving students and an open bar — or so they think.)
See also: Richard Wiseman interview on the Freakonomics blog (includes amusing anecdotes about the practical complexities of “accidentally” dropping your wallet in the street... 200 times... for a study)]]>
During the summer of 2008, on my way home from work, I reached 20,000 miles on my commuter bike. Between commuting to university, countless training rides with various cycling clubs, and later commuting daily to work in London, I had managed to rack up a mileage close to the circumference of the earth!
This trusty Dawes Horizon has been serving my commuting and training needs since 2003.
As you ride more and more, things start to wear out, crack or break, and need replacement. First come the obvious ‘consumables’, things like brake pads, which rub against the rim of the wheels to make you stop; the chain which propels you forward with every stroke of the pedal; the teeth on the chain rings which are attached to the pedals, and the the cassette of sprockets through which the chain drives the rear wheel; and eventually the tyres too begin to wear through.
Here is a selection of tyres; old and new. The new ones still have orange labels on. The old ones look entirely black from hundreds of miles of road grit.
In the chain, each link is held together by rivets spaced ½ inch apart. As the chain bends around each of the cogs in the drive train the links rotate about these rivets and, over time, begin to wear them out. The resultant effect is that the chain appears to grow longer as each of these rivets wear. Left long enough, this will cause the teeth on chain rings and sprockets to wear prematurely, and eventually the chain will begin to jump up and over the teeth when you apply more pressure to the pedals. You want to replace your chain long before that stage.
Here are some old chains that had piled up before I cleared them out (you wouldn’t tell it without measuring them, but they are too worn to be any good) and the chain rings from my earlier Eddy Merckx bike (the teeth are in perfectly good shape, but the cranks had to be replaced for other reasons).
As the brakes rub on those wheel rims more and more, through the warm summer and the cold, gritty winter, the rims start to wear out too. Left long enough you’ll wear right through the sidewall of the rim and before you know it you’ll go over a bump and the rim cracks and begins to collapse. You really want to replace your rims before you reach that stage.
Here is a collection of old wheels, front and rear, stocked up for occasional use in spare parts.
Next the pedals begin to show signs of wear, from bumps and scrapes and the occasional wipe-out. The cosmetics don’t matter so much, but eventually the bearings begin to wear and grow loose, and make odd clicks and other noises.
If this pedal looks rather odd to you, it is because it is designed for use with special cycling shoes which feature a small metal cleat on the sole. The cleat clips in to the pedal and keeps your foot in position; to release you twist out, sort of like a ski binding.
These cleats on the shoes tend to wear out too, especially if you walk around a lot as I do.
Spot the difference: An old worn cleat on the left; a new one just fitted on the right.
The repetitive movement of all those pedal strokes takes its toll on the interior of the shoes too. These are the shoes I bought with the bike, and the original insoles; it may soon be time to replace them.
The bottom-bracket is the bearing that the pedals are attached to. I’ve only had to replace that once — the one that came with the bike originally was not very good quality and wore out quickly.
The rack on the back lets you clip on a suitably equipped ‘pannier bag’ for transportation. The rubbing caused by vibrations has led to notable wearing in the aluminium arms of the rack.
Occasionally you get more spectacular results from wear, like when your handlebar snaps off.
I’ve actually had this happen to me twice on this bike (and miraculously managed to stay upright on both occasions). For future reference, creaking and crackling noises from aluminium handlebars means that there is a crack, and you’ll really want to replace them before they snap off on you.
Another time my front fork snapped off; unfortunately I couldn’t really avoid crashing that time.
If you do your own bike maintenance you soon begin to collect various tools, some more exotic than others — the ‘chain whip’ on the right is used to hold the gear cassette on the back wheel still when you want to unscrew the bolt that holds it in place.
Through all the rides you get to take in some truly amazing countryside and unique sights.
And if you push the pedals hard enough, you may even get a little something to show for it.
Tim Harford is the Financial Times' Undercover Economist, and his book of the same name applies economic theory to explain everyday curiosities, in a similar manner to Freakonomics. Also like Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist is a fascinating read with no economics pre-requisites, which should appeal to any non-economists.
Why are airport departure lounges so crappy and uncomfortable? Is it because the airport is struggling for money and can't afford more comfortable chairs? Perhaps. How about Tesco own-brand products, with their plain red and blue packaging; is the cost of a few more colours a limiting factor in the design of this packaging? In truth, the regular departure lounges have to be sufficiently bare and uncomfortable to motivate the business and first class passengers to fork out for their drastically more expensive plane tickets (and the associated departure lounge experience). It's not that better product design would break the bank for Tesco’s own-brand vegetable soup, just that better design would make the customer less likely to fork out for the more expensive alternative option.
It is important for retailers to keep the “premium gap” open, and not let the budget options trail too closely behind the premium option. If the premium gap gets too narrow, then some premium customers will “leak” to the budget option when they decide it’s good enough for them.
This is the sort of analysis you can expect from The Undercover Economist, illustrated with engaging examples (such as explaining the effect of zero-marginal-cost by looking at the drunken chaos that results from offering fixed-entry unlimited-drinks parties to university students).
And if you haven’t had enough after reading the book, you can follow the More or Less radio show (also available as a podcast) hosted by Tim Harford and packed with more amusing and topical analysis.]]>
First we took the overnight sleeper train to Carlisle on Thursday night — they woke us up with tea and biscuits at about 4:30am. A former colleague of mine, David, lives near Carlisle in a village called Caldbeck and graciously offered to pick us up at our rather anti-social arrival time.
After a few more hours sleep at his house, and after the kids were off to school, we were out for a walk with David and his wife, Clare. We went up Ullock Pike, along Longside Edge, to Carl Side with the option of continuing to Skiddaw. The weather was not the “clear skies” that were forecast. We spent a good time being buffeted by wind and sleet, and opted out of Skiddaw extension:
Kelley on the descent from Karl Side; David and Clare up ahead.
Later on: Back down to sea level.
Saturday’s main event was Kelley’s poetry reading at the Wordsworth Trust, where she was representing Flambard Press in the final of a series of three events highlighting small independent publishers. But not before we’d had a tour of Dove Cottage and lunch, courtesy of the Wordsworth Trust.
Saturday: A tour of Dove Cottage before the poetry event.
The view from William Wordsworth’s own private piece of mountain.
Kelley participating in the question panel, after everyone had spoken.
The view from Grasmere.
On Sunday we got up early and managed to sneak up the nearby Helm Crag whilst the weather was relatively nice. We were back in time for a hearty lunch, though not before Kelley managed to sink calf-deep into a concealed bog near the Far Easedale Gill.
Sunday: Walking up Helm Crag near Grasmere; the weather a little more pleasant.
45 minutes later: Atop Helm Crag.
The sheep were un-phased by the giant snow flakes.
Nutrition: Welsh Rarebit with bacon and poached egg; chocolate milkshake on the side.
Finally on Monday, it was time for a leisurely morning and a trip on the bus to Windermere in time to catch our afternoon train back to London. The regular train was faster, though not nearly as roomy nor quiet as the sleeper train we took up there. Still, it was a good acclimatisation exercise to prepare us for our return from the peaceful countryside to the bustling city of London.]]>
I ended up renewing my policy with Admiral, after discovering that their customer service is absolutely awesome, their renewal quote was reasonable, and they gave me a discount just for asking!
Admiral: Their website is a bit clunky, but the customer service is awesome. These are definitely the people I’d want to be dealing with if I ever need to make a claim. (Now, if only every call centre could be this good.)
To save dealing directly with insurers one-by-one you can go to comparison sites that gather quotes from dozens of insurers at once; and to save having to choose which of the comparison sites to use, you go to Martin Lewis’ Car Insurance Guide. There he will tell you not only which comparison sites to use, but the most efficient order to use them in! (Updated every quarter based on a full survey!) He’ll even optimise your job role: if you’re a software consultant you can save ~5% on your premium just by calling yourself a computer engineer instead.
After some eye-watering “best” quotes from the comparison sites, the renewal quote from Admiral wasn’t looking so bad. To take it down further I took my wife off the policy — she has decided not to go through with getting a full UK license for now, so taking her off the policy as a provisional driver was bound to help.
I also checked in with my friends at A-Plan insurance brokers to see if they could work some magic (don’t bother filling out the form on the website — call them on the phone and you’ll get a ballpark figure in 5 minutes. Ask for Jason Jarratt; tell him I sent you :-) Unfortunately Jason’s quick search yielded similarly eye-watering quotes to what I’d seen before, so much so that he didn’t think there was much hope of finessing down the price with some direct negotiations. He advised me to stick with my current insurer.
In the end, after about half a day of research I was barely able to beat my renewal quote. This came as quite a surprise; I thought insurers were meant to screw you on the renewals to exploit the inattentive and lazy? Maybe they only do that after the first couple of renewals, once they know you’re not paying attention and don’t have enough spare time to shop around...
I had already called Admiral to see about taking my wife off the policy and Tiffany was very friendly and helpful, so I figured there was nothing to lose in calling them again. Much to my surprise they were accepting calls at 8:30pm, how nice! I think their call centre is in the USA since both times I called the person I spoke to had an accent; I guess it makes it easier for them to be so friendly if it’s only 3:30pm where they are (rather than 2am for a call centre in India).
So I called Admiral and said I’d found a slightly cheaper quote; could they match it? After confirming the details of the policy to check everything was up to date (it was), the also-super-friendly Bethann put me on hold and went to speak to her manager. A minute later she was back with the offer of a discount that was almost 10% off the premium! My premium is pretty hefty, so that discount is nothing to scoff at. That’s quite a result for just asking!
It’s a good thing I got that discount too, because before she let me go the super-friendly-Bethann also managed to charm me in to an optional courtesy car upgrade. I got a bit of a spiel from Tiffany as well, before she’d let me go, so I assume it’s their ploy to win you over with awesome customer service then try for the up-sell. It’s okay; she earned it.]]>
Clive Wearing has a neurological disorder called anterograde amnesia which is a condition that doesn't allow new memories to transfer into long-term memory. This means that he will never remember anything since his incident, similar to Leonard in the movie Memento.
On March 29, 1985 Clive came home with a very bad headache which wouldn’t go away for days, and wouldn’t respond to any medication. By the fourth day he had a high fever, and forgot his daughter’s name; by the fifth day he was very delirious.
Clive had contracted the Herpes simplex virus which attacked his brain and caused damage to the left and right temporal lobes as well as the frontal lobe. The temporal lobes contain a structure called the hippocampus which is involved in memory function, and in Clive’s case the hippocampus has almost certainly been destroyed in both sides of the brain.
Before his illness, Clive was a successful musicologist and conductor. One of the few things that have survived intact is his ability to read music and play the piano.
Now his memory-span is so short that he will often forget the beginning of a sentence before you have completed it. Or he may begin answering a question but forget the question before he’s finished with his answer. It’s not uncommon to forget what you ordered for lunch by the time the food is served; but Clive additionally doesn’t remember which flavours belong to which foods.]]>