I have previously written about Harry Eng’s Impossible Bottles but there is another style of beautiful engineering which is not so much impossible but involves painstaking dedication, ingenuity, and sometimes a touch of insanity.
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!
Over the past few years I have read a number of books that fit into the genre that I like to call “Insane adventurers and their jaw-dropping death pursuits”. From sailing around the world and climbing large mountains, to walking across entire continents; the one thing they all seem to have in common is their relentless pursuit of ambitious goals, often in the face of significant adversity, and bordering on insanity.
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!
It was Lance Armstrong that said cycling doesn’t get any easier; you just go faster. Which essentially means that cycling is a competition about how much pain you can tolerate. Thus, it attracts some truly spectacular competitors. Such as one of Lance Armstrong’s former teammates, Floyd Landis.
Here is a description of Floyd’s initial entry into the cyclist road racing scene:
He showed up for his first road race wearing a garish jersey, a visored helmet, and a pair of brilliantly colored Argyle socks, pulled high. He made his way slowly to the front row... wheeling a bike with a monstrously big 56-tooth front chain ring, so large that it resembled a pie plate. A slow crater of disgusted amazement widened around Landis... Then in a loud voice that rang with Mennonite clarity, Landis said what he'd planned to say, a reading from the First Book of Floyd:
"If there's anyone here who can stay with me, I will buy you dinner."
Laughter. Landis remained quiet, then replied.
"You shouldn't laugh, because that gets me angry. And if you make me angry, then I'm going to blow you all up."1
The race began, and Floyd rode up to the leaders. Then past them. He pressed the pace, slowly at first and then faster and faster, pushing his pie plate until it hummed, until the others felt like they were trying to follow a motorcycle.
"You like my socks?" he asked. "How do you like them now?"
They gasped for air.
"I'll take that for a yes," Landis continued. "How about if I go a little farther up the road, and you can tell me how they look from there?"
Landis won his first race by fifteen minutes, including a stop to repair his punctured tire. He won his second race by 45 minutes.
"Get Floyd emotionally involved and there's no way he'll back down," Geoghegan said. "He will go until his heart literally explodes."
— Tour de Force, by Daniel Coyle
And before his entry into road racing he was a competitive mountain biker, known for riding wheelies during races... going uphill.
1No, he wasn't threatening terrorist activity. In cycling, to "blow up" means to run out of energy, usually in a spectacular and catastrophic manner.
It has been nearly a year since we signed up for home broadband with O2. I remember they had top customer ratings at the time, but I didn’t really have any opinions myself — since nothing had gone wrong, I didn’t have any occasion to deal with customer services. Until now.
Thursday Morning 6:30am: Internet connection is not working. Try re-setting the modem (very occasionally we get connectivity problems that are fixed by a reset — this is probably the only thing I could complain about with my O2 Broadband experience to date). Mess around with the computer: try the Windows 7 networking wizard, reset network adaptor, run the O2 Broadband software CD diagnostics, reboot, pray to the gods, cross fingers, etc.
6:45am: Still no joy. Call the Customer Services number on the CD case. Someone picks up on the first ring. Wait a minute, it’s 6:45 in the morning and there’s someone to take my call? I wasn’t actually expecting someone to pick up so it takes me a moment to answer.
Me: Hi, there’s a problem with our home broadband. The “Broadband” light on the router is alternating between being off, and being lit red. I’ve tried resetting it.
CSR: Okay, what’s your home phone number? Let me see... Okay, there was a fault reported at your exchanged 17 minutes ago. Let’s see here... Okay, we have an engineer on-site at the exchange who is working on the problem right now.
Me: Wow, okay. I guess I’ll just wait for it to be resolved. Thanks.
It’s 6:45am and they not only have the Customer Services call-centre up and running, but they have engineers on-site with a sub-15-minute response time on exchange faults? Can you spell LOCKDOWN?
The icing on the cake:
9:05am: (Text message) O2 Broadband: We’ve noticed a line fault that might affect broadband in your area. Sorry. We’re working on it and we’ll let you know as soon as it’s fixed.
(I wonder if this message would have come sooner if the fault had not arisen so early in the morning.)
10:00am: (Text message) O2 Broadband: We got your broadband back up and running at 9:30 today. It should be back to normal now.
Talk about keeping your customers informed!
I’m sure O2 will keep their well-earned top ratings for Customer Service and Reliability — this is by far the best Broadband internet experience I’ve ever had, or even heard of!
The book Freakonomics was an interesting look into the economic forces that drive everyday things. It doesn’t look like I ever got around to reviewing this book, but it comes highly recommended. Don’t let the “economics” put you off — it is suitable for those who are not inclined toward economics!
Chapter 3 of the book is “Why do drug dealers still live with their Moms?” and covers “The economics of drug dealing, including the surprisingly low earnings and abject working conditions of crack cocaine dealers”.
As a sociology student, Sudhir finds himself spending time with a local gang leader and discovering the intricate details of gangland Chicago.
The structure of a drug gang is not unlike that of a multi-site manufacturing company. There is a hierarchy of bosses who make decisions at various levels. People try to climb the ladder to get more money (and safer work). Violations such as stealing are met with standard disciplinary action.
Gang wars are often the result of “foot soldiers” (the peons of the drug gang) starting fights due to their inflated egos, but are highly undesirable in the grand scheme of things because violence drives away customers. “Turf wars” are more often conducted in controlled inter-gang meetings where negotiations take place without violence. Gangs even engage in mergers with other gangs!
The resemblance to more conventional enterprises is uncanny; I’m curious if this evolved completely independently, or if some gang boss once upon a time happened to have an MBA!
Police and ambulances often don’t attend calls in to gangland, so the gangs and local residents have to make their own structure and justice system. It’s like a miniature country with its own structure of jobs, policies, and taxation (by way of extortion, bribes, protection).
Sudhir, now Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Columbia University, spent a decade studying the gangs and local residents in Chicago’s South Side.
This book is a truly fascinating glimpse into a world that few outsiders get to see.
My current digital camera is one I bought in New York City a few years ago, at a spectacular store called B&H Photo Video. I was reminded of B&H by Joel Spolsky's recent article highlighting the fact that Circuit City went out of business yet B&H Photo Video still thrives. The reason for this is that B&H is an awesome place to go shopping for photo and video equipment.
I was visiting the USA and on the look-out for a digital camera. I visited all the usual big-name consumer electronics stores and the technology counters in department stores, but was continually disappointed by the apparent lack of sales expertise in the products. When I ended up in New York and met up with Zack, he recommended B&H to me, he said it was the place to go for a camera. It turned out I had walked past the store earlier that very day, without so much as noticing. I'm observant like that. (Maybe it was because they didn't have a shiny store-front with lots of eye-catching technology right in the window, like all the other over-priced tourist-trap camera stores in New York City.)
Zack was right. This store was huge, and had all sorts of photo/video related stuff inside. I went in and started looking at cameras. The nearest salesperson closed a sale and then asked me if I needed assistance so I started talking to him about the cameras I was considering. He clearly knew what he was talking about when he started talking about comparative CCD sensor sizes between the models, then breifly paused to help another customer change the language on a camera from Japanese — he seemed to know the menu structure on that particular model off by heart, since I'm pretty sure he wasn't fluent in Japanese.
Most of the employees were Jewish and the store ran to military precision. The workflow was like this:
I'm not sure why their system is so arcane, but I expect it's to deal with high demand situations. I was there at closing time on a weekday, and people were buying cameras at the rate of one every few minutes. At peak times I expect their system deals admirably. (Joel postulates that the system is an anti-theft measure, by involving multiple staff in each sale, but I doubt that's the reason.)
Each of the "counters" I mentioned above have an airport-check-in-style zig-zag queue cordoned off in front and room for about 5-10 staff members at the counter.
They also have an elaborate roof-mounted transport system for moving orders out of the stock rooms.
If you're looking for a camera and happen to be in or near New York City, go to B&H. Heck, go there even if you're not looking for a camera, just for the cultural experience!
After participating in a couple of Gumball 3000 events (a 3000 mile rally where nice cars race through the streets of numerous countries for a week or so) Alex Roy decided to drive across the USA, nonstop, in a record time of 31 hours 7 minutes, in a largely modified BMW M3. 90.1mph average speed; top speeds of 160mph+.
If you think that’s a little bit reckless, think again… he spent 5 years planning for this with a full team of dedicated people. Did a couple of "low speed" trial runs of the full route, then watched the video footage non-stop in real-time (when's the last time you watched a 30 hour movie non-stop?) to fully learn from the mistakes they made. They had GPS devices, radio scanners, laser jammers, real-time traffic and weather reports, something like seven cameras mounted on the car (including a thermal imaging camera in the front grill feeding a 7-inch dashboard-mounted display… you know, for night driving), and also (now get this) a spotter plane flying overhead.
It all sounds a bit gung ho but it's exactly the opposite. They reviewed driver transcripts from similar things that had been done previously so they could learn everything they could. Analysed fuel economies in Excel spreadsheets. Looked up potential speed-trap locations, reviewed low-angle air photographs of the areas, marked them up on their GPS guidance. Looked at traffic laws and maximal jail sentences in each state so they could set the cruise control 1mph below the relevant thresholds. They developed threat analyses and operational protocols that dictated what should be done in various situations.
These people are, basically, insane.
Here's an informative presentation Alex did at Google to promote his book.
Alex Roy clearly subscribes to the policy that "If you're gonna do it right you've gotta do it hard-core."
I turned back after a time as it was getting a little silly.
Others persevered despite the conditions.
Some wearing shorts... (!)
Obviously not built for use in snow conditions.
Gliding horizontally at 180km/h.
"It was absolutely fantastic; freedom in three dimensions…I felt like a bird."
Yesterday marked the beginning of le Tour de France 2008 — twenty-one days of racing for 180 riders to duel their way through thousands of kilometres of French mountains and valleys, followed all the while by dedicated (and somewhat insane) motorcycle cameramen.
"Chess boxing is a hybrid sport which combines the sport of boxing with games of chess in alternating rounds."
Who said chess isn't a real sport?
"Competitors may win by knockout, checkmate, a judge's decision or if their opponent's twelve minutes of chess time elapses."
I'm always amused by the racket of a souped-up boy-racer speeding past in a car that sounds like it's about to fall to bits from the resonance of the exhaust pipe (or is it the oversized sub-woofer?).
If you're going to do it right, you have to do it hard-core. My suggestion to the boy racers would be to cash in the garish body kit and go get an engineering degree.
Once you've done that, you can build yourself a proper race car...
That's what Ron Patrick did! I'm assuming he's probably a rocket scientist for NASA or something, because in his garage at home he built a street-legal VW Beetle with a fully functional jet engine attached. Yes, you heard right. A jet engine.
It can do things like this:
"The structure holding the engine was designed using finite element analysis and is redundant. Strong, damage tolerant, and light."
Wanna drag race?
(Just let me roll down the windows and open the sun roof to allow air intake.)
Visit Ron's website for details of this awesome engineering feat.