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The Head of R&D

Rad Head Complete-500 Wide.jpg

Among the people we miss most in Arizona are our then-neighbors Pat Thurman K7KR and his wife Sue “Starshine” Thurman. Back in 1998, Sue approached me about building her a sort of robotic ventriloquist’s dummy for a kid’s show she was working on (starring her character Starshine) to promote reading in grades 1-4. She wanted a character who looked like a robot, and suggested that Meccano might be just the thing. I’ve done a lot of Meccano work down the decades, and thought it was a great idea. I soon realized that a full-sized dummy would be mostly steel and weigh far too much to sit on anyone’s lap. As a counter proposal I suggested a disembodied robot head, which would be controlled by a puppeteer under a table. Sue loved it, and gave the character a name long before I finished designing and building him: The Head of R&D, aka “RAD.”

The show itself was no small production, and included a cameo by Jane Hull, then governor of Arizona. Sue worked fiendishly hard on it, and recruited many of her theater friends to play parts and generally help out. Carol played Madame LePinswick, a fortune-teller. I sat under the modified card table on which RAD was mounted, so that I could work the controls. RAD could turn his head from side to side, roll his eyes, move his bushy eyebrows independently, and work his jaw. All of this was done with a vertical control column running down from his neck, and with both hands on the controls (which resembled a movie-submarine periscope) I could do it all at once. Sure, it took some practice, but the range of expression RAD could display was surprising.

RAD Head Top Inside 500 Wide.jpg

The inside of RAD’s head was a ratsnest of gears, sprocket chains, levers and push rods, and took a great deal of fooling-with to get right. During performances I sat on a peculiar folding beach chair underneath the card table, and watched the stage on a 9″ portable color TV so that I could see where everybody else was on stage and make RAD interact with them. (There was a CCTV camera mounted on a seat in the front row of the grade school auditorium where the show was presented.) Two of Sue’s friends were voice actors, and provided RAD’s slightly British voice and the voice of TC, the Heathkit Hero robot who was Starshine’s sidekick. I basically lip-synced RAD to his voice actor, who was off-stage with a mic. I added as much additional facial expression as I could manage, given that moving his mouth was primary.

Earlier today, Sue posted a video of the full-half-hour show on YouTube. RAD first appears at about 15:30. Carol appears at several points in the video, including a brief close-up with RAD at 25:00 and again at 26:05 and 30:00. My book The Delphi Programming Explorer makes a cameo at 30:34. RAD himself was later featured in an article in Constructor Quarterly (the Meccano hobbyist magazine) in the September 2000 issue.

After the live presentation to the students at the school where the video was filmed, several of the boys came up on stage so I could show them how RAD worked. One earnest 8-year-old asked me, “What number Erector set do you need to build that!” (By my calculation, he should be just about through engineering school by this time. I hope I gave him a nudge.) All in all, it was terrific fun, and as his 15th birthday approaches RAD still sits on my workbench, fully functional if maybe a little out of adjustment. I’m guessing he will always rank as the single most peculiar mechanical thingamajig I have ever put together. Many thanks to Sue for letting me get involved. I hadn’t seen the video in over ten years, and it was terrific to see it again.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • You’re getting two Odd Lotses in a row for a reason. Stay tuned–I’ll try and explain tomorrow, if I don’t run out of Aleve.
  • Bruce Eckel is returning his Kindle Fire because the damned thing will not render .mobi files. C’mon, Amazon. I mean, come on. (Thanks to Mike Bentley for the link.)
  • Xoom 2, where are you? Whoops, it’s going to be called the Droid XYboard to distance itself from the Xoom brand, which was done in because Somebody Didn’t Want It To Have a Card Slot. (Don’t know who. Have suspicions.)
  • Charlie Stross makes a good case that DRM on ebooks (as required by the Big Six) is a stick handed to Amazon with which to pummel the Big Six. Read the piece, follow the links (make sure you know what a “monopsony” is) and then read the comments.
  • Schumann resonance waves can apparently be detected from space. This is surprising, as my earlier readings suggested that they only exist by virtue of a sort of immaterial waveguide formed by layers in the Earth’s atmosphere–the same waveguide effect that allows hams like me to bounce signals around the world.
  • Femtotech? I postulated a “femtoscope” in my novel The Cunning Blood, but it was used to plot quantum pair creation and did not rely on exotic matter. I’m not sure such things are possible, or could be done in any environment where we could live or even work through proxies. But as with a lot of things (especially LENR) I would hugely enjoy being wrong.
  • I torrented down the brand-new Linux Mint 12 Lisa the other day, and like its predecessor it will not detect the video hardware correctly on my 2009-era Core 2 Quad with NVidia 630i integrated graphics. Somewhat surprisingly, it will install on an older Dell GX620 USFF with (as best I can tell) no video problems. Not sure if I like GNOME 3, though. MATE, a GNOME 2 fork, has promise.
  • I may have made this point once before, but hard steampunk authors should have the Lindsay Books catalog on hand, or at least have the site bookmarked. These are books explaining how to actually do steampunk technology, often in the form of reprints of original Victorian-era reference texts. Thermite, brass, steam engines, and loads of other goodies just as great-great grandpa learned them. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the noodge.)
  • One of my German friends told me that plagiarism in German doctoral theses is so widespread that it’s spawned a crowdsourced mechanism for detecting it. That’s the abbreviated English-language version; if you have a reasonable amount of German, go to the richer, fuller main page.
  • Very spooky time-lapse video of a little-known physical phenomenon. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I originally thought this was a hoax. On the other hand, I have a Tim Bird and I love it. It’s hard to believe that such things actually work as well as they do.
  • Sometimes you wear what you eat–or at least a reasonable facsimile.

Odd Lots

  • Here’s a great graphic strongly suggesting that the much-denied Medieval Warm Period really existed, and was indeed a global phenomenon. (For further evidence, read The Little Ice Age, which predates the worst of the current Global Warming hatefest and thus may be considered reasonably reliable.)
  • I had not heard this before: The imminent Nook ebook reader from Barnes & Noble will have a Wi-Fi connection, allowing owners to browse free ebook previews that are only accessible through store hotspots. This gives people a reason to come into physical stores, Nooks in hand, spend time, drink coffee, browse the print collection, and leave with a bag full of print titles that aren’t available as ebooks. Assuming it’s true, as a marketing gimmick, it’s brilliant.
  • The Nook has a slot for a Micro-SD card with a capacity of up to 16 GB. Assuming a typical text-mostly ebook file to be 500K in size (which is very generous; most fiction titles I’ve seen are about half that, or less) a Nook is capable of storing about 30,000 books. If you read a complete book every single day, that will last you for…82 years.
  • I’ve already seen the Nook e-reader referred to as the “Nookie reader.” Which it will be, trust me.
  • People are quibbling in the comments that it’s not a self-propelled model train, but screw it: This guy made a Z-scale model of an N-scale model train layout, working effectively at a scale of 1:35,200. He gets serious points for, well, something, and the video is very cool.
  • And at the other end of the scale, here’s the world’s largest model train layout. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.) Makes me want to go back and work on The Million-Mile Main Street, positing a 1:1 scale model train layout that covers an entire planet, where the trains (each a sort of AI hive mind) run things, and the people are hired actors.
  • Researchers at Purdue have demonstrated ALICE, a new species of rocket fuel consisting of aluminum nanoparticles and…water. Larger aluminum particles have been used in rocket fuel before (they’re part of the formula in the Shuttle’s strap-on boosters) but the smaller the particles, the more efficiently they burn. As aluminum is common just about everywhere, if you can corner enough solar radiation to smelt the aluminum and dig up some water (guess where, Alice!) you can go places.
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to SeatGuru, which provides detailed floor plans for all major aircraft on all major airlines, including where the power ports and extra legroom are. If you fly a lot, it might be worth a close look. Here’s a good example of a specific aircraft.
  • This insane vampire business has evidently begun to affect the cosmetics business; the Daily Mail reports that pale foundation and powder are pushing their tanner competitors right off the market.
  • I stumbled upon the above item after stumbling upon this, which may be the most inexplicable Web site I’ve seen in the last several years. They pay people to put that together? And what kind of organism from what planet reads it?
  • Word must have gotten out that I’m a liturgical conservative. I therefore find this funny, in a slightly painful kind of way. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)

Glites, Gliders, and North Pacific Products

When I was a freshman in high school, I remember picking up an odd paper kite at Walgreen’s. It was called a Glite, and was billed as a “gliding kite.” I was intrigued, and as it might have cost as much as 35c, I was willing to try it. The instructions indicated that even on a completely calm day, you could pull it aloft on a string, let the string go slack, and it would glide gracefully to the ground.

I never tried that; completely calm days were unusual where I grew up. However, I did try just tossing it horizontally, and it flew better as a glider than a lot of the small balsa wood gliders I’d played with over the years. Unlike the diamond bow kites I’d always flown, the Glite had a center of gravity a lot farther forward, giving it the balance of a glider rather than that of a conventional kite. Its two lead edges were relatively thick wooden dowels, as was its spine, making it a lot heavier than most kites as well.

It’s a shame it didn’t fly better as a kite. The one day I did try to fly it kite-style, there was a nasty wind, and my Glite looped helplessly in the air over the Edison schoolyard before ending up in the low branches of one of the kite-eating trees that stood in the parkway up and down the full length of the school property. I managed to get it down, but tore the sail badly in the process. It sat in my corner of the basement awaiting repapering, but I never got around to it and eventually threw it out.

I always wondered who made the Glite and how long the product had been on the market, though never badly enough to spend any time searching. Earlier today I spotted a paper Glite on eBay, and the seller kindly sent me the patent number printed on the sail. This led me to US Patent #3,276,730, which had been granted to Charles H. Cleveland of North Pacific Products of Bend, Oregon, in 1966. The irony is that the patent is titled “Tailless Kite,” when in fact the damned thing needed a tail pretty badly. Interestingly, the patent text does not mention the device’s gliding ability at all; Cleveland must have discovered that later on, or perhaps did not consider it a patentable aspect of the product.

Searching for other inventions patented by Charles H. Cleveland led me to US Patent #2739414, a balsa wood “knock-down toy glider” in which the wings were attached to the fuselage by a short length of plastic extrusion. I recognized it instantly as a species of glider abundant at Bud’s Hardware Store and other places when I was eleven-ish. You could fine-tune the balance of the glider by sliding the red plastic extrusion forward and back along the spine, and I remember that they flew very well, for something that probably cost a quarter. Cleveland liked things that flew; he also patented an oddly cubistic boomarang (which I never saw in a store) and a rubber-band catapault launched glider toy, which I did see once in a hobby shop, though never bought.

I did a little looking for North Pacific Products, Inc. and found no trace of the firm. A Portland, Oregon lumber products company is now using the name and does not mention toy manufacturing in its history. The SSDI lists a Charles Cleveland whose last residence was Bend, Oregon, and lived from 1917-1982, which would be about right. (His last patent was filed in 1980.) I may buy the Glite and would love to do an article about it; if you know anything else, please pass it along.

Odd Lots

  • Quick reminder: If I’m on your blogroll, or if you have a link to Contra on any of your pages, please check to see that the new URL is in place. Thanks!
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a fantastic technical animation that “assembles” the Space Station one module at a time, while displaying a timeline on the right indicating when each part was orbited and attached. I knew roughly how the thing went together, but this is almost like Cliff Notes. Takes just a couple of minutes to watch. Don’t miss it!
  • Again from Pete is a site with more information on steam turbine locomotives. I had heard of the Jawn Henry (That’s how the Norfolk & Western spelled it) but had not seen a photo until I followed the link in the article. The main problem with coal-fired turbine electrics appears to have been coal dust in the electric motors. Makes sense, but I would never have thought of it.
  • Henry Law weighed in from the UK on the merits of Marmite, the original beer yeast leftovers toast spread, as far superior to those of Vegemite. (See my entry for January 4, 2009.) I may have to let Henry duke it out with Eric the Fruit Bat over this, as I have not tasted either but will try some as soon as I don’t have to buy a whole jar. Sam’l Bassett suggests that its flavor is heavy on the umami, which makes me a little nervous. I don’t taste MSG at all–flavor enhancer is not a word I’d use for it–but it makes me feel almighty strange, even in very small amounts.
  • The Boston Globe, of all things, published a piece stating strongly that cities are really, really really bad places to live from the standpoint of health and clear thinking. I learned that twenty years ago; nice to see that the mainstream media is giving the idea some air. Alas, their answer–more parks–is treating the symptoms, not the disease. The disease is overcrowding, and the answer is to revitalize small towns. But that’s just me, and what do I know about quality of life?
  • I had long known there are “large” Lego blocks called Duplo, but it wasn’t until Katie Beth got a set for this past Christmas that I had ever seen Mega Bloks, a sort of “house-brand” Lego and widely despised as a cheap imitation. However, even though Mega has both a Lego and a Duplo clone, they also have Maxi Bloks, which are larger than Duplo and so large, in fact, that no adult human being is likely to be able to swallow them, much less a two-year-old. This was a good idea. I want Katie to be comfortable with the idea of building things, and Maxi Bloks make it unnecessary to wait any longer.
  • The February Sky & Telescope has a very defensive editorial from Robert Naeye, countering a tidal wave of accusations that S&T has gone the way of Scientific American and has been “dumbed down” in terms of scientific content. I don’t have a link to the editorial online, but its core point is so silly I groaned. Naeye basically said that “We’re not getting dumber–you’re getting smarter!” Um…no. You’re getting dumber. I had been a subscriber for 25 years or so with just a few gaps. I think I have a sense for where it was when I came to it, versus where it is now.
  • I’m editing this with Zoundry Raven, as I have since I stumbled on it a couple of weeks ago. I’ve used Raven enough now so that I can recommend it without significant hesitation. The Zoundry business model is interesting (albeit difficult to describe) but it’s also optional–you don’t need to participate to use the software.
  • Hey. I didn’t get this for Christmas. Neither did you. But boy, the 12-year-old in me ached a little when I saw it…
  • I’m amazed that I never knew this, but the Anglican term for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28) is “Childermas.” He doesn’t use the word, but arguably the best song James Taylor ever wrote is about the Three Kings, Herod, and the Holy Innocents. “Steer clear of royal welcomes / Avoid the big to-do. / A king who would slaughter the innocents / Will not cut a deal for you.” Indeed. Avoid all kings. Keep them in chains when you can–even the ones we believe that we elect.

Odd Lots

  • From Rich Rostrom comes a pointer to an amazing gallery of 50s-70s transistor radios and transistor radio ephemera. Almost every radio I had in that period or remember is here (including a nice one belonging to my grandmother) plus some true oddities, like phony transistor radio cases concealing liquor bottles, and a transparent pen with a single transistor floating loose in a little compartment full of oil, like a spider in formaldehyde. The photography is gorgeous, but the images are large and may take some time to come down. Nonetheless, don't miss it.
  • Jim Strickland pointed out that CFLs are now available in high wattages in the Mogul base, but alas, the bulb shown will not fit in Aunt Kathleen's floor lamp, as it's too long and would hit the shade frame.
  • From Pete Albrecht I got a link to a model rocket for people who aren't rocket scientists.
  • I haven't been to Snopes in a while, but a recent post aggregated on Slashdot suggested that it has been pushing the infamous Zango adware package for several months. The firestorm seems to have changed their minds, according to a report issued only today. There is a difference between serving ads and pushing adware, and if you're going to be considered one of the world's Good Guys, you have to stay on the right side of that line.
  • The video snippets taken by my late Kodak digital camera are all in QuickTime .mov format, which is a pain in the ass to edit unless you're a Mac guy. Pete and I recently found AVIDemux, a free open-source utility on SourceForge that converts .mov clips to .avi files, and in the limited testing I've been able to do, it seems to defy the codec chaos that reigns today and works beautifully.
  • Lego was fifty years old yesterday, and I will have to admit here that I never owned Lego as a kid. Never. I had a significant Meccano set from the time I was eight, which was my favorite toy until I got into electronics in a big way several years later. (I built a differential when I was nine, and hence I know how these slightly mysterious mechanisms actually work.) I boggle at stats like the fact that there are 62 lego parts for every person on Earth, which must mean that a certain number of people have a lot of them. People have built Lego logic gates, Lego cathedrals, and (more recently) a Lego Stargate. Wow. I have a few more years to build my missing Lego skillset before Katie (and her as-yet unborn sibling) will be ready to build her own Stargate with some uncle-ish help, but time flies. I'd better be at it.