From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Jumping Spiders

The lovable, multi-talented octopedes

A reader wrote in with a comment about one of my articles on the fauna of Costa Rica, wondering if I’d ever written anything about jumping spiders. I didn’t see any jumping spiders (that I know of) in Costa Rica. (Though I did see one in Spider-Man. Does that count?) So I added “jumping spiders” to my list of topics to research. There were, unsurprisingly, tens of thousands of Web pages to be found about the 5,000 or so species of spiders in the family Salticidae (or Salticids), commonly known as “jumping spiders.” I was sure there must be numerous interesting tidbits of information to extract, but what I found was not at all what I was expecting.

On page after page, I kept reading descriptions of jumping spiders like these: “personalities of the spider world” … “friendly little creatures that always like to jump on your camera or your fingers” … “affectionately referred to as Charlies, Herbies or Salties” … “among the most beautiful and delightful of all arthropods” … “comical, engaging” … “their anthropomorphic nature endears them to most people.” OK, wait a minute—we are talking about spiders here, right? Spiders have always been on my “avoid if at all possible” list. Even looking at pictures of them gives me the creeps. Am I really supposed to feel especially fond of a spider that could jump on me? But clearly, something about these spiders (apart from the obvious fact that they jump) has caught the fancy of a great many people—or at least, a great many spider fans. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Kitty Genovese Syndrome

The problem of the guilty bystander

In March, 1964, a New York City woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and stabbed to death as she returned home from work late at night. According to a newspaper report published shortly thereafter, 38 people had witnessed some or all of the attack, which took place in two or three distinct episodes over a period of about a half hour—and yet no one did anything to stop it; no one even reported it to the police until the woman was already dead. Although the murder itself was tragic, the nation was even more outraged that so many people who could have helped seemingly displayed callous indifference. And so the failure of bystanders to intervene became known as “Kitty Genovese Syndrome”—or, sometimes, just “Genovese Syndrome” or “Genovese Effect.” Social psychologists sometimes call it the “bystander effect.”

Later analysis of the Genovese case would show that the media misrepresented the facts somewhat. It’s not as though 38 people stood calmly watching a brutal murder in broad daylight and simply went on about their business. This attack happened in the middle of the night when it was dark, most people were in bed, and no one had a clear view of the entire event. Some of the witnesses, for example, had merely heard yelling and thought it might have been nothing more than an argument. At least one person apparently did call the police immediately, but without realizing that the woman had actually been stabbed—so the police didn’t respond with any urgency. And perhaps, even if an ambulance had arrived 5 minutes after the initial attack, Kitty Genovese would still have died. So it’s plausible, at least, that this particular case was not an example of apathetic bystanders—and that Kitty Genovese Syndrome is a bit of a misnomer. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Plate Clouds

Alien spacecraft hidden in plain sight?

Guest Article by Bill Bain

A couple of summers ago, I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along California’s Interstate 5. I’d left the Bay Area mid-morning, and after five and a half hours of driving on the long, straight highway through the great central valley, I was approaching the modest range of mountains that separates that valley from southern California. I was happy to be within an hour’s drive of my destination so early in the afternoon, and had already started to plan the hours of evening I had gained by leaving early and not stopping to eat. It wasn’t going to go the way I was planning, though.

I got stopped by a cloud.

Within an hour’s drive of the mountains, I started noticing that something was—well, it looked like something was balanced on top of the nearest mountain. As I got closer it started becoming obvious that a giant spacecraft was poised over the mountain, maybe even tethered to it like an airship to a mooring post. It was colored as you’d expect a cloud formation to be, but had sharp, clean edges, and a precise layered structure. More ominously, I could see that as time passed, and my view of the mountain stayed more or less the same, the nearby clouds were moving but the “thing” wasn’t. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Weather Station Kurt

Nazi weather forecasts from Canada

My “geek” gene has manifested itself in many different ways over the years—I’ve gone through phases of obsessions with gadgets of many kinds. My latest interest is cooking gadgets, but before that it was computers; before that, synthesizers; and still earlier, photographic equipment—going all the way back to Erector Sets. And somewhere along the way, in my early teens or so, I had a brief flirtation with meteorological equipment. I received a home weather station kit as a gift one year and set about building my own barometer, sling hygrometer, anemometer, and weather vane. The latter two devices, once assembled, had to be mounted on the roof and wired up to an indoor readout to display wind speed and direction, but for some reason that never happened. Since those were also the geekiest of the gadgets, my inability to use them quickly shut down my interest in the whole subject. The equipment I’d built lay unused in a closet for years before I finally threw it out.

Around that same time (this would have been the early 1980s), a similar collection of equipment was found in a secluded location on the east coast of Canada. It, too, had been abandoned for years. But in this case, it had been built and installed secretly by the German military nearly 40 years earlier as part of an elaborate remote weather-forecasting system in the North Atlantic. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Magnetohydrodynamic Propulsion

Motors without moving parts

In the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October (based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name), Sean Connery plays the captain of a Russian submarine. This much I remembered from having seen the film many years ago. I did not recall that the submarine in question—the eponymous “Red October”—used a special high-tech propulsion system that, having no moving parts, was silent. I’m sure my science fiction filter was on, and I just assumed at the time that the top-secret engine was the sort of almost-plausible futuristic contrivance any modern spy movie will have—and not worth taking very seriously. Just a few years later, though, Mitsubishi demonstrated a boat using a propulsion system of roughly the design Clancy described in his novel. And now variations on this technique are being used in electrical generators, nuclear reactors, and even spacecraft design.

Gimme an “M”
The scientific principle in question is known as magnetohydrodynamics, which is a fairly straightforward combination of magneto (as in magnet), hydro (as in water), and dynamics (as in motion). Those in the biz call it MHD for short. And yes: it uses magnetism to cause motion in water (or another fluid). MHD is not by any means a new discovery—academic researchers have been working on this since at least the 1960s, and the Journal Magnetohydrodynamics has been published since 1965 by the University of Latvia. But in recent years, MHD designs have begun to appear more frequently in everything from large-scale commercial operations to high school science fair projects. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Disappearing Island Nations

Sinking feelings and global warming

It seems that every time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper or magazine, I see another story about global warming. It’s not only the big environmental issue of the day, it’s one of the big issues, period. Maybe it doesn’t feel quite so frightening or quite so urgent as terrorism or outbreaks of deadly diseases, but certainly it’s right up there. The condensed version of this story—the one that has most thoroughly worked its way into the public consciousness—says that global temperatures have risen much more rapidly during the industrial age than they did before; that they will continue to rise; that worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are largely to blame for this situation; and that the resulting changes in weather, climate, sea level, and so forth will—sooner or later—be utterly devastating in one or more of several ways. Meanwhile, the United States, which is responsible for some outrageous percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases, is apparently disinclined to reduce those levels, on the grounds that hypothetical long-term problems are outweighed by actual short-term problems such as the extreme inconvenience and cost of reducing emissions.

Burning Rage
Naturally, I’m incensed at all this, especially when I read stories about the apparently imminent disappearance of several entire island nations due to the rising sea levels that are, in turn, a result of global warming. And, assuming that global warming is in fact caused by greenhouse gases (as most people do), it is astonishing that people continue driving gas-guzzling SUVs and smoking cigarettes and, you know, generally showing contempt for the future inhabitants of the planet as a whole and those island nations in particular. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coriolis Force

Taking an urban legend for a spin

I just finished an experiment in which I demonstrated something many people would claim is impossible. I filled the kitchen sink and the bathroom sink with water, and then I pulled the plugs. The water in the bathroom sink drained clockwise, while the water in the kitchen sink drained counterclockwise. According to a popular urban myth that has been circulating (sorry) for eons, water always drains in one direction in the northern hemisphere and in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. (Accounts differ as to which is which, but we’ll get to that shortly.) If true, one of my sinks has just defied the laws of nature. Since it is seemingly very easy to disprove this myth, its persistence for all these years suggests an unfortunate lack of intellectual rigor among the general public. However, it turns out that there is a kernel of truth to this story after all—in, shall we say, a roundabout way.

The Effects of Force
The reason usually given for the supposed variation in the rotational direction of drainage is the Coriolis force—a type of inertial force that affects moving objects in a rotating system, causing them to curve in one direction or another. (This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Coriolis effect—though strictly speaking, a Coriolis effect is simply any perceived change resulting from the Coriolis force; I’ll stick with the latter term in the interest of simplicity.) A thought experiment might illustrate this concept well. Let’s say you and a friend are playing catch, and there just happens to be a merry-go-round between you. You can throw the ball straight ahead, and it will go just where you expect it to. However, if you and your friend hop onto opposite sides of the merry-go-round and try to play catch while it’s in motion, you’ll find that the ball you throw straight ahead curves to the side (which side and how far depend on the direction and speed of the merry-go-round). That’s the Coriolis force at work. It was named after French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, who demonstrated it in 1835. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Jumping Spiders

The lovable, multi-talented octopedes

A reader wrote in with a comment about one of my articles on the fauna of Costa Rica, wondering if I’d ever written anything about jumping spiders. I didn’t see any jumping spiders (that I know of) in Costa Rica. (Though I did see one in Spider-Man. Does that count?) So I added “jumping spiders” to my list of topics to research. There were, unsurprisingly, tens of thousands of Web pages to be found about the 5,000 or so species of spiders in the family Salticidae (or Salticids), commonly known as “jumping spiders.” I was sure there must be numerous interesting tidbits of information to extract, but what I found was not at all what I was expecting.

On page after page, I kept reading descriptions of jumping spiders like these: “personalities of the spider world” … “friendly little creatures that always like to jump on your camera or your fingers” … “affectionately referred to as Charlies, Herbies or Salties” … “among the most beautiful and delightful of all arthropods” … “comical, engaging” … “their anthropomorphic nature endears them to most people.” OK, wait a minute—we are talking about spiders here, right? Spiders have always been on my “avoid if at all possible” list. Even looking at pictures of them gives me the creeps. Am I really supposed to feel especially fond of a spider that could jump on me? But clearly, something about these spiders (apart from the obvious fact that they jump) has caught the fancy of a great many people—or at least, a great many spider fans. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Kitty Genovese Syndrome

The problem of the guilty bystander

In March, 1964, a New York City woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and stabbed to death as she returned home from work late at night. According to a newspaper report published shortly thereafter, 38 people had witnessed some or all of the attack, which took place in two or three distinct episodes over a period of about a half hour—and yet no one did anything to stop it; no one even reported it to the police until the woman was already dead. Although the murder itself was tragic, the nation was even more outraged that so many people who could have helped seemingly displayed callous indifference. And so the failure of bystanders to intervene became known as “Kitty Genovese Syndrome”—or, sometimes, just “Genovese Syndrome” or “Genovese Effect.” Social psychologists sometimes call it the “bystander effect.”

Later analysis of the Genovese case would show that the media misrepresented the facts somewhat. It’s not as though 38 people stood calmly watching a brutal murder in broad daylight and simply went on about their business. This attack happened in the middle of the night when it was dark, most people were in bed, and no one had a clear view of the entire event. Some of the witnesses, for example, had merely heard yelling and thought it might have been nothing more than an argument. At least one person apparently did call the police immediately, but without realizing that the woman had actually been stabbed—so the police didn’t respond with any urgency. And perhaps, even if an ambulance had arrived 5 minutes after the initial attack, Kitty Genovese would still have died. So it’s plausible, at least, that this particular case was not an example of apathetic bystanders—and that Kitty Genovese Syndrome is a bit of a misnomer. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Plate Clouds

Alien spacecraft hidden in plain sight?

Guest Article by Bill Bain

A couple of summers ago, I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along California’s Interstate 5. I’d left the Bay Area mid-morning, and after five and a half hours of driving on the long, straight highway through the great central valley, I was approaching the modest range of mountains that separates that valley from southern California. I was happy to be within an hour’s drive of my destination so early in the afternoon, and had already started to plan the hours of evening I had gained by leaving early and not stopping to eat. It wasn’t going to go the way I was planning, though.

I got stopped by a cloud.

Within an hour’s drive of the mountains, I started noticing that something was—well, it looked like something was balanced on top of the nearest mountain. As I got closer it started becoming obvious that a giant spacecraft was poised over the mountain, maybe even tethered to it like an airship to a mooring post. It was colored as you’d expect a cloud formation to be, but had sharp, clean edges, and a precise layered structure. More ominously, I could see that as time passed, and my view of the mountain stayed more or less the same, the nearby clouds were moving but the “thing” wasn’t. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Weather Station Kurt

Nazi weather forecasts from Canada

My “geek” gene has manifested itself in many different ways over the years—I’ve gone through phases of obsessions with gadgets of many kinds. My latest interest is cooking gadgets, but before that it was computers; before that, synthesizers; and still earlier, photographic equipment—going all the way back to Erector Sets. And somewhere along the way, in my early teens or so, I had a brief flirtation with meteorological equipment. I received a home weather station kit as a gift one year and set about building my own barometer, sling hygrometer, anemometer, and weather vane. The latter two devices, once assembled, had to be mounted on the roof and wired up to an indoor readout to display wind speed and direction, but for some reason that never happened. Since those were also the geekiest of the gadgets, my inability to use them quickly shut down my interest in the whole subject. The equipment I’d built lay unused in a closet for years before I finally threw it out.

Around that same time (this would have been the early 1980s), a similar collection of equipment was found in a secluded location on the east coast of Canada. It, too, had been abandoned for years. But in this case, it had been built and installed secretly by the German military nearly 40 years earlier as part of an elaborate remote weather-forecasting system in the North Atlantic. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Magnetohydrodynamic Propulsion

Motors without moving parts

In the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October (based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name), Sean Connery plays the captain of a Russian submarine. This much I remembered from having seen the film many years ago. I did not recall that the submarine in question—the eponymous “Red October”—used a special high-tech propulsion system that, having no moving parts, was silent. I’m sure my science fiction filter was on, and I just assumed at the time that the top-secret engine was the sort of almost-plausible futuristic contrivance any modern spy movie will have—and not worth taking very seriously. Just a few years later, though, Mitsubishi demonstrated a boat using a propulsion system of roughly the design Clancy described in his novel. And now variations on this technique are being used in electrical generators, nuclear reactors, and even spacecraft design.

Gimme an “M”
The scientific principle in question is known as magnetohydrodynamics, which is a fairly straightforward combination of magneto (as in magnet), hydro (as in water), and dynamics (as in motion). Those in the biz call it MHD for short. And yes: it uses magnetism to cause motion in water (or another fluid). MHD is not by any means a new discovery—academic researchers have been working on this since at least the 1960s, and the Journal Magnetohydrodynamics has been published since 1965 by the University of Latvia. But in recent years, MHD designs have begun to appear more frequently in everything from large-scale commercial operations to high school science fair projects. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Disappearing Island Nations

Sinking feelings and global warming

It seems that every time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper or magazine, I see another story about global warming. It’s not only the big environmental issue of the day, it’s one of the big issues, period. Maybe it doesn’t feel quite so frightening or quite so urgent as terrorism or outbreaks of deadly diseases, but certainly it’s right up there. The condensed version of this story—the one that has most thoroughly worked its way into the public consciousness—says that global temperatures have risen much more rapidly during the industrial age than they did before; that they will continue to rise; that worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are largely to blame for this situation; and that the resulting changes in weather, climate, sea level, and so forth will—sooner or later—be utterly devastating in one or more of several ways. Meanwhile, the United States, which is responsible for some outrageous percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases, is apparently disinclined to reduce those levels, on the grounds that hypothetical long-term problems are outweighed by actual short-term problems such as the extreme inconvenience and cost of reducing emissions.

Burning Rage
Naturally, I’m incensed at all this, especially when I read stories about the apparently imminent disappearance of several entire island nations due to the rising sea levels that are, in turn, a result of global warming. And, assuming that global warming is in fact caused by greenhouse gases (as most people do), it is astonishing that people continue driving gas-guzzling SUVs and smoking cigarettes and, you know, generally showing contempt for the future inhabitants of the planet as a whole and those island nations in particular. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coriolis Force

Taking an urban legend for a spin

I just finished an experiment in which I demonstrated something many people would claim is impossible. I filled the kitchen sink and the bathroom sink with water, and then I pulled the plugs. The water in the bathroom sink drained clockwise, while the water in the kitchen sink drained counterclockwise. According to a popular urban myth that has been circulating (sorry) for eons, water always drains in one direction in the northern hemisphere and in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. (Accounts differ as to which is which, but we’ll get to that shortly.) If true, one of my sinks has just defied the laws of nature. Since it is seemingly very easy to disprove this myth, its persistence for all these years suggests an unfortunate lack of intellectual rigor among the general public. However, it turns out that there is a kernel of truth to this story after all—in, shall we say, a roundabout way.

The Effects of Force
The reason usually given for the supposed variation in the rotational direction of drainage is the Coriolis force—a type of inertial force that affects moving objects in a rotating system, causing them to curve in one direction or another. (This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Coriolis effect—though strictly speaking, a Coriolis effect is simply any perceived change resulting from the Coriolis force; I’ll stick with the latter term in the interest of simplicity.) A thought experiment might illustrate this concept well. Let’s say you and a friend are playing catch, and there just happens to be a merry-go-round between you. You can throw the ball straight ahead, and it will go just where you expect it to. However, if you and your friend hop onto opposite sides of the merry-go-round and try to play catch while it’s in motion, you’ll find that the ball you throw straight ahead curves to the side (which side and how far depend on the direction and speed of the merry-go-round). That’s the Coriolis force at work. It was named after French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, who demonstrated it in 1835. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Jumping Spiders

The lovable, multi-talented octopedes

A reader wrote in with a comment about one of my articles on the fauna of Costa Rica, wondering if I’d ever written anything about jumping spiders. I didn’t see any jumping spiders (that I know of) in Costa Rica. (Though I did see one in Spider-Man. Does that count?) So I added “jumping spiders” to my list of topics to research. There were, unsurprisingly, tens of thousands of Web pages to be found about the 5,000 or so species of spiders in the family Salticidae (or Salticids), commonly known as “jumping spiders.” I was sure there must be numerous interesting tidbits of information to extract, but what I found was not at all what I was expecting.

On page after page, I kept reading descriptions of jumping spiders like these: “personalities of the spider world” … “friendly little creatures that always like to jump on your camera or your fingers” … “affectionately referred to as Charlies, Herbies or Salties” … “among the most beautiful and delightful of all arthropods” … “comical, engaging” … “their anthropomorphic nature endears them to most people.” OK, wait a minute—we are talking about spiders here, right? Spiders have always been on my “avoid if at all possible” list. Even looking at pictures of them gives me the creeps. Am I really supposed to feel especially fond of a spider that could jump on me? But clearly, something about these spiders (apart from the obvious fact that they jump) has caught the fancy of a great many people—or at least, a great many spider fans. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Kitty Genovese Syndrome

The problem of the guilty bystander

In March, 1964, a New York City woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and stabbed to death as she returned home from work late at night. According to a newspaper report published shortly thereafter, 38 people had witnessed some or all of the attack, which took place in two or three distinct episodes over a period of about a half hour—and yet no one did anything to stop it; no one even reported it to the police until the woman was already dead. Although the murder itself was tragic, the nation was even more outraged that so many people who could have helped seemingly displayed callous indifference. And so the failure of bystanders to intervene became known as “Kitty Genovese Syndrome”—or, sometimes, just “Genovese Syndrome” or “Genovese Effect.” Social psychologists sometimes call it the “bystander effect.”

Later analysis of the Genovese case would show that the media misrepresented the facts somewhat. It’s not as though 38 people stood calmly watching a brutal murder in broad daylight and simply went on about their business. This attack happened in the middle of the night when it was dark, most people were in bed, and no one had a clear view of the entire event. Some of the witnesses, for example, had merely heard yelling and thought it might have been nothing more than an argument. At least one person apparently did call the police immediately, but without realizing that the woman had actually been stabbed—so the police didn’t respond with any urgency. And perhaps, even if an ambulance had arrived 5 minutes after the initial attack, Kitty Genovese would still have died. So it’s plausible, at least, that this particular case was not an example of apathetic bystanders—and that Kitty Genovese Syndrome is a bit of a misnomer. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Plate Clouds

Alien spacecraft hidden in plain sight?

Guest Article by Bill Bain

A couple of summers ago, I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along California’s Interstate 5. I’d left the Bay Area mid-morning, and after five and a half hours of driving on the long, straight highway through the great central valley, I was approaching the modest range of mountains that separates that valley from southern California. I was happy to be within an hour’s drive of my destination so early in the afternoon, and had already started to plan the hours of evening I had gained by leaving early and not stopping to eat. It wasn’t going to go the way I was planning, though.

I got stopped by a cloud.

Within an hour’s drive of the mountains, I started noticing that something was—well, it looked like something was balanced on top of the nearest mountain. As I got closer it started becoming obvious that a giant spacecraft was poised over the mountain, maybe even tethered to it like an airship to a mooring post. It was colored as you’d expect a cloud formation to be, but had sharp, clean edges, and a precise layered structure. More ominously, I could see that as time passed, and my view of the mountain stayed more or less the same, the nearby clouds were moving but the “thing” wasn’t. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Weather Station Kurt

Nazi weather forecasts from Canada

My “geek” gene has manifested itself in many different ways over the years—I’ve gone through phases of obsessions with gadgets of many kinds. My latest interest is cooking gadgets, but before that it was computers; before that, synthesizers; and still earlier, photographic equipment—going all the way back to Erector Sets. And somewhere along the way, in my early teens or so, I had a brief flirtation with meteorological equipment. I received a home weather station kit as a gift one year and set about building my own barometer, sling hygrometer, anemometer, and weather vane. The latter two devices, once assembled, had to be mounted on the roof and wired up to an indoor readout to display wind speed and direction, but for some reason that never happened. Since those were also the geekiest of the gadgets, my inability to use them quickly shut down my interest in the whole subject. The equipment I’d built lay unused in a closet for years before I finally threw it out.

Around that same time (this would have been the early 1980s), a similar collection of equipment was found in a secluded location on the east coast of Canada. It, too, had been abandoned for years. But in this case, it had been built and installed secretly by the German military nearly 40 years earlier as part of an elaborate remote weather-forecasting system in the North Atlantic. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Magnetohydrodynamic Propulsion

Motors without moving parts

In the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October (based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name), Sean Connery plays the captain of a Russian submarine. This much I remembered from having seen the film many years ago. I did not recall that the submarine in question—the eponymous “Red October”—used a special high-tech propulsion system that, having no moving parts, was silent. I’m sure my science fiction filter was on, and I just assumed at the time that the top-secret engine was the sort of almost-plausible futuristic contrivance any modern spy movie will have—and not worth taking very seriously. Just a few years later, though, Mitsubishi demonstrated a boat using a propulsion system of roughly the design Clancy described in his novel. And now variations on this technique are being used in electrical generators, nuclear reactors, and even spacecraft design.

Gimme an “M”
The scientific principle in question is known as magnetohydrodynamics, which is a fairly straightforward combination of magneto (as in magnet), hydro (as in water), and dynamics (as in motion). Those in the biz call it MHD for short. And yes: it uses magnetism to cause motion in water (or another fluid). MHD is not by any means a new discovery—academic researchers have been working on this since at least the 1960s, and the Journal Magnetohydrodynamics has been published since 1965 by the University of Latvia. But in recent years, MHD designs have begun to appear more frequently in everything from large-scale commercial operations to high school science fair projects. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Disappearing Island Nations

Sinking feelings and global warming

It seems that every time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper or magazine, I see another story about global warming. It’s not only the big environmental issue of the day, it’s one of the big issues, period. Maybe it doesn’t feel quite so frightening or quite so urgent as terrorism or outbreaks of deadly diseases, but certainly it’s right up there. The condensed version of this story—the one that has most thoroughly worked its way into the public consciousness—says that global temperatures have risen much more rapidly during the industrial age than they did before; that they will continue to rise; that worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are largely to blame for this situation; and that the resulting changes in weather, climate, sea level, and so forth will—sooner or later—be utterly devastating in one or more of several ways. Meanwhile, the United States, which is responsible for some outrageous percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases, is apparently disinclined to reduce those levels, on the grounds that hypothetical long-term problems are outweighed by actual short-term problems such as the extreme inconvenience and cost of reducing emissions.

Burning Rage
Naturally, I’m incensed at all this, especially when I read stories about the apparently imminent disappearance of several entire island nations due to the rising sea levels that are, in turn, a result of global warming. And, assuming that global warming is in fact caused by greenhouse gases (as most people do), it is astonishing that people continue driving gas-guzzling SUVs and smoking cigarettes and, you know, generally showing contempt for the future inhabitants of the planet as a whole and those island nations in particular. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coriolis Force

Taking an urban legend for a spin

I just finished an experiment in which I demonstrated something many people would claim is impossible. I filled the kitchen sink and the bathroom sink with water, and then I pulled the plugs. The water in the bathroom sink drained clockwise, while the water in the kitchen sink drained counterclockwise. According to a popular urban myth that has been circulating (sorry) for eons, water always drains in one direction in the northern hemisphere and in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. (Accounts differ as to which is which, but we’ll get to that shortly.) If true, one of my sinks has just defied the laws of nature. Since it is seemingly very easy to disprove this myth, its persistence for all these years suggests an unfortunate lack of intellectual rigor among the general public. However, it turns out that there is a kernel of truth to this story after all—in, shall we say, a roundabout way.

The Effects of Force
The reason usually given for the supposed variation in the rotational direction of drainage is the Coriolis force—a type of inertial force that affects moving objects in a rotating system, causing them to curve in one direction or another. (This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Coriolis effect—though strictly speaking, a Coriolis effect is simply any perceived change resulting from the Coriolis force; I’ll stick with the latter term in the interest of simplicity.) A thought experiment might illustrate this concept well. Let’s say you and a friend are playing catch, and there just happens to be a merry-go-round between you. You can throw the ball straight ahead, and it will go just where you expect it to. However, if you and your friend hop onto opposite sides of the merry-go-round and try to play catch while it’s in motion, you’ll find that the ball you throw straight ahead curves to the side (which side and how far depend on the direction and speed of the merry-go-round). That’s the Coriolis force at work. It was named after French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, who demonstrated it in 1835. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Jumping Spiders

The lovable, multi-talented octopedes

A reader wrote in with a comment about one of my articles on the fauna of Costa Rica, wondering if I’d ever written anything about jumping spiders. I didn’t see any jumping spiders (that I know of) in Costa Rica. (Though I did see one in Spider-Man. Does that count?) So I added “jumping spiders” to my list of topics to research. There were, unsurprisingly, tens of thousands of Web pages to be found about the 5,000 or so species of spiders in the family Salticidae (or Salticids), commonly known as “jumping spiders.” I was sure there must be numerous interesting tidbits of information to extract, but what I found was not at all what I was expecting.

On page after page, I kept reading descriptions of jumping spiders like these: “personalities of the spider world” … “friendly little creatures that always like to jump on your camera or your fingers” … “affectionately referred to as Charlies, Herbies or Salties” … “among the most beautiful and delightful of all arthropods” … “comical, engaging” … “their anthropomorphic nature endears them to most people.” OK, wait a minute—we are talking about spiders here, right? Spiders have always been on my “avoid if at all possible” list. Even looking at pictures of them gives me the creeps. Am I really supposed to feel especially fond of a spider that could jump on me? But clearly, something about these spiders (apart from the obvious fact that they jump) has caught the fancy of a great many people—or at least, a great many spider fans. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Kitty Genovese Syndrome

The problem of the guilty bystander

In March, 1964, a New York City woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and stabbed to death as she returned home from work late at night. According to a newspaper report published shortly thereafter, 38 people had witnessed some or all of the attack, which took place in two or three distinct episodes over a period of about a half hour—and yet no one did anything to stop it; no one even reported it to the police until the woman was already dead. Although the murder itself was tragic, the nation was even more outraged that so many people who could have helped seemingly displayed callous indifference. And so the failure of bystanders to intervene became known as “Kitty Genovese Syndrome”—or, sometimes, just “Genovese Syndrome” or “Genovese Effect.” Social psychologists sometimes call it the “bystander effect.”

Later analysis of the Genovese case would show that the media misrepresented the facts somewhat. It’s not as though 38 people stood calmly watching a brutal murder in broad daylight and simply went on about their business. This attack happened in the middle of the night when it was dark, most people were in bed, and no one had a clear view of the entire event. Some of the witnesses, for example, had merely heard yelling and thought it might have been nothing more than an argument. At least one person apparently did call the police immediately, but without realizing that the woman had actually been stabbed—so the police didn’t respond with any urgency. And perhaps, even if an ambulance had arrived 5 minutes after the initial attack, Kitty Genovese would still have died. So it’s plausible, at least, that this particular case was not an example of apathetic bystanders—and that Kitty Genovese Syndrome is a bit of a misnomer. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Plate Clouds

Alien spacecraft hidden in plain sight?

Guest Article by Bill Bain

A couple of summers ago, I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along California’s Interstate 5. I’d left the Bay Area mid-morning, and after five and a half hours of driving on the long, straight highway through the great central valley, I was approaching the modest range of mountains that separates that valley from southern California. I was happy to be within an hour’s drive of my destination so early in the afternoon, and had already started to plan the hours of evening I had gained by leaving early and not stopping to eat. It wasn’t going to go the way I was planning, though.

I got stopped by a cloud.

Within an hour’s drive of the mountains, I started noticing that something was—well, it looked like something was balanced on top of the nearest mountain. As I got closer it started becoming obvious that a giant spacecraft was poised over the mountain, maybe even tethered to it like an airship to a mooring post. It was colored as you’d expect a cloud formation to be, but had sharp, clean edges, and a precise layered structure. More ominously, I could see that as time passed, and my view of the mountain stayed more or less the same, the nearby clouds were moving but the “thing” wasn’t. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Weather Station Kurt

Nazi weather forecasts from Canada

My “geek” gene has manifested itself in many different ways over the years—I’ve gone through phases of obsessions with gadgets of many kinds. My latest interest is cooking gadgets, but before that it was computers; before that, synthesizers; and still earlier, photographic equipment—going all the way back to Erector Sets. And somewhere along the way, in my early teens or so, I had a brief flirtation with meteorological equipment. I received a home weather station kit as a gift one year and set about building my own barometer, sling hygrometer, anemometer, and weather vane. The latter two devices, once assembled, had to be mounted on the roof and wired up to an indoor readout to display wind speed and direction, but for some reason that never happened. Since those were also the geekiest of the gadgets, my inability to use them quickly shut down my interest in the whole subject. The equipment I’d built lay unused in a closet for years before I finally threw it out.

Around that same time (this would have been the early 1980s), a similar collection of equipment was found in a secluded location on the east coast of Canada. It, too, had been abandoned for years. But in this case, it had been built and installed secretly by the German military nearly 40 years earlier as part of an elaborate remote weather-forecasting system in the North Atlantic. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Magnetohydrodynamic Propulsion

Motors without moving parts

In the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October (based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name), Sean Connery plays the captain of a Russian submarine. This much I remembered from having seen the film many years ago. I did not recall that the submarine in question—the eponymous “Red October”—used a special high-tech propulsion system that, having no moving parts, was silent. I’m sure my science fiction filter was on, and I just assumed at the time that the top-secret engine was the sort of almost-plausible futuristic contrivance any modern spy movie will have—and not worth taking very seriously. Just a few years later, though, Mitsubishi demonstrated a boat using a propulsion system of roughly the design Clancy described in his novel. And now variations on this technique are being used in electrical generators, nuclear reactors, and even spacecraft design.

Gimme an “M”
The scientific principle in question is known as magnetohydrodynamics, which is a fairly straightforward combination of magneto (as in magnet), hydro (as in water), and dynamics (as in motion). Those in the biz call it MHD for short. And yes: it uses magnetism to cause motion in water (or another fluid). MHD is not by any means a new discovery—academic researchers have been working on this since at least the 1960s, and the Journal Magnetohydrodynamics has been published since 1965 by the University of Latvia. But in recent years, MHD designs have begun to appear more frequently in everything from large-scale commercial operations to high school science fair projects. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Disappearing Island Nations

Sinking feelings and global warming

It seems that every time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper or magazine, I see another story about global warming. It’s not only the big environmental issue of the day, it’s one of the big issues, period. Maybe it doesn’t feel quite so frightening or quite so urgent as terrorism or outbreaks of deadly diseases, but certainly it’s right up there. The condensed version of this story—the one that has most thoroughly worked its way into the public consciousness—says that global temperatures have risen much more rapidly during the industrial age than they did before; that they will continue to rise; that worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are largely to blame for this situation; and that the resulting changes in weather, climate, sea level, and so forth will—sooner or later—be utterly devastating in one or more of several ways. Meanwhile, the United States, which is responsible for some outrageous percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases, is apparently disinclined to reduce those levels, on the grounds that hypothetical long-term problems are outweighed by actual short-term problems such as the extreme inconvenience and cost of reducing emissions.

Burning Rage
Naturally, I’m incensed at all this, especially when I read stories about the apparently imminent disappearance of several entire island nations due to the rising sea levels that are, in turn, a result of global warming. And, assuming that global warming is in fact caused by greenhouse gases (as most people do), it is astonishing that people continue driving gas-guzzling SUVs and smoking cigarettes and, you know, generally showing contempt for the future inhabitants of the planet as a whole and those island nations in particular. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Coriolis Force

Taking an urban legend for a spin

I just finished an experiment in which I demonstrated something many people would claim is impossible. I filled the kitchen sink and the bathroom sink with water, and then I pulled the plugs. The water in the bathroom sink drained clockwise, while the water in the kitchen sink drained counterclockwise. According to a popular urban myth that has been circulating (sorry) for eons, water always drains in one direction in the northern hemisphere and in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. (Accounts differ as to which is which, but we’ll get to that shortly.) If true, one of my sinks has just defied the laws of nature. Since it is seemingly very easy to disprove this myth, its persistence for all these years suggests an unfortunate lack of intellectual rigor among the general public. However, it turns out that there is a kernel of truth to this story after all—in, shall we say, a roundabout way.

The Effects of Force
The reason usually given for the supposed variation in the rotational direction of drainage is the Coriolis force—a type of inertial force that affects moving objects in a rotating system, causing them to curve in one direction or another. (This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Coriolis effect—though strictly speaking, a Coriolis effect is simply any perceived change resulting from the Coriolis force; I’ll stick with the latter term in the interest of simplicity.) A thought experiment might illustrate this concept well. Let’s say you and a friend are playing catch, and there just happens to be a merry-go-round between you. You can throw the ball straight ahead, and it will go just where you expect it to. However, if you and your friend hop onto opposite sides of the merry-go-round and try to play catch while it’s in motion, you’ll find that the ball you throw straight ahead curves to the side (which side and how far depend on the direction and speed of the merry-go-round). That’s the Coriolis force at work. It was named after French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, who demonstrated it in 1835. [Article Continues…]

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