Sep 05

Be very afraid

Scientists are continually finding new evidence that everything is trying to kill you, and I do my best to point out new findings of this sort. In the past, I’ve warned you to be afraid of church air and flip-flops. Today I’m also warning you that laser printers and microwave popcorn are deadly. As a precaution, you should wear a hazmat suit at all times while in your office — and at home, too, if you have any laser printers or microwave popcorn there. No need to thank me; I’m just posting this information as a public service.
UPDATE: In order to better highlight this sort of news, I have created a new category of blog posts called “Things that will kill you.”

Aug 10

It makes cool slightly

The temperature hit 104 degrees today, so my initial reaction to the USB-powered necktie cooler was “What a great idea!” Then I remembered that I haven’t worn a necktie to work since 1992. That was at IBM, where people now wear shorts and T-shirts to the office. And now that I have a job that lets me work from home some of the time, I don’t even have to wear pants to work. Mind you, I’m not saying that I don’t — just that it’s entirely a matter of my own discretion.

Jul 07

Prophecies: mobile phones

Today is Robert A. Heinlein‘s centennial; he was born exactly 100 years ago, on 7 July 1907. I am tempted to write a tribute to him and his influence on science fiction and popular culture, but there’s really no need. Many other people have already done a better job of this than I possibly could. My favorite example is Spider Robinson‘s essay “Rah Rah R.A.H.”, which you can read online courtesy of the Heinlein Society. (That piece and a number of others are collected in Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master, if you want to read more.)

Instead, I’m going to commemorate Heinlein’s centennial by kicking off a series of posts I’ve been planning to write for some time. It’s called Prophecies, and each post will talk about a technological or social development that was predicted (often with uncanny accuracy) in written science fiction. My knowledge of SF is heavily weighted toward the Golden Age classics, so a lot of the predictions are from fiction that’s at least 40 years old, and sometimes much older.

My first example, of course, is from a Heinlein novel: Space Cadet, one of Heinlein’s earliest juvenile novels. The title is probably enough to make today’s audiences dismiss it, but the book is remarkably sophisticated for something written in 1948 and intended for preteen and teenage readers. Most of the story is about the training and education required for all officer candidates for the Interplanetary Patrol, a spacefaring force responsible for peacekeeping, exploration, and diplomatic contact with extraterrestrials. (Sound familiar?) One of the themes of this novel is that Patrol officers must understand the cultures and customs of alien races, so that they can present themselves as sentient and civilized by the standards of those aliens. In effect, Heinlein invented Starfleet and Starfleet Academy decades before the original Star Trek series.

But that’s not the prediction I want to talk about today. In the very first scene of Space Cadet, as protagonist Matt Dodson is arriving at Patrol headquarters to begin his training, he meets fellow cadet Tex Jarman and strikes up a conversation. A moment later, Jarman remarks, “Say, your telephone is sounding.”

“Oh!” Matt fumbled in his pouch and got out his phone. “Hello?”
“That you, son?” came his father’s voice.
“Yes, Dad.”
“Did you get there all right?”
“Sure, I’m about to report in.”
“How’s your leg?”
“Leg’s all right, Dad.” His answer was not frank; his right leg, fresh from corrective operation for a short Achilles’ tendon, was aching as he spoke.
“That’s good. Now see here, Matt — if it should work out that you aren’t selected, don’t let it get you down. You call me at once and –”
“Sure, sure, Dad,” Matt broke in. “I’ll have to sign off – I’m in a crowd. Good-by. Thanks for calling.”
“Good-by, son. Good luck.”
Tex Jarman looked at him understandingly. “Your folks always worry, don’t they? I fooled mine — packed my phone in my bag.”

A perfectly normal, everyday scene, right? But when I first read it in the 1970s, I was astonished at the notion of a telephone that you could carry in your pocket. A telephone was a stationary appliance, connected to a wall socket by wires. It was also bulky and heavy — an object that sat on a tabletop or was bolted to a wall. The notion that it could weigh mere ounces, be carried in a pouch or bag, and work almost anywhere was . . . well, it was science fiction.
Now we all have these phones, and we take them completely for granted. But let it be noted that six decades ago, Robert A. Heinlein described, with perfect accuracy, the mobile phone as we know it today. Rah rah R.A.H.!

UPDATE: Taylor Dinerman, in a column on Heinlein’s legacy, points out that he also described a mobile phone in the 1951 novel Between Planets — again, in the very first scene. Protagonist Don Harvey is riding a pony named Lazy in New Mexico when a snake startles the pony. After Harvey dispatches the snake (with a ray gun!), the two of them resume traveling:

He clucked and they started off. A few hundred yards further on Lazy shied again, not from a snake this time but from an unexpected noise. Don pulled him in and spoke severely. “You bird-brained butterball! When are you going to learn not to jump when the telephone rings?” Lazy twitched his shoulder muscles and snorted. Don reached for the pommel, removed the phone, and answered. “Mobile 6-J-233309, Don Harvey speaking.”

I had forgotten that scene. Dinerman is right; that’s definitely a mobile phone.

Mar 26


Like a lot of big cities, Liverpool has a pigeon problem. The city council has decided to try a new solution: bring in a bunch of robotic predator birds to scare the pigeons away. Ten mechanical Peregrine Falcons will be installed in the city center by next year. These birds (called Robops) don’t actually fly or attack pigeons, but they do squawk and flap their wings.

This is a good start, but I have some suggestions for additional steps to be taken after the Robops are installed.

  • Come up with a better name. “Robops” is just lame. How about Robohawks? Or Birdinators? If you’re building a robot that’s supposed to be scary but doesn’t actually attack anyone, you definitely want to give it the scariest name you can think of.
  • Pigeons are probably stupid enough to fear a “predator” that really just makes empty threats, at least for a while. But they may eventually figure out that these Robops are bluffing. So start work now on the next generation of robot raptors. These should be fully functional robot falcons that can fly and kill pigeons.
  • Make sure to design the second-generation Birdinators with an emergency deactivation feature, so that you can shut them down remotely when they run out of pigeons and start attacking the citizens of Liverpool.
  • You should also design weapons that are capable of shooting the Birdinators out of the sky when you discover that the emergency deactivation feature doesn’t work. Make sure that the task of designing the weapons isn’t given to the same scientist who is in charge of developing the birds, in case he turns out to be an evil genius who uses the Birdinators to hold the city for ransom. (That’s why the emergency deactivation feature doesn’t work. He’s the only one who has the valid shutdown code.)
  • Make sure to record all of this in high-definition video, because it will make a great movie. On second thought, forget about building the birds and just make the movie.

Source: Daily Illuminator

Mar 14

Only one phone number

Almost everyone has multiple phone numbers now. And some of these numbers change over time, as you move from one employer or mobile phone company to another. Notifying everyone you know of the new numbers is chore, and callers still have to guess which number is the best one for reaching you at any particular moment. But what can be done about all this?
The folks at believe they have a solution. If you sign up with them, they’ll give you a single phone number that you can give out to everyone, replacing all of your previous numbers. When someone calls you, all of your phones will ring, and you can pick up the one that’s most convenient for you. You also have a single voicemail inbox for all these phones. And if you change jobs or mobile phone providers, your unified phone number will remain the same.
I can think of some disadvantages to this approach, but it certainly is innovative. David Pogue’s New York Times article explains it in detail, and lists a bunch of extra features that I haven’t even mentioned here.

Mar 08


The ThinkGeek Annoy-A-Tron is an electronic device with a single purpose: to drive someone crazy. It’s a tiny circuit board (smaller than a business card) that generates short beeps at random intervals. The idea is to hide it somewhere near where your victim works (a built-in magnet helps you do this) and watch him or her go nuts trying to figure out where the sound is coming from. The Annoy-A-Tron can run for up to a month on the (included) watch battery — and of course you can sneak in and install a new battery if you want the torture to continue.
It goes without saying that this gadget is evil. But you have to admire the ingenuity of the diabolical genius who designed it. And it only costs $9.99, so it’s an infernal device that even the most cash-strapped villain can afford.

Mar 07

Flameless flare

Here’s an interesting gadget that I learned about from the Daily Giz Wiz podcast. It’s the CommuteMate Flameless Flare, a roadside safety device. This has several advantages over traditional safety flares. It uses LEDs and runs on two AAA batteries, so you can’t burn yourself or set your car on fire. There’s a powerful magnet in the base that lets you stick it right on your car if you need to. The Flameless Flare is reusable, and it’s remarkably inexpensive — currently lists it for $4.79.

Mar 03

Under pressure

Following a link from Instapundit, I read a Popular Mechanics article on Extreme Plumbing by Jamie Hyneman of MythBusters fame. Jamie makes the following point about pressure tanks:

The forces at play with high-pressure tanks can be huge. If the energy stored in a workshop air-compressor tank is released all at once, it can hurt or kill a person. I once complained to our insurers, “Why are you so fussy about the explosives we use on the show? Every day we make rigs using pressure tanks that are just as dangerous.” Big mistake. Now they fuss about pressure tanks, too.

As it happens, I was reading this shortly after I got home from Raleigh Little Theatre, where I spent all day working on the first technical rehearsal of House of Blue Leaves. I am assistant stage manager for this play, and one of my responsibilities is to handle the special effects that are used when, halfway through Act 2, a bomb explodes just offstage. One of those special effects is a compressed-air cannon that fires a load of fuller’s earth through a doorway onto the stage, simulating the cloud of dust and smoke produced by the explosion. The cannon fires when I open a valve that releases air from a pressure tank.
In fact, one of the last things I did at RLT before coming home was to repressurize that tank to 80 psi so that it’s ready for tomorrow’s dress rehearsal. Then I came home and read Jamie’s explanation that pressure tanks are dangerous and can kill you.
Actually, I’m not worried. If you read his entire article, you’ll see that that paragraph is scary only when taken out of context. Sure, pressure tanks can be dangerous if you use them in a reckless or irresponsible way, but the MythBusters don’t do that, and neither do theatre techies like me. Jamie’s article is really about how many of the challenges on MythBusters have been solved with plumbing and pressure tanks, and what that tells us about how useful and powerful that technology is. And fun, of course. I’m certainly going to be careful operating my cannon over the next several weeks, but I’d be lying if I said it won’t be a big thrill to set it off.