LostBiro project

Posted by jerry on August 29th, 2004 — Posted in Journal, New media, Technology

It’s good to see some rain at last – but still only a trickle compared with what we need. Today has been a fixing day, replacing blown light globes in the dashboard of the car and in the speedo and tacho on the bike.

The Lostbiro web project is coming along and I have been madly preparing a site plan and getting photos taken ready for the great site building. Sharon has very helpfully organised the contents of my personal part of my ANU site into something resembling a decent site, and she has agreed to do a bunch of special graphics for me – *happy dance*!

Lostbiro? Yes, I’m now the proud owner of a domain name! I shall be moving a whole pile of stuff from my ANU site and will be building a full-on site for my band, Full Circle.

The big priority at the moment is to get the band site organised so we can go live by next weekend. The band email address is already working (fullcircle@lostbiro.com). Why the urgency now? Well, our National Folk Festival application goes in this week (first thing tomorrow), and our band’s web address is being listed – so I guess we ought to have a site ready for people to view.

I’d be interested in any ideas for things people would like to see on the site – so feel free to email me (or the band) or leave a comment on this blog entry.


Canberra School of Art Open Day

Posted by jerry on August 28th, 2004 — Posted in Journal

It was quieter than usual for open day, but no less interesting. The metal wedge in the tree trunk sculpture was … er… enhanced by the addition of a giant cardboard hammer!

Canberra School of Art

First stop was Sharon Boggon’s button installation in the foyer… the upper shelf shows button necklaces by Valerie Kirk

sharonb buttons

sharonb buttons

sharonb buttons

sharonb buttons

Then it was on for a quick visit to the 3D printer, or rapid prototyper, which is a seriously impressive piece of equipment.

The machine works like an ink jet printer, but it lays down an extruded plastic polymer resin. Unlike a printer, however, once the first layer is done, the matrix base moves down by one thickness of the resin and the process starts again. Gradually a 3D shape takes form, whether a conch shell form or a plastic adjustable spanner his device can build it using information from a 3D design program.

The device was purchased jointly between the Canberra School of Art and the John Curtin School of Medical Science – the latter using it to model artificial knee joints and the like.

After buying a couple of raffle tickets for a beautiful woodwork bench, Sharon headed off to fulfill her responsibilities for the Day. I made a visit to the metalwork shop and encountered some lovely jewellery and small metal objects. But being seriously wierd, the thing that really caught my attention was a wire extruding machine!

Wire extruding machine

This device looked like something Leonardo da Vinci might have put together, at once simple, elegant and very functional. The principle is that you take a piece of metal, heated until soft and malleable, hammer it into a thinnish rod and then while it is hot, pass the end of the rod into the smallest hole on the extrusion plate that it will fit, then using a pair of pliers, draw the rod through the hole. When it is pulled through, insert the end you have been holding into the next tapered hole and draw it through that – each time you do it the wire gets progessively thinner and longer.

Wire extruding machine

Of course for anything other than silver or gold, or perhaps copper, you will need more strength than a normal weedy human like myself can provide. That’s where the machine comes in. Basically, it is a frame that holds the extrusion plate, and the pair of pliers has hooked legs which cn be attached to a ring – itself attached to a hook which can grab a chain driven by a geared hand crank, so the fore applied by the pliers is something like ten times what a mere human can apply. Simple concept, neatly executed.

Wire extruding machine

The glass blowing was similarly medieval in technology, but the outcome was exquisite – these are very skilled artisans, carefully shaping and adding coloured glass. The glass blowing was a very delicate part of the operation.
The ceramic kilns saw good use – as pizza ovens! And, despite the range of very attractive small dishes (you could buy a coffee and cake combo and keep the plate) what again took my fancy was the simple and inexpensive construction of a small kiln. The hinges were a couple of bolts through a lug welded onto the door frame, and the rest is just fire-bricks.


The hole at the rear is for the tuyere, or flame nozzle from a simple propane burner.


The door also has a hole, stoppered with a shaped fire brick through which you can look to see how the firing is going.


Anyhow, I had a great day as you can see


Wearable office

Posted by jerry on August 27th, 2004 — Posted in Technology, Travel, Writing

I would venture to say that anyone who has travelled with a computer has given thought at some point to how to do it without carting around the ubiquitous briefcase-sized anvil. But I wonder how many have actually managed it? A recent series of articles recounts how an enterprising journalist sold his laptop on ebay and decided to use the proceeds to come up with a pocket solution that would cover the basic functions of an office on the move.

I found it interesting that the journalist had to restrict the technology to that of a couple of years ago, because some functions have disappeared, despite the much trumpeted convergence of technologies, and the so-called wireless revolution.

My needs are different from those presented in that series of articles, but only a little. And my version also fits in a series of pockets – though not the fishing vest the author advocates.

So here is my version of the laptop-less traveller. First my travel needs: I want to write stuff on a comfortable keyboard. I want to keep my expenses straight, and I want to keep appointments scheduled. I want to be able to send and accept notes to a fellow traveller’s palm-top. I want to be able to build and display web pages. I want to be able to scan text and to take photographs – and integrate the photos with the web pages. I want a common, compatible, storage medium that goes across all devices. I want to be able to print stuff. And I want to be able to use the internet. Above all I want battery power to last from Canberra to London, or to last for several days in places where mains power is at best intermittent – even if it is available.

My other condition is that I can’t afford to buy laptop, so my entire technology suite should fall within the price range of a base-level laptop.

Here’s how I did it. The centrepiece is the PDA. I don’t want to learn how to write all over again, so I immediately ruled out almost all of what is available today – yes you can buy separate keyboards, but they have extra hinges to break, sockets to get dusty, and above all, a portrait screen that doesn’t let you lay out written text very well. My choice was rapidly narrowed to a couple of machines that had integral keyboards – and some of those were more like calculator pads rather than keys, or required one to have fingers the size of a gnat. Some even required that you typed only with two thumbs. Some might say my typing may as well be with two thumbs! But I found the one I needed – a Psion 5MX – not made now for four years, and still streets ahead on practicality over most other PDAs.

There are some limitations – no WiFi connection, no USB ports (although you can use serial-USB connectors), the thing won’t (yet) play movies, and there is no colour screen. so why on earth would I persevere with such dated technology? Even the EPOC operating system is no longer supported (although some EPOC-6 programs will run on EPOC-5). And I have yet to be able to convert Psion Presentation documents to powerPoint (the mac doesn’t speak PsiWin – and it is one of the very few things left out of Neuon converter).

Here is why. The keyboard is still the best that has ever been on the market for such devices. It is small, but with keys large enough and well enough spaced to type quite comfortably – and even on the smallest aircraft you have room to spare on the tray for a coffee while you type. It also weighs only 350g including batteries Psion made some good choices for connectivity. Storage is on Compact Flash cards – which now go up over 1GB – more than enough for an extended trip. You can even take backups for all your favourite applications, and a whole library of e-texts. The ‘Word’ application can be persuaded to save as RTF which is readable by most word processors. Battery life is at least two weeks of heavy usage, and the thing uses readily available AA batteries – even up-country in PNG! The Opera web browser is good, providing well laid out pages very similar to full scale computer display.

The compact flash is one major key – it also fits the cannon A40 digital camera – and you can quite happily take the flash card out of the psion, throw it in the camera, take a few hots and load it back into the psion and embed the images in a web page – which can be displayed on the psion.

Sometimes I will want to scan small bits of text, say an entry from a travel book, or my airline ticket number. for this I use a wonderful little device called a C-pen 600c scanner. Mine again is quite old, but it does the job quite well. And I can beam its contents to the psion using the IrDa infra-red port and plBeam utility.

And I have a GSM travel modem – also psion, also no longer made, but which works well on a dialup connection through which I can send emails and surf web pages. Of course this is strictly hotel room stuff because you need a fixed landline connection. Or I can wait until I get home, transfer the compact flash card to the USB card reader on my mac and upload files straight from the card.

And that’s it – so far. As for a printer, there are a couple of travel printers that take IrDa input through an infrared port and no doubt I will get one before too long – I’ll let you know what I choose when the time comes.

In the mean time, I have yet to be stopped in airport security lines with my PDA being waved through, and I generally take only the Psion and camera on board – the rest (mainly power adapters) I stow in my baggage. The psion fits in one pocket, the camera on a belt pouch and a couple of spare batteries in another pocket – oh yes the camera also takes AA size batteries I have one tenth of the hassle of those who feel the need to cart laptops on board – perhaps to play games or watch a movie. I’m happy with a chess game and a couple of others, and I have a good selection of e-books to read.

Let me know what your travel set up is!


Do-it-yourself science toys from everyday objects

Posted by jerry on August 18th, 2004 — Posted in Journal, Technology

My neighbour a few years ago thought I was mad when I told him I was making an electric motor. “You can’t make one, you buy them!” he said. Nevertheless he was intrigued when I took a piece of dowel, a large steel bolt, a reel of insulated copper wire and a tin can that I set about demolishing with some tin snips. He was even more amazed when I connected up three ‘Dolphin’-type square batteries and started the thing spinning. He even brought his young son over to watch the contraption. Yes it cost more than a new small electric motor, and yes it was less efficient than a bought one. but I had the satisfaction of knowing exactly how it went together. The instructions came from a 1950s children’s encyclopedia that I had picked up from a Lifeline bookfair.

I was therefore delighted to find a website devoted to all these neat things you could build out of household (or nearly household) items. Ever tried to build a ‘hero’ steam engine or thermopile? How about a crystal radio – or even a laser communicator powered by a cheap laser pointer used in lectures and presentations? They are all here on this site! It’s like that children’s encyclopedia, but updated and includes how to make your own solar power panels! It’s well worth poking around – and maybe you too will get inspired to find out how much of our modern ‘black box’ technology you can build yourself :-)


Delphic oracle – stoned teenagers advise governments and generals

Posted by jerry on August 18th, 2004 — Posted in History, Journal, Writing

Plutarch, when not writing his Lives in the first century AD was sometime manager of a nice little earner called the Delphic Oracle. I heard a fascinating piece on the radio this morning about what was special about the oracle. It seems that there was indeed a culture among the priestesses that involved learning to compose a kind of free-form poetry – perhaps an ancient Greek form of rap. What is particularly interesting is that at Delphi the oracle temple was built on an active fault line (not surprising really, as much of Greece is in a very seismically active area).

But active faults generate enormous heat in localised areas, and this can release vapourised hydrocarbons, which bubbled up through the spring water. in this case the gas turned out to be a mix of methane, ethane and the real trump card – ethylene – an effective anaesthetic (by depriving the brain of oxygen) which also in low doses apparently causes mild euphoria, hallucinations, excitation and amnesia. Of course if you over did it death would be a rather unfortunate side effect. In low doses it made people babble in not overly coherent ways – and given that the priestesses were usually young women, the image of stoned teenage girls influencing world events while off their faces on antifreeze is perhaps an uncomfortable way to view this sacred site.

As Washington Post writer Guy Gugliotta points out, there were suspicions, even in ancient times that this was exactly what was going on. Plutarch described how the priestess would deliver oracles from a tripod in a small below-ground chamber bathed in gases carried up by underground springs.

No doubt the vapours would have added mystique to the process, and the recipient listening to the words would probably also get a little light headed, contributing to the sense that something sacred was in the air.

And all this has been confirmed by geologists a couple of years ago, who identified that the oracle temple site was located right over criss-crossing active faults. And the gases have been deposited over the centuries, trapped in the limestone travertine that lay under the temple.

Ethylene is used today for rapid ripening of fruit and as an anaesthetic until recent times. “It was a great gas,” said toxicologist Henry Spiller, director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center in Louisville and another member of the Delphi team. “It produces a very rapid onset of effects, and leaves the heart alone.” Unfortunately, “it is also explosive [and] dangerous for the surgeon,” Spiller added, which is why modern medicine eventually abandoned it.

A fascinating insight into an amazing cultural and historical phenomenon!