LEGOs in Spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

collectSPACE – news – “LEGO figures flying on NASA Jupiter probe”

They have launched aboard the space shuttle, visited the space station, and flown to Mars. Now, three more “very special” LEGO figurines are set to fly to Jupiter with NASA’s Juno spacecraft.
The specially-constructed LEGO Minifigures are of the Roman god Jupiter, his wife Juno, and “father of science” Galileo Galilei. The LEGO crew’s mission is part of the Bricks in Space project, the joint outreach and educational program developed as part of the collaboration between NASA and the LEGO Group to inspire children to explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

If you’re wondering why they look so classical and funky, explains:

The trio resemble the typical small toys that LEGO sells, but are made out of metal.
“They are basically the size of the normal LEGO figures which you will see, but they are made out of aluminum, very special aluminum and they have been prepared in a very special way,” [Scott] Bolton [principal investigator for the Juno mission and space science and engineering director at the Southwestern Research Institute in San Antonio] said. “They are made out of a special space-grade aluminum. They have gone through all the testing to make sure that they fit on our spacecraft in a way that is like our other science instruments.”

In other words, those are the most over-engineered LEGO minifigs you’ll ever see, kids.
(photo credit)

The Steam Noir of William Wardrop

I met a scads of great folks at Maker Faire Detroit this year, including William Wardrop, who crafts *fantastically* rad cardboard model steampunk vehicles from legal-pad backing boards (!!!)
Aircraft – Steam Noir

The steam ornithopter has been re-invented throughout history. Its origins predate the Atlantean culture which used it quite extensively in their world travels. When Leonardo Da Vinci later discovered the blueprints for one in the vaults of the Vatican he tried to create his own version; at which point the Atlanteans stepped in, kidnapped Da Vinci and replaced him with a less intelligent clone. Da Vinci in turn handed his plans for the ornithopter to the Aztecs who dismissed them as useless since they could already fly through telekinesis. By the time Jules Vern discovered that he was actually one of Da Vinci’s less intelligent clones he had already created a fleet of ornithopters which he would fly to Mars on a regular basis. The Wright brothers had no connection to the ornithopter and probably didn’t know how to spell it either.

*Lots* of great models at his site; very worth poking around.

Ahh, the dangerous old days!

The 8 Most Wildly Irresponsible Vintage Toys |
I’m kind of divided here. On the one hand, in the clear light of 21st C day, these toys are totally *insane.* On the other, I was born in the mid-1970s and grew up in the suburbs outside Detroit, and I *remember* kids just a little older than me casting their own lead soldiers, for example. As middle schoolers we’d buy calcium carbide (used to power the Austin Magic Pistol in the embedded video) from the hardware store and make acetylene lamps from baby food jars and fire-balls with party balloons and soda bottles (I haven’t the foggiest what the approved use of calcium carbide was in the 1980s; it isn’t like I grew up in coal country).

The final bit of nostalgia: The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory.

Did I own one of these? Sweet Monkey Jesus *NO*! But I *did* take to rock collecting in early elementary, which lead to my mom giving me her old rock collections–mostly bought as little pre-boxed souvenir sets while on family vacations (she grew up in the West). Right in the middle of these was a little off-white chunk of stone; it could have been an especially pale chip of concrete, except for it’s red, all-caps label: URANIUM
No lie. Welcome to the Atomic Age in America.
I haven’t the foggiest where that rock set wound up. Part of my *really* wants to know, but the rest just hopes it isn’t kicking around my basement office where I sit typing most days.


We’ve entered the season of class projects, Science Fairs, cooped-up weekends, and dreary afternoons. Folks seem to think Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred can help with that (check out the Amazon reviews!), and I’m inclined to agree.
Amazon clearly has their every-day deal (usually 30-something percent off; it actually changes from day to day, and I have no idea why), and also sells the Kindle version for a flat $9.99. Here’s the New Deal: Order Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred directly from the publisher using coupon code SHRED and they’ll knock 35% off the cover price of either the print edition or the ebook pack (which includes DRM-free PDF, ePub, and Kindle-compatible versions). *Added Bonus*: When you buy the print edition, No Starch includes the ebook bundle for *free.* I’m not a *huge* ebook fan for something as picture intensive as a DIY book, but these ebooks are really slick: The PDF version is basically the source-file used to print the paper copies, and reads *excellently* on an iPad. The .mobi and .epub ebooks look sharp on Kindles (and their ilk), and have all of the cross-references formatted as links: Every place I say something like “As you’ll recall from Project #22,” or whatever, you can click on the “Project #22” and go straight to that section without fumbling or undue distraction. It might not seem like much, but it’s *really* handy when you’re midway through soldering and forget which leg of an LED is negative, or how the lugs on a pot are labelled.
That No Starch Press has the wisdom and far-sightedness to go DRM-free *and* bundle free ebooks with their print editions is one of my favorite things about working with them; it’s really a wonderful, common-sense Good Deal for everyone.

Kite Season is Here!

Fall is prime kite season in much (if not all) of the US: It’s frequently windy and those winds tend to be steady both in force and orientation (in contrast to the gusty spring breezes that shift all over the compass, knocking your kite down just as it begins to stabilize). Last spring a pal hit me up for some kite advice via Facebook, and agreed to let me clean up our conversation and post it here. (FYI: I sent her a copy of the Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred ebook after she asked about kites; it isn’t like I sent her trotting to B&N. I’m not that bad a guy.)

Anne Marie Ellison Miller: Hey, Dave–any thoughts on the merit and/or difficulty of home-making a kite? And remember, we Millers are kind of craftarded, so use small words and don’t assume ownership of a bone folder. (OK, I just wanted to say “bone folder”. Bone folder.) Ahem. Seriously, I’d value your ideas.

David Erik Nelson: You can make a kick-ass diamond kite using bamboo garden stakes (or any strong, thin dowel; bamboo stakes are cheap as hell and plenty strong), packing tape, FedEx mailers (there’s probably a mountain of them in your office mail room’s recycling), kite string, and some POLICE LINE tape (or cut up garbage bags, or whatever).

Flick to the “FedEx Kites” chapter (pg. 273), and the first design is the diamond kite in question. Pro Tips: Focus on being symmetrical and getting the sail taught (as long as it’s anchored around the edges, as described, it’ll be taught enough). Use a long tail for stability (a long kite tail will make up for a multitude of sins, in terms of asymmetry or sloppy sails). This is a design that drug-addled kids had no problem making work; it’s within your grasp.

FYI: Spring is crummy kite weather in most of the US, since winds are gusty and fitful (certainly in MI). Go to the beach for better, steadier wind. That said, I’ve had plenty of good times flying FedEx Diamonds in the spring in crappy breezes; it’s a very, very forgiving design.

Oh, and the barrel of a sharpie marker makes a fine bone folder for all occasions.

AMEM: I should’ve known that you’ve been all over this for ages! Thanks SO much!

DEN: I like to keep it real, time permitting.

AMEM: OK, professor, here’s a question for you: using wrapping paper as material instead of FedEx mailers: Yea or nay?

DEN: 1) That’s “Dr. Professor” 2) or preferably “The Fabulous Night Panther,” as per my earlier tweet, 3) like gift wrapping paper? The plain papery kind, or plasticy Mylar stuff? SHORT ANSWER: Go nuts; use whatever you’ve got, even newspaper or butcher paper. LONG ANSWER: Paper ends up being kind of a pain because a) it tears easily–the wind can give a kite some pretty good snaps, and there are a lot of rough landings on your first kite–and b) it gets weak when it’s wet, even from just light mist or dewy grass or hands damp from a cold beer bottle. The Chinese used silk, because it’s light, rip-stop, and can take some water. For these same reasons I favor the Tyvek mailing envelope. But, really, anything tight-woven and light that won’t tear easily is ok. So I’d take Mylar wrapping paper over paper wrapping paper. Beware of thicker papers (grocery sacks or butcher paper), which get heavy quickly. I’ve heard of folks having good experiences with garbage bags, but never tried it myself. I believe this is a context in which a dry cleaning bag might be considered a toy.

AMEM: Thank you, sir.

DEN: That’s “Dr. Sir,” please.

DEN: Or “Dr. Fabulous Night Panther.” That’s probably the best, in terms of covering your honorific bases.

DEN: . . . you still out there, Anne Marie?

DEN: Anne Marie?

DEN: <sigh>

Reader Tips: Vibrating Motors from Electric Toothbrushes

By way of an Amazon review by RobinTaylor9640:

Loved the book, especially the Jitterbug Project, but the author did miss an alternate source for the vibrating motor in the bug though, battery operated electric toothbrushes have one and are cheaper than Radio Shack if you shop around, assuming you don’t have one already lying around the house, of course.

Excellent tip! These are 3volt motors (just like the cellphone vibrator), but beefier–which can mean more rattle for your buck (depending on how toothpaste-caked the motor is). Definitely worth saving that broken toothbrush for parts.
*thanks, RT9640!*

DIY Vibro-Brushbots for Greater Good! @curiositytech

I met Conan while doing Maker Faire Detroit stuff; he has *a lot* of great things to say about play and exploration and iteration, and how these all fit into innovation and progress. His lil brushbots are a great literalization of all that: They’re an easy jumping-off point for kids and adults new to electricity, and their design flexibility encourages the sort of adaptation that makes for great toys. The store-bought Hexbugs that are all the rage in some quarters are a really lame shadow of brushbots, and not nearly as much fun (at, what, 6 times the price? Ugh!)
Here’s just one riff on his design:
Brushbot, meet Papercraft – curiosity tech | curiosity tech

Build Dirt-Cheap Toys with Dave-o at Maker Faire Detroit this Weekend! #makerfaire

Just got back from the Maker Faire Detroit load-in/meet-n-greet. There are some *crazy rad* displays this year, many featuring fire and Mad Max locomotion: Giant Crazy Truck-crushing Mousetrap is back, and there is also an angry, fire-breathing bear-dragon mobile, and that water swing, and mobile cupcake launchers, and something–I dunno what–that involves six propane tanks and a *very sturdy barrier*.
I’ll be there showing folks how to jam out on homemade electric instruments, and build cardboard boomerangs and Quick-n-Easy Water Rockets (forecast calls for 90+ degrees and sunny; perfect water rocket weather). I’m also speaking on the MAKE: Live stage at 2:30 about building cheap toys, innovation, and neuroplasticity. So, if you’re at Maker Faire, come say “Hey!” Tweet me @SquiDaveo if you want to rendezvous. Hope to see you there!

DIY Flower-pot Refrigerator

‪Flower Pot Fridge!‬‏ – YouTube

Zeer pots are pretty rad, but be aware that your mileage may vary: These were developed in Egypt (albeit several millennia past) and rely on evaporation for cooling–just like you and me. Here in Michigan, we’ve had a straight 10 days or so with upper 90s temps and upper 90s humidity (FYI, although those temps are a lil higher than the traditional norm–say “Hey!” to total climate collapse!–the humidity is totally, totally the norm). Subsequently, this kind of “swamp cooler” tech has never caught on here in the pleasant penninsula. Our old-skool simple tech equivalent is the trash- can root cellar.
(props to Mojo for the vid link)