Monday, May 26, 2008

I Am In Freakin' Awe

There are Star Wars fans and then there is Michael Kaminski. Out of pure love for fandom, he's written The Secret History of Star Wars. It's free, it's 500+ pages, and it's pretty damn good stuff. I wish had that kind of motivation, but here I sit working up the energy to wash the dishes.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Super Happy Fun Seizures

In a recent post, Mr. Dork opined on the joys of perusing magazine racks. I'd normally supply a link, but I'm lazy and Mr. Dork has too many posts to sort through in order to find something so specific - although he's certainly not on the same level of blogpost-proliferation as a certain Mr. Goodness. The latter is a subject on which Mr. Dork has also seen fit to make comment and I'm sure that if anyone Out There is interested they could just point-and-click their way through his blog on that count, too.

So, magazines! They're fun to find and the next best thing to finding them is having them find you. And so it is that 4 times a year my cherished Make magazine finds me - or, rather, my mailbox. I've probably blogged this subject, too, so you have free rein here to look it up.

Anyways, a few issues back Make included plans to construct a device called The Brain Machine. This gizmo is based on the premise that targeted frequencies of light pulses and sound can produce altered states of consciousness. The science (or lack of it) contends that the brain's alpha, beta, delta, and theta wave-states are consistent with varying levels of relaxation and concentration. While an EEG can certainly measure these brain responses, the Brainwave movement contends that these states can be induced through light and sound.

So it was that JediBoy asked if we could take on this project. It only sucked up a few hours of our time to build and probably set us back a mere $35 in parts. Jediboy got to learn a bit about soldering little pieces of wire to a circuit board and manipulating software on a chip. The results (seen above) have a certain geekiness that just screams for some background Theramin music.

The software that runs our Brain Machine is more-or-less a script that generates blink rates for the LEDs in the eye lenses and binaural sound frequencies through the headphones. All this blinking and humming is generated at different rates for varying durations to take a Guinea Pig through different stages of relaxation and concentration. Out-of-the-box, the software runs through a 14-minute cycle of brain-scrambling, but this is all customizable to whatever effect you might want.

The real questions on your minds are, "Did you make contact with a higher consciousness? Was L. Ron Hubbard right all along?". Alas, the effect of the Brain Machine is quite unexpected and not entirely clear altered-consciousness-wise. Something does happen, but I'm not sure what it means.

Consider the effect on your vision when you close your eyes and then rub them vigorously with the balls of your hands. For many people, this produces vivid black-and-white geometric patterns. Imagine this in Technicolor with 3D effects and a strong sensation of motion (the good kind, not the bed-spin kind). The Brain Machine is kind of like that. And when the script changes from one brain wave state to another, your sensory experience changes immediately, with new colours, new motion, and new patterns.

It's a fun experience, and we may experiment some more with the software and see what other effects we can produce. But I can't say that the experience leaves me with even the most fleeting ability to operate on a Vulcan's brain. But I'll keep trying. I assume I'll recognize Xenu when I see him.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Lock Up Your Mice

After last year's trama with poor Maple, I'm pleased to introduce you all to the latest four-legged resident at Casa Crazylegs. At nearly 14 weeks of age and weighing in at an astonishing 2.2 pounds, meet Mika.
She's a true Siberian cat - with Mom and Dad both hailing from the former Soviet Union. Like Maple before her, Mika has proven herself to be hypoallergenic as far as Dee is concerned. And as expected, Mika has made herself quite at home and we have all been dutifully trained to provide laps to sleep upon and bits of string to leap upon - all for the asking. We couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Rocketeering Redux

Last Autumn we shot for the Moon and ever-so-slightly missed the target. Truthfully, we didn't so much miss the target as come up short - by about 1.2 billion feet less the 30 feet our rocket managed to travel.

It was all great fun, but there was effort in constructing the launcher mechanism and the rocket, itself. We've got too much skin in the game to walk away so we're taking things to the next level this Summer - faster, stronger, more dangerous. We have 2 simple goals:

1. Fly higher. A lot higher.

2. Get rocket-eye-view photographic evidence.

Let's start with number 1. In thinking about how we could fly higher, we turned the question around and wondered, "Why didn't we fly higher last year?". The answer was clear - pressure. We couldn't supply enough air pressure inside the rocket to give us maximum lift. The fact is, a 2L soda bottle - which acts as the 'engine' for the rocket - is capable of withstanding internal pressure upwards of 150psi. This limit, however, is more of a design goal for manufacturers of these bottles and can be dangerous for rocketeering.

Here's the physics: A liquid-filled 2L bottle that exceeds its pressure limit will rupture - but not explode. Since there is minimal air in the bottle, there is no scenario whereby high-pressure air is looking for low-pressure air and creating an explosion in the process. In the world of water rockets, the bottle is about 2/3 full of air. Exceeding the pressure limit here can be A Very Bad Thing in that you'll be rebuilding your rocket, maybe rebuilding your launcher, and maybe picking shards of rocket-stuff out of your belly. There are better ways to die, I think.

After some Googling, we've determined that 100psi is a good target to help us increase our rocket altitude. It is possible to throw a rocket 300 feet in the air at this pressure. In our flights to-date, we have been using a bicycle pump to pressurize the rocket and managed to squeak out a measly 30-40psi. A bicycle pump is just not powerful enough to achieve our 100psi target. In the heady world of high-pressure water rockets, some manner of powered air compression is de rigeur. I decided we needed something small enough to be carried into a field and powerful enough to manage launches at 100psi. In short, we needed some manner of portable battery-powered air compressor.

And here's a fun fact: Under the right conditions, a water rocket launching at 100psi or better creates enough launch thrust to (theoretically) break your finger.

Kismet shined us last week in the corporeal form of the Canadian Tire flyer. The Airman Inflation Station - a portable, rechargable, handheld air compressor - was on sale at half-price. We picked one up and charged it up overnight - with this past Monday evening slated for backyard pressure testing. Jediboy acted as ground crew and set up the launcher and rocket as if we were going fly. We uncoiled the 20 feet of tubing from the launcher and took our rather inadequate cover behind a cedar tree. The Airman, screwed onto the air valve at the end of the launcher tubing, hummed to life in our hands.

The gauge's needle swept smoothly across 20, 30, then 40psi. The pace slowed down at 50 and it was a full minute to get to 80psi. Things seemed to stall out and I feared that maybe the Airman wasn't up to the task. But the needle crept higher still. Over a grand total of perhaps 4 minutes, the gauge was showing 100psi while the rocket remained intact - if not turgid - on the launcher. The only sign of stress was 2 small drops of water tracing a path from the O-ring that seals the rocket 'engine' on the launcher. Success!

While the temptation to pull the launch cord was almost overwhelming, we knew it would not be smart to launch our reborn rocket from our backyard. So, our next step will be to move everything over to our neighbourhood school's field for a real test. We're waiting for good weather - dry, little wind - for this next step. So many other things can go wrong with launching a water rocket: launcher collapses, rocket veers off verticle, parachute fails to deploy. And all of these risks get magnified as rocket thrust increases.

We can't wait.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Euro Day 14: It's Terminal

Saturday, July 21, 2007. The end is nigh. Like drunken revelers waking up on the morning-after-the-night-before, we dragged ourselves from our beds to watch Paris awake just one more time. The thought of going back to the Real World seemed a bit sad and boring. But at 11:40am that morning, we would be buckled into Air Canada flight AC881 to take us from Charles de Gaulle airport back to CanadaLand.

Since we had booked our extra night at the Hilton through the good folks at Adventures by Disney, they would also be supplying us with a lift to the airport. Alex had given us the rundown during the previous evening: be in the Lobby by 8:30am and she would connect us with the driver that ABD had contracted. No fuss, no muss.

The morning went smoothly with packing, breakfast, and checkout proceeding sans problem. At the appointed time we were in the appointed place looking resolute and stoic for the trip ahead. By 8:45am I was getting antsy at the clear absence of a driver. While I always appreciate punctuality, my bigger fear was that we were in store for a repeat of the ABD misfire at Heathrow a week earlier. Just when I could feel the butterflies in my stomach starting to sprout claws, fangs, and a taste for flesh - our driver pulled smoothly into the Hilton loading lane. Relief!

With utmost courtesy and efficiency, the driver stowed our bags and invited us to our seats. We quickly said our final goodbyes to Alex and the Parisian minivan joined the morning traffic. Our driver made a point of double-checking that we were, indeed, heading out on Air Canada. I silently smiled in relief knowing that we were in good hands.

It did not seem to take much longer than 20 minutes and we were there - Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG). The driver deftly pointed the minivan through the inevitable airport construction sites and motioned towards the terminal entrance. Our bags retrieved, we gave our thanks and beelined it to the doors. Our standing goal at any airport is to rid ourselves of our bags right away, and then camp out in a restaurant or at the boarding gate for awhile. Never rush, never stress, never be late.

Inside Terminal 1 at CDG it looked like any other large airport terminal. As Veteran Travelers, we naturally sought out a directory so that we could find the Air Canada check-in area. No directory could be found and, instead, we had to rely on a Friendly Face at a nearby 'information desk'.

Air Canada, it seems, is located at Terminal 2 - not Terminal 1. The ABD driver had screwed up.

The killer butterflies made a return fly-by of my internal organs as the Friendly Face explained how and where we could catch a shuttle to Terminal 2A. Like a row of ducks, the four of us pulled our suitcases back through the terminal out to the shuttle stop. The shuttle stop was not quite what we expected. Rather than a signposted area where people waited in orderly fashion for well-marked transportation, the CDG shuttle stop was simply a stretch of construction-ravaged pavement covered by giant amoeba cleverly disguised as 200 anxious travelers all trying to get away from Terminal 1.

Once in awhile a bus would appear in a magic cloud of construction dust, and the crowd would lurch forward to (1) quiz the driver on where he was going and (2) push their way onto the bus if there was a hint the bus was going somewhere useful. We Four exchanged glances that said "How are we going to survive this?". Into the crowd I pushed - using my shoulder-slung carry-on as a plow whilst my family followed in the human wake behind me.

We made it to the leading edge of the amoeba. Now we could only wait and play the game. One bus came within 5 minutes and it did not take long before the news rippled through the crowd that this one was headed to Terminal 3 - no good for us. Through the din I was able to pick out the odd bit of English and was able to surmise that those voices intended to go to CanadaLand, too. While I'm always the most patriotic of souls, this time I could not afford to be Canada-nice. These voices were competition. I resolved to help them if I could, but not at the expense of my family. The bus was to be Sanctuary. Our Sanctuary.

10 minutes passed and I was caught looking the other way as the murmur of the crowd turned into a roar at the appearance of another dust cloud-shaped bus. Hopeful lemmings with their matching luggage surged towards the front of the bus. I could only imagine the moral decisions the bus driver was making at the moment, but I was positive he was considering plowing through crowd just to hear the satisfying snap of bones and silencing of shrill voices.

All of this provided an opening for We Four. The crowd, intent on speaking to the driver, had all but ignored the rear door. And that's where we were standing at that very moment! Burdened with the thoughts of never, ever seeing Terminal 2, I hoisted myself and my luggage onto the bus and hoped beyond hope that it was headed to Terminal 2. I interrogated the passengers as I deftly pulled my family up the stairs and into the small patch of land I staked out on board. Luck smiled on us. We were going to Terminal 2.

As the doors were shutting, a hand appeared from outside and grabbed the door. My first thought was that my fellow Canucks were expending their last, best chance to get on board. But, no - it was a different family and the father (attached to the hand in the door) was yelling excitedly in some Oriental language to his family, or maybe to the driver, or maybe to us. Before I could think about my actions, I pulled him inside. There was still enough room in the rear door stairwell for 3 - maybe 4 - more bodies. He, in turn, pulled his family in behind him - not 2 or 3 or even 4 passengers. By my count, this was a family of 7 who had improbably found a way to balance themselves and their luggage on 2 steps in an overloaded bus with a very bouncy suspension.

Any flaws in the bus's handling or the driver's ability were more than made up by the fact no one on the bus could move. Quite simply, we were relying on a totally organic suspension system made up of human beings fueled by airport sweat and fear. 7 minutes later, the doors opened at Terminal 2A. We ungracefully exited the bus, suitcases navigating the steps and curb at crazy, dangerous angles. We smelled the air like we'd never smelled the air before. Here was freedom and Air Canada.

From that point on, the trip was like any other airport experience. CDG is badly laid out and expensive and under construction. After checking in and then getting something to eat, we encamped at the boarding gate to await the inevitable Air Canada scheduling disappointment. True to form, our flight was delayed and no one at the Air Canada gate could tell us why or when we would be leaving. It felt like home again and reminded us why we usually avoid Air Canada whenever we can.

90 minutes later than planned, we took off - across water, across time. At Toronto Pearson airport we still had 30 minutes to catch our connecting flight back to London, Ontario. The functionaries at Air Canada, however, would not permit us to board our connection since 30 minutes was not enough time to transfer luggage, etc. We were given a new flight and found ourselves en route to our final destination (another) 90 minutes later than we had planned.

From there, into the minivan that Dee's sister was kind enough to drive out to the airport for our arrival. And then, the familiar ride through the streets of London - and home.


For those who've braved narcolepsy and read all previous 21-ish posts on the topic of Euro Tour 2007, my thanks to you! They are as much a testament to the Ego Of Blogging as they are a reflection of the fun I had in writing them.

Many of the regular visitors here in the last few months have come from the family of Disney enthusiasts over at - all with a special interest in Adventures by Disney. I hope I've given you a taste of what you're looking for and have answered some of your questions. Nevertheless, I'm always happy to answer more questions - here or over there. My final word - we loved what ABD had to offer on this tour! Notwithstanding the screw-ups with the airport transfers that bookended our week, we found the tour pretty darn amazing and worth every penny we spent. And, in fact, we plan to partake of the ABD Costa Rica tour (Path to Pura Vida) in August of 2008!

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.