Monday, November 5, 2007

Three Sisters Stew

A few Thanksgivings ago my mom gave me the task of bringing to dinner something hearty enough that my visiting vegetarian cousin would still get a main dish. (My cousin, incidentally, insisted that we didn't need to go to any trouble, she'd eat whatever was around that wasn't meat, but my mom, the equally insistent hostess, wanted to make sure she got some protein.)

I found this "tradition vegetarian Thanksgiving" Three Sisters Stew. Now, I don't know if this is traditionally what vegetarians eat on Thanksgiving, or if it is really a traditional recipe, but the "three sisters" part really is a Native American tradition. According to an Oneida Indian Nation page:

Modern day agriculturists know it as the genius of the Indians, who interplanted pole beans and squash with corn, using the strength of the sturdy corn stalks to support the twining beans and the shade of the spreading squash vines to trap moisture for the growing crop. Research has further revealed the additional benefits of this "companion planting.'' The bacterial colonies on the bean roots capture nitrogen from the air, some of which is released into the soil to nourish the high nitrogen needs of the corn. To Native Americans, however, the meaning of the Three Sisters runs deep into the physical and spiritual well-being of their people. Known as the "sustainers of life," the Iroquois consider corn, beans and squash to be special gifts from the Creator. The well-being of each crop is believed to be protected by one of the Three Sister Spirits. Many an Indian legend has been woven around the "Three Sisters" -sisters who would never be apart from one another- sisters who should be planted together, eaten together and celebrated together.
I found many variations of the stew online, and came up with this adaptation:

Three Sisters Stew

Cut a 2-pound butternut squash in half and remove seeds. Put the halves cut-side up in a baking dish, add a little water, cover with foil and back for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool, remove skin, and dice.

In a large, heavy pot:

Saute 1 chopped onion and 1 teaspoon of jarred minced garlic in 1 tablespoon of olive oil.

Add 1/2 a red pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips.

Add squash.


1 (15 oz.) can of pinto beans, drained

1 (15 oz.) can of corn, drained*

1 (4 oz.) can of chopped green chilies

1 (15 oz.) can of diced tomatoes, undrained

1 cup of vegetable stock

2 teaspoons of oregano

1 teaspoon (and maybe more) of ground cumin

Simmer for a couple of hours, adding more cumin and salt and pepper to taste.

Just before serving, add two tablespoons of fresh cilantro. (I just held the cilantro over the pot and cut off little pieces of leaves with the kitchen shears.)

Like so many stews, this improved by sitting overnight and being reheated the next day.

*Better, if you can find it, is the equivalent amount of frozen roasted corn. Trader Joe's sells it, but I haven't seen it in other grocery store.

Not only did this pass with the vegetarian, but my dad and my brother-in-law (the two family members least understanding of the vegetarian concept) both liked it too (though not in place of the turkey). This will be the fourth year I've made it, which I think qualifies it as a family tradition.

And since Thanksgiving isn't Thanksgiving without leftovers, the leftover stew makes a lovely enchilada filling.

I have glanced through the newly-published Daring Book for Girls, and noticed that it has a chapter on planting the three sisters.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Space Race

Fifty years ago today, the Space Race was won, but the Soviet Union. The USSR launched Sputnik, a small, simple satellite whose continuous beeping announced to the world their victory.

Three and a half years later, on 12 April 1961, the USSR would take the next step into space, when Senior Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin travelled into space aboard Vostok 1 (while in orbit, he was promoted to the rank of Major).

(Please ignore the obnoxious soundtrack in this video.)

The United States would put Alan Shepard into space less than a month later.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Keeping Rabbits - part 3

The first part of this series is here, and the second part is here.

House rabbits eat three things: hay, rabbit pellets and fresh fruits and veggies. Let's look at them one at a time.

Hay - Rabbits need plenty of fresh hay to stay healthy, it provides much needed roughage. Timothy hay is best, and should always be given instead of alfalfa. I'm starting to sound like a broken record about this, but your local rabbit rescue will be the best source for hay and pellets. You can buy hay at the pet store, but it'll be expensive and you have no idea how long it's been sitting on the shelf or in the warehouse before you bought it. We get a great deal from our local source, paying a dollar a pound for fresh hay.

Pellets - this concentrated food provides essential vitamins and minerals to your bunny's diet. Developed by breeders to make meat rabbits grow quickly, house rabbits should be getting most of their nutrition from fresh food. No more than a quarter-cup per five pounds of rabbit should be given each day. Again, we pay about a buck a pound for pellets, which is a very good price.

Fresh Fruits and Veggies - Once a day we give our bunnies fresh food. Give your rabbits a variety every day and they'll be happy and healthy. Here's a list of what ours like:
Lettuce (anything but iceberg, which is nutritionally null)
celery (including the leafy tops)
carrot greens
snow peas
dandelion greens

The last two should be given in moderation, because just like with people, they cause gas. Unlike people, rabbits have no gag or vomit reflex and burping is uncommon. Excess gas passes through the other end, and too much can be uncomfortable for the bunny.

Other rabbits eat the following (but ours don't care for them):
radish greens
mustard greens
green pepper

Stay away from starches and carbs. Your rabbit doesn't need them and it's not good for them.

Anything else, including carrots, should be considered treats and given sparingly. Rabbits have a big sweet-tooth. The reason that carrots are on list list is because carrots turn into sugar quickly when eaten, so it's just like eating candy to a rabbit.

Carrot (not a whole one!)
slices of apples or pears
dried papaya or pineapple (organic, no sulphur!)

There is one other thing that rabbits eat, called cecotropes. Because rabbits eat so much plant fiber, they have a special pouch in their digestive system where the toughest material goes through extra processing. It is then passed through the system and excreted as soft oblong pellets. The rabbit knows when cecotropes are being excreted and immediately eats them again. This extra pass through the digestive system allows his body to get the maximum amount of nutrition from what he eats. You'll almost never see cecotropes, because the bunny eats them right away. Regular rabbit poop is shaped like small, hard balls.

So there you go. Unlimited fresh water. Unlimited fresh timothy hay. Fresh veggies and the occasional treat, and your rabbit will be loving life.

Any questions? Please leave them in the comments. Next time, I'll show you how to build a quick and easy cage for your house rabbits.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Just 25?

A while back, Victor posted this quote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.- Robert A. Heinlein
In that same vein, Popular Mechanics has listed 25 skills that every man (and in my opinion every woman) should be able to do. I can do all except CPR and clean a bolt-action rifle. The October issue tells you how to do each one - should you not know.

Personally, I think that Heinlein's list is more comprehensive (with some of JenLars's corrections.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Keeping Rabbits - part 2

This time around, I'll talk a little bit about how rabbits behave and how you can read some of their body language. Part 1 of "Keeping Rabbits" is here.

This is going to sound obvious, but rabbits are not cats and dogs. Cats are natural predators and dogs are natural scavengers, but rabbits are natural prey. Rabbits react completely differently to the world than the two animals that we're most familiar with because almost everything else in the world considers it food.

When a rabbit appears sick, it's a certainty that it's vet time, because rabbits will instinctively hide physical problems as long as possible. They know that the weakest ones get preyed on first.

Reaching down to pet a bunny can really stress the little beastie because to him, your hand is swooping down from above like an owl or hawk. This is especially true before your rabbit gets used to you.

Building trust with your house rabbit can be a long process, and trust is what it's all about. Get down on the floor and let him (or her, I'll just be using "him" from now on) run around and check things out. They like to feel protected, so don't be surprised if they find a spot behind something or under a piece of furniture and make it their home base. Eventually your rabbit will come around to see what you're doing. Do this regularly and over time he'll get to where he will climb up on you, or snuggle in for petting.

This goes for dogs and cats too! Our rabbits and dogs get along wonderfully. Monitor their interactions carefully until they get used to each other, and realize that sometimes animals just won't get along because personalities clash. Here's what I wrote when we first got Ozzie:

He wasn't too sure about the dogs at first, which was driving Trix crazy. Trix loves the rabbits even though they don't act like dogs, I believe that he thinks they're retarded puppies. Because Ozzie was so skittish, tonight was the first night that they've been in close contact. We expanded the pen so there was some running -around room, then Trix and I went in and lay down and waited quietly. Before long Ozzie came up to us to check things out, and he and Trix sniffed each other a bit. Trix mostly stayed on his belly, dragging himself around by his front legs so that he was on the same level as Ozzie. I've never seen anything like it. Within an hour Trix and Ozzie were laying side by side on the floor, just chillin'.

Watch your rabbit while he's exploring! Rabbits, especially younger ones, will chew things! Bunny-proof your room by wrapping cords in conduit or putting them up out of reach. In my wife's sewing room (where the bunnies live), we put cardboard in front of the walls to hide the cords. If a piece gets chewed on, we replace it. Keep a squirt bottle of water handy and don't be afraid to give the bunny a spritz to let him know that he's not to be chewing on something. A rabbit will almost immediately stop to groom and wash their face after you spray them. "No!" in a firm voice helps too, they'll learn. So will a thump.

Rabbits "thump" when they're unhappy with a situation. They'll stamp on the ground with a back leg to let you know that they disapprove of what just happened. Thump at them and they'll know that what they were doing is a no-no.

Give your bunny things to do and play with so he won't get bored and gnaw on your furniture or electrical cords. They'll chew on and throw around tubes from toilet paper and paper towels. Wicker is a favorite chew toy, just make sure that it's unfinished so they're not chewing paint or chemical stains. Put small boxes around and your rabbit will jump up on top of them or push them around from place to place. If one end is open, he'll crawl inside and explore. Those heavy-cardboard concrete form tubes you can get at the hardware store are loved! Cut it down to a two-foot section and watch your bunny spend a long happy time just running back and forth through it.

You may see your rabbit "chinning" things. Bunnies have a scent gland under their chin that they rub on stuff to mark it as theirs. Toys, furniture, you, eventually they'll chin most everything in sight. It's hilarious to watch ours run around and re-chin everything that the others did while they were out last. You can almost see the little thought balloons over their heads, "*this* is mine... so is *this*... *this* is too... and *this*..."

Rabbits, especially young males, will sometimes pee to mark territory. Get 'em fixed to solve that problem.

It's easy to tell when a rabbit feels happy and content. When a rabbit is tense, he'll be hunched up like a volkswagon and his eyes will be wide. If he's sprawled out on his belly or side, he feels safe enough to let his guard down a bit. You may see your rabbit do a little side-kick with his back legs as he hops around. This means he's feeling really good and having fun!

Got questions? Ask in the comments, and I'll get to them. Coming up soon is how to put together a simple and inexpensive cage and what to feed your rabbit. And if you're looking for a rabbit of your own, check out your local rabbit rescue organization. Bunny Lu Adoptions is the one we use here in Northern Virginia. You can follow that link, then click on the "Petfinder" link in the middle of their page, then scroll down and on the left you'll see a rescue organization finder to help you locate pet people in your area.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Keeping Rabbits

We love animals. We have two dogs and three house rabbits. Most everyone knows how to care for a dog or a cat (or thinks they do), but rabbits are probably a bit of a mystery. I know they were to us a couple of years ago, before we started keeping them as pets. Our dogs and rabbits get along fine, and even take cues from each other. If the rabbits are getting a treat (raisins), then the dogs figure that they should get a biscuit too. That works in reverse too, in that the bunnies will come looking for a goody when they hear the lid of the doggy treat jar lifted.

I’m going to do a series of these posts, going over different aspects about keeping house rabbits. Some of what you’re going to hear may surprise you. Some of what you’ll need to know I can’t tell you, because we haven’t had to deal with it yet (such as medical issues, our bunnies have been completely healthy so far).

In case you didn’t know, rabbits aren’t rodents. They are related, but there are many important differences, the most obvious one being that rodents can and will eat meat, whereas rabbits are strictly herbivores. I’ll go into feeding and what rabbits eat in the near future.

Rabbits will live up to about twelve years.

You may also not know that rabbits can be trained to use a litterbox. All of ours were trained at a young age and are very good about using them.

Now, I’ll introduce you to our rabbits, and tell you a little about each of them. Then I’ll recommend a couple of good books and online resources to learn more about them.

This is Fred, our first rabbit. He’s about three years old and weighs 4 pounds (he’s a little guy). Fred was rescued from near the Severn River and originally named Severn. The people that found him knew he wasn’t a wild rabbit because of his ears. Rabbits with ears that point down like that are called “Lops” and they don’t happen in the wild. A lop is aways a domesticated rabbit. Fred probably was abandoned by someone who didn’t want him anymore, and he probably would not have lived through his first winter if he hadn’t have been rescued. At the bunny shelter, they renamed him Fast Freddie because of his pinball-like speed and ability to change direction instantly. When we adopted him, we shortened it to just Fred.

After we had Fred for a while, we thought it would be nice to get him a girlfriend. Rabbits pair for life, so choosing a companion isn’t always an easy thing. At the bunny rescue, they had a young lady named Java. We brought Java home and paired her with Fred. I’ll talk about that in another post, because it can be a long and drawn out process to pair up bunnies. Java is a little larger than Fred, and she’s about a year and a half old now. She’s an escape artist!

Once Fred and Java were a bonded pair and living together, we had an extra cage. We agreed to take another bunny for foster care from the rescue shelter. Our first foster bunny was Ozzie. He’s an albino, and another lop, and goes through life as if he’s had way too much caffeine! He startles easily, but is also the most affectionate of our three. Yes, we did wind up falling in love with Ozzie and adopted him for our own. At some point we may get him a girlfriend as well, but the rescue had tried before and his personality makes it difficult to match him with a partner.

Each of our rabbits has been fixed to prevent little baby bunnies. They’ve also been microchipped, so that if we get separated for whatever reason (for instance, during a natural disaster), we can find them again afterwards if they are brought to an emergency pet shelter.

As for recommended books, there is one that stands above the rest, called “The House Rabbit Handbook”. Your local rabbit rescue will probably have copies that you can buy, or check your library. “Rabbits for Dummies” is also pretty good. Like anything else regarding pets, do your research beforehand and learn what you can before you jump into it.

I really, really recommend contacting a local rabbit rescue if you want your own bunny. These people are wonderful resources, full of advice and knowledge and willing to help. Visiting one will also give you a chance to see many different sizes and types of rabbits all in one place. Out local rescue is called Bunny Lu Adoptions, and your local animal shelter or pet stores can put you in touch with ones in your area.

Leave a comment and let me know if there's any interest in my continuing this series. If there is, then I'll do future posts on things like: What rabbits eat. Build an easy cage. Bonding pairs. Rabbit toys and other things you'll need. Plus all kinds of other stuff as I think of it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What's in your lunch box?

Ok, I hope nobody's lunch is dangerous, and I wouldn't expect lunch to even be described as daring. But then I had a conversation with some friends over lunch at work.

It began when one of them said that she had eaten a tuna salad sandwich for lunch every day from first through eighth grade. I didn't believe her. Nobody can be that picky, I said.

Another friend had no problem accepting that the tuna-a-day habit was not an exaggeration, because she had eaten peanut butter and jelly every single day of grade school.

Well, what did you take for lunch? they asked me.

Ah, my school lunches. I had a plastic lunch box that looked like Snoopy's doghouse, and in it my mom often packed a sandwich, though certainly not the same thing every day. I liked ham, bologna, and I was a huge fan of pickle and pimento loaf. One of my favorites was corned beef and swiss cheese with mustard, on rye or pumpernickel bread.

You ate pumpernickel bread in grade school?

The only kind of bread we didn't eat was square white bread. I admit, I was embarrassed that my sandwiches didn't fit nicely into little baggies like my classmates' sandwiches did, but I appreciated the variety, like wheat, oatmeal, and Challah. And my mom used different cheeses, too. I particularly liked the one I called monster; I think I was ten before I found out it was muenster.

Half the time, though, I didn't even get a sandwich. I had a wide-mouth thermos, and mom gave me soup, stew, macaroni and cheese, or spaghetti. Sometimes I had leftovers from a previous night's dinner.

At this point, my friend started to laugh, and pointed to my lunch (leftovers). My lunches haven't changed much in over 30 years, though I no longer have a Snoopy lunch box.

So, now I have a question for all of you: What is your favorite lunch? (And do you eat it every single day?)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Measurement Resources

Some printable paper rulers - Inches and centimeters, of various types, including some without markings to see if you really understand the measurements you're using.

Three printable protractors - Three kinds of markings, for three different types of measurement.

A decimeter box - "The idea: Having a 10 cm cube helps you get to know how big millimeters and centimeters are. Here are pages you can print out, cut out, fold and tape, to make your own 10 centimeter box."

More kinds of graph paper than you can shake a stick at - Wow. Seriously, wow.

Thanks to Friedbeef Tech for these.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How People Lived: The Dial Telephone

Several years ago, I used to babysit my old roommate's son, Matt. He and I always got along well and I was happy to do so. One day, I was babysitting him and he had to contact his mom, so I showed him my telephone.

It was an old, wall-mounted rotary dial telephone that had conveyed with my condo. As Matt was six or seven at the time, he had never seen a dial phone before and he looked at it as if it were ancient technology...which, of course, it was. Fortunately, my girlfriend was with us, and she let him borrow her cell phone, which he dialed as if he had been using one all his life.

Which, of course, he had.

It wasn't always like that. I'm sure you've seen the old movies/tv shows where someone holds an earpiece to their ear, turns a crank several times, and yells into the wall-mounted microphone, "Operator! Get me..." and they'd give a number...or probably a city, which would connect you to a party line and the fun would really start.

In the 1920's, the phone company started to do away with the crank phones and introduced dial phones...but like Matt, no one knew how to use one.

At midnight on Saturday, May 28, 1927, the city of Fresno was converting to dial telephones, so the phone company released this public service announcement to the local theaters, to teach people how to use that brand-new piece of equipment...the dial telephone.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Value of Books

As a kid, the absolute best gift I could receive was a book. I was a bookworm for sure, but early on I also recognized the power of a good reference book. I still have most of those books today, still in excellent condition, and I still reread them occasionally.

My uncle Art always surprised and delighted us with books. We used to visit him and his "library", which was a good sized bookcase full of interesting titles. He even owned a copy of an unabridged baseball encyclopedia, which listed the complete known statistics of every player ever to play in the major leagues. I spent hours looking up my favorite current players and reading about the legends of the game, following up on interesting details that caught my fancy.

What inspired this particular post is an old friend that I've recently picked up again, the Moon Flight Atlas. Written for pre-teens, it's full of wonderful pictures and diagrams describing a wide range of topics related to mankind's efforts to reach the moon and Mars beyond. It was published soon after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and the enthusiasm and optimism towards the future of man in space is sad when viewed in hindsight. Still, this book and many others fired my imagination and interests in science, interests that continue to this day.

The inscription on the inside front cover reads: "To Ted, from Uncle Art - Christmas, 1969".

Thanks, Uncle Art. Thank you.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

C & O Canal

Construction on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal began in 1828 in Washington, D.C., although the idea for a navigable waterway from the Potomac to the Ohio Valley was envisioned as early as George Washington's time. The 184.5 mile canal was completed in 1850, ending in Cumberland, Maryland, and for nearly 75 years it was a major route for moving coal (850,000 tons in 1871). Flooding was always an issue, however, and since the railroad had moved in by then, in 1924 the canal ceased operations following another flood.

In the 1930's, restoring the lower section of the canal was a Civilian Conservation Corps project, in anticipation of the canal becoming a national park. The canal itself only survived because of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, however. In the 1950's the plan was to turn the canal into a parkway to allow motor access through the park, and Justice Douglas, an avid hiker, wrote a letter to the Washington Post
arguing for preserving the canal:

One who walked the canal its full length could plead that cause with the eloquence of a John Muir. He would get to know muskrats, badgers, and fox; he would hear the roar of wind in thickets; He would see strange islands and promontories through the fantasy of fog; he would discover the glory there is in the first flower of spring, the glory there is even in a blade of grass; the whistling wings of ducks would make silence have new values for him. Certain it is that he could never acquire that understanding going 60, or even 25, miles an hour.
He even organized a hike of editors and conservationists, sucessfully swaying public opinion away from the road and back to nature. Time reported on April 5, 1954:

By the time he was ten miles from the city, Douglas had 50 followers, and was being paralleled in the canal by canoeists bearing such signs as SAVE THE CANAL and LESS CARS-MORE CANOES !

The long walk ended at an old canal lock a quarter of a mile farther along. A National Park Service sightseeing barge, drawn by two mules, awaited the hikers. They climbed aboard to ride the last five miles to Georgetown. Their triumphal entry into the city, however, was just beginning. As the barge sloshed down the canal, hundreds of men, women & children hustled along the banks exchanging greetings with the expedition. Other well-wishers called greetings from overhead bridges. The escorting fleet of canoes grew. Automobiles jammed up along a parallel roadway.

The 12,000 acres, including the canal and towpath rather than a paved road, became a national park in 1971.

Here are a few pictures from the section of towpath closest to where I live:

This may be a reproduction, or perhaps a replacement, lockhouse. On the other side of the canal you can see the stone foundation of another building.

The canal at Lock 26.

The store at White's Ferry records the high water marks after the Potomac River floods. (This is the second story of the building.)

The Monocacy Aqueduct

Saturday, August 18, 2007


"Forgive all who have offended you, not for them, but for yourself." -- Harriet Nelson

Friday, August 17, 2007

More How to Books

If you like the book, "The Dangerous Book for Boys" (Conn Iggulden, Hal Iggulden), and I assume you might since you're here on the Dangerous and Daring Blog for Boys and Girls, there are two other books you might want to check out.

The Boys Book: How To Be The Best At Everything.

How to do almost anything in one handy book. Found yourself in a sticky situation? Inside you'll learn how to escape quicksand (p. 40), build a raft (p.41), start a survival fire (p.99), or fly a helicopter (p. 11). Want to impress your friends? Now you can rip a phonebook in half (p. 35), hypnotize a chicken (p. 56), or read their minds (p. 73). Boring Saturday afternoon? Not anymore when you find out how to make a waterbomb (p. 79), a boomerang (p. 95), or a volcano (p. 88). And loads of other keen things you need to know how to do!
And The Girls Book: How To Be The Best At Everything
How to do almost anything in one handy little book! Want to be known for your unique style? Inside you'll learn how to design your own clothes (p. 35), do the perfect manicure (p. 82), or make your own lip gloss (p. 11). Feel like impressing your friends? Show them how you can make a crystal (p. 16), juggle one-handed (p. 33), or deal with a bully (p. 42). Bored and need something to do? Not anymore when you find out how to keep a secret diary (p. 88), make a scrapbook (p. 9), or put together a dance routine (p. 24). And tons of other neat-o things you need to know how to do!
Of course by telling you about these books I may have just deprived myself and all the other contributers here a wealth of post topics! Sorry everyone.

(Hat Tip: Instapundit)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Science at home: Build your own nanotechnology lab

Some of the problems with pursuing modern science at home - or in a school - (particularly electronics or the study of matter at the atomic scale) is that the equipment to be able to see the effects of that scale can cost so much!

Well, here are instructions on making two pieces of equipment used in modern science.
First, the oscilloscope (with a nice history of oscilloscopes to boot):

The oscilloscope is still one of the most important measurement tools of the electronic engineer. With the advent of the often very reasonably priced USB scopes, such an instrument is now within reach of every body.

Second, once you have the oscilloscope, you can build your own scanning tunneling microscope (a key tool in nanotechnology) that is able to resolve atoms:
The goal of this project is to build a simple STM that can resolve atoms, with a cost of materials less than $100.00 excluding oscilloscope. My real goal here is to provide a base of information so experimenters and students could build a simple STM. Typical piezo tubes used in tube scanners of commercial scanning probe microscopes cost in the range of $200 - $800 and operate with several hundred volts applied to the scanner. This design uses a unimorph disk scanner to reduce the cost and avoid using any high voltage. The Piezo element is commonly available and this particular one costs $1.80. The control voltages are so low that two 9-volt batteries can power the control electronics.

Simple Rubberband Guns

As kids, we used to make these as needed every summer, although occasionally someone would fashion a more elaborate one and keep it from year to year.

And no, none of us ever put an eye out with one of these. Then again, we were bright enough not to intentionally aim at the face. We also did a lot of target shooting with 'em. That's what I recommend: target shooting at cans or flies or plastic army men.

Wood - length of broomstick or dowel, or a 1"x2" or even a 2"x4". Whatever you use, you need a piece about 12" long (more for a 2"x4" rifle).
Clothespins - tradition says to use the wooden spring type, but the plastic ones will work just fine. The simplest gun uses one, we usually used at least two. They come in bags of 100 or more, so borrow from a neighbor if you don't have your own. Or make lots of guns, you politically incorrect brute.
Rubberbands - in our house, we kept rubberbands around the doorknob on the furnace closet, and had plenty because you got one with every newspaper delivered. They're cheap, so don't go mugging the paperboy for his.

How To
Take sandpaper and round off any sharp edges to eliminate wood splinters. Use a file to cut a shallow "V" notch in the end of the wood. Use one rubber band to fasten a clothespin to the wood on the opposite end of the wood from the notch. That's it!
Here's a picture of a fancy store-bought model that works exactly this way. It's a good view of the clothespin and notch setup.

To Use
Hook a rubber band around the end of the wood so it's in the notch. Stretch it back with one hand, use the other to open the clothespin and catch the rubberband. When ready to shoot, press on the clothespin and zing!

You can cut out pistol or rifle shapes from the wood, mount multiple clothespins (and make extra notches), and do all kinds of custom coolness with the basic design. Often we'd grab a piece of scrap wood, use a rock to gouge out the notch, grab a clothespin from the clothesline out back and a handfull of rubberbands from the doorknob. Within minutes you had something that worked, and sometimes the ugliest thing was the straightest shooter (my best was a piece of old yellow broomstick with two clothespins attached). Showing up with a store-bought rubberband gun was tolerated - barely - mainly because we'd closely examine it to see how they managed multiple shots if it worked that way.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bernard Smith: An Amazing Life

Bernard Smith was born in 1910 in New York City. By age 22, he had dropped out of high school, working odd jobs and spending most of his time at the libraries and museums of the city.

One night, he attended a meeting of the American Rocket Society and while looking over one of their failed rockets, made some suggestions on how to improve the device. The president of the Society, Edward Pendray, handed him the pieces of the rocket and invited him to create the next version.

According to Smith, his motivation was simple. America was in the midst of the Great Depression, and "It was a lousy planet. The rocket ship was the only way to get off it."

After making major modifications to the original rocket design, including several weight-saving changes, the new rocket was ready to fly in early 1933. It wasn't entirely successful, but proved that the basic concepts were sound.

Bernard Smith never did graduate from high school, but he did earn a degree in Physics. In fact, after World War II he started his career working for the US Navy, eventually heading up the Weapons Development Department at the Naval Ordinance Test Station. Among the projects that he worked on or managed are the ASROC, Sidewinder and Shrike. He also spearheaded Project Pilot, which placed at least one small satellite into orbit via air-launched rockets in 1958.

So that's the "rocket" side of Bernard Smith. But there's more, for there's the "sailboat" side of Bernard Smith.

Smith also spent over 40 years pursuing his dream of creating the perfect sailboat. He tried many unconventional designs and met some notable successes. In fact, one of his early efforts, the Aerohydrofoil, could make 20 knots in a 12 knot wind. He also designed craft he called Monomarans, Fliptackers, and experimented with a concept called the Sailloon, which was a gas-filled sail that would help provide lift, and thus speed, to a sailboat.

Follow that link above for a fascinating look at the creations of a mind who saw radically different, and sometimes better, ways to accomplish his goals, both through the air and on the water.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Flags of the World: Bhutan

You can learn a lot about people by looking at the symbols they use to represent themselves.

About 2 million people call the country of Bhutan home. Over 90% of these people make their livings with agricultural pursuits. Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy located between India and China.

Around 75% of Bhutan's residents are Buddhists, and the rest are Hindus. Religion is very important in Bhutan, and that is reflected in the nation's flag.

Half of the flag is orange to symbolize the Buddhist religion. (After all, when you think of a Buddhist monk, isn't he usually wearing orange robes?) The other half of the flag is yellow to represent the fruit of the king's leadership.

The dragon has a snarling mouth to indicate the strength of Bhutan's protective gods, and the jewels the dragon clutches symbolize the riches and perfection of the nation. The dragon is the color white to represent purity and loyalty, and the dragon as a whole represents Bhutan as a whole. Bhutan's name in the local language means "land of the dragon", which is at least partly named for the thunderstorms that form over the Himalayan Mountains to the north. The thunder produced by those storms is said to be the dragon's roar.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!

This weekend is a treat for skywatchers and amateur astronomers. The annual Perseid meteor shower should be beautiful because it arrives while a new moon is in the sky. As many as 60 meteors per hour may be visible, with larger ones leaving a streak across the night sky as they burn up in our atmosphere.

As a bonus, the planet Mars will be visible as a bright red dot in the sky to the northeast.

Unlike most astronomical events, meteor watching is done best without telescope or binoculars. Get comfortable, pick out a patch of black sky away from light pollution, and watch patiently. The closer towards dawn, the more meteors you might see. The peak number should be Sunday night into Monday morning, but they'll be visible for several nights afterwards too.

Every August at this time the Perseid shower occurs. Named for the constellation Perseus - because that's where the meteors appear to come from - their real origin is the comet Swift-Tuttle. When Earth crosses the path of the comet, debris from the comet's passing enters our atmosphere and gives us a light show.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Some of the most worthwhile ways to spend 5 minutes

A very excellent website where Popular Science is taking its HOW 2.0 projects and turning them into quick 5 minute videos. Up right now are a use for old, died out hard drives, how to make a coffee can cellphone antenna, and making a bottle cap tripod.


A Planetarium on your Desktop

Have you ever stood outside on a cold, clear night, looking at the stars?

If you can get out into the country, away from city lights, you can see thousands of stars...and once in a while, the quick streak of a meteor.

There's no denying the beauty of the night skies. When you look at the stars, you are looking at the last, greatest unexplored frontier, a frontier into which Mankind has taken its most halting baby steps. Moon landings and probes sent skittering through the solar system, out into the Oort Cloud...and in a few hundred years, who knows where we will have traveled to?

Men and women have been gazing at the stars since time began. There are those who misguidedly believe that the stars influence our lives: these are the kind of people who take horoscopes seriously and who really care whether you're a Libra or a Sagittarius. Where I come from, we call them "nuts." But anyone with a speck of imagination will look at the skies and see the ghostly patterns formed by the stars.

These patterns - constellations - all have names, names that are unique to each human culture. And now you can look at the skies and see all of those constellations and planets without leaving your house.

Check out Stellarium, a wonderful open-source computer program that turns your computer into a planetarium! You can download it at no charge: just click on the link. Once you've downloaded and installed the program (ask your parents for permission first, before installing any software), it will show the skies in real time. All you have to do is tell it where you are, and it will display the a picture of the sky, day or night. Just drag with your mouse to look in any direction...and you can zoom in to look at planets and nebulae more closely. Click on any star, planet, or galaxy, and detailed information will appear at the top left corner of your screen.

[Click on image to expand.]

Thanks to Joan of Argghh! for the link!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


"I've done everything I know how to do, so if this doesn't work, we're going to learn something." -- Doug Pratt

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Ghost Story: Drip Drop

This story was told and retold around the campfire last week by the 10-and-under crowd:

A teenage girl was left home alone for the weekend by her parents. She was very responsible and didn't have any friends over. She just made herself dinner and went upstairs to her room to read before bedtime. She read for a little while with her dog lying on the floor beside the bed, then she turned out the light and went to sleep.

In the middle of the night, the girl woke up because of a strange noise. She listened to the still darkness all around her, unable to figure out what had disturbed her. Then she faintly heard something from the bathroom...drip...drop...drip...drop.

"There must be a leak," she thought to herself. She felt a little nervous in the house all alone. It was so dark and quiet. She put her hand down to feel for her dog. He licked her hand, and feeling safe, she fell back asleep.

In the morning, the girl got up and went into the bathroom. There, her dog was hanging from the shower rod with his throat slit. His blood was slowly dripping onto the tile floor...drip...drop...drip...drop. Written on the mirror in blood was the message: "Aren't you glad you didn't look under the bed?"

If you have a ghost/scary story you'd like to contribute, please e-mail it to

Pinhole Cameras

Modern digital photography has made taking pictures a simple affair. Press a button, and BINGO! You can look on the display screen and see exactly what your picture looks like.

In the Olden Days of film cameras, you had to wait three days to get your pictures back from the drugstore, only to find that you left your lenscap on for half of 'em, two of them have your Aunt Betty's head chopped in half, and your pinkie finger covered half the lens when you took that shot of Rover on the skateboard in the supermarket parking lot. Now, with a digital camera, you can see all those lousy pictures right away. Joy!

But there were advantages to using those old-school film cameras. One of them was that you could develop your own pictures. Not all that hard if you took black-and-white pictures...definitely a challenge if you took color pictures. And there was nothing quite as exciting as watching your pictures appear as if by magic as you put the paper in the developing tray.

You can do all this today - and you don't even need to buy a camera. Because all you really need is a few simple, easily available supplies (like an empty oatmeal canister, a used aluminum soda can, and some flat black spray paint) and you can take and develop your own pictures using a pinhole camera that you build yourself!

It might seem surprising, but if light passes through a small enough hole, it gets refracted (bent) just as though it had gone through a lens! In fact, the very first cameras - long before photography was invented - were darkened rooms with a small opening. Light would come in through this tiny hole, and an upside-down image would be projected on the opposite wall of the room. The room was called a camera obscura, which simply means "dark room" in Latin - and that's where our modern word "camera" came from.

It was easy enough for people to figure out that a camera obscura didn't have to be as big as a whole room. You could build one in a box, and if you put a sheet of frosted glass on the side opposite the little hole, you could see the image on the glass. Finally, in 1826, the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce figured out how to capture the image permanently, using chemicals. It wasn't easy, though - the first permanent photograph took eight hours to shoot!

Modern cameras use film - or an electronic sensor in the case of digital cameras - to capture images. And they use lenses instead of pinholes...mainly because lenses let a lot more light through, so exposures can be tiny fractions of a second instead of many minutes. But pinhole cameras can still be used to capture beautiful images, and you don't need any fancy equipment to build one.

Rather than "reinvent the wheel," I've found an excellent Web resource that gives complete, step-by-step instructions for building your own pinhole camera, taking pictures, and developing them yourself. You can find it here at Stew Woodruff's Oatmeal Box Pinhole Photography website.

Whether you take your own pinhole photographs, or whether you just browse the gallery at the Oatmeal Box Pinhole Photography site, you'll notice that the photographs are all exceptionally sharp, and many of them have a "wide-angle" appearance. It's one of the things that make pinhole photos so unusual-looking. Try it!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Rattlesnake Eggs

Imagine showing a mysterious envelope to your friends. On the outside of the envelope are warnings about the contents, letting people know that whatever is inside is very dangerous. The envelope isn't flat, there is obviously something in there. You tell everyone that the envelope contains rattlesnake eggs, and if they're very careful they can take a peek. You lift the flap, you hold the envelope out, they bend close to peer inside, and you carefully open the envelope...

...and your friends jump like crazy when a loud rattling sound buzzes from inside the envelope!

When I was growing up, every few years I would make this simple practical joke and scare a brand new group of schoolmates. Nobody ever seemed to have heard of it, which made it all the better because they weren't expecting it.

(Yay! More of Ted's cheesy diagrams!)


1. A mailing envelope.
2. A wire coat hanger.
3. A rubber band.
4. A large coat button.

The first thing to do is to cut the hook end of the coat hanger off, as shown in step 1 over on the right. The easiest way to do it is to use a pair of snips or dykes (cutting pliers), but if you must you can just bend the soft metal of the hanger hook back and forth until it breaks. Be careful, the edges might be sharp!

Next, thread the rubber band through the button holes as shown in step 2.

The only fiddly bit is the size of the button. Too small, and it won't spin right to make the noise, too big and you'll have the same problem. Look through mom's button box and find a few to try.

The ends of the rubber bands go over the ends of the wire hook. Then you just wind up the button until the rubber bands are twisted tight. If you let go of the button now, you'll see how it spins rapidly. Inside the envelope, the button will snap against the paper sides which creates the loud buzzing sound that startles people.

Don't forget to write dire warnings on the outside of the envelope! Things like "Danger: Rattlesnake Eggs" and "Do Not Crush: Rattlesnake Eggs" are good. Skulls and Crossbones are always fashionable.

To use, wind up the button and slip it inside the envelope. Hold the sides so the button doesn't move and give away the trick until you're ready. You can even peek inside yourself while holding the button. When everyone is looking inside, slightly open the envelope and let it buzz!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

I Can Be Dangerous

Hello everyone. Stephen Macklin here. Most of the time I'm over here where the only real danger I pose is to the English language, and I occasionally pose a threat to rational thought.

When Ted invited me to do "some peices about sailing, as well as anything else that might catch your fancy" I gave it serious thought for 1.3 seconds before agreeing. Then I thought, "how do I teach someone how to sail without, you know, a boat?" Basic principles? I can do that. Basic racing tactics? I can do that. How a boat feels under sail? That is challenge.

The best way to learn to sail is on a boat. If you don't happen to have one, or have a friend with one, don't lose hope. If you want to sail you can. And in this post I'll tell you how you can learn to sail for free!

There's not really that much to the secret. All you have to do is ask.

If you live in an area where there are sailboats, there will more than likely be sail boat races. Now you might have had in mind something more genteel and relaxing than racing, but races are an easy way to get on a boat and learn how to sail. One common fact in local club racing is that there will almost always be at least one boat that needs an extra body, and an extra pair of hands. Races are probably held one or two evenings a week and at least one day of the weekend. Get yourself onto the dock and start asking if anyone needs crew.

Getting onto the dock shouldn't be too difficult. Even if the race is being run out of the snooty local yacht club that restricts access. Chances are you won't be able to park on site so find a place a park and walk in. If they stop you at the gate tell them you're there to crew on (insert the name of any boat you happen to know or make one up.) If you look like you're on a crew, chances are the kid at the gate isn't going to send you away.

A few things to keep in mind. Since you probably don't have a set of foul weather gear, don't go on a day when it might rain. They will still race, but you would be miserable. Sunglasses are key when you're on the water, spend a couple of bucks on a croakie. Murphy's first law of sailing is that the more expensive your sunglasses are the more likely they are to go overboard. A good cap is probably wise as well, but invest in a "lid latch." This is essentially a piece of string with a clip on either end. One end for the hat one end to your shirt. When you buy it, it will probably feel like it costs too much - but in the long run it's cheaper than replacing hats.

Shoes matter. You're going to want to want a decent pair of shoes with non-skid and non marking soles. When someone is nice enough to have you on board, you don't want to pay them back with scuff marks all over the deck. Wear something that will stay on, and never wear sandals. There are lots of thing to bang your toes on on a boat. Keep in mind also that there is a better than average chance that your feet and shoes will get wet. Wear shoes that are comfortable without socks. Wet shoes are tolerable. Wet socks are never good.

You should probably know some boat basics before you go. Little things like Port is left and Starboard is right. The sail at the front of the boat when you're sailing into the wind is called the Jib. The sail attached to the mast and the boom is called the Main. The unofficial reason the call the boom the boom, is because that's what you hear inside your head right after it hits you! When they are sailing downwind (with the wind behind the boat) they put up a big colorful sale called a Spinnaker. You may also hear it referred to as "the kite."

Be honest about how much experience you do or don't have on boats. Sailors generally are open to bringing someone on board with no experience because they like to have names to add to their crew lists. If you are a complete novice, chances are your role on the boat during a race will be as ballast. Or in sailing terminology, Rail Meat. Your job will be to sit on the high side of the boat with your legs hanging over the side. When the boat tacks you move to the other side. You might be asked to help with some tasks like stuffing the spinnaker below when they take it down but not much more.

This doesn't sound exciting, but it gives you the chance to observe and ask questions. There's a bit of etiquette to this mostly arising from common sense. Ask questions after things happen - and then settle down. After you've asked a few questions you will probably find that people will be explaining things to you before you ask.

Remember, the people around you have an interest in developing new crew. There are a lot of races in a season and lots of opportunities for schedule conflicts. Developing new sailors is good for the team, and good for the sport. Be eager to learn and to help and you will be invited back. After you've got a couple of races under your belt ask to take the helm sailing to or from the race. Don't worry they'll keep and eye out to make sure you don't do anything too far wrong.

Sailors will also help other sailors on the dock - if the boat you sailed with last week doesn't need help, they may know someone who does. Don't be afraid to freelance and sail with many different boats until you find a permanent spot. And if racing turns out not to be your thing, you still managed to learn how to sail without having to pay for lessons!

Most importantly, have fun.

Look for future posts on the basics of yacht racing - and other dangerous things.

Naming Boats That Sink On Purpose (part 1)

My son served a tour in the navy on the submarine USS Philadelphia. One night I got to wondering about the method the US uses to name its' subs. Here’s a little bit about what I found.

Before WWII, all US subs were numbered by type, so you had the O-25, the R-14, and the S-12. Militarily efficient, but not very inspiring.

In WWII, US submarines were named after fish and marine creatures. So we had cool scary names like the Barracuda, Stingray, and SeaDragon. We also had some less-than-fearsome names like the USS Plunger, the USS Tuna, and USS Cod. We had a lot of submarines in WWII, and I guess we ran out of good names.

Since then, the Fast Attack boats have been named according to evolving custom, starting with the same fish and marine creatures, then moving on to Presidents, Admirals, and important Americans, for a while cities and towns, and most recently to States (which used to be what we named Battleships for).

For the ‘boomers’ (missile boats), the evolution was from Presidents, to Distinguished Americans, and now States of the Union. There was a time when you knew a ship’s function by it’s name; the Iowa and Texas were battleships, the Helena and Indianapolis were cruisers. It's not that cut and dried anymore.

While poking around, I saw among the USN Ballistic Missile Submarine force the Lafayette (SSBN 616), Tecumseh (SSBN 628), Von Steuben (SSBN 632), Casimir Pulaski (SSBN 633), Simon Bolivar (SSBN 641), and the Mariano G. Vallejo (SSBN 658). There is also a Fast Attack boat named the Kamehameha (SSN 642). Not all of these boats are still in service, the average lifespan of US submarines appears to be around 30 years.

The names may be familiar to you, in a vague sort of way. But what did these people do that was important enough for the navy to name ships (er, boats*) after them? Click on the names for more complete biographies.

The Marquis de Lafayette was a French soldier and statesman who played an important part in the American Revolutionary War.

One of the great leaders of the American Indian tribes. A member of the Shawnee, he worked to unite the Indian nations against the encroaching white man.

Von Steuben
Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben was a Prussian soldier who came to America to help in the war against Britain. He was instrumental in turning Washington’s ragtag band of revolutionaries into an army, introducing techniques of training that are still used today.

Casimir Pulaski
Polish officer who is known as the Father of American Cavalry, he helped organize and train troops for General Washington. He trained the father of Robert E. Lee in Cavalry tactics.

Simon Bolivar
This one has me a little stumped. Basically his claims to fame – as far as the US Navy is concerned – are that he traveled through the US soon after the war of independence, which may have inspired him to liberate South America. He is sometimes called the ‘George Washington of South America’. I’ll keep looking for the tie-in, unless ‘prominent Americans’ extends to the whole of the Americas (USS Carmen Miranda anyone?).

Mariano G. Vellejo
Born in Mexico, he considered himself a Californian above all else. He played an important part in the development of the California territory and it’s eventual inclusion into the United States.

A dynasty of Hawaiian monarchs. I always thought it was just one King. I would guess that the submarine is named after the first Kamehameha, who was known as "the Great".

I’ll be looking up some of the other, less well-known historical figures later and I’ll link to their biographies as well.

* In the US Navy, all large surface vessels are referred to as ships but all submarines are called boats.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Drawing water up a hill

I like thinking about the world before electronics. Not that I'd like to return to those days, but the machines invented to perform tasks in the world of mechanics are sheer brilliance. Probably topping the list of really cool mechanical machines is the machine known as Archimedes Screw.

Archimedes Screw enables water to be drawn up hill (or to irrigate some Hanging Gardens that might be hanging around the city of Babylon). How does it work? Well, you turn the screw and the water flows up the screw. The simple machines that you learned about in elementary school? Well, here is where they matter. The screw is an inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder. As the screw turns, it scoops up water. This water is pushed up the incline (around the cylinder) until it finally pours out from the top, feeding an irrigation system.

Does such a mechanical system still have value in today's world? Of course! Not only is it fun to create your own irrigation system from the local creek (a fun weekend project), but such systems are of wide use in the world - from the developed world (where Archimedes Screws are used in sewage treatment plants - like the one in Memphis, TN, shown above) to the undeveloped world needing cheap, available irrigation (shown below)

For more on Archimedes Screw (and his other wonderful inventions), check this out.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Seven Wonders

You've probably heard about the recent voting for the "new 7 wonders." The expressed aim of the project was to call attention to world heritage and I hope that it does this. We all have an interest in preserving the heritage of the world. It is important to note, however, the difference between these wonders and the canonical Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Wonders of the Ancient World are initially due to Herodotus. He compiled his list of places he saw as he traveled around the Mediterranean. Destroyed with the Library of Alexandria, Callimachus of Cyrene compiled a collection of "Wonders around the World." They probably weren't finalized in what the wonders are now known as. It wasn't until the Middle Ages when the canon of the wonders were drawn to what it is known as now (they weren't, as the press releases of "The New 7 Wonders" suggest, decided by one man).

The Wonders of the Ancient World were, apparently (only one - The Pyramids at Giza - survives), truly wondrous to behold. A wonderful reference on the seven wonders is located here. They are:

  1. The Pyramids of Giza
  2. The Colossus at Rhodes
  3. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  4. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
  5. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
  6. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
  7. The Lighthouse at Alexandria

I've traveled a decent amount and been to a lot of different places in the world. However, I have only been to one of the so-called "New 7 Wonders." In all honesty, two of them I don't think belong on the list at all. I find it interesting that none of them is built in modern times. I wonder about that - do we build physical wonders anymore (as a culture)? The same website has a list of seven modern wonders and seven forgotten modern wonders. I've seen seven of those fourteen and I just don't feel like those really rise to the level of wonder. What do you think? Any thoughts on what modern wonder you think will make it to the canon and be discussed 2000 years from now?


"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted." -- Plutarch

How High Is That?

If you want to figure out how tall something is (like a house or tree), or how high it goes (like a rocket or balloon), there’s a simple and inexpensive way to get a fair estimate.

You’ll need a couple things for this, but they’re easy to find and you probably already have them around the house. Find a protractor and a rectangular piece of cardboard bigger than the protractor. You’ll also need a push pin, some string and a weight of some kind (I used a fishing sinker).

First, let’s make a simple theodolite, which is a tool used to measure vertical angles. Take the cardboard and using the push pin, fasten the protractor to it so that the flat edge of the protractor runs along the top of the cardboard. Tie the weight to one end of the string and the other end to the pin. This way, when you tilt the cardboard you can read the angle by seeing where the string hangs past the protractor.

The other thing you’ll need is a tangent table, which can be found in any trigonometry textbook. That’s right, you’re using trigonometry for this! Use the one below, or find one to your liking, they're all the same (click it and it gets bigger).

Still with me? Good! Believe me, this is simple. In fact, this explanation takes longer than the process. The figure below shows the basic concept of determining height or altitude:

Take the theodolite and stand a known distance from what you’re trying to measure. In the diagram, it's where the black and blue lines meet. This distance is the baseline, and the farther the better (as long as you can see the top of the thing you’re measuring). For instance, say you’re going to measure the altitude of a model rocket, and you’re launching from a football field. The tracker is on one goal line, 300 feet (100 yards) away from the launch pad on the other goal line. When the rocket launches, the tracker follows the rocket with the theodolite until the rocket reaches apogee (it's highest point). The angle is read (where the string marks it on the protractor), and this angle is written down.

Time for some simple math. The formula is on the diagram. Look up the tangent for the angle on the table, multiply that number by the baseline, and that is the altitude in feet. Simple!!!
An example: baseline is 300 feet and your measured angle is 40 degrees. The tangent for 40 degrees is .839, so 300 * .839 = 251.7 feet.

This technique works great for things that stand still or go straight up, but the measurement will be off if there’s any horizontal movement. Using our model rocket example again, if the rocket curves towards you on the way up, then your measured angle will increase and the calculated altitude will be too high. One way to compensate for this is to have two people with theodolites standing at 90 degrees from each other (imagine a rocket launching from home plate on a baseball diamond and trackers standing on first and third bases). You can average their measurements and get a pretty good estimate of the correct height.

You can also make a sturdier theodolite by replacing the cardboard with a length of wood or broomstick. Screw the protractor into the side of the wood, hold the theodolite like a rifle and sight along the length of it to get your measurement. You can drive a couple of finishing nails into the top of the wood to help with your sighting if you want, but it's not strictly necessary.

So, how high is the tallest tree in your neighborhood?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Model Rocket

For those of you that have read Ted's Model Rocketry Q & A for Beginners post, this is what you'll see when you launch your very own rocket.

Within moments of engine ignition, a model rocket is moving at a speed of several hundred miles an you'd better have a quick trigger finger! Not even a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second can completely "freeze" the motion of the rocket as it surges toward the sky.

Playing with Toads.

Greetings, readers of The Dangerous & Daring Blog for Boys and Girls. I am Mike. You may know me as The Maximum Leader from the blog Naked Villainy. If you happen to read my blog, you will know that I opine (with varying degrees of seriousness) on politics, history, philosophy, culture, and whatever else happens to strike my fancy. I was surprised and pleased that Ted invited me to be a contributor here on The Dangerous and Daring Blog for Boys and Girls. I was surprised because I don't often think of my blogging as being oriented towards young boys and girls. But I was pleased because this outlet will give me an opportunity to write about a whole host of subjects in a way that I would not ordinarially think to do so.

While I have not yet read the book "The Dangerous Book for Boys," I am a father of three children. I am a dad to two girls and a boy. I belive that I was raised in a "traditional American" fashion. Unfortunately, I don't see that many kids are getting the same type of upbringing I got. I hope that my contributions here can help someone out there learn something for themselves and possibly use that knowledge to teach their kids something they might not otherwise learn.

That said, my first post is not actually my own... Almost three years ago my good friend, and fellow blogger at Naked Villainy, Mark -- the Smallholder -- wrote two posts that got us lots of traffic. The subject of the two posts revolved around sexing toads. If you've never played with a toad you've never really been a kid. My friend Mark, through the post he wrote, taught me something I wouldn't have learned before.

Here is revised edition of those posts about Toads...

I once had a pair of toads as pets.

I was playing in the woods one day and I came upon a pair of toads and took them home. I kept them in an terrarium.

I named them Shake and Speare.

Shake and Speare were cool pets. I taught them to jump through hoops. They slurped worms up like spaghetti. If you fed them lightning bugs, the lightning bugs would light up inside their bodies. The bugs would appear as a red glow through the toad's skin. If you fed Shake and Speare several lightning bugs and then let them hop around, the blinking lights would make them look like moving Christmas trees.

I always wanted to have them lay eggs and hatch tadpoles, but over three years never had any luck, even though I had a male and female pair.

Shut up. It’s not that hard to sex toads, you perv.

You just pick up a toad and rub the belly. A female will squirm around. A male will squirm around and squeak.

You see, toad sex occurs when a male wraps his arms around a female and squeezes out her eggs. He then releases his sperm into the water and his sperm fertilize the floating eggs.
During mating season, things get really hectic. “Toad balls” develop as males struggle to be the one closest to a fertile female. As a defense mechanism, the squeak is the way one male toad lets another male toad know: “Get off! I’m not a girl!”

Try it with the next toad you find. Impress your friends.

For those of you who wish to sex toads at home, here is a step-by-step guide:

1) Make sure your toad is a toad. Many people seem to confuse frogs and toads. Frogs are moist, have smooth skin, and are generally found near water. Toads are dry, have bumpy skin, and are terrestrial except when they mate.

2) Pick up the toad gently, but with enough control so that it doesn’t squirm loose and splat itself on the ground. Hold the toad away from your body because they will attempt their standard defense mechanism: peeing on you. Toad pee is very acidic, and if you were a dog or predator, you’d drop the poor guy quickly. As it is, you’ll want to wash your hands after you are done sexing your toad.

3) Turn the toad over in the palm of your hand so it lays with its back down and its head between your thumb and pointer finger. Gently wrap your fingers around it’s body. Maintain enough pressure that it cannot squirm forward, but don’t squeeze it too hard either.

4) Turn your hand so the toad is right-side up in relation to the ground. Use your middle finger to stroke or tickle the toad’s belly. If the toad croaks, you have a male. If it does not, you’ve got a lady.

And there you have it... Now you can go and sex a toad...

Carry on.

Monday, July 30, 2007

There's Old, and Then There's *Old*

In the White Mountains of California you'll find the oldest living things on planet Earth. Bristlecone Pine trees have survived there for thousands of years, including "Methuselah", which is over 4,670 years old! These trees were saplings when the pyramids in Egypt were being built. They were mature trees during the time of Christ, and they still live.

You can learn more about Bristlecone Pines by following the links here and here and there are some cool photos here.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Greetings, Boys and Girls!

My name is Robert the Llama Butcher (although I often go by Robbo the LB) and I usually post over at I'm in my early forties and have three daughters aged nine, seven and five, respectively, so when Ted came along and suggested the idea for this blog o' stuff kids oughta know, I was all for it.

If you've ever spent any time over at my other blog, you'll already know that I delight in posting about history. I do this mainly for two reasons: first, I strongly believe that we as a culture cannot possibly understand what we are now if we don't first understand how we got to be here. If there is a weakness in the American character, it is a tendancy to look only forward, not backward, and while this is fine in terms of general optimism and has undoubtedly done much to power our rise to greatness, it also blinds us and leads to many tedious and spirit-wasting debates. (I'm thinking, just at random, of those smarmy people who think it's clever to point out the hypocracy of the Founding Fathers in that for all their talk of Liberty, many of them were slaveholders. Yes, such talk would be ridiculous in the early 21st Century, but these men lived in the last half of the 18th and must be taken in their own context. You would think this would be pretty obvious, but apparently it isn't to some.)

Second, I am a great believer in what is sometimes called the Kings and Battles view of history, something that is not much emphasized anymore. This simply says that there are key events and people who have shaped history far more than most others, and that it is important for us to know who and what they were. My experience of what I believe is termed "Bottom Up" historical study, with its fashionable emphasis on the day to day drudgery of the downtrodden, the disenfranchised and the oppressed, is that it is generally nothing more than a platform for sociological agitprop and rabble-rousing. So, for example, you probably will not see much here on the sorry lot of the Medieval serf or the Roman slave, but you may see posts on the efforts of the Plantagenets to take the French throne or the consolidation of power in late Republican and early Imperial Rome by the Julian and Claudian families.

I also like to post about artistic matters, mostly musickal. I am a very strong believer in the concept of High Art, that is, a canon of works that have stood the test of time because of their aesthetic excellence and intellectual rigor. I don't pretend for an instant to be any kind of expert on these matters, but instead cheerfully occupy the position of an enthusiastic amateur. I also believe that an exposure to, say, Haydn and Mozart, Shakespeare and Milton, Rembrandt and Michelangelo, to name just a few, is a part of the well-rounded education of any young lady or gentleman. I feel this is particularly so in that the current age is largely devoid of any real artistic achievement, and it is important for children to get a sense of what Man can achieve when he puts his mind to it. There is an enormous difference between Bach and Britney, and all of you young'uns ought to know what it is.

Anyhoo, welcome aboard and enjoy the ride! Yip! Yip!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Spider Houses

People have houses. Dogs have houses. Birds have houses. Even butterflies and bats have houses. Let's learn how to build a spider house.

Why in the world would you build a spider house? Firstly, spiders are fascinating creatures and it's neat to be able to go outside and watch one doing its spider-thing in a frame that you built. Secondly, spiders eat a lot of pesky insects, including some that might be eating the plants in your vegetable or flower garden.

Materials Needed:

Thin wood such as grapestake. What you're looking for is wood about the size of what yardsticks are made out of, something about one to two inches wide and one-quarter inch or less thick. Grapestakes are cheap, come in bundles and are about six feet long. Perfect.

Wood glue. Waterproof or exterior is better, but even hot-melt glue will work.


String or twine. You'll only need this if you want to hang your spider house instead of sticking it into the ground.


Before you begin, cut out four pieces of wood about 12 inches long. Next, cut out two pieces about 3 inches long. A hand saw works fine for this. Save the rest of the grapestake, you'll use it later.

1. Put two of the 12 inch pieces next to each other as shown below. Put a good spot of glue on each end, where the gray circles are on the diagram.

2. Take the other two 12 inch pieces and lay them across the glue spots as shown on the left, to make a square. Clamp the corners or place something heavy on them (make sure to clean up any glue that oozes out!) and let the glue dry.

3. Those two short pieces that you cut will be attached to the square frame so they make a little nook for the spider. This gives the spider protection from the rain and a place to hide when it feels threatened.

4. Time for more spots of glue. The spot shown is where you'll put the glue on each side (front and back) of the frame.

5. Glue the two short pieces to the frame as shown. The front one is sideways and the rear one is on the other side of the frame and runs in the same direction. This creates the little hidey-hole. Clamp or weight down and let dry.

Next, decide how you want to display your spider house. You can glue the remaining length of grapestake to the bottom corner and stick it in the ground in your garden, or you can tie some string or twine through one corner and hang it. Either way, there should be some protection from the wind and elements or spiders will find it unsuitable and look elsewhere to live. Like inside your house.

This makes a fairly large frame, and all of the measurements are flexible. Make smaller ones if you'd like, even popsicle sticks can be used (although you'd likely have smaller spiders take up residence there). If you build something bigger than about three feet square, I don't want to know what decides to live there.

After you place your spider houses, wait a couple of days and you'll see webs being built inside the frames.

Leave a comment and let us know how your spider houses are doing! Or email us at and send pictures, because we looooove spiders!

Moon Trees

During the Apollo missions that landed on the moon, one member of each crew stayed in orbit while the other two descended to the surface. One of these Command Module Pilots was Stu Roosa, who was a smoke jumper before he became an astronaut. Besides photographing the moon from orbit and performing other scientific experiments, Roosa carried with him 500 tree seeds. The idea was to plant them when he returned to Earth and to watch over time to see what effect the trip into space might have on them.

Over 400 seedlings were grown from the seeds, and they were planted in various places around the US and the world. If you follow this link to the Moon Trees page, you'll find a list at the bottom showing where many of them are planted.

Maybe one is close enough to you to visit. After all, not every tree went around the moon and back!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ghost Stories: The Hook

One of the first ghost stories I ever heard was told to me by an older cousin. She was watching over some of us younger kids as we spent the night in a tent. We begged her to tell us a ghost story, and she told us one that I have remembered ever since. It is a well-known American folktale, and here is one version for those who are brave enough to read told in the dark with a flashlight or campfire...

A teenage girl was listening to the radio as she got ready for her date with her boyfriend. A report came on warning listeners that an insane killer had escaped the nearby asylum. The man could be recognized by the hook that was in place of his hand. The girl didn't pay much attention--she was focused on the fun she was going to have that evening.

The girl's boyfriend came to pick her up and they went with another couple to a dance. They had a great time, and when they left they dropped the other couple off before parking in a secluded spot to kiss.

The radio was on in the car, and another report came over to warn people that the man with the hook was still at large. The girl was suddenly aware of how lonely the road was--there was no one else around. She shivered and asked her boyfriend to take her home, "That hook man sounds dangerous, and we're all alone out here."

Her boyfriend tried to get in another kiss, "Come on, it's nothing to worry about."

The couple argued, but they were interrupted when the car shook. It felt as if something...or someone...had touched it. The girl screamed, "Get us out of here now!"

The boyfriend rolled his eyes but tore out of his parking spot with a screech of the tires. The couple drove home in angry silence, and when they got to the girl's house, she kicked the car door open and went to slam it.

Instead of closing the door, the girl let out a horrible shriek. There, hanging from the door handle, was a bloody hook.

(This is the first in what will be a series of ghost stories. If you'd like to contribute one, please e-mail it to:

Monday, July 23, 2007

History of The United States Flag

"Old Glory" is a red, white, and blue flag with thirteen alternating red and white stripes, and a blue field with white stars. The earliest explanation for the colors came from Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thompson. He did not explain the flag specifically, but rather the seal of the country:

"The colors of the [stripes of the seal] are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of [the upper field of the seal] signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice."

The original flag had thirteen stripes and thirteen stars signifying the original thirteen states. Those states were Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia. The thirteen stars, it was written in the first Flag Act, "in a blue field [represent] a new Constellation."

When the states of Kentucky and Vermont entered the union, the flag was changed to have fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. This was the only time a United States flag had more than thirteen stripes, and was the flag flying over Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812.

In 1818, another Flag Act took away the two new stripes and the United States flag has had thirteen stripes ever since. A new star has been added for each new state, and there are currently fifty stars. This version of the flag has been in place since 1959, when Hawaii became the fiftieth state.

When a flag is folded by the military, it is folded into a triangle that is symbolic of the tricorner hats worn by American soldiers during the American Revolution. The folded flag should show only the blue field and some white stars.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Most Incredible and Fantastic Thing in Human History

Thirty-eight years ago today, for the first time in history, a human being walked on the surface of another world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Oscarsborg is the name of the fortress protecting the seaward approaches to Oslo, Norway. Her guns have only been involved in one battle, and the two biggest guns only fired once each in anger.

The ship was the German cruiser Blücher. The first hit took out the Blücher's forward fire control station, effectively disabling the ship's forward guns. The second hit took out the aircraft hangar, igniting aviation fuel and infantry munitions stored on deck.
These were the only two rounds Aron and Moses were to ever fire in anger, their inexperienced crews and long reload times effectively taking them out of the battle. If you only get one shot - make it count.

You can read the whole story by clicking on this link.