The Big Think

August 29, 2008

Speak Softly…

Filed under: Audio — jasony @ 1:19 pm

Whenever I do location audio it’s always hard to get good action shots (of me booming, that is) because we’re always too busy with the shot. Fortunately, my friend and good director Storme posted some production stills to his facebook page. He’s graciously given me permission to repost them here (he’s the one with the camera).
Thanks, Storme!

Shooting a scene on a backroad somewhere

Shooting a scene from this video.


August 28, 2008


Filed under: Science — jasony @ 11:25 pm

Creepy Mayan underworld found in Mexico.

No Distractions Please, Miss Potts

Filed under: Education,Mad Science — jasony @ 1:34 pm

As part of my ongoing efforts to learn new things and develop unique ways to poison, damage, or otherwise permanently maim myself (see: flight training, woodworking, trebuchet building, potato gun construction, and a few other things I’m not going to post here!), I decided to add to my list of Maker Skills by learning about metal alloys and home forging.

When we were in Ireland I picked up a few Medieval soldier molds from Prince August. PA makes vulcanized rubber molds so the hobbyist can craft their own toy soldiers from heavy metals. They also sell the hobby metal for around $13 for a 1/2 lb ingot (which will make 6-10 figures in the 28mm line). I bought an ingot and made a few soldiers with my new molds and I was very pleased with the results, but at that cost it was prohibitive to make very many soldiers. You can buy lesser-quality metals that will make passable figures, but the less you spend the less detail your models have, the more problems you have casting and, most importantly, the expensive molds have a much shorter lifespan. This is due to the fact that the cheaper casting metals have a higher and higher percentage of just lead, and since lead by itself has such a high melting and casting point, repeated castings have the tendency to slowly soften and melt the mold, until eventually there’s very little detail left. The higher cost casting metals add elements like antimony, tin, and bismuth to lower the melting temperature, increase the flow rate, and improve the detail of the final model. Interestingly, bismuth (Bi) is one of the very few elements that actually expands slightly as it cools. When you put a bit of Bi in your metal and then pour it into a mold, the metal pushes out into the recesses of the form and picks up the details much better than lead alone. As you can imagine, Bi is more expensive than cheap lead, or even tin, and this is part of the reason that really good casting metal is so expensive when you buy it in pre-made ingots.

So, naturally, I decided to make my own.

First question: where to get lead? You can buy it online for a couple bucks per pound, but I thought of something better: tire weights. A little Googling revealed that tire weights are 98% lead and 2% antimony (to increase the final strength of the lead as well as to add better flow characteristics). I went to a local tire shop and asked nicely for some used tire weights, expecting to get a pound or two. They ended up giving me a medium sized box with about 30 lbs of used weights!

The next step was to melt it all down safely. I went to Wal-Mart and picked up a $10 electric hotplate and a small cast iron skillet and set up a workstation in the garage. I realize at this point that my parents are probably having conniptions imagining me breathing lead vapors and getting singed by liquid metal, but since lead has such a bad reputation I did some research before I started messing with it. It turns out that plain lead in solid form isn’t all that dangerous. Hobby stores sell lead figures, Prince Albert sells a 90/10 Lead/Tin mix for melting, and tire store guys handle lead weights all day long with their bare hands, so obviously just having it around isn’t going to kill you. There’s a whole bunch of gun enthusiasts who melt down pure lead and cast their own bullets and some of them have been doing it for 50 years and more. It turns out that it’s the lead dust and lead vapors that can cause health problems. So I was very careful setting up a workspace in the garage that would 1. minimize lead dust, 2. ventilate everything very well, and 3. avoid lead vapors by not over-heating the liquid lead. I also wore a respirator, apron, long sleeves and jeans, and even sacrificed a pair of leather gloves to be my “lead gloves” that will get used for nothing else (ditto the cast iron skillet!). And I’m very careful to not touch the contaminated parts of the gloves with my bare hands as I put them on. Overall I feel like I have a very good system that keeps my exposure to the stuff at a bare minimum. Oh, and I’m obsessive about washing my hands whenever I take the gloves off. I’m really careful about all this.

So I set up the cast iron skillet on the burner and cranked it over to high. I dumped a bunch of tire weights in and waited about 45 minutes for the burner to heat up. 1100 watts is just barely enough to get the skillet up to the required 621 degrees F that is required to turn the solid tire weights into a dirty silver pool. Tire weights have the little clip on them to hold them to the tire and since this clip is steel and melts at a much higher temperature I had to use a long pair of tongs to extract the clips from the molten pool (very carefully!). I kept placing new weights into the pool and extracting the clips until I got a very hot, very yucky looking pool of the lead/antimony mix. the next step was to “flux” the pool by putting something into it to attract the impurities. Candle wax is the suggested substance so I stripped off a few shavings of an old candle and dropped them in. I stirred it a bit with a long ladle and most of the crud gathered at the top and I was able to pull it out. Next I very carefully poured the liquid into some small stainless steel condiment cups that I had bought from Wal-Mart for a buck. Once the ingots cooled (about 20 minutes) I was able to pop them out of the cups and stack them up. I now have about 8 lbs of mostly pure lead/antimony in 1lb ingots. Neat!

But what to do now? Just remelting these ingots and pouring them into my mold will eventually damage the molds, so I have to make a lead/tin/bismuth/antimony alloy that most closely matches the formula of the expensive Prince Albert Model Metal (56% Lead / 9% Tin / 35% Bismuth). I got online and found a place that will sell me mostly pure Tin and Bismuth in one pound ingots. I’m ordering a pound of each today. From here it will be a simple matter to weigh my lead ingots, calculate the proper amount of tin and bismuth, and remelt everything into new ingots! Nifty. I’m probably going to mess with the ratios a bit to try and optimize my metal usage (read: I’m cheap and don’t want to have to buy too much bismuth). It’ll be okay with less Bi, but the melting temp of the final alloy will be higher the less Bi I add. I’m planning using this chart to come to some sort of compromise. I’ve already worked up a spreadsheet with the ratios and final price per pound of the resultant alloy. Suffice it to say, it’s much cheaper to make this stuff yourself than to buy it- that is, if you don’t include your time, but hey this is fun and I’m not worried about taking the time if I learn something.

So the end result of this will be 7 lbs or so of really good model casting metal for a fraction of the cost of buying it new, and I will have learned a bit about alloying metals.

One more word about safety: I got some weird looks from passers-by yesterday, and my neighbor James came down the street to say hi and said “whenever I see you wearing a respirator I know to stay a long way away,” which I thought was hilarious. I’m going to extremes to make sure I stay safe with this, especially since lead poisoning is cumulative, but I figure a few days spent carefully experimenting won’t cause any lasting harm especially since there are home hobbyists who have melted lead on their kitchen stoves for 50 years with no reported problems, and the black hands of the tire workers tell me that handling it repeatedly for years hasn’t killed them. So don’t worry, mom, I’ll be safe. I’m the paranoid type when it comes to personal safety. It’s also safe for the neighborhood kids as long as I keep an eye on the hotplate and warn them away if they get too curious.

So expect to see some pics of the new Medieval figures sometime. Who knows… they may even populate a castle.

August 26, 2008

These Boots Were Made For Walking

Filed under: Space/Astronomy — jasony @ 10:04 pm

But not this far! How long would it take you to walk a light-year?

August 25, 2008

Shop Time

Filed under: Woodworking — jasony @ 9:18 am

Back at it on the entertainment center. That thing has taken over the garage for the past six months and we’re both ready to have it done. I’ve set a due-date of my birthday to have it completed (Sept 10 if anyone is interested) and should be able to do it (sans stained glass) on time.

I spent 2 hours applying the sealcoat and dye coat of the base stain for a total project time of 150 hours.

August 19, 2008

Ireland 2008

Filed under: Travel — jasony @ 7:06 am

Ho-lee cow. We’re back from our 20 day tour of Ireland, and boy, do we have stories to tell. I’m jetlagged as all get-out, but it’s the “good” kind that you get when you go east-to-west. Going to Ireland was hard since we basically stayed awake for almost 40 hours straight on only 3 hours of sleep. Turns out you can’t sleep much in coach with crying babies sitting around you. Why are there always crying babies? Once we got there it was 11 a.m. and we forced ourselves to stay up until nightfall to make the adjustment. The first few days we were pretty tired but eventually got used to it.

So how was the trip? How can I possibly compress 20 days, 1000 miles driven, and 2000+ pictures into a few paragraphs? Honestly, I sort of balk at the challenge since doing a really thorough write-up would be impossible, and doing anything less would be a shame, so I probably won’t post much more about it here except to say these few words:

1. CASTLES ROCK. We saw many, many, MANY ruins and castles and we just went nuts about them.

2. Ireland = rain. The island normally gets 50mm of rain during an average August. This has been the wettest August on record, with some single days averaging 50mm. It rained almost every day we were there, and we spent more time wet than dry. But there is nothing like exploring an old castle or ruin alone in the Irish rain. We loved it. I just wish the pictures could communicate everything we saw. The light, the feel, the smells (peat fires will bring a tear to my eye for the rest of my life). If we could have stopped the rain we wouldn’t have. The real kicker is after dreading coming back to hot and dry Texas, we got off the plane and got rained on. It’s pouring outside as I write this. Perfect.

3. The ROADS!. Imagine a narrow 2 lane road with no center line. Now take away the shoulder. Now install 10 foot high hedges that go right up to the edge of the road. Make it twisty so you can’t see around the next bend. Now put a 100km/h (60mph) speed limit on it. Add in a tour bus barreling along in the other direction and you get an idea of what it’s like to drive in Ireland. Oh yeah- you’re on the right-hand side of the car on the left side of the road. And your credit card company refuses to insure any cars rented in Ireland. Have fun! We sprung the $200 for the covers-everything extra insurance and even though it was expensive, it was good peace of mind. We ended up not needing it, and if we were to go back probably wouldn’t get it next time, but it’s something that I would recommend to the first-time Ireland driver.

4. T.I.’s are great. Little privately run for-profit Tourist Information centers pop up in just about every decently sized small town (greater than, say, 5000 people). These well informed joints can help you out with everything from finding directions to making reservations at a B&B for a small charge. We didn’t use them much after we got our Ireland legs, but when we really needed them they were priceless.

5. No-plan is the best plan. We were going to plan the trip to a fare-thee-well, but decided to chuck caution to the curb and just wing it. Best decision ever. We ended up flying into Shannon airport due to getting bumped on the flight over. Used the TI to find a hotel, then braved the well-run bus system and spent 20 Euro to get both of our keesters across the island. This was doubly good since I was able to spend the 3 1/2 hour trip watching the bus driver negotiate backward traffic and also try to puzzle out the new road markings (you’d never believe how much you take your subliminal knowledge of road markings for granted until suddenly they all change). Once in Dublin we rented the car and got the heck OUT (way too crowded and crazy). We drove to the first stop a couple of hours away (Kilkenny) and spent the night there. While we were exploring the sites there we talked to the locals and planned a few cities in advance, estimating the # of days at each, then called local Bed and Breakfasts to make reservations. There are so many B&B’s in the country that even though we went to some of the most popular locations during the most crowded time of the year, we never lacked for options that were reasonably priced. Our route (and nights spent) eventually looked like this: Shannon (1), Dublin (1), then drove to Kilkenny (2), Kinsale on the south coast via Cashel (3), Killarney (2), Dingle (2), Doolin up north of Kilkee (3), Galway (2), back across to Trim NW of Dublin (1), Dublin (1). We basically made a big loop of southern Ireland, stopping at all of the major and many of the minor and out-of-the-way sites, and staying enough time in each place to get a very good feel for the land. In 18 nights on the island we got a great sense of the place without being rushed, and didn’t miss a single “must see” location except maybe the Waterford crystal factory in Waterford, which wasn’t a huge loss considering what we DID get to see. Our Rick Steves Ireland tour book is thoroughly dog-eared, rain-soaked, and trashed, and there are only a few sections that we didn’t use (mainly Northern Ireland) Speaking of which:

6. Sites seen:

Bunratty castle and heritage park (really old castle redone to look like 1400’s w/500 yr old tapestries)
Kilkenny castle (1200’s castle redecorated in 1800’s splendor)
Rock of Cashel (ho-lee cow amazing castle from the 1100’s)
Kinsale town (amazing little fishing town that’s stunningly beautiful with fun shopping and a great pub/music scene)
Cobh (Titanic/Lusitania’s last port of call and where Erin’s ancestors left for America. She got to stand on the very dock they left from!)
Kenmare/Ring of Kerry drive with three ring forts from pre-Norman days. Ask us about the weather.
Dingle Peninsula drive with the moving Blasket Island museum
Doolin, site of the best Irish pub music in the world, and best views of the stormy Atlantic we got the whole trip
Galway– neat port town with a beautiful drive up to it.
Trim (back over by Dublin). Trim castle (site of the filming of much of Braveheart). One of my top 3 favorite castles of the whole trip. Pouring rain and all to ourselves after the wonderful tour.
Unexpected day! We got bumped on the flight back and had to spend the last night in Dublin, but we got to see the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity college with our very own eyes.

Innumerable pubs. Wonderful B&B’s. Too many “Irish breakfasts” to count. 1000 miles driven on the wrong side of the road. Paying a hilarious $24 for a Burger King meal (the Euro/Dollar conversion rate is brutal!). Eating nuclear temperature Chinese food while watching the Atlantic rage. Seeing a prehistoric tomb from 4000 B.C. Evidence of Cromwell everywhere (he was a ransacking/seige-laying/church destroying machine). Rain, rain, rain. Dunne’s Grocery. Valencia Orange Irish Cream Yogurt. Figuring out that I don’t hate Guiness when it’s fresh from the tap, as long as it’s less than 300 miles from its birthplace. Discovering Bulmers cider and lamenting that you can’t get it over here. Damn the torpedoes… and the exchange rate! Flying first-class over the ocean (thank you buddy pass!) while being pampered with three course meals, wine and cheese, and even ice-cream sundaes. Creamy Toffee Rolo’s. Following the signs to the “Toy Soldier Factory” and being given a tour by the owner an hour after closing. Guarding our 10GB of photos with our lives (currently taking 3 hours just to import). Seeing thousands of miles of hand-stacked stone walls everywhere. Celtic jewelry. Handmade pottery. Spray painted sheep. Waiting patiently in the road while a farmer drives his cattle herd from one field to the next. Being scared speechless by oncoming tour buses. The “upside-down” ford (a cross-the-road river/waterfall with a cliff on one side and a perilous drop into the Atlantic on the other). Once-in-a-lifetime, make-you-tear-up-and-cry views of the sun breaking through the clouds and shining down the valley, completely trumping any postcard you’ve ever seen. The smell of peat fires that will stay with us forever.
And green. A hundred-thousand shades of green.

And those are just the highlights from looking at the map and quickly recounting everything. This long blog post, with no pictures or links, took me 90 minutes to write and is just a summary of a summary. There’s no way that I could give you a really thorough accounting of the entire trip without taking as long to write it up as it did to live it. We did keep a journal of each day and taped mementos, receipts, scraps, etc, after each day. We probably filled 50 pages. But there’s still no way that we could accurately communicate everything we saw. Ultimately, you just have to take a trip like this yourself. On the way out of the Austin airport last night we happened to pass the empty chairs that we sat in while waiting for our flight out on July 30th. I told Erin that it would be neat to go back in time and see those two people sitting in the airport watching the sun rise, knowing just what they were about to experience, and how they would be changed.

August 1, 2008

hello from Ireland! On ipod so short post. Wonderful here!

Filed under: Uncategorized — jasony @ 3:43 pm

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