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August 20, 2006

'World's Fastest Outhouse Craps Out' — An Al Christensen Exclusive!

Not too many things get me excited enough to use an exclamation point, much less put one in a headline, but bringing you this world exclusive from my crack North Carolina correspondent Al Christensen certainly is one of them.

Here's his dispatch, filed late last evening.

    World's Fastest Outhouse Craps Out

    There were a few men without shirts and women without teeth at the Circle K Back-to-School Monster Truck Bash, but most of the crowd were just ordinary families out to watch machinery bust itself up. They were not disappointed.

    The show at The Dirt Track at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Concord, North Carolina, featured the headlining monster trucks, "crash car" racing, and a special appearance by Port-O-Jet: the World’s Fastest Outhouse. That’s why I was there. No matter how urbane one considers oneself, one must not pass on a chance to witness a jet powered biffy. That alone would be well worth $25 and a couple hours of my life.

    Things got off to a bang, literally, as a monster truck did an unchoreographed midair half barrel roll and landed on its top. The crash cars lived up to their name, though not as spectacularly as the trucks.

    After a few rounds of trucks and cars, it was time for Port-O-Jet to do one of its tricks: set a junk car on fire


    with its afterburner.


    Noise! Smoke! Flame! The stench of burning rubber! Yes sir.

    Finally, it was time for Port-O-Jet to attempt to break its own land speed record, which was 50-something miles per hour. This would be a good trick, given the outhouse's small tires, short wheelbase and the rough clay track. Add its non-aerodynamic shape, and there was serious doubt it could stay on course or upright.

    Port-O-Jet belched clouds of white smoke as it tried to light up. The PA announcer vamped as best he could. This is the tease, right? More smoke, a short foof, a pop, and more smoke and... Well, watch it yourself.


That's right: not only am I bringing you the above world exclusive along with Al's great pictures, but our intrepid reporter also shot a superb movie for us to enjoy.

Click the pic up top and off we go....

Note to file: send Al a fat check.

August 20, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Pie Tote


"Stores and totes pies without damaging looks. Snap-tight hinged lid; 3-1/4"H x 11"Diam.; plastic. Includes 7-1/2 x 2" mini-turner."

$7.98 (pumpkin pie included).

Not — just seeing if you're awake yet....

August 20, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Chinesepod.com: Learn Chinese on your iPod — free


Sure hope Steve Jobs doesn't see this 'cause if he does he's gonna stroke out, what with Apple's recent cease-and-desist salvos against those who would use the word "pod" as part of a product or service description.

43-year-old Irishman Ken Carroll, who first went to China 12 years ago to teach English, is the creator of a popular Shanghai-based website that offers free lessons running from 10 to 15 minutes long, with five different levels of difficulty.

All you need is a computer and a portable digital music player: once downloaded, the lessons are yours to do with as you wish.

Launched in September of 2005, Chinesepod is already one of the top five podcast sites in the world, with over 200,000 monthly visitors and five million downloads to date.

In an article in this weekend's Financial Times (FT) correspondent Kwan Yuk Pan interviewed Carroll about his website and what the future holds.

Long story in one word: "Englishpod."

Here's the FT piece.

    In search of a pod of gold

    For westerners who struggle to hit the right note even in karaoke, learning Mandarin — the language spoken by most people in mainland China — can be daunting to say the least.

    Mandarin is a tonal language, so the slightest mistake in pitch can radically change the meaning of a word. For example, the word "ma" can have four different meanings depending on the tone. A slip of the tongue and one could end up saying, "My horse is picking me up from school" or "I want to ride on mother".

    Yet for all the perceived difficulty in learning a language that is made up of more than 4,000 characters, interest in Mandarin, or Putonghua, has never been greater.

    Thanks to China's growing economic might and perceived future global influence, countries from South Korea to Kenya to the US have been pushing to make Putonghua an integral part of their language curricula.

    According to the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (NOCFL) in Beijing, there are approximately 30m people learning Mandarin and the agency is looking to increase this number to 100m by 2007.

    However, this audacious goal could be hampered by a dearth of teachers. Even as Beijing moves to establish a series of "Confucius Institutes" — along the lines of the British Council and the Alliance Française — to promote the teaching of Mandarin abroad, the demand for qualified instructors is quickly outstripping supply.

    In this context, it is inevitable that somewhere an entrepreneur sees the future of language learning as web-based.

    With Chinesepod.com, 43-year-old Dubliner Ken Carroll is betting that podcasting will turn the language-teaching industry on its head. The site, which was launched last September, offers daily Mandarin audio lessons that users can download and listen to for free. It is already one of the top five podcast sites in the world, boasting more than 200,000 visitors a month and 5m downloads to date.

    For Carroll, who first went to China 12 years ago to teach English and is now based in Shanghai, podcasting offers the economies of scale that he finds lacking in traditional bricks-and-mortar language schools.

    "The economics of language schools are quite harsh," he says. "Here in Shanghai, for example, a language school would need a large premises in a downtown location, which means high fixed costs. Then you need to bring teachers in from abroad. And that's expensive."

    Also, classes have to be small to be effective and there are other inefficiencies that constrain language schools. "For example, in the case where language learners are working adults, they prefer to take classes in the evenings. If you're not careful you can end up with your classroom space sitting idle for most of the day," Carroll says.


    By contrast, podcasting, with its low entry costs and fast turnround times (especially compared with traditional publishing), is a way to distribute high-quality education to the world cheaply.

    "Instead of thousands of teachers, you only need one good teacher to reach an audience of potentially millions," he says.

    To understand the appeal of Chinesepod, one has to go to the website, where every day Carroll's Shanghai-based production team dishes out fresh Chinese lessons on subjects that range from the practical (haggling in the marketplace) to the fun (learning the latest urban slang).

    The lessons run from 10 to 15 minutes each and are divided into five different levels. To tune in, all a user needs is a computer and a portable digital music player. Once downloaded, they can be consumed anywhere, at any time.

    For Chris Hall, a 39-year-old computer programmer from Bristol, part of the appeal of Chinesepod is that the podcasts resemble a lively radio segment more than a language cassette.

    "It's not stale like the audio tapes that accompany a textbook," he says.

    Equally important is the online social network the site has created. Not only can students leave feedback via e-mail, they can also use an internet phone service such as Skype to contact tutors and discuss the stickier points of Mandarin with other students on a blog.

    "The fact that you have a community of people out there, both Chinese and non-Chinese, helping each other out really brings the material to life," says Hall.

    Having used Chinesepod for only six months, Hall harbours no illusions about becoming fluent in Mandarin by listening to podcasts alone. However, he does credit it with deepening his interest in the language.

    Dr George Zhang, director of the Chinese language programme at the School of Oriental Studies in London, believes that while technology can enhance language learning, it can never replace the classroom experience. "The personal interaction that a student gets from working with a trained language teacher is irreplaceable," he says.

    But for all its limitations, Chinesepod is slowly attracting the interest of those in traditional language education. As a sign of the site's growing success and influence, Carroll has recently been invited by NOCFL and Beijing's Qinghua University to work on ways of promoting the study of Chinese culture and language abroad.

    The site has also inspired a host of similar enterprises, which demonstrates the fact that podcasting can be a successful business model.

    Chinesepod's podcasts may be free but the group makes money from selling extra teaching materials. Transcripts of the lessons are available for $9 a month, while interactive materials such as flashcards and supplementary exercises require a premium subscription of $30 a month.

    Despite Chinesepod's success, Carroll says the real money will come from using the same technology to teach English to the Chinese.

    "Englishpod is the gold pot," he says. "The amount spent by the Chinese to learn English probably outstrips Anglophones learning Chinese 1,000 times."

    Given Chinese wariness of paying online and the lack of an iTunes culture in China to drive podcasting forward, this segment of the market will not be developed for another four or five years, Carroll says.

    He remains optimistic, however, noting that the Chinese government has said it will need 1m English teachers to meet the huge demand for learning the language.


    "They'll never be able to meet that demand," he says. "Podcasts will stand out as the perfect solution."

August 20, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Massaging Bath Pillow Sound Generator


From the website:

    Tranquil Sound Massaging Bath Pillow

    This waterproof pillow attaches to any smooth bathtub surface with its two suction cups and provides ergonomic support via its contoured nodule design which cushions the neck.

    The pillow also plays digital recordings of soothing natural sounds, including Ocean Surf, Rain, Rain Forest and Woodlands while simultaneously providing a gentle vibrating massage.

    The audio and massage functions operate in tandem or separately, at the touch of a button.

    14"W x 6.5"H x 4"D.

    Requires three AA batteries (not included).


August 20, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Fight Science


That's the title of tonight's two-hour TV special on the National Geographic Channel (DirecTV 276; Dish 186) from 9-11 p.m. (ET).

    From Nancy deWolf Smith's August 18 Wall Street Journal review:

    Answers two of the burning questions of all time: In the world of martial arts, which discipline has the edge in strength, agility and hitting power: boxing, kung fu, karate, jujitsu, tae kwon do, wushu or muay Thai kickboxing? And what is the most efficient and deadly weapon in the martial-arts arsenal? A ninja throwing star or a Chinese straight sword? A nunchuk or a Samurai katana?

    Using advanced motion-capture technology, sensor-laden crash-test dummies, and some of the world's leading martial artists, "Fight Science" shows us the biomechanics of it all. Who's best at what? I don't want to give too much away, except to say that a boxer's punch can generate nearly 1,000 pounds of force; a kung fu expert can hit four times faster than a snake can strike; and a muay Thai kick to the chest is as destructive as a 35-mph car crash.

    Suffice it to say that the dummies take a brutal beating and then — once the swords and other weapons come out — get hacked into tiny, quivering chunks.


Watch a preview here.

Listen to podcasts here.

Wait a minute... what's that music I'm hearing...?

August 20, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Look at — but don't touch! — my computer screen


File under "Things that make me crazy."

Why is it that so many people, looking at something on your computer, use their dirty, greasy, print-leaving index finger to show you things?

It's not a touch-sensitive screen, bozo!

Keep your cotton-picking fingers off my beautiful clean screen.

But I'm such a nice person I hold my fire and let them mess it up without uttering a single word.


Once the first contact has occurred a screen cleaning is in order, so it really doesn't matter how much worse they make it.

Once they've left the premises, I get out my iKlear Apple Polish and Klear Kloth (top), official screen cleaner of


and get to work.

A pack of 12 costs $9.

August 20, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

'As Slow as Possible' by John Cage: 639 years in duration, it's the world's longest — and slowest — piece of music


"The first notes of the longest and slowest piece of music in history, designed to go on for 639 years," were played on a church organ in Halberstadt, Germany on Wednesday, February 5, 2003.

The piece will conclude in 2640.

But you say, wait a minute: 2640 — 639 = 2001.

And the first notes were played in 2003, it says in the first sentence of this post.

What gives?

Vexed me too: I couldn't sleep for weeks as I wrestled with this seeming contradiction.

Until I reread the BBC article below for the hundredth or so time.

The penny dropped.

See where it says, "the performance has already been going for 17 months - although all that has been heard so far is the sound of the organ's bellows being inflated?"

Res ipsa loquitur.

But I digress.

Can't wait to hear how it ends.

Here's the February 5, 2003 BBC story.

    First notes for 639-year composition

    The first notes in the longest and slowest piece of music in history, designed to go on for 639 years, are being played on a German church organ on Wednesday.

    The three notes, which will last for a year-and-a-half, are just the start of the piece, called As Slow As Possible.

    Composed by late avant-garde composer John Cage [top], who died in 1992, the performance has already been going for 17 months - although all that has been heard so far is the sound of the organ's bellows being inflated.

    The music will be played in Halberstadt, a small town renowned for its ancient organs in central Germany.

    It was originally a 20-minute piece for piano, but a group of musicians and philosophers decided to take the title literally and work out how long the longest possible piece of music could last.

    They settled on 639 years because the Halberstadt organ was 639 years old in the year 2000.

    "We started discussing - what is as slow as possible for the organ?" Swedish composer and organist Hans-Ola Ericsson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

    "We, a group of theologians, musicologists, philosophers, composers and organists, met during a couple of years solely to discuss this question. It was rather wonderful to have one topic to discuss at length."

    "We came up with the answer that the piece could last for the duration of the organ - that is the lifetime of an organ."

    Mr Ericsson said John Cage would have liked what they had done with it.

    "It's a sound that we give to the future to take care of, and hopefully the aesthetics and the ideas of John Cage will manage to survive."

    The first note is due to be struck at 1800 local time (1700 GMT) on Wednesday.

    The performance follows a legal case in which composer Mike Batt was forced to pay a six-figure sum to Cage's publishers, who accused him of plagiarising a silent piece of music.

August 20, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Folding Saw


From the website:

Folding Saw

The Bob Dustrude Quick Buck Saw is without a doubt the best saw we’ve taken on our canoe camping trips.

This saw folds for easy transport, is easy to assemble and is very lightweight.

This saw has a 24" blade for long draws and quick cuts.

And no — you shouldn't put it in your carry-on if you have any hope of boarding your flight.



August 20, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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