« September 3, 2007 | Main | September 5, 2007 »

September 4, 2007

'You can do all kinds of things if you just plunge ahead. It doesn't mean you're any good at them, but you can be good enough.' — Paul B. MacCready

Above, a quotation from MacCready, the inventor of, among other things, the Gossamer Condor, which in 1977 made the first human-powered sustained flight (above).

In 1979 his Gossamer Albatross crossed the English Channel (below).

In 1980 he was named Engineer of the Century by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

He died last Tuesday, August 28, 2007 in Pasadena, California, at age 81.

Douglas Martin's August 31, 2007 New York Times obituary follows.

    P. B. MacCready, 81, Inventor, Dies

    Paul B. MacCready, an awesomely accomplished inventor who studied circling hawks and vultures to figure out how to realize the loftiest dream of Leonardo da Vinci — inventing a human-powered flying machine — died Tuesday in Pasadena, Calif. He was 81.

    His death was announced by AeroVironment Inc., the company Dr. MacCready founded and led. No cause was given.

    Dr. MacCready seemed a genuine free spirit — a friend noted his “innocent sense of wonder” in a Time magazine interview — empowered by a quirky, darting intellect. His fascination with aerodynamics came from watching butterflies and moths as a boy, and his dreams for the future included animal-powered flight.

    “You can do all kinds of things if you just plunge ahead,” he said in an interview with Science in 1986. “It doesn’t mean you’re any good at them, but you can be good enough.”

    He believed that daydreaming was his most productive activity. Practical results mattered little to him, although many of his breakthroughs found practical expression. He liked to point to Charles Lindbergh, whose Spirit of St. Louis hangs near his own flying machine in the Smithsonian. He said Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight did not advance aircraft design, but catalyzed thinking about aviation.

    “I’m more interested in a world that works than what sells,” Dr. MacCready said in an interview with Popular Science in 2003. “We make strange devices that do more with less.”

    Dr. MacCready soared to international notice in 1977 when his Gossamer Condor made the first sustained flight by human power. Two years later, his Gossamer Albatross crossed the English Channel.

    AeroVironment then turned to aircraft using photovoltaic cells to harness the sun’s power; the Gossamer Penguin made the first solar-powered climbing flight in 1980. In 1981, the Solar Challenger flew 163 miles from France to England at an altitude of 11,000 feet.

    Dr. MacCready and his team of young engineering zealots also invented a solar-powered car called the Sunraycer, which won a 1,867-mile race across Australia against 22 other solar-powered cars in 1987. Three years later, they worked with General Motors to develop the electric-car prototype that led to the EV1.

    Others of Dr. MacCready’s creations included tiny robotic planes used for military reconnaissance; power sources to keep atmospheric-monitoring devices aloft indefinitely; and an 18-foot, eerily realistic, flying dinosaur for an Imax movie.

    In 1980, Dr. MacCready was named Engineer of the Century by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

    Paul Beattie MacCready was born on Sept. 29, 1925, in New Haven, where his father was a physician and his mother a nurse. He was dyslexic and had trouble concentrating, but showed passion for things that interested him. His interest in butterflies was trying to figure out how to build one, Discover magazine said in 2002. He marshaled his gift for building odd model flying machines to win a national contest at 15.

    “Anybody who’s not interested in model airplanes must have a screw loose someplace,” he said in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1992.

    He studied mechanical engineering at Yale, taught flying in the Navy, then returned to Yale and switched his major to physics. He became enraptured with the sport of soaring, setting an altitude record, capturing three national titles and becoming the first American to win the international championship, in 1956. He invented the MacCready speed ring, an instrument still used by glider pilots to select the best flight speed between uplifts.

    After earning his doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, Dr. MacCready started his own company in the new field of weather modification. He was the first to use small instrumental aircraft to study storm interiors, Design News said in 1999. In 1971, he started AeroVironment to pursue projects in alternative energy, the environment and aviation.

    In 1976, when Dr. MacCready was $100,000 in debt after acting as co-signer for a bad loan, he heard about a prize being offered by Henry Kremer, a British industrialist, for the first human-powered flight. Converted from pounds, it was just what he needed.

    His epiphany came on a cross-country trip with his family. He watched a hawk, then a vulture. He realized that if he could increase the wingspan of a plane without increasing its weight, a superbly conditioned bicyclist could pedal fast enough to elevate and move the aircraft forward.

    Dr. MacCready assembled the plane from piano wire, aluminum tubes, bicycle parts, Mylar film and a propeller. He borrowed from the Wright brothers to solve the turning problems that had bedeviled competitors by adding a lever so the pilot could twist the inside wingtip as he rounded a corner.

    Dr. MacCready is survived by his wife, the former Judy Leonard; his sons Parker, Tyler and Marshall; and two grandchildren.

    For all his inventiveness, Dr. MacCready considered technology a mixed blessing, telling Design News he was “an ambivalent Luddite.” He advocated unbridled thought.

    “There is a value to some way-out impractical projects that are done for prizes, symbolism or the fun of it, where you don’t have to worry about production,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1990. “You can focus on extremes; when you do that you’re able to go way beyond prescribed limits to new frontiers.”



MacCready's attitude embodies the spirit I most admire, summed up by Nike as "Just do it."

Terry-Thomas, the late, great British comedian, put it a bit differently, in a remark about playing the lottery, to wit: "You know you won't win — but you might."


September 4, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Towel-Matic — World's first auto-sensor perforated paper towel dispenser

Now this is more like it.

Not only did Michael Shek tip me to this product, he even wrote my headline.

More of that, please.

Wrote Mr. Shek: "You can check out this new auto-sensor perforated paper towel holder at www.itouchless.com. It guarantees towels never unraveling, and it never touches unused towels. Sensor eye identifies perforations on the towel and stops right at the line for perfect tearing."

From the website:

World's First and Only Automatic Perforated Paper Towel Dispenser

Designed for Countertop, Wall or Under Cabinet Mount

The world's first and only automatic sensor perforated paper towel dispenser works on all home paper towel brands, standard full and new half-size sheets.

Sensor-activated control guarantees one hand operation without touching the unused sheets or the dispenser and the towels never unravel.

It prevents contamination by germs and saves paper.

This smart Towel-Matic™ can dispense one sheet, two sheets, or the new half-size sheet on demand with just the approach of your hand.

How it works:

Towel-Matic™ has a built-in optical scanner that automatically identifies the perforations on the towel and stops right at the perforated line every time, making tearing towel sheets easy and mess-free.

Batteries can last up to one year or 200 rolls of standard 80-sheet towels.

Powered by 4 D size batteries (not included) or optional AC adaptor.

Designed for table top, wall mount or under cabinet mount.



Built-in optical scanner identifies perforations between towel sheets

Dispenses both standard full size and new half size sheets

Never unravels with Towel-Lock mechanism design

Never touch the unused paper towel or dispenser

Guarantees one-handed touchless operation

Works on all brands perforated towel rolls

Fits jumbo size paper towel roll

Touch-free sensor activation

Worldwide patent pending

Built-in AI Smart-Chip II


Powered by 4 D-size batteries or AC adaptor (not included)

Product dimensions: 6.5"L X 8.5"W X 14"H

Weight: 2.8 lbs


so you know it has to be good.

Like the guy narrating the video up top says, "Prevents contaminations [sic]."

That's good enough for me.


September 4, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Adblock Plus: 'What happens when the advertisements are wiped clean from a web site?'


Noam Cohen, in yesterday's New York Times, explored the Internet equivalent of what would've happened had TiVo not caved to the TV industry and disabled its automatic commercial blocking function.

Long story short: It threatens to destroy the entire online-advertising business model.

Here's the article.

    Whiting Out the Ads, but at What Cost?

    More white space.

    I sent an e-mail message to a friend telling him about Adblock Plus, an easy-to-use free addition to the Firefox Internet browser that deletes advertisements from Web sites. That subject line of his reply summed it up quite nicely.

    What happens when the advertisements are wiped clean from a Web site? There is a contented feeling similar to what happens when you watch a recorded half-hour network TV show on DVD in 22 minutes, or when a blizzard hits Times Square and for a few hours, the streets are quiet and unhurried, until the plows come to clear away all that white space.

    But when a blizzard hits Times Square, the news reports will focus on the millions of dollars of business lost, not the cross-country skiing opportunities gained.

    Likewise, in the larger scheme of things, Adblock Plus — while still a niche product for a niche browser — is potentially a huge development in the online world, and not because it simplifies Web sites cluttered with advertisements.

    The larger importance of Adblock is its potential for extreme menace to the online-advertising business model. After an installation that takes but a minute or two, Adblock usually makes all commercial communication disappear. No flashing whack-a-mole banners. No Google ads based on the search terms you have entered.

    From that perspective, the program is an unwelcome arrival after years of worry that there might never be an online advertising business model to support the expense of creating entertainment programming or journalism, or sophisticated search engines, for that matter.

    For now, however, the big players have decided to ignore the phenomenon. Neither Google nor CNN.com, for example, would comment on ad-blocking programs, which can also be added to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7. (The Internet Explorer add-ons are not necessarily free and do not necessarily work as seamlessly as Adblock Plus working with the open-source Firefox browser.)

    Wladimir Palant, developer of the open-source Adblock Plus project, wrote in an e-mail message that he had not heard anything from large companies like Google, because, he suspects, the program “isn’t popular enough yet. Attacking it would be a waste of time for these companies.” He estimated there were 2.5 million users of Adblock Plus around the world.

    “The numbers are rising steadily,” he wrote, adding that his figures do not “show exponential growth any more (luckily, the server has limited traffic), but there are still 300,000 to 400,000 new users each month.”

    Mr. Palant, a 27-year-old programmer in Cologne, Germany, is not an ideological opponent of online advertising. For example, he counts himself a fan of the ads that show up with a Google search, saying they are useful and unobtrusive. That does not mean Adblock will not block Google’s ads, however. It means Mr. Palant has to customize his own version of the program to allow them in.

    But if enough people rally to Adblock and similar services, they could be considered the TiVo for the computer, but without any expensive equipment or service charges. And perhaps most critically, as an open-source project, Adblock is the hands of anyone who wants to contribute. So no one can decide to make a deal with prominent Web sites to change the way the program operates. (As things turned out, TiVo and a rival, ReplayTV, opted not to include an automatic service to skip ads after vociferous objections by the television industry.)

    For now, the opposition to Adblock Plus has been led by small Web sites who want all Firefox users blocked from Internet sites in retaliation. One such advocacy site, whyfirefoxisblocked.com, taunts a Firefox user with the headline, “You’ve reached this page because the site you were trying to visit now blocks the Firefox browser.”

    The page includes the following argument: “While blanket ad blocking in general is still theft, the real problem is Adblock Plus’s unwillingness to allow individual site owners the freedom to block people using their plug-in. Blocking Firefox is the only alternative.”

    Mr. Palant, writing on a blog related to the project (adblockplus.org/blog), lashed out at those kinds of arguments.

    “There is only one reliable way to make sure your ads aren’t blocked — make sure the users don’t want to block them,” he wrote. “Don’t forget about the users. Use ads in a way that doesn’t degrade their experience.”

    For now, these issues will be debated on the fringes of the Internet. The first stage of a corporate response would be technological, not legal, said Randal C. Picker, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has studied the copyright issues related to TiVo. Television networks could not change their signals to thwart TiVo the way Web sites can use technology to complicate the process of filtering out ads, he said.

    One response by Web sites would be for them “to serve ads from their own servers,” Mr. Palant wrote in an e-mail message. “For them, this has the advantage that they will probably escape common filter rules, which are usually targeted at large advertising servers.”

    He said, however, that “the most annoying ads usually find their way to popular filter lists.”

    The only large player willing to comment was Microsoft, which is in an interesting position: it produces the dominant browser that is being challenged by Firefox, but it is also in the online ad business through its MSN portal and search functions.

    In a statement, Microsoft spoke of its success in permitting third-party developers to “add value to the browser experience through the creation of add-ons.” The statement continues: “The range of add-ons available does include ad blocking software. It would not be appropriate for Microsoft to comment on the merits or demerits of a specific add-on, or group of add-ons. Provided they have not been designed with malicious intent and do not compromise a user’s privacy or security, Microsoft is pleased to see new add-ons that add to the range of options that users have for customizing their browsing experience.”

    It’s nice of Microsoft to recognize that there will always be people who delight in the white space. Given the decentralized nature of the Internet, the user’s experience has to come first — for now.

September 4, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Surefire Titan Limited Edition Titanium Ultra-Compact LED Flashlight


World's only fully variable output (0 to 65 lumens in a single twist) flashlight.

All titanium body with satin finish.

3.15" long.

1.9 oz.



September 4, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

iPhone stress test


Ars Technica decided to put Apple's baby through its paces, including a three story drop onto concrete and tossing it into the toilet.

Long — and very amusing story — short: The concrete impact killed the touch screen (top) and a dip in the toilet (below) proved fatal.


It's all here, along with lots of pictures and — bonus! — at the end of the post, an absolutely wonderful movie documenting the various tests.

[via Rob Pegoraro and the Washington Post]

September 4, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

World's most expensive vodka: £540,000 ($1 million) a bottle


From trifter.com:

    DIVA Premium Vodka

    DIVA Premium Vodka is triple distilled vodka produced by Blackwood Distillers of Scotland.

    The drink is unique because it is filtered through a sand of crushed diamonds and gemstones.

    And also, in the middle of each of the bottle we can find precious stones, including diamonds.

    The price per bottle is between £2,000 (equivalent to $3,700) and £540,000 (equivalent to $1 million), depending on the choice of precious stones used in the bottle, which makes it probably the most expensive vodka in the world.


[via my Missouri correspondent]

September 4, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Judie Lipsett of Gear Diary hops aboard the treadmill workspace bandwagon


It happened yesterday.

We've been going back and forth on the subject for a while now and she suddenly decided to just do it.


The story of how it happened is on Gear Diary, along with a series of instructive photos (above and below) showing how she did it with stuff that was already lying around her house: no purchase necessary.


You GO girl!

September 4, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Dead Fred Pen Holder


From the website:

    Dead Fred Pen Holder

    Slightly squishy silicone, styled into a slightly disturbing penholder.

    Whenever you're done writing, just stab our red friend Fred through the heart with your ballpoint pen and he'll hold it in place.

    Fred is 5" from head to toe.


September 4, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

« September 3, 2007 | Main | September 5, 2007 »