Saturday, June 30, 2007


"Do You Need My Jumper, Bowie?"

I'm on Radio New Zealand today to talk about my recent Slate piece.

Meanwhile, the Flight of the Conchords time travel with David Bowie:


Thinging Thettles Do Cauth Thome Thwelling....

From Bridport and Lyme Regis News:

A DARING new world champion was crowned in West Dorset this week. Paul Collins, of Seaton, chomped his way through 56ft of the prickly leaves to win the annual World Stinging Nettle Eating Championship at the Bottle Inn, Marshwood.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


The Pause That Irradiates

One curious late addition to my radioactive wanderings around eBay: an auction for a radioactive soda water dispenser is now in its final hours:

This is a very rare 1930’s Sparklet Syphon wire wrapped nickel plated soda water bottle. It was manufactured by Sparklets Limited of Great Britain and retailed in the USA by the Sparklets Corporation of New York, was primarily designed to produce carbonated water.... The company also for a brief period at the beginning of the 1930’s sold bulbs containing radon (radium sparklets) that, according to one of the company's advertisements, "provides a constant supply of radioactive water.".... This bottle comes complete with the ultra rare radium sparklet cylinder, which is unfortunately spent.


Saturday, June 16, 2007


Psst... Wanna Hot Watch?

This week in Slate I go hunting for radioactive antiques on eBay:

Hotly contested auctions include that much-loved 1950s kiddies' delight, an Atomic Energy lab (no, they were not falsely advertised); a 2-inch pod of "very radioactive" cuprosklodowskite that fetched $225 after 12 bids; and two pricey auctions for circa-1920 Revigator radium water coolers. You can find most isotopes without much effort on eBay. Bidding on old Coleman camping lamp mantles? Thorium. Vintage Doramad Radioaktive Zahncreme ("radioactive toothpaste"), used by Germans to keep teeth gamma-ray bright? Radium, with even a squished-out tube fetching a high bid of $122.50.
My favorite find: a uranium absinthe cup.

Some of the most worrisome items of all, though, are the most most ordinary: old watches with radium dials. Check out this Geiger counter going nuts over an old Timex:

Lost on my cutting room floor was a great line by radiation collector William Kolb. After I mentioned how surprised I was that dentures used to be radioactive -- the fluorescing uranium made them shine better -- Kolb said: "I think most people would be surprised to find that older eyeglasses and camera lenses can be radioactive--much more so than dentures."

It's true: here's a thoriated lens...


Man, That Cat Could Blow (His Head Off)

The seriously awesome Modern Mechanix blog collects hilarious, weird, and hilariously weird clippings from old issues of Modern Mechanix, Popular Science, and the occasional Scientific American.

From this week's postings, the most disturbing musical instrument ever:

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Caught in the Headlights

I've got an article in this week's New Scientist about Polaroid founder Edwin Land's doomed crusade to mandate polarizing anti-glare headlights and windshields on cars:

As early as 1920, federal officials had declared the blinding glare of car headlights the country’s “chief road peril”... Would-be solutions proliferated. “Mr. Automobilist! Shade Your Headlights,” commanded one advert for Wridgway No-Glare Shade in 1909, while the Osgood Deflector Lens promised to “Light the Ground, Not the Air” and the Blindless Headlight Company pledged to “eliminate glare” altogether.... Nothing quite worked....

[But Land realized] A polarising filter "combs" incoming light so that only waves moving in one particular plane pass through. Two polarising filters held at angles to each other, so that the combing "teeth" form a crossbar, produce a striking effect: darkness. The trick, then, was to put a polarising filter over the headlight and a second filter over the windscreen, each oriented at the same 45 degree angle to the road.

So why don’t we have polarising headlights today? First, the US motor industry showed little interest in safety devices in the postwar years. “Automobile companies were not economically motivated, because they could sell all the cars they wanted,” Land later told interviewers. And polarisers were doubly damned: to work, they would have to be adopted by every car manufacturer. No company was willing to be the first...

Land spent decades on his anti-glare system -- it's why Polaroid was founded. ("Polaroid" itself is the name of the polarizing sheet that Land invented to apply to headlights and windshields.) The famed camera business was almost an accident, and came much later -- a profitable distraction from his original mission.

For those who don't subscribe, here's the article's shocker: a 2001 AAA study (pdf file) concluded that, six decades years later, Land is still right: "With one technological stroke, a quantum leap in highway safety could be accomplished... Polarized lighting is the only countermeasure for headlight glare which has the potential to be used in all situations and resolve all problems."

Saturday, June 02, 2007



I've an article in the new issue of The Believer about the rise and fall of the Birotron, a 1970s keyboard made from 8-track car stereos:

Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman sunk a pile of money into it manufacturing it, and it actually shows up in a hit single, 1978's "Don't Kill the Whale." The Birotron's now probably the rarest rock instrument ever -- you can count the surviving units on your fingers.

I've been mulling this article for a really long time -- at one point, back in 2000, I mentioned it to Dave Eggers for McSweeney's #5. (We went with my piece on Solresol instead.) Since then I tracked down inventor Dave Biro, who was kind enough to send me the above photo. (That's him with his prototype.)

What does a bunch of 8-track tapes crammed into a keyboard look like? On the production model, something like this:

And from the front, here is what The Future looked like in 1977:

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