An Air-powered Balloon Car


First, we did the classic egg drop project. Then we created our own private phone line. And now for our most recent elementary school project: an air-powered balloon car.

The rules were as follows:

  • The car had to be 100% air-powered.
  • It could compete in the categories of speed, distance, or just aesthetics. (We went for distance.)
  • The vehicle had to use wheels, and the wheels had to be made out of objects that were not intended to be wheels. (My daughter instantly decided we were going to use CDs—a curious and quaint technology to today’s 5th-grader.)

This is how we built it:

  • The body is conical floral foam from a craft store.
  • The axles are wooden skewers from the grocery store.
  • The wheel bearings are six straws shoved through the hole in the CD—five around the parameter, and one through the center.
  • Plastic twist ties ensure the wheels don’t come off.
  • Thrust is provided by a balloon attached to a straw, then threaded through a hole I drilled in the body.

So how did it do? Unfortunately, we didn’t win. The car performs really well on the right surface (once it gets going, it coasts a very long way), but if the surface isn’t right, or if you don’t have enough room (it has a tendency to curve), performance suffers. Here are a few lessons we learned that you might want to take into consideration if building your own air-powered car:

  • I found it really difficult to get the axles straight. The foam wanted to guide the skewers off-center as I pushed them through, and any misalignment costs you dearly both in friction and in the car’s ability to hold a straight line.
  • If I were starting over, I’d try to find plastic axles rather than wooden. Cheap wooden skewers splinter easily and generate much more friction than a smooth plastic surface would.
  • The CDs were really difficult to work with. My daughter was insistent that we use CDs as wheels (actually, these are DVD-Rs), but they tend to dig into soft surfaces and slip on hard surfaces that are too smooth. You might consider wheels that are a little broader so that they have larger contact patches. (The wheels are the one place you want a little friction.)
  • If you really want to win, find the most minimalistic body you possibly can (toilet paper tube, for instance), some extremely light and basic wheels (foam balls, perhaps, since they’re grippy and should provide excellent contact on any surface), and just tape the biggest balloon to it that you possibly can. If it only has to last a single race (plus a few trials), building something elegant and robust will cost you dearly in weight. Keep is simple, minimal, and most important of all, lightweight.

But if you want to build something that I think strikes a good balance between robustness, elegance, and performance—something that teaches the basic principles of Newtonian physics—this guide is a good place to start.

How I Spent My Sabbatical

I recently took a two-month break from engineering management at Adobe Systems. We’re currently spending a lot of money on education (graduate and private schools), and my wife and I are going to Comic-Con in New York for all three days next month (let me know if you’re going to be there), so I definitely had more time on my hands than money. With a fairly limited budget, here’s how I spent my sabbatical:

  • Launched a novel. My latest novel, Kingmaker, launched last month so I spent some of my time promoting it.
  • Sold two short stories. I sold two stories of mine (Farmer One and Brainbox), and therefore have been doing a fair amount of editing. I can’t release the details on where/how they will be published yet, but I’ll post links as soon as I can.
  • Worked on the sequel to Containment. When Containment was published, I agreed to write a sequel, however my publisher was kind and indulgent enough to let me write another novel in-between (Kingmaker). With the new book released, it was time to get serious about continuing the Containment story.
  • Sold a website. In 2005, I started a blog called Watch Report, though for the last few years, between working and writing, I just haven’t had time to maintain it. I figured it was time to pass it along, so I sold the site to a great group who I think is really going to bring it back to life. I’m definitely going to keep an eye on it, and probably even continue to contribute from time to time.
  • Spent a lot of time with my new motorcycle. Just before my sabbatical, I bought a brand new 2013 BMW R 1200 GS. I put about a thousand miles on it during my time off (rode to Chincoteague Island and did Skyline Drive), spent a lot of time adding accessories, recorded a video review using Google Glass, and spent a day at the BMW Performance Driving School in South Carolina. I’ve had several bikes before this one, but this is by far my favorite.
  • Spent a weekend with my wife in the artsy and hippyish town of Shepherdstown, WV. If you ever go, have lunch at the Blue Moon Cafe, dinner at Press Room, and skip the Bavarian Inn.
  • Spent a lot of time with my kids. In addition to building a close-circuit telephone system, I completely reorganized their rooms, set up new laptops for each of them, and we spent a lot of time playing games, working on school projects, and just hanging out.
  • Played video games. I’m a huge video game fan (video games are a pretty prominent theme in Kingmaker), but I don’t have much time to play them anymore. I finally played through Halo 4 (nothing new, but still fun if you’re a Halo fan), and I’m about halfway through The Last of Us (probably one of the best games I’ve ever played). Now that I’ve gotten back into gaming, I don’t think I’m going to be able to put it aside again — especially with the new version of GTA out.
  • Set up Plex Media Server. I have 5TB NAS (the very impressive Synology DiskStation DS213+), and I finally set up a media server to make watching and listening to content on all my devices simple. Streaming media services should really be looking toward solutions like Plex for inspiration.
  • Got the flu from a flu vaccination. Not the full-blown flu, but I was completely useless for a day and a half. I think next year, I’ll take my chances.

I also did plenty of ordinary things like spent time at the gym, read a couple of books (mostly good), saw some movies (mostly bad), and fixed a few things around the house (which I generally hate doing, but couldn’t ignore any longer). I’m sorry that my time off has come to an end, but I’m fortunate enough to have a job I really enjoy, and I’m actually looking forward to getting back to work.

James Cameron

jc_and_meAt the National Geographic 125th anniversary gala the other night, I had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite science fiction storytellers: James Cameron. There are several science fiction movies that I re-watch on a regular basis, three of which he wrote and directed (The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss).

So what does one discuss with such a distinguished writer and director? Science fiction authors, being a vegan (him, not me), and the next four Avatar movies. I look forward to seeing them all.

I recorded a short interview that Cameron did with Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver who, in October of 2012, made a jump from the stratosphere and became the first person to break the sound barrier while in free fall.

Proof I Sometimes Go Outside

I spend almost all my time working with, contemplating, or writing about technology, however I do occasionally get away from the computer. Now that the weather is getting cooler, I thought I’d reflect back on a few adventures we’ve had recently that were decidedly not technology related.

This is a blacktip shark I caught off the coast of Sandbridge, Virginia this summer. It was hard enough to pull in that I was thankful for the sudden rain that kept me cool. He was released completely unharmed right after the picture was taken.


This is an American bullfrog I caught in a pond while on vacation. I had no idea how to catch a bullfrog, so I invented a method. I used a flashlight to spot and subsequently blind the frog while I got close enough to extend a fishing net with a three-foot handle above her. All I had to do then was startle her, and she leaped right into the net. Sounds easy, but it took me at least a dozen tries with as many different frogs. She was completely unharmed and released after a brief photo shoot.


This is probably one of the biggest northern water snakes I’ve caught. When distressed, they release a horrible musk which you will probably smell like for the rest of the day. They are also extremely vicious snakes. This one didn’t manage to bite me, but last year, I had a northern water snake tooth removed from my thumb.


Another vicious but harmless reptile, this is a terrible picture of a broad-headed skink I grabbed in front of a friend’s house. He held on so tightly that I didn’t want to pull him off for fear of injuring him. I finally put my hand down on the ground and let go of him, and once he felt the ground beneath him again, he let go and took off.


I have dozens of other photos that show I don’t spend my entire life in my basement office (Snake Rescue, Two Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Garter Snake), however this summer was busy enough that I feel like I hardly got away at all. It’s only September, and I’m already looking forward to next spring.

The Best Air-filtering Houseplants

peace_lilyI recently came across a list of the best air-filtering houseplants compiled primarily by NASA while researching the use of plants to clean air and provide oxygen on space stations. It inspired me to purchase a peace lily for my home office. From here, I’ll work my way up to the 15 – 18 good-sized house plants that NASA recommends you use to help keep the air in your house clean. I have no idea if they will really make a difference, or even if the air in my house contains the kinds of impurities that these plants excel at removing, but I figure they can’t hurt.

The Lego Death Star II (10143)

The Death Star II (10143) is definitely one of my favorite Lego kits. My friend and I put this one together last weekend in about eight hours — not bad considering how long we worked on the Millennium Falcon.

Here are the stats:

  • Model #10143.
  • Released in 2005 (currently discontinued).
  • 3,449 pieces.
  • 50cm wide and 65cm tall.
  • Roughly 15 pounds.
  • Eight hours of build time (two people).

Now here come the visuals:

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The Ultimate Collector’s Lego Millennium Falcon 10179

Over the 2010/2011 holiday break, I worked on a lot of Lego models. My kids got some great sets for Christmas, and I finally had time to work on some sets that I’d been accumulating. But the 10179 Millennium Falcon was by far the biggest project we took on.

At 5,195 pieces, this is one of the biggest sets Lego has ever made, and definitely the biggest I’ve ever worked on. It took myself and two friends (and my kids, intermittently) about 14 hours over two days which I consider to be very fast for something this massive.

If you ever take something like this on, here are two important tips to make the process more efficient:

  1. Sort your pieces first. We spent about two hours sorting pieces into 12 different bins and about 12 Ziploc bags before we started building. Being able to find pieces quickly made a huge difference, and I’m sure cut our building time down dramatically.
  2. Use multiple instruction booklets. One of us used the included instruction booklet while I used a PDF version on my iPad, and another friend used a PDF on a laptop. That allowed us to work on three different parts of the ship simultaneously, then bring them all together when they were ready. (Download the Millennium Flacon 10179 instruction book here.)

And here’s how it turned out:

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Geek Art: Can You Break the Cipher?

painting_smallA good friend of mine, Ben Rossi, happens to be a very talented designer and painter. After admiring a painting of his for about a year, he finally decided to give it to me — probably just to shut me up. But before the ceremonious transfer, he decided to make some modifications to it. The name of the painting is now encoded in the metal plates screwed to the canvas. Can you figure out what it is?

You can see most of what you need to see in the small picture below, but there’s a hint that you might need in the lower left-hand corner, so I linked it to a larger version. That’s all I’m going to say for now. Who can break the code first?