March 23, 2009

Popular Mechanics Archive on

Just discovered the treasure trove of old DIY content in the Popular Mechanics magazine archive on

Google Books archive of Popular Mechanics back issues

As a kid, I read through the local library's dog-eared copy of The Boy Mechanic a zillion times, replicating the 1930s projects in my garage with scrounged pallet wood and duct tape.

The Boy Mechanic was the Make Magazine of its era--espousing the can-do American do-it-yourself spirit 80 years before HGTV, while retaining the post-depression frugality that all its readers shared. Why buy something when you could make it yourself from a used apple crate or an old automobile leaf spring?

Now Google has scanned the original magazine articles from which The Boy Mechanic was composed. So not only can you find the how-to articles, but also the "timely" tech articles that explore such wild ideas as radar, ballistic rockets, and shortwave radio.

Like this guy, wearing the latest in 1942's Sirius radio/WARfinding gear:

Cover of Popular Mechanics June 1942

But the real gems are the projects, written for guys with an interest in tinkering and not a lot of money (which would be half of Silicon Valley right now). I actually made this Sidewalk Scooter, 30 years before the whole Razor craze:

Sidewalk scooters article from Popular Mechanics Aug 1935

Note from experience: If you put some nails into that "brake" you can have a pretty good shower of sparks going down some hills in San Francisco. Oh, and ensure your health insurance is up to date. Nuff said.

A lot of projects, are, to paraphrase the Make manifesto, "gonna void your warranty". The Dangerous Book for Boys that was all the rage last year comes close, but is nowhere near as dangerous as the original PM content.

Chemistry sets don't come with those kinds of chemicals anymore, and little parlour pastimes like this basement crossbow range, with bows you make yourself from used hacksaw blades, are frowned upon these days:

Home Crossbow Range article from Popular Mechanics April 1931

Books mentioned in this post:

This version of the Boy Mechanic is but a taste of the real monster tome I knew and loved. Think of it as a Whitman Sampler to whet your appetite:

The Dangerous Book for Boys has spawned a whole cottage industry, one that is almost too prolific, almost to the point of nauseum (like those "Chicken Soup" guys). But it still strikes a chord with the nostalgic, independent, back-to-basics tone and its coverage of "real boy" topics. In a world where schools eliminate spelling bees "because competition means conflict", this was quite refreshing.

The original Boy Mechanic that I read at the library is no longer in print, but you can find used, beat-up copies on eBay from time to time. Luckily Lee Valley has reprinted the earlier set of volumes in archival-quality editions, worthy of passing down to your grandkids (as I know you'll do):

Buy the Boy Mechanic at Lee Valley Hardware

October 01, 2008

Boston Acoustics Thinks Vista is Bad For Business

What's in a name? Well, the word "Vista" has enough negative baggage associated with it that no one wants to use it anymore.

Case in point: Boston Acoustics, purveyors of almost-high-end audiophile speakers, changed the name of their flagship speaker line from "Vista" to "VS Series".

CEPro cites the Boston Acoustics folks' reasoning as follows:

At Boston Acoustics, we listen very closely to the feedback and suggestions of our valued channel partners, distributors and retail customers, and our sole aim is to provide all our customers with the easiest and most efficient way to experience the benefits of our products. Based on input from CEDIA, we decided to change from Vista to 'VS,' underscoring the message that this new flagship series represents 'a new Vision in great Sound.'

Now isn't that just corporate speak for "our retailers said nobody's gonna buy a $3000 pair of speakers if they think Vista is inside"?

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September 18, 2007

NYT Goes Free

Big news in the online newspaper world is that the New York Times is opening up the formerly pay-access portions of its Website to ad-supported free page views. Lead paragraph from the article:

The New York Times will stop charging for access to parts of its Web site, effective at midnight Tuesday night, reflecting a growing view in the industry that subscription fees cannot outweigh the potential ad revenue from increased traffic on a free site.

and ...

What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to These indirect readers, unable to gain access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

Talk about your "Google Effect". This is a big plug for SEO folks like myself who are big on evergreen content that people get to via search or linking. That the ad dollars are so good that even a "premium content vendor" like the NYT can give up paid subscription revenue is also a good sign.

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July 09, 2007

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up The Hostage, the second book of W.E.B. Griffin's Presidential Agent series. Griffin covers the same ground as Tom Clancy mostly, with maybe a bit less on the tech details and more on the political wrangling.

As an audiobook, it was pretty good, except when the characters call each other on the phone. The audiobook producers give those passages a fake "cellphone" sound, and it's a bit jarring at first.

Currently listening to: Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. It's basically the exact same story as The DaVinci Code: Harvard art nerd runs around a big Euro city accompanied by a beautiful yet brainy woman while evil-doers from a long lost secret society try to do him in. I think the Illuminati are more interesting than the Priory of Sion, and I'll bet Dan Brown wished he could've used them again in DVC.

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November 15, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

Just finished up Saucer, by Stephen Coonts.

Cover of Saucer by Stephen Coonts

It was...just ok. Like a mildly entertaining broadcast TV movie you watch instead of a rerun of Lost or something.

Next up: Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. The first few bits of this book were on the last cassette of The DaVinci Code as filler, and the whole CERN-Geneva tie-in sounded interesting. [Geek!]

Cover of Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

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September 08, 2006

Mark Cuban Learns From Dr. Jim Gray

Mark Cuban, entrepreneur-turned-bball mogul, caught a lot of buzz lately for his statement that shipping hard drives full of movies around is better than downloading content:

The reality is that it's cheaper and faster to send (hard drives with terabytes of) content overnight via UPS than it is to download it over the Net. Brown is faster than the Net.

Mark is a tech industry genius, if only for his negotiating skills at getting $5 billion from Yahoo!. But I think he just read the interview with Dr. Jim Gray in ACM's Queue magazine, from June 2003. Dr. Jim gets interviewed by Dave Patterson, one of the inventors of RAID from Cal Berkeley:

Jim Gray (JG): I've been working with a bunch of astronomers lately and we need to send around huge databases. I started writing my databases to disk and mailing the disks. At first, I was extremely cautious because everybody said I couldn't do that—that the disks are too fragile. I started out by putting the disks in foam. After mailing about 20 of them, I tried just putting them in bubble wrap in a FedEx envelope. Well, so far so good. I have not had any disk failures of mailed disks.


JG: If I were to send you only one disk, the cost would be double—something like $400 to send you a computer versus $200 to send you a disk. But I am sending bricks holding more than a terabyte of data—and the disks are more than 50 percent of the system cost. Presumably, these bricks circulate and don't get consumed by one use.

Dave Patterson (DP): Do they get mailed back to you?

JG: Yes, but, frankly, it takes a while to format the disks, to fill them up, and to send around copies of data. It is easier than tape, however, both for me and for the people who get the data.

DP: It's just like sending your friends a really great movie or something.

JG: It's a very convenient way of distributing data.

DP: Are you sending them a whole PC?

JG: Yes, an Athlon with a Gigabit Ethernet interface, a gigabyte of RAM, and seven 300-GB disks—all for about $3,000.

DP: It's your capital cost to implement the Jim Gray version of "Netflicks."

The whole article was more on the subject of disk-versus-tape, but I'll bet Cuban still keeps up with his geek cred subscriptions. The rapidly falling cost of the new hotness, direct-to-disk backup, versus old and busted tape cartridges, is really making these previously wacky ideas sensible.

And this meme is from a guy who is really revered in the tech community. I was in a few meetings with Dr. Jim back at Tandem, and everyone hung on his every word. Made me feel like I had a few more IQ points just being in the same room.

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September 01, 2006

Custom PDFs from

Guy Kawasaki's blog, always a great source of inspiration and insight, describes Toyota's Website's ability to provide you a customized PDF:

This starts a process that builds a custom PDF—pretty cool. However, in this case, the process gets in the way of disseminating information, but there are good uses for this capability. For example, when you want only one part of a long manual.

This capability isn't technologically new. There just haven't been enough CxOs with Cash to fund deploying the feature.

My project, where we'll keep content in small chunks of XML using the DITA content model, should be able to enable this kind of thing. Now all I need is the cash to make it happen. :-)

Environmental aside: Did you know you can't get an Escalade or a Hummer H2 in Green? Meaning they don't have green paint for these SUVs? Must be a Freudian thing or something.

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July 12, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which was fantastic, and a great "read" even as a departure from my usual commute-time audiobook mysteries or thrillers.

Started on The World Is Flat, which is painfully slow in comparison. And the vocal talent is grating, like a perpetual "I'm a Mac" hipster. Far better to have the author recite his own lines, like Gladwell did.

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June 09, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

After giving Salman Rushdie's Fury a go, I gave up after the first cassette. Having a novel that forced you to listen carefully because every third word was something you would've studied during an SAT prep class, was actually kind of refreshing, kind of like reading the New York Times for your daily news fix instead of

But I just couldn't get into the story. Rushdie's protagonist was too selfish and angst-ridden for me to care about, and I didn't really mind not knowing how his story panned out in the rest of the novel.

Instead I decided to catch up with the rest of pop culture and started The Da Vinci Code. Yes, I am the only one in Silicon Valley who has not yet read the book or watched the film.

So far, the book is pretty good. I can see where some producer thought of this as a movie--it started out like one with that murder. Now why didn't John Malkovich get the role of Silas?

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May 04, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up The President's Assassin, a pretty-good political crime yarn, with a not-hard-to-see plot twist in the last two cassettes.

Next up: Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen. Finally, a good novel about bass fishing! I wonder if ESPN sponsored this thing under the table or something. I'm just through tape 2 and it's already laugh-out-loud good.

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April 24, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up the collection of Philip K. Dick short stories. Man that guy was pretty twisted for his era (1950s), huh? He was the Stephen King of his day, writing up a storm, with out-there imaginative stories that none of his contemporaries could touch.

Currently reading: something a bit less dystopian: The President's Assassin. Essentially this is The Sentinel in book form (which is really "24" in movie form, right?).

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April 12, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up Issac Asimov's I, Robot, continuing in my tradition of missing out on popular current movies and resorting to reading the original "book" version.

You know how they say science fiction is at heart social satire, that it shows more about the era and culture of the book's writing than of the fictional future depicted in the story? Bang on with this book.

Much of the book takes place in the early 21st century--er, right now. So there are references to events taking place in 2004 and 2006 that are pretty funny. Did Asimov think we were going to be that advanced 50 years into the future?

Yet they're still very "1950s". All the characters smoke cigarettes, even on some faraway space station. The whole notion of needing to take motion pictures for surveillance, instead of ubiquitous video everywhere (think Rodney King, London's street cams) produced a chuckle. But Asimov did get the whole flat-panel TV thing down with those "visiplates".

Next up: Philip Dick's The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories. I just watched Code 46 and I guess I'm going on a dystopian science fiction run for a while.

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March 22, 2006

Online Courses: Content for Web 2.0

Just discovered the Barnes and Noble University site, which has a bunch of free online courses from improving your lawn to speaking German.

Barnes & Noble University

Sure, some of these are "online reading groups" where the point is to buy a book (ahem), read it, and talk about it with other like-minded folks, but others seem like the kind of thing you'd get from your local Learning Annex.

I thought it was interesting seeing more of these online course offerings from "non-content" businesses. For example, Hewlett Packard offers online courses through their Small Business site, on topics like XML, MS Office, and, naturally, ways to print more things and use up more of those $50 Vivera ink cartridges:

HP Online Classes

To me, this trend means a couple of things:

  1. Costs of running online classes are dropping. So providing the infrastructure (servers, chatroom, forum, etc) is really cheap now. Bandwidth is high and cheap, both on the hosting side and on the student side, with DSL and cable broadband penetration going up. It's therefore easier to have "guest" instructors host sessions from wherever they are in the world.
  2. Benefits of running the classes are increasing. Back in the ad-supported content days, About and other like-minded content sites could make enough money on the ad impressions to make online learning a viable model. But the ad dollars fell back. I guess the sell-through, of books, printer cartridges, digital cameras, and the like is getting better. But more importantly, the capturing of a customer in a relationship, because you need to enroll and thus provide all sorts of contact data about yourself before you can take a class, is the main thing. Competition for customers must be getting rougher.

Nevertheless, some of these courses do sound interesting. I wonder if they can swing a martial arts class online?

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March 17, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

Just finished: Frederick Forsyth's Avenger. Good action thriller yarn, kind of forumulaic, just change the dates and ethnicities and you have Rambo II or a typical Van Damme movie.

But the historical expostion was great--if it's truly grounded in fact I learned much more about the whole Balkan conflict than I did from CNN.

Next up: Crisis Four by Andy McNab. Just starting this one, looks to be a good thriller in the Tom Clancy genre.

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February 18, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up Post Captain, book 2 in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. The more I read these books, the more I liken them to the buddy movie genre--think Lethal Weapon. <geek reference ahead> But if you fast forwarded the Aubrey-Maturin books a zillion years into the 23rd century, don't you think you'd get Kirk and Spock?

Currently reading: Vagabond, book 2 of the Grail Quest series by Bernard Cornwell. Gore and guts, here we come.

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February 06, 2006

Google Puts Smackdown on

Matt Cutts outed for using gateway pages and explained how BMW got kicked out of Google's index for the practice. Those naughty Germans! I guess the Googlers are more down with their Benzes or that fancy bus they get to ride around in.

But think about the sheer power of the Googleite that could pull that switch. What if you did the same thing to an Amazon, or How much money could an eCommerce site lose by being kicked out of Google? (cue Dr. Evil laugh).

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January 24, 2006

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up The Golden Ocean by Patrick O'Brian. I had to wait until the audiobook of Post Captain, Aubrey/Maturin Book 2, came in at the library, and so this "precursor novel" was available. And, like the Amazon review said, it was a great way to pass the time until the next Aubre/Maturin book.

O'Brian takes more time here to explain the strange naval terms and processes that are thrown around so casually in the main series.

I did get to see the DVD version of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World finally. Crowe makes a great Aubrey--probably the perfect casting choice. I had pictured Maturin as an older man, maybe not Anthony Hopkins but close, and so Bettany was a change from expectations but now works well, esp. picturing them in their younger years, courting women and all that, in Post Captain.

Currently reading: Post Captain. Back to the series...

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December 05, 2005

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up The Guns of Navarone. Good WWII adventure yarn. I remember watching the movie ages ago on TV, but hadn't remembered any of the story. As usual, the book is better than the movie with its vivid detail, like the descriptions of Steven's gangrenous leg. Yuck!

Next up: Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. I guess since I don't have time to go watch movies, I've gotta go read the original book to keep up with pop culture, huh?

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November 21, 2005

Reading List Thus Far

Been diving into the detective thriller novel genre for a while now. I'm almost done with Laguna Heat by T. Jefferson Parker. This one is actually pretty good.

But the one I finished earlier, Chasing the Dime by Michael Connelly, was pretty awful. It purported to follow an early-stage tech startup as it tries to make the next big breakthrough and land funding--"chasing the dime". But the discussion of the technology and the whole startup culture was a bit off. Things like the company CEO being a Luddite for personal technology, when every Silicon Valley guy is glued to his Blackberry and wears his Bluetooth headset constantly, probably even in the shower. I know it's a device because the whole plot revolves around this guy getting the wrong number assigned to his new apartment phone, but really--there's too much suspension of belief here.

It's as if the author read about the startup experience in a different novel and that's what he aped for this story.

Laguna Heat, on the other hand, is a great hard-boiled detective novel. Just change the dates a bit, and you'd have Raymond Chandler.

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November 17, 2005

Marking Your Dictionary

There's a great scene in the movie Say Anything where Ione Skye's brainy character talks about how she marked her dictionary everytime she looked up a word. Then the camera shows a big hardcover dictionary filled with little marks, and John Cusack's character, who we know doesn't even own a dictionary, much less use one on a daily basis, has the perfect look on his face.

[aside: Although quite stuck in the teen romantic comedy genre, "Say Anything" does have a martial arts sideline to it. Check out Benny Urquidez in his role as a...kickboxer. Typecasting.]

So I notice that Form Completion in Firefox can do the same thing, if you use Google's dictionary feature a lot:

screenshot of Google query form for define:aplomb

What else is Google going to take over? Air?

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November 08, 2005

Cold Calls for Free Subscriptions

I've noticed that a lot of the trade rags (Computerworld, InfoWeek, Baseline, etc) are using call center reps to call subscribers around renewal time. Business periodicals that supply free subscriptions to customers have to verify every year that the customer still wants the free subscription--otherwise it's just another piece of junk mail.

In the old days you'd acknowledge your desire to receive the subscription through a Business Reply Card--sent through the snail mail every year. Then the Web happened and online forms replaced the paper cards.

But it seems as if the trade rags aren't getting the renewal rates they want. Either people are too busy to fill out those damn checkboxes, or they're not getting their info from the trade rags anymore--or both.

So the expense of having a call center rep cold call a customer and walk through the renewal questionnaire (albeit a truncated one) must be worth the extra advertising dollars provided by maintaining a high level of circulation.

Online ad dollars aren't there anymore, but can you imagine calling you up to remind you to visit their site?

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October 04, 2005

Reading List Thus Far

Haven't kept up with the blogposts for a while, but at least I'm keeping up with my reading. Just finished: The Mustang Herder by Max Brand. Fantastic as an audiobook--the reading by Will Osborne was right out of a 50's TV western show.

Currently reading, as an audiobook (like always--who has time to "just" read these days?): The Archers Tale, by Bernard Cornwell. I haven't read much historical fiction, but Crichton's Timeline got me interested in the Middle Ages, so I thought I'd give it a try. Cornwell handles the martial aspects of the age quite well. This book really makes a point about how the superior missile weaponry of the English gave them an advantage over their lesser-trained, but easily hired, crossbow-wielding mercenary opponents.
In some respects, this is a question of maai, or engagement distance, and the relative shock power of a long-distance kill. Think Marine snipers in Iraq with a Barrett .50. I covered maai in an article a long time ago, and it always seems like one of those universal factors of combat. Whether you're sticking knights with arrows or taking out infantry with a fifty cal, it's still of paramount importantce.

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September 02, 2005

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up W. E. B. Griffin's The Secret Warriors. Sometimes you just want to have a good pulp novel, like Mack Bolan taking on the Mob. Brainless entertainment like a good action movie, doesn't take much thought or energy to just get carried along with the plot. This was one of those books.

Kind of jarring, though: all that sex. I found WEB Griffin's books through endorsements by Tom Clancy, and I expected a more Clancy-esque treatment. Not that I'm really complaining though--these books will make great action movies someday.

Almost finished: Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle. Man, this is so much better than his more modern yarns, like The Hammer of Eden. The movie is supposed to be good too.

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August 02, 2005

Living101: The New Sunset?

Just got the promo email for Sunset magazine's spinoff, Living 101. Evidently, this is the byproduct of the recent staff purge in Menlo Park. Supposedly the stodgy, old-school Classic Sunset writers were let go in favor of infusing some new blood into the publication.

Hard to tell what the new Sunset will be like--Living 101 just had some rehashed stuff from the parent pub. But the articles chosen for the quick taste have more of a Real Simple flavor than Classic Sunset, so maybe that's an indicator of the new editorial direction.

Frankly, I think there's a place for Classic Sunset, just as there is for new hipper mags like Budget Living or Ready Made. Classic Sunset had its regional focus and old-school family values (home, hearth, camping with the kids), something as familiar as your old room at the parents' house.

So we have yet to see what Time Inc will do with Sunset. I just hope it doesn't morph into a Real Simple clone.

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