Churning Your Own Butter


    My comic on 5/24/08 raised some questions. In the third panel, Dilbert makes a reference to “churning my own butter.” Readers wondered if that was intended to be a naughty double entendre. Read it again if you care to refresh your memory.


    This comic was written in my usual way. I started with a premise and drew the first frame hoping I would eventually figure out how it ended. I had a notion that it would end with a reference to something old-fashioned, and I expected to cycle through lots of options before landing on something funny. As it turned out, “churning my own butter” was both the first thing I thought (it’s the most obvious) and also the funniest, precisely because it does suggest a darker joke. The boss’s line, “You make it sound creepy” was the frosting, so to speak.

    Wait, I think I just did it again.

Today’s Post

    Today’s post was eaten by a bug in the software. It was quite interesting. But I don’t have time to retype it.

Gadolinium is Fun

    Yesterday I wrote about a rare earth material called gadolinium that loses its attraction to magnets when it reaches room temperature. And I wondered if you could use this strange phenomenon as the basis for a generator. I thought it was obvious that a device depending on outside heat was not a perpetual motion machine any more than a wind mill is, but but many of you left comments to clarify that point. Apparently my writing was sloppy because the earlier paragraphs were about perpetual motion and I didn’t call out the transition to non-perpetual motion and the gadolinium generator. In the interest of clarity, the rest of this post is NOT about perpetual motion in the strictest sense.

    Someone pointed out that gadolinium doesn’t lose its attraction to magnets; it just becomes less of a magnet itself, but would still be attracted to magnets like metal. There appears to be some conflicting information on the Internet on that point. The stuff I read indicates that a warmed piece of gadolinium wouldn’t be attracted to a magnet in any fashion. Your unreliable strangers might be more reliable than my unreliable strangers.

    But here’s the interesting part. When you expose gadolinium to a magnet, it heats up. That property has been used to create refrigeration, although I don’t see any recent articles about it. http://www.eurekalert.org/features/doe/2001-11/dl-mrs062802.php

    So if what I read on the Internet is correct (which seems hugely unlikely) you could build a (nearly) perpetual motion device using a natural magnet and gadolinium as long as you could control the room temperature without any extra energy. Here’s how it would work: Imagine a natural magnet suspended over a piece of gadolinium in a room that is just below room temperature. The gadolinium is attracted to the magnet and jumps from its resting point to attach to the magnet. Now the gadolinium is experiencing a stonger magnetic force, and according to its natural and unique properties, it heats up. That extra heat puts it above room temperature and it becomes suddenly unattracted to the magnet, falls off, and begins to cool. And repeat, forever, or until someone opens a window.

    I suppose you’d use more energy keeping the room at the right temperature than you’d create by the process. But still, if it worked outdoors for half an hour every day, as the world went from cool to warm, in certain climates on certain days, it would still be nifty.

    Clearly this won’t work, or you’d have a toy like this on your desk as a novelty item that only operates when the room temperature is in a particular range. So I assume I am misinterpreting the qualities of gadolinium. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to think about.

Solving the Energy Problem with Global Warming

    Yesterday I made the mistake of entering the search term “perpetual motion” at youtube.com. Then I lost an hour of my life looking at videos claiming to make perpetual motion engines out of natural magnets. These videos fascinate me because I presume they are all fake. It seems to me that if any of these devices worked I wouldn’t have to hunt around on youtube to find them. I’d already have one in the garage charging my electric car. So what is up with these videos?

    One theory is that all of the inventors started out seriously trying to build perpetual motion machines, realized at some point they couldn’t do it, and decided to salvage something out of the effort by making fake videos and getting some attention.

    Another theory is that the so-called inventors never intended to do anything but create fake videos. But it sure seems like a lot of work for that. That option seems unlikely to me.

    Lastly, we must entertain the possibility that the laws of physics have some sort of loophole, inventors sometimes find it, and the big corporations send around hit men every time it happens. That’s why you never see the invention beyond youtube.com or some local news show. But that seems unlikely too. So it remains a mystery.

    As I was googling around on this topic, I discovered that there is an element called gadolinium that is attracted to magnets up to about room temperature, then it abruptly loses its attraction . It seems to me you could build a generator using that principle. All you need is an external source of heat, and not much of it, to power the thing. A natural magnet could attract the gadolinium, which creates some mechanical energy, and some portion of that energy could be used to introduce heat from the outside that makes the gadolinium non-magnetic and puts the device back to its original position. Some of that energy from the return trip would turn off the outside heat source and the process repeats forever. It would only operate at about room temperature, but that’s still pretty nifty. The inside of my house, for example, is always at about room temperature, so there is no shortage of that environment.

    Yeah, I know, someone probably already invented it.

Sci Fi Plot

    I like to concoct concepts for science fiction movies and do nothing with them. Lately my favorite concept involves aliens who are having a sort of sporting contest that involves humanity, unbeknownst to us. Somehow the competing teams of aliens can see our world through our eyes when they want to, and can influence our actions by ramping up or down on our desires. They can’t control our specific actions, just our general propensities, making us, for example, hungrier or hornier or lazier than normal whenever that would be a strategic advantage in the game.

    There would be some rules of the game, such as only one alien can influence one human at a time, and maybe an alien team can influence no more than five people per game. So most people would not be under the direct influence of the aliens at any given moment. They would be random elements of the game.

    The plot of the movie would involve a brain surgeon who discovers the control mechanism in all of our brains. It would be organic in nature, but sending and receiving some sort of control signal that hadn’t ever been discovered before. The brain surgeon would be trying to unravel the mystery and detach humanity from the game while at the same time the aliens are having their Superbowl equivalent match that might result in WWIII.

    The aliens live many light years from Earth, having visited only once several billion years ago to influence evolution in a way that would turn us into their living chess pieces. They didn’t mind waiting billions of years because they have been doing the same game-making process since the beginning of time and there is always a new world somewhere coming online. They like to think ahead. They are immortal, so having game pieces that can die allows them to experience the preciousness of life vicariously.

    In the end, the brain surgeon discovers that humans have a synergistic arrangement with the aliens that helps us just as much as it helps them. If we were not part of their game, our lives would be dull and meaningless. So he decides to keep it to himself. The aliens reward him for his silence by filling whatever hole he had in his personality up until that point. For example, they might give him the capacity to feel love.

    In the final minute we discover that even the brain surgeon’s search for the truth of the game had been part of the game.

Air Battery


    I’m in the (long) process of building a house. The house will have solar panels, but it bugs me that I can’t be off the electric grid entirely. There’s no convenient and economical way to store energy at your own house while the sun is shining. But is that technology imminent?

    Some car companies are allegedly coming out with vehicles that operate on compressed air. Here’s one.


    How hard would it be to convert that compressed air technology to a home generator? My solar cells could compress air during the day and the compressed air engine would produce electricity at night. There would be plenty of waste in the process, I assume, but it sounds feasible to me.

    I’d also like to have a house with two elevators that are balanced so that when one goes down, the other is pulled up. And I would only use the elevators for going down, so my weight causes one side to be heavier than the other. To slow the descent, I’d be compressing air into my home air battery. If you need to go up, you use the stairs. It’s healthier. I’d have a full-power elevator option for the elderly and handicapped, but everyone else would be an energy producer.

    Then I’d put the guest bathroom on the second floor so I gain some electricity every time a guest goes to take a whiz. It wouldn’t balance out the water use, but it would make me feel better. And every time my wife or kids asked me where some lost item or other was, I’d say, “I saw it upstairs.”

Throne Room


    In the news, a JetBlue pilot allegedly made a passenger give his seat to an off-duty flight attendant. The flight was full, so the passenger was ordered to sit on the toilet for three hours.


    I’m sure your reaction to this story was the same as mine: That passenger got the best seat in the house! He had lots of leg room, total privacy, no one trying to hog the armrest, no seatbelt requirement, and all the whizzing he could handle. So naturally he sued the airline.

    The passenger’s problem was that he didn’t know how to make the best of a great situation. I would have kept the door propped open and yelled “Waiter! More Diet Coke!” every time a flight attendant walked past. And I would have gathered up enough blankets and pillows to feather my little nest.

    You might be thinking that the toilet seat in the bathroom has more cooties than Rick Solomon’s beard. That’s true, and it’s why you should always pee in the little sink. But I digress. My point is that there is some theoretical number of airline blankets that will give you three hours of protection. Then all you have to worry about is the germs on the blankets themselves.

    The real victims in this story are the two-hundred passengers who had to share one bathroom. They’re the ones who should be suing. Airlines have a rule that you can’t congregate around the bathroom and wait in line. That means you have to keep one hand on your seatbelt buckle and get ready to pounce as soon as the door opens. If anyone else makes a move, you might need to show your box cutters and yell something about Allah to clear the aisle. It’s either that or your bladder will burst. There are no good choices here.

    The passenger in this story had his own private suite for three hours and apparently missed the opportunity for a solo flight to the Mile High Club. I assume this is the case because he arrived in California all angry. If you put most men of that age group behind a locked door for three hours, with no other form of entertainment, you need a gurney and an IV at the other end.

Slow Wave


    Few things fascinate me more than seeing something work when it really shouldn’t. For example, as you know, nothing is more boring than listening to another person talk about the dream he had last night. Therefore, you would assume, a comic that is nothing but an account of a stranger’s dream should be the most uninteresting comic in the universe. And yet it isn’t.

    Artist Jesse Reklaw turns people’s dreams into four-panel comics on the Internet. They have no coherent story line and no punch lines. If you read only one, you would probably scratch your head and wonder what he was smoking. But if you read several it feels like accessing the dream part of your brain while being awake. It’s the strangest sensation. Check it out.


Your Secret Thoughts


    The hardest part about writing is capturing your own (or someone else’s) inner thoughts. For example, if I ask you to tell me something funny or frustrating about your job, you’d give me tales of coworkers eating your food from the break room fridge, or tell me your boss is incompetent. But those aren’t thoughts, just observations. We seem to store memories in terms of actions and some broad emotions, but not thoughts. And it is the thoughts you generally don’t voice that make writing interesting.

    Let’s test this. In the comments section, tell me what you were DOING immediately before reading this blog, and also tell me what you were THINKING about while you did it. If you can do both of those things, you are halfway to being an interesting and humorous writer.

    For example, “I was answering an e-mail from my coworker Karl while thinking he won’t understand my answer because he has an unusually small head that probably can’t hold much of a hat much less a brain.”

    Your turn.