Weird and wonderful web sites

Dec 22, 2004

By Russ Kratowicz

During the year, we investigate quite a few Web sites as we scrounge for material to include in this monthly column. Some sites had good content. Those were the places we recommended you visit during the past 11 months. But we found many more Web sites that, although not appropriate for the given issue, certainly had some amusing or interesting features and content. This is the seventh year-end edition of this column in which we explore those off-the-beaten-path "sights" that don't necessarily have a rational relationship to the business life of the plant professional.

Better than a hard hat
The cap of maintenance is a cap of state that’s carried before the monarchs of England at their coronations and on opening day at parliament. The cap that the sovereign uses is made of crimson velvet and has an ermine brim. This example of British sartorial splendor has the honor of being carried by its hereditary bearer, the marquess of Winchester, who totes it on the end of a white wand. When you see the cap of maintenance, I just know you’re going to want your own. So dispatch your loyal mouse to pay its royal respects to, where you’ll find directions for making your own custom skull bucket.

Leonardo rocks
I think you’ll agree that Da Vinci -- painter, architect, engineer, mathematician and philosopher -- was a little ahead of his time. Think about it. Here’s a genius who lives in a Renaissance world and is probably surrounded by a populace that, in the main, is not quite so well endowed intellectually. I can imagine the reason he never commercialized his inventions was because most people just didn’t get it. On the other hand, Milano, home to Italy’s National Museum of Science and Technology, does get it. That institution houses more than 100 models based on Da Vinci’s sketches that were constructed to honor the man on the fifth centenary of his birth. If you have the time, pay a visit to the museum at and marvel at what one human mind is capable of conceiving to fill a perceived deep technological void at the end of the Dark Ages.

Not rocket science
This country, on the other hand, develops a lot of technology every year, some fraction of it under the auspices of our hired hands in Washington. Because such material is produced using your hard-earned tax dollars, it’s rightfully in the public domain and, hence, available to you, the folks who paid for it, free of any additional charge. An example is the software that NASA offers at its Tech Briefs Software Center Under the engineering applications link, you’ll find software that performs automated fatigue calculations and others that analyze turbomachinery seals, shaft bearings, and centrifugal and axial pump design and off-design meanline performance. Under the link for artificial intelligence and expert systems, you’ll find neural net software. It’s all free. But there’s a catch or two. Although the software is free, the documentation for it carries a price. Some packages run on a workstation instead of a desktop PC, some are written in Fortran and other languages. The big catch, from the perspective of the traditional concept for this monthly column, is that getting the software requires registration.

Real rocket science
Speaking of technology, your tax dollars are funding the two Martian rovers now exploring the red planet, so you might as well ask how well things are going a few million miles from home. For the view from the proverbial 30,000 ft. above the planet, go to the Marsoweb site at There you’ll find lots of images from orbit and animated “fly-throughs” of some Mars locations. This site also permits users to fine-tune the images for brightness, contrast and sharpness, as well as make other adjustments. But if you’re like me, you’d much rather be down on the surface, in which case, you should launch your orbital mouse on a trip to for “Mars Exploration Rover.” This site offers plain, panoramic and 3-D images of a landscape that is pretty bleak, devoid of life forms with nary a trace of little green men. Nevertheless, it’s amazing that mere mortals have the ability to capture these images and make valid scientific inferences from what appears in the frame, as well as the data various sensors detect. We should give NASA a round of applause for making the Mars mission a reality. Da Vinci would be proud.

The luminous pickle
The next site is for those who have some time to kill and want to play the role of the mad scientist. It’s easy if you follow the directions given by Rod Nave at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University. Send Igor the Mouse to “The Electric Pickle” at and impress your friends, family and neighbors with what you find there. I don’t want to spoil the fun by revealing too much about this most exotic use for a pickle. Just be extremely careful when you duplicate the experiment in your home laboratory. That pickle can bite and, if it does, it will be playing for keeps.

The 10-minute motor
We tend to think of the electric motor, the quintessential industrial prime mover, as a husky thing that requires at least one muscle-bound creature just to mount it on a baseplate. Now I ask you, can you imagine using an electric motor as a desk ornament? Relax. We’re not talking TEFC here, merely a minimalist version of the beast we know and love. It so happens that you can fabricate a functioning motor that’s not much larger than a D-cell and have it operating on your desk in no time at all. To amaze your business associates, merely wind a tiny multiturn coil of wire, find yourself a small but powerful permanent magnet and bring a battery from home. Then, if you spin over to, you’ll find full instructions, courtesy of Kinetic MicroScience, Los Gatos, Calif. The trick is aligning the two ends of the wire collinearly through the coil’s center of mass. But you folks are engineers, aren’t you? No sweat.

Going batty
When it comes to protecting people from trouble and woe, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson can’t hold a candle to the real thing. For example, a lone common little brown bat can catch 1,200 mosquito-sized insects an hour. And so it goes each night of its 30-year lifespan. The 20 million Mexican free-tail bats from Bracken Cave in Texas eat about 200 tons of insects nightly. If you expect these voracious bug eaters to remain near your property, though, you’re going to need to provide them with suitable accommodations. A good beginning is found at, which is home to “Scott’s Bat House Page -- Free Bat House Plans.” Several of the models highlighted there can be fabricated from one full sheet of plywood. This link-rich site also connects you to more bat-related resources than you can imagine.

It’s not KFC
Poultry has been a major constituent of the human diet for millennia. For most of us, getting our chicken fix involves nothing more complicated than visiting the local grocery store to buy a yellow foam tray filled with anonymous bird parts, a convenience of rather recent origin. Our forebears enjoyed a much more intimate and intense knowledge of the avian creature they raised and hand-butchered for Sunday dinner. Those birds are much more than legs, wings and breasts, as you’ll learn if you investigate “Poultry Science 202 Lab Review,” a series of 127 slides that show the clinical dissection of a chicken. Brought to you by the Poultry Science Department at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural Sciences, each slide identifies one or more sometimes obscure anatomical components of one of our favorite fowls. Let your trusty mouse scratch and cluck its way to, where the whole issue is wide open.

Stuffed and stowed
The rulers of ancient Egypt had a certain penchant for ostentatious housing for their mortal remains. Surrounded by some, but not all, of their personal wealth, those mummies were good to go when it came to the afterlife. One of the most renowned facilities for the study of such things is The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. What those scholars don’t already know about ancient Egypt might be enough to fill a thimble. And they’re willing to share some of that knowledge. For example, if you ever wondered how mummies were prepared, you can get an answer from the Institute’s Web site. Float your mouse down the digital Nile to the pier at and access the highly interactive page that gives the details.

Free software
The good folks at Elite Software in College Station, Texas, will allow you to download free, fully functional evaluation versions of more than 30 of the company’s HVAC, electrical, plumbing and fire protection software packages. Many, such as waste drainage pipe sizing and multi-phased life cycle cost analysis, are certain to find some utility in the plant environment. This software is free because it is crippled in some way and limited in what it can do. Some won’t allow printing the results, some HVAC packages handle only three, small rooms and some electrical packages handle only one circuit at a time, some use a DOS platform. But, for free, you might as well take. If your desk rodent burrows its way to “Software downloads” at, it can fetch the goodies quite easily.

And, as a parting shot, you can obtain a copy of AIRMaster+, a software program that analyzes compressor and compressor system efficiency. This package was developed by the Washington State University Cooperative Extension Energy Program, and is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy via the Office of Industrial Technologies' Best Practices Program. Go to for the download.

Weird and Wonderful

 Poultry Science 202 Lab Review

 The Electric Pickle



 The Oriental Institute

 Mars Exploration Rover

 Scott’s Bat House Page -- Free Bat House Plans

 Elite software downloads

 The cap of maintenance

 National Museum of Science and Technology

 NASA Tech Briefs Software Center

 The 10-minute motor