Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Make your own Mythbusters Sign

Halloween is tomorrow. Along with being my birthday, apparently it's kind of a big deal with people who like making and wearing costumes. In that regard, my costume this year isn't terribly complicated, nor is it particularly frightening (unless you're a roll of duct tape, a crash test dummy, or an electric water heater).

Conveniently enough, the tech news/gadget blog "Tested" is having an Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman costume contest. Our Halloween party isn't until Saturday, which is after the contest. So Kelly McCulllough and I ventured out to a friend's place who just happened to have a trampoline a kiddie pool, and a propane tank available.


To put this photo shoot together, all we really needed to acquire new was Kelly's beard. Although I did have to build the "BUSTED" sign. But that was made from materials I already had on hand.

So let's say you're wanting to participate in the tested contest. Or perhaps you just want a giant "BUSTED" or "CONFIRMED" sign you can toss out during debates. Well today's your lucky day.

I started planning the sign about three weeks ago. A whole lotta searching on the interwebs yielded no specific information on the actual signs used in cutscenes on the show. The Discovery channel offers a metal version of the sign, but the font isn't right. It was also kinda pricey. If anything, my Halloween costuming mission statement has always been one of creative frugality.

I was going to try and watch as many Mythbusters episodes as possible and photograph the TV paused to show each sign so that I could estimate the dimensions and get the font to look right. But once I discovered that, unlike DVDs played on your computer, taking a screenshot (Shift-CMD-3 on a Mac) of a movie playing via Netflix in a web browser would actually work. So now I had a batch of screenshots featuring many views of the signs. In order to match the sign and estimate its dimensions, I tried to use 'head-on' shots to minimize perspective distortion. Then I imported them into photoshop to correct for other distortions and line up each sign's text so that when built, they'd be all to about the same scale.

Random Trivia (TM) item: there are at least two welded steel versions of the "CONFIRMED" and "BUSTED" signs used in the show. I'm not sure about "PLAUSIBLE."

Based on a few views, I estimate these signs are something around 5–6" tall by 18–21" wide and the lettering is probably about 1/2" wide. My guess is they cut the pieces out of 1/8" thick plate steel and used fairly standard sheet stock dimensions. So I went with 6" tall by 24" wide, because I wanted a little more room on either side. Plus it made the maths easier...

To make the back, I used 6mm (1/4") thick "Depron," which is an expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam product popular with remote controlled airplanes (link to source). I went with EPS because 1) I had several sheets of it on hand and 2) It's lightweight, has a slight "metallic" appearance, and was easy to work with. I cut the backs to size and super-glued some basswood strips to the backside to provide some extra rigidity. I was going to be painting these things and I didn't want the drying paint to warp the shape.

From my photoshop files, I printed off each of the words at full size. I used the printout as a cutting template that I just taped onto sheets of 3mm (1/8") Depron and cut out using a hobby knife.


Then I used the cutout as a lettering position guide on the 6mm backing sheet. I (appropriately) used a silver marker to mark the positions. Although if you use any non water-based marker on Styrofoam, check to see if the solvent used in the marker dissolves the plastic.




To glue the letters onto the backing, I used UHU's "Creativ" contact cement - although I think UHU "Por" is the closest product currently available. Again, something that wouldn't be too brittle when set, not dissolve the plastic and not soften or fall apart if wet (from painting).


And the weld bead that gives these signs their characteristic appearance is just white glue. I thought about hot-melt glue (low-temp), which might look more like molten metal, but with the styrofoam, I figured there was too much risk of melting the plastic. So I used white glue, added in multiple layers so that the drips and blobs wouldn't flow into each other too much, giving a reasonable appearance of forming a weld.


Once the glue was dry, it was time for paint. Watching the cutscenes, it's pretty obvious they have some where the signs are rustier and some where they've obviously burnished the metal to a good sheen. I decided that a rustier sign would be easier to make. After some experimentation, I found that some kind of metallic "steel" or "gunmetal" color looked good and provided a good base layer for additional washes of different colors. Once the base was in, I would stipple and drybrush some oxide red patches where the rust was going to be really heavy.


Then it was making layers and layers of rusty red, brown, yellow washes to build up complex color textures that gave the appearance of rusty steel. I followed these washes of rusty colors with an overall wash of india ink to darken up the low spots. Drybrushing some light red/yellow, and in some places silver, over this really helped convey the sense of weathered metal.

For the "busted" sign, I started with a red oxide base layer, since this was going to be a really rusty sign.

Then some darker brown areas. I tapped most of the paint off the brush by wiping it on some cardboard so that I could control how much paint I was putting on the surface by pushing harder or backing off.

Then some metallic silver paint to represent the polished metal surface. This pearlescent silver wasn't the best, as little sparkly flakes kept wiping off and getting onto other surfaces.

And here we have a complete set. They're lying on top of a portable work space I made up so I can watch TV or move my project stuff around more easily. Made watching the show and working on the signs at the same time very easy. That little "BL" on the right side was a test piece for checking out colors and suchlike.

And then the finished product, in its natural habitat. But, who wants to settle for just "CONFIRMED" or "BUSTED"? Even "PLAUSIBLE" has its limitations. I wanted a sign that would cover every possibility:

And like I mentioned before. The only thing that had to be acquired new was Kelly's beard. I'm not sure what that says about us (other than something about geekiness and hairstyling).

Note: since the show is a commercial adventure, and I'm sure the actual footage is a copyrighted thing, I'm not going to share more or larger screenshots - they're easy enough to acquire on your own. I also make no claims to own the font style or design of the text. But, if Beyond Belief Productions wants to give me credit for making up the word "CONBUSTIBLE" I'm fine with that :).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Hacking the Em2: Part Two - Sediment Supply

In my previous post, I described how I went about calibrating the notch gage for the Em2 stream table. But discharge isn't the only thing that I wanted to control. The sediment load is just as important when considering what a river is going to do. But how to "supply" that sediment? As-is, the Em2 does a bang-up job of supplying sediment through the sediment along the banks of the stream. But for my needs, this was too unpredictable. So began my search to hack together something to dump a controlled amount of material. By adjusting discharge and sediment load, I could start manipulating stream behavior.

My first ideas for a sediment supply mechanism revolved around a hopper of dry plastic sand, pulled/pushed into the stream by an auger mechanism turned via a cordless drill. This ended up being a little too ungainly. It was difficult to keep the drill going (charge in the batteries) and it was noisy. I also suspect the auger was grinding the material into finer pieces.

A view inside the Sediment Supply System from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.

So the next idea was to use a "conveyer belt" to deliver the sediment. Cobbled from LEGOs, this used an electric motor to turn a large rubber band. The rubber band would then convey the sand into the model.

CIMG0858 from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.

This video also shows the power supply that we used to provide a constant DC voltage. We put guards along the sides of the belt in our final version (along with some miniature operators), which my research student dubbed the "Auto-Sed."

This view shows some modifications we made to the stream channel (more on that later) and how we hooked up the the Auto-Sed. We set the sediment to dump into a funnel, wherein the water was also going. This solved a problem related to the dry plastic not completely getting wet due to surface tension (you end up with lots of little float-y bits down near the drain and less sand in the river)

Graph of sediment discharge related to power supply voltage. Most of the time, anything more than 3V tended to overwhelm the stream and pile up near the funnel. Results were remarkably consistent (data points consist of ~3 averaged measurements).

LEGO Auto-Sed mark 2.5 from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.

Here's the Auto-Sed Mk 2.5. At this point, only some of our research used this device - we had plenty of other fish to fry, but apart from the large number of moving parts, the design held up rather well. The rubber band doesn't appear to be showing too much wear - but they're pretty standard "portfolio size" that I can get at our local art supply store.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hacking the Em2, Part 1

From reading this blog, you may have guessed that I like studying rivers. In particular, I really like figuring out the ways in which rivers transport and deposit sediment. Because in those sediments might be fossils! And fossils tell us about the history of life over grand time scales. Fossils are cool. So are rivers.

My lab is lucky enough to have an Em2 stream table, built by the great folks at Little River Research and Design. Their founder/president/zeroth poobah, Steve Gough blogs about rivers and things, too.

It's been just about a year since I first set up the Em2 in the lab. Straight out of the box (off the shipping pallet, really), this thing does a lot of cool stuff. But for research, I wanted to tweak some of the variables. Or, at least quantify the characteristics of the stream table itself.

I began with looking at the plastic sand itself - I don't want to go over that today, but I've made a few references to the material before. A full-blown analysis of the sand that ships with the stream table is probably worth its own series of blog posts. For now, let's look at the flow of water from the pump into the stream table itself.

In hydrogeologic terms, the amount of water flowing past a specific spot (or cross-sectional area) for a particular period of time is called discharge (often labeled as Q, and is provided as a unit-volume per unit-time). If we know the cross-sectional area of the river, pipe, or whatever and the velocity of the flow, we can calculate discharge as area x velocity. An even easier method for small systems, although this averages out any instantaneous variation, is to simply hold a container underneath the open end of the pipe. Fill the container to some volume, use a stopwatch to calculate the time it took and divide the volume by the time.

The LRRD stream tables make things even easier - the water that comes from the pump pours out into a "notch gage." This notch gage gives you an "at-a-glance" view of the discharge. The higher up the notch the water is, the greater the discharge. Easy Peasy. No moving parts, no math, just eyeballs. Except that I wanted to compare high discharge experiments (high flow rates) to low discharge ones. Or if I wanted to repeat an experiment, I wanted a way to know the flow rates were the same. Bring on the bucket method described above.

First, I made reference marks on the gage itself starting at the bottom of the container, I made marks every 0.5 cm all the way to the top, giving me a reference point along the notch. Then, I placed the gage on a platform so I could put a bucket underneath to catch the water flowing out the notch. Now, set the flow to a certain reference point on the notch, collect water for a minute (or at least 10 seconds, depending on flow) and find out the volume of water. Repeat.

Using a ruler to make reference marks every 0.5cm.

Running the test using a faucet for flow and a 2x4 platform.

Graph of discharge versus notch mark (note: measuring flows below the 2nd mark were problematic because the surface tension of water prevented accurate water collecting)

Now I have data that tells me if I set the flow through the notch to the third mark, I know the discharge is about 24 cm3/sec. I can use it to monitor the pump and adjust things if there are changes in the hydraulic head (pump hose elevation, reservoir water level, etc.)

The best part? Anyone with the notch gage can do this too. And if the geometry of the notch gage is the same from one gage to another (presumably so) you can just make marks every 0.5 cm and go with my data. But if you're serious, you'll calibrate/confirm your own gage, right?

Go on, you know you're just itching to quantify stuff. I won't be able to attend GSA this year, so I'm hoping to give everyone a little taste of what I'm up to.

Stay tuned to see what I did to go from this...

To this - it's all about SCIENCE!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Managed Mischief Continues

Something a little more light-hearted this time...

My author pal Kelly McCullough and his wife have a tradition of getting all kitted up and taking their anniversary picture somewhere interesting. They've appeared in formal dress in Glacier National Park, Los Angeles, the San Diego Zoo and other places. Last year I took a nice posed portrait. This year, however, they went for action. So with the help of Neil Gaiman's trampoline, his white german shepherds Lola and Cabal.

I set up some off-camera flashes and they became, as Neil described, "The Fabulous Flying McCulloughs"

One of the things I like about my friends is they're willing to be goofy and willing to give me opportunities to scratch my photography itch.

My wife and I have our 8th anniversary today. We're going out to eat at a local Fancy Restaurant (tm). I'm looking forward to it - she gets more awesome every year.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

In Memoriam: Dr. James Knox

The world seems a little darker now. One of the giants in the world of fluvial geomorphology passed away this weekend. This evening I learned that Dr. James (Jim) Knox, professor emeritus of geography at UW-Madison died yesterday after a heart attack. I had hoped to share many exciting things when I had the chance to get back to blogging, but I really want to put these thoughts out there in memory of a wonderful teacher.

I first met Jim when I was a new PhD student on a field trip through southwestern Wisconsin on a cold, early spring weekend. I was just beginning to realize that my project involving fossil snails was going to need a good chunk devoted to rivers and how they were depositing fossil rich sediment during the last ice age and then eroding down to leave these fossils behind for me to uncover. During that field trip he had so much to share he would talk to both vans via the walkie-talkie. He spent so much time talking about the rivers and fluvial history of the area, he ended up draining the batteries in the walkie-talkie more than once.

Getting a PhD is a lot of work. Much of that work is done by the student, but - as they say - it takes a village to raise a dissertation. The advisor and committee get most of that work, but there are many more scientists involved. Jim wasn't on my committee, but he may as well have been. I wasn't a fluvial geomorphologist, but I had to become one in short order to do the work needed for my research. And so it was to Jim's office that I would go to share data and ideas related to rivers and the changes they went through. Without his generous help, my ideas about stream behavior would not have gotten me through the dissertation.

Last year, Jim retired and there was an entire session at the Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis dedicated to honoring his work and that of his students and colleagues. The photo below shows Jim as I will always remember him. Enthusiastic and a reservoir of immense knowledge. Someone who was always willing to stand in a sand pit, discussing the finer points of base level and sediment supply. His work related to the late Pleistocene history of the Upper Mississipi Valley changed my entire way of thinking about rivers. His work on the impact of humans on river systems continues to shape the work that I do now.

There isn't much in the way of obituary information, but more will probably appear here. His knowledge and enthusiasm will be deeply missed.