Monthly Archives: April 2011

Handerpants, Devil Duckies and Rubber Chickens: Inside Archie McPhee

A bathtub full of Devil Duckies at Archie McPhee's Seattle store.

SEATTLE — It’s hard to explain Archie McPhee.

Instead, let’s start with some of the things you can buy here:

Cthulhu water bottles. Bacon-flavored toothpaste. Devil duckies. Fire-spitting wind-up nuns. Band-Aids that look like bacon strips. Bacon-flavored gumballs. A plastic narwhal — complete with a penguin for it to impale. A yodeling plastic pickle. Bacon-flavored mints.

And, of course, there’s a bin full of rubber chickens.

The company, named after founder Mark Pahlow’s eccentric great uncle, has been shipping strange objects, offbeat toys and slightly off-color gifts from its Seattle headquarters since 1983.

Wired visited Archie McPhee‘s retail store, in Seattle’s earnestly funky Wallingford neighborhood. It’s like a warehouse full of carnival toys. If you’ve ever failed to throw a ping-pong ball into the right cup of water and received a strange, almost worthless finger puppet as a consolation prize, you might recognize it in one of the many bins here.

Before the internet and eBay, Archie McPhee was a precious source of bizarre gags from around the world. My future parents-in-law got the catalog and cackled while showing me such oddities as a telescoping fork (expands up to 2 feet!), rubber cockroaches, boxing plastic Godzillas and catapult guns that fling plastic bugs, giving me an early hint of the madness that I would someday marry into.

The McPhee catalog strikes a chord with a certain kind of person: children, or those with a particularly goofy sense of humor. If your sense of fun veers between silly and absurd, you’re a likely customer for McPhee’s brand of plastic fantastic humor.

Like most great works, Archie McPhee was born out of a desperate need.

“Having been born and raised in Ohio, I understand boredom in a profound way,” says Pahlow in his memoir,Who Would Buy This? (available for sale at Archie McPhee for $19.95).

To assuage the tedium of his childhood, he went into business, starting by selling illegal firecrackers to his friends. Later, he collected and resold stamps, cigar box labels, old toys and Korean rubber acupuncture figurines.

Pahlow bought up strange objects and odd lots on road trips through out-of-the-way Midwestern towns, then sold them at huge markeups to emporia in New York. Eventually he opened his own shop and started publishing a catalog, gradually adding products of his own design to the mix.

Now Archie McPhee sells hundreds of original products under its own brand.

The “secret,” if you can call it that, is simple.

Thanks to the miracle of inexpensive Asian manufacturing, any object, no matter how strange, can be mass-produced in plastic for pennies per unit. Design some ironic packaging, wait for it to get off the boat from China, sell for $8.95 and repeat.

What makes it all work is Pahlow’s unique sensibilities: One-third goofy humor, one-third self-aware irony, one-third crass commercialism, all salted with a strange sense of mission.

“I came to realize shopping existed to help make people less depressed,” Pahlow writes, “and I was determined to help them in this noble undertaking.”

Above: Archie McPhee created the Devil Duckie in 2000, and it quickly went on to become a nationwide cult hit, spawning dozens of variations. $8.95 for a sleeve of six.

 

See the full gallery, with lots of great photos by Jim Merithew: Handerpants, Devil Duckies and Rubber Chickens: Inside Archie McPhee | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Infoporn: How Flatscreen TVs Get Cheaper

 

 

Like multicore computer chips, Android smartphones, and Starbucks coffee, LCD TVs are getting cheaper—and bigger—all the time. Inevitably, your brother-in-law’s new 55-inch TV cost less than the 48-inch model you bought two years ago. Why? Science! See, flat-panel displays are made by machines that print arrays of circuits on sheets of glass and then slice those sheets into screens like high tech brownies. And since 1999, those machines have increased in size by 800 percent. Thus, the Law of Big Glass: The larger the glass printer, the cheaper—or bigger—the TV.

In 1993, the industry-standard tool for “printing” display circuitry, a TFT-LCD deposition machine, could work with glass no bigger than about 18 inches square. Today, they can handle sheets that are 11 feet on a side—the size of a garage door—and just a millimeter thick. A 20-inch flatscreen TV cost $1,200 in 1999; it costs just $84 today.

The law applies to organic LED displays, too—which is great, since they’re brighter and more energy-efficient than LCDs. OLED screens use a related manufacturing process, and right now they’re printed on 4 x 5-foot sheets. But the Law of Big Glass says 55-inch OLEDs will someday go for less than $1,000 at Costco. By then you’ll probably want a tiny, ridiculously expensive holodeck.

Full story from Wired issue 19.05: Infoporn: How Flatscreen TVs Get Cheaper | Magazine.

Exercise Wet, While Your Phone Stays Dry

 

 

My phone is about as integrated into my life as my left temporal lobe. I’m not going running without it.

That’s why the H2O Audio Amphibx Fit Armband ($60) is a boon for technophile exercise-junkies like me. Sure, it’s ugly, and its large size dwarfs my skinny arms. But with my phone tucked inside, I can go running in rain, sleet, hail or any other ridiculous elements without fear of water damage. I can even go swimming with my Precious — something even Sméagol would envy.

Coupled with a pair of H2O Audio’s Surge 2G headphones ($50), which are also waterproof, I can listen to music anywhere I choose to run, splash or ride.

The Amphibx armband is essentially a sealed, clear plastic pouch attached to a beefy fabric-fastener strap. On the back there’s a double-latching hatch with a gasket. Pop your phone inside, clip the latches down and the gasket seals all water out. It also seals air inside, so your phone gets to ride along with a bubble of air, which helps it float should it become detached.

You can still work your phone’s controls and use its touchscreen through the pouch, although it’s a bit more awkward than before.

To use headphones, you connect the armband’s internal plug to your device before sealing it inside, then close up the pouch. Afterward, you can plug your earbuds or headphones (regular or waterproof) into the armband’s external headphone port, making an electrical connection without compromising the waterproofing.

I tested the Amphibx armband and Surge 2G headphones in a variety of conditions, from jogging on a hot and sweaty California afternoon to running through chilly, blowing Seattle rain. I took it in the shower and on 1-mile pool lap swims. I used it with an iPhone 4 as well as a Motorola Defy. Neither phone ever saw a drop of water, except for the random few drops that fell on them as I was reopening the case after a workout.

The case is big enough to hold the well-endowed HTC Evo, although it’s a bit of a squeeze once you connect the internal headphone plug. You can also can fit a credit card or a $20 bill inside along with the phone.

The Surge 2G headphones performed just fine while running, with decent sound and a rugged design that made them relatively easy to deal with while exercising. However, I was not able to get the headphones to stay in while swimming. It might be that my ears are unusually-shaped, but they kept floating out in the water, even when I’d jammed them well inside my outer ear. Switching to different tips (several sizes are included) didn’t help much.

Still, for running and other sport activities in wet environments short of total immersion, the H2O Audio combination works well. Whether you just want to take music with you, can’t stand being out of touch or are using your phone to track your workouts, these two are a pricey but practical pair of accessories.

WIRED Waterproof to 12 feet: Good enough for surfing! Wide fabric-fastener strap keeps armband on even when severely buffeted. Easy to adjust.

TIRED Plastic sticks to touchscreens, making removal slow. Harder to work touchscreen controls through the plastic. Plastic adds glare in bright sunlight. Size will make your arms look even skinnier, you nerd.

via Exercise Wet, While Your Phone Stays Dry | Product Reviews | Wired.com.

Exercise Accessories Help You Measure Up

 

Can a smartphone help you train better?

Maybe — if you’re the kind of person who gets obsessed over logging every workout, tracking your pace and counting how many miles per week you’ve averaged. And if you’re that kind of person, there’s a host of apps and gadgets that can feed your mania for recording progress.

I spent months with two apps — RunKeeper and MapMyRun — getting a taste of the quantified fitness lifestyle.

While they may not be making me a better runner, I am far more aware of how much (or little) I’m actually exercising, and that alone is a strong impetus to work out more and to do it better.

The apps show how a smartphone can turn into a collection point for an array of health and fitness data, including speed, distance, elevation, heart rate and other workout metrics such as calories and cadence (the measurement of steps or pedal strokes per minute). RunKeeper has also recently added the ability to track weight and even sleep patterns, with the right accessories.

Both MapMyRun and RunKeeper work similarly. When you start a workout, you launch the app and tell it what you’re about to do — run, walk, bike or swim. The app then measures how long you’re working out, records your path if it’s able to pick up a GPS signal, and records your heart rate if you’ve got a heart rate monitor. When you’re done, you press a button and your workout gets zapped up to the cloud, where you can view it and share it.

Both are available as free downloads for Android and iPhone, but to get the most out of these apps, you’ll need to spend some dough on a few extra gadgets. A heart-rate monitor is probably the most useful addition for exercise nuts, because it can tell you if you’re actually working out at the appropriate intensity.

For Android phones with Bluetooth support, chances are good you can use a Bluetooth heart-rate monitor. I used the Polar Wearlink+ ($80), which worked just fine. It paired with the phone, and the data was immediately available in both MapMyRun and RunKeeper.

If you’ve got an iPhone, you need a different solution, because the iPhone’s Bluetooth won’t work with the Polar Bluetooth adapter. Instead, I used Wahoo Fitness’s Fisica sensor key ($80), a small white tab that plugs into the iPhone connector port on the bottom of the phone. This adapter communicates wirelessly with any sensor that uses the Ant+ protocol, including Wahoo’s own heart-rate-monitor strap ($60). The combination is more expensive than a plain Bluetooth heart-rate strap: Yet another reason for your Android-loving friends to lord it over you.

Runkeeper can also integrate with weight data from the Withings Wi-Fi Body Scale, stride data from a Wahoo Stride Sensor ($80), and sleep and activity data from a Fitbit or Zeo device. I didn’t test these sensors, but it’s comforting to know that when I want to turn even more of my life into pure, clean numbers, it will be easy to do so.

Once the data’s in the cloud, you can view reports, of course, and also share it with your friends, either to boast about your accomplishments or to encourage one another to keep going — or maybe a little of both. And you can start to analyze trends: For instance, I log more miles on Saturdays than I do on Tuesdays. And I’m faster on my lunchtime runs than my early-morning, pre-breakfast runs.

Of the two services, Runkeeper has a cleaner, easier-to-read interface on both smartphones and its website. Runkeeper also offers voice prompts, which can tell you how far and how fast you’ve gone at various intervals.

Apart from the voice prompts, MapMyRun matches Runkeeper feature-for-feature, but I found it harder to navigate, and the website offers fewer options for slicing and dicing the data. It’s also got more advertisements in both the app and on the website (though you can pay to make the ads go away).

Both apps have free versions, but to make the most of both apps, you’ll need to pay something. Runkeeper offers “Runkeeper Elite” subscriptions for $5 per month or $20 per year. They offer real-time run tracking (so your friends can keep an eye on you as you run — including during races) and a wider variety of charts to analyze your performance trends.

MapMyRun offers various paid options ranging from $6 per month to $20 per month (or $30 to $100 per year), which give you access to additional advanced training charts and reports, and also eliminate ads from the interface.

After using both apps for months (in Runkeeper’s case, I’ve used it for years) am I a better runner? Probably, but it’s not because the data has given me superhuman self-coaching abilities. Rather it’s that the mere act of measuring my activity has made me pay more attention to it.

If I were a more serious runner or had a definite exercise goal like losing weight, these apps and gadgets would give me a valuable edge. As it is, they help me stay on track — and for now, that seems to be just what I need.

Photo by Jim Merithew

 

Read the original: Exercise Accessories Help You Measure Up | Product Reviews | Wired.com.

Stick It to the Weatherman With Your Own Personal Forecasts

 

 

It’s a comfortable 63.3 degrees on the roof of Wired headquarters, with a slight 3-mph breeze, and the barometer is at 30.14 inches and rising.

A few blocks away, it’s 61.1 degrees and there’s a 4-mph breeze from the northwest. There was a little mist yesterday, 0.06 inches of precipitation to be exact.

And I know all this even though I’m 20 miles away and inside.

Welcome to the world of super-precise microclimate measurement. It’s all possible, thanks to the thousands of amateur weather stations installed all around the world, which are increasingly linked to the internet and to one another. Someday, this network might give me the ability to tailor weather forecasts not just to my town, but to the very block I’m on.

The Davis Vantage Pro2 we’re using to track the weather at Wired is one of the more expensive weather kits available, but its precision pays off.

Upstairs, there’s an array of environmental sensors, including a thermometer, an anemometer, and a rain gauge all house within an ugly but sturdy shell. We strapped ours to a metal pole about 12 feet above the roof of our office building.

It’s solar-powered and has enough battery power to last all night and through cloudy days, so you don’t need to run electricity to it. And it transmits data to the Vantage Pro2 console wirelessly, so you don’t need data cables either: Just find a suitable pole, strap it up there, and forget about it.

Downstairs, the console picks up data transmitted by the sensors and adds data gathered indoors, including indoor temperature and barometric pressure. You can stare at the console and watch its rudimentary graphs, but such data quickly grows dull for all but the most committed weather nuts. What you really want to do is upload that data to the internet.

To do that, we used a Davis WeatherLink data logger and an Ambient Weather server module to transmit the weather data from the console to Weather Underground, a weather information site and community.

It was a bit tricky to set up, so we first had to use the data logger to pipe the data to a nearby PC running the WeatherLink software to make sure the bits were flowing. Once that was working, we reconnected the data logger to the Ambient Weather module, which is connected directly to our cable modem’s router. From that point on, we didn’t need to use the PC any more.

Weather Underground, which loaned us the equipment, is building a network of weather-data-collecting nodes like ours. The company says it’s currently tracking around 13,400 sites in the United States and almost 20,000 worldwide. Many of those are accessible through Weather Underground’s website, which got a facelift on February 2 — Groundhog’s Day, of course — making it far easier to get information at a glance from its wealth of data.

Eventually, Weather Underground says it wants to use the data stream from each of these amateur weather stations to improve and hyper-localize official weather forecasts. For instance, if the data shows that your location is consistently 4 degrees warmer than the official forecast on summer afternoons, you could use that information to create a more precise forecast for everyone around you.

For now, such advanced features aren’t available — but you can browse through individual weather stations, including Wired’s, and see how conditions change from neighborhood to neighborhood. That’s like catnip for weather geeks.

It also has more immediate, practical implications. If you’re managing an office building like ours, having hyper-local data like this might help you create more efficient air-conditioning and heating schedules. If you have a vacation home, you could install a weather station there and be able to check on conditions before you hit the road on Friday afternoon.

Or, if you live in a part of the world with intensely variable microclimates, such as San Francisco, weather stations like these can help you decide how to dress for the office. That’s no small thing, when temperatures can vary by 10 or 20 degrees from one side of the city to the other.

Track Wired’s weather: We’re station KCASANFR113 on wunderground.com.

WIRED Incredibly precise measurements of temperature, precipitation, barometric pressure, and wind speed and direction. Solar power and wireless transmission means no wires to connect. Expandable — plug UV and solar-radiation sensors into the station. Once set up, system transmits data seamlessly to Weather Underground.

TIRED Setup requires a great deal of patience, as it took us hours to find the right spot, secure the sensors, and set up the internet connection using a data logger. Wireless connection sometimes dropped depending on where we put the console. Expensive.

Photos: Keith Axline/Wired.com

 

Read the original: Stick It to the Weatherman With Your Own Personal Forecasts | Product Reviews | Wired.com.

Review: Naked Steel, Bare Flesh Sex Up Game of Thrones

King Robert Baratheon arrives at Winterfell. Photo courtesy HBO.

Game of Thrones opens with violence, nudity, foul language and a soundtrack dominated by cello and kettledrums. A medieval-looking haze of smoke hangs over the computer-generated cities of Westeros. Mud and filth fill the castles. Characters drop their silks and furs to engage in flesh-smacking sex inside ancient stone towers. There are two decapitations in the first 10 minutes.

In other words, the new show is everything a big-budget American TV channel and an imaginative swords-and-sorcery fantasy novelist can offer, baked up into one big, savory lamprey pie.

Game of Thrones is a 10-episode adaption of George R.R. Martin’s novel of the same name. The book is the first in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a sequence of seven novels (only four of which have been published) that is one of the most ambitious fantasy epics in recent memory.

The fact that the first book is coming to HBO as a series — that it’s not being crammed, Harry Potter-style, into the impossible confines of a two- or three-hour feature film — is cause for celebration.

It’s welcome, too, that the creators of Game of Thrones have stayed true to Martin’s bloody, lusty vision, which is equal parts fantasy and historical fiction.

Well, sort of historical: The continent of Westeros is based loosely on medieval Europe during the Wars of the Roses, but is otherwise a completely made-up world.

There is a bit of sorcery to liven things up, but the emphasis in the show and in the books is far more on castle politics, knightly warfare and basic human brutality. It’s a complex drama of power and violence salted with a little magic and pageantry.

You don’t need to be a Dungeons & Dragons nerd to enjoy this series, but it definitely helps if you like the sight of horses, swords and naked women.

 

Read the full review on Wired.com: Naked Steel, Bare Flesh Sex Up Game of Thrones | Underwire | Wired.com.

Video: Spaceship Lands at San Francisco Airport

 

One of the first planes to dock at Virgin America’s new San Francisco International Airport terminal was a spaceship.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo arrived hitched between the twin fuselages of WhiteKnightTwo, its mothership and launch platform.

“For the first time we’ve brought the spaceship and WhiteKnight to a commercial airport…. It’s just a fantastic, exciting day,” says an obviously amped-up Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. Before he was the company’s CEO, Whitesides was one of the first people to sign up for a $200,000 ticket to ride on the space plane.

Commercial flights will begin in a year or two, Whitesides added.

The spaceship/mothership combination landed at SFO in formation with a more typical Virgin vehicle, an Airbus A320, which carried celebrity passengers such as Virgin founder Richard Branson (seen peering out the window in the video above) and pioneering astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Full story: Video: Spaceship Lands at San Francisco Airport | Autopia | Wired.com.

Microscopic Art Hides Inside Computer Chips

Where's Waldo? Inside a computer chip

Considering the expense, precision and difficulty of manufacturing computer chips, you would think the engineers designing them are pretty serious people.

But it’s not all business inside a chip fab, as these microscope photos reveal. In fact, the designers of microchips frequently hide tiny cartoons, drawings and even messages alongside the super-tiny circuits and semiconductors they create.

Chipworks, a company that analyzes microchips by peeling them apart and looking at them under microscopes, has discovered many examples of silicon art. We’ve selected a few highlights here from the firm’s extensivegalleries of silicon art, but check the Chipworks website for more.

The images in this gallery are magnified 200 to 500 times.

As Chipworks explains, these drawings are made with the same processes used to assemble the rest of a computer chip. Designs are etched onto photolithography plates which are then used to “print” the chips’ circuitry, layer by layer, in thin films of silicon, silicon dioxide, aluminum and other materials. It’s a complicated process that takes hundreds of steps and millions of dollars worth of machinery, and it requires incredible degrees of precision and repeatability.

But if there’s a little unused space in a chip, why not fill that with an entertaining design? It’s not as if most of the chip companies’ customers will ever notice. The only people likely to see these designs are the chip engineers’ supervisors and analysts at companies like Chipworks.

“The mass production of these works of art as parasites on the body of a commercial IC goes unnoticed by most observers,” writes Chipworks. “Their existence is a tribute to human resourcefulness and creativity, surfacing from deep within a complex process.”

 

Full story: Gallery: Microscopic Art Hides Inside Computer Chips | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Virgin’s Richard Branson Plans Deep-Sea Diving Venture

Photo of Virgin Oceanic sub in San FranciscoGallivanting billionaire Richard Branson is well on his way to space. Now he plans to explore the deepest parts of the ocean as well.

Branson announced his undersea exploration venture, Virgin Oceanic, on Tuesday. Unlike his suborbital-space-flight company, Virgin Galactic, the new venture is not accepting paying passengers. Instead, it will comprise only five deep-sea dives, each one carrying just one person, to the deepest points in each of the five oceans.

Virgin Oceanic tested its submarine in San Francisco Bay recently. Photo courtesy Virgin Oceanic.

To make the dives, Virgin has built a custom submarineand a flashy promotional video (see below). The sub’s cockpit has a bubble-like dome made of quartz, which can withstand 13 million pounds of pressure across its surface, Virgin says.

Overall, the sub looks a bit like an airplane, the better to “fly” to its underwater destinations. It weighs 8,000 pounds, is made of carbon fiber and titanium, and is rated to withstand pressure up to 37,000 feet below the surface. It’s not fast, though, with a maximum speed of just 3 knots and the ability to dive at 350 feet per minute, so its life-support systems are meant to last up to 24 hours.

In addition to its one human, the sub will have a water sampling system that can filter microbes and viruses from the water for later study. It will also be able to deploy unmanned probes. So far, the sub has only gone for a dip in San Francisco Bay.

Virgin Oceanic notes that sub was originally the brainchild of aviator and adventurer Steve Fossett, a friend of Branson’s, who crashed during a solo plane flight in 2007 but whose remains weren’t found until 2008.

To support and transport the sub, Virgin has retrofitted a 125-foot carbon-fiber racing catamaran with a crane, generators and lots of electronics.

The first dive will be to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a 36,201-foot canyon deep in the western Pacific. Humans have made it to the bottom of the Mariana Trench just once before, in 1960. The commander of that expedition, Jacques Piccard, later recounted the experience of that record-setting dive.

The second dive will be to the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, which at 28,232 feet below the surface is the deepest trench in the Atlantic Ocean. Branson himself plans to pilot the sub for this journey. Branson will be the backup pilot for the Mariana dive too, if his designated pilot is unable to do it. Three other dives are planned, each to the deepest point of other three oceans.

There’s a serious scientific purpose to Virgin Oceanic’s missions, Virgin says, with actual scientists lined up to make the most of these dives for their research into bottom-dwelling microbes, bioluminescence and seafloor geology.

But mostly, we suspect, it will be an excellent adventure for the man Wired magazine has called a “happy-go-lucky tycoon.” More power to you, Sir Richard. We’ll be watching for the IMAX movie.

 

Published on Wired.com: Virgin’s Richard Branson Plans Deep-Sea Diving Venture | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Happy 30th Birthday to the Portable PC

The portable computer was born 30 years ago this weekend, when Adam Osborne unveiled the Osborne 1 in San Francisco.

Osborne, a journalist and book author, made the transition to entrepreneur on the strength of his personality, ambition and vision. And for a short few months, his computer company was on top of the world, with one of the steepest revenue growth curves ever seen. A year and a half later, it was bankrupt, a victim of bad management and the now-notorious “Osborne effect,” referring to the sales-stifling result of announcing a next-generation product while the current generation is still on the shelves.

It’s hard to believe now, but the suitcase-sized PC shown above was state of the art for its time, with a tiny but usable CRT, disk drives and a full-sized keyboard. While its processor and operating system pale in comparison with the humblest smartphone today, it set the stage for later, more successful portables, from the Kaypro to the first Compaq laptop.

For the first time, the notion of taking a computer with you, wherever you might go, was conceivable. That was a huge leap, when less than a decade earlier computers were still the size of filing cabinets, locked away in fluorescent-lit, white-tiled computer rooms.

Harry McCracken has a fantastic, in-depth story on the history of Osborne and the early portable computing industry at Technologizer. It should be required weekend reading for anyone interested in computers.

“He was a God,” legendary technology journalist David Bunnell told McCracken, about Osborne. “I tell people that in those days there were three major people in the industry: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Adam Osborne, and not necessarily in that order. He had a huge following.”

Osborne! (Technologizer)

This post originally published on Wired.com: Happy 30th Birthday to the Portable PC | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.