Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist - Episode 15

Within an hour, all the guys were at our house. Some of us built ramps and jumps out of wood scraps. A couple of guys cut the aluminum cans open with metal shears and smashed them flat with sledge hammers to create little sheets of aluminum. We used aluminum nails to attach the cans to the frames, so that we’d have an unbroken sheet for the hover board.

I was deep in thought, trying to figure out the best angle for a jump, when Frank tapped me on the shoulder. “George, we have a problem.”
“Problem? What are you talking about? This is going to be great!”

“How many guys are expecting to ride the hover board?” Frank asked. 

I shrugged. “All of them, I guess. Why would they be helping if they didn’t want a ride?”

“So we’re going to be drawing power for at least… 2 or 3 hours today. Don’t you think the electric company will notice the sudden spike?” Frank glanced nervously at the wall socket.

“Why would they?” I asked. “I mean, power is power. It’s always there. It’s not like they notice when we charge a lawnmower battery.”

“They’re going to send someone out to investigate,” Frank said. “Look, I got the hover board set up. But after I try it, I’m out of here.”

“You’re being paranoid. No one’s going to get mad over some kids and their indoor skate park,” I said. “But sure. Go home. Miss the fun. Be a stereotypical isolated homeschooler.”

Frank sighed. “Fine. I’ll stay. But if the cops come, I’m gone.”

I pulled out my phone and pulled up an app. “Look, I’ll tune it to the scanner. No worries.” 

When the course was done, Frank stood on the board as I plugged it in. Slowly the board rose until floated about 3 inches above the aluminum. The other guys gasped. I started laughing like a madman. I couldn’t help it. I’d known Frank’s idea would work, but I hadn’t expected it to be so cool.

Even Frank was grinning. He pushed off as if he was on a regular skateboard, and flew across the garage. Kids dove out of his way. He slammed into the wall, and fell off the board. 

“Frank!” I shouted. “Are you OK?” Frank wobbled to his feet and gave us a shaky thumbs-up.
“I forgot,” he said. “No friction, so you barely need to push at all.”

I claimed second ride since it was my garage. I gently nudged my foot against the ground, and the board went zooming up a ramp and towards the roof of the garage. As it lost contact with the aluminum below, it started to act like a normal board. I hung on, rode it back onto the ramp, and went hurtling across the garage as the acceleration of gravity took over. I threw myself off the board and onto some handy 5th graders before I plowed into the garage wall.

Joe frowned. “This is going to land someone in the ER pretty fast,” he said. “Everyone, go home, get all the air mattresses you own, and meet back here in 15 minutes.”  Joe tends to take charge like that.
The other kids scattered and came back with uninflated air mattresses. When we blew them all up, we had enough to line the garage walls with them. Suddenly, crashing was a lot less dangerous.

 One by one, all of the kids who had helped build the ramp took a turn on the hover boards. I grabbed a couple to come inside with me to get drinks and food for everybody. “That garage is awesome!” One of the younger kids exclaimed as I loaded him up with chips and 2-liters to take outside. “We should totally charge admission!” 

“Shhh,” I hissed. “My Mom’s working. And I’m not sure she’d be OK if the whole neighborhood showed up.”

The house phone rang. I answered so that it wouldn’t lure my mom out of her office. “This is the Tell City Electric Company,” the voice said. “Your house is drawing an unusual amount of power and we….”

“Thanks! I’ll check it out!”  I hit the off button. The phone rang again. I answered.

“Young man, is your mother home? This is a potentially dangerous…”

“Yeah, I got it,” I said. I hung up again and flung myself out the back door. “Frank!” I screamed. “Beat it, they’re coming…”

Usually, I love living just a couple of blocks from the power company. They can practically see our house from their office. When there’s a bad storm, we’re usually the first street to get our power back. Today was not a good day to be close. As I ran across the yard, I saw the truck pulling into the end of the alley. There was no way to hide. We were busted.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

How I became a Mad Scientist- Episode 14

I thought turning the iron into an electromagnet would be exciting, and maybe involve blowtorches or something. I was wrong. It turned out we just had to coil the copper wire around the iron. Frank handed me the needle-nosed pliers and told me to start wrapping. “No, closer together," he scolded. "You don’t want any gaps, or it won’t work." My fingers ached before I finished the first magnet.

“You can keep working on this tonight,” Frank said. “Let me know when you’ve finished all four.”

“We’d get done faster if you helped,” I grumbled.

“No can do. I touch the pliers, I go to Juvie and break my mother’s heart,” Frank said. The house phone rang. Frank’s mother wanted him to come home. It was time for his probation officer meeting. He dashed out the door and up the street. I fixed myself a snack, wiggled my fingers for a while to loosen them up, and then got back to wrapping.

Frank came over after lunch on the next day and inspected my work. “Not bad”, he said. “Now we’ll need to attach them to a board and wire them up to the power source.”   

“Are we going to attach the lawnmower battery to the board?” I asked. "That would make it awfully heavy.” 

Frank stared at the wall for a moment. “You’re right. And anything powerful enough to create the kind of magnetic field we want but light enough to attach to the board would get us in trouble.”

“Us in trouble?” I asked.

“My probation officer asked some weird questions,” Frank said. “About sudden dips in the fish population, and weird sightings by boaters. Someone must have seen something, and clued the FBI in.”

“The FBI?” I choked on the popcorn I’d been tossing into my mouth. "Your probation officer works for the FBI?” 

Frank shrugged. “Well, I told you I made the feds mad,” he said. “Anyway, I think we might have to be more careful. The hover board will need to stay under cover anyway. Which means we’ll have to set up its course in your garage. On the other hand, that means we can skip using the lawnmower battery and just plug it right into the outlet. We’ll just have to be careful of the wires while we skate.”

I grimaced. “But the FBI, Frank. My mom will kill me if they confiscate our garage or something.”

“They’re not going to find out, George,” Frank said. “They’re not watching you, just me. Bessie was just a little too big and a little too weird. No one’s going to get upset about a couple of kids building a hover board. That’s just plain old fun.”

I nodded. He was right. Why would the FBI care what a couple of skater kids did to juice up their boards? It’s not like we’d be bothering anything. I mean, who cared what we did in our own garage? “So, what do we need to make this happen?”

“I told you before,” Frank said. “It’s only going to work on aluminum. So we’d need to build a skate park covered in aluminum in your garage.”

“Then it’s time to bring Joe in on the project,” I said. “If we let his little brother in on the deal, we can have this ready to go by tomorrow.” I texted Joe. “Big plans. Come over. Need to discuss off-grid.” He texted right back and said he was on his way.

I was afraid Joe would be skeptical, but after a quick explanation from Frank, he was totally on board. “You’ll have to help me haul the cans over,” he said. “You have a sledge hammer to smash them with, right?  And we’ll need some lumber to make the jumps and stuff. This will go faster if we get some of the other guys to help.” He grinned. “Man, this is going to be awesome. If it works, we should let the other kids know and charge admission! We’ll be rich.”

Frank grimaced. “I don’t know. We could get in trouble if…” 

Joe shrugged. “They’re all good guys. They know how to keep stuff on the down-low. And with more help, we can build a more awesome course. A hover board deserves something awesome.”

Frank was still hesitating, so I stepped in. “You’re right. Have the rest of the guys here in 2 hours. Tell them to bring any scrap wood they have laying around.”

Joe headed off to get the rest of the guys. Frank and I headed inside for some lemonade and a snack. “I don’t know,” Frank said. “This might be getting out of hand. If the FBI gets involved…”

“You said it yourself, Frank. Why would they care about some kids building a skate park in their garage?”

My mom happened to be walking by right at that moment. She paused, and came into the kitchen. “What’s this about a skate park in the garage?” she asked.

“Oh,” I said, “Some of the guys are going to help us build one. Since the one in the park is closed, and this way we’ll be in the shade and out of the rain.” She looked skeptical. “No permanent changes, I promise,” I said. “Just something temporary and fun for the summer.”

“Well, I guess that can’t hurt,” Mom replied. “Though maybe we should type up some waivers or something, so I don’t get sued if one of your friends breaks something.” She poured herself a cup of coffee and wandered off to her office.

“Waivers?” Frank asked. “See, even you mom thinks it’s getting out of hand.”

“Naah,” I chugged the rest of my lemonade. “She’s just working for lawyers this week, so her mind’s on that stuff. Let’s get outside and organize the tools. By this time tomorrow, we’ll be flying.”


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist- Episode 13

Previous Episode.  First Episode.

“Oh, you mean like the hovering chair that the guys up at Perry Central made? With the leaf blowers?  That would be really loud. And too slow to be any good.  You’re right. It’s not worth the effort.”  The leaf-blower chair had levitated, which was pretty cool, but you couldn’t steer it and it moved really slowly.  I knew Frank must have something much cooler in mind.

“Leaf blowers? Of course not!” Frank rolled his eyes. “I meant something like a mag-lev train. But….”

“But there’s no way you could do it without a real lab,” I cut in.  “And it’s probably impossible.  I get it, you’re just daydreaming because you’re afraid of falling down again. It’s OK. We can go inside and do something easier.”

Frank’s face turned red. “I am not afraid of falling,” he growled. “It’s just that these sidewalks are too uneven.  A hoverboard would give me a smooth ride, as long as I had a big sheet of aluminum to ride it over.”

I grinned. “If you come up with the hoverboard, I think I can make your aluminum sheet,” I said. 
“But we’d have to let a couple of other guys in on the project.” My friend Joe’s dad worked for the Streets Department. They collected tons of cans every week for recycling. But we could probably borrow them for a while, as long as they went back to the recycling plant in the end.

“I don’t know,” Frank said. “What if they told someone? I’m pretty sure hoverboards would violate my probation.”

 “Joe will keep quiet,” I said. “You can trust him, especially when skateboards are involved.”

Frank nodded. I could tell he really wanted to make his board. “How about we work together on the hoverboard, and once we have it working on a small scale, we can bring Joe into it,” he said. 

“Sure, but we’ll need to give Joe at least a week’s notice.” It would be better if we had a working hoverboard before we brought Joe in anyway. He’d be less likely to blab if he knew that his chance to ride depended on his silence. “So, what do we need to get started?” I asked.

“Well, we’re basically going to be creating a small-scale mag-lev train,” Frank said. “So the first thing we need is electro-magnets,” Frank said.  “So, we’ll need 16 pieces of iron, copper wire, and a pretty strong battery. Something rechargeable too.  Like the battery out of your lawnmower, maybe.”

I felt a little tingle of suspicion. Frank seemed awfully well prepared for my questions. Was I manipulating him into building a hover board, or was he manipulating me into helping him build a hover board? I shrugged. It didn’t really matter. No matter who was manipulating who, the end result would be awesome.

“Where can I get the iron and the copper wire?” I asked. 

“You could try the scrapyard for the iron,” Frank said. “And Radio Shack for the copper wire.”  I nodded. The lawnmower battery shouldn’t be too much of a problem. It had been hot and dry recently, and I hadn’t had to mow in over a week. As long as it didn’t rain, my mom would never miss the battery. 

“We can build it in the garage,” I volunteered. “Mom will assume we’re fixing the lawnmower or something.” She never looked too closely at the garage. As long as I took the trash and recycling out on time, she’d never notice a thing.

 Other than the battery, the things Frank needed to build a hoverboard should be pretty easy to get.  I figured within a few days, we’d be performing tricks that made the Silver Surfer look like an amateur.  I was wrong.

Frank came over the next afternoon to see how I’d done at gathering materials. As usual, he couldn’t be involved. If he even stood in the Radio Shack parking lot, his probation officer would haul him into court and send him off to Juvie.

“Look,” I said, proudly showing him my collection. “We’re ready to go!” 

“Not so fast,” Frank said. “First, we’re going to have to turn these lumps of iron into electromagnets.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Take Up and Read: Why I Remain a Catholic

I've been an Anchoress fan since before she revealed herself as Elizabeth Scalia. Today, she issued a challenge to her readers. She asked us to take to our blogs and explain why we're Catholic.  The following is not an exhaustive account, but it explains how I got where I am today.

Karl Weintraub played the angel.

I’m a cradle Catholic, but it wasn’t always obvious that I’d remain a Catholic throughout my entire life. In high school, I was a bad Catholic. I went to Mass grudgingly, and frequently fell asleep during the Homily. (Heck, my parents made me go at 8 am. That’s practically inhuman, for a teenager.) I wasn’t a member of the youth group. I sat in the back of my Confirmation class, writing rants about what a waste of time the whole thing was.  I only had one Catholic friend.  Church was something I did because my parents did it.

My first year in college, I decided that I wanted to be a priest. I was an 18-year-old girl. Mean old Pope John Paul II had said it was impossible for him to ordain a woman. I was consumed with anger and spite. I made up my mind to go and find a religion that would ordain me. 

 I started visiting other churches, but none of them had what I wanted. The Episcopalians were too snobby, and didn’t seem to care for the poor. The Presbyterians had no liturgy and treated vestments like a fashion show.  The Lutherans (ELCA, I’d never met a Missouri Synod person at that point) seemed wishy-washy and lacked a missionary impulse.

Nothing seemed right, so I grudgingly stayed in the Church, devoted myself to liturgical planning, and decided that I’d just have to find some way to get ‘power’ so I could ‘change things for the better.’  Basically, like many kids that age, I was a solipsistic know-it-all. And for a while, it seemed like there was no one who could break through my wall of self-regard and teach me the truth about the Church.

In my third year of college, I took Western Civilization with an elderly professor who’d fled to America during Holocaust and later converted to Quakerism. He was the first person in my life who actually bothered to introduce me to Catholic Theology, as opposed to sentiments that could fit on a felt banner and warmed over superstitions passed on by generations of Irish nuns.

In Professor Weintraub’s class, we read the Didache and St. Augustine and St. Jerome. We read St. Benedict and St. Francis, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas.  We read Thomas More and Erasmus. We wandered into the Reformation, reading Calvin and Luther, but also Teresa and John of the Cross.  I started to realize that the Church had a deep history, that faith and reason worked together, and that theology was more than the pronouncements of some mean old men in Rome who wanted to keep me in my place.  I began to take the Faith seriously as an object of study, and learned humility as I saw how much there was to learn.

I became a serious Catholic because of Faith and Reason, and that’s why I remain a Catholic. When I learn what other denominations teach, I’m struck by the contradictions, the lack of historical roots, and the plethora of positions that require believers to put reason on hold and simply submit to whatever interpretation of the Bible their current minister holds.  

For all the appearance of hierarchy, the Catholic Church is actually LESS authoritarian than these ‘non-hierarchal’ religions.  The Church teaches that we can understand much of the Faith through reason, and that reason is accessible to all of us. Doctrines can be determined through reason, not just by the pastor’s decree. Mysteries are mysteries to everyone, not just the people in the pews. I can know what is knowable because God gave me reason, I can live with the rhythm of the mysteries because He’s given me faith. My belief isn’t dependent on my emotions, on what sins I’ve recently committed, or on my ability to imagine things.

At the most basic level, I remain Catholic because I’m convinced that it’s true. But I can cleave to the truth because God designed it to be known with the reason he gave each of us.