No. 8 – Automatons (more or less)





I have to admit to a fondness of Automatons, as witnessed by my post on Strandbeests, and to a lesser extent the one on Unsupported Transit. Of recent note:
And of course, there’s always Animusic:


No. 8 – Strandbeests.

Should you be walking along a windy beach in Northern Europe, don’t be alarmed if you see a large, multi-legged creature shuffling toward you.  Most likely it is a Strandbeest.  They are delicate, gentle, and even poetic, and mean you no harm.

Progeny of a Dutch artist named Theo Jansen, they were first created in 1990.  Jansen has always been an artist at heart, but studied physics in college and knows a thing or two about engineering.  The beests are constantly evolving, and can now store air for windless times and sense water and oncoming storms.


View them in their natural habitat here:


No. 7 – Fireflies, a.k.a. Lightning Bugs.



There are few things more magical than a warm summer’s evening filled with fireflies. It’s even better if the night is clear and there are stars above – then it’s a meeting of the heavens and earth.

I don’t know anyone who takes them for granted, even those who grew up with them and spent summer evenings imprisoning them in Mason jars (as I did not).  In central Texas every summer we saw a few, but so few as to make me feel sorry for them in their lonely quest for love.  There are several theories as to why fireflies haven’t taken to Texas; they like consistent moisture, which Texas isn’t really noted for, and they spend a significant part of their lives underground, where they are unfortunately vulnerable to fire ants. A shame; most of Texas could use more fireflies.

Where we live now is like Spring Break in Florida by comparison. Some nights it seems like only the females near the ground are doing most of the flashing (we call these “Ladies’ Nights”).

We have a greater diversity here as well – I’m told there are at least four different species, and to the west of us there is a rare enclave of synchronous fireflies (and tell me, how cool is that?!). Seeing the synchronous fireflies is so popular that the Park Service charges admission and takes reservations each year to park:

What makes the fire in the firefly’s belly?  The active ingredient is an enzyme called luciferase. Luciferase is finding increasing use in biomedical research. It makes a handy marker for determining whether genetic transfers are taking place. But although the rationalist in me wants to analyze and categorize and understand the phenomenon, sometimes it’s better just to have a glass of wine and marvel. Why do fireflies flash? Because they can.

No. 6 – Dusting.

dust mite

Poor Cabinet of Curiousities!  So long neglected, a somewhat thick layer of dust on things. Not good, especially since I discovered this year that I have a rather acute allergy to dust mites.

“Mite” is such a facetious term, since the effect of these animals is far from tiny if you happen to be susceptible to them. And it turns out that many people are, worldwide. Dust mite allergy is not a 1st world problem, but unfortunately it is developed countries that have the greatest availability to the protracted immunotherapy that is the front-line treatment for the condition.

As for the mite itself, the more I learn about it, the less I want to know – they are disgusting on many levels, and I say that as a person who is generally interested in the lifestyles of our fellow creatures. There is nothing beautiful or noble about the dust mite, at least by human standards. The Dalek nation and I agree about them: Exterminate!

But enough about my nemesis; time to put on the dust mask and get to work putting the Cabinet back in order.

And on that subject:  It appears that WordPress, the platform this blog operates on, inserts random ads into blog posts. (Unless, presumably, you pay for an upgrade, which I haven’t.)  For the record, I don’t get to see what’s inserted, and therefore have no idea what they’re trying to sell you. Just know that I’m not endorsing anything, unless I explicitly mention it.

No. 5 – Unsupported Transit.

“This sculpture by Michael Brown uses small mirrors with a reverse cutout of Eadweard Muybridges galloping horse images. Light Emitting Diodes aimed at each mirror are quickly flashed, reflecting the image of the horse onto the frosted glass face of the Bell Jar. Illuminating the horses in the correct order and reflecting the images in the same place on the jar reanimates Muybridges’ galloping horses. For more information visit”  (info from YouTube page)

2004 LEDs, electronics, mirrors, vinyl, bell jar (55 x 18 x 18)

“Unsupported Transit” by Michael Brown was last rumored to be installed in the lobby of a residential building somewhere in San Francisco.  I don’t think I could ever get tired of  passing it every day to and from my apartment.

No. 4 – The Radiometer, a.k.a. The Light Mill.


No aggregation of strange and strangely pleasing stuff would be complete without a radiometer (or, if you’re British, a light-mill).   It was one of the attention-getters in every science museum gift shop in the past, though I notice they seem to be harder to find lately.

Place a radiometer in the sun, and its vanes will spin merrily around inside the vacuum of its sphere.  See it in action here:

though in strong sunlight it will go much faster, to the point of making little fairy-like “tink” sounds as it spins.

I’ve read explanations of the how and why, and it still seems like magic to me.  Since my understanding is tenuous at best, I’ll direct you here rather than subject you to my painful paraphrasing.

To have one of these in a window on a sunny day is weirdly satisfying, like having  one of the engines of the world made visible.