Sunday, October 27, 2013

Flaming bagpipes

Over the last couple of months I've seen two short videos posted on Facebook, in which bagpipe players, playing their instruments, caused bursts of flame to come out of the drones.  Drones are the pipes which stick out of the bags and produce a single tone each.  The two videos I saw were:

Unicycling Darth Vader Upgrades to Flaming Bagpipes
The Badpiper Thunderstruck

You can find more videos, if you're interested, by searching for "flaming bagpipes" on YouTube.

Now, I like bagpipes, a taste I inherited from my mother; not everyone does.  But to the best of my knowledge, the chanter (the one the piper fingers) and the drones are made of wood, although Wikipedia doesn't confirm this directly.  And I definitely learned from Wikipedia that bagpipe drones are either reed instruments (like a clarinet) or double-reed instruments (like an oboe).  This explains a lot about the way bagpipes sound, actually.

This leaves a huge question in my mind:  how the devil do you blow a huge blast of flame through a wooden reed or double reed instrument without incinerating the whole boiling, and the bagpiper too?  And yet both of these bagpipers continued to play while intermittently shooting bursts of flame out of the drones.

I spent part of last weekend at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire in Oakland, California. Mini Maker Faires usually have flame-throwers somewhere; this one had a guy (from Sheet Metal Alchemist) with a tower of flamethrowers; you could set them off by swinging a mallet at a lever, just like the old "ring the bell" carny act, except this one produces a huge burst of flame in the air above you.  I asked the guy about the bagpipes, but he said no, he didn't know anything about flaming bagpipes.  He sounded interested, though. 

Now, one group which is always at the Mini Maker Faire is The Crucible, an Oakland non-profit specializing in art production involving fire.  I dropped in at their booth and posed my question, and learned some very interesting things from a man there.  I regret that I didn't think to ask his name; he was an older man with a white beard, wearing a hat, sitting next to the booth.

We both agreed that anyone doing this has to put some kind of gas source (The Crucible uses propane) inside the bag.  It would have to have a jet poking up inside the drone, and some kind of spark arrangement on the jet to light it; finally it would have to have either one or two switches the player could use to control the gas flow and the spark (separately or together).  My consultant pointed out that the flow of gas up the tube, before ignition, would cool the area somewhat.  Also, if the flame only lasts for a second or two (and I didn't see any that lasted much longer than that), it probably won't affect the wood of the drone at all; and, of course, the flame will go away the instant the gas flow stops. 

Now, what about the reed or double reed?  Reeds are usually at the end of the instrument where the air is blown in; in a bagpipe drone, that's inside the bag.  If you tapped the gas source into the drone above the reed, it wouldn't be affected by the flame at all.  The gas doesn't have to pass through the reed, although the air from the bag does.

Without talking to someone who's actually created one of these things, this is all pure speculation.  But at least I'm no longer wondering why the whole megillah doesn't burst into flame.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Is This Normal?

The U.S. is back in business for the moment, paying its debts as usual.  At least in the S.F. Bay Area, public attention is now focused on the BART strike, which began conveniently the day after the government shutdown ended.  Wouldn't want to confuse our crises, now, would we?  But the government funding mess isn't over.

The bargain that everyone in Washington was so relieved to achieve only lasts until February.  According to AlJazeera, the government is funded until January 15 (and still at the ridiculous, arbitrary sequester levels), and the debt ceiling has been raised until February 7.  How appropriate.  We get Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's off, then Groundhog Day will come around on February 2, and we'll go through the whole brouhaha again.  Just like the movie.

Convince me it's not true.  Why wouldn't it happen again?  The people who created this snafu are all still in office.  Sen. Ted Cruz still thinks he's God's gift to someone (I'm not sure whom), and certainly still thinks he can parlay this into a run at the presidency in 2016.  I was relieved to see that, pushed to the wall, Speaker Boehner was capable of calling an open vote on a straight bill to put the government back in business.  My confidence that he'll do it again is limited.

The Senate and the House, as they now appear, seem to be ungovernable, and unable to govern.  Their hallowed rules allow a single senator to put any action on hold, indefinitely, and without even revealing a name.  I do know that the structure of the Senate was designed to amplify the power of smaller states against larger states, but this is ridiculous.  The surreptitious last minute rule change in the House, which allowed only the Majority Leader to ask to bring a "clean bill" to a vote - which is normal procedure in the House for any member - was a blatant abandonment, not only of normal House procedure, but of democracy itself.  Without this rule the government would not have shut down.  This was just sleazy.

I heard one promising item among all the mess, and I'm still not sure I believe it.  The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees (Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray) met for breakfast and will convene a committee to develop - wait for this - an Actual Budget.  Congress hasn't passed an Actual Budget since 2009 (or maybe since 1997 depending on the definition).  My confidence that they will actually negotiate and agree on something that would be good for the country is very small.  But they're saying all the right things.  They've given themselves a deadline of December 13.  If they can come up with an actual, bipartisan budget and get it through both houses of Congress, maybe we can relax and just run the country - at least until next October 1...

We can't keep doing this.  We made fools of ourselves in front of the entire world. Is this really what we want to become?

What really infuriated me is the way Congress callously threw tens of thousands of federal workers out of a job, for an unspecified period that lasted (in fact) for three weeks, while being paid themselves the entire time.  The days of the solid middle class are gone.  Very few working families can go for 3 weeks on their financial reserves these days (if they have any), especially when the safety net programs (welfare, food stamps) were also shut down.  Sure, they'll get back pay; but how does that help if they've already been evicted?  Not to mention all the unfortunate small businesses, in small towns around the national parks, whose entire livelihood depends on tourist traffic which was shut down on a moment's notice.  Congress has totally lost contact with the people they are collectively supposed to serve, and it is a national disgrace.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Boehner's Impossible Dream

Everyone involved in the Federal government shutdown, starting with John Boehner, knows that he could end the stalemate in a microsecond.  All he has to do is ignore the Tea Party and call a vote on the "clean" continuing resolution already passed by the Senate.  It's pretty evident that, between the Republicans who are very nervous about the Tea Party stance and the Democrats, the CR would pass.

Boom. The government's back in business.  But it doesn't happen.

I've read in multiple places that Boehner is afraid that, if he ignores the radicals and passes the CR, he'll lose the House Speakership.  Could be.  But he doesn't seem to realize that he's already lost it - he can't control his caucus.  A small but very loud section of his caucus is controlling him.  In fact, as far as I can tell, the person really driving this melodrama is Senator Ted Cruz, who isn't even a member of the House of Representatives!  Meanwhile Boehner cowers behind the podium, making bold but meaningless statements about not wanting to see the government shut down.

The title Speaker of the House used to carry real weight.  It meant a man who could get things done.  The current Speaker of the House cherishes the title so much that he has abdicated all the power to a small group of radicals from gerrymandered districts, just so he can continue to be addressed as "Mr. Speaker."

If he were to act to pass the CR and put the federal government back to work, he might leave the Speakership with some of his honor (that old concept) restored.  As it is, if you listen carefully, you may hear the sound of real Congressional leaders of the past - Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson (a Senate Majority Leader before he was VP), Tip O'Neill and their kin - giving Boehner the razzberry from the heavenly ramparts.